Welcome to my Blog

This blog is a combination of new material and previously published archives... Mostly about singing, music, opera and the life of an artist. Thanks for reading!


Wednesday, 12 June 2013

'You're a what? Really?' Facing that dreaded question...

Something I am repeatedly confronted with is how old insecurities and fears never really disappear, and how the same lessons often need to be relearned. This can be viewed as a bad thing: you never just wake up one morning and feel 'successful,' despite any number of milestones achieved, but it could also be seen as a good thing: perhaps everyone you perceive to be 'ahead' of you in the game is struggling with the same problems, so why worry?

I was reminded of this while perusing Carol Kirkpatrick's website, http://www.ariaready.net. (She also puts out a free newsletter.) Although aimed mainly at students and apprentice level singers, much of her advice is still relevant to the working professional, especially us jobbing freelancers. Her March newsletter particularly caught my attention: answering that awkward question (especially when asked by someone outside of the business) of "what do you do?" A seemingly simple question that can tie a singer up in knots. Obviously, if we were world famous, Renee-/Placido-/Bryn- level singers, no one would NEED to ask us. They would already know what we did. But having to explain the vagaries of the music industry, and exactly our own place in the pecking order, whilst watching someone's eyes glaze over, can be disheartening in the extreme. It can be very tempting to say something general, like 'I work in the arts' or stick with 'I teach music.' I have even been advised to tell outright lies: 'Oh yes, me and Placido, we sing together all the time!' (I'm SURE no one EVER does that.) I was delighted to see her newsletter on this subject pop into my inbox for two reasons: 1) I thought I was the only singer who experienced this particular neurosis, and 2) she promised a helpful formula to compose a truthful but empowering answer. Hoorah! (Go to the web link listed below to read the article in full.) Now, I know we all MEAN to do these very useful quizzes and exercises, but, well, there's all this other stuff to do, and practicing, and, ahem... Don't worry. I've done your homework for you (well, part of it anyway):

(Carol's questions are in italics)

Why does this very particular question make you panic and feel so uncomfortable?

Fear of being seen as a 'fraud'-of being asked to 'prove' I am a singer...fear that discussing what I do with someone not familiar with the industry will put up a social barrier between us: many people seem to think Opera Singers are some kind of alien species. Fear of sounding 'pompous.'

Write down the exact conversation going on in your head. (Be able to un-jumble it and get at least one solid thought down.)

If I just say opera singer they will ask something awkward like 'are you famous' or 'do you know so-and-so (insert the name of your least favourite crossover/popera singer here)' or something equally naff or ask 'where have you sung' or 'where are you singing now' and their eyes will glaze over while I explain about touring with regional companies and covering in big houses and basically destroy their illusions about what being a performing artist is. Then they will look at me as if I am a liar and have just wasted their time and that I am a delusional fantasist and never want to speak to me again. And that's just the people who like me. (This is an edited version: the exact 'conversation' can be much worse.)

And finally, she instructs us to write our own 'personal statement' to have at the ready for answering that pesky question. Here is mine:

'I'm an opera singer...I have sung at Covent Garden, and worked at the Met in New York. I'm free lance, so it's quite unpredictable what I'll be doing from season to season, but always exciting! I also teach, and sometimes do local performances. If you're interested, here's my card: you can see upcoming performances on my website.'

Now, you go on Carol's website and do the exercise for yourself. I'll see you when you're done.

It really was a surprise how little that inner dialogue has changed since I was a student / apprentice / aspiring opera singer. Even though I now earn my living as a singer and no longer need to hold down a support job; even though I can cite working in opera houses that the average man or woman on the street may actually have heard of; the old fears still remain...if only I'd done this exercise back in the day! So if anyone reading this is exactly in Carol's intended demographic, I hope you will realise that you are not alone, and that the person asking this question is not trying to catch you out or make you feel a fraud or a failure. At worst, they are just making polite conversation. At best, they are really interested, don't know much about what we do, at any level, and really (really!) don't realise they are being ever-so-slightly offensive when they bring up the name of that so-and-so 'popera' singer. See this as an opportunity to educate someone (gently, please) and possibly persuade them to come to a live performance. It's also a great moment to practice your own confidence-boosting mantra ('I am an opera singer, a real one, yes I am!') Most of the time, the person asking the 'dreaded question' is now very excited that they have met an actual opera singer, and they feel a bit special. Their eyes are only glazing over in confusion because they can't imagine why you appear to be apologising for being something so fantastically exotic. And sometimes, they are even envious. No, really. Now, go do your homework!


Other articles on the web in a similar vein:


Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Songs from an Enchanted Island

(I am researching and refining a song recital themed on Shakespeare and Elizabethan poetry. The following is a first draft of the programme notes.)

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

Caliban, The Tempest

In W. H. Auden's essay 'Music in Shakespeare' the author explains that there are two types of song in Shakespeare's plays: the 'called-for' and the 'impromptu.' The first is requested by another character as a form of entertainment, the other when a character cannot express him- or herself in any other way. Ariel's songs in The Tempest, however, do not fit into either category: 'For Ariel is neither a singer, that is to say, a human being whose vocal gifts provide him with a social function, nor a nonmusical person who in certain moods feels like singing. Ariel is song; when he is truly himself, he sings.'

