Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Tragic Tale of Me and Jenufa (i.e. never piss off a Norwegian)

Me as Karolka with Keiko Yano
Everything I need to know about opera, I learned 13 years ago, but forgot. Until now.
It was a sunny winter day, not too long after having arrived for my first job ever in Germany - the Opera Studio at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. I was wearing a grayish-purplish somewhat sparkly vintage top and a thin longish skirt -- very Morticia Addamsesque. That and a pair of basic black pumps. I was all gussied up for one of those reach-out gigs we used to do for the opera studio. But before that, I had to go to a staging rehearsal for Jenufa. I was double cast as Karolka, the ditzy girlfriend, and had to make a somewhat blustery entrance from the back and make my way to the front of the stage and give Jenufa flowers. Sounds simple enough.
When I got to rehearsal that Saturday morning at 10:00, I hadn’t slept. My then boyfriend was visiting from America. No, we weren’t up all night getting ‘reacquainted’. In fact, we had been arguing. The whole long distance thing wasn’t quite working out, apparently. For that week, as a generous gesture, I had actually been excused from any ‘unnecessary’ rehearsals. This was one of them. But, the information hadn’t trickled down to the proper channels, and my name had been written on the schedule regardless, as had the name of my colleague. So, I sat there for two hours watching her do the part until I got my turn to go on stage.
By that time, all the other colleagues had been sent home, and the director’s assistant mimed all of their roles while the accompanist sang them. I was bewildered, tired, and mad about having to be there in the first place, but too much of a freshman to have the courage to say anything about them having violated my genehmigte Urlaub (approved vacation). By the looks on their faces, I think the director and conductor were not at all excited about being there either, having to repeat this whole scene for little ol’ me, “Karolka Two”. I tried to suck it all back and just make my entrance and get it over with so I could go sing my concert and get back to my visitor. 
The music at this point was rather difficult, not to mention in Czech, and the confines of my concert skirt hindered me from getting to the front of the stage in time or in the carefree fashion that the director required. After several times not getting it right, either musically or scenically, getting very frustrated with myself (see previous entry: “Confessions of a Staunch Perfectionist”), and not being able to make any sense of why I was even there, I had a wee meltdown right there on stage. 
Before I go on, let’s review my operatic experience up to this point. After playing a few roles in university productions and singing in the chorus at Seattle Opera, I went to Düsseldorf for the Opera Studio and had sung one of the leads in Brecht/Weill double feature, Happy End/Mahogany Songspiel. I must have done a bang-up job, because I had been entrusted with Ida in Fledermaus, Ines in Trovatore, Edelknabe Number Two in Lohengrin, the Dew Fairy in Hänsel und Gretel, and Karolka in Jenufa, my fifth role in as many months on the main stage, as well as the Studio concerts and Brecht/Weill production. I was kind of busy. 
And I had no idea what I was doing.
The first four pieces I mentioned were all revival productions -- meaning they had been playing for more than one season, the original director was long gone (like in the case of Lohengrin, which had its premiere 25 years previously), and you prepared your role with a director’s assistant, a repetiteur and maybe some other singers, if you were lucky. It was all very “come in from the left, go stand on the rock, climb the stairs, interact with Ruiz, etc.”.  I thought if I did all that right and sang the music correctly, well, that for me was the definition of opera and fit my job description. Jenufa, on the other hand, was a premiere. 
So, back to the meltdown. It was, of course, very embarrassing to break down and cry in the middle of a rehearsal, but stuff like that happens every now and again. That’s life. What bothers me now, is that I believe that was the precise moment my career took a left turn down the scenic route to success (Oh, look! A castle! Are we there yet?). It’s still very clear in my mind how the director’s assistant, Ingrid Raffeiner, now the head of a prominent opera agency, urgently whispered “Calm down, calm down...,” and how I stood next to the already renowned director (I had no idea), Norwegian Stein Winge, and tried to apologize. He seemed very disinterested. 
The following Monday morning I was called for a musical rehearsal, not with the repetiteur, but with the maestro himself, Jonathan Darlington. That’s like rehearsing with Jesus. After about 15 minutes of realizing that I did, in fact, know my part, we went down to the canteen for a cup of coffee. I hope I shall never forget this moment when the artistic administrator (now opera director) joined us at our table, and Mr. Darlington graciously defended me: “You’ve thrown her in there with stage veterans like Stein Winge, Anne Bolstad and Trudeliese Schmidt. She’s doing fine.” I was also called into the office to speak to the director of the the administration office (now opera director in Hannover), and I remember her sympathetic smile when she asked me if maybe I didn’t have just a little too much on my plate. Evidently, word of my meltdown had spread quickly.
I had no idea what being an opera singer was actually about, or more importantly, what it meant to me. I like to think that now I do. The kind of opera singer-actor I am trying to become is precisely the kind that a director like Stein Winge would want to work with. In fact, I want to call him up and say, “I get it now.”  
Looking back, that production of Jenufa taught me invaluable lessons:
Treat all colleagues, no matter what role, with equal respect
I found Marlis Petersen lying flat on her back in the foyer after she’d slipped a disc during one of the final rehearsals. Her role was smaller than mine, but even then she was well on her way to becoming the fabulous international star that she is now.
Things don’t always go as planned, even if a genius planned them
Romana Noack, who I shared my role with, taught me that things change from rehearsal to rehearsal and performance to performance. I remember her exclaiming in one of the rehearsals “Das ist halt so!” (That's just how it is!)
It’s not always about you
Monique Simone gave me the tip to bring a crossword puzzle or maybe some knitting to rehearsal to distract from the frustration that arises from waiting around.
Have fun
To this day, every time I see Bruce Rankin, who played my fiancée, he cries “Dahling!” in his unmistakable tenor voice. He lights up every room and makes even the most difficult rehearsals more pleasant.
You never know who’s watching you or who you inspire
The legendary Trudeliese Schmidt (may she rest in peace) came up to me after watching our Studio performance of Happy End and said, “Thank you. I learned so much from you.” 
I wish I would have gotten the chance to say the same to her. I should be so lucky to have the chance to perform with any one of my Jenufa colleagues again.
After my first performance went off without a hitch, the applause was so thunderous that we had to go take several bows. (Really, you should’ve seen it, it was quite a show). Ingrid sent us all out for one final curtain and we were sluggish to react. She hastily and haphazardly pushed us out on stage, and I found myself smack dab in the middle of the row between the maestro and the prima donna. An absolute operatic no-no, but I enjoyed it while it lasted. That may have already been it for me.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Falling Facades

