Saturday, October 31, 2009
Oh, joy! My iTunes was set to shuffle (that's on my Mac, not on my nonexistent iPod), and as I sat at my desk doing tedious things, I heard in a felicitous moment the tentative opening piano chords of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy. Listen here. It's sort of a run-up to the Symphony No. 9, with a simple, anthemic tune articulated first by the piano, then by the orchestra, then taken up by a solo vocal quartet, and finally by the entire chorus. The text is not unlike Schiller's, extolling the joys of brotherhood and the arts. It is a marvelous piece, and fills one with sheer delight at being human. I love Beethoven's use of the piano, which gives a sense of intimacy to a full-scale orchestral/choral work.
I remember checking a recording of the Choral Fantasy out of the local library when my son was a tiny baby, and how, in the the loneliness of being home alone with a newborn in the darkest winter, the strains of Beethoven made me feel connected to the stream of humanity in a way that nearly brought me to my knees.
have I lain in terror,
O Creator Spirit, maker of night and day,
only to walk out
the next morning over the frozen world,
hearing under the creaking snow
faint, peaceful breaths...
bear, earthworm, ant...
and above me
a wild crow crying 'yaw, yaw, yaw'
from a branch nothing cried from ever in my life.
("How Many Nights" by Galway Kinnell, from Three Books, © Houghton Mifflin, 2002.)
From The Writer's Almanac.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
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).
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Sunday, October 18, 2009
While in my master's degree program, I had the great good fortune to take a seminar in Twentieth-Century Analysis (um, that's post-tonal music, not post-Freudian psychology) with the late Ronald Roseman. Roseman, at one time the acting principal oboe with the New York Philharmonic -- if you want to hear some amazing playing, browse over to the link on his name -- was not only a brilliant musician and a dynamic teacher, but also a tremendously kind and humane man who was loved and admired by his students. He used to give me a lift to my subway line after our class, which finished in the early evening. I had noticed that he wore a tiny lapel pin in the shape of a dove, and one evening as we drove, I asked him, "Professor, are you a Catholic?" A funny thing for a lapsed cradle Catholic to be asking a Jew from Brooklyn, but everything is possible, and, indeed, as he told me, he was.
Professor Roseman explained that in the sixties he'd been searching. He'd gone to the usual sources -- mystical Judaism, Buddhism, eastern gurus -- but none of it seemed like the truth to him. Then one day he went with a friend to the first Mass of a newly-ordained Catholic priest. The priest blessed Roseman and his friend after Mass, and, he told me, he could feel the Holy Spirit descending into and through him, and it was as if he were on fire. He began studying the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, and his catechist was a young Jesuit with whom Professor Roseman would repair to a tavern after class to argue and drink. One night he asked the priest, "How can you expect me to believe all of this -- the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth?" The priest replied, "Don't worry; you will."
"And," Professor Roseman concluded. "I do."
As fortunate as I was to study musical analysis with such a great musician and scholar, I know now that I was even more fortunate to encounter Professor Roseman as a way-shower on my long road back to the truth.
The fact that Ronald Roseman was a brilliant oboist seems fitting to me. The old joke is that the oboe is an ill wind that no one blows good, which, as you can hear, is disproved by Roseman's virtuosity, as well as by his magnificent phrasing and tender lyricism on the instrument. Saint Paul calls the evil one "the prince of the power of the air," and yet, we know that in the beginning, the breath or wind of God -- in Hebrew, the Ruach Elohim -- moved upon the face of the waters. Ronald Roseman's musicianship was a baptism of sorts, a harnessing of the air in the service of beauty, which, Plato tells us, is truth.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
I want to give myself
as this maple
that burned and burned
for three days without stinting
and then in two more
dropped off every leaf;
as this lake that,
no matter what comes
to its green-blue depths,
both takes and returns it.
In the still heart that refuses nothing,
the world is twice-born --
two earths wheeling,
two egrets reaching
down into subtraction;
even the fish
for an instant doubled,
before it is gone.
I want the fish.
I want the losing it all
when it rains and I want
the returning transparanence.
I want the place
by the edge-flowers where
the shallow sand is deceptive,
steps in must plunge,
and I want that plunging.
I want the ones
who come in secret to drink
only in early darknes,
and I want the ones
who are swallowed.
I want the way
the water sees without eyes,
hears without ears,
shivers without will or fear
at the gentlest touch.
I want the way it
accepts the cold moonlight
and lets it pass,
the way it lets
all of of it pass
without judgment or comment.
There is a lake.
