Monday, July 19, 2010

Rehearsing Insecurity

To most people 10 a.m. is not early, but to an opera singer it most certainly is!
Getting to rehearsal ready to sing any earlier than 10 a.m. is just too much to ask, especially if you’ve rehearsed or performed the night before (those of you out there who are butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and the like are scoffing right about now, I can imagine). Or, if due to a heat wave it’s 80 degrees inside, and you can’t manage to get to sleep until well after midnight. Or, in attempting to meet your own personal deadline, you stay up until 4 a.m. writing a blog and drinking red wine.
Excuses, excuses....
I know I shouldn’t blame my own lack of preparation on external circumstances, but  let’s face it, sometimes the external circumstances are to blame! For example, in the last three weeks of rehearsals leading up to my most recent premiere, my director started doing run-throughs every day. The bulk of what I have to sing in this show is in the first, third and fourth numbers. In other words, by 11 a.m. my work was basically done, and I hadn’t even warmed up yet.
Every attempt I made to get him to rearrange the rehearsal schedule fell upon deaf ears. And really, why should I mess with his modus operandi?  The result was, day after day I was running through my two big numbers with a tired body and voice. I was pushing, I was repeatedly making the same musical mistakes, etc. and there was no stopping to fix them. I had trained this chaos so thoroughly, that it was only by some miracle (called adrenalin and a good night’s sleep) that the dress rehearsal turned out so well.
Those of you in the theater can already forebode what happens next. As the saying goes, if the dress rehearsal goes well, opening night will not be so good. Quatsch! Who believes in that superstitious mumbo jumbo, anyway? Well, I do now. I won’t go into detail, since even my colleagues didn’t notice the difference -- they all thought I was fabulous. But I notice the difference. It’s one thing to go out on stage and enjoy your performance. If you’ve rehearsed well, everything runs on auto-pilot. It’s another experience all together when during your performance, you’re having to think of rudimentary things like breathing, articulating, keeping the throat open and the tongue down --  whatever it takes to get those low notes to resonate (fortunately for me, the high notes don’t give me so much trouble). Maybe on the outside I was “the shit,” on the inside, however, I was scared shitless.
This is a classic case of rehearsed insecurity or trained imperfection. Unless you have prepared your music with precision and rehearsed your scenes with some level of success, only the aforementioned miracle drug, adrenalin, can save you now. And that’s a gamble. It’s like practicing juggling with three balls, then going into the circus tent thinking you can all of a sudden juggle five -- while riding a unicycle on a highwire through hoops of fire. The sad truth is, there is no getting around good preparation. For an innate lazy-ass like me, this is not good news. 
What’s worse is this realization: in how many facets of my life have I been rehearsing insecurity, training imperfection, perfecting mediocrity, honing half-assedness? Simple tasks like flossing every day, drinking enough water, doing the dishes, or even finishing a sandwich seem difficult to achieve. And if the simple things are laborious, how am I supposed to accomplish the tougher things like doing my taxes, planning birthday bashes, or getting a f*cking job? 
Luckily, I have a few days off now to hopefully right the vocal wrongs which were so ingrained during rehearsals in the past weeks. And I guess I’ve learned for next time that I can’t expect other people to plan their rehearsal schedule around me (even though most of the cast would have also preferred more attention to detail instead of three weeks of run-throughs). I’m ultimately responsible for my own insecurity, but it sure is nice to have a few extenuating circumstances with which to share the blame, and a good review to soften the blow:
“The singers make an all-around good impression, especially Christine Graham as Frau Fluth. Her agile and precisely tuned soprano goes hand in hand with her nimble physicality.”  FRANKFURTER RUNDSCHAU
I fooled them this time! Tune in next time to the Grahamophone and watch me juggle five balls and swallow fire, all while riding bareback on a horse in the lion’s cage! 
Might have to practice that bit first.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Agony of Victory

It’s all over now. Weeks of knowing exactly how to spend your evening: watchin’ the game, drinkin’ a beer .... Personally, even though the Bundesliga (German National League) season starts on August 20th, I probably won’t watch another soccer game until 2014. After last night’s World Cup Finals, I think I’ve seen about all the competition I can handle for a while.
My days of participating in singing competitions have long since passed, but I wish I would have been a soccer fan back in those days. I could have learned a little something about winning, and maybe this cutthroat, competitive opera business would be a little easier to handle.

Glory Days
Looking back at my University days, I can say I won this and that competition (or at least advanced to the next level), got this role and that role (or not), sang this solo here and that solo there (or not). No biggie.
So, when I was announced the winner of the regional Met competition, I stood up, took a bow and sat back down. Victory seemed such a given at that point (or not), that I had no idea what it meant, or how to really enjoy it. Second-place Girl leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Take another bow! This is what they’ve all been waiting for!”
Oh yeah, right. Cool. So I stood up and took another bow. And another, and another. 
I liked to win, but I had no idea how to be a winner. I mean, Second-place Girl had to tell me to take a bow, for crying out loud! Third-place Guy, she and I were invited to the local radio station to sing an aria and give an interview after the competition. The two of them were so witty on the air, and I sounded like I had just woken up from a nap, not like I had just competed against hundreds of singers from five United States and four Canadian provinces, and had a pocket full of cash and was headed to the Big Apple (sitting here writing this, I have to kick myself a few more times). Plus, I liked them both so much, I felt kind of guilty for being the one who had to win.
Es geht um die Wurst
After that level of the competition was over, it was now upon me to go to the finals in New York City. I shared an elevator once with Maestro James Levine, sat at the same breakfast table with Isabel Bayrakdarian and Alexandra Deshorties (winners who went on to do pretty cool things), met Deborah Voigt, saw two or three Metropolitan Opera  productions ... but I didn’t win. 
And this is perhaps where everything changed.
As much as I apparently did not appreciate winning, this losing stuff ... well, I didn’t like that one bit. For the first time, I think I was aware of what success was, how much responsibility it carried with it, and how much it sucked when you didn’t have it. This wasn’t just some rinky-dink singing contest, this was the Metropolitan Opera. Jetzt geht es um die Wurst (literally: now we’re going for the sausage, i.e. this was a big deal)!
Since then, “winning” and “losing” isn’t only about the sausage, it’s about bringing home the bacon. And even though we’re not talking about the Met anymore, rather mid-sized German opera houses, it sometimes feels like I’m up against the whole world of lyric coloraturas and those who love them.
No time for losers
I commiserated every time the television camera zoomed in on the losing team members during the World Cup. There’s nothing you can say to someone who was *this* close to winning, especially to the Dutch team, who lost the final game to Spain. Being the second best in the world is almost worse than being in third place, a much nobler half-defeat, half-victory that the German team ultimately enjoyed.
Now let’s take a look at the winners -- smiling larger than their own faces, hugging their teammates, running around the field waving to their fans after 90+ minutes of grueling sport. Do you think that they were, for one moment, thinking, “Aw, but I really feel sad for the other guys?” Not a chance. Not even the Uruguayans who beat Ghana by breaking the rules and using their hands showed a bit of remorse for winning. 
I’m sure there’s some deep-seated psychological reason for my unhealthy dose of humility and unwillingness to win. Hopefully, I’ve learned by watching the World Cup soccer matches what it takes to be a true winner: to own your success. Enjoy it. You earned it. You don’t need to pity your opponent because, if you haven’t already been in his shoes, you will be someday. Sooner or later. You win some, you lose some. Celebrate, grovel. Whatever it takes.