Thursday, December 20, 2007
The Womb and the Garden
In the late 1990s, a wealthy and eccentric widow gave me a small scholarship to further my voice training. I took the money and sought out the New York City opera coaches whose auras had the most sheen at the time. I had some interesting experiences, and got lots of advice, all of it different. One Famous Coach told me that if I sang repertoire that was just a little too light for my voice, I'd "work everywhere." Another plied me with martinis and explained his sudden infatuation (of which I was assuredly not the only object) by saying that I was the only soprano he'd ever met (I had not yet made the switch to mezzo-soprano) who could carry on a conversation about something other than her hair and her gowns, and who knew how to pronounce HUAC correctly. When I went to use this Famous Coach's bathroom, I found a Duane Reade bag hastily tossed on the floor with a giant box of Trojans spilling out of it. This same Famous Coach, after my first marriage ended, told me, with perhaps a touch of bitterness, that I had lost my ambition, and that if I didn't get it back, the only thing I'd ever be known for was the guys with whom I'd "hooked up."
But the most interesting of the Famous Coaches was an unusually funny, kind, maternal, self-effacing middle-aged woman. She worked almost exclusively with the breath, trying to tailor the way her clients breathed to the sound, size, and ethos of their voices and musicalities. I wonder what she's doing now; she really was a wonderul person. At that time, she was trying to have a baby, and I hope it happened, as she would have been a wonderful mother.
I worked with her during a terrible time in my life, the year when my first marriage was ending. She knew what was going on, and asked me one day, "Do you want a stack of programs at the end of your life?" "Yes," I said, not really understanding why she thought any singer wouldn't. "Is that ALL you want?" she asked more pointedly. "Ummmm . . . no," I conceded, none too convinced myself. "Then don't f*ck up," was her reply. That was surely the best piece of advice I got during my time of fancy, expensive vocal coaching, and one that I wish I had taken.
She told me something else that has stayed with me: the Hasidim believe that when we are gestating in the womb, we know everything that is going to happen in our lives. But at birth, God lays His hand on our heads, and we forget everything, because if we remembered we couldn't bear it. The mark of this action of God is the soft spot on the newborn's head.
I wonder if, according to the Hasidic legend, the infant in utero is like Adam just after he's eaten the fruit, before being rebuked by God; and if the newborn baby is like Adam after the fall.