I don’t typically blog about my personal life on my professional blog, but sometimes the two worlds intersect. After my grandfather passed away last spring, I realized that some of the most important professional lessons I’ve learned were from him. I pay especially close attention to lessons my grandfather passed down, because he achieved so much in his own life--so I figure that anything that was good enough for him, is good enough for me! (I’m including a link to his obituary here.)
Focusing on a few endeavors is enough.
In the days after my grandfather died, many people came up to me and the rest of my immediate family to tell me the ways he impacted their lives. I realized that there tended to be about five different things that were repeated over and over (in no particular order): his contributions to both nature conservation and evolutionary biology, his impact as a professor, how he gave other conservationists the tools to do their own conservation work, and how he was a loving family man (married to my grandmother for 63 years, with two daughters, and two grandchildren). Hearing these five things repeated over and over again made me realize that focusing your life primarily to a few different endeavors is enough to lead a meaningful life, and even to potentially make a transformative impact. You don’t need to spread yourself thin—a few is enough.
When you’re going on a path that has no map, an internal compass will be what carries you forward:
It’s easy enough to look back on his life now, and take his successes for granted. However, he put his academic career on hold to pursue an endeavor that had overwhelming odds towards failure. There was no guarantee that the SPNI would last, much less have the impact it ended up having. When you’re pursuing goals that don’t have one set roadmap nor guarantee to success, the thing that will carry you through is an internal compass: unwavering belief in what you’re doing. It won't always be easy, and it will involve standing by what you believe in during difficult times. However, regardless of the outcome, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll come out worse off, or that you’ll fail to make any impact at all, when you're doing work that matters.
Life is lived in the day-to-day details, not successes and failures.
When I think back about my grandfather, I think of the countless research trips he and my grandmother took, early mornings they took to observe Arabian Babblers, and cups of instant coffee they shared afterwards to talk about what they saw that day. That made me realize that it’s in these day-to-day details that life is truly lived. Both successes and failures aren't the norm—by definition, those moments will be the outliers of one’s life. When I think back on my own (albeit short!) life as a singer, I think mainly on my practice sessions and lessons that have shaped me both as a singer and a person—in short, the things that make up the daily life of an opera singer, rather than peaks and valleys. If you pursue a career in any endeavor, do it because you love the things involved in the daily life in that career, not for any peaks that might come along the way.
Finding meaning in what you’re doing is enough.
A couple of years ago, I was about to do an important audition, and I spoke with my grandfather by phone the night before. He ended that conversation by saying that “so long as you’re happy and enjoy yourself along the way, that’s what matters.” That one phone call summed up what I felt from him throughout the entire time that I knew him: that all he wanted was for me to be happy doing work I felt mattered. It wasn’t important what career path I followed (even when I briefly considered following in his footsteps as a scientist back in grade school), nor did it matter to him whether I ever achieved x, y, or z. All you needed to live a meaningful life is to believe in what you’re doing, whatever that may be. I felt this from him, regardless of which career path I would choose. The example from him in that was that one needn’t pursue a career path in order to please others, nor for any other reason that might sacrifice your own integrity in the endeavor—you can absolutely have that, and make a meaningful impact at the same time, because I saw him do just that.
I realized there was one more point I wanted to add to my previous blog post:
You only need a fraction of the people to say yes to you.
In fundraising, one of my managers told me I make an average of 65 phone calls per hour. (Obviously, the only reason one can average that many phone calls is because most people don't pick up.) :) Out of all those phone calls, you're doing well if you get even just one gift that week. On the singing front, I recently saw an interview with the actress Bryce Dallas Howard--in it, she talks about how the average number of jobs an established actor gets, out of the number of auditions they do, is 1 out of 64. (I'm including a link to the interview here. The part I'm referring to starts at 13:56, though the whole interview is well worth-watching.) I know that that number of auditions or phone calls seems daunting, but there's something so liberating in knowing that all you need to fund a world-class arts organization, or be an established performer, is have a fraction of the people say yes to you. All it takes is one performance to be broadcast on national radio, or one audition to get hired by an opera house--but you have to do the other 63 or so auditions to get there.
Recently, I met with my former boss in arts fundraising, and he said that he believed every artist should work in fundraising sometime in their lives--the lessons you learn there teach you a lot about the resilience and perseverance you need to pursue a career in the arts. In my experience working in fundraising, I absolutely agree with him, and here are a few of the things I've learned that I'd like to pass on:
Rough periods come with the territory
One of my current bosses said to me that sometimes, even the most experienced agents (people who close over $1,000 in one phone call) can go for as long as three weeks without closing so much as a $5 token gift in that period.
