Disappointment in Three Acts

Act I

I just had to make a really difficult call. I left a message with the Washington National Opera chorus to ask them if they still wanted to hear me even though I have the worst cold on record and am losing my voice at a rapid rate. I mean, I can sing, but I’d be auditioning as a baritone. I know they want photos and measurements as well, but my hope is that they do these auditions more than once a year, or if they just want to hear the quality of my voice and it doesn’t matter what range.

Act II

I talked to DC Opera, and they do only hold auditions once a year. So I’m drinking a hot toddy and will see if I can warm up again later tonight and in the morning. I know I’ve got my arias wired. It’s frustrating that I’ve worked so hard and my body is betraying me. I’m also angry at the world because I didn’t practice wrong so that I’m just fatigued. This is a virus that I picked up from somewhere, or an allergy in my home. It didn’t start in my throat- it’s deep in my chest and working upward.

Act III

I woke up this morning hoping that the laryngitis would go away as the day wore on- it’s always worse when I first wake up. Unfortunately, I am still so far under the weather that I don’t even want to move, much less sing. It would have been much more convenient to wait until tomorrow to see what happens overnight, but I couldn’t afford it without being truly selfish. Demand is high for these auditions, and I did not want my first impression at WNO to be that I just didn’t show, not allowing someone else to fill my spot. I also didn’t want my first impression with them to be a fraction of what I am truly capable. I’ve come such a long way since I truly dedicated myself to singing that turning in a high-school level performance while stopping to cough in the middle was just unacceptable to me. It’s hard to have to wait until next January for a second chance, but since I put on my reason for canceling that I was sick, there’s no telling what will happen between now and then. Singers get scheduling conflicts all the time. Fingers crossed that I can audition again later as an understudy without having to wait a year. I don’t feel good about woodshedding two arias over this month only to get sick at the last minute. Before I made this decision, I talked to someone who’d been my voice coach in college, and he stressed to me how important first impressions are. My gut says this would not be a good one, and to let it go, as angry as I am.

I have sung with laryngitis before, and the recording turned out better than I could have hoped…. but it was church good, not professional career good. The mistakes I made from not having as much control over my voice as I needed in the moment were noticeable to me, but probably not the congregation at large. They would have been spotted by a judge in a nanosecond.

I took this audition seriously. I bought two copies of 24 Italian Songs and Arias so that I would have a book for me and one for my accompanist because it was cheaper than buying a new printer. I spent hours with a metronome getting timing perfect. I did breathing exercises twice a day, sometimes three. This involved taking a heavy book or two and setting them over my diaphragm, making sure I could lift them as air filled me up from all the way down. I marked every day, and practiced full voice when I was sure no one was home.

It was an arduous process, only interrupted by my trip to Paris, where I didn’t sing at all. It was a short enough break to give me some rest, and then I was back at it. I truly thought I had an outstanding audition put together last week, and then my dream of singing for RBG this year flushed itself down the toilet.

And for that, I am angry. All that work. All that emotion and brain-bending math as I figured out subdivisions for art songs I didn’t know (I’m terrible at sight reading, and they said it might be required). But What I Know for Sure from this experience is that I am capable of getting in. I know it. When I was healthy, I sounded great. I could reach the cheap seats in the KenCen (of all the issues I’ve had to overcome with singing, volume has never been one of them).

It’s not over. They will see me again. It’s just a Langston Hughes dream deferred, not a raisin in the sun. I’ll only be 42 when the next audition comes around, which means that my voice will still be full enough to sing opera and I won’t be old enough for that vibrato you can drive a MAC truck through. My trusted friends will tell me when I get it and to please sit down.

I also have the added plus of being able to spend more time on different arias, and choose from a wide variety instead of using the one book full of art songs and arias I was familiar enough with to pull off in one month’s time. I have time to learn Russian, Czech, even French diction (Francais c’nest pas comfortable pour moi). I will truly have time to dig through the annals of soprano arias and find something that isn’t often heard in auditions, because the book I’m familiar with? Well, so is everyone else. It’s hard to be memorable when you’re singing two arias that have already been sung to death.

