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).