Münster Town Hall today
Besides the towering steeple of the St. Lamberti cathedral, the first thing that  stands out when you walk down the street in downtown Münster is the row of facades on the buildings along the Prinzipalmarkt. Atypical of most German cities, due to Münster’s proximity and history with Holland, these Dutch gables are quite common here. In the old days, they were used in lieu of numbers to identify addresses, and in the case of the Town Hall’s facade, built 30 meters over the actual roof in the mid 14th century, the highly ornate gable was meant to instill confidence in the power of the reigning Bishop through its imposing outward appearance.

Münster Town Hall, 1944
minutes before the gable fell
Most of the buildings in the Altstadt (old town) were rebuilt to replicate their originals after having been destroyed in World War II. Nearby theaters in Hagen, Aachen and Duisburg were rebuilt to look, at least from the exterior, as they did before the war. The theater in Münster, however, made the somewhat controversial decision to reconstruct in the current fashion of the 1950’s. As an homage to the building which stood there before, the architects left a piece of the original facade standing freely in the atrium, so that theater-goers could reflect upon it while sipping proseccos during intermission in the shiny, modern foyer.

Münster's modern theater
viewed through the facade
When I auditioned in Münster about four years ago, I put up the usual opera singer’s “facade” -- basic black with a flash of color, standard repertoire, polite demeanor, etc. I remember that I sang rather well, and after I was done they asked me, almost as if measuring the gable in front of the Town Hall, “Frau Graham, how tall are you?” Apparently, they had a short tenor.
Opera is an art form which has been around for centuries, and it is also one very reluctant to change. So it is no wonder that we put up our facades to try to emulate what we think might be expected of us. We beef up our résumés to make us look as experienced as the singer next to us. We dye our gray hairs to appear the same age as the singer next to us. We wear heels or flats to adjust our height. We hide our special, individual talents -- like baking, writing, singing silly songs, or even having other jobs -- to make us seem like ‘serious’ artists. We try to keep ourselves lined up with concerts so we appear busy, giving off the impression that we are in high demand and therefore better than all the rest.
I got the chance to audition in Münster again, just four weeks ago. The piece being cast is brand new - a world premiere - and they needed someone in a hurry. Luckily, I was available. Already I tore down my first facade of looking busy. For some reason, maybe because I had to get up so early, I couldn’t be assed to wear my usual audition garb, so I wore a wacky print dress. Second facade down. For the train ride up there, I wore casual red boots and had my basic black pumps in my bag to change into shortly before going on stage. In the middle of my first aria, I realized I had forgotten to change my shoes. Oops, third strike. As I stepped on the stage and looked out into the modern hall and its purple upholstered seats, I exclaimed, “Oh! Purple is my favorite color!” instead of “My name is... and I’d like to sing... .” Surely my cover was blown by then at the latest. The only facade I had left was one of courage, masking my actual scared-shitlessness.
Perhaps a bit perplexed by my demeanor and attire, the panel nevertheless listened to my first selection, then invited me to stay for the second round. In their search for someone to perform this brand new work in this modern theater, I suppose my “facade” (or lack of one) built on a solid foundation of talent, technique and experience, was exactly the one they were looking for.
  The premiere of “Timeshift” is December 4, subsequent performances on December 7th, January 14th, February 29th, and March 11th. Be sure and plan enough time to explore and view the gables of Münster! 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Path of Least Persistence: Dog-racing for Singers

Run, Christine, Run!

If you’ve ever been to the dog races, you’ve seen the fervor and determination with which greyhounds chase their goal. Not looking right nor left, they run like mad around the track until crossing the finish line. The ‘winner’ is the first one to realize that what he’s been chasing all along is not a tasty rabbit, but a mechanical lure with a furry tail at best. But the dogs keep chasing this unfulfillable feast until going into a sad and miserable retirement. 
