Saturday, March 27, 2010

Operatics Anonymous

  Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

    I had a great feeling about this one. Rolling into town on a sunny day, confident that I was ready to sing my beloved Gilda in a house of this caliber, having prepared my other arias to perfection, and wearing a brand new and very flattering dress, I walked into the theater and said, “Hello. I’m Christine Graham, and I’m here for the audition.”

    The first person I encountered after checking in was a soprano I had met over two years previously at another audition. We sat together in the canteen waiting for the warm-up room to become available, comparing notes about the day we’d met.

    “I was sure they were going to hire you,” I said.

    “That’s what I thought, too,” she answered, and went on to tell me her side of the story.

    Just as I was recounting my story about their asking me how tall I was (seriously - no other questions, just ‘How tall are you, Frau Graham?’), another soprano walked in. I’d met this woman a few weeks ago when we were both auditioning for Mozart’s Queen of the Night.

    After about a half an hour, we were all informed (there were 17 of us, mostly sopranos, but also a couple tenors and maybe one baritone) that there were only three rooms available to warm up in, and in another half an hour, the accompanists would be there to work with us. Five sopranos, including myself, ended up claiming a corner of the somewhat large orchestra rehearsal room and began vocalizing. Others sought out bathrooms and empty hallways, and nobody was very happy about it.

    Hearing the sounds around me, I became hopeful that I would indeed be a contender for this job. Not only was my voice in very good shape, but I’d already performed one of the roles being offered, and I had a complete and thorough audition program (and did I mention a brand new, very flattering dress?). My rehearsal with the accompanist went very well. The gleam in his eye as I sang my ornaments flawlessly in the Händel aria showed me that I had his respect as a fellow musician.

    I guess that’s why I felt that I deserved to be shown a little more courtesy and a little more effort on the side of the theater during the audition itself. Instead, they sat there in their plush theater seats and made 17 people feel like shit. And they did this with one single word at the end of each audition: “Danke.”

    It took all of my professionalism not to say, “Excuse me? Are you serious?? I just spent a whole lot of money to get my ass way over here, spend the night in a hotel so that I would be well-rested instead of making the trip all in one day, not to mention the cost of the voice lessons and coachings to prepare my repertoire. I look fabulous - not too fancy, not too casual - and I sang an almost perfect audition: clear coloraturas, exquisite phrasing and dynamics, engaged presentation.... And you don’t even want to hear a second aria, much less ask me who the hell I am?” 

But I bit my tongue, swallowed my pride and said, “Vielen Dank. Auf Wiedersehen!”

In the hallway adjacent to the stage where we were all sort of just hanging out (because there hadn’t been any other room specified where we could maybe - oh, I don’t know - sit down?!?!), another American soprano and I decided we would grab a drink after this whole thing was over. The girl from the “how-tall-are-you” audition gladly joined us, and we ventured across the street to the bar at the Hotel an der Oper.

    There we exchanged more stories about the audition process, including one about a theater manager who had said, “I’m sorry, but we didn’t like that at all. That was bad” (I knew immediately who she was talking about - I knew him well). That made “How tall are you?” sound like a compliment, but at least it was more than just “Danke.” Our conversations turned to other non-operatic topics, and we formed a camaraderie seldom seen between coloratura sopranos.

    After two rounds of Prosecco, we made our way to the station, where we all had to catch a train to Leipzig. While I was buying my ticket, my two new friends both got the grand idea of providing us with yet another round of fizzy beverages. We boarded the train, only to bump into my Queen of the Night counterpart. Although she gracefully declined a drink, she had a number of tales to tell herself - like the time she had traveled all the way to Flensburg (Germany’s northernmost city) only to be told she had too much experience for the job. Couldn’t they have gleaned that from her résumé before inviting her to make the grueling trip?

We all switched trains at Leipzig (see previous entry: Have Voice, Will Travel), but much to my delight, my two partners in Prosecco would be joining me on the last leg of my trip to Berlin (a slight detour on the way home - warum nicht?). We found a free table in the dining car and happened upon yet another auditionee who joined our happy little club. She also abstained from drinking the Deutsche Bahn Grauburgunder, but she had her share of experience to impart. That day, she was wise enough to record her audition - thereby not subjecting herself entirely to the critique of the adjudicators (which was also just “Danke”), but rather assessing her own performance. Very smart. Very smart, indeed.

