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.

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