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Monday, April 25, 2011

My Perspective on Music Criticism

Many times I have heard from friends, family members and colleagues that I shouldn't take my singing so personally.  This comment usually comes right about the time when I am upset about something that someone said or wrote about a performance or audition that I sang.

Now, I know that criticism in itself is merely an expression of what a person thinks, which is an extension of that person's tastes and biases, and therefore is not any sort of final decision as to the quality of my singing or my artistry.  However, I find it odd that we, as singers, are asked to do seemingly contradictory things when it comes to our profession.

On one hand, we are asked to make our singing such a part of ourselves (in terms of giving the audience pieces of our own personal experiences served up in the form of musical dramatizations of operas and songs) and then, on the other hand, when someone criticizes our singing, we are supposed to be able to brush it off easily without a second thought as to the emotional reaction we have to these unsolicited critiques.  Especially when we are baring our souls to auditoriums full of people we've never met, all in order to share something beautiful that we, the performer, experienced, and which will enrich their souls by intuitively participating in our emotional journey during the performance.

Considering that we singers are in a business where we are asked to perform for a living (which of course requires that we provide real experiences to the audience in terms of dramatic truthfulness), it is understandable that we are open to criticism from everyone who happens to see us perform, hear us perform, hear about a performance that we have given from someone who's attended or heard that performance, or heck, even read about an account of a performance we gave!  (Or, thanks to the internet, have seen some bootlegged videos of performances we gave, or are in rehearsal for.... at the current moment, even.)  At any rate, I do understand that criticism is part and parcel of this career path.  Though, why should we have to acquiesce to our critics without having our own say?

These critics pronounce their judgement on us with such finality, often after only hearing us for a short time,  and without getting to know us as people, or artists for that matter.  I honestly don't see the fairness or validity of such opinions.  To be sure, there are many people who will read the critics' opinions of musical performances religiously anyway, even after considering my point, but... perhaps there will also be those to whom this makes a bit of sense.

I'll go even one further.  We as singers are asked to represent something as close to an 'ideal' of who we are ask people to our audiences.  It is easy to wonder as a singer, whether or not this 'ideal' of who you are becomes the only thing that matters to people who see you perform.  And so there are times when you don the mantel merely because you feel beholden to the responsibility of being that 'ideal' to your audience. (I know I'm going out on a limb here for those of you who aren't performers, but for those of you who are, I know that this must ring true on some level- even if perhaps you hadn't thought of it concretely before...)

Therefore, we have a duty not only to sing beautifully and act convincingly, but also to serve as a higher self through whom the audience can live vicariously, even if only for an evening.  So then, why is it that when our critics cut us to the quick emotionally at times, does it seem 'weak' or 'tender-hearted' to be genuinely hurt by these critics' remarks?  Honestly, at the end of the day, we singers are only human beings, and there is a great deal of psychological pressure put on us when we are on stage, and ultimately, what we really want is exactly what the audience members want.  To be told at the end of each day that we are needed and loved by so many people just the way we are.  And, that even if we never sang another day in our life, that we would still have made a difference in the world, regardless of whether we sang well once, or a million times.

So, critics, if you would please keep this in mind, we singers would be eternally grateful. :)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Why You and I, Being Opera Singers and Opera Enthusiasts, Need to Get Off Our Tushes and Make Some Change Happen!

You know, all too often in these past few months have I noticed a few things happening in the realm of Opera (and the other art forms too--as the majority of our arts and cultural pursuits in the USA have been affected by these things) which I have not liked.  Not only have I not liked these changes, but I have watched as these changes rip apart people's lives, their incomes, their sense of well-being, and their hope of a better life for their children, and their childrens' children.

I mean, am I the only one wondering how a country, that is so humongous (let's face it, America is HUGE!) can be filled with people who are content to see these things happening, and just sit back and think, "Well, that really does suck, but...what can I do about it?"

And, to confess, I have been one of the people with this very attitude for the past two months!  (I think I was turned into a brainless zombie at the prospect of no arts...) But, I was, quite frankly, shocked to the core to return from Germany to my native land, and find that it had not only considered cutting all funding for arts programs, but that it actually HAD cut millions already from the existing National Endowment for the Arts budget!

