Thursday, February 3, 2011

Town and Country

 Years ago, I used to take the train upstate in the summer to visit family.  Passing through the crumbling cities of the Rust Belt, I would fantasize about leaving New York City to move to one of them.  That abandoned warehouse hard by the train station:  what a great cultural center it would make!  Studios for artists, a performance space, workshops, community outreach, a coffee bar . . . I supposed that grants to arts organizations in areas like that could be had for the asking.  But it never turned into anything more than one of the many idle get-rich-quick schemes of a slightly-out-of-the-mainstream and rather-increasingly-jaded young opera singer.

A few days ago, I gave a concert in my new town, which is very much like those crumbling Rust Belt cities that I used to see from the window of the Amtrak Maple Leaf, only possibly slightly less cosmopolitan and slightly more crumbling.  The genesis of this concert was a phone call a few months ago from a colleague of mine, a wonderful bass who now teaches at a large Southern university; he told me he wanted to come up to do a concert with me.  He needed more performances for his tenure file.  So I contacted a few people and arranged for us to do a concert in what may become a regular salon concert series in a beautiful space with a fine piano.  I also arranged for him to teach a master class to the local university's voice students.  I planned and thematically programmed the repertoire -- all chamber music from nineteenth-century Italy -- made translations, and spoke to the audience about the music.  And, as with all gigs, no matter how small, I practiced as if it were the most important gig of my life.  We also enlisted a gifted young local tenor, a popular favorite, to sing with us, and there my troubles began. 

I think there's a reason that some of the best twentieth-century British comic novels are set in the provinces.  My tenor, who I emphasize could be monstrously good, has never made the break to New York, partly because he's well-loved here, and partly because it's cheap enough to live here that he's able to spend a good part of his day taking long baths, watching old movies, and drinking martinis, which doesn't happen much for young tenors in New York, most of whom are office temps by day and/or waiters and bartenders by night.  But who can blame my tenor?  I'd be drinking a martini in the bath right now if I had some gin on hand.

I gave him the music I wanted him to sing -- all pieces that have rarely been in the past hundred years or more, possibly never performed in this locale at all, and unrecorded (which meant he wouldn't be able to take the lazy man's way out and learn them from CDs) back in October, but he learned it (sort of) three days before the performance.  My bass colleague was slightly appalled for about five minutes, but quickly assured me he'd seen this sort of situation, and this sort of tenor, before: the gifted local favorite whom much is forgiven on account of his personal charm, and who never develops the skills that would afford him a career outside of the provinces.  "It's too bad," my colleague said, "because my manager needs a tenor, and I would have recommended him if he weren't so unprofessional."

The moral of this story is that there are no low-stakes gigs.  You never know who it is that you may be working with or performing for.  I'm not saying that I've never turned in a bad performance -- I have -- but it wasn't because I hadn't learned my music.  In fact, I have a recurrring nightmare, as I'm sure most singers do, that an important gig is looming and I don't know my part.  I couldn't understand why my tenor would willingly put himself through such harrowing stress, if it weren't that he knew he'd be forgiven any offense by an adoring audience who wouldn't notice his mistakes anyway. I'm trying hard to find this attitude forgivable, for to me it shows contempt for one's audience, for one's colleagues, and for the music itself, which we are privileged to be able to sing.

Our pianist -- who is local and truly excellent -- was chagrined.  She had recommended him.  She has some connections to New York, has played there, and feels a sort of provincial insecurity around artists from there.  "Pentimento," she kept saying me, "when did you last experience this sort of thing?"  Well, never, actually.  But it's not because singers, or people, in New York are better.  It's just that they're different.  They're hungry; they're driven.  There are hundreds of people auditioning for the same job.  There are thousands of opera singers in New York, of varying degrees of success and ability, who have come there from all over the country and the world because they believe they have the relentless discipline and stamina to survive and triumph in that brutal, cut-throat climate.  They aren't always better singers than my local tenor, but they are better workers, and in the end, I will aver with my dying breath, that is the thing that matters most of all.

I'm not knocking the life of a small-town artist.  I can understand its appeal to a certain sort of person.  But I see that it has a lot to do with adoring dowagers and martinis in the bathtub (though not at the same time), and very little to do with art, because you can never really get to the heart of the beauty, the truth, the compelling intimacy, or the healing that is inherent in the music if you haven't bothered to really learn it.
When we went out to a bar after the performance, I told my bass colleague that I felt like a light had gone out in my life since we moved here.  "Well, turn it back on, Pentimento!" he roared at me.  "Make your niche here!  I'm going to call you every day and kick your ass until you do."

It may happen.  My autoharp-procuring mentor, unbidden by me, has pledged a fairly substantial sum to fund a vocal chamber music collective in this area founded and directed by me.  His idea.  I may be writing more here at some point about music-making in the provinces.  In the meantime, straight up with olives, please.

