Well, my head is simply spinning in this moment — I’m on a plane, just having finished participating in the gala weekend celebrating Houston Grand Opera’s 50th Anniversary. It was a truly extraordinary event.
One of the reasons I love this profession is that at every turn, in every moment, something begs to be learned. This weekend was no exception. To be surrounded by such amazing talent, by such a varied and important history, and by the myriad of people who make a theater thrive — well, as I said, my head is simply spinning.
I trained with the Houston Grand Opera Studio for 2 seasons, from 1996-98. Without a doubt, my training there is a significant reason I am having a career today, as it was the training ground where I bridged the enormous gap between academia and the professional stage. My allegiance runs deep to that institution, to the many people who had a hand in my progress there. (Gayletha Nichols has my eternal admiration and gratitude!!) You see, I recognize that I am now a part of the history of that amazing training program, a major component of what makes HGO so great. When I was accepted (barely!) to participate in the studio, I was one of only EIGHT singers chosen from literally HUNDREDS of applicants from across the country. Immediately I knew the magnitude of that offer, and I knew that I had been handed a golden opportunity. Recognizing the responsibility of such a gift, I pounced on every single thing they had to offer in the way of stage experience (very limited my first season there — unless you count my 14 performances of Kate Pinkerton!), language training, voice training, etc. But I still say the most priceless part of that time was watching the great singers rehearse. THIS is where the craft is born: in the rehearsal room — you watch a great singer dissect a role from start to finish and you can witness the process of how their starring turn is born on opening night. OR, conversely, you see the singer who walks through rehearsal investing very little of their mind and soul into the process, giving little to nothing to their colleagues, and you see how their ‘starring turn’ leaves you as cold as ice when the curtain comes down. Sometimes I wonder if the audience feels it as well — if they know sincerity from ‘gimmickry’…
But, I digress! I just wanted to show what an impact this program had on me as a person and as a developing artist. This is why being invited to participate as a featured singer on this weekend meant so much to me.
The gala weekend commenced with a brilliant, immense, breathtaking performance by the truly great Bryn Terfel as Falstaff. There was not ONE SINGLE FALSE SECOND in that performance of his. Every vocal nuance was tied unquestionably to each physical movement, which was linked indisputably to every varied emotion, which lead directly to one of the most complete performances I have ever seen. Can you tell I’m a big fan? I won’t even go into how great a guy he is, but suffice it to say anyone who shows up to a gala dress rehearsal wearing a t-shirt from Wrigley Field, has my full admiration!
It was a sublime performance and I’ve never heard the HGO orchestra sound better!
The rehearsal for the Gala was one of those great moments that we as performers tend to be very ‘giddy’ about. When I wasn’t singing on stage, I glued myself to a seat in the auditorium, along with the terribly enthusiastic chorus folks (who were AMAZING last night, by the way — congratulations!) and was able to watch a great parade of singers working. Again? Priceless. What I saw was a vast variety of temperaments and approaches and personalities, and I realized, one of the reasons that what we do is so damn hard, is that the only thing we have to truly offer an audience is our unique, honest self. And it is entirely possible that they, the audience, will not like it. Not at ALL. We walk out onto the stage, shout to the world “here I am, and here is my voice”, and people will either love you, hate you, or, perhaps worst of all, simply be indifferent towards you. And it struck me that I believe a large part of the singer’s battle is truly finding comfort in presenting themselves without any kind of barrier or defense whatsoever — simply allowing the audience love them. Or hate them. Or take no notice of them at all. It might be the hardest thing of all to learn.
Now, in all honesty, one of the biggest thrills of the night was watching Sir Elton John perform. Yes, he was the featured guest of the evening, and let me tell you, it was electric! I was BACKSTAGE (Can I write that again? I WAS BACKSTAGE!) watching him improvise brilliantly on the keyboard to ‘Benny and the Jets’, ‘Rocketman’, and ‘Your Song’ (with arrangements by the super-talented Jim Lowe!! Bravo, Maestro!) I admit it, I was screaming as if I was 10 years old again at a Shawn Cassidy concert, and I’m not ashamed to admit it! It really was thrilling — and again, I learned a great lesson — excellence in any shape or form is inspiring.
I would hate to forget to mention the fact that I also made my debut as a “Bond Girl”. (Can I write that again? A BOND GIRL!) Sir Roger Moore was the elegant, suave, and charming master of ceremonies, and I was more then happy to be escorted out by him for the final bow. I just may have found my second career! I met the Duchess of York, who could not have been more gracious and beautiful, celebrated with old friends from the studio who are some of my biggest cheerleaders, the staff that makes that theater click (and goes entirely too unsung!), the great crew (who all cleaned up very nicely, each sporting a suit and tie for the big event!), my old coaches who are some of the best in the business, and generally soaked up every single moment of this great event.
And through all of the glamour and the glitz and the paparazzi and the gowns and the stars and the jewels and the confetti, can I share the one, solitary moment that was, for me, the moment that made time stand still amongst all the cacophony? It was watching the curtains slowly part to reveal a slender, beautiful figure on the stage in a single follow spot: she took her breath, opened her heart and with a voice full of pathos, splendor and experience, sang “Isn’t it rich…?” It was Frederica von Stade giving the audience her reading of “Send in the Clowns”. This is a woman, an artist, a humble human being who has given so generously to the world of her beauty, her joy, her raw emotion and her singular vulnerability time and time again. This is an artist who has made the world a much, much better place. This is a woman who stands in front of us, completely open and giving, sharing her very true self with us, willing to let us either love her or hate her, asking for nothing in return — and precisely because of this, the world loves her. She is a treasure, and sharing the stage with her is gift that I will hold very close to me, always.
That was my weekend! So now I’m flying on about 3 hours of sleep to Salt Lake City where I will work with the young artists of that company’s Studio Program. I love it when you see various circles in your life winding their way around you, opening and closing in diverse ways. It seems only yesterday that I was the scared apprentice asking a million questions to the ‘masters’ of these classes! But tomorrow, the questions will be pointed at me, and I will have a lot of fresh thoughts to share after this experience in Houston! Until the next time…
(Photo: from the window of my apartment on a spring evening)