Back in the swing

Our first week of rehearsal is now finished, and I feel very satisfied with how things are going so far. We're going pretty quickly (considering how long the rehearsal process is) and we've already staged all of the first Act! That's like U.S.A. staging speed! But I'm still always amazed at what we have available to us in Europe staging conditions - for example, we've already been on the actual stage, in the theater, twice. We don't open until January 30th, but we've been on the stage twice. And in the room where we're rehearsing, the actual set is installed for all of our rehearsals, except when they move the whole thing to the stage occasionally.  I've talked about this phenomenon before (which is not a phenomenon to Europeans, but to Americans - unless you've done a new production at maybe the Met - but I don't even think there they have these options), where we have so much luxurious time to get used to the stage. In the U.S. we work in a room that has tape on the floor to demonstrate where the set will be, and then the week of the performances (usually only two weeks after we've started the whole shebang) we have a few days to get used to the set and the acoustics of the theater and BAM we open. 

I know I was mentioning before that I don't have any WOWIE WOW music like I did last year in Agrippina, for example, but I have to say that putting the opera on its feet has made me appreciate the fuller scope of what I get to do in this opera. First of all, excuse the broken record here, but the musical values of every show that Rene Jacobs does are just astonishing. The recits become like shakespeare plays in their declamation, even before we are wandering around "acting". And even though I don't sing any music that necessarily shows all my skills as a singer, I really get to act up a storm, which for me is huge. I was thinking that my character was sort of careful and measured, but it turns out she's really freaked out and distressed (duh - who wouldn't be - father/mother =son/mother = killed themselves, brothers killed each other, sister about to = yikes!) and the physicalization of anything slightly crazed is always really fun. I don't know what it says about me that my preferred characters have at least a bit of the crazy in them. I don't really want to think about that, frankly.

The only thing I possibly have to complain about now is the weather in Berlin. Can someone please explain to me why when it snows here it seems so much more difficult to get around than in say, New York? I think it has something to do with the fact that since Germany is not a litigious society the way America is, they aren't overly careful about mopping up wet messes that snowy feet make, so everything stays wet and slippery all the time. Also, they throw down a lot of gravel (not sure why - I guess that's like our salt) and the cobblestone streets are very difficult to shovel. Once it has snowed once in Berlin, the rest of the winter is like walking on a sandy beach in your snow boots. And the one time I tried to wear a pair of boots without those rubber sole grippers, I slipped and fell on my ass with literally the first step I took out the door. I am not even exaggerating, sadly. It's probably not fair to place all the blame on Berlin, however-  I am a very klutzy individual. 

But on the gratitude side of things, getting to know some of my colleagues this week and hearing their stories, and discovering what kind of obstacles they have faced in their personal lives and chosen to continue as artists nonetheless, has made me remember how lucky I am to be doing this, for as long as I am able to or choose to. For that, I will gladly slip and fall on my ass a few times, both literally and figuratively. 

Show Off

I'm back in Berlin for the opera Antigone by Traetta at the Staatsoper, and I have severe jet-lag induced insomnia, so I figured I would make the most of it by writing down some of the thoughts percolating in my mind. Might as well be productive at 2:00 in the morning if you're not asleep, right?

We've begun musical rehearsals for this rarely performed opera, and since this is another Rene Jacobs project, I'm learning a great deal as we go. He's passionate about every single syllable that we sing, and his attention to detail makes the end product incredibly interesting, even riveting, where in another's hands it might be boring- as I've spoken about in past posts. 

The thing is, as opposed to last year, when we did Agrippina and I played the psychotic Nerone who runs around like a crazy person and sings lots of coloratura, this year I'm playing Ismene, Antigone's more rational and rather un-dramatic sister. And I'm the only character in the entire show who sings zero coloratura. Rene was explaining today that as Traetta was a composer in the enlightenment movement, he only used coloratura when it was necessary to express anger or madness, and since I'm relatively rational, I don't get any. 

And after singing the low and quite coloratura-less Bach last week and then beginning this project, I notice myself getting a little antsy. I'm not complaining about what I have to sing - the music is beautiful and meaningful, and there are many opportunities for me to work at creating something very special. However, I'm a singer, and I have an ego. And when I don't get to "show off" what I can do best, I start to feel a little ill at ease.

So how do we separate the ego from the artist? How do we find artistic fulfillment even when we aren't flexing our strongest muscles? Obviously I don't need to be singing high notes and fast runs to be artistically fulfilled. But I will admit that not getting any music that allows me to shine in the ways I'm used to is hard on my ego. But it's an excellent lesson in both humility and artistry. First of all, when you are stripped of your shiny parts, all that is left is what you have to contribute artistically, and you may even find yourself taking more emotional and musical risks, leading to a deeper connection with what you are singing about. It is also a great reminder that what we are doing as artists is much greater than us as individuals, and when we get too caught up in showing off what we are good at, it's very easy to lose sight of why we are making art in the first place. The famous phrase is true; there are no small parts, only small actors. 

So instead of being my small self, and letting my ego reign, I plan to use this opportunity to remind myself of why I'm doing this whole artist thing. It's because I have something to say, and I have a voice to say it with. The bottom line is that it doesn't matter what words you use, as long as you say them with conviction and make them your own. That's what being an artist is all about. 

Or maybe being an artist is all about screaming loud high notes. I don't know - I'm delirious with fatigue  - ask me again after I've gotten a full night's sleep. 

Baby's got Bach

This past weekend, I sang the Alto solos in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with the Music of the Baroque Orchestra in Chicago. This was only my second foray into Bach, my first being the second soprano solos in the B Minor Mass several years ago. Can I tell you something? Bach scares the crap out of me. Because his music is so weird and wonderful, and so frequently goes in directions that you aren’t expecting, becoming derailed, even while you’re staring directly at the music, is a distinct possibility. I came home from the first rehearsal complaining to my boyfriend, “I think I might be too stupid to sing Bach.”

