Sunday, October 25, 2009

There and Back, Part 9: Born into Trouble


Occasionally when reminiscing here about my semi-glamorous past, I mention the time when I used to be a soprano. This was rather a long time, starting in college and continuing for most of the period that I sang opera. I was a small-ish sort of person, especially in contrast to the operatic norm of big bodies, and I could sing rapid passagework with ease, so teachers, coaches, and adjudicators listened with their eyes, so to speak, and most agreed that I was a coloratura soprano, in spite of the facts that I had a voice that was dark in color and that I could not really sing the notes above high C (on a good day I could reach a high D, but I lived in fear of ever having to sing one in performance).

The truth is, though, that although I worked as hard as I could (and entirely fruitlessly) on developing facility in my upper register, and also jumped (with more success) with both feet into the ball-breaking ethos of prima donna-hood, I never sat well as a coloratura. Coloraturas are not altogether untruthfully stereotyped as perky, flighty, beauty-pageant types (and there are more than a few opera singers who started their careers in pageants). There are all sorts of jokes about singers, and among singers these are subdivided into jokes about voice types, or fächer, as they are called in the business. One old saw concerns the various proscriptions against sexual activity prior to performance: basses, it goes, should forego sex for a month before performing, baritones for a week before, tenors for three days before, and mezzos one day before. Sopranos, the joke continues, shouldn't have sex the day of a performance . . . and coloraturas shouldn't have sex during the performance.

I started to come to grief in the coloratura fach around the time that I had signed with management and begun getting better and more important auditions. For the level at which I was supposed to be singing, I needed six audition arias in contrasting languages and styles, and I discovered that there were not six arias in the same fach that I could sing. None of the French lyric-coloratura repertoire -- Lakmé, Olympia -- worked for me, and the heavier French repertoire was just unwieldy in my voice. Likewise for German. In fact, there was basically only one subset of soprano repertoire that I could sing well -- Italian bel canto music from the early nineteenth century up to the period ending in the 1840s, the major composers of which were Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. This repertoire suited my vocal color, my technical abilities, and my emotional range extremely well, as I was often told at auditions, but an American opera singer could not specialize in one style of music only (especially a style that's rarely performed) and expect to have a career, and once, when I sang Bellini in a master class for Licia Albanese, she expressed displeasure with my dark tone in repertoire that had long been associated with a lighter vocal timbre.

In the meantime, I had begun performing steadily in the U.S. and abroad in recitals of Italian chamber music that I had uncovered through my own research. About the same time I was starting to have a little bit of success, my first marriage was starting to go very wrong. This was partly due to my overweening ambition, and partly due to the fact that, in my heart of hearts, I was consumed with a toxic anger bordering on hatred for M., who, prior to our marriage, had taken me to get an abortion. I was going to throw our marriage under the bus in the service of my muse, and felt justified in doing so, because I believed that it was the sheerest folly to trust anyone, and that to admit this was not cynical, but merely responsible. Since I could rely on no one else, I was going to do what I felt I was called to do.

As the marriage began unraveling, my voice began changing, or perhaps settling into its true position. I started studying with a new teacher who, to my initial resistance, suggested that I might not be a soprano after all. I asked my manager to come to one of our lessons to hear what I was doing, and my teacher had me sing a bit of "Nacqui all'affanno" (I was born into trouble) from Rossini's Cenerentola, a lyric mezzo-soprano role. As I sang, I sensed everyone in the room relax, and I understood that my teacher was right. I was not a soprano, but I had found my place at last.

But as things went from bad to worse in my personal life, I found that I was like a flight attendant who comes to work one day to find that she can't get on the plane. I had believed that singing was all I had in the world, and that, if I gave all my energies to cultivating my abilities as a singer, it would be not only my shield from danger, but even, somehow, my salvation. As my life crumbled around me, the career that I had worked long and hard for, paradoxically, was on the verge of taking off. My mother, who'd initially been reluctant to encourage me, told me quite honestly one day, "This is your time," and she was right; it was the pivotal moment in my singing career. If I put everything I had into it now, I had a chance at success, and possibly success on a high level. If not, well, then, as a prominent conductor told me at the time, "all you'll be known for is what guys you've hooked up with."