This is not for lack of fine tuning how you pitch, or how you work on your craft and branding as a singer. This is to say that even when those things are finely tuned, you'll still go through rough periods. There are many things that are in your control, such as what you offer in your audition package, or how you tailor your fundraising pitch. At the same time, there are still many factors that aren't in your control, such as the stock market--in the case of fundraising--, or whether you happen to be what the panelists are looking for--in the case of singing.
When you know periods like these come with the territory, you're able to be much more resilient, and far less likely to beat yourself up. I've been through those sale-less periods, and I know how disheartening they can be. I'd be told by my bosses and managers that nothing was wrong, and to just keep pitching until I finally close. The same has been true for singing. And all of that said...
When you know your pitch, or audition, is strong, and you continue to fine tune them, then it's just a matter of time before the tides change. I've personally experienced this, in both these areas of my life.
In fundraising, there was a period in which I went a full week without a single sale--then, I closed $3,600 in one phone call, and then $2,000 a couple of days after that. There wasn't much rhyme or reason as to what I did differently--I offered more or less the same pitch as I had done the entire week before. Other external factors had changed, and that's all that happened--those external factors weren't in my control, and I had to persist in pitching until those fell into place.
Similarly, there was a period about a couple of years ago which looked quite bleak--I was about to produce one of my concerts, but I couldn't see far past that. Four days after I performed that concert, I got a phone call asking if I'd like to have that performance broadcast on national radio. That experience was my singing equivalent of going a full week without closing a single sale, and then closing $3,600, and then $2,000 in only two phone calls.
That big "yes" could be right around the corner, but you can't necessarily see it yet.
Celebrate every success along the way
Of course we all strive to close those big individual sales, or to get those big gigs (radio broadcast or otherwise). If you don't celebrate every success along the way, though--small and big--, you're all but guaranteed to burn out. In fundraising, every token gift matters. Celebrating even the most seemingly minor of token gifts is important as a validation of your ability to close sales--also, that token gift helped open the door to hundreds of thousands of dollars of corporate grants, which are awarded to arts organizations on the basis of participation; besides, as one of my managers said, "That's five dollars the [arts organization] didn't have before!"*
In singing, there is typically a prescreening round for an audition, and the live audition round which follows. Auditions are incredibly selective, and not everyone gets to the live audition round--there are far more talented singers than there are slots available for that round of auditions. The competition to get from that live round to being accepted for a job is even more selective. Even getting to the live audition round, or the next round of a competition, is an achievement, regardless of the outcome--it is a validation that you were strong enough to stand out among many other singers to make it to that next level. While singers continue to strive for the highest possible results, making the next audition round is absolutely a success, and one shouldn't lose sight of that. (Also, even if you don't get that particular audition, you will have sung for people who could possibly hire you in the future. That's another reason getting to that next round is something to be proud of!)
Of course, all of the above is on the condition that you're fine tuning what you do, and that you have people around you who will help you get better and also encourage you along the way.
If you are, though, and you're still passionate about what you're doing, then keep persevering. Your own personal $3,600 sale, or radio broadcast, could be right around the corner, even if you can't see it yet.
*(On a separate-but-related note, if every person called gave even only $5 each, that arts organization would raise an enormous amount of money in no time!)
To hear the trio and recitative I refer to in my video below, see the links I included here: :)
I'm singing in a benefit concert on September 18 at the Williamsburg Library Theatre for the Sderot Recreation Center in Israel, as part of Nancy and Philip Burstein's Bnei Mitzvot project. Among the pieces I'll perform are songs by Rami Bar-Niv from his song cycle Longing for My Father, which are set to poems by Yaakov Barzilai. Barzilai was a Holocaust survivor whose father died in the Holocaust, and the cycle is about his experiences with that loss.
Working on these pieces made me realize even more deeply that songs and repertoire focused on certain periods of history (especially works based on first-hand accounts) are important because they provide data with a soul, so to speak. It's one thing to read about historical events, in a merely factual way, through history books. It's an altogether different experience to hear about those events through someone's personal story and poetry; that personal effect is enhanced when it's expressed to the audience through an artistic medium that uses the unamplified, vulnerable human voice.
Such storytelling opens the door to learn about, and begin to discuss, difficult topics and periods in history in a way that makes people feel safer talking openly about topics one may not normally address.
