Saturday, October 2, 2010

Music and Memory, Part 18: Dreams Dashed

I got a letter in the mail today -- a real one -- from my beloved friend Soprannie.  She writes of attending a production of Le nozze di Figaro, an opera in which she and I once performed together: 

I missed [some] parts because I was busy weeping silently as my husband held my hand.  Mostly in Act II, that perfect, beautiful thing.  I try to feel lucky that I got to be a part of that gorgeous music -- twice! and once with a dear friend.  Ah, we were so full of hope.  I remember [my voice teacher] saying to me, when I called her, tearful, from [an audition tour in] Germany, "You're not the first girl to get her dreams dashed". . . . It was . . . the first time I have gone to the opera without thinking, "that could be me some day . . . " Instead, I thought, "that will never be me."  

But it is OK, isn't it?  I think so.  We could have kept striving and striving and still never hit the big stage.  My friend R. [a gifted baritone] is a great reminder of that.  He's doing well -- a few small directing gigs, constant choral work (New York Philharmonic, American Symphony Orchestra, etc.), occasional step-out [solos] with ASO, a few opera gigs at regional houses around the country . . . but at 45 he is still couch-surfing, single, and hoping for a B-house gig.  I don't envy him.  Usually.  Mostly.

Soprannie is one of the best musicians I know.  In some way, I think I immunized myself against the depth of her present grief, having preempted it by leaving opera, focusing on the rare recital repertoire that became my specialty, and getting my doctorate in voice performance.  Sometimes I think those were all dodges, ways to avoid a fate that is shared by the vast majority of singers who graduate from conservatories and voice programs at American universities each spring.  There are thousands of them, young singers who are talented, well-trained, and hungry, and I estimate that there are currently only around a hundred or so American singers making a living as soloists in opera.  About ten or fifteen of them are famous; the rest you'll never hear of, but they're working.

A couple of years ago my comboxes played host to a rather vicious woman who saw to it to remind me that the arts were for "those who have talent," myself, presumably, not included among them (this same commenter urged Dawn Eden to drop me from her blogroll after interpreting an emoticon I had used in my own combox as proof of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  If I were made of tougher stuff, I would tell you truthfully that this didn't make me cry for months, or send me to the confessional about seven times just to make sure I hadn't somehow unintentionally committed such blasphemy, but this was not the case).  I can only assume that this reader, who is perhaps by now plying her own talents elsewhere, didn't know many classical musicians personally.  In the layman's world, is there really the idea anymore that if you're good, you make it, and if you don't, that's proof of your lack of goodness?  The professional and academic classical music world is the world in which I've been brewed, steeped, and simmered for almost my entire life.  My friends -- singers, conductors, instrumental soloists, orchestral players -- are not getting work, and in case there was any doubt, many of them are musicians of the highest level.  I subbed on a couple of church gigs on Long Island, for instance, with one of the best conductors I've ever worked with.  Another friend, a cellist who was acclaimed for his performances of new music and played a few gigs with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, was shunned by other classical musicians when he started subbing in the pits on Broadway shows after his children were born; a few years later, the scorners were approaching him, hat in hand, to ask how they, too, could get sub work on Broadway.  A kick-ass oboist I know is working for a bank; a truly great pianist moved to Vermont in order to place his autistic son in a better school, and did financial consulting work from home when he could get it, mostly borrowing, as he told me, from "the bank of Mom and Dad."  I know of at least one marriage that has ended as the result of there being simply no work in classical music.  This is bitter indeed for "those who have talent," and who have spent their entire lives learning to speak the language of beauty in order to share it with others, to help others to wash, as Picasso put it, the dust of the everyday from their souls.

Little girls who sing with preternatural vocal (but not musical) maturity on national television will work, in the sense of getting Vegas acts with lots of costume changes and making lots of money.  But they will miss the chance they might have had to enter into the enchanted realms of art, of beauty, of poetry, of music.  It's a pity that the world values classical music so little, and values classical musicians even less; every true musician I've ever known has wanted only to share their joy in that "holde Kunst," as Schubert and the poet von Schober put it -- that wondrous art that transports the hearts of the suffering in their darkest hours to joy, to companionship, to the knowledge that God exists and that they are not alone.


marie therese 1 said...