(Above:  a scene from "Red, White, and Blaine," the show-within-a-show in that great film parody of community theater, Waiting for Guffman.)


ex-new yorker said...

I have always wondered about the talent versus work factor. For example, I eventually came to the conclusion that I probably had slightly better than average "potential," maybe even more -- but then I wonder if it's just that the average person could be a pretty good singer and I was simply more motivated to try out my voice and learn the principles of singing in the first place, even if I didn't stick with it.

I studied voice for a couple of stretches as an adult. By my standards at the time, seeking out my first teacher and going into Manhattan for lessons was a sign of unusual motivation. I was so shy, and didn't have much confidence in my voice, but had wanted for so long to sing and spent so much of my alone time doing so. I was honestly surprised that the teacher even determined I had no problems matching pitch. And it was always important to me that my teachers be sparing with the compliments so I could believe them. (They were, so I did.) But I didn't practice faithfully either time around (I was 20-21 the first time and 27 with kids the second.) Such a waste of time and money and maybe even talent. I'd have been happy with just about any kind of singing opportunity, even to be a member of a church choir earning no special praise. (Not that I didn't fantasize about being judged to have been hiding a really amazing voice all along...)

Pentimento said...

That talent-work ethic equation can by mysterious, Ex-New Yorker, but the most talented people in the world really always come to ground if they don't develop a stringent discipline. So in the long run, in classical singing, slow and steady wins the race. A coach I knew used to tell us: "Having a career doesn't mean getting a gig. Having a career means being invited back." The economy of an opera, or even a solo concert gig, employs more people than avident to the audience, and the most talented singer who doesn't know his music pulls down the quality of an entire production, and is seen as making his colleagues look bad, so won't be hired back.

I think what it boils down to is what Stanislavsky said: "You must love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art." Seriously, the classical repertoire, enormous an varied as it is, is so great and so beautiful that every time I have a gig I am elated just to have the chance to add my voice to it. To be able to share it with other people feels like a gift from God.

It sounds like, in Stanislavsky's equation, you really did love the art in yourself. I hope you're still singing.

Of course, I'm curious to know who you studied with in NYC, wondering if I knew them.

BettyDuffy said...

I thought of you recently when my aunt hosted a small concert in her living room. She had made a donation to the percussion section of the Cincinnati Symphony, and in turn they provided a small concert showcasing several of the new instruments they were able to purchase: a marimba, a xylophone, etc. It was a great concert, and the musicians hosted a question and answer session afterwards. One attendee asked if they all went to school to study percussion. "No--this is just a hobby we do in our free time," answered a percussionist--tongue in cheek. "Really, we all began studying at a very young age with private teachers, then we went to different conservatories around the country, and most of us have graduate degrees. This is a career."

It was a funny moment, but illustrated the lack of understanding on the part of the audience in terms of the making of a musician.

Darwin said...

Speaking of art in the provinces, have you ever, by chance, read Robertson Davies' Salterton Trilogy?

Pentimento said...

Betty, that concert sounds SO VERY, EXTREMELY COOL. Your aunt must be very cool, too.

I think those misconceptions about musical ability are rampant, and are even worse when it comes to singing. There's this idea that anyone can be a pretty good singer (though there's no corresponding idea that anyone can be a pretty good left-handed pitcher, which is about as realistic); that you just have to love singing, and it will come naturally. Come to think of it, it's sort of similar to the way our culture views writing.

I'm sure every one of those percussionists felt incredibly fortunate to have such a good job, too. No doubt they went to conservatory and graduate school with players who don't have jobs, but are no less skilled.

Pentimento said...

Darwin, the only Davies novel I've read is A Mixture of Frailties, which is wonderful.

Darwin said...

Mixture of Frailties is the third of the Salterton Trilogy -- though it's not a tight trilogy. They just share some characters in common.

The first of the three is Tempest Tost, and involves a professional director who agrees to direct a regional amateur theater production of The Tempest in the small university town of Salterton. It's much lighter than Mixture of Frailties and draws much of its humor from the professional vs. amateur theater dynamics.

Leaven of Malice, the second, is actually the lightest of the three, being a brief romantic comedy of sorts.

If you liked Mixture of Frailties you'd probably enjoy the other two as well, though Mixture is definitely the best of the three.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I would actually love to read these. A Mixture of Frailties is one of my favorite novels of all time.

Enbrethiliel said...


Pentimento, when you compared our culture's views of singing and writing, a light went off in my head. In a world where anyone can get a blog and sign up for NaNoWriMo, everyone is a "writer."

But this cavalier attitude to the arts is not such a new phenomenon. I have a collection of Shakespeare's comedies that my grandmother used when she was in college, and there's a paragraph in the introduction about people thinking they're ready to perform Shakespeare just because they can memorise the lines and have some natural acting ability. I wonder how far back we can trace it . . .

Pentimento said...

