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.