I've had a cold for the past few days, so the other morning, because I was losing my voice, I told my older son to lead the singing. "You can sing, Mommy," he encouraged me, "in your crooked way."
You can sing in your crooked way: I thought about this later, and the expression seemed apt. Hadn't I spent years, after all, singing in my crooked way? I remembered the period in my life when I thought that singing was all I had, my only pathway to salvation. As a young woman, growing up and going out on my own felt like launching a cobbled-together boat into dark and perilous waters, or flinging myself off a cliff into some dark void. The world struck me as unkind and unreliable, and love as fleeting and evanescent. If there was something I could do extremely well, I imagined, it could be my shield against the inevitable bitterness and heartbreak that love and the world would deal out. I could not trust love, nor my fellows, but I could wield my singing like a weapon to cut through the dangers they proffered. Other people might have more and better gifts than I had; other people might have the gift of love. But I could sing, and I loved to sing, and I developed a rigorous self-discipline that enabled me, over the course of years, to become a highly-skilled and effective practitioner of that art.
It's not uncommon even for singers at the highest levels to sing flat. I've heard it happen many more times than I can possibly count, including at the Met. Indeed, I've heard mediocre and even lousy performances there, as well as great performances marred by mistakes, bad notes, miscalculations, and musical train wrecks. It happens to everyone. I remember feeling particularly bad for Plácido Domingo one Saturday afternoon when he was singing the title role in the rarely-performed opera Sly, which ends with a tenor aria, and he flubbed the final sung note in the opera, leaving the audience not with the memory of a compelling performance but with that of a single lame high note. There's something touchingly human, though, about singing flat; it's as if the heart, the moment's emotions, the character's words, all cause one's voice -- or, to be technically correct about it, cause one's ability to accurately replicate pitch -- to fail, and doesn't that happen in everyday, non-singing life, too?
There was a period in my career when I was singing in the wrong fach. I was a small-ish young woman, and my size, combined with my high energy, quick wit, and fast conversation, led some in the field to assume that I was the kind of soprano capable of high, fast, virtuosic singing. As it turned out, I could do the fast singing part, but I could never reliably sing the notes above high C, which is what the fach requires. A famous coach commented on my low speaking voice and the disparity between it and the high-sitting roles I was singing; an assistant conductor at the Met told me that if I even "went one fach lighter" I'd be "working everywhere." I tried to be lighter, higher, faster, perkier. Finally, though, when things were falling apart in my everyday, non-singing life, I began to remember the advice of people who'd known me and my singing for a long time, including members of my own (musical) family, who had always suggested that my voice would darken and deepen. I had wanted to be something else, someone else, but I was not, in fact, that person; and how can the voice be compartmentalized, treated as its own entity separate from the singer's own body and interior suchness?
I listened to my lesson tapes and watched my coaching videos and realized that, when I deviated from pitch, I was not singing flat; I was singing sharp -- above the pitch, even in repertoire that was, really, too high for me -- and I came to see that particular dysfunction as a metaphor for forcing myself into a box (fach, after all, means box) that was not the right size for me. Singing sharp, too, seemed very much in keeping with the use of singing as a weapon -- a sword is sharp, after all; a knife is sharp; so is a switchblade. I switched to the lyric mezzo-soprano repertoire, a switch I've written about in more detail here, and everything settled into place technically; it felt comfortable, like finally finding clothes that fit after you've been wearing someone else's for the longest time.
I sang in my crooked way for years, and my aims, as an artist, were crooked too, in the sense that everything was predicated upon my singing. It was my heroin, the drug I immersed myself in when I was devastated, frightened, falling apart; it was my consolation when girls around me had husbands and families -- had love; I didn't need those things, or so I thought, since I could sing. It came before everything else in my life; I did not know how to have a life that did not heliotrope like a vine around the trellis of musical discipline and accomplishment. In fact, it was my life.
Even in the time since my own life has settled into patterns more closely resembling other, more usual ways of living, I haven't quite known where to fit singing into those alignments. I still sang, taught, researched, and performed after becoming a mother, but without the same . . . graspingness. I still believe that the ability to sing is a gift which, I now realize, God would have me cultivate (like all His gifts) in the interest of bringing beauty and consolation to others. I'm still trying to understand how to do that.
But I don't know if, in this life, I can ever leave my crooked way behind. I'm reminded of Auden's poem "As I Walked Out One Evening," in which the narrator, on a walk through London, overhears a lover declaiming the usual platitudes. Suddenly the declaration of love is cut short by "all the clocks in the city," who argue that
. . . stand, stand at the window