Therefore, after taking a while to ponder why America is taking such rudimentary measures to solve a fiscal problem which can't obviously be solved with the pittance that makes up our country's arts funding, I figured, no need to solve the big problems, Julia: just focus on the ones that matter to those whom I love and care about.  Translation: find a way to fix our country's arts anathema, and to refuel the artists and arts lovers who have been literally and figuratively waylaid by America's cultural irresponsibility.

So, the question that naturally follows this mission statment is: how, exactly is one person going to fix such a HUGE mistake?  Well, that's where you come in, folks!

I am counting on each of you to consider, during the course of your normal day, how much of your time is spent participating in some sort of artistic experience: whether it be participating in an art form, observing one being performed or created, or even thinking about arts.  And, when you happen to realize each time that the arts has affected your life in the course of your day, I'd like to ask you to comment on this blog post, with your total number.

For example, today I rehearsed (that's 1), then I translated music (that's 2), then I listened to the radio in the car on the way to and from rehearsal (that's 3 and 4), then I read a book (that's 5), then I practiced privately (that's 6), then I watched a move (that's 7), then I read the NY Times arts section online (that's 8), then I Tweeted about the MENC Chase Grant program and how you should vote for it (that's 9), then I updated my website with professional engagements to come (that's 10), then I wrote this blog entry (that's 11).  And that doesn't even take into consideration all of the hours associated with completing these artistic experiences.

Therefore, I am hoping that through our collective visual recognition of how great an influence art has on our lives every day, we can all see the importance (hopefully now magnified, since it's part of our own experiences) of keeping the arts around, and vital, and funded!

But, since I know that all of you who read this blog are already comitted to supporting and participating in the arts, I'd like to ask you to do this, not for yourselves ultimately, but for those politicians to whom I am going to send the list of your comments--once complete---so that they can see just what kind of an impact they are eliminating when they decide to cut arts funding.

So, let's hear your #'s!! :)  (I've gotten us started below....)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Singing-Acting: German versus American Observations

I am certainly no expert, but I do like to think that I have a fair amount of observational talent.  That being said, I have paid particular attention to the singing that I've seen from my colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic and I have some general insights to share with you all, which you might want to keep in mind the next time you think about characterization for role preparation. (Phew, that's a tongue twister!)

Anyway, I have watched various professional and non-professional colleagues from Germany and the USA, and I have noticed two distinct camps of acting training that are making themselves evident from the performances I've witnessed.  The German singers I've seen have managed to maintain (no matter what the dramatic situation was) a sort of naiviete in the portrayal of their characters while singing.  This, I believe, comes from their in-depth understanding of each word that they sing.

And, I don't just mean what we American singers think of (I can hear you saying to yourself- 'But I've done the word-for-word translation already!') in terms of translating from the Nico Castel books each word into English and then copying down the IPA.  Memorizing strings of archaic translations that end up looking like Shakespearian verse are NOT going to help make your acting more truthful.  And, this is exactly what the majority of our German counterpoints have figured out, and have used to their advantage in their portrayals.  They realize that they must have as much of a sense of the words they're singing as they would if they were speaking their own native tongue.  For example, Diana Damrau certainly doesn't have to speak fluent French to sing her role in 'Le Comte Ory' well, but she does need to have an almost native-speaker familiarity with the thousand-some words she sings in order to make her portrayal believeable.  So, that actually means that you only need to have the vocabulary mastered that you will be using in your singing to use this method.  (Yes, you can breathe a sigh of relief now that you've realized that you don't have to speak German fluently just to sing the Komponist! might help in the long run....)

As regards us Americans, I have found that on the whole, in terms of our acting, it is much more generic and therefore loses something in terms of believeability.  It's as if we use the 4th wall in our singing performances for two reasons: either we are scared of the audience members and interacting with them, or we are purposefully ignoring them because we think it's the right thing to do.  These two approaches yield a rather static effect, and one which, unfortunately, does not retain the truthfulness of the approach that I've found in Germany.