But that’s another story. It’s a dog eat dog world.
Chasing the operatic dream is not dissimilar to a dog race, except for the fact that the lure is real. But you have to chase a lot of false rabbits and bark up a bunch of wrong trees before capturing it. Obviously the greyhound isn’t aware that the rabbit is a fake. Otherwise, I can’t imagine that he would run so fast to catch it. The concept of ‘discouragement’ is foreign to a dog.
When I first set foot in the race to become an opera singer in Germany, I was running at the swift pace of a greyhound. I sent 70 letters to agents, opera houses and young artists’ programs, happily licking each stamp and not being bothered by the “No-thank-you” replies that came pouring in (in fact, I made a collage out of them -- I call it “Mit freundlichen Grüßen”). Of those 70 letters, I got one invitation to audition, flew out, sang for them and was immediately offered the job. I hit the ground running, so to speak.
Since I’ve been here, I honestly don’t think I’ve put as much effort into getting auditions as I did back then. Instead I concentrated my efforts on singing for agents so that they could do the footwork, and of course on the matter at hand -- my job. While you’re working, it’s easy to take your eye off the rabbit and forget that, even though you have work, you are still in the race. Plus, no matter how hard I try, other contenders still get ahead. Despite having sung for several agents who seem to like what I do, I often find out about auditions happening without me.
Just recently, I sang a formidable Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera, I also have Zerbinetta in my repertoire (and got a great review in Opernwelt for that performance), and I’m just about to play Mozart’s famous Queen of the Night. So when I read on another singer’s blog that she was getting ready to audition for exactly those three roles, I wonder why it is that I don’t even know about this audition, much less why I haven’t been invited. Or when I saw on yet another coloratura’s Facebook page that she’d only last week landed a fest contract in a smaller house in the east, again I am baffled as to why these auditions pass me by.
Things like this happen often enough to make me stop running so fast and instead take leisurely walk on my self-denominated Path of Least Persistence. This can be a very pleasant experience, just as I’m sure a greyhound dog enjoys haphazardly chasing a frisbee probably even more than frantically running after a wanna-be rabbit. On the Path of Least Persistence unexpected things come to you unexpectedly. Problem is, it’s not enough. While it can be fulfilling to sing Bach in a church with an amateur choir, or fun to improvise over electronic music on a boat as part of an art exhibition, it does not quite satisfy the urge to prove your worth and serve the duty of portraying a character through music on a stage with your peers -- and be able to pay the bills, to boot.
...ain't never caught a rabbit.
I hypothesize, however, that I may have gotten that very first audition back then had I sent only 20 letters instead of 70. That particular recipient probably would have been on my addressee list in both cases. So why should I bother with the rest? Now I know through experience that there are some trees I needn’t bother to bark up in the first place. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I probably could have done a bit more this season as far as promoting myself goes, although sometimes I wish it would suffice to be an über-talented and reliable musician who does her job well. At least I know that my competitors’ successes have nothing to do with my shortcomings -- especially if I wasn’t even there to be a contender.
Sure it’s discouraging to repeatedly face rejection, but we have to keep the greyhounds in mind.* What if they are perfectly aware that the lure they are chasing is not a real rabbit? Perhaps they’re in the race for the sheer joy of running. Maybe it’s time for me to shed all my discouragement and leave it behind on the Path of Least Persistence and get back into the race -- full speed, come what may -- if only for the sheer joy of licking stamps.
* By now, I hope you’ve figured out that this is only an analogy, and not a factual representation of the sometimes abusive practice of dog racing, which I do not purport to support (unless, of course, my dog wins).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

