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.


  1. Oh HEY -

    Do *I* know all about this kind of switcheroo.

    When I was going through the initial throes of my divorce, I did a Ruiz in Trovatore. The director's take was that every lead role had their "shadow" who would be on whenever they were onstage, and some of us were on in EVERY scene (like me), being part of the action.

    Not only did this school me in how to behave whenever I was onstage in the public eye, it was a great challenge and a necessary catharsis to the trauma I was going through at the moment - plus it got me THE best reviews of my early career. I wouldn't discard that experience for ANYthing - and I don't think you'd diss your current one either.

    Brava Diva!
    Go, YOU.

    And it's true - there ARE no small parts, only small performers.