Scribblings of a Mad Soprano

Singers who do other things?

A friend of mine (an immensely talented singer, artist, and maker of beautiful things, as well as an advocate, activist, writer, and actress) reminded me recently in her blog that many, if not most, of us singers do more than one thing to earn a living. Whether it’s temping or restaurant work to keep us afloat in our student/apprentice years, teaching and