OPERAHOLICS: An Existential Look at an Addictive Career

  Ever since moving to Europe my tolerance for alcohol has increased considerably. Depending on the company and the food, I can easily finish off a bottle of wine in one evening without feeling drunk. Watching a soccer game, I can knock back a six-pack and still be able to remember which team I’m rooting for. Although I drink a lot more frequently than I used to, I still wouldn’t call myself an alcoholic. Much the same, although I sing on a regular basis, can’t say no to an opportunity to perform for money, and thereby earn my living by doing so, I still have trouble calling myself an opera singer.

When I meet non-music people for the first time and they ask me what I do (or more often, what am I doing here in Germany), it is almost with shame that I give them my reply. It’s not that I am embarrassed about being a singer, rather that I know I have now confronted them with information that is probably just as perplexing to them as it is to me. I have opened a door into the unknown and at the same time erected a wall between us. Quite a strain on a new acquaintance, don’t you think? Unless we have something else which binds us, the disconnect is almost audible. They have their preconceived notion of what an opera singer does, and I have to struggle with not living up to their expectations, or even admit that I’m not living up to my own. 

“Hi, I’m Christy, and I’m a professional opera singer.”
“Hi, Christy.”
Like alcoholics at an A.A. meeting, I am usually most at ease when I am in a room full of people just like me, or among friends and family who have grown to understand and accept who and what I am. One such time was just last night, when I sang in a beautiful Pentecost concert (for those of you who don’t know -- like I didn’t, until last night -- Pentecost basically celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, and ergo the birth of the church). After the concert, we were celebrating with pizza and wine, compliments of the church’s ambitious choir. My friend and bass colleague of eight years told me in bewilderment, “I can’t believe that someone who sings as divinely as you has to work in a café. I just can’t understand why you’re not famous and/or getting more work.” (Soon I will be starting my new job as a barista to make ends meet -- funny that my ‘pay-my-way-through-college’ job is now serving as my ‘pay-my-way-through-my-career’ job).
“Well, it wasn’t that divine,” I said. “I think that one F# in the W.F. Bach aria was a little too high.”*
Raising his hands to the ceiling, he exclaimed, “Thank you God, she’s not perfect!!” Then he told me about Persian rug weavers who intentionally leave a “mistake” in their rug, which creates a hole through which the Holy Spirit can enter; or as the Navajos do, leave a string hanging to serve as the “spirit line” so that the Great Spirit can find its way.  Not to brag too much, but it did indeed feel like some holy spirit was entering me during that aria. First the credit goes to W.F. Bach for creating it, but I must say, I sang the holy bejeezus out of it.
After hypothesizing about what I could possibly be doing wrong regarding furthering my career, we came up with two basic theories. One: the competition is just overwhelming.  Two: I am not a typical opera singer. This, of course, brought us back to the aforementioned conundrum: just what is an opera singer supposed to be like, anyway? I’m sure even if I did find out what one should be like, I don’t expect I would attempt to change myself in any way in order to fit that mold.
None the wiser, we finished our pizza and wine and went home. I was alone on the platform, waiting for the train when a strange, probably alcoholic man came up to me and asked for some change so he could make a call to the Ukraine. I don’t usually give out money to strangers, but I had a big wad of earnings in my wallet from the concert, so I figured I could share some of the wealth. I handed him a one-euro coin, and he mentioned he would try to change it, since the call might only cost around 70 cents and he didn’t want to be wasteful. I looked in my purse again and gave him one euro in smaller change. He asked if I wanted the first euro coin back, and I said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve had a good day, I was just in a concert,” which was pretty obvious considering my formal garb.
“Oh, what instrument do you play?”
“I’m a singer.”