For more information about the benefit concert and the Sderot Recreation Center, click on the image below:
To hear the arias and ensembles I refer to in my video below, see the links I included here: :)
A chi mi dice mai (Donna Elvira's 1st aria)
Fuggi il traditor (Donna Elvira's 2nd aria--at the beginning of this video)...Non ti fidar, o misera (Quartet--begins at 3:15)
There are several gems I've acquired from my voice teachers which inform my singing, and I'm thinking about one of them a lot lately, as I'm preparing new projects to wrap up this year (soon TBA!). It is one Carlos Conde told me. To paraphrase, he once said that nine times out of ten, the thing that holds a singer back from making progress and fulfilling their potential is caused by somehow distorting the instruments we already have. These problems are typically solved by removing the thing (or things) causing the distortion, rather than adding a new concept to the mix.
I think this applies a lot to real life, as well. There isn't anything like an art form in which we primarily express ourselves through phonation to make this point especially acute--after all, phonation is one of the most fundamental ways human beings express themselves! A lot of the things that get in the way of being our best (and honest) selves in our lives are things that distort who we are. These things are best solved by removing the problem, rather than adding something to the mix. For example, if one is an introvert (as I am), don't try and make yourself NOT that way, and instead embrace the great qualities this brings! It's best to embrace that aspect of who you are, and get out of your own way. This ties back to another voice technique gem, which also informs a lot of my approach to voice technique: that singing departs from speech. From your honest speaking voice, not from some distorted concept of what your speaking voice "should" be (whether it's a "deeper, booming voice" or a "lighter, more delicate voice"--if either of those are your natural speaking voice, though, more power to you!) :)
The human body is a fundamentally perfect instrument. (Think of babies who can cry for hours and hours without losing their voices!) So are we, as people--fundamentally amazing. If we can get out of our own ways and embrace who we truly are, then we can truly open the door to be constructive, happy, and creative.
I'm sure this is a process that will continue to be a main theme in my life, and yet it's SO worthwhile, both professionally and personally!
Develop who you already are, and don't fight your nature. Without fail, every single one of my biggest vocal breakthroughs have come about because I got out of my own way, rather than because I artificially "added" something to what I was doing. It's also about bringing forth your best and honest self, and learning to harness that so you can do MORE of what you're already doing right, and make a positive impact on those around you through it.
Also, recognize the things other people are already doing right, rather than trying to "fix" them to be something else they aren't. As "kumbaya" as this might sound, I really think the world would be a much happier place to live if we did that.
The first time I did a competition inside List Hall this year, I was super nervous. (For those of you who don't know, List Hall is an auditorium inside the Met.)
Walking into the Met to get to List Hall is a thrilling experience, as you often do so by going backstage to get to the hall. You are immediately struck by the grand scale of the Met, the awe of being there, and the feeling of "Holey moley! I'm at the Met!" While it's all absolutely thrilling, I believe it is safe to say that going to List Hall to audition is not the most relaxing experience one could have! Even though I've done a few competitions there by now, that feeling of awe, mixed with nerves, never goes away.
While I was preparing myself for the audition, I ran across this quote:
I believe this was one of those moments of the right advice coming at the right time. It is so easy in a circumstance like this to get in the mindset of "Holy crap! This is a really important audition! I'd better get every little minuscule thing right! (*Cue the scary music!*). Taking this advice to heart helped relieve that to a large degree.
Of course, doing the best I can at what I do is important to me--I love what I do, and I absolutely believe it is worth it to do what I can (in my own small way) to keep bringing the unique vulnerability that only be expressed through opera.
However, it's times like these in which it's great to be reminded that it's what I do. It isn't who I am. Even if something were to go terribly wrong in the audition, for whatever reason, the world would keep on turning, I would still be able to keep on singing the next day, and the day after that. Also, I would be able to count on the support of my loved ones to be there for me, in my best and worst moments. (THAT is the most important thing of all!)
(P.S. The audition went well!)
There is a lot of debate about whether the arts are declining in society, particularly with the seemingly-perpetual need for funds for the arts. Here is my take on the topic:
The arts (performing, visual, etc.) are a fundamental human need. They are incredibly important, because they bring beauty and creativity to the world. They give us permission to feel deeply. For this reason, the arts will always be with us, whichever form they take, and no one expresses that idea better than Karl Paulnack, in his welcome speech at the Boston Conservatory. (Here is a link to it.)
However, the same cannot be said of your beloved arts organization or artist--national, local, or otherwise. They may not survive without your support. The New York City Opera, the Baltimore Opera Company, and the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet are just a few of the organizations that have had to close recently because of lack of funding.