This is just a personal hypothesis, but I believe that this attitude in American versus German singers can be traced to different cultural perceptions of the definition of 'performing' and what is considered 'socially appropriate'.  Whereas in America people are normally very open with one another upon first meeting, it would be considered (normally) quite rude to be open to someone to whom one was never actually introduced (as is asked of the performer when performing for an audience), and therefore, we as singers, become shy (or scared of our audience) or, choose to purposefully ignore them (making it difficult for them to relate to what we're doing on a deeper level than finding it merely pretty, although easy for us to survive with our sense of propriety intact after a performance is finished).  However, it's we the singers who are losing out.

  Contrastingly, in Germany there is a tangible expectation from the audience: they want to be part of the experience and they want to be entertained.  Therefore, it is easier for the performer to allow this conversational and intimate dialog to happen between themselves and the audience (even if they don't know anyone to whom they're singing) because it is expected that the singer interact with the audience members on a more 'personal' and 'individual' level.  Thereby altogether eliminating the 4th wall.  Hence, this cultural expectation carries over to all performances given by singers trained in this way, thereby providing them with a expert platform from which to build their relationship to the audience, no matter where they're performing (and what the cultural expectations of that country might be).

Let's face it, this all comes down to one common principle which we know to be true the world over: people like to relate to one another, and we as performing artists, have the ability to do that with our audience members every time that we step on stage.  So, keeping this in mind, even if you weren't schooled in an interactive performance method from the very beginning of your training, you are still in control of every performance.  Whether or not you'll be aware of your openness to the audience and your subsequent lukewarm or exuberant reception based on which path you've chosen, is up to you.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


(Click the title of this post to link to the article I refer to below)

Check this blog post out from American Lyric Theater--it's related to the Bernstein Opera, 'A Quiet Place' which I blogged about a month or so ago. It seems that Mr. Edelson and I have a concensus---he thinks it's the most perfect piece of Opera too! (I'm so glad for coincidences like this!)

This summer's exciting news: Bad Orb!

So, it's been long overdue that I write something about my upcoming singing in Germany (again) and the good news I've received of being chosen for a singing engagement there this summer in the months of July and August. Therefore, I will begin by saying that because all of you are very dear to me who read this blog and who've supported me monetarily, psychologically and physically over the past years/weeks/months/days, I would like to say that this success of mine is due to your generosity and love for me.  So, I would like to sincerely thank all of you for helping to make this possible.

Now, to the details:

I auditioned for a program called "Opernakademie Bad Orb" on January 15th, 2011 in Germany at the Frankfurt Opernhaus in their Orchestralprobesaal (Orchestral Rehearsal Room) at approximately 2:30pm, after having arrived there around 12 noon.  My boyfriend and I left from Dortmund that morning by car at approximately 9am and arrived in Frankfurt a bit ahead of schedule, but were delighted to find the city virtually deserted on a Saturday morning (Frankfurt is a pretty well-known banking capital of Europe and the World, so I guess it's a ghost-town on the weekends) so that we weren't confronted with gobs of traffic, like we had imagined.

We easily found the parking garage for the Opera house and we got my dress, music and makeup out of the car and went in to the theater via the stage door, stopping by the Pfortner (the person who is basically the security officer) in order to pick up a key to a practice warm for me to warm up in and change.

We entered the practice room (which happened to be a female chorus member's dressing room normally) and I warmed up and changed into my audition dress.  We went upstairs directly at 1:45pm to be a bit early for the audition but the orchestra was still rehearsing in the room, so we decided to go back downstairs to warm-up a bit more.  Then we came back up at 2pm on the dot and found five people already waiting and that the one girl who was signed up on the sign-up sheet to go first, had actually created the sign-up sheet herself---as she informed me that normally it is done that way in Germany. (That was news to me! But, good to know for next time!)

I signed up somehow as 6th, even though I am sure I was the very first one there (lol) and then waited around and watched as everyone else went in and sang for approximately 7 minute intervals. Then, the girl before me who was a Mezzo, came out of her audition acting as if she had gotten the job and bragging about how well she did, so I thought to myself, well, I guess that's that.  Now time to just sing and hope they like it anyway, even if they've already chosen her.

So, I went in to the room, found 4 men sitting behind a table and a female pianist, and then sang the second verse of the Doll's Aria, and then they asked for Zerbinetta's aria- and then that was it.  They didn't seem too pleased and the one guy actually got up and walked to the other side of the room, all the while not looking at me, as I sang my second aria.  So, go figure.