 The feeling that I was the dumbest person in the room was only exacerbated by the fact that the conductor and the rest of the soloists all happened to be seasoned experts in this particular repertoire. The conductor was Jane Glover, renowned for her interpretations of Baroque music and Mozart, as well as for her book on Mozart’s Women. The other three soloists; Paul Agnew, Sanford Silvan, and Lisa Saffer, have all had extensive experience singing Bach all over the world. And then here was me, with my one little Mass under my belt, reaching for the stars. Baby's got Bach indeed.

 On a side note, I was particularly tickled to be working with Sanford Silvan – or Sandy, as many people call him – because I happen to be a big fan of his. I became aware of him while I was a student in Boston thanks to his many collaborations with Boston based Peter Sellars, and I used to play his recording of Die schöne Müllerin on repeat whenever I was in a bad mood to cheer myself up. He has this expressiveness that really spoke to me right through the speakers of my CD player (remember those?), and I have always really admired his outstanding artistry. I had never met him until this weekend, and I’m happy to say that his artistry is matched perfectly by his kind and genuine warmth as a person, and it was such a pleasure to get to spend the week with him. I even geeked out and told him I was a big “fan,” explaining my obsession with his CD, and he handled my effusiveness with extreme humility and grace.

 But back to me and Bach. The concerts went fine, although I couldn’t bring myself to look up and away from my score nearly as much as I would have liked to, and I found that my left arm and shoulder were horrendously sore after each performance from the death vice grip I was keeping on my music while I was singing. Bach’s music is really astonishing – as I was learning my arias, I was often like “WHOA – how did he get there from here??” Instead of remaining confined by the strict parameters of Baroque harmonics, he wove his way through the music by taking crazy turns and shifts of harmony that almost sound like they come out of the 20th century at times. It’s one thing to write crazy music where you have no rules about tonality –but to write crazy music when you are completely constrained by tonality at all times the way Bach did it, explains why all these years later we’re still performing his Christmas Oratorio every year.  And it also explains why I was keeping that deathly vice grip on my score and was petrified of getting lost. But it’s obviously also thrilling and exhilarating if you make it through to the end in once piece – it’s like making it through an obstacle course in a sports car. Wheeeeeeee!

Now I have three days to repack my suitcases, ready my apartment for sublettors, and study yet another buttload of baroque Italian recitative, before I’m off to Berlin for two long wintery months.  

Here you can hear Sandy Sylvan singing The Monk and his Cat by Samuel Barber, with some cute cat photos thrown in for good measure:

Random Acts of Culture

I have been woefully absent from Blogging lately. And I feel like I probably should have taken the time to write several entries after moving my blog so I wouldn't lose all my readers, which I fear has already happened. But today I finally felt inspired again, so here goes. At least my mom is still reading (I think...).

I was browsing facebook this morning when I came across a posting from a former colleague of mine turned Artistic Administrator of the Florida Grand Opera. The young artists from that company had participated in something they are calling a "Random Act of Culture" where they surprise people in a crowded setting (often a shopping mall) by suddenly breaking into song. It's similar to those now popular Flash Mobs, where a group of people suddenly breaks out into song and or dance for the unsuspecting crowd. Here's the clip I saw this morning:

I loved watching the faces of the unsuspecting shoppers as the opera singing suddenly descended upon them - they were unabashedly delighted. It just goes to show you that this business about opera being inaccessible is nonsense, it's just that in its traditional form, people are often intimidated by it. But when it takes them by surprise - when they have no chance to get their preconceived notions all lined up about how Opera is either uptight or overwhelming, they can't help but enjoy themselves. 

I was a panelist on this weeks OperaNow! podcast, and one of the articles we discussed was about the possible closure of Cleveland Opera. Michael has created a section on the Podcast called "The Weekly Dirge" where they talk about all the articles related to the downfall of various opera companies in the U.S., and unfortunately hardly a week goes by where there isn't another opera company falling victim to the economy. I made a comment about the fact that it is becoming our responsibility within the American Operatic community to become more creative than ever in our efforts to entice new audiences to come experience and support the opera. And surprising the public into watching opera, and then using the viral videos to then promote the company seems like a brilliant step in the right direction.

 Here is another video that my boyfriend shared with me this morning. It made me smile - especially seeing the little boy stand up and listen in wonder. Who knows if that little guy would have another opportunity to be surrounded by music like that (although the video comes from Canada, where they still support the arts, so you never know). It's good for putting you in the holiday spirit. Enjoy!

Where are you again?

I got a question in my new "ask Jenny" section about when and where I would be performing, and I'm sorry to report that if you're a U.S. citizen, unless you live in the Chicago area and want to come hear me sing the Bach Christmas Oratorio with the Music of the Baroque orchestra on December 5th or 7th, you would have to renew your passport just to hear me sing (I'm all europe all the time, baby.). However, sometimes someone hands me a recording they made of a performance, and this happened with my last Barber in Berlin. So just for fun, here is Una Voce Poco Fa, live, from the final performance. It's better than nothin', isn't it?

Who are you again?

I had the strangest experience today - I sang an audition on the stage at New York City Opera. This event, in and of itself is not strange - I've sung auditions all over the world at this point. However, after having sung around 85 performances at NYCO, it felt a little funny to be back to square one as an auditioner. I even ran into a colleague of mine and she asked "What are you doing here? Just hanging out?" It didn't even occur to her that I would be auditioning since if you think of me and my career, you definitely think of City Opera. But with a new regime comes a new beginning for all, and that means everybody, even those that have performed frequently at City Opera, must go back to square one and audition again. So I wandered into the stage door (forgetting to sign in, because I'm used to breezing past them) and made my way up to the stage once again. 

