When I told my mother that one of my best friends from elementary school was now working for border patrol, she said in astonishment, “Really? She was always so glamorous.”
True enough, Christi E., one of the five Christies in our class (see previous entry Caro Nome de Plume) had a natural beauty. She was very popular and had a number of suitors. Every boy I ever had a crush on ended up going out with her. In fact, one day in the classroom Tyler had me pass her a note on which he had written: “Will you go with me?” She asked me to pass it back, but before she folded it up I saw her answer: “Yes, but don’t tell Alejandro.” It was the sixth grade, for crying out loud, and it was already complicated.
So, anyway, I guess one could be surprised to hear that she ended up on the border patrol and I ended up becoming an opera singer. Who’s glamorous now, huh?
I’m a far cry from the level of those demanding seven bottles of Evian in the dressing room, and riding to performances in a limousine. But truthfully, the people I know who have stellar careers aren’t making those kinds of demands either. Admittedly, their lives might be a tad bit more glamorous than mine.
The general public seems to stand firm in their belief that all opera singers, no matter what level of experience or artistry, are glamorous people leading glamorous lives. I don’t know why I’m so hellbent on dispelling that myth, especially since I would then have to confess that I actually enjoy dressing up and being treated thusly. But that’s just me rising to the occasion.
At one such occasion many years ago, there were 20 of us singing at the regional level of the Metropolitan Opera National Council competition in Seattle. We were all teeming around the green room area waiting for our turn to sing. A tenor grabbed a cookie off the refreshment table and seemed to be enjoying it. One of the ladies in charge of babysitting us looked at him as if he were a cookie she would like to nibble. “Oh, isn’t it just amazing how he can just nonchalantly eat that cookie right before he sings?”
It’s a cookie, woman. Not a shot of Jägermeister. A cookie. Calm down.
Her giddy excitement for the cute tenor turned to abhorrence when she glared down at my feet. I had brought some Birkenstocks to lounge around in backstage, because I knew I would potentially be waiting around for hours until it was all over. Gasping for air, she couldn’t even finish her sentence, “You’re not... you’re not going to...?”
“No, no,” I reassured her. “I have fancy shoes that match my dress for the stage. They’re just uncomfortable.” I was annoyed to have to put up with this woman’s pre-conceived notion of how we young opera singers should dress and behave, but vindicated at the end of the day when I won the competition. One of the adjudicators said, as he was giving me my critique, “When you walked out on that stage, it was pure class.”
See? I can be glamorous when I need to be.
If you have a fest contract in a German theater, being an opera singer is akin to having a 9-to-5 job. Fans awaiting your signature after a performance seem either put off or charmed by the fact that you emerge in jeans and a T-shirt, then hop on your bike to go home, as if you’ve just finished your shift at the Dairy Queen, not to mention gone crazy, killed a tenor and died.
At least in the theater you have a place to change clothes. My favorite moments of glamour vs. grunge are when you have to sing at someone’s wedding, or similar function. There, the people in charge of organization are not always aware of your needs as an artist (for example, a tuned piano, a bathroom, a drink of water, etc.)
Just the other night I had a gig (yes, I call these kinds of concerts “gigs”) for the annual convention of some of Europe’s finest lawyers. When my accompanist and I arrived, we were told to sneak in around back, and we had to sit at one table in the huge recreation room together with the band who was scheduled to go on after us. Not that I don’t like mingling with the common folk -- it was just that the other 20 tables were already set for the next day’s wedding ceremony and we weren’t allowed to potentially smudge the tablecloths with our water glasses.
After our part of the program was over, I had several lawyers come up to me and tell me how much they had enjoyed our performance. I liked that they could appreciate what I do - most of them seemed well-versed in classical music, and we shared an affinity for schmalzy operetta arias. Truthfully, although I would love to land me a young, rich handsome man (most of the lawyers present were rich, and some were young, but few were actually handsome...), beyond the music I could not relate to them at all on a personal level. I had a blast with the guys from the band, though, probably because they didn’t know much about opera, weren’t expecting me to be glamorous, and talked to me like I was a human being (albeit in a fabulous dress).
At another lawyer function, I sang a short program of Brecht/Weill songs together with a mezzo-soprano friend of mine. We were both given bouquets at the end of the evening and treated to a tasty gourmet meal and fine wine. While she caught a ride home with her lawyer boyfriend in his Jaguar (the only handsome single lawyer in town was already taken, see?), I rode the subway home as usual - but this time, wearing a very elegant dress and clutching my bouquet. Nobody in that subway car had any idea what I had just accomplished.
I can walk the walk and talk the talk. I always rise to the glamorous occasion. I know which fork to use, I like fine wine, and I have quite a few pretty dresses. But the reality of it is, once you leave the building, you’re no longer Elvis.
Watch the music video ("Femme Fatale") that accompanies this article on my other blog:
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