Then, you can certainly imagine my unabashed surprise when, I hear from them three weeks later by phone that they liked very much my singing that day and they wanted to offer me the role of Rosina in their production this summer of 'Der Barbier von Sevilla'!

I nearly fell over holding the phone while listening to the guy telling me this.  I kept thinking things like 'But, this is normally cast with Mezzos!' or, 'But they chose the girl before me!', or 'They didn't even seem to like my singing when I saw their sour facial expressions during my audition!', or, my personal favorite, 'I've never even considered singing this role because I know they always cast it with Mezzos!'

However, once I regained the ability to use my voice to speak to the poor man on the other end of the phone, all I could utter was a feint 'ja, gerne, danke, bist du wirklich sicher?' (Which means 'Yes, gladly, thank you, are you really sure?, of which, the last, was probably not something encouraging for him to hear, I must say.)

Though, after getting off the phone I knew something had happened. And I told my boyfriend who proceeded to espouse all the wonderful things associated with me being cast as the lead in an opera in a foreign country where I had been trying for so long now to really get a 'break', so to speak.

After much convincing on his part that I was doing the right thing by taking it (I didn't want to make a complete fool of myself working in Germany with Germans on a very popular opera- one which I had honestly never seen myself singing, or even thought of singing before!) I signed the contract a week later and I am happy to report to you all that I am now very glad that I did, and I am very much looking forward to the opportunity to learn so much and to be the 'star of my own show' in my career, as well as in life, for a change.

It's a different feeling; I am not quite used to it yet, but it's growing on me.

Wish me luck!! And, if you feel like singing opera this summer, you know where to go! ;)

Opera Chorus Jobs: The Warm-Up

When I talk to non-musicians and non-singers about the difficulty of breaking into the solo career scene in Opera, they ask me (as any logical person would) "Well, why not just join the chorus? At least you could be still doing what you love- singing!"  And, while this is a very sensible plan and a good one in theory, it actually has a lot of pitfalls that I'd like to explain now to you in this post.  This will also hopefully bring about some good conversation from my operatic colleagues who are opera chorus members, or who are thinking of doing it, or who are opera house managers and who deal with chorus singers and the system of how the hiring works.

I must stress that what I am saying here is in no way the only view on the matter, but it is an informed one, as I know many chorus singers are various size opera houses, and I see and hear about the politics associated with being a chorus singer through being in the opera business and being around those people in charge of such things.

First off, the quality and pay rate of an opera chorus position is dependent upon the size of the opera house.  If it's a larger house (such as The Met) you will get paid well and you will get to sing a lot over the course of the season.  If the house is smaller (such as Cincinnati Opera) you will most likely be paid less and perform less over the course of a season.  Some smaller opera companies (such as Chesapeake Concert Opera, Center City Opera Theater, Berks Opera Workshop, Opera North) are so small that they have absolutely no budget to hire chorus singers and therefore rely solely on volunteers to comprise their opera chrous members.

So, as if that information weren't a deterrent for those of us who don't live in big cities to become paid chorus members (since the bigger cities have the bigger opera houses which means that you'd actually be paid a decent wage to sing in the choir, at least enough to live on) then there is some other news which isn't exactly a ray of sunshine peeking through the clouds.  Normally there are (if you're at a bigger Opera house) two tiers to the chorus- the A and the B choruses---think of it as first and second string football players- if you're first string, you're playing all the time and if you're second string, you're sitting on the bench- well, that is kind of how A and B choruses work.  And consequently, the pay scale for the A singers is higher than that of the B singers.  Which, just figures.  (Okay, it makes sense, but sheesh- don't these opera houses see how difficult it is to make a living doing this as it is?)

Then, there is always the schedule to contend with.  For instance, I know many people who avoid auditioning for Opera choruses as a job, and even avoid thinking of it in general, because of the following stigmas associated with something like that on your resume (as a singer looking to eventually have a solo Opera career, that is).  These stigmas that we as singers are familiar with are as follows:

1. If I put 'Chorus Singer' on my solo resume- immediately everyone who looks at that (Stage Directors and Conductors included) will think that I've opted for Chorus because I wasn't good enough to sing solo and wasn't getting picked, therefore: instant 'black spot' on resume.