Lalla Ded sang, no larger
than one seed of mustard,
that all things return to.
O heart, if you
will not, cannot, give me the lake,
then give me the song.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
I intend no insult to my colleagues, and hope none is taken, when I repeat here the generally-accepted meme that classical singers lack the musicianship skills of instrumentalists. It's mostly true, but not because singers are stupid. The main reason for this skill deficit is that singers start serious study later than instrumentalists. In all but a few very rare prodigies, the vocal mechanism does not mature until a singer is in her teens (sometimes later for men), and it's unwise to attempt to develop a singing technique -- i.e., a reliable physiological method for producing the refined sound required by the classical vocal repertoire -- in a still-developing body. So, while pianists and violinists can start as young as four or five, most singers lag behind by at least ten years. And, while little pianists and violinists are learning to read and analyze music as they learn to play, some singers never acquire those abilities at the highest level. It is well-known, for example, that Pavarotti could not read music easily. But for every Pavarotti -- a truly great instinctive musician -- there is also a Maria Callas or a Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, not only great singers but also virtuoso musicians of the highest possible order, whose musical ability was arguably the true root of their greatness.
When I enrolled in my master's degree program in voice in the 1990s, I found myself among musicians whose skills far outstripped my own. Though I strove to distinguish myself among my singer colleagues, my theory and analysis abilities were relatively dismal, and I was required to take undergraduate theory. At the same time, however, I tested into the highest-level sight-reading and ear-training class on the graduate level, and I recall how the professor, when I came into his classroom at the first meeting, was sure that a mistake had been made (he demanded, "What are you doing in this class?"); singers were almost never admitted to it, especially not singers who'd been demoted to undergraduate theory. But, if my musicianship was weak, my musicality was strong; half of the reason, I think, that I got into the advanced class was that I instinctively knew how a piece of music written in the so-called common practice period was meant to go, and therefore, even under pressure, could sight-sing accurately.
I come from a family of accomplished musicians on both sides, and my two older brothers demonstrated unusual musical ability while still children, and went on to receive advanced degress and have professional careers in music. I, on the other hand, was a comparatively late bloomer. I had always sung, but didn't start doing it seriously until I was fifteen. My sudden emergence on the family musical scene upset the family dynamic to the extent that I was discouraged, rather than encouraged, from continuing, but I stuck to it, because I was receiving encouragement from outside the family (I had begun winning awards and honors as a high-school-aged singer), and besides, I loved doing it, and believed I had found my groove. It wasn't until I was about twenty that my mother, having come to hear me in a rehearsal, tearfully gave her blessing to my pursuit.
In college, my piano professor (mistakenly) believed that I should prepare to audition for the yearly concerto competition -- on piano -- the winner of which played a movement from a concerto written for his instrument with the college orchestra. I declined; I knew my limitations. I was, and am, merely an adequate pianist. But my professor wrote that year in an evaluation of my work with her, "Pentimento spends too much emotion away from the keyboard." I've thought about that caveat ever since. Is emotion what is required of classical musicians? Yes . . . and no. Yes, we must be able to access deep reserves of feeling. But we cannot allow emotion to dominate performance. The singers who do this are often noted for performances that move audiences profoundly, relying on hastily-put-together techniques that too often cause the practitioner to burn out fast. It's not emotion that drives a singing technique. Technique must be mastered so that emotions can be accessed in a safe way for the vocal mechanism, and so that they can be expressed in a way that moves the audience but not the singer. This is one of the most difficult aspects of performance to master. The great soprano Renée Fleming has written of singing the title role in Carlisle Floyd's Susannah at the Met while going through an excruciating divorce. Although she was able to access her despair for the role (Floyd's opera transposes the story of Susanna and the Elders to rural Tennessee in the first half of the twentieth century) to the extent that tears streamed down her face in the midst of her performance, the audience didn't get it; a friend who was there told Fleming, "You really have to work on your acting" (in fact, I was also in the audience for Fleming's short run of Susannahs in 1999, and I felt the same thing). The way to give the audience the emotional experience -- indeed, the catharsis -- that they are craving, and that the singer may be craving too, is to give it away, to forego the pleasure of an emotional transport and use one's technique, as well as gesture and movement, to demonstrate it for the audience instead.