As it happened, I found that I couldn't go through with it. After M. moved out, I asked Hans, my manager, to stop sending me on auditions, in spite of the fact that he was getting me very good ones as a mezzo with conductors who were very interested. Just a few days before September 11, 2001, Hans and I had lunch and decided it would be better for both of us if he dropped me from his roster. I continued to work on and perform with my research-performance project, and eventually I went back to school and got my doctorate in voice in a research- and scholarship-heavy program. I had, to all intents and purposes, dropped out. I had willingly become obscure, and, according to some, thrown it all away. I would never be known for anything now, except perhaps by a handful of connoisseurs.

I am neither happy nor unhappy about the choice I made, though I am relieved, and sometimes I'm a little wistful. The tremendous freedom I knew when I sang at a high level is something I'm not sure I can manage to put into words; it's like nothing else I've ever experienced, and any singers reading this will know what I'm talking about. I don't know for certain if I made the right decision in walking away from my career, but I know that singing would never have saved me from the world or from myself, and that, in some way, my singing was inextricably tangled up with my moral failure, or at least it seemed to be. But my voice teacher told me once that her florist, who used to come and arrange fresh flowers in her studio sometimes during my lessons, asked her about me once when I hadn't been back for a while: "Where is that girl? I need her voice. Her voice is so . . . consoling."

If that is still so, it is my only good reason for singing now.

Above: Spanish mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia (1895-1936).

9 comments:

Arachne said...

What a wonderful post. And how like my own experience! I too was made to sing coloratura rep for years (just because I had a top E), in spite of the fact that I was temperamentally and physiologically unsuited to it. My vocal muscles resented the strain of living permanently above their comfort zone, and my heart didn't accord with the genre, the characters or the roles. Issues of stamina and confidence prevented me from achieving success at auditions. By the time I found out my true fach (Bellini etc) it was too late. So I spent what small career I had in oratorio and church music rather than opera.

elena maria vidal said...

Very moving post and reminds me of when I was studying to be an opera singer. I did not get as far along as you did, not anywhere close. Being a singer is an all-encompassing vocation and I knew I could not follow the path to becoming a professional singer AND explore the Carmelite vocation to which I also felt drawn. It's all part of the choices we have to make in the journey of life, and the past we just have to turn over to God.

Betty Duffy said...

What do violinists use for birth control?


Their personalities!

Oh, ho ho! There are just so many good music jokes, aren't there? In the orchestra pit it was the violinists with the diva reputation, but my guess is there was a version of this joke for singers as well.


On another note, I just want to reiterate that I love this series of posts.

Pentimento said...

Yes, there are a lot of good musician and singer jokes, most of which can't be repeated on a family blog. I always thought of coloraturas as more like flutists than violinists though -- underfed and oversexed. And so much less important than violinists, but equally self-serving.

Arachne and Elena -- and you too, Betty -- I was reminded by your comments of the movie Babette's Feast, in which, at the end, one of the sisters tells Babette that in heaven she'll be the artist God meant her to be. May it be so for all of us, too.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

Wonderfully written, Pentimento.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Kyle.

mrsdarwin said...

I really enjoying looking at life on the "other side" through this series of posts. I think it's especially helpful for those of us (okay, maybe just me) who have this illusion that we coulda been contenders if only we'd devoted ourselves more to our art, made the sacrifices, gone further in our education, etc. (In my case, it's more than half a pipe dream anyway, since I got married right out of college and knew that I would likely get pregnant right away.) You give us a good reminder that even those who have the drive and the talent may also find that their niche is just not what's expected or popular.

mrsdarwin said...

BTW, will you ever post some clips of yourself singing? I'd love to put a voice to the descriptions.

Pentimento said...

Well, Mrs. Darwin, I said that I had a chance, but I have no idea if the chance would have paid off. I was a good singer and was able to do certain things quite well, but I was by no means the best in the world. And very little of it is in your control. I was doing better than a lot of people I knew - I had management, I had gigs - but lots of people never get further than that, and I might have been one of them. Luck, connections, and your willingness to max out your credit cards all play a part. And lots of people, when they get to where they've worked for years to be, have failures of nerve. In fact, that scenario is one that might very well have played out in my life. In the end, I think very little of it has to do with talent, though drive is another story.

I won't be posting clips here, since this blog is anonymous. However, I think you know how to contact me, and if you do, I'll send you some if you want.