2. If I'm a Chorus Singer, some opera companies won't even consider hiring me because they figure my schedule for chorus rehearsals is so demanding, I simply won't have the time to be flexible enough to attend their rehearsal process and the performances of anything I would get hired for.

3. I have heard that sometimes that Opera Company A tells Opera company B not to hire chorus singers because it will make Opera Company A mad when their chorus singers are always missing rehearals or asking for time off from their rehearsals to go and sing solo gigs.

4. Worst of all, there is the evil rumor that once you've put any 'Chorus' work on your resume (no matter how professional) it will stick in people's minds as your 'brand' and you will then automatically be out of their sub-conscious selection of available 'solo'singers when gigs come up and they need to hire someone; therefore, you won't be called for solo gigs, and you won't get any opportunities, so basically- consider Chorus singing a solo-career-ender.

So, taking into consideration all of the information above regarding Opera Chorus jobs, I must end with the caveat: this is only in America that I know of these things and have heard these rumors. I cannot speak for the validity of any of the above in Germany or Europe at large, so if anyone has any advice to that end, please do feel free to add it to this post as a comment and get the discussion going- I want to hear what you all have to say!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How Long Can Opera Singers Sing Per Day?

To those readers who aren't singers (or even those who are) I would like to take some time today to talk about the proper and measured use of our voices (speaking and singing) during the course of a normal day and over the course of a normal week.

This subject has come to mind for me because of factors relating to everyone' normal daily lives.  We are technologically-connected beings who are constantly communicating with someone, somewhere, somehow.  Sure, it's great to talk at work with your co-workers during lunch break, or have a phone conversation with your Grandmother for an hour every Tuesday, but just how much is all that talking really weighing on your voice in an overall evaluation?

Because I have been singing six days a week for at least two hours since last June (and have really kept that schedule up- amazingly--okay, except for Christmas break at which point I didn't sing for 1.5 weeks) I've noticed that speaking frequently over the course the day would turn into wear-and-tear on my singing voice the following day in the practice room!  This may not be that alarming to those of you who are professional singers, or who have studied singing a great deal and are familiar with the workings of the human voice, but this might be veritably uncharted territory to those of you who sing as a hobby, or infrequently, and might come as a shock.  Not only does talking a lot today contribute to the overall tiredness of a person's voice tomorrow, but sometimes it can even take a few days (depending on the kind of things you're using your voice for) for the voice to get back to normal (e.g. screaming to your friends across a loud club, in a rock concert, or across a crowded street).  That is simply because, although we do not think of it often, our voices are powered by our vocal folds, which are just like any other muscle in our body, and they can get sore, tired, and overworked if we use them improperly.

Therefore, I am writing this article to stress the importance of using your voice sparingly if you've got a lot of singing going on in the course of a week, month, or even year.  I just was watching this interview with Renee Fleming the other day on NY1 which can be found here and in which she mentions briefly the fact that she finds it hard to eat in restaurants in New York City because of the noise level.  Not that the noise level bothers her hearing, but rather that the noise level is so high, it actually necessitates the need for her to raise her voice during conversation, thereby tiring her voice out.  In fact, this subject is so important for Fleming, that she actually talks about it at the very beginning of the interview!

Going further on this tack, we can then deduce that even correct vocal use (as I've found) over too many hours' time can also contribute to vocal tiredness.  So, practicing 2+ hours a day is not for the feint-of-vocal-folds, and should really only be attempted if you except to do very little talking during the rest of the week (as I have found out the hard way these past few months).

And, I know it's difficult as a singer (someone who others view as talkative and gregarious in social situations by nature) to explain to friends, family members, or even your special someone that you really can't talk to them right now, but make sure to stick to your guns!  I know I've encountered all sorts of opposition to this rule from people whom I thought were most understanding of my vocal care necessities, but just remember, no matter how much these people know you and love you, they probably just won't understand this one.  (Or, if they do, put them in touch with me so that I can make them a hand-crafted plaque which I expect them to hang on their wall and tell others why they received it!)

So, once again, we find the lonely singer, out in the wilderness of solitude not able to talk to their loved ones, suffering for their beloved ironic! (NOT!)

You know, on a less melodramatic, more serious note, it's probably good for us to have a good reason not to talk sometimes- I know I'm normally quite glad for it!