The need for patronage and funding in the arts is nothing new. In fact, funding is such a fundamental need in the arts, that it's difficult to talk about the names of artists in history, without talking about the patrons who made their work possible. Examples include Monteverdi and the Gonzagas, Diego Velázquez and King Philip IV of Spain, Haydn and the Esterhazys.
Now, you don't have to be a European aristocrat to help the arts in your communities! (I'm certainly not!) ;) There are several ways to support the arts:
One way to do so is through donations. Another great way is through membership (if available), since you will also receive exclusive benefits to the very arts organizations you love and value, anything from unlimited museum entry for the year to getting to meet the stars in that particular field. For example, I got to skip the miles-long lines to see the special Matisse exhibit recently at MoMA because of a Global membership there--not to mention the unlimited entry I get to the museum the rest of the year! I also had a Parterre seat at Carnegie Hall for only $20(!) to Stephanie Blythe's recital this month, because I'm a part of Notable Preludes there (at a "whopping" $20 for the year!) Membership is a fantastic way to get these kinds of benefits, while also helping your arts organizations.
For those of you interested in higher-level memberships, you can frequently do the payments in installments, with less financial burden on you, and a major positive impact on your arts organization!
Most websites have information as to ways you can support your arts in your community, whether on a national or local level. This is often on their websites under "Support" or "Membership." Often, there are also match grants, which means that a trustee is matching every dollar you give, doubling the impact of your donation. This is a very easy way to make a larger impact, with little effort on your part!
Also, a lot of arts organizations apply for grants, which are awarded on the basis of participation. This means they are awarded on the basis of how many people have given to that organization, not how much they gave. This means that even giving an arts organization the amount you would spend on a cup of coffee would help open the door to hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money.
If you love the arts in your community, and want them to continue, please support them in any way you can. By doing so, you make sure that the specific art YOU love can continue. There is no amount so small that it wouldn't make a positive and significant impact. The arts help to bring the best of humanity, excellence, beauty, and vulnerability to the world. Please do what you can to help bring the arts in your life.
When I started going out into the professional world of opera, I felt a lot of pressure to be the darling (so to speak!) of every audition I did. Regardless of the fact that I knew rationally that this goal was unrealistic, I still felt that pressure: it was part-and-parcel of the terror of putting myself out there in a major way. If I didn't get a competition, then it was certainly because I was doing something wrong. (*cue the ominous music!*)
Soon after, I was working on a duet in a coaching. I missed a high note, and, well, let's just say I then blurted out a very, very, VERY bad word. I felt absolutely mortified, and apologized profusely!
My coach didn't seem the slightest bit fazed by my cursing, or my missing that high note! To this day, she is still one of the biggest advocates for my career, and has written countless recommendation letters for me.
Funnily enough, that coaching was what the doctor ordered: it helped me realize that I should focus more on the people who love me even after missing a high note and blurting out an expletive, rather than people who don't hire me for whatever reason. While I definitely don't advocate cursing in the middle of lessons or coachings(!), I definitely think that the more one lets go of trying to be all things to all people, and being perfect, the better it is.
I wrote last week about the recital I'm giving in Tel Aviv with Dan Deutsch on Saturday, March 7, and I'm excited to tell you all a bit about some of the pieces on my program, and what they mean to me.
(A couple of notes: If you don't want to know in advance what some of the pieces on my recital program will be, then this blog post is full of spoilers. Also, if you do want to know what the full program will be, and you happen to be in Tel Aviv on March 7, then come to the Felicja Blumental Music Center and you'll find out.). :)
Una voce poco fa (from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, by Rossini) - there aren't many better ways to start off a recital, than with one of the most delicious arias in the repertoire. Rosina, the teenage protagonist of the opera, has just fallen in love with the mysterious Lindoro, and she swears he will be hers. She then goes on to say that she is sweet, respectful, obedient, loving, BUT (that's in capital letters) if anyone gets in her way, she will be a viper!
You can see why I love singing that aria so much.
I'll also sing a song by Schubert, but it takes a much different, and darker, tone. His song Sehnsucht (D. 516) is written with text by Mayrhofer, who frequently wrote poems about alienation. In Sehnsucht, he contrasts those feelings of alienation with images of spring. In Schubert's setting of the poem, those themes are heightened and more starkly contrasted.
