Monday, November 22, 2010

Are You Chorus or Against Us? Three Essays on Identity and Existence

As I was walking down the Freßgass’  (Frankfurt’s fancy-schmancy pedestrian zone), I overheard a conversation between two teenagers on a date. The boy was frustrated that his girlfriend wanted to update her facebook status on her smart phone: “Why do you need to tell 500 people where you are right this very second and what you like or don’t like?” 
I can totally understand this dilemma -- facebook gets out of hand sometimes. One positive thing the facebook status has done for us, however, is force us to check in with ourselves from time to time. Take a quick peek under the hood - how’s everything running? 
What’s on your mind? Christine Graham doesn’t feel like singing.
From my current perspective - lounging on my fabulous corner sofa, the night sky aglow with light of the full moon, the last little bit of Nero D’Avola ready to sip, all cozy in my flannel shirt, sweats and fuzzy slippers -- the last thing that would occur to me to do right now is sing. Granted, it’s late at night, and the last thing my neighbors would want me to do right now is sing - and I won’t disappoint them. 
I sometimes feel guilty calling myself an opera singer if I don’t always have a song on my lips, buzzing to be sung. But I was relieved to find out, when reading an interview with rising star Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, that he never sings when he’s at home. “Why not?”, they asked him. “I don’t feel like it,” he answered.
And why should he? 
Even though I spent an hour today coaching my audition arias with one of  Oper Frankfurt’s finest pianists, even though I had fun watching the video of my recent Gershwin recital, and even though I enjoyed rehearsing some music for an upcoming concert, right now in this very moment, I don’t feel like a “singer”. I’m just a woman sitting on the couch trying to put some ideas down on paper.
This is very hard to explain, and probably a stupid topic for a blog article (which also makes me doubt calling myself a ‘writer’), but it’s most likely something you’ve experienced yourself:
Oh, you’re a pilot! Well, that must be exciting, traveling so much. 
Oh, you’re a doctor! Well, you must feel so powerful, having people’s lives in your hands. 
Oh, you’re a cashier! Well, that’s .... interesting.
Chances are, the latter is the most interesting of them all. But because of his or her job, pun intended, the cashier may get short-changed. 
I guess I resent having a title, and having that title define who I am. True, true, I may be absolutely fabulous, charming, witty, and at times even glamorous, but it has nothing to do with me being an opera singer. That’s just how I am. Even if I were working the till at Aldi.
Christine Graham is glad she doesn’t have to work at Aldi. Yet.

Incognito in La Traviata, Seattle Opera 1996 (I'm on the right)
Of all the existential crises one has to endure as an opera singer, probably the most damaging to the identity is being labelled as a chorister. There is a legendary stigma that goes with accepting a job in an opera chorus, the fear of a huge letter ‘C’ stamped on every résumé you send out, if not directly on your forehead. I have heard it to be true - once you sing in an opera chorus (beyond your initial years as a student or apprentice, that is), theaters will be hesitant to give you a job as a soloist.
Singing in the chorus forces you to give up many things:
• The characters you play don’t have names. 
• You play as part of a collective, and therefore have little or no say in rehearsing with a director (unlike the soloist who stays up half the night with the director, knocking back shots of whisky and talking about character development...).
• Your schedule prevents you from doing much else (hence no time to audition for those solo roles that you won’t get anyway because of the scarlet ‘C’ on your forehead).
• You give up hearing the sound of your own voice, because there will be some bitter diva-wanna-be standing next to you (or more likely, square in front of you) singing your same part in your ear.
But there is one thing that the chorister has that the soloist does not have:
In Germany, the most opera-friendly country on Earth, the theaters realize what they take away from a singer once he or she is given a position in the chorus. So to compensate, they are given a decent salary - sometimes up to twice as much as that of their soloist colleagues. Ergo, the chorister has one more thing that the soloist relinquishes in exchange for applause:
A life.
The girl in the chorus has those boots you’ve always wanted but couldn’t afford. She’s making a down payment on a car, and not worried about the monthly costs that follow. She knows that she’ll be done with rehearsal at precisely 1:00 p.m. and that she has every Monday off. She can schedule appointments in advance. If her dream of singing that two-line solo in Der Rosenkavalier is fulfilled, she’ll get that extra bonus to put in her kid’s college fund. Oh, and she can afford a kid, because her slot in the chorus is guaranteed to her, even after a paid maternity leave. The theater just hires someone to take her place until she gets back.
For about 5 minutes, I considered applying to be one of these substitutes. I mean, if I’m just a substitute, I won’t have to have the ‘C’ for chorus tattooed on my forehead, will I? And I certainly don’t think any less of the friends I know who have gone into the chorus for financial reasons, or even artistic ones. The chorus is just as much a part of an opera as a solo role is. Goodness knows it would be nice to sit back and relax and not have to think about money (or anything else for that matter) for a while.
Aside from some scheduling difficulties which may ensue, I just wasn’t able to warm up to the idea to auditioning for the chorus. Despite the fact that it would only be temporary, in a way it feels like giving up. Giving up the dream of doing what I already do, just more often and for more money. Giving up the time to organize more recitals like the one I just did with Gershwin music. Giving up the fight to prove to all the theaters who have turned me down that I’m damn good at what I do. But most importantly, giving up the way in which I prefer to experience opera theater - as a soloist.
Who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t get any other offers during that time, but I just have the feeling that, as soon as I sign on the dotted line, that’s when the soloist offer of a lifetime is going to present itself - and I would be contractually obligated to decline. Even worse, what would happen if I auditioned for the substitute job in the chorus ... and didn’t get it?
Sometimes, we do what we have to do to earn money.
And sometimes, we do what we have to do to keep our pride in tact.
After an audition.