“I used to be a musician, too,” he told me. “But not your kind of music. I played rock and roll.”
“Oh! So you know what a hartes Brot (literally, hard bread = tough living) it can be.”
“Yes. And what I also know,” he continued, “is that the people making real money are mostly just a bunch of untalented Zwitscher-Heinis and the really good singers often get left behind.”
“Zwitscher-Heini”, I can only assume, is one who constantly chirps in a not-so musical manner. The strange man thanked me profusely for the two euros, and for some reason -- perhaps we were both moved by the Holy Spirit, or just connected by a common miswoven thread -- we both had tears in our eyes.
“Good luck,” he said, as he turned to go. “And I mean that from the heart.”
“I know you do,” I said, feeling an enormous sense of gratitude for the gift I’ve been given. “Thank you. Good luck to you, too.”
I trust that, despite the late hour, he did indeed spend my two euros on a phone call to the Ukraine and not on a beer. I reckon I could give up drinking if I had to. But the singing? Not a chance.

*Here's the link to hear part of that W.F. Bach aria

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Aria di Sorbetto: aber bitte mit Sahne

Eis Christina: Frankfurt's favorite Ice Cream

Opera has come a long way since its origins in the 1600s and its Golden Age in the 19th century, from which many of the stereotypes of opera have spawned. Familiar scenes of a night at the opera include aristocrats in their box seats, fanning themselves and using their opera glasses to look at anything but the action on stage. In this day and age, opera is a versatile and vibrant art, breaking stereotypes and taking on many forms.
Italian comic opera in the 18th and 19 century, however, was still very structured in its Bel Canto beginnings. So much so, that the audience knew, in the middle of the second half, there would be a chance to go out and get some ice cream - namely, during the Aria di Sorbetto (literally: sherbet aria), a song usually sung by a minor character with no major influence on the plot. 
It is such a character that I am playing now in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) - Berta (a.k.a. Marcellina) the maid. I shouldn’t complain - at least I have an aria at all. When Giuseppe Verdi started to dominate the opera scene, the typical Bel Canto structure began to make way for a more realistic verismo style, in which there was no room for fluffy, ignorable arias. Every note had to mean something. This is why Violetta’s Annina, Gilda’s Giovanna, and Leonore’s Ines had no aria of their own. Unlike Mozart’s coquette maids Despina and Blondchen who had very influential roles and significant parts to sing, Verdi’s domestics were simply there to serve their Diva - to set up the emotion for her cavatina (0:22-0:56), to look appropriately concerned while she’s singing it, and to bring the bad news which would then catapult her into a cabaletta (5:45-6:20) -- see this example from Il Trovatore:
Nowadays, opera directors are inclined to put much more emphasis on the drama of opera than on the singing (so do I, frankly). When I played Ines in Il Trovatore, the director told me (and I quote), I was to be “the reflection of Leonore’s subconscious.” A-ha. Well, I must have done something right, because it was then that the über-successful German director Christof Loy hand-picked me to be one of his chorus of anonymous nymphs and shepherds in his production of L’Orfeo in Düsseldorf.
Ines in Il Trovatore (Bonn)
This is the challenge that singing a smaller role raises. You have much less time to prove your competence. You have to do in four lines what the leading lady has all night to do -- to show the audience the spectrum of the character’s emotions, musicality, and relationship to the other characters. You have to be on the ball the second you step out onto the stage. And every second has been worth it. Of all the Einspringer that I’ve done over the years (jumping in when someone, somewhere gets sick), the majority have been for these smaller roles -- I jumped in as Ines in Bonn (for Anja Harteros!) and in Wiesbaden. The L’Orfeo production was revived five times over a span of seven years and was also quite well-paid. And it was because of my previous experience playing Berta in Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Kammeroper Frankfurt that I landed this current job in the same role.
Berta in "Il Barbiere di Siviglia"
Theater Hagen 2011

