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Those details wherein lies the devil!

One thing I’ve always told myself, is that if the payoff moment in a performance doesn’t happen, none of this is worth it. (By “this” I mean the schedule, the travel, the absence, the luggage, the pressure, the stress, etc.) Let me clarify a bit: there will most certainly be “off-nights”, and there will be rough patches to trod through, but in the grand scheme of things, if the opening of the curtain fails to bring me a rush and a thrill, and the closing of it brings relief more than ecstasy, I’ll know it’s probably time to leave the wailing to someone else. I try to do the work that I need to do in the studio that will enable me to let loose and enjoy the privilege of appearing on stage and performing. Perhaps I’m terribly selfish in the fact that I want to truly enjoy what I do! But come on – life is TOO short, otherwise!

But as great as the performance rush can be, my other great passion lies in the much less glamorous world of rehearsal. Collaboration: when it’s good, it’s so good! David and I spent 4 days in Madrid before our opening concert of this past tour. We had each been working in our own separate studios, preparing like mad: both translating all the texts, he working on fingering, me working on breathing, he sorting out pedaling, me sorting out breathing, etc. Then we meet! After hugs and gossip and “how’s the family”, he sits down to strike the first chords, and the business of music making and expressing commences.

It’s a very thrilling but challenging moment, because we both have arrived with our own strong ideas of what these little pieces might mean, and yet the task at hand is to find a cohesive story that we both will contribute to – a mutual understanding must be agreed upon before unity on the stage can begin to emerge. The advantage of working together again, is that we already have a musical understanding of each other, and so much of the awkward “sizing-up” is way past. Scalpels are in hand, and we’re searching for that musical/poetic bone marrow!

My favorite moments are those where a color he finds on the piano inspires me to try a different approach to a note, or a shade I find on a word ignites his imagination in a different way.

“Let’s see what happens if we go piano very suddenly when I first say her name.”

“Maybe the heartbeat figure comes back in a more anxious way on the 2nd verse.”

“Oh, we definitely need to take time over this phrase … oh no, that doesn’t work at all. Now it’s too indulgent. No wonder he didn’t indicate a ritardando there…!”

Exploration. Experimentation. Imagination. Curiosity. Trial and error. GROWTH.

Ah…so sublime!

We spend hours and hours preparing a recital, and then (to put it rather crudely) we give birth to it on stage in front of hundreds (thousands?) of people, and it is officially no longer ours. It now belongs to the public, and we lose all power to interpret – if we’ve done our jobs correctly, it’s up to the audience to decide what to feel and what our little shades and murmurs and hints meant to them. That’s daunting, but ultimately it’s incredibly freeing. It means we have had to let go.

Those moments in the studio, so intimate and intense, have taught me more than any school book ever did. We discuss the poetry, the meanings, the possibilities, and then we attempt to convey that through our music. This all was described so beautiful by one of the most beautiful musicians I have ever known, Leticia Austria, who was a coach for the Houston Opera Studio while I was there xxx years ago. Now retired from the opera world, she is also a wonderful poet and wrote the following poem (which she kindly gave me permission to reprint here.) I thought you might like to read it:

IN AN OLD STUDIO

There used to be a piano in this room,
a mid-size grand, whose lid was always strewn
with scores of Verdi and Rossini.
On the walls hung photos of the Tuscan hills,
a poster of a street in old Milan–
they’ve left their imprint, ghostly squares against
the graying of the years–and on this spot,
a music stand held up the legacy
of genius waiting to be issued forth
through chosen throats. Be still a minute. Listen.
Distant phrases of a long-lost life
will breathe across your brow and tell the tale
of striving for sublime exactitude,
of discipline and repetition, of
the just dissatisfaction with an end
that’s less than art; then close your eyes to touch
the keys that are no longer there. And you
will hear the splendor that was crafted in
this room, and leave it with the cadences
of ancient passions sighing in your soul.

*Copyright 2009 by Leticia Austria

It’s a mystical thing that happens in the studio, and I treasure those opportunities to explore and embrace the discovery of music, of the world, and of myself. In a way, sometimes it is an assault to go from the intimacy and safety of a private studio and be thrust onto the public stage where you can feel quite naked and vulnerable. But then the music grabs hold, and you realize it was never just yours anyway, and so you let it pass through, and let go.

There is one other thing I wanted to share, written by the great tenor, George Shirley. He’s written an incredibly provocative article on the plight of opera today, in particular how it might affect African American singers, and you can find the full article here.

But one passage stood out to me like flashing Vegas lights. Young singers everywhere: print this off (crediting him, please!), and make it your guiding beacon if you’re serious about pursuing a career in music:

“To young singers who desire careers, I say, “Be ultra-prepared.” In studying, build perfection in layers. Solidify your vocal technique; master every detail and nuance of every language you sing in; know the score as perfectly as the conductor; develop your interpretative ideas from the score and libretto so that you don’t arrive at the first rehearsal an empty vessel waiting to be filled; in sum, don’t give anyone a legitimate opportunity to criticize any aspect of your artistry. A tall order? Yes, but not impossible! See to those things you can do to become competitive, and don’t sweat the petty stuff!”

Could never have said it better myself.

Just a few random thoughts here as I shift gears from the recital platform back to the infinitely lovable Cherubino…better go check on those details!

Cheers!

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