Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tears and the Singer

Before I got a better contract teaching music-academic subjects and class voice while completing my doctorate, I taught studio voice for three years in one of my university’s senior colleges. The intensity and immediacy of the studio relationship, as any serious student of singing knows, can be a kind of cauldron in which the worst habits – both vocal and personal – of the student (and sometimes of the teacher as well) rise to the surface and, at best, are skimmed off the top or pressure-cooked away, leaving the voice student with a simpler, more effective singing technique, and, sometimes, with a more loosely-held grasp on the neuroses and coping mechanisms that so often drive the singer in both her artistic and personal lives. It’s not unusual for tears to flow in the studio. I shed many when I was a young singer, and tried to wipe away those shed by my students when I was a young teacher.

One of the most remarkable experiences I had as a young singer, and one that I still don’t fully understand, took place during an opera workshop I performed in in Boston in the mid-1990s. One of my scenes was from the rarely-performed 1835 French grand opera La Juive (the Jewess) by Jacques-Fromental Halévy, a massive, sprawling, wonderful work which takes place in Constance, Switzerland during a persecution of the Jews in the early fifteenth century. Rachel, the daughter of a Jewish goldsmith, has fallen in love with Samuel, a young apprentice in her father’s shop, who returns her passion. It is revealed, however, that Samuel is none other than Prince Léopold, who has disguised himself as a Jew in order to court the beautiful Rachel. The punishment for sexual relations between Christians and Jews is death for both parties, and the lovers are sentenced and imprisoned. But Prince Léopold’s wife, the princess Eudoxie, goes to visit Rachel in prison and begs her to lie to the tribunal about her relationship with the prince, so that his sentence might be commuted to banishment. At first, Rachel refuses:

Moi! permettre qu'il vive?
Quand de la pauvre Juive
Il a brisé le coeur?
Non, que ma triste vie
Près de lui soit finie,
C'est là mon seul bonheur!

(I, permit that he live,
When he has broken the heart of this poor Jewish girl?
No! That I will end my sad life next to him
Is the only happiness left to me.)

Eudoxie, however, prevails upon her rival – the two women address each other as “mon ennemie” – by invoking the love they both harbor for the prince. Rachel finally agrees to declare Léopold’s innocence, saying, “Let it never be said that a Christian woman surpassed a Jewish woman” in mercy. The two then sing a rousing duet, "Dieu tutelaire, ah! reçois ma prière," to which my stage director referred as “women against the world” – the sort of scene that’s sung with the two sopranos flanking each other, bosoms thrust defiantly downstage. In the end, Rachel assures Eudoxie that she will die alone, and expresses her wish that the princess “live in peace.”

I (who a few years later would switch voice categories to mezzo-soprano) was cast as Eudoxie, the higher of the two soprano parts. This was not a stretch vocally; I had already sung Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro and the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor (the latter without the optional high E-flats in the mad scene). But for some reason, I found myself virtually unable to sing the scene. I marked during rehearsals, singing an octave down, until I could take it to my voice teacher and figure out what was going wrong and how to fix it.

The day of my lesson arrived. I brought the music to my teacher, and explained that I simply couldn’t sing it. She listened to a few excerpts, and then closed the piano and faced me squarely. What was it about the scene? she asked. What was it in the drama that was, essentially, choking me? As suddenly as if a pin had been pulled out of me, I began to cry and couldn’t stop, and couldn't tell why. When I had calmed down a little, we began to talk about the duet.

The scene was about the necessity of making a devastating sacrifice for a love which could never be satisfied nor honored. But I was Eudoxie, not Rachel – I was not the character from whom this dreadful sacrifice was required, so it made no sense that I was so personally affected.

My wise teacher disagreed. Eudoxie, she explained, makes the greater sacrifice. She humbles herself by going to visit the mistress – a Jewess, no less – of her beloved husband. She sacrifices her justified desire for revenge on both of them to beg her rival to dishonor herself in the hope that the life of the man they both love will be spared. She does this even though it means that he will be unjustly exonerated, and that she and their children will never see him again. She sacrifices her pride, her position, and her honor while extending her forgiveness to both Léopold and Rachel. When considered in this light, the brokenness and vulnerability of the humbled princess completely overwhelmed me, and, until I had worked it out, literally stopped my voice.

After that lesson, I never had any problems singing the scene. The performance, with a wonderful soprano colleague singing Rachel, was very effective. I remember that, during the "women against the world" section, one of my large, dangly earrings fell off, and I wasn’t sure quite what to do – kick it to the side? dash the other one to the stage too, as a gesture of solidarity with my barefoot, imprisoned rival? – so I just kept singing.

In our lesson, my voice teacher had also revealed to me a similar experience from her own life. Her son had been killed in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, and not long afterward she had to sing a program that included a group of songs about children by Elie Siegmeister (I have not identified the songs). The last song, she told me, was about a child saying goodbye, and my teacher told me that in each rehearsal, she cried so hard that she couldn’t finish the piece. The composer, who was present at these rehearsals, feared that she wouldn’t be able to make it through the performance. But when the day came, she sang it flawlessly.

To read the complete text of the scene from La Juive (in French), go here. To read more about the opera, whose main subject is the folly of prejudice, go here; be prepared for some shocking plot twists. To see and hear the duet sung by Annick Massis and the legendary Anna Caterina Antonacci in a production at the Opéra National de Paris from 2007 (sadly, a few very beautiful bars right near the end of the duet have been cut), go here.


Sheila said...

Thank you for sharing this. I was, once upon a time, a music major, and it brings back memories....I know that for me, my favorite music teachers also did a bit of therapy work in all the music teaching. It is indeed a very personal sort of activity to engage in.

Pentimento said...

Hi Sheila!

I agree -- to be an effective voice teacher you have to be a kind of therapist too.

dreshny said...

I agree...somewhat. I once had a voice teacher who pumped me for boyfriend info at every session, cutting into my singing time. Worse, she would then tell me about her own relationship and health problems. Even though this teacher came highly recommended by a friend (who now has a successful career as a folk singer), I didn't stay with her long.

Pentimento said...

Well, there are bad teachers and bad therapists, too . . .