Of all the opera singers I know, only about about two or three of them no longer have to audition. And that’s just an assumption I’m making - I’d have to ask them to make sure that that’s true. I figure once you’ve sung at the MET, no one’s really expecting you to show up with 5 contrasting arias and a résumé.
This assumption is also one people make of me at this stage in my career (‘people’ as in regular people, not opera people). It’s true to a point - I no longer have to audition for the Kammeroper Frankfurt. And the last couple of guest contracts I’ve had have been almost handed to me. The audition was just a formality to make sure I didn’t suck. For the most part, however, potential employers won’t be familiar with the extent of my artistry, or know me well enough to trust that I’m reliable and capable. There’s no reason I should not have to go audition in person. It’s just part of the process, like any other job interview. 
There are, of course, a few differences in this job. It’s not like working at the bank for ten years and being rewarded with a gold watch and two more weeks of vacation. It’s not like working your way from dishwasher to restaurant manager -- and tell me honestly, how often has that happened, really? Unless you really fight your way to the top, no matter how exceptionally good you are, you never have to stop proving it.
For the ‘regular’ people out there, before you ask me why I still have to audition,  here are some of my previous blog entries which might help you to understand the job-hunting process of an opera singer:

Running to Stand Still

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Brothers George and Ira Gershwin

A song recital probably doesn’t sound like a way to have a good time on a Saturday night, but I think they get a bad rap. It was after completing my four required recitals for my bachelor's and master's degrees that I first tried to interweave stand-up comedy into a classical music recital. It wasn’t quite a success, but only because I hadn’t developed the confidence, stagecraft and comedic timing that I have now. Still, the singing was pretty good.
I don’t suppose recitals are supposed to be fun or even funny - generally, it seems to be an atmosphere where laughter should be stifled, lest the performers think you are laughing at them and not with them (see this fantastic skit from the Carol Burnett show below).
Really, all one is required to do in a recital is stand up and sing songs (“one” being the singer, not the audience. The audience is required to sit there, be quiet and listen with astonishment). The songs are usually performed in sets -- a German one, an Italian one, a French one, Baroque, Modern, Romantic, and so forth. It is custom not to applaud between numbers, especially if the composer has deemed them a “song cycle,” just like in between movements of a symphony. This gives everyone the opportunity to shift uncomfortably in their chair, or cough. Kind of like going to the bathroom before you go on a trip - you don’t really have to go, but if you don’t go now, you know you’re going to have to stop and go later. So, phlegm ball or no, I usually find myself coughing between songs in a cycle. Can’t help myself.
There are probably many singers out there who stop giving recitals as soon as they’re no longer academically required to do so. No costumes, no lights, no drama -- what’s the point? Au contraire! I find songs (German Lied, French Chansons, English Art Songs, whatever) to be precious little masterpieces in and of themselves. And in planning my most recent recital - A Night of Gershwin Songs, or as ze Germans are calling it, Gershwinabend - I hope to successfully impart this admiration to my audience.
It has been an all-consuming process. It’s quite different than what I’ve done before, which has been not much more than learn the music. This time, I’m in control of everything - content, programs, song order, interpretation, etc. Here’s a  glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes before a song recital:
First I had to start thinking about why I was giving this recital.