I was curious to see what the renovations looked like, so I peeked into some of the dressing rooms. They look basically the same, but with several upgrades like carpeting and better lighting. I ran into my former agent, who I met for the very first time backstage at a City Opera audition, so that was a weird form of deja-vu. Then when I went onstage to sing, looking out at that oh so familiar interior, I felt right at home. Except one thing - the acoustic of the theater is now WAY improved over what it was before. It was quite live and ringing, where before it often felt dead and dampened. Luckily after my first aria (Stephano's aria from Romeo et Juliette) they asked for Una Voce Poco Fa, which I would say is pretty fresh in my brain from having just sung it last week at the Staatsoper. I did my best, and it would certainly be nice if they found something for me to sing there again, because I really miss working from home, and I miss all the behind the scenes crew at NYCO who started to feel like family after 8 seasons. 


Welcome to my newly designed, upgraded Blog. I have wanted to expand my blog for some time now, to include all my media stuff in one place, but I've been so busy singing that it has taken me for-EVAH to get it together. After I designed websites for two of my friends, I decided it was time for me to get cracking on my own stuff. I'm sorry to make you change addresses like this, but my name is probably a lot easier to remember than Sestissimo (and a lot less embarrassing to tell people when they ask me my blog address. Sestissimo? Huh? What the hell does that mean? Italy, singing, Sesto, blah blah blah....) 

This new blog has all the stuff my old blog does, but is easier to search for various types of articles (since I'm sorry, I've always been too lazy to tag anything). There's not section called "followers" but you can still sign up for the RSS feed if you look at the bottom right corner of the blog and click that link. There's also a section called Ask Jenny, which I'm particularly tickled by. I hope somebody wants me to be their therapist or something. 

Thank you for coming along so far - I hope you stick around! 

jumping in feet first

You were probably wondering where the heck I'd been. Well, I was just waiting for something exciting to happen - and tonight it did. I found out, funnily enough- via facebook, that our Figaro wasn't' going to be able to perform tonight, so I knew we'd be having someone jump in to the role tonight. I got an email from the Staatsoper office today, informing me as much, and I spent all of 2 minutes introducing myself to the lovely young italian baritone called in for the job, only minutes before the performance started. And that was it. As I walked back to my dressing room, I thought to myself - well, next time I see him we will be singing a duet. In front of people. For the first time in our lives. At the Berlin Staastoper. That's Show Business! 

Jumping in boggles my mind. First of all because we just don't do it in the U.S. I remember some years back when I was performing in the second cast of Nozze di Figaro at City Opera. We had several weeks of rehearsal with our entire cast, and although we didn't have the chance to do it on the stage with the orchestra before our first performance, we were very well prepared with the staging and with knowing each other. And even in that situation we were all freaking out. I remember the energy level during that first performance of the second cast as being extraordinarily high because we were all so nervous. But that was nothing compared to what it must be like to have only a few hours of rehearsal the day before the performance, and basically meet your colleagues on stage for the first time while you are singing with them. 

In tonight's performance, the director of the show was backstage the entire night pointing and gesturing at the new guy when he might have been lost, and cheering him on as well. We also have a prompter, although I noticed that it was hard to hear her the few times that someone got lost, and various colleagues were whispering lost recit that may have been confusingly absent because of some cut. We rehearsed some of the second act trio in the dressing room before we started that act, and there was a part we were singing that the poor Figaro had never done before. He was literally learning the music during the intermission, and I thought to myself HOW ARE YOU NOT FREAKING OUT RIGHT NOW? But he really was calm and collected, which is your only option when you are in a jump-in situation. Otherwise, you will totally and completely lose your mind. I mean, everybody fears those moments when you are onstage, and for some reason you momentarily forget where you are supposed to be. When you jump-in, you know for certain that you will have many moments like that, and you just have to pray that a kind colleague will push you in the right direction. 

And I personally am like a sheep dog, feeling the need to herd lost things in all situations. So it was definitely harder for me to concentrate tonight on my own singing and acting because I was always worrying about whether I needed to help the Figaro. I would imagine that Europeans who are more accustomed to the jump-in don't find it to be such a big deal, and go about their parts normally, with maybe a heightened awareness of what's going on around them. I, on the other hand, can't bear to see someone looking lost and take it on as my personal responsibility to make sure they know what's going on. It's probably annoying actually to these calm Europeans who are seasoned "einspringers" to have this bossy american trying to be "helpful." But I can't stop myself. I need to get myself some sheep or something. 

All things considered, I would say the performance went remarkably well, and my hat is off to the gentleman who managed to keep his wits about him with only a few hours of rehearsal. As for me, I have only one more performance here in Berlin before I get to go home - TO MY OWN APARTMENT for the first time in awhile. I hope I still remember where I live. 


What is it about a show that makes an audience react? What about when you perform the same show for two different audiences, and one goes crazy, while the other claps politely but far from enthusiastically?

This has been the case with the first two performances of Barbiere at the Staatsoper, now located in the Schiller Theater. I did the exact same production last season, with many of the same cast members, and the audience went crazy every night. They clapped, cheered, laughed audibly at all the jokes, and applauded so much at the end, that we bowed and bowed for what seemed like an eternity. However, during these two performances in the Schiller Theater, the response seemed quite tepid in comparison. For my part, I sang better this year than last year - I was more relaxed and had more rehearsal, and I actually think the acoustic in the Schiller Theater feels a little better than in the Staatsoper (which is one of the things they are fixing in the Staatsoper while it's closed). The other cast members were all excellent and in great form, and both performances went extremely well. There was even an extremely positive review in the paper, which is totally unheard of for a repertoire production. And yet, the audience was VERY quiet.

My only explanation is that the production was made for the Staatsoper, and so somehow doesn't seem to have quite the same effect in the new theater. It's strange - the Staatsoper has more seats than the Schiller, but somehow the audience feels closer. I think it's because it is one of those typically European opera houses, where the theater goes up and to the sides instead of back, so everyone feels closer to you than in more modern theaters that have just one balcony in the back of the theater. I noticed it because in this production, we spend a lot of time singing arias and duets right from the front of the stage, actually standing on the prompter box (which I almost slipped and fell off of last night during the finale - typical Jenny move) and I remember feeling extremely close to the audience during those moments in the Staatsoper, and not so much now. I know one should never rely on an audience reaction for one's feelings of self worth after a performance, and I don't really. But I would be lying if I didn't admit to the fact that if I feel like I nailed Una Voce Poco Fa (which I really think I did, last night especially) and after I finish I mostly hear crickets........crickets........ - it can be a little disheartening.