All of this is a circuitous road to my real point, which is the intersection of music and memory, in particular the chance encounter with music that evokes felicitous memory. During my early days in one of the undergraduate theory classes in which I was embarrassed to be the only graduate student, the professor illustrated a point by going to the piano and playing the opening bars of the Variation VII Grazioso from Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn -- which may be heard here by scrolling down to the right-hand side of the screen -- with such delicacy and understatement that I could feel my insides clench in recognition, though I'd never heard the piece before. And, while my theory-analytical music vocabulary was then, and remains, inadequate to explain why this piece works like that, I can tell you that Brahms is the master of expressing the sense of bittersweet resignation, and of joy muted by grief and experience, particularly through his use of harmonic progression and the subtleties of his writing for the lower voices.
I turned on the radio yesterday, and heard the Variation VII Grazioso, and my gut clenched in exactly the same way as it had in undergraduate theory, and I wondered about my fellow students from way back then -- did Esther, the Orthodox Jewish violinist who wore a shearling coat and platform shoes, end up marrying a scripture scholar and finding an orchestral job that would allow her to get a sub every Friday night, as she'd hoped? -- and our wonderful, humane professor. And what made our professor most humane, I think, along with all the other professors, is that they were showing us how important classical music was -- how it could be a true lifeline that helped us connect to our humanity at the deepest level, and how we could learn how to help our audiences do the same.
Above: the incomparable Bianca Castafiore, the "Milanese Nightingale" of the Tintin series (whose name, incidentally, means white chaste flower).
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Friday, October 9, 2009
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Here is one of the most beautiful of Schubert's six-hundred-plus songs, "Im Frühling" (In Springtime), a setting of a poem by Ernst Schulze. The strophic seting is deceptively simple; it is only in the fifth strophe that Schubert does what he does best, using a subtle economy of means to completely change the emotional world of the song from the pastoral to the heartbroken, simply by exchanging the major key for its parallel minor, until what began as a paean to love in springtime has become a stricken lament for love and love's illusions.
The singer, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, has always been controversial, not only because she joined the Nazi Party during World War II (whether for ideological or mercenary purposes I don't know, although some of her colleagues became prominent anti-Fascists and went into exile). Aficionados either love or hate her singing; her detractors find her interpretations crooning and mannered. I happen to love her, and I particularly love her in this song. As you can see in the video, she was also an extraordinarily beautiful woman.
Quietly I sit on the hill's slope.
The sky is so clear;
a breeze plays in the green valley.
Where I was at Spring's first sunbeam
once – alas, I was so happy!
When I was walking at her side,
So intimate and so close,
and deep in the dark rocky spring
was the beautiful sky, blue and bright;
and I saw her in the sky.
Look how colorful Spring already
looks out from bud and blossom!
Not every blossom is the same for me:
I like best to pick from the branch
from which she picked hers!
For all is as it was:
the flowers, the field;
the sun does not shine less brightly,
nor does the spring reflect any less charmingly
the blue image of the sky.
The only things that change are will and delusion:
Joys and quarrels alternate,
the happiness of love flies past,
and only the love remains –
The love and, alas, the sorrow.
Oh, if only I were a little bird,
there, on the meadow's slope,
then I would remain here on these branches,
and sing a sweet song about her
the whole summer long.
A regular time together praying and studying God’s Word will help her mature in her walk with the Lord. Allowing her opportunity to observe life as you live it — meal preparation, family time, and providing wholesome conversation and wise counsel on a frequent basis — can provide teaching moments that will benefit her for a lifetime. Introducing her to a small group or class in the church where she and her baby are welcomed and plugged in will be vital to her restoration.
These are just a few examples of things the body of Christ can do. Staying connected with young couples or single moms who have chosen life should continue beyond the celebration of the child’s birth if we truly desire to fulfill the law of Christ in bearing one another’s burdens.
You will find it is not a burden after all, but a tremendous blessing as your family line extends to include these precious souls as part of your own."
From the 40 Days for Life blog.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
"Beethoven is not my friend . . . and I don’t always like him. He can infuriate me with his scorn, his pettiness, his arrogant and cruel moods – he’s not a person who, if I did not know, I would pursue a friendship with. That doesn’t matter, though, because I do know him, and he knows me. He’s my brother, and so I will always love him."
Don't miss this thrilling post from the music blog The Big City.
Monday, October 5, 2009
In retrospect, I know that what I was searching for in those rooms was some formula or magic spell to make my boyfriend want to stay with me, love me, and marry me, but I believed at the time that I was treading a spiritual path towards the masterful ability to love people with detachment. No one came out and mentioned that you have to detach when you love an addict, or your heart will be broken over and over in a way that can only be described as abusive. The best advice anyone could have given me at the time, of course, would have been to break up with A., but no one did, and if anyone had, I probably would have ignored it. I was desperately afraid to be alone. My first marriage had just ended, and I was consumed by grief and guilt, but I thought one had to simply make the best of things and move on, and I assumed that, because A. was a sort of latter-day hippie, he would simply become my husband by default if not by intention, as I imagined was the way with hippies. And that was good enough for me.
