Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Having it All

We live in a world where people still say we can’t have it all. Is it not 2014? Do we not live in a country where we are blessed because we can? Well, I say, we can, so therefore we will.

“Can what?” you may be wondering. As women striving for a career in opera, you can have it all.

What does it mean to have it all, anyway? Why would someone tell anyone else what they can or cannot have and what they should or should not want?  Let me say this. “Having it all” is different for every single person. Only you can decide what that means to you. I am only here to tell you that you can have it! Whatever it is you may want.

We all have to make sacrifices, everyone of us. It doesn’t matter what nationality, color, gender, or age you are, or if you are single, or married. We all make choices, and those choices are hopefully based on your ultimate goal of “having it all” (whatever that means to you).

As a married “career woman” in my thirties, I am asked quite regularly if and when I’m going to have children. My answer is consistently the same, “I don’t know.  Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll see.” (Not that it’s anyone else’s business.) But people do feel inclined to tell me one way or another their opinion on the matter. “Oh, you would be a wonderful mother. I hope you do.” Or, “Well, you’re getting to the age where it becomes much more difficult, so you should really start thinking about it.” Or, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to have kids.”  Never mind that I didn’t ask for any of this unsolicited advice or didn’t already know what my options were and how old I am!
Really and truly I haven’t decided. I could go either way. Yes, I think I could be a good mom and I think kids are adorable, and even though I would have to figure out how to make it work, I’m pretty sure I could figure it out. I could still pursue singing and have a family. Sure my kid might have to travel the world to all sorts of exotic and non-exotic places and sit in rehearsals with headphones as to not be deafened at an early age by all the opera singers, but they would be watching their mom follow her dream. They would discover what it is to work hard and to strive for excellence. They would learn that they could do anything they wanted to, as long as they worked hard for it. No, I’m not discouraged by a career in opera to have kids. There are lots of singers out there doing it, but that’s not the point. The decision to have kids is mine, and though the verdict is still out on whether or not I will, I do not feel that one way or another will make me lose out in life and not “have it all.”   

There are other decisions “career women” have to make. Sometimes you have to be away from your family and loved ones. Someone recently asked me, “How do you and your husband DEAL with being away from each other?” The look on my face must have been amusing, because I’m not often very talented at hiding my expressions, (works well on stage, though).

“What do you mean, DEAL with it?” I wondered. “We don’t DEAL with it; it’s not some new phenomenon that we weren’t aware of when we got together. We always knew that sometimes we would be apart for work, but if your partner is getting to follow their dreams and work doing what they love, you are happy for your partner.  That doesn’t mean you don’t miss the person when they’re away and wouldn’t prefer to be together, but because of open communication you and your partner should know how to make it work.”

For instance, when we are apart, my husband and I speak to each other every morning when we wake up. First thing we do in the morning is call and say, “Good morning, I love you.” Often times, that may be all the time there is, because one of us or the other is running off to a busy day, but we’ve started the day well. We also call on our lunch break. We know each other’s schedule and try to sync up as much as possible, to fit in another 10 minutes to check in with each other and see how things are going. We make phone dates, and we stick to them as best we can, every day that we are a part. At the end of the night, we plan on a Skype call where most of the time we just hang out while we watch the same TV show on Netflix. It keeps things normal, and we can just be together without talking, because we’re tired. Then a “goodnight” and an “I love you,” and it starts all over the next day. This routine makes you feel like everything’s normal, and it’s what works for us. If you’re in a relationship, talk to your partner and come up with a plan that works for you. It can be fun!

At the end of the day, there are lots of people who will try and convince you that it’s impossible to have everything you want, but in reality, you are the only one who can decide what “everything you want” is and whether or not you can have it. Changing your mind or not having your mind made up about what you want, isn’t a negative choice. It’s simply a choice. Keep 
following your dreams, listen to your gut feelings, and do what’s best for you.

Image courtesy of nattavut at  

Friday, November 21, 2014

Striving for Excellence

By Director James Marvel 

Every great sports movie has one thing in common: a story of personal and collective achievement against odds that are seemingly insurmountable. If you play a game with the stated goal of winning, you may win or you may loose. If you play a game with the goal of having the highest scoring game in the history of the sport, you are going to play the game very differently than if your goal is simply to win. If you play every game with that goal in mind, you are on the path to becoming a legend. That having been said, I want every show I direct to be the best show that anyone has ever seen. I don’t just want it to be the best production of that show that has ever been seen, I want it to be the best production of any show that anyone has ever seen. That’s my stated goal. On any given production, I will either achieve that goal or I won’t, but I am playing the game with that goal in mind.

