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:
Two or more glasses of Cold Water
(not ice water)
Ham and Eggs
Some Meat Order
Plenty of Salad
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.