Dear Pentimento,
Your spirit is so tender and sensitive.
From your blog:
Gertrude the Great, for instance, wrote of a visitation by the Lord in which he told her: “Listen to me, beloved, and I will sing you a song of love that is quite different from those sung by profane courtiers,” and then proceeded, in a voice that Gertrude calls indescribably sweet, to sing the following words to the hymn tune Rex Christe factor:

Amore meus continuus,
Tibi languor assiduous,
Amor tuus suavissimus,
Mihi sapor gratissimus.

(My continuous love,
Your persistent languor;
Your very sweet love,
a most pleasing savor to me.)

Mechthild of Hackeborn, the abbey’s choirmistress, was renowned for her own beautiful voice; her sisters in religion referred to her as “God’s nightingale.” She received a revelation in which Christ extended a harp from his sacred heart, explaining that the harp was himself, and the strings were “all chosen souls which are all one in God through love”; then Christ, the “high chanter of all chanters,” struck the harp and led “all the angels with delectable sound” as they sang the hymn Regem regum Dominum.
You, too, are God's nightingale and he will continue to sing His songs in you, even in the middle of a very coarse world. You touch deeper chords in those who "listen" to your spirit than you will know on this side of Heaven. Keep singing, you hold up an important banner.
Peace, Mary

Pentimento said...

God bless you, Mary, and thank you. Sometimes your comments are all I need to keep me going.

Anonymous said...


Pentimento said...

TQ, do you mean Kathleen Ferrier singing Schubert's "An die Musik"? It's truly great.

eaucoin said...

I have a daughter who abandoned voice very early because, in her words: "I have the kind of voice that is only good at singing the kind of songs that nobody wants to listen to." She was talking about opera, and after I finished laughing at how succinctly she had summarized the subject, I felt sad that most people would never hear her sing. The world is full of loud noises and vulgarity. Even if we train many wonderful singers, how many ears are trained to listen well enough to appreciate the beautiful sounds. There are not many professions where you still see people starving for the sake of their art, but opera is like that. But in my mind, I still replay her performance of Panis Angelicus, one of her best gifts to me.

Pentimento said...

Eaucoin, the thought of the beautiful voices I know that no one will ever hear again haunts me. And it's sad too to think that some of them were only ever heard by their friends, voice teachers, and the indifferent adjudicators from the regional opera houses who used to come to New York City every fall to audition (trips often timed to coincide with their Christmas shopping!) I feel this about Soprannie. The last time I heard her, in 2003, she sounded amazing; it seemed to be the moment when everything -- all the years of training, all the excruciating, solitary practice -- had finally come together. She was pregnant with her first child, and she went on singing professionally for about a year and a half after he was born. Then her family moved cross-country and she had two more children, and it just became unfeasible to continue.

I wonder often about how classical music can really do anything for people in our age. I'm still hopeful that it can, but I fear the audiences for it are getting more and more narrow by class, education, and income, and even brought into the schools it probably has little impact.

But we still have to keep doing it.

About starving for one's art -- in NYC, there are still many thousands -- tens of thousands, I would guess -- of artists across disciplines "starving" for their arts, not just in opera, but also in theater, writing, painting. People still flock there to starve. That starved world was my milieu for so long and I think they are doing something very important for the collective soul of our society, even if their work is never known.

mrsdarwin said...

I keep typing and retyping a comment against the destruction wrought by my two-year-old son, and now I've completely lost the thread of what I was going to say. In the end my children will be my only lasting contribution to society: I say this not for any mawkish reason or great religious renunciation but simply because everything I have is remade in their image, or destroyed.

I hope one day I'll have a chance to hear you sing in person and so keep your talent and training alive and warm in my memory.

Pentimento said...

There's so much to say about this, Mrs. Darwin. Betty Duffy has a post up that also addresses motherhood and renunciation of ambition. Sometimes I feel like I haven't accepted my vocation yet, since I continue to sing. But my old voice teacher said that singing is always better than not singing, and he's right, he's right. It just makes things better and more bearable somehow, and I still hope that it will bring healing to someone.

I'm performing in Boston at the end of this year, but I know that's still pretty far from you.