One day, at my favorite meeting, which was held on Saturdays in an Episcopalian Church on the Upper West Side and was attended by lots of writers, artists, and actors, it occurred to me that all the talk of God in "the rooms" was just a consolation prize for me. I didn't really want God. I wanted a man. I wanted true, mad, deep, everlasting love. Since I couldn't have that at the moment, I was turning with a huge sigh of resignation to "the God of my understanding." My Al-Anon friends had their "God boxes," in which they placed scraps of paper on which they'd written their supplications, and I tried this too, but, when I read them over, I saw that the few requests that were not for A. to stay were all for God's forgiveness for my many sins. I began to realize that no matter how sympathetic my Al-Anon friends were to my plight, and however much they suffered in ther own bad circumstances, they neither sought to change their own nor advised their friends and those they sponsored to change theirs. There was an awful sense sameness, and sadness, about the enterprise of learning to "detach with love" from those with whom one's life and future were intertwined.
I have to admit that I still often think of God as a consolation prize. Quite often I want something else -- something easier, sweeter, more apparently beautiful, and certainly more fun -- and I get God instead. I feel like Charlie Brown on Halloween, in his disastrous costume, reaching into his trick-or-treat bag and realizing, with both exasperated resignation and recognition, that he got a rock.
But a Turkish woman I met once shared a Turkish proverb with me: "God takes the sugar, but leaves the honey." And God has, after all, promised that He will give us honey out of that rock.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
I wonder sometimes if I'll ever get used to life as it really is, if I'll ever reconcile myself to the fact that it has little if anything in common with the dark, redolent landscapes suggested to me in my youth by the songs of Brahms and Schumann and the poetry they set. In my younger days, I imagined that I could recreate my life whole out of those ingredients, plus maybe a bowl of flowers, some macrobiotic groceries, red lipstick, and a thrift-store coat. Things seemed like so much more than what they were; I could practically feel the molecules moving along the surfaces of the created world, and I expected objects to live and breathe and tell me their stories. I also imagined that I was the translator of phenomena, that I needed to make the hidden stories of things known through my own artistic work. I thought that if things looked a certain way, smelled a certain way, and sounded a certain way in my daily experience, everything would be all right. In short, I believed that aesthetics trumped nature, nurture, neurosis, and the whole host of other uncontrollable variables that end up carving a life out of the seemingly endless run of days. Oh, and grace. I didn't know much about it, nor about mercy; but I did have the sense of an invisible thread of goodness that somehow tugged me safely through some shocking and desperate situations.
But grace is not always aesthetically satisfying. It's hard to distinguish sometimes between the gift of humility, which is like a long exhalation of relief, and the feeling of being kicked down howling into the dirt. Grace has led me further away from the beautiful perceptions that used to make up my days -- the vetiver perfume worn by a bohemian German woman who sat next to me at the ballet one day when I was fourteen, the swirl of cream spiraling down into a glass of black coffee, the delightful label on a can of imported tomato paste, so beautiful that I removed it and pinned it up on the wall -- and deeper into the repetitive, drone-like tasks that actually do make up the days of most adults.
I sometimes think that the adults in my life recognized certain proclivities in me as a child and trained me for them, with the result that I lived as an artist and lacked practicality almost entirely. I also behaved in ways that were hurtful to those around me. I think the adults felt themselves to have been thwarted by responsibility and circumstance from paying court to beauty as they had wished to, and so trained me to do it for them. But in the end, like most people, I eventually had to learn the hard lessons of adulthood; I just did so later than most, and with more resentment.
When everything whispered beauty to me, I lived in a kind of perfumed solitude, which has devolved now into ordinary everyday loneliness. And it's almost a year since we moved away from New York, and I still can't drive.
But Mark Strand wrote in his beautiful poem "The Continuous Life":
What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children hunched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,
Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving
From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,
Have run their course? O parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them
Your worship of household chores has barely begun;
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;
Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;
Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,
That your search goes on for something you lost—a name,
A family album that fell from its own small matter
Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,
You don't really know. Say that each of you tries
To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending
Small tremors of love through your brief,
Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.
Above: The Table (1925) by Pierre Bonnard.