As a director, I am always looking for collaborators who push themselves. I am also only interested in working with collaborators who push me to be my best, who challenge me beyond mere complacency to achieve artistic greatness. Whether I am working with a singer or a designer, my firm belief is that we are obligated to expect and demand excellence from each other for the good of the production, for the good of the art form we love to practice, and for the delight of the audience who has entrusted us with the mere task of taking their breath away. At the end of the day, our only job is to give the audience an evening they will remember for the rest of their lives. Anything short of that is a waste of everyone’s time.

    The type of singer that intrigues me most is one who has a strong command of their artistry and technique, a fearless spirit, and an open willingness to try anything. For singers, trusting a director whom you don’t know or haven’t worked with before can be a daunting proposition. Several years ago, I received a phone call from a tenor friend of mine who was doing a production in Germany in which the director wanted all of the characters in the opera to be zombies, devoid of facial of physical expression. The tenor mentioned that the director had never directed an opera before and complained that he felt the concept was antithetical to everything the opera’s music demanded. I replied by saying, “I know why you are calling me. You want me to give you permission to do the role the way you would prefer, but you can’t be in a different show than the rest of the cast. You can choose never to work with this director again, but you will do yourself and the production a disservice if you don’t do your best to realize the director’s vision.” A month later, the singer wrote to me and thanked me for the advice, forwarding an outstanding review, which he claimed was the best review of his entire career. Furthermore, the director specifically requested him on two future projects, which he willingly accepted.

A Tale of Two Cities:
Several years ago, I directed two productions of Tosca in different cities with different casts. I had some ideas that I wanted to explore with the character Scarpia. In the first city, the baritone, who remains my favorite Scarpia of all time, was not only open to the ideas, but he was ravenously voracious when incorporating the ideas into the character. The result was stunning. The audience, the press, and the board members of the company were ecstatic about his performance, and I knew that we had uncovered something truly special. I never asked the singer why he was so willing to embrace the ideas. Was it that he had a long track record of working with excellent directors who never let him down?  Was it that the ideas were appealing to him? Or was it that he was an artist…someone who believes in being audacious, daring, fearless, and collaborative in his pursuit of excellence?

Two months later, I encountered my second Scarpia. We had many friends in common, so I was expecting a certain amount of trust and a similar success. From the moment I began discussing the ideas I wanted to explore, the singer was closed. Immediately and indefinitely. It became clear that he wanted to perform Scarpia exactly as he had done it for years without a single deviation or variance from his staid, stock, and conventional portrayal. After many frustrating rehearsals, we decided to go out for a drink. After several hours of conversation, the only logical reasoning he provided for performing Scarpia the same way he always had was that “he had a brand to protect.” The resulting performance was unoriginal, formulaic, and predictable. Was it good? Sure, it was good, but anyone who aspires to be merely good is not someone any of us should aspire work with or be.

Everybody gets into the business for a different reason. The decision to be a world-class artist is both a journey and a goal that we must dedicate ourselves to on a daily basis. We must be honest with ourselves about our strengths and our weaknesses. Once we identify our weaknesses, we can address them directly and without compromise. Friends or colleagues who distract us from this goal are not our friends. Fortunately, there are many wonderful people in the world who help us to achieve excellence everyday.  Make sure to thank them. Make sure to inspire yourself so that you may inspire others because being an excellent colleague is just as important as being an excellent artist.

Image courtesy of Idea Go at 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Rise of the House Concert

While there’s nothing specifically in my lease that bars me from belting out Puccini’s greatest hits at the top of my lungs in my apartment, I tend to be uncharacteristically shy about singing in my own living room. But I love singing in other people’s.

I’ve been singing in living rooms quite a bit over the past year, part of a classical house concert trend that’s been gaining some traction in my corner of the world and several other urban areas. It is, of course, no new innovation. We all learned about Schubert’s Liederabends in music history and they’ve been happening in various iterations (from the most formal to the totally casual with all manner of repertoire) ever since.

The current trend is being capitalized on by individuals and organizations alike, but none so well as Groupmuse, a movement that you are likely familiar with if you live in San Francisco, Boston or New York. They also have chapters coming soon to Boulder and Denver, Colorado as well as Atlanta and Seattle. And their mission says it very, very well:
A groupmuse is not just a chamber music house concert. It’s an experience that’s as social as it is musical and as convivial as it is stimulating. Moreover, it’s not a one-and-done thing. It’s a building block of a larger community of people who seek beauty and depth in a world where neither is particularly forthcoming. The purpose of a groupmuse is, in part, to relay moments of musical expression that have inspired people for hundreds of years, but it’s also to make you want to come back for more, because when the faces become familiar and your neighbors become your friends is when art is realizing its ultimate potential and reminding us all of our common humanity.