Pace non trovo - few songs capture the volatile, conflicting and contrasting feelings of romantic love the way Liszt's setting of Petrarch's sonnet does. Not surprisingly, this song is also one of the most extreme and operatic of the art song repertoire. The whole song describes love in opposites. "I find no peace, but I am not inclined to war. ... I burn, yet I'm turned into ice. ... I fly to heaven, and yet I lie on the ground." (Liszt's and Petrarch's tendencies to write in an extreme way--musically and poetically--go so well together, that if it weren't for the fact that they lived about 500 years apart, I would have said they were a great songwriting team.)
Debussy's group of songs, Ariettes Oubliées, has a special place in my heart. This isn't only because his settings of Paul Verlaine's poems are second-to-none. It is mainly because each of these songs paint unbearably vulnerable scenarios, whether about love, desperation, or wonder.
Israeli songs - Israeli songs are important to me since they've been a major part of me since I've been growing up. For this reason, and also because the pairing of music and poetry in Israeli songs is to-die-for and should be heard even more frequently in concert, programming them as much as possible is a priority to me.
At the end of the concert, I'll be performing an aria that's new to me! I won't give it away now, but I can promise that it will have heartache and high-notes! (That's as potent a combination as any I know!)
I'm looking forward to even more recital prep and talk in the coming days, as well as the concert itself, of course!
In general, and particularly as I'm preparing my upcoming concert in Tel Aviv on March 7, one fundamental concept I keep coming back to is that singing departs from speech. This is a crucial foundation, from a singing technique standpoint--rather than merely trying to manipulate my voice to creating sounds, I am singing all throughout my range from the foundation of my natural voice. (Of course, this is something I'm constantly working at, and for this reason, my singing warmups and practice sessions all start with simply speaking.)
Most importantly, however, the concept of singing departing from speech doesn't merely inform my approach to technique, but also to what I have to say when I sing for an audience. I believe expressing ourselves through phonation is one of the most fundamental needs many human beings have (whether speaking, singing, yelling, what-have-you.) When I sing the texts that any of the brilliant poets or librettists have written (whether Verlaine, Sterbini, Goethe, or anyone else), I focus on whether I'm doing it from the perspective of saying the text honestly, as it means to me. While this is a thrilling adventure, it can also be scary because it requires breaking away from trying to sing it "like insert-brilliant-singer's-name-here". To sing a song the way someone else did it might seem safe, because that tried-and-true method worked for that particular artist. That does not mean, however, that imitating that artist, no matter how brilliant she may be, would be healthy for my voice, and it likely wouldn't result in my being able to express myself honestly. If I were to sing, taking the way I naturally speak as my point of departure, though, then it would open up the most vulnerable and honest performance from me possible, and this is the point of performing live for an audience.
On this note (no pun intended!), I'm thrilled to announce my upcoming concert in Tel Aviv this March, with more concerts TBA! In no other category of performance (whether opera, musical theatre, or anything else) is the challenge of always trying to get the most honest performance out of myself more pertinent. That is because, instead of playing one character over several hours, 1. My recital programs are potpourris of various songs and arias which I have handpicked (along with the linguistic and stylistic challenges that come with them!). Also, 2. these pieces have all resonated with me on some level, making my selection of them even more personal.
I will keep you posted about the road to getting this concert off the ground, and if you're in Tel Aviv, I hope to see you on March 7th for beautiful (honest!) music-making!
I recently started working for a world-renowned arts organization; I fundraise for it by calling its patrons. I've been learning an immense amount by working for an established arts organization about how business and the arts intersect. Here are just a few of the things I've learned, and some direct applications to singing. (Spoiler alert: I’ve found all the things I learned incredibly heartening!)
1. The arts and business absolutely go together.
Arts organizations must have money for space, sets, artists’ salaries, and more. Donors receive the satisfaction of keeping the arts alive, along with a huge number of benefits with membership, which could include anything from getting to skip long lines in museums, to meeting the stars in that field, and a multitude of other benefits.
This brings me to one of the most important lessons I learned here, which is that being able to carve a future for and fund any art form begins with understanding its value both in dollar terms and on the spiritual level. That is the jumping-off point for funding it, and bringing the arts to audiences. Something happened recently at our offices that really reinforced this concept for me: a few weeks ago, there was a performance given at the studios there. The time the performance happened coincided with our work hours. We were told we could go see the performance, and the time would be paid if we did. The reason it would be paid was because loving and appreciating the performance would help make us better salespeople. With that fundamental belief in place, I believe it's no accident that the organization is celebrating several decades of excellence.
