So let’s catch up! I hate being sick. When you’re in a balmy place for the winter, you’re supposed to be able to circumvent THE BUG, no? When you drink fresh squeezed orange juice each morning (mmm…when in Rome…), loading up on vitamin C, nature’s perfect medicine, you’re supposed to be able to skirt THE AFFLICTION, no? When you’re happy and enjoying life, you are expected to shun any kind of infirmity, NO?
That ‘dust’ I inhaled during my unforgettable, moody backstreet tour of Barcelona decided to take up near-permanent resident status in my throat and morphed into a rather nasty throat infection. Definitely a nightmare for any singer. I made a visit to the local Catalan ENT (Graçias, Dottor Clarós!) on the morning of my second to last show, and despite the incomprehensible behavior of my taxi driver who repeatedly and unfathomably refused to stop and ask for directions as he got us more and more lost on the endless one-way streets of his city, the patient Doc took a long look at my throat and gave me the thumb’s up for singing that night. He assured me I would do no damage, and that my cords looked fine and dandy. (Quick detour: it floors me each time I see a photo of vocal cords, because their diminutive and unassuming properties boggle my mind!)
Even though I still couldn’t phonate fluidly or consistently in my middle register, I was holding on to the words of the good Doctor that my cords were fine, and any swelling could be brought into check with a mild anti-inflammatory. So, as the clock ticked obstinately away, I desperately fought to stay positive and once again, coax my voice into singing this role I love so much.
5:00 pm: I’m in my dressing room, and there is simply no phonation happening (or even hinting at happening) in my middle voice. And by ‘no phonation’ I mean NONE. The top was there, and I had a rather extraordinary ability to access a rowdily resonant chest voice (which I enjoyed quite a lot as visions of Amneris floated in my head!). But Eb to G# in my middle octave? NADA. ZIPPO. ZILCH. As I was about to stand up from my piano bench to slink into the artistic administrator’s office, admitting what felt like defeat and saying I had no choice but to cancel, a Spanish vision walked through my door: the brilliant, great, lovely Carlos Chausson.
I first met Señor Chausson where, as a bonafide newbie and out of place American, I was fulfilling my 2nd cast duties as Cenerentola in Madrid. From day one, he took this lonely, non-Spanish speaking girl under his wing and made me feel more than welcome, with his disarming humor, excellent English and smiling face, always encouraging and supporting in every way. Fast forward a few years, and we found ourselves playing evil guardian and kept ward in the Paris production of “Barbiere” – and again, his compassionate, wise guidance carried me through some really tough times. Well, as the fates allowed, he was substituting that evening for an ailing Magnifico, and he bounced into my room ready to take the Liceu by storm, but immediately he knew I was in trouble. He listened to me vocalize a bit, offered a few nuggets of council and said, “Well, you’ll be 60-70% vocally, so you can do it – but you are not 100% and you just have to decide if you want to risk it.”
The chemistry of a stage family is a strange one – a single person can completely change the dynamic for better of for worse, tipping the ‘energy’ balance dramatically in either direction; Carlos happens to be one of the golden ones who lights up everyone around him. I knew that going out with him by my side, I just might have a fighting chance. I also knew that this was a role I knew inside and out, and even if vocally I wasn’t in prime form, I could still give a (hopefully!) moving and touching performance. I also believed that I could pace it in the right way in order to arrive in one piece at the end. Specifically: I could alter some of my cadenzas, shorten some of the longer held notes, cheat a bit on the big ensemble numbers, and beg my colleagues’ indulgence! (For example, Juan Diego was quite gracious, tailoring our duet to be a bit more ‘intimate’ so that I could adjust some of my normal dynamics, etc. Oddly enough, I found it perhaps the most touching duet of the run!) And, because this role is so ingrained in my body and spirit, I knew I could afford to concentrate completely on the technical aspect of how to survive the 3 hours.
Enter: “Amnerisentola”. I am a HUGE lover of those daring, golden age ladies who plunged audaciously and capriciously into the depths of their chest voices – how it could thrill! Well, this particular Cenerentola ‘went there’ and I dipped into that chest voice all night long, knowing full well that my voice teacher may well have had a heart attack had he been in the stalls that night, but it was a survival mechanism for those 3 hours. As I self-monitored my voice, I could still float the top notes, could still access any dynamic, and my lower register had never been so reedy! But those stubborn middle notes simply REFUSED to come into play. Halfway through the second act, I get one last chance to vocalize in my dressing room before the ‘big number’, and I try the first phrase:
“Nac /qui / all’affanno…”
(The “/”s are shorthand for the loud, broken cracks in my voice.)
“OK, then…I’m cracking.”
“I’m cracking on the opening phrase of the final aria that I’ve sung hundreds of times.”
I sing the phrase 4 times.
I crack 4 times.
There is nowhere to hide.
There is no one to call.
The loving but horrified look on my husband’s face (sitting on my dressing room sofa) says it all: “Oh sweetheart, you’re in trouble, aren’t you?”
Time to put my money where my mouth is, right? How many times have I spoken the innocent phrase, “It’s only opera, after all”?
Well, there is no doubt that I’m a risk taker. However, I am definitely a calculated risk taker, and I knew that even if I blew a few lines here or there, I had nothing to prove with this role. In fact, I never step on stage to ‘prove’ anything – so in a way, I felt more or less safe: our taping for the DVD was successfully completed, Barcelona had embraced me, ‘the world’ knows I can sing the role, more or less. But all the rationalizing and intellectualizing in the world can’t camouflage the powerful, encompassing fear of “oh my GOD what if I CRACK????”
Well, I tip-toed my way through the opening phrase – attempting to avoid wretched cracks, trying constantly to not panic and to focus simply on hooking up the breath. But most importantly, I tried to follow the advice of my teacher: I continued to take risks. I just went for it.
It was definitely not one of my best vocal performances, (or maybe the opposite is true) but the audience stayed with me, my cast members held me up, and even though at the end of the night I knew it was a risk I probably would not take again, I got through it.
(And for those keeping track, in fact, TWO of those beloved rose petals fell directly into the palms of my hands that night … go figure, right?)
3 days of rest followed, with my final performance challenging me, but not nearly as much as the previous, and before I knew it, our bags were packed, Barcelona disappeared below my feet, and I was on a dry, crowded airplane headed home for a 48 hour stay, with just enough time to do laundry (oh how I miss a dryer when in Europe and using my simple Bounce sheets!), sort through stacks (and stacks!) of mail, find a dress coat on sale, and realize how much I miss sleeping in my very own bed. The trip home was so short and hectic, I didn’t even get to say hello to any of my family before being assaulted in yet another security line at the airport, and landing smack in the middle of freezing-cold whirlwind stay in New York City. Quick hop back to Kansas City, with more of those horrid security clearances, to gather the warmest clothes I own to weather the Windy City, and before I know it, I’m back in ‘Seville’ in the most zany and delightful production of Barber!
All of THIS, however, must be another entry, (but I promise it will be a GREAT one, with tales of Leontyne Price, Van Cliburn, et al!) for my fingers are tired of typing, surely if you’ve made it this far, your eyes are weary of reading, and Handel is calling me to work on his little black notes. Let the games begin!