To borrow a phrase from my trumpet days, I know I’ve already got the chops. I have joined many community choirs in which I’ve become a soloist, and the one time I’ve been offered a college opera role (I didn’t attend the college, I was in the community chorus as an employee), I turned it down because I’d never done opera before and I thought it was unwise not to start in the chorus and see if I liked it. This was ten years ago, so I remember it was some sort of Gilbert & Sullivan… either HMS Pinafore or Pirates of Penzance, but I’ve slept since then. Ten years ago, I was not confident enough to be in an opera because I was thinking about filling big shoes and not concentrating on the fact that my own are pretty bad ass.

I try not to feel stupid about it. The opera ended up traveling and I could have gotten my name out there. But again, it was lack of confidence. I didn’t find it until I moved to Houston about seven years ago, and walked into a church in my neighborhood and saw a familiar face. Joseph Painter helped me with the parts of my voice that needed to change, but it was more than that. He gave me more soprano attitude than I’ve ever had in my life… not diva status or anything like it. Just the ability to look at a piece of music and never, ever be intimidated. He heard the top of my range and said, “with some work, I think you could add a few notes on top of that.” Then, I was already at a C sharp, and I thought I was tapped out.

Unfortunately, I didn’t stay with him long enough to find out if he was right, but in some ways, I should have. Time doesn’t move backwards, ever, but if I’m really lucky, I’ll find the right teacher here. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t want to go back to Epiphany, and not because I don’t like it anymore. It’s just not my place, and neither is Houston, for that matter… even though Houston Grand Opera is in the top five opera programs in the nation, and probably in the top 10 of the world.

Washington National Opera Company (@dcopera on Twitter) has been improving by leaps and bounds, though, because they realized what it took to be world class and are implementing those changes. They even hired someone who used to be at HGO.

The bottom line is that I’m positive that when I am feeling well and healthy, I can crush any audition I want. I have too much training and I’ve been singing too long not to feel this way. And if there’s a bottom line below that, it is having no confidence in my abilities assures me I won’t progress at all. Not wanting to put myself out there already caused me to run away once. I will never make that mistake again.

As long as my body cooperates.

An Actual Song to the Moon

I did something I’ve never done before, and I am really stepping off a ledge. At first, I thought, “how hard can it be? Lindsay did it.” And then I realized that auditioning for an opera chorus as an adult is probably different than auditioning as a child, and I freaked out so hard my stomach dropped to my knees. Things got better and I calmed down once I got a rough sketch of a plan together. That being said, Lindsay had to sing things like Happy Birthday (you would not believe how easy it is to hear the quality of someone’s voice with that song). My memory may be failing me, but I think her prepared piece was from Annie.

At the time, I was too old for the children’s chorus and too young for the adult one…. and besides, my voice didn’t truly come into itself until I was older, anyway. So, as I watched Lindsay on stage in productions like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Turandot and Carmen, it was a mix of powerful pride and brooding Salieri (character in the movie Amadeus). I finally realized that I was old enough to try out for the chorus and not care if I got rejected, which is the most important part of getting older, anyway. It wasn’t the singing that frightened me. It was getting the thin letter instead of the thick one.

I am still truly terrified, though, but this time, it’s not about rejection. It’s about the clock, which is running out. I e-mailed Washington National Opera to ask when the next round of open auditions were for the chorus, and as it just so happens, they’re in less than a month. I have to have one Italian aria and one aria in any language (even English) prepared by then. I may also be asked to sight read, which is actually more exhausting a thought than getting prepared.

I don’t even have a piano at my house. I am still working out where I am going to practice, because I have a BIG DAMN VOICE and lots of housemates. When I go “balls to the wall” fortissimo, you can hear it up and down my street. It’s always fun when I have a marking that loud and splat an excruciatingly bad note on the tops of other people’s roofs. But, if you’re going to make a mistake, do it right.