Likewise, singers are far more likely to “sell” their performances to an audience or panel if they truly love and are emotionally invested in the pieces they are singing. While they must sing pieces suited to their strengths and weaknesses, opera is unique in that it has an over-400-year-old music catalogue to choose from. They can find arias that they love AND which suit them. In turn, love of and belief in the material will shine through, which is necessary component to closing any sale. If you believe in what you're bringing to people, then you stand a chance of making the sale and having a lasting impact.
2. Everything one does in the arts helps bring them to more people.
People become members of an arts organization for a variety of reasons. To give only two examples: some buy a membership because they already love the art form, others because they are new to the art form and want to learn more about it. Whatever the reason, reaching out to patrons helps to plant the seed of the arts, or to nurture it where it already exists. This concept was made clear to me when I met with the Head of Membership at the offices for the first time. He said to me that, along with fundraising, our goal is to inspire/encourage people to love the arts; perhaps the people who come onboard as members at the entry level will become longtime patrons who will continue to love and support the arts for years to come.
Similarly, from a singer's point of view, someone may come to a performance of yours because they already love opera, or perhaps because they are new to it and want to learn more about it. Regardless of why they came, each person who comes to that performance is exposed to opera and its power to heal. This helps to build a community of people who experience that unique power and will nurture it for years to come. Whether fundraising for the arts or performing operas and concerts, everything we do plays a role in building a future for the arts.
3. Your best chance of success (sales or singing) is in being yourself.
One of the things we are constantly encouraged to do at the office is to give the fundraising sales pitch with our own voice. Each agent takes a different approach from the others, yet we are all able to close big sales. Similarly, when I look back on my path as a singer, my biggest breakthroughs have come when I used, and was true to, my own voice, physically and metaphorically, regardless of whether or not it fit someone else’s preconception.
4. What you do truly makes a difference.
In my first week at my job, one of my managers spoke on the phone with someone who was going through difficult medical treatment. She told him that the time she spent in the theater was time in which she could keep her mind off her treatment. Weeks later, we still talk about that phone call, and it puts things into perspective when we’re trying to convince someone to come onboard as a member.
Even though some people hang up on you in telefunding, and even though a singer gets rejections after auditions, what we do in the arts truly makes a meaningful difference in other people's lives. People told me last summer that my concert in Tel Aviv helped them get their minds off the war that was taking place there at the same time. (I blogged about that experience earlier.) THIS is the difference we are capable of making in the lives of others through the arts, and these moments are major reminders that at the end of the day, performing really is not mainly about you.
Ironically, though, that knowledge is what gives me new-found freedom to promote performances of mine and of my colleagues. While it can sometimes feel uncomfortable "selling yourself" to an audience or panel of judges, I end up asking myself: Is there anything more worthwhile to sell to people, than something which has made a profound and meaningful difference in people's lives, and continues to do so?
I'm working on some new projects (more info TBA!), and I always find something interesting about practicing for them and preparing them. In the process, it's easy to slip into a "not enough" mindset:
For example: "That wasn't good enough!" "Why didn't that note go well?" "That was too _______," "That wasn't _______ enough," etc. etc.
As you might imagine, this is definitely not a productive way to go about preparing any project!
In my experience, it's always been much more productive to take a different approach, such as applying the following in a practice session:
"I'm aligned along the rest of my range, and all I need to do to fix that note is to apply what I do with all the other notes to it. If I do that, I'll nail that note consistently in no time."
Admittedly, that mindset is something I continue to work at, but it's definitely worth it!
I believe that as a singer, I'm in the business of bringing both the power and vulnerability of the human voice to people--not just vocally, but emotionally as well. The more I sing, the more convinced I am that practicing what I preach begins with how I talk to myself in the practice room. I believe that if I work constructively, yet objectively, I can be much more vulnerable yet strong onstage than I would otherwise, while consistently improving my technique as well.
I'm personally not a big believer in New Year's resolutions because they too often can be overly goal-oriented, at the expense of the process of reaching for that goal. (I fully support going after what you want! I simply believe in keeping the process in mind as well.) Instead, I believe that if I approach any pursuit in life, career-oriented or not, with a constructive, objective, yet positive approach--working on cultivating what I DO want vs fighting against what I DON'T want--then the outcome will be just as good, and often better, than anything I could have anticipated. I've always been much more successful in my pursuits when I worked with myself, rather than against myself.
With all of this in mind, I wish you a happy and productive 2015!