Shakespeare's plays, and the works of other poets of the first Elizabethan age, are indeed 'full of noises,' and have served as rich fodder for song and opera composers, in Shakespeare's era as well as through subsequent centuries into our own. Caliban's island, never specifically identified, is thought to be Caribbean or Mediterranean, but given the wealth of magical, mystical and supernatural stories, poems and songs created there, the real Enchanted Island surely is Albion: Great Britain.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

What do divas really get up to at home? Well...

A colleague recently posted on Twitter something along the lines of: 'waiting in for a delivery of furniture. Yes, this is how exciting my life is when I'm not singing somewhere...'

It got me thinking about what we divas do in between gigs - other than practice, prepare for auditions and answer fan mail, of course - so I made a partial list:

1) going for walks/foraging for wild food
2) trying to avoid housework (so much easier to avoid when I'm away from home, but I'm getting pretty good at it even when it's staring me in the face)
3) writing blogs
4) planting/tending/harvesting garden
5) spending time with my chickens/cats/goldfish/children/husband
6) knitting/sewing/making
7) teaching
8) making plans to: exercise more/learn to cook/learn to speak Mandarin, etc.
9) indulging in paranoid fantasies of never getting hired to sing again and being reduced to busking on the front lawn in my pyjamas...

You get the picture. Recently, the big domestic project has been renovating the family bathroom. It got me thinking about how much 'project management' singers have to do (you thought we just got up, ate a few bonbons, took deliveries of flowers and got into the limo to go to the opera house didn't you?) I noticed myself going through the same process as I would putting together a recital programme or recording a CD, even down to the bits I find tiresome and wish I could skip over...and here is my little list of advice - to myself as well as others:

1) Get on with it! 'Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.' Don't be afraid to enlist others for the jobs you are not expert at. I am not a plumber, nor am I a sound engineer.

2) Do the boring stuff, even when it feels like it gets you no further toward your goal. It does. Eventually. Yes, the woodwork really does need to be cleaned and prepped before it is painted. And those songs really do need word-by-word translations.

3) Our plumber turned up at 8 a.m. every day. Start early. OK, I don't recommend singing scales so early in the morning, but emails can be drafted, texts translated, research done.

4) There will be delays, problems, disappointments, etc. Know this. Allow time for it in the schedule. Same goes for budget. Expect the unexpected, and don't let it throw you too much.

5) Nothing is ever perfect. Nothing. Know when to let go and decide that it's ready/finished/time to start on the next project.

That's it, I think. Now...where's that limo got to?

Sunday, 17 February 2013

From Amahl to the Met: my Mum, Me and Opera (Or, Thank Goodness for the Met HD Broadcasts)

Recently, I had the unusual experience of watching the Metropolitan Opera HD Cinema broadcast...from the Green Room backstage at the Met itself.

Covers at the Met are required to be in the theater during simulcast performances, and since the television monitors backstage show exactly what audiences around the world are seeing in the cinema, we were all in the Green Room that day, enjoying the show. You may think that singers working at the Met would be too cool and cosmopolitan to behave like over-excited children whilst watching people we know appear on TV. You would be wrong.

The afternoon of the HD broadcast was also the day I would later fly to Atlanta, GA to visit my family. My mum no longer enjoys travel, so her only way of sharing this production with me is to attend the broadcast at her local movie theater. This was the closest we would get to actually seeing the opera 'together.'

We have a long history, my mum and I, regarding opera and singing. An excellent amateur singer, she was the leading soprano and soloist in our church choir when I was growing up, and it was through her that I found my first voice teacher. Mum had started taking formal voice lessons at the local university, and her teacher was tasked with forming a local chorus for a touring production of Amahl and the Night Visitors. We both went along to the auditions, and after accepting both of us into the chorus, the teacher suggested that I should also be getting some formal voice training. Still in high school at the time, I started lessons and went on to study music at university. I feel quite blessed that both my parents always supported my choice of a career in music...especially when I met fellow students for whom that was not the case.

Several years, and two academic degrees later, when I was a finalist in the Luciano Pavarotti competition, Mum confided to me that she had always wondered what it would have been like to sing a role on the stage. (In her youth she had known several aspiring opera singers, but had never pursued a professional singing career herself.) She attended the rounds of the competition in New York and in Philadelphia and was thrilled when, as I was singing Sempre Libera from La Traviata, Maestro Pavarotti himself sang along as the off-stage Alfredo.

After I emigrated to the United Kingdom, it obviously became more challenging for Mum to attend performances I was involved with. She did make the journey to New York and Pittsburgh when I came back across the pond to perform in some contemporary opera premieres, and the advent of social networking via the Internet allows me to share recorded performances and photos with her almost instantly.

And so technology helped us to share another musical experience, in real time, and a few hours later we were able to rehash the whole performance in person. We had a lovely time sharing comments from both sides of the stage, and by the time I headed back to New York she was well-armed with gossipy inside information to share with her opera-going friends and mahjong buddies.

From Amahl chorus to the Metropolitan Opera, my mother has been there with me in one way or another, as inspiration, teacher, fellow chorus member, biggest fan, patron and supporter. So, thank you Metropolitan Opera of New York, for your HD cinema broadcast series, and allowing my mother and me to share this part of our journey. And thank you Mum. For everything.