Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Size Doesn't Matter

"Oscar" in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera
 When I was preparing for my stint as Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera, I made sure to bring plenty to do during my down time -- unwatched episodes of my favorite TV shows, a book, music for an upcoming concert. After all, Oscar only has two short arias to sing, and a couple ensemble numbers. I’m just the substitute for the house soprano who will be singing the bulk of the performances. Piece of cake. No biggie. Little did I know, however, that the director had something else in mind for this character. And as my colleague got sick during my first week of rehearsal, it was all of a sudden upon me to “create” this surprisingly demanding role. 
Oscar is on stage for practically the entire show - and when I’m not on stage, I’m either going to the bathroom, getting a drink of water, or changing my costume. So, snacking in the cantina or working crossword puzzles in the dressing room is not an option. Every opening and closing of the curtain is controlled by my character. Every entrance of every player depends on my gesture. The handing over of props and costumes, the switching on and off of the lights.... I am the puppet master, and it’s far bigger a responsibility than I was expecting when I packed my suitcase to come to this small town just six weeks ago. 
By no means am I complaining. I love the power vested in me, so to speak, to run the show. Here I was, expecting to sing one of the smaller roles in the opera, and I ended up practically having the lead. 
Big things come in small packages.
It makes me wonder, then, why I would get so bent out of shape in my old job when I often had to play second fiddle to other colleagues, sometimes even guests who were hired over my head to do roles I could well have done myself. 
Perspective, that’s why. 
As someone else was getting paid to sing Musetta while I had to sing 27 performances of an operetta, I could only think what an injustice was being done to me (and my résumé), and I let my pains be known. It was difficult for me to try and grasp their perspective - it’s cheaper to hire someone for only 10 Musettas compared to 27 operettas, and besides, they trusted in my ability to deliver what an operetta requires: nimbleness, strong dialog skills, stage presence, stamina. So, that's actually a good thing, right?

Through this past experience, I’m doing my best now to relate with my counterpart, the house soprano, who is approaching this situation from the other side of the spectrum. She has played much more significant roles during her time in this theater, has an engagement in a bigger house next season and even sings in New York from time to time. And now, as her final role in her home of six years, she’s been handed this bit part. Bad timing, that’s all. 

The hard reality is - and my colleague knows this as well as I do - no matter how much fun we’ve had with Oscar in this particular production, on paper it’s just a supporting role with two easy arias and a few ensemble bits. It’s not going to make that big of a difference in her career if she sings it or not. From my point of view, however, this “bit part” literally saved my life. Regardless of talent, my career path has not been as swift as hers. The offer to sing this role came at a time when I wasn’t sure whether to throw in the towel (see previous entry: Get The Fall Rolling)  Financially, Oscar came to my rescue, too.

Size doesn’t matter, because it’s all a matter of perspective. What’s important to you might be peanuts to someone else, and what seems to you to be an insignificant task might be the job offer of a lifetime for another. As I try to convey time and time again on this blog, opera is not always about the singing. And no matter how big and famous I get, I hope to always remember how I felt during this time - being grateful of the precious little gift that is being an opera singer.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Auld Acquaintance, New Again

One of the many colleagues I hope to meet again

This is the second time that I’ve spent New Year’s Eve in a theater with people I barely know. Six years ago, I had to jump in for double performances of Wiener Blut in Ulm, and ended up on the roof shooting firecrackers and drinking champagne at midnight. I would see some of those people three years later when I jumped in at the same theater for Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar. And last year I filled in for Ines in IlTrovatore in Wiesbaden, where the director’s assistant was the same girl from Ulm back in 2005.
This time around, I celebrated New Year’s Eve in Hagen, where I’ve been hired as a guest for the double cast of Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera. I’ve only known the colleagues here for four weeks, but ran into another guest soprano I used to sing with four years ago in Coburg. My new neighbor who is collecting my mail while I’m away is also a former Coburg colleague, working this season in Frankfurt.
So, what do we learn from all of this? The opera world is small, that’s for sure. Leave a good impression everywhere you go, you may need a favor later. I also learned that I love being amongst “theater people,” define that how you will. Furthermore, I also reaffirmed the fact that I really love to dance. But that’s another story.
Not only is the opera world small, but now for the first time I actually feel like I’m part of it. Instead of standing outside in the cold, looking through the frosty window at the happy people inside, I’m amongst them, cozy by the fire with my feet up, reminiscing about the operatic events of the past year:
New Year’s Eve 2009 I sang in a gala concert for the Kammeroper Frankfurt with some of my closest friends and favorite colleagues. The next day I headed back to Mönchengladbach where I wrapped up the production of Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, one of the most challenging roles I’ve ever sung, if not the most challenging. While I was there, a colleague got sick, so I took over a few of her performances in Der Vetter aus Dingsda (and happened upon two tenors who had done the show with me three years previously in Coburg - see above: small world).

Then followed “Frauen, Natürlich!” at the Kammeroper Frankfurt - a somewhat silly music theater project in which I sang Mahler songs and tenor arias. Warum nicht? And then in the summer we did Die Lustige Weiber von Windsor in which I played the “parade” role of Frau Fluth. With the con tempo modern music ensemble, also in Frankfurt, I premiered a music theater piece called “The Real Buenos Aires” - a literary, dramatic, musical collage (at least that’s what they were calling it) based on a novel by Argentinian author Raul Argemí.
Those productions, as well as two weddings, a Christmas Eve mass and a handful of concerts, including part of Schumann’s Spanisches Liederspiel at my alma mater in Arizona, rounded off a fairly busy business year. And shortly before rehearsal begin for Un Ballo in Maschera in Hagen where I am now writing this, I sang a Gershwin recital which was extremely rewarding and of which I am especially proud. 
2010 was also a record year for auditions - seven! Doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s more per year than I’ve done since I got to Germany 12 years ago. Sometimes it takes an event like New Year’s Eve to look back and see the things you’ve actually accomplished in a year. Still, despite all my sowing, I was only able to reap about half of what I need to live on, which means I’ll have to cross my fingers that 2011 is doubly lucrative.
On the plan for 2011, I’ve got a bit part in Il Barbiere di Siviglia here in Hagen, one opera gala concert, and Die Zauberflöte with the Kammeroper Frankfurt. Seems rather grim, but I have to remind myself that last year at this time, I had no idea that I would have as much work as I ended up having. Besides, I can be sure that I’ll meet a familiar face or two along the way. 
We now return to our originally scheduled programming of cynical, critical takes on the opera world at .... the Grahamophone!