Now, off to the Met auditions! :)
I have been studying the role of Lucia over the last few months. For those who don't know, Lucia di Lammermoor is about a young heroine caught in the middle of a feud involving her family and the Ravenswoods. Her brother Enrico tricks her into marrying Arturo, in order to restore his family's political status. However, Lucia is in love with Enrico's mortal enemy, Edgardo (who is, of course, the tenor). :) Upon being accused of betrayal by Edgardo, Lucia goes insane and murders Arturo, culminating in her famous mad scene. Upon hearing of her subsequent death, Edgardo then kills himself.
It has been a rewarding experience. There is an interview Thomas Hampson once gave, in which he said something I find highly pertinent. He said, "Imagine that a composer is being whispered to by the muse (as we non-mused people might imagine), and the muse, after imparting inspiration, says that there’s one catch: you gotta do it with lines and dots." (Here is a link to the article.) One of the most rewarding parts of learning a role is figuring out exactly what all of those lines and dots mean, and figuring out all the different ways you can express yourself through them.
As I've been learning and coaching the role of Lucia, it has been fascinating to see how singing the same phrase different ways changes an interpretation. As she asks Edgardo is he is truly going to abandon her, in tears, you can sing it in a wistful way. You can also sing it in an urgent and desperate way, as if urging Edgardo not to leave her. It's also incredible seeing how you can use the music to paint the words in the role. For example, Lucy Arner pointed out to me how, when Lucia tells her confidante Alisa at the beginning of the opera the story of how a girl was murdered long ago, I can use the slide of the voice in the portamento written there to viscerally depict her falling to her death.
Also, there was a coaching in which I was working on the love duet between Lucia and Edgardo in Act 1, in which they swear to be true to each other, but not before he denounces her family for destroying the lives of the Ravenswoods. Joan Dornemann pointed out to me that, while Lucia then sings a soothing melody to him, telling him to calm himself, Lucia herself isn't calm at all, especially since she says to him immediately afterwards that one wrong word could betray their forbidden love. Because of that, I could sing the first note of each phrase of that part of the duet forte, while then scaling back on the dynamic level. Of course, while every interpretation that I do would vary with any given production, conductor, and director, being aware of the many different ways you can express yourself in the same role is valuable. The idea that all of these interpretive strokes are merely the tip of the iceberg with this role is an exciting prospect to me.
It was also fascinating to explore all the chromatic notes in Lucia's mad scene with Laetitia Ruccolo to see how twisted she can seem--after all, she isn't simply a "harmless crazy person" once she snaps. She stabs her bridegroom, and comes onstage with a wedding gown covered in blood. She is definitely someone to be afraid of, and I need to do my best to show that, while also showing her pain of losing Edgardo.
Everything I have just written about is merely a small sampling of the many different musical and dramatic insights there are, and are possible, in Lucia di Lammermoor. It is unbelievable to me that this opera was perceived for decades as simply a vocal showpiece for the soprano, until sopranos such as Maria Callas, Virginia Zeani, and Joan Sutherland revived it and showed all the dramatic possibilities in it.
The best part of all of this is seeing how the role will evolve, and all the different ways I'm going to be looking at the role over time. The process of learning a new role, and learning anything new in opera, is one of my favorite parts of being an opera singer. It's a privilege.
I didn't see much of Barcelona or Zaragoza at first because I was getting ready for the Concurso Caballe, but once the competition was over, I got to see and enjoy more of both cities. Not only were the people incredibly kind, but I was also deeply inspired by the cities. I am often captivated by art, and being in the beautiful country that brought Goya, Gaudí, Dalí, Picasso, Miró, and so many other great artists was wonderful.
Of course, Spain is also the country of the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona! I managed to get a ticket at the last minute to their production of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The ticket I got happened to be for a balcony seat from which I could see the orchestra very well, as well as the stage. Watching this opera again reminded me just how exuberant it is--I believe I saw a few of the orchestra members slightly shaking their heads along with the beat of the overture! :). I must also add that I've been hearing for a while now about the great Carlos Chausson's performances as Bartolo (this is a role he has sung over 200 times!), and I finally got to hear him for the first time. It was an absolute joy, and I can't wait to hear him again!
One of the high points of my visit to Spain was visiting the Museo Picasso in Barcelona. His body of work is incredible, and inspiring. Two things in particular impressed me. The first was seeing his vast, and yet wildly varied, body of work over the course of his career. There were several times in which I couldn't believe that all the artworks came from the same artist, who created dramatic portraits, works inspired by Toulouse Lautrec, and cubist masterpieces (such as his Portrait of Aunt Pepa, L'Attente, and Guernica, respectively), not to mention many others. Sometimes, as a singer, it can be easy to feel that you have to fit into a certain niche and not diverge from it. However, seeing the variety in Picasso's work relieved a lot of the pressure to do that; it reminded me simply to focus on knowing my strengths and weaknesses, and to keep doing the best work I can.