But it certainly doesn't bother me nearly as much as it used to. Mostly because I have sung Rosina so many times, that I know now when I sing it well. And if I sing it well, and have fun while doing it, I can't really hope for much more. It's mostly a curiousity - what exactly makes audiences go wild? What's the secret equation that stirs them to a frenzy? Besides if you're Oprah and you're giving away cars or trips to Australia.

Speaking of Oprah, I'm on my way to Chicago as I write this from yet another airport. I have almost two weeks between performances, so I'm taking the opportunity to visit my BF. In fact, I think they're boarding my plane. Auf Wiedersehn, Berlin. Until the next one.

why we sing

Even though we've only been rehearsing for 6 days (and that's pretty much it - Monday is the final rehearsal and Tuesday is the opening) I've had time to speak to my colleagues this week and get to know them a little better. What I've discovered is that the South African tenor was an accountant until he was 30 years old, and switched to singing, and the Italian baritone singing Bartolo was a surgeon who performed liver transplants until he decided to pursue his passion for singing. I was comparing in my mind the decisions of those two, versus my incredibly talented boyfriend, who, while he has an absolutely fantastic voice and exceptional stage presence, and was singing a lot of great places, decided (before I met him) that singing was not the career he wanted to pursue and chose to go into the corporate world instead, where he could explore his passion for technology. It has really got me thinking this week about how there are some people who might never achieve critical success as musicians or artists, but who keep trying for their whole lives, while there are some people who do succeed, and could continue to do so, but decide that the career and life of an artist is just not for them. What makes some people give up perfectly good jobs as surgeons to become opera singers, and what makes other people give up perfectly good jobs as opera singers to go to work in the "real world"?

For me, the question of why I remain an artist is constantly developing. When I was younger, I think I developed into a performer first, because I loved being the center of attention, and because I discovered something I was good at naturally (singing). If I look back on my years in childhood and adolescence of singing lessons and performing in musicals and operas, I have to say that a big driving force for me was that a) I wanted to be a "star" and b) I liked doing something that I was good at. I think I also liked the challenges of performing in operas because it really does use all the parts of your brain and your body, and there is always a huge margin for error and therefore a never ending outlet for improvement. It wasn't until much later that I discovered the artistic pleasures of music and drama and began to explore the challenges of being a true musician and not just a performer. For opera singers who come to singing because they are natural performers, the trajectory of their artistic selves seems to be different than for opera singers who come to singing from having been instrumentalists first. But the thing about opera that seems to be endlessly appealing is that one has the opportunity to explore both sides of oneself. The musical part of the brain can almost be equated with both the mathematical side of the brain (in the learning and executing of pitches and rhythms) and of course also the creative side of the brain (with the interpreting and phrasing of the music). Plus there is the very creative art of physicalizing a character and finding dramatic intentions. And then the more technical element of communicating in another language and properly producing and pronouncing that language and translating what you're saying in your brain as you say it. And of course, the endlessly fascinating challenge of vocal technique and production. The possibilities for creativity and challenge are endless, and thus we can see exactly why someone would be drawn to a career in singing.

But the difficulties with having such a career are almost equally compelling. First of all, there's the difficulty of doing all the things I mentioned above, all at once, and then adding the pressure of trying to do all of those things in front of thousands of people. That right there is enough to make some people run screaming in the opposite direction. Add to that the fact that you have two people basically in charge of what you are doing while you are doing all those things - the director and the conductor - and more times than not, one or even both of those people seems to be conspiring to make that job infinitely more difficult, and yet they may have the power to make you feel like a turd on a log if you don't execute everything exactly as they imagine it. Then there is the unsteady and insecure nature of trying to make your living out of a job that has no stability, and doesn't allow you any job security other than a year or two in advance - and that's if you're lucky. Then there is the not so tiny element of always having to be on the road - often in very foreign places - all time time, just in order to pursue the job at all. Never having any kind of normal schedule. Missing major holidays and functions, weddings and funerals, and having absolutely no choice in the matter. Oh - and how about having to face terrible, harsh, toe-curling criticism, both publicly and privately, even when you have worked as hard as you possibly can and given every last ounce of your soul to a project. Have I mentioned the being away from your loved ones all the time? God, that's probably the suckiest part of it for me.

And yet people choose to pursue it anyway. There are people who would give every last one of their toenails to have just one of the opportunities that I've been given, and there are singers with whom I've worked in those situations who are dying to have a normal life again, and dream every day of finding a new way to make their livelihood. I honestly fluctuate - there are days when I am so fulfilled by this work that I am unbelievably happy, and other days when I sit down and start brain-storming about my other career options. But I have a very unique position - I have had the opportunity to pursue this career at a very high level, and have accomplished most things that people hope for - singing in some major places, working with famous directors and conductors, even making recordings. So now that I've had those experiences, I'm in a different position to judge whether this is something I choose to pursue, as opposed to people who only dream about those experiences. Then again, having had those experiences, I see exactly how wonderful and how terrible living the life of an artist can be. This makes the decision to keep choosing this life both terribly easy and terribly difficult, depending on which day you ask me. When all you have are dreams, everything seems possible, and when all you have are experiences, everything seems both possible and impossible at the same time.

There are no definitive answers. Only gratitude and thoughtful contemplation. Thank you for allowing me to indulge myself in both.

Ja wohl!

I kept meaning to write a blog post about all that's been happening, and then more stuff would happen!