What? What do you mean why? It’s a recital, you sing songs, then everybody goes home feeling a little more elite than they did before. With that attitude, I can see why the general perception people have of recitals is thinking they are boring. In fact, recitals can be very entertaining opportunities to hear exquisitely beautiful music in a very intimate atmosphere. Non-collegiate recitals usually have a theme or an occasion - Songs of Spring, Songs of Walt Whitman, Sturm und Drang, Songs about Cats, what have you.
My recital is a part of a Chanson series, in which there have already been Georg Kreisler and Kurt Weill evenings. On account of my being American, I felt especially qualified to give a Gershwin Song recital. These men (George and his brother Ira) redefined the genre in such a way that I thought it might be useful to talk about what a “song” is in the first place, and what makes theirs so special. So, after choosing most of the repertoire, I began to organize the program in an order to convey my simple message, and that is: song is made up of Text, Melody and Rhythm.
That’s it? Well, I know it doesn’t sound that interesting NOW, but I can’t divulge all my information here, lest you not be surprised at the recital itself.
Often when we go to recitals, there is a program with notes and information about the composer, about the songs’ origins, about the performers, etc. I’ll have a list of the song titles, but this time I won’t write program notes. This is where my confidence, stagecraft and comedic timing comes in -- I venture to tell the audience everything you might otherwise read in the program from up on the stage. In such a cozy setting as the song recital, it seems a shame for people to have their noses buried in notes, squinting to read them in the dimly lit room. 
Aside from providing the audience with a cohesive, coherent, diversified, entertaining hour and a half, I’ve also done my best to assure that there’s an audience to be entertained. Through the magic world of facebook, I’ve been able to advertise the recital to hundreds of people. 
I spent today making different types of flyers - some for handing out to my neighbors, or hanging up in the libraries and the music stores, or leaving at my favorite cafes. I also put a link on my website and made a .pdf file to send out in an eMail to people who, heaven forbid, are not on facebook.
All the while, I’ve been learning my music. Unlike a Debussy Chanson or a Schubert Lied, a Gershwin song is much more open to interpretation - like shape notes, or baroque ornamentation may have been - just listen to the many renditions by stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland and even Sting. Now it’s time for intensive rehearsals with my pianist partner (that’s what one of my voice teachers so rightly called an accompanist).
Me and Petra Woisetschläger
These are not the most highbrow pieces ever performed on a recital, but the genius of Gershwin deserves as much musical prowess as one might need to perform Puccini, Händel or Stravinsky. Knowing this, I chose an accompanist who is skilled in both classical and jazz music. In fact, she’s a professor of improvisation, and she has a successful duo with her bass-playing husband. Because of her busy schedule, she has given me full license to make musical decisions regarding stylistic interpretation, in other words, tell her what to do. Are you kidding me? This is seriously like having a genie in a bottle. It’s like asking Jamie Oliver to make me a sandwich. I can rest assured it’s going to be tasty. Having her fulfill my dreams of playing “The Man I Love” like it’s a French impressionistic Prelude - sublime.
Being somewhat of a control freak, I haven’t exactly minded taking complete control of everything that the audience will experience next Saturday night (well, okay, I won’t be providing the drinks or the lights...). But before you start planning a song recital, this is my advice:
You have to know what you’re getting into, and also what you want to get out of it. “Nice work if you can get it - and you can get it if you try!”

A Night of Gershwin Songs: Christine Graham, Petra Woisetschläger
November 13, 2010, 8pm Die Fabrik Frankfurt

(This isn't the first time I've written about the Gershwin brothers. See "Maybe Tuesday Will Be My Good News Day" relating the life and music of Gershwin to the last U.S. presidential election from January 2009!)

Postscript: The recital was a big success! Here's a glimpse of the evening via our Demo Video. If you're in Germany and would like to book this recital, please contact me!