Powerful stuff that you’d (frankly) be silly not to get behind. So how do you make it work for you, intrepid soprano? If you’re looking to find your own host, plan your own program and marshal your own resources, here are some tricks of the trade:

Recruit your friends.
You know other people who play music, right? Get them onboard ASAP because a varied program is a good program. If you are as lucky as I have been, you’ll be able to find a pianist who is a brilliant and generous collaborator; someone who is hungry to learn new repertoire or pull out old favorites and really dig into them in collaboration with a vocalist or instrumentalist (or both!).

Put on your programming hat.
I don’t know about you, but I could spend years researching and assembling recital programs. It was one of my most favorite things to do in school. And the awesome thing now is that you don’t have those pesky graduation requirements sucking all the fun out of it. The world is your musical oyster. This is your program. Stretch yourself. Try new things. Take risks. Align poetic themes or highlight vocal fireworks. Develop a program with variety and something to say.

Find a willing host.
Start a list of people you know with pianos in their houses and start asking. The real piano thing is important. No matter how state of the art your keyboard is, it doesn’t replace the music making capabilities of a real live acoustic piano. Once you’ve confirmed the piano’s existence, the sell really isn’t all that hard—free beautiful music, in their home, that they can invite all of their friends to and meet some of yours as well!

This is the time to work for free.
I should mention here that this is one of the few times that I put my capitalist singer self aside and try to create a performance situation that is just about making great art with and for people that I really like. This is one of the most enjoyable forms of performance expression that I have found, and I think part of it is that no one owes anyone anything. We’re all there to serve the music and have a damn good time doing it.

Extend unexpected invitations.
This is a really cool place to introduce a classical newbie to the music you’re dedicating your life to. They can kick off their shoes, have a glass of wine in hand and hear you sing from 10 feet away. Intimate and accessible doesn’t begin to cover it. And it’s these types of “gateway” experiences that can help us with the sizeable task of winning over the next generation of classical music and opera patrons.

Make it BYOF, BYOB and BOYC, if need be.
A potluck-style affair keeps this event feeling properly communal (and realistically cost-efficient). Ask your guests to bring a bottle of wine or munchies to share. And if your host doesn’t have seating for 20, the audience can be encouraged to engage in some good old-fashioned criss-cross applesauce on a comfy carpet.

Involve the audience.
Are you singing in a foreign language? Don’t just pass out translations, have different audience members read the English poetry aloud for the group. By all means, tell them what you’re singing about, thinking about, the work that you and your collaborators have done to prepare for this performance. Pull back the curtain and let them see how this process works. You’re going to be singing in their personal space, so be ready to give a real-time, close-up interpretation of this repertoire. No need for the grand operatic gesture.  They are interested in having a real live person sing to them. The same person they’ll socialize with as you enjoy a well-deserved glass of the wine they brought. Full disclosure: I usually start drinking sooner, depending on the rep for the night!

See where the night takes you.
Hands down, my favorite events have been those where the planned program wrapped up and the music went on into the night. There are truly few things I love more than drunken party arias and musical theater belt-alongs. And the spirit of democratic music-making demands that all in attendance who want to participate should, in whatever way presents itself.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Zen and the Art of Singing

These days, there seems to be a yoga studio on every corner and magazines full of references to mindfulness and meditation. It might seem like wacky mumbo-jumbo to some, but the benefits of this practice are extensive and backed by science. I’m hardly a Zen guru, but in my explorations of these topics I’ve found them to be very applicable to singing!