It already feels like years ago that I finally performed the Kindertotenlieder, but it was only 4 days ago!! The performance went fine, although I felt that my nervousness about the newness of the pieces caused me to sing them less well in the performance than in the dress rehearsal earlier the same day. I'm not sure what I was nervous about exactly - I had the music in front of me, there weren't really any "trouble spots" and the performance was for a very small but very appreciative audience. Sitting here right now imagining it, I really don't understand why I had to be nervous enough to have it affect anything about my performance, because I wasn't particularly worried about any elements. But unfortunately, that's the human brain for you. You just can't control performance anxiety. It's very annoying, however. But nothing went wrong or anything, and I actually got a very lovely email from a "fan" who attended the concert. I really like that people who see me perform can send me emails - it's the same way I feel about all of you commenting on the blog. It's fantastic that the internet has allowed performers and the public to be able to communicate so easily and freely.

After the concert was over, it was back to Berlin to begin rehearsal for this Barber. We jumped right in on Monday, and being back at the Staatsoper was like being back at the first day of school, a comforting feeling that I haven't really experienced since I've been out of the yearly City Opera loop. Except that The Staatsoper has moved for the next three years to a new location while they renovate the historical building on Unter den Linden Boulevard. The rehearsals and performances are now taking place in the Schiller Theater, which was built in the 50's, and which is in West Berlin, only a few blocks from the Deutsche Oper. It's not as big a building or Theater as the Staastoper, so people are all crammed in, and everyone is still learning where everything is. I wandered around for 20 minutes on the first day with the conductor, looking for a room where we could work on one of the cadenzas, and we finally settled on a dressing room off to the side of the stage because it was all we could find. But having several of the same cast members, plus the same director and conductor really makes me feel at home.

I was worried I wouldn't remember the staging from last year, but strangely, my feet just seem to move me where I'm supposed to go 9 times out of 10. Which is lucky, because since there are some new cast members who have never done this production before, those of us "veterans" (which is a hilarious way to reference me since I did two performances with about 6 hours of rehearsal) just kind of try to remember where we're supposed to be while the director shows the other people the moves. Funnily enough, the 6 or so days of rehearsal we have seem like plenty to me after how stressed I was last year with trying to learn it so quickly. And, after discussing Rossini style with the conductor, we decided that I'm not going to put a fermata on the penultimate note at the end of Una Voce Poco Fa, but rather do the ending come scritto - as written - as it would have been done in Rossini's time. I'm always complaining about the fact that everybody sustains that high note, so it's totally expected and traditional, and it just gives me HIVES to even think about it. It's probably mostly a mental block I've developed against it, because I have no problems singing high B's and even higher in other situations, but for some reason, in that context, it stresses me out. So when the conductor said he didn't even want me to hold it, I almost jumped in his arms with happiness. Without that stressful note, there really isn't anything about Rosina that I find particularly scary. So I can actually just have fun with a role I know extremely well, and not sit there before and worry about one note, and then spend the rest of the opera thinking about how well I sang it.

Not even the fact that I am now a common criminal in Germany could damper my spirits about not having to sing that high note. You think I'm kidding? Oh no - I left rehearsal last night, very tired from a long day, and as I ran up the stairs to the S-Bahn to go home, I was pretty sure I had one more ticket in my wallet, although I didn't even have time to pull it out and validate it before I slipped onto the train and the doors closed. The trains in Berlin, for those of you who've never been here, are basically on an honor system, with people coming around to check your tickets only once in awhile. In fact, in the four months I spent in Berlin last year, I only saw the people checking tickets one time. But wouldn't you know it, last night was the second time I had the pleasure of seeing them, and it turns out I didn't have any more tickets in my wallet. So they pulled me off the train, asked to see my passport, and fined me 40 Euro. I felt like such an ass - I mean, WHO doesn't buy tickets for the public transportation and just tries to get away with it??? Me, apparently. I bought a weekly pass first thing this morning.

Wien and beyond

I arrived Wednesday evening in Vienna, and was excited to see this amazing historical city for the first time. I was only slightly dismayed to discover that my hotel, which is right in the center of Vienna on a street called Schubertring, was wedged between a TGI Fridays and a McDonald's. Sigh. But that didn't deter me from finding an excellent Schnitzel and a very large Austrian Beer at a very non American, non fast food chain before falling into bed, still jet-lagged and exhausted.

I didn't have rehearsal until 5 PM the next day and had to check out of the hotel at 11, so I used the time to visit a few places in Vienna that had the most significance to me personally; Mozart's house, the Staatsoper, an most importantly, the famous chocolate and pastry shop Demel. No actually, I guess Mozart is the one figure who I would actually say is more important to me than chocolate. And that is saying A LOT. I was very excited to get to see the actual apartment where he composed Le Nozze di Figaro, and I'm sure I wasn't the first one to try to surreptitiously touch things like the walls in the hopes that my fingers would come into contact with something his fingers had touched. The movie Amadeus has made it impossible for me to picture anyone other than Tom Hulce whenever I try to picture Mozart and what he must have been like, so as I wandered the rooms, I kept seeing a white wigged Tom/Wolfgang running around and getting into trouble. I also kept trying to have a "profound experience" but I kind of felt more like I was looking at a potential sublet or something because they don't really have furniture in there since they don't know what was there or what each room would have actually had in it. But I did get teary in the section of the museum where they were talking about his death and playing the Requiem. He was exactly my age when the world lost the greatest composer of all time, and he managed to write every single one of my most favorite musical moments in those 35 years, whereas I haven't even managed to get married or spit out a kid yet. It's mind boggling to comprehend what he accomplished in the space of my lifetime thus far.

I also had my first rehearsal with the conductor on the Kindertotenlieder yesterday, and it did feel good to make music again, despite my protestations that I wasn't ready to get back in the saddle. It's especially nice to work with a conductor I know and who knows my voice, and to finally turn these pieces into music. What I mean by that is that I really am happier when I'm collaborating on something than when I'm trying to do it all by myself. I certainly have my own ideas, but being shaped and coaxed by a good conductor makes me feel so much more like I'm creating something, even without the orchestra present.