It also feels good that I’m confident enough to go through the process, because it’s not like it’s some sort of pipe dream. I’m not tone deaf. I’ve sung in many, many choruses and have done some of the great works in history…. just not opera. Oratorios, masses, and requiems are kind of my jam. It would be so much easier if I could walk in with something I’ve already sung and don’t have to start from absolute scratch.

My biggest concern is the Italian aria, and which register to choose. Most of the Italian mezzo arias I’ve listened to go practically into cigar and vodka range, but sometimes mezzo lines go up to a high B flat. I am most comfortable in the high register, called “head voice,” but I am also not Queen of the Night material. Surely there has to be a good resting place between mezzo and coloratura. When I find it, I’ll let you know.

It seriously bums me out right now that my mother is dead. It seems like those words are flip, but what I mean is that I am only devastated when I think of all the things we won’t get to do together. Needing something from her is different. It’s not as important. It’s just a bummer that she’s the only person I can think of who could truly help me pull this off, and my copy of 24 Italian Songs and Arias is probably still in her piano bench. Plus, you can either use the accompanist at the opera company, or you can bring your own. Not being able to bring an accompanist that has always known how to catch me in all the right ways actually does bring me to tears.

There is a world of difference between a mere pianist and an accompanist. A pianist knows how to play the piano. An accompanist knows how not to throw a soloist under the bus. If you sing or play an instrument, you are probably enthusiastically nodding your head in agreement, perhaps clapping, because you know what a truth bomb I’ve laid down.

I am also interested in the writing that will come out of this experience, whether I make it or not. It will either be a big victory or a funny story. To wit:

Politics is not a bad profession. If you succeed there are many rewards, if you disgrace yourself you can always write a book.

-Ronald Reagan

I’ve never sung it before, but the aria that I’m most familiar with is Song to the Moon from Rusalka. It’s in Czech, so I’ll have to do some diction training, but it does fit the requirements for range and breath control. As for Italian, the only aria I’m familiar with is Nessun Dorma.

You can file that under “not in this lifetime, Holmes.” While I probably could pull it off with several years of private lessons, in a month it would be a shadow of what it’s supposed to be, and the people listening to the auditions will have heard it a thousand times, anyway. For this reason, I’m looking for something very obscure…. I want to stand out….. just like everyone else.

Beautiful Music

I am writing to extraordinarily beautiful music today, some of which is new and other pieces intensely familiar. It’s a playlist I created on Amazon Music called The Mozart Big Box. It’s the name of an album, but I also added all Mozart’s choral works. I am trying to stay focused when there’s a figure that astounds me, like a melisma. Mozart is not particularly known for them, so when they happen, I have to rewind. Handel and Bach are the masters. With both of them, it’s just Abs of Steel…. provided you are breathing down to your feet and only using your stomach muscles to sing. In order to do Bach and Handel correctly, you must study vocal technique, because the accompaniment is so sparing that it points out every flaw if you don’t. Mozart is much more forgiving, because as Emperor Joseph II says in the movie Amadeus, there are simply too many notes, that’s all. If you make a mistake, the accompaniment will catch you.

Melismas are the entire reason I muscled my way into Varsity Choir at Clements. My one claim to fame in high school is that my junior year, I was in the top choir and the top band at the same time, the first to do so. Originally, the choir director put me in Junior Varsity, and I said, are you sure? I’ve done lots of major choral works with my church choir. She pulled out a Messiah book and said, prove it, and flipped to (of course) the most difficult soprano passage in the whole friggin’ work, which I’d only done for the last five Christmases. Someone could wake me up in the middle of the night and I could sing it blind.