As many had done on that day, she sang the same Händel aria as I did, and wasn’t asked for a second piece. When she was done, she went to the restroom where she encountered a fellow soprano in tears, obviously distressed by her own audition. She consoled her competitor, and even made her laugh. On the train she told us, “Maybe that’s why I was sent here today - not to audition for these roles, but to make that other girl smile. If that’s the case, then I know I was successful.”

    Eventually, the train reached the metropolis of Berlin, making several stops within the city limits. Each one of us - the newly-formed soprano support group Operatics Anonymous - disembarked at a different station. After four or five Proseccos and one fine wine, as the first one of us left the train, we weren’t embarrassed to break out into song - “Don’t leave me this way” - even if we didn’t exactly know the words (the harmonies, however, were impeccable. And high).

At the end of the journey - almost 4000 collective kilometers between the five of us - I had almost forgotten that I’d had an audition at all that day. A shame, in a way, since it was one of the best I’ve ever sung.

Tune in next time
(and there will be a next time)
to the Grahamophone!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Have Voice, Will Travel

    I’ve been to Leipzig three times in the past two days, supposedly one of Germany’s most beautiful cities. But I wouldn’t know - I was just changing trains on the way to and from an audition (making a detour to Berlin just for fun, hence the third visit).

   They say you’re not supposed to tell anyone where your audition is before it happens - superstition - so most of my friends only knew that I was headed east as I embarked on yet another quest for gainful employment.

    Spring having just sprung, the ride was quite pleasant, looking out the window onto fields budding with crocuses, fluffy clouds in the sky, and a really confident feeling in my gut. It’s been a while since I headed east - in fact, since I settled in my apartment in Frankfurt’s Nordend, I’ve seldomly ventured outside the boundaries of the city ring. I like it here. But traveling for auditions, and then traveling for the work is all part of being a so-called professional opera singer. I like that, too, even though it seems like sometimes I’m just running to stand still (see previous blog entry on this topic).

    As the train chugged along, I was taken on a bit of a trip across memory lane:

   I auditioned there in Spring 2004, met with a former Kammeroper colleague, even got to watch a bit of a rehearsal (which made me glad I didn’t get the job in the end). They had just cut their opera chorus, and finally the entire opera department all together - take note, this is the future of opera in Germany! 

          Here, I was lucky enough to be the featured soloist in a gala concert with the Coburger Philharmonic Orchestra. I messed up the words of one of the most famous opera arias ever composed - “Quando M’en Vo” from La Boheme by Puccini. Nobody in Gotha would have noticed, but some Italian president of some Italian thing was there. He noticed.

          This is where I got lost on my way from Eisenach to Coburg, where I auditioned two days later. I decided to make the most of my blunder and have lunch in the pretty town square, which is where I was when my agent called and said it didn’t work out with the theater in Eisenach. Although I should’ve been relieved, I was quite upset and disillusioned. After all, how was I to know at the time - just when I may have thrown in the towel - that my next audition just down the road a piece would lead to a contract. One never knows, do one?

    It was here that I had my first ever “house” audition in Germany. I had already auditioned for the studio in Zürich, for a couple agents, and for the studio in Düsseldorf (which I ended up getting), but never for a Festvertrag. I don’t remember much about the audition itself except that it was raining.

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    So, the next time I head east, I hope to have the time to finally take a wee tour of Leipzig. With any luck, as a matter of fact, the audition will be IN Leipzig. I’m glad that this time I took a few pictures of the town I was in (see photo above - now can you guess where I was?). Even though the audition didn’t work out, I’ll have more memories to take home with me than just the train station and the rain.

    (Actually, this audition turned out to be a very pivotal one in my operatic career. To find out why, read “Operatics Anonymous”, coming very soon to the Grahamophone!!)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Biellmann, Bikram and Me

 In the wake of the Winter Olympics, I am reminded of the analogies that I often make between figure skating and singing opera. The costumes, the makeup, the routines... the fans, the judges, the doting mothers and coaches. After months and months of grueling preparation, your performance can be rendered worthless in a matter of seconds by missing one high note or one triple axle. 