Then I was driven to St Pölten (the town an hour outside of Vienna where the concert will take place) last night after the rehearsal, and had my first rehearsal with the orchestra today. It all seemed to go well, and other than the challenge of getting used to singing something so low in a big hall as opposed to in the little rooms I've been practicing in, the pieces felt good. Now I just have the dress rehearsal and the concert, both tomorrow, and then Sunday I fly back to Berlin for rehearsals of Barbiere, which begin Monday.

Speaking of Barbiere, I saw via her blog that Joyce DiDonato has launched a new website, and when I looked at it, I nearly pooped my pants when I noticed on her schedule that she will be singing Rosina at the Deutsche Oper TWO DAYS after I sing it at the Staatsoper. Also, because of renovations to the Staatsoper, we will be performing in the Schiller Theater, which is only a few blocks away from the Deutsche Oper. So two days and a couple of blocks are all that separate THE Rosina of our time I'm not even freaked out because I think someone will compare us or something - it's just, why did I have to be simultaneously performing the same role with Joyce - why couldn't it have been someone who's name I didn't recognize, like it was last year when the Staats and the Deutsche had dueling Barbieres? I know it's ridiculous to compare one artist to another, but it's very hard not to be intimidated by someone who has so obviously mastered a certain role when you still feel like parts of that same role give you hives. Luckily I'm skipping town the day after my second performance, so I won't be in town to hear the applause for her Una Voce, that will almost certainly resonate not only two blocks down to the Schiller Theater, but all the way over to East Berlin, where my apartment is. Instead of crying into my currywurst, I will be safely ensconced in Chicago and out of the fray. You think I'm kidding, but I saw her sing Rosina at the Met and she got even more applause at the end than Juan Diego. More than JUAN DIEGO. For his signature role in The Barber of Seville.

Yeah, I'm totally out of there.

Wherefore art thou?

Oh Blog readers, have you given up on me? They say that if you want to keep your readership up, you have to be regular about writing, and I obviously haven't been. I took the summer (and when I say summer, I mean my summer vacation, which basically took place in the last month and a half) off, and now that I'm back in the saddle, I wonder if you all will come back and read again. Well, writing is cathartic enough that even if nobody is reading, I'll do it when I feel it anyway.

So, I'm back in Europe again. How did that happen? It truly seems like just yesterday I was packing up my suitcases in Innsbruck giddily, ready as ever to get back to the U.S. And I did have a month and a half off, but somehow it flew by so fast that I wasn't ready to reload and get back to work. But life goes on whether we're ready or not, and here I am, back to work.

On my flight here, I had a six and half hour silent, passive aggressive fight with the guy sitting next to me on the plane. I have a kindle now, which is really handy for traveling since it weighs next to nothing, and I can have unlimited english language books at my disposal, which is very comforting when you're in a foreign country. Anyway, you know how they make you turn off all electronic devices for take-off and landing? Well, I find that really annoying when I'm just trying to read my book, so I did a little research and discovered that the kindle is totally non-interfering with any airplane activity when you switch off the wireless signal, so it's totally safe to keep on, even during non-electronic moments on a flight. I've only had a flight attendant tell me to turn it off once, and when I explained to her that it was not really "electronic" and didn't have an on/off switch - just a sleep mode - she let me keep it on. Otherwise no one has ever said boo. Until my flight here yesterday.

The German dude sitting next to me, who was already pissing me off with his "hogging the armrests" antics, decided he was the electronics police. He leaned over to me as we were taxiing and said "Aren't we supposed to turn off all electronic devices for take-off and landing?" I looked at him sideways and asked "why?" and he glared down at my kindle and replied, "You should turn that off. Now." So I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt - maybe he's one of those nervous fliers and is afraid my kindle will cause the plane to crash, so I tried explaining how it works to him: "No - you see, once you turn off the wireless function - which I already did - it no longer emits any signals that can interfere with the plane - I've checked it out before." He looked at me suspiciously and and shook his head, muttering "you should turn it off." And then he looked around, apparently trying to find a flight attendant to tell on me. Never mind that they had passed by me a hundred times already and not said a peep. He continued to glare at me and my kindle all during take-off, and, as far as I could tell, spread out as much as possible so I had to keep my arms tucked into my sides as if I was wearing a straightjacket. My only revenge was, upon seeing he had ordered a special vegetarian meal, ordering the chicken. I really wanted the pasta, but I wanted his big glasses wearing, mayor of the airplane self to have to smell my meaty dinner. Ah, traveling.

I don't actually start any jobs until Thursday, when my first rehearsal for the Kindertotenlieder is scheduled, but I wanted to come to Europe a few days before that to recover from jet-lag. I fly to Vienna tomorrow and the concert is on Saturday, then back to Berlin Sunday, and rehearsals for Barber begin Monday. If I'm not feeling ready, I'd better get over it quick. Like; today.

Being back in Berlin is very comforting, however, as far as traveling to foreign countries goes. I know where I am, how to get places, and yet there's always so much more to discover. I already know how the public transportation works and where to validate my ticket and what direction to go. I even know what brand of German cereal I like. It's small comforts like these which keep me relatively sane, and eternally grateful.

Now I need to go practice. Tap tap this thing on?


A year ago I wrote a post about my best friend Georgia getting married. Well, my other best friend Will recently made the same lovely leap, and his was documented by the New York Times (and recently blogged by Perez Hilton). If you're a regular reader of my blog, you will remember my references to Will (I also wrote this blog post about Kim, his husband). Well, now they're famous. Hope they remember me when.... :)

The Daily Slog

Living the life of a musician - but particularly one whose instrument is housed inside their body - is such an odd existence. "Work" as we know it as humans (and especially as Americans, who are trained from birth at the fine art of HARD WORK) is a strange way to define what we do, even though that's how we make our livelihood. My last facebook status update said, "Does listening to a recording of a coaching count as practicing?" and although it was meant to be funny, I was also kind of serious. Is it possible that something as passive as listening to yourself sing could be productive?