My old voice teacher A.B. once said that the microphone had ruined singing, because from thenceforth a piece of gear was what separated amateurs from professionals. Recorded music, according to this theory, then also destroyed musical literacy as a cultural commons, as well as music-making in the home. Now if you have a mic that you sing with, you're a "pro."

ex-new yorker said...

My teacher in NY in the late '90s was Elisabeth Lohninger. Her website says she teaches jazz at the New School, but I saw her privately. I don't know whether or not she was much involved with the classical voice world, if there is such a thing, in NYC. Only have positive memories of her.

The technique was classical, I believe, as I'm pretty sure basic voice instruction always should be, but the music we worked on was varied. Some jazz standards she chose which I was too stiff to put much personality into (at least in front of anybody!); a few art songs, Italian and English; Beatles by request; even "Ave Verum Corpus." I was passionate about '60s and '70s soul at the time, but mine is about the last voice you want to hear doing that, though she let me try. The Italian art songs (ariette?) were probably the best match, and I enjoyed them, having chosen to study Italian in high school and college just because it was a pretty language.

Wistfulness about this probably is part of why I've made piano a high priority for our oldest son in spite of limited resources. Not to push him, let alone live through him, but both parents probably could have done more with music if there'd been more of a formal foundation. My husband has been I suppose a semi-professional musician, and in terms of ear and the dexterity needed for instruments, clearly has more natural talent than I do. Maybe my love for the art will bear more fruit in helping my children develop their talents if they find the same loves.

Pentimento said...

I know who Elizabeth Lohninger is, but I don't know her personally.

Not to be a Tiger Mother, but there's no way my kids can get out of learning at least one instrument. Life would be just too brutal, I think, if you couldn't make music at least a little. As the literary critic Georg Lukacs said, "We possess art lest we perish of the truth."

Enbrethiliel said...


And now that I think about it, there is a similar way of looking at teaching. ("I've been through two years of kindergarten, seven years of grade school, four years of high school. Of course I know how to teach!") Not that Colleges of Education are very good, but there really are invisible disciplines in so many things we take for granted.

Melanie B said...

The same holds true for photography as well. In the age of the digital camera, anyone can be a "photographer". Dom's colleague who has been a professional photographer for decades, worked for major newspapers, was president of the Boston Press Photographers Association, etc, often finds the attitude that anyone can do it.

It's been a long time since I read the Salterton Trilogy but do remember it fondly. I went on a real Robertson Davies kick right after I graduated from college and collected just about everything I can find. I wonder if they're still on the shelves somewhere.

Anne-Marie said...

I lived for a couple of years in a small town in Atlantic Canada, which thanks to federal arts programs had frequent concerts by up-and-coming artists from across the country. It was the standard practice to give a standing ovation at the end of every performance. I often wondered whether it meant anything to the musicians. Some of the more sophisticated locals referred to the performers as "internationally famous in Canada."

Pentimento said...

That's a good point, Melanie. I think the whole standard of quality in photography has changed.

Anne-Marie, that sounds like a Robertson Davies novel right there.

lissla lissar said...

"Internationally famous in Canada". Hee! That's so right.

Enbrethiliel, I was re-reading Jo's Boys just a few minutes ago, and reading the section where a character laments that actors nowadays think that just anyone can act Shakespeare as long as they have beautiful costumes. Not a new phenomenon, at all.

mrsdarwin said...

I immediately thought of Tempest Tost when I read this (and saw Christopher Guest above the headline). It is seriously funny stuff -- especially for any who's ever worked in the amateur performing arts scene, be it singing or theater or dance. You would love it, Pentimento.

Enbrethiliel, I remember that scene from Jo's Boys, and I've often encountered the same phenomenon directing teenagers -- people who think they're ready to take the world by storm simply because they like performing. Acting, though, is a different thing from performing, though the ability to be up in front of people without caving in on oneself is a necessary element of stagecraft.

Pentimento said...

Naturally, my provincial local library doesn't have a copy. I'm going to have to ILL it. It sounds like a fun read, though.

lissla lissar said...

I was talking to Mr. Lissar about this conversation, and he noted that in the martial arts a person is quite often called to perform kata (martial forms- series of movements) in competition or for gradings when they may have learned them only that day or a few days earlier, and about the difference in performance between something that may be technically flawless.

These kata, though they may be technically perfect, haven't been studied and performed and practised in such a way that the artist understands the movements and through their understanding... incarnates them? Embodies them? Makes their mastery known and the movements beautiful and meaningful.

And that reminds me of:

But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts."
-The Dry Salvages

Pentimento said...

Those words of Eliot's are like a knife to my gut, but in a good way.

I'm convinced that we have to sing, or write, or cook, or fold laundry, for the Fat Lady. My own Fat Lady was a woman I encountered on the subway once:

Enbrethiliel said...


Lissla and Mrs. Darwin:

Thanks for pointing that out! I've read Jo's Boys, too, but don't recall that scene. I wonder how far back we can trace that attitude to the performing arts.