Much to my delight, as opposed to the audiences of the 19th century, I know that people are actually there watching and listening to my Aria di Sorbetto, perhaps enjoying my 15 minutes of fame instead of a scoop of Straciatella.

And another Berta...
Düsseldorf 2012
And ANOTHER Berta ...
Wiesbaden 2012

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What's the first thing a soprano does in the morning? Goes home.

Or how about this one? A Spanish tenor, a South African baritone, an English bass, a Chinese mezzo, a German dramatic soprano and an American coloratura soprano walk into a bar ...
Well, okay, it’s not a bar, it’s a theater canteen. And it’s not a bad joke, it’s just intermission at the opera.
After the show is over, some of the singers return to their homes (they’re fest at the theater and they live in this town), and the others, working as guests, return to their hotel rooms, only to leave the next morning for their respective homes. No, not Spain nor South Africa, China or America, but to some town in Germany where they have set up shop for their freelance opera career, and where they now call “home.” Home is, after all, where your stuff is.
But after six weeks of intense rehearsals, this strange brew of a cast and crew has somehow become your family. And your best friends are the characters of various television series you’ve downloaded to keep you entertained [cue theme song]:
♫ ♫ I’ll be there for you ‘cause you’re there for me, too. 
doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo....♫ ♫

The scenery may be different, and the plot is not the same, but each production gives you a very familiar feeling - to rehearse, make new friends, perform together and share in this imaginary world for a few hours in front of a live audience, celebrate afterwards and then sleep peacefully. It is not always wine and roses, but it is always very real. At least to me.

Ever since I started this business, I envisioned having a home base (i.e. somewhere to put my stuff), somewhere to come back to between adventures. Some adventures lasted longer than others and ended up becoming home base by default - Düsseldorf for six years, Coburg for four. And then I was free. Free to choose where I wanted to live because nothing and no one was determining that for me. So, for various good reasons, out of all the cities in the entire world, I chose Frankfurt.
Although I so much enjoy being greeted by the Frankfurt (Mainhattan) skyline upon returning home from another town, and although I adore my apartment and my neighborhood - and the people I’ve known in Frankfurt, some for almost 10 years - I’m realizing that “home” has to be something more than just a place to hang my proverbial hat. 
Even in the most familiar of surroundings, amongst my belongings -- my vintage copper kitchen utensils, my couch, my bed, my pictures, my towels, my 31 pairs of shoes -- I am still not always quite as comfortable as I am when living out of a suitcase in some crappy little apartment doing what I believe to be what I was put on this Earth to do.
We are not really connected to any place or even to any people except our parents, our siblings and eventually our partners and children. So aside from that, what comprises a “home” and how do we know where we belong? And will we recognize it when and if we get there?
Maybe it is a bad joke, after all.