Be in the moment – what does that mean? You’re more likely to find the phrase “be in the moment” on a greeting card than in a Buddhist temple, but it’s actually one of the foremost tenets of mindfulness practices. Being mindful simply means to focus your attention on the moment you’re in. In other words, you’re not thinking about what you’re having for lunch unless you’re making your lunch at that moment. You’re focused on what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling at that exact moment, not the past nor future.
My vocal coach once asked Susan Graham what she thought about while singing and she replied, “Whatever note I’m on.” I found this answer brilliant. It seems obvious, but think about it: how many times are you thinking about something other than the note you’re on when you’re singing?
The multiple things we have to do and think about while singing is what makes this tricky. You have to make sure your singing apparatus is all functioning smoothly (no tension here, enough energy there), pronounce all the words correctly while understanding their meaning, and communicate with your fellow performers. On top of it all you must pretend you are another person, which ostensibly means always thinking about what your character would be thinking about.
So how does a singer reconcile the necessary multitasking with mindfulness? First of all, this is one of the reasons technique and practice are so important. If all we thought about was technique during our performances, they would be boring indeed. Therefore, it is imperative that singers practice their technique until they can perform barely thinking about it.
As for all the other thoughts—staying with the conductor, interacting with colleagues, staying aware of any irregularities in costumes or sets—they’re not going to go away, but you can work toward eliminate those extraneous thoughts that have nothing to do with your performance. Stay focused on what you are doing in the moment. It is fine to change between your thoughts and your character’s thoughts, but make sure your attention is on stage where it belongs.

Letting go of expectations. This is a real doozey for singers. Our career aspirations require many years of hard work and sacrifice. How could I possibly tell you to not be attached? The only thing I can say is that NOT being attached to your career will make you a better singer. There’s an old attachment analogy about holding sand. If you try to grip the sand tightly in your fist it flows to the ground, but if you cup your hand loosely, the sand stays put until you decide to release it. It’s a corny anecdote, but think about how it might change an artist. Who do you think is the more daring, confident, and charismatic singer? The singer who knows that whether a career happens for her or not she’ll have a fulfilling life or the singer desperately grasping for a career because it’s the only thing she knows?
Non-attachment or letting go of your career has many added benefits. We all know how crazy this career is and how much luck factors in. If you’re attached to the thought of becoming a star, how well will you handle it if it doesn’t happen? They say that expectations are resentments under construction and I think that’s excellent advice. Life never works out the way you want it to so if you’re attached to expectations on what this career will bring you, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Of course, I’m not saying don’t dream. By all means dream big dreams and do big work to get you to those dreams. But the trick is, once you’ve dreamt the dream and done the work, let go. It’s out of your hands now and imagining the perfect outcome isn’t going to help, but most likely hurt your career in the long run.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How to Deal With Inappropriate Advances

Why is this even a topic? Some of you may have never dealt with a professional colleague coming on to you when you were not interested, but some of you have and some of you will. This may be a shock to the naive few, but to be naive, however sweet and innocent you are, doesn’t necessarily help you in your future career. So, here are a few tips for dealing with unwanted advances.

Let’s discuss two scenarios:

  1. You are attractive. You dress attractively. You are friendly and nice; you have a good sense of humor, laugh at most people’s jokes, and smile a lot of the time. You’re not doing anything abnormal or strange for a human being, yet somehow men are still coming on to you.
  1. You’re wearing a tight mini skirt, and a low cut top and touching, hugging and sitting on people’s laps! You’re laughing and flirting and merely having a good innocent time!

In the first scenario, it’s as if you were walking down the street minding your own business yet being cat-called by random men on the street. (However, this can be used for a Musetta role study – I suggest carrying hat boxes next time.) It’s still inappropriate and uncalled for. You’re not doing anything but walking, and yet you’re being objectified.

So I hate to say it, but scenario two is an entirely different matter and is most likely going to get you hit on whether you’re meaning for it to or not! I mean, seriously. I would think that you wanted me if that’s how you were acting towards me. Words and actions mean something.

As singers and actors, we should know this, but sometimes we are painfully unaware of the personal signals that we are giving off. So, all I’m saying is don’t be ignorant. If you’re single and looking for a good time and are working with other single people looking for a good time, signal away. But, please don’t hang all over your married co-workers when getting notes from the director.

On the other hand, if you fall into category number 1, my sincerest apologies.  I don’t know why people feel the need to impose (or expose) themselves on you. The best advice is to try not to put yourself into a situation that could lead to any inappropriate behavior. Don’t be alone with a conductor who keeps giving you eyes in rehearsal in the back stairwell. Always walk to your car in groups. Don’t leave rehearsal by yourself. Carpool with trusted colleagues.  If you still find yourself caught off-guard because you were just too sweet to see that anyone was flirting with you, let them down gently. (Push if you have to.) Say, “I’m so sorry if I gave you the wrong impression.” Make sure that if you mean “no”, they understand you mean “no.” But be kind; there’s no need to make things more awkward than they are already going to be.

If you are constantly being subjected to unwanted advances, then you can always try pretending you’re shy!  

Bottom line:  Be smart.  Be respectful of other people’s boundaries. Be aware of yourself and others.