I flat nailed it, and the choir director said, I stand corrected. You’re in. I was lucky that I spent nearly an hour warming up, because my head voice (the top of my range) was incredible that day. I am not a diva by any means. I am quite humble about my abilities. But there are just certain days where I amaze myself, like I’ve never heard myself before. The reason I felt fantastic after that audition is that I’d never sung any soprano part in a choral work all by myself. I usually needed the other sopranos in my section to be able to sneak in breaths, which is what sectional sounds are for….. To me, nailing it was not only the notes being spot on, but being able to hold my own with breath control….. which does not come easily to the anxious.

The only time being in both bit me on the ass was that tryouts for All-Region Band and All-Region Choir were on the same day. I chose band, and I think in retrospect that I chose………. poorly. In soloing with my voice, I do not get the same stomach-churning stage fright that I do when playing my trumpet. Something I nail in an empty sanctuary is painful once it’s full. I did manage to get into High School for Performing and Visual Arts with instrumental music, but I’ve never been better than that. I peaked early.

I feel as if I should have known I was a singer and not an instrumental musician, because I got into the adult choir at my church when I was in Grade 7. As an adult, the two times I’ve had the feeling of being wowed at myself were singing the Pie Jesu movement of the Rutter Requiem with full orchestra in Portland and The Lord is My Shepherd from the same work in Houston with incredible pipe organ and the first desk oboe player at The Houston Symphony. The second link is actually me. The recording of the Pie Jesu is lost to history. Despite a few flubs that only I would notice, it’s the best recording of me I have. I forgive myself completely because I was not in great voice that day. I woke up with complete laryngitis and had to sit in the shower for almost an hour before I could even talk. I was relying completely on my diaphragm to get me through, and it did not fail. Because I was so incredibly sick, as soon as the solo was over all my adrenaline ran out and I just wanted Dana to take me home and put me in bed with the remote, some orange juice, and enough Nyquil to plunge a horse into unconsciousness. It was at that moment I realized I was introducing the choir at the next service. There may or may not have been a lot of damn its and oh, fucks involved.

One of my deepest regrets is that my mother heard me sing a lot in high school because she was in choir with me at church and my accompanist everywhere else… but as an adult, either we were too far apart geographically or she had her own church job. My only hope was that she would come to DC when I was singing after she retired. The school year ended in May, and by October she was dead. I was completely dumbfounded because it happened so suddenly, and losing that particular dream knocked me down with force. We were both such serious musicians that I really can’t take it when thinking that my mother and I will never perform together again. She heard the recording in the link above, but she was never in the congregation after a year of intense private lessons, when my opera voice flipped on (link is to a clip of one of my voice lessons that still cracks me up to this day).

The memory is still precious, though, because even though my mom wasn’t there, Dana’s was. She grabbed me after the performance and gave me the biggest bear hug on record, exclaiming, that voice! Where did it come from?! My only answer was a hell of a lot of hard work, woodshedding every measure until it was perfect. My garage had amazing acoustics, and I shudder thinking that I never apologized to the neighbors, because I have a big damn voice.

Although my favorite compliment came from The Divine Mrs. B, who said I should have an oboe player follow me around wherever I go. Believe me, I could not afford that particular oboe player, and a beginner will clear your sinuses.

If there is anything negative about all this, it’s that soprano sections are very competitive, and I generally make friends with the basses because of it. Bass notes make me happy, and I would much rather ignore all the singers in my own section, just put my head down, and do the work. One of the first things that I asked my choir director in DC was, are the sopranos mean? He said he was the only one who was mean. I told him I was in.

Luckily, he turned out to be right. That being said, I haven’t sung a note in a year. Eventually, I’ll get back to it. Right now, everything about church choir brings my grief extremely loud and incredibly close. I can’t sing and panic at the same time. I know. I’ve tried it.

I do listen to great sopranos, though. Nothing makes me happier than the Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis duet, Let the Bright Seraphim (Handel). I feel like it marries the best parts of me, an intensely personal piece. Once I was driving and singing along to the recording and forgot the windows were down. I stopped at a stop light and the cop next to me with his windows down said, very nice.

Which is probably the only interaction I’ve ever had with a cop that didn’t cost $200. There are just so many things that beautiful music can accomplish.