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!