The second thing that struck me was one of the stories of Picasso's life. He felt he found his artistic voice after leaving the school he attended in Madrid, the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts. He then moved to Horta d'Ebre on the invitation of his friend, Manuel Pallarès. He would eventually go on to credit his time there as being the one which would help him form his voice, saying that "Everything I know I learnt it in the town of Pallarès."
I certainly cannot relate to being an artist of Picasso's caliber! What did strike a chord with me, however, was the fulfillment he gained when he found his artistic voice. I believe that one of the most important parts in the life of anyone wanting to work professionally in the arts is the journey to figure out what one's artistic voice is. I believe this is a process that lasts through one's entire career. Still, simply beginning that process is an important milestone in our lives. In order to even start that journey, we have to have had serious training from our teachers, coaches, and mentors along the way--for many artists, this training takes years. And then, crucially, we figure out how to express ourselves authentically.
I had an absolutely wonderful time in my first international voice competition in Spain, and I have to thank the Caballés and everyone there for that. When I arrived on the day of the competition, Isabel Caballé came up to me with kisses on both cheeks, and said to me "Welcome to Zaragoza!" She also said my name correctly(!), even though it's an unusual name. She truly went above and beyond in making me feel welcome there, as did the whole staff. Then, when I walked in for my rehearsal with the pianist, Ricardo Estrada, I was greeted with a big smile and "good morning!" We chatted a little bit about how that particular day, September 11, was a particularly charged one, both for Americans and Catalans. We then proceeded to rehearse Caro nome, and although I was nervous for the competition, I also knew that Ricardo would be there with me, which helped put my mind at ease.
I'm happy with how I did in the competition--I did exactly what I set out to do when I left for Spain, which was to fully show up and be seen. Any performance can be improved, but I also recognize that it was a huge achievement to have sung my first international singing competition. I didn't make the semis or finals, but I learned a lot by watching them (so much so, I'm only processing and writing down everything now!) Everything that I learned and that happened has set me up to put my best foot forward in the next competition I sing. I also got wonderful feedback while I was there, with both new and longtime colleagues praising my performance in the first round. The first round was also open to the audience, and the audience in Zaragoza is very warm and welcoming. I will always treasure the woman who stopped me on the tram on the way back to my hotel, who told me that my Caro nome was wonderful, kissing her fingers in appreciation. I will also treasure the colleague who, though she was taking several photos throughout the whole competition, told me she didn't want to take photos during my aria because the pianissimi were so quiet and controlled she didn't want to break the moment.
In a competition with 304 competitors from 58 countries, I think it is incredibly special that 2 of the 48 semifinalists were from Israel. Bravas to Tali Ketzef and Shahar Lavi! Also, a huge bravo to my friend César Torruella for making it to the semifinals as well!
At the final of the competition, Caballé herself came to watch. As soon as she entered the auditorium, the Sala Mozart at the Auditorio Palacio de Congresos, she received a standing ovation from the audience. She had an entrance the way I imagine the Queen of England to have--dignified and grand, and deservedly so. She then went on to sit in a special part of the hall, to listen to the finalists sing.
I had the privilege of seeing one of her public master classes as well, once the competition was over. I enjoyed the whole masterclass, and there are two moments in particular which stand out in my mind, which solidify for me how great Caballé is. The first was that she had all the students there do breathing exercises, holding their breath as long as they could while having weights on their abdomens. Most of them got to around 40 seconds. She then said that 40 seconds was nothing(!), and they should be able to hold it for two minutes. (She then cited Verdi's Simon Boccanegra as an example of an opera for which you need that kind of breath control.)
Wow. *Consider me humbled.*
Another moment which stood out to me was when she helped one of the singers there, the soprano Ioana Mitu. She asked Caballé about something--I couldn't hear what it was, and I suspect the rest of the audience couldn't either, but it was something she wanted her advice with. She went on to sing a glorious Jewel Song (from Gounod's Faust), and afterwards Caballé gave her reassurance, and embraced her in a motherly way. I was touched by her caring.
I not only found the competition and masterclass to be illuminating, but my trip to Spain, in general, as well! Next blog post coming up! :)