I can only answer for myself, but for me the answer is HELL to the YES (maybe that phrase only works as HELL to the NO - in which case, I apologize for my obvious nerdiness in trying to employ it incorrectly). I've found that when I'm learning a new piece of music, one of the single most productive things I can do is to have a solid coaching on the piece, but one where I make whatever mistakes I am apt to make, and then listen to a recording of that coaching. All I have to do is hear myself making that mistake (whether it be diction, music, rhythm, style) a couple of times, and my brain miraculously fixes it. I don't know the science behind why this works, but it's a really handy trick for singers since repeating something over and over tires out your voice and can only be done for a certain length of time. I'm always totally amazed by how much better I seem to know a piece of music after having just one coaching and listening to it a couple of times. By the next coaching I'm in a completely different place with the piece and can actually start making it my own musically and stylistically.

So last night, feeling a little sedentary in my apartment (and also feeling guilty for not having sung a note all day but feeling a little too wiped out to actually sing through anything) I donned my raincoat and walked the 25 blocks it took me to listen to my last coaching of Kindertotenlieder all the way through, and then wash, rinse, repeated the whole procedure back up to my apartment. And today when I started singing through the pieces they really felt they were in me and I was barely looking down at the score.

I'm still having trouble internalizing the texts however. The only way to memorize a piece is to know what you're singing (trying to memorize something without knowing what the words mean takes much longer) and my brain just doesn't want to KNOW know what these words mean. I mean, of course, I have translated them, and I know what the words mean, but when I try to infuse my own emotions into the texts and connect my own feelings with them, I get very upset. It's partially because the poems themselves are just heartbreaking, but it's mostly the way Mahler set them that gets to me. His music is so incredibly nostalgic - most of the songs are remembering moments from the children's lives or imagining what the world would be like if they were still there. There's this one song where the poet is talking about how sometimes he forgets that the children aren't just out on a walk, and keeps expecting them to appear from behind the next hill, and Mahler does this horribly evocative thing where he doesn't let the singer finish the phrase harmonically, but just has the vocal melody stop in the middle of the harmonic phrase, allowing the orchestra to take over and finish. It's impossibly devastating. This idea of an unfinished life, so shatteringly illustrated with one small harmonic device. Honestly, if the songs weren't so genius musically, I don't think anyone would ever be able to listen to them because the subject is so horrible. It just demonstrates how transcendent music really is.

Oh, how I long for the day when I'm just singing The Barber of Seville again, and my blog posts can be about eating sugar and slipping on the ice in Berlin!

P.S. I'm fooling with some design options on my blog, so you might see some strange stuff going on in the coming days.....


Hi guys. Wow - I'm really sorry I haven't written anything in a long time. This could be the least I've blogged in the entire time I've been keeping this online journal. But it corresponds directly with two things - the end of the longest and hardest stretch of uninterrupted work I've had, maybe ever, and the beginning stages of a new relationship.

First of all, I had just a bit of burnout from a long intense period of very focused concentration. I kind of wanted to turn my brain completely off, including even the creative juices required for me to write a few paragraphs. The second reason is a little more complicated. I have said before that one of the reasons the blog is so vital to me is that I go off to all these places, and have all these experiences, and almost feel like they're happening in a vacuum because I'm all alone when they occur. There's a difference between walking down the street by yourself in Austria and suddenly seeing a man who is naked from the waist up, wearing horns and beer cans on his head, and seeing a sight like that when you're with someone. When you're by yourself, you wonder - did that just happen? Did I just see that? Am I in the twilight zone? Not having anyone to immediately explain that experience to feels strange, so I had gotten in the habit of recording weird or wonderful happenings in my brain like stories, and writing them down later on my blog. This sharing of my experiences really enhanced everything that was happening to me, and made it somehow more vivid and real. But when you have someone you're talking to every day come rain or shine, your stories become real when you tell them to that partner. It's funny; I always noticed that when I was on the road somewhere, if I had someone visiting me, I wouldn't feel like writing on my blog. Writers often say that they need to be isolated - even lonely - to get good writing done. I guess thus far, this has been the case for me as well.

But, bad news for my writing, I'm not feeling too lonely these days. I've been in Chicago for the past week and a half, doing little other than having a fun time. Although since Michael has a job during the day, I have actually been working on music for a couple of hours every day, learning the Mahler and keeping my business stuff in order. And no, I'm not going to stop writing my blog just because I have a boyfriend. Writing has become such an important and meaningful pastime for me these past couple of years, and in addition, I feel really connected to all of you who read what I'm writing and make comments. But like anything else, it becomes more difficult when I don't do it as often, and my fingers and my brain feel rusty and kind of slow. I just need to get back into the practice of being creative and find new inspirations besides solitude for putting words on a page.

One more note for now; as I have blogged about before, Michael does a podcast every week called OperaNow! where he and his co-hosts discuss the news about Opera in the world, as well as taking different operas and playing various recordings, and discussing vocal and compositorial style and technique in a very in depth and informative way. But Michael and his co-host Oliver also happen to be really funny and irreverent, which is very refreshing for a discussion about Opera. I've become a more regular panelist on the podcast, and was on last weeks show, and will also be on the one we will record live today, which will be up on the website and in itunes in the next day or so. If you're one of my blog readers who hasn't yet checked out the podcast, I would highly recommend that you do. Not because I'm trying to promote my boyfriend - just because one of the reasons we're compatible is that we have similar senses of humor, and if you like mine, you'll probably like his too.

And don't worry, I'll be back to blogging regularly now. I'm sure you were all crying yourselves to sleep every night wondering when I would be back. Dry those tears, friends. I've returned.


Yeah, I've been away from the blog, and from singing in general this week. I pulled out Kindertotenlieder today, which is my next project (in the beginning of October in Austria) and looked at it for about 4.3 minutes before putting it away again. I did download an amazing recording of Christa Ludwig singing them - man, that lady had breath control for days and days. Not only are my body and mind not ready to learn music again just yet, but every time I read the poems I get horribly depressed. I will really have to learn the music without thinking about the text, and then at the very end, internalize what the text means. I want to have those poems (about the death of the poets child, for those of you who don't know them) in my soul for as short a time as possible. I don't even like to see sad movies - what can I say?