    Competition is fierce in both fields, but in opera the guidelines aren’t as clear as in figure skating. Sure, there are factors to be considered -- intonation, phrasing, diction, beauty -- but already I digress into the subjective. What is beauty? 

    Doing some “research” a la YouTube for an upcoming audition (audition is just another word for competition, except that it hopefully ends up in gainful employment, as opposed to a certificate and a handful of cash), I watched many interpretations of the same aria by several renowned singers. 

    Granted, a large percentage of people leaving comments on YouTube are complete idiots. Nevertheless it was perplexing to see how diverse the comments of each performance were. Some worship Damrau, while others rave about Dessay, Studer, Moser, or Popp -- all legends in their own right. While we certainly have our preferences, none of these singers is the quintessential soprano (sorry, Cheryl!).

    In figure skating, on the other hand, one of the spins is actually named after an athlete. Denise Biellmann did not invent the pirouette named after her -- holding one leg behind the head with both hands -- but she is the one who made it famous. There is no Callas crescendo, Pavarotti portamento, or Studer staccato. Perhaps in the early days of opera, techniques may have been named after singers. The opera tradition is about 200 years older than figure skating, after all.

    Still, we could learn a lot from our figure skating counterparts.

    Every time I take a voice lesson or coaching, I am reminded of how lazy I am. I should practice more. Do you think Dorothy Hamill, Katarina Witt or Johnny Weir let a day go by without doing some time on the ice? This guilty feeling is something I’ve always had to battle. But the fact is, I can get by on little practice (or what I consider to be little practice - surely, there are singers out there more sloth-like than I) and still do rather well. Complicated harmonies and high noodly notes come easily to me. But to really be a contender, I need to work on the other stuff: the legato, the middle voice, the performance practice (articulation, ornamentation, etc.).

    Well, truthfully, my next audition will be the one that most resembles an ice skating competition. Let’s face it -- no matter how smooth my legato, now matter how florid my coloratura, if I don’t get those five (count ‘em, merely five) high F’s, I may as well be Nancy Kerrigan flipping double instead of triple, getting silver instead of gold. And believe me, there will be plenty of Tonya Hardings waiting in the wings to break me at the knees if I succeed. 

    I find myself not only worrying about executing the musical tasks, but also obsessing about what I’m going to wear, hair up or down, nails painted or plain... In fact, I find it a bit difficult not to get all Tonya Harding on the asses of my competition.

    This is where I am inspired by another sort of competition. Bikram Choudhury certainly did not invent yoga, but he has cultivated a following which has made his one of the most popular forms of yoga taught around the world today, and therefore it is named after him: Bikram Yoga. And just to corner the market, feeding upon human nature, he decided to make a competition out of it.

    Slightly preceding the start of the 21st Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, the Sixth Annual International Yoga Asana Championship occurred in Los Angeles. Shrouded in controversy, 21 men and 30 women (one of whom takes the same class as I do, right here in Frankfurt!) convened to contort and twist themselves to victory. Many people are opposed to the idea of subjecting yoga to competition, claiming that it goes against yoga’s core philosophy of self-realization.

    I scoff at my hot yoga teacher (Bikram yoga is practiced in a room heated up to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit -- and yes, he is also good looking) when he makes comments about sending me to the championships or signing me up for teacher training. In my mind, I am nowhere near being qualified for either one, nor does my life revolve around succeeding in yoga. As time goes on, however, I notice that my dedication to my yoga practice almost surpasses that of my singing practice. I think if I were to enter a yoga competition, I would sincerely concentrate on the task at hand, and at being the best I can be. How the other people perform would be of no interest to me.

    While I’m in yoga class, although I do observe the techniques of others more advanced than myself (like Allie, who went to the world championships), I never feel the need to gloat about being better than others. Although my eagle pose is to be envied, my Dandayamana Dhanurasana (standing bow pose, pictured above -- yoga’s closest equivalent to the Biellmann pirouette) has a long way to go. 

    I guess there’s no reason I can’t apply my yogic ideals to my operatic ambitions. Ultimately, I’m going for gold. And with any luck, I’ll get it.