Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Advice to Young Singers, Part 1: Ham, Eggs, and Atlantic City


I was married in 2005, have moved three times since then, and am about to move again.  The first move was from my aerie in Washington Heights, a place where I spent what seem like the crucial years of my adulthood, to my new home as a bride in the Bronx, a few miles to the east.  My new husband had picked out a very nice apartment in an Italian neighborhood, because he thought I'd be happy around my own kind.  Alas, this was not to be, as our landlord, who lived downstairs from us, moonlighted as a deejay, and would spend the wee hours working on his mixes, causing me to drag my pregnant self out of bed on countless occasions to pound on his door.  So we soon moved to another Bronx neighborhood, known affectionately as "County Woodlawn," where my husband could be happy around his own kind, and where he'd lived for many years previously.   I loved this neighborhood, on the far northern fringes of the city, myself.  It felt like the land that time forgot.  We moved to a small city in Appalachia last year, and we are about to move into our first house, so hopefully we will stay put for a while.

The hardest part of every move for me has been the inevitable book purge.  I find it very hard to part with any book, though I know I will have to shuffle some off in the interest of moving sanity.  While making the initial pass through my library the other day, I found a book that I used to love, Great Singers on the Art of Singing, a collection of essays by the prominent opera stars of the day, published in 1921.  I turned immediately to my favorite essay, by Ernestine Schumann-Heink (above), the great German contralto who was extremely popular in the United States in the period around World War I.

The primary reason I love Mme. Schumann-Heink's essay is the same reason I love reading cookbooks and police procedurals:  it appeals to my deep hunger for order and ritual.   In one section, for instance, Mme. Schumann-Heink details the necessities of a singer's daily routine:

First of all comes diet.  Americans as a rule eat far too much [this in 1921].  Why do some of the good churchgoing people raise such an incessant row about over-drinking when they constantly injure themselves quite as much by over-eating?  What difference does it make whether you ruin your stomach, liver, or kidneys by too much alcohol or too much roast beef?  One vice is as bad as another.  The singer must live upon a light diet. . . . Here is an average ménu for my days when I am on tour:

BREAKFAST
Two or more glasses of Cold Water
(not ice water)
Ham and Eggs
Coffee 
Toast.

MID-DAY DINNER
Soup
Some Meat Order
A Vegetable
Plenty of Salad
Fruit.

SUPPER
A Sandwich
Fruit.

Such a ménu I find ample for the heaviest kind of professional work.  If I eat more, my work may deteriorate, and I know it.

Fresh air, sunshine, sufficient rest and daily baths in tepid water night and morning are a part of my regular routine . . . . There is nothing like such a routine as this to avoid colds . . . . To me, one day at Atlantic City is better for a cold than all the medicine I can take. . . . I always make a bee line for Atlantic City the moment I feel a serious cold on the way.

Sensible singers know now that they must avoid alcohol, even in limited quantities, if they desire to be in the prime of condition . . . . Champagne particularly is poison to the singer just before singing  [the idea of drinking champagne just before singing is akin, in my mind, to the adage about coloratura sopranos having sex during a performance]. . . I am sorry for the singer who feels that some spur like champagne or a cup of strong coffee is desirable before going upon the stage [I myself always eat dark chocolate just before singing.  I'm not sure why; I've been doing it for years.  I suppose it's the dread "spur" that Mme. Schumann-Heink deplores].

Writing like this sends me into ecstasies.  It's not just the idea of Mme. Schumann-Heink's "light" breakfasts; it's also the notion that following these steps, like reciting a spell, will have some sort of magically beneficent effect on one.

I will be posting more excerpts from this excellent book before I pack it up in the next few days.  In the meantime, enjoy Mme. Schumann-Heink's very beautiful singing of "Stille Nacht," which she sang every year on U.S. radio between 1926 and 1935, here. 

12 comments:

BettyDuffy said...

A light breakfast? She must have incredible portion control.

My sister and I were just talking about the difficulty of getting rid of books. A solution we thought might be to have a book exchange for Christmas so we can be certain that the beloved books with which we must part can make it into the hands of someone else who is sure to covet them. The downside it that whoever gets my book would end up with a Goodwill copy of Bergdorf Blondes. I think that might be the only one I can part with at the moment.

Pentimento said...

I seem to recall that you had a copy of Eat, Pray, Love that you were willing to part with . . . have you seen the parody version, Drink, Play, F---?

mrsdarwin said...

When I was a teenager I came across a dogeared copy of some famous etiquette writer's Guide for Teenagers, written sometime when it would have been in fashion for the teens in the illustrations to wear A-line swing dresses and bouffant hairdos. I read that book religiously, even to the advice about whether you should choose pink or orange-y lipstick (both of which would be the kiss of death with my complexion) because of the delicious feeling one got that just following these social rules would guarantee popularity and grace and all good things. It's like Frau Schumann-Heink's rules for eating -- even if you don't plan to follow them yourself, you get pleasantly comfortable feeling to know that someone's life seems to fall into order simply through following this routine.

(Separately, I would like to note that I would adore eating ham for breakfast every morning. Maybe it would improve my voice and my disposition.)

Pentimento, if you enjoy cookbooks and procedurals, you might find yourself loving to read the Rule of St. Benedict. It's full of orderly advice for living a life of spiritual tidiness (and it's directed at monks, so you don't feel like you personally have to live up to all of it) and it's suprisingly reasonable and accomodating. I remember being taken aback, encountering it in college, that the Rule wasn't as draconian as I had been expecting.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Mrs. D. I think I actually have the Rule around here somewhere. It's one of the many books I mean to read at some point, but I'm going to shift it to the top of the list.

I never did try the ham-and-eggs vocal tonic, but I did (for a while anyway) follow the great nineteenth-century soprano Adelina Patti's advice to singers to NEVER drink red wine. I used to spend a great deal of time with my accompanist, F., who lived right around the corner and was a fantastic cook and oenophile, and I was always embarrassed to admit I was refusing his good wine because of . . . Adelina Patti's hundred-year-old advice. I actually think I became a much better singer when I stopped being so hinky about such things.

BettyDuffy said...

Eat Pray Love was a loaner. It's long gone. But where can I get this parody version. Is it on the internet?

I was thinking about your dark chocolate thing too. Our dentist keeps a bowl of dark chocolate on his checkout counter with a little sign that says it's good for your teeth. Something about it coating and protecting the inside of your mouth.

Pentimento said...

Right here.

http://www.amazon.com/Drink-Play-Anything-Ireland-Thailand/dp/0802170528

Looks pretty funny. From a review:

"For who among us hasn't dreamed of standing stark naked, head upturned, and mouth agape beneath a cascading torrent of Guinness Stout?"

BettyDuffy said...

Indeed, I have had that dream.

Following Newman, perhaps I'll read it.

Pentimento said...

It would probably be a good palate-cleanser after Newman.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

I wonder if Gottlieb is not a speudonym for Gilbert's husband ...

Pentimento said...

Thanks for your comment, Hans-Georg . . . but in truth I'm not sure what you're referring to.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Authoress and author of:

Eat, Pray, Love

AND

Drink, Play, F...

Pentimento said...

Oh, got it, thanks! :)

I haven't read either Eat Pray Love or its "tribute" memoir, but perhaps you're right: I seem to recall that Gilbert left her marriage before embarking on her journey of self-whatever.