In the meantime, I was pleased (and a little shocked) to discover a review from L'Olimpiade that appeared in the New York Times. Here's the link. I haven't even had the courage to read the German language reviews yet, but you can't really avoid the New York Times even if you try.

And here are some images from the production:

I'll be back soon, I promise. Until then, pass the wine and keep me away from german lieder.

Olympic wrap up

It really is appropriate that the opera I finished singing last night is called the Olympics, because not only was akin to an athletic event, with it's length, sheer volume of italian words, and technical requirements, but also because it came at the end of a very long stint of working without a break, overlapping job upon job, and running from country to country. I feel like I just ran a very long marathon, and I am daggone tired. Right at this very moment, I am in the Munich airport waiting for my flight back to New York, which, on Friday the 13th is delayed a couple of hours because we had to get a new plane. Fabulous.

I was actually really surprised how incredibly difficult L'Olimpiade ended up being. I mean, I guess I shouldn't be that surprised, since after the second or so coaching I had on it back in St Louis, I started crying. It just seemed like such an enormous volume of material, of which there was no recording, and no libretto with translation available. I would get through one extraordinarily long recitative with the conductor who was kind enough to go through it with me, (especially kind, since he was forced to sight read the figured bass in the recits and the full orchestral score for the arias), and turn the page to find another even longer one, followed by a 12 page aria. It just seemed endless when I was learning it, and unlike many pieces that seem shorter once you know them, this piece still seemed endless when I was performing it. I never once relaxed - I went through every scene compulsively as many times as possible in my dressing room before every rehearsal and performance. I sang through each aria before I went onstage to perform it. I recited all the recits in my head on every day off. It was a mountain. And if I zoned out for a second on stage (which is not difficult in a 5 hour opera), I would snap out of it, panic, and then reconnect to the material as quickly as possible. I didn't drop any of the recit lines in any of the performances, but almost certainly forgot to double some consonants some nights, or rolled an r where it shouldn't have been.

The added stressor of this whole endeavor was the fact that Sony was making this live recording. This was apparently the recording summer for me - first the studio one of Agrippina, then the live one of this opera. The thing is, you're already nervous about a performance, wanting it to be as excellent as it can be. But if you know you have a tiny microphone taped to your head, and that lots of people who aren't in the theater that night are also going to hear what's coming out of your mouth, it's difficult not to become hyper aware of what you're doing. In the end however, I just performed as I normally would, with dramatic gasping and panting where it was required, and didn't try to sing cleanly because of the recording. I have absolutely no idea what the end product will be, because like the studio recording, I haven't done this before and don't know what I'm doing. All I could do was be myself on stage, and do what I normally do. The rest is up to the sound engineers.

Well, my plane is boarding, so I don't even have time to proof read this entry. Just know, I'm coming home from these Olympic games, and I'm so relieved. I don't even care if I won a medal - I'm just glad I competed.

The anatomy of anxiety

I've been thinking a lot about fear in the last few days, and why we get afraid of things. Mostly because with the dress rehearsal and the premiere of L'Olimpiade approaching here in Innsbruck, I knew I was gonna be getting nervous, and I was dreading it. I have started to dread not performing in general, but the opening performances of operas because I get the most uncomfortably nervous for those performances. And because I know I will have those kind of nerves, I start to get nervous about the fact that I'm going to be nervous, because I know that performing is more difficult and a lot less fun when I'm all jumpy and wacky with nerves. I'm at the point now where even when I'm nervous, I have ways of counteracting my anxiety when I'm on stage, and it doesn't have much of an outward affect on my performance, mostly just on how much I'm able to enjoy myself in the moment.

At last night's premiere of L'Olimpiade, I did a lot to counteract opening night jitters. During the overture I did all kinds of stretching and moving around to try to keep my body from feeling the tightening it feels when I get nervous. And when I got out on stage, I commanded my brain to slow down and take care with the words I was saying instead of running by them too quickly to experience anything. The opera begins for me with an extraordinarily long recitative where I sing for so many pages in italian that it's easy for me to feel overwhelmed. But I felt like I managed to keep my energy up while still being in the moment. When I got to my first aria, I had this dry mouth thing that happens only when you're nervous, but I was refusing to let myself get sucked into constantly swallowing and licking my lips, which actually just makes it worse. At one point my lips were totally sticking to my teeth, but I just said to my brain "this isn't going to affect your singing, actually" and it didn't. I kind of looked like one of those little dogs who have been snarling and just haven't put their teeth away yet, but at least I didn't have to interrupt a phrase just to lick my lips. As usual, I had calmed down considerably by my second entrance, and with the exception of a brain fart or two (which you really can't avoid in a five hour opera when you factor in nerves and excitement) the show went well and was very well received by the audience. I couldn't believe it when I made my entrance during the third act at 11:40 at night and the theater was still full of people! It was like a miracle!

Just two more performances until I am officially on VACATION! For me, a dream vacation means being in my own apartment and being able to drink as much wine as I want whenever I want without having to think about whether or not passing out in a drunken stupor is going to affect my ability to remember italian recitatives the next day. You know, maybe that was my problem all along - maybe passing out in a drunken stupor would have cemented the italian recitatives in my head much quicker - especially if I was drinking a Chianti or something. I'll have to remember that for next time. But beginning this friday, I can just get drunk for the fun of it.

*perhaps it is a slightly unfortunate juxtaposition for me to end a blog post entitled "the anatomy of anxiety" with a paragraph about passing out drunk. Please rest assured that I am neither crazy nor an alcoholic. I'm just tired of being so effing serious all the time in my blog! It's time to bring back the funny! Or at least the mildly amusing (if what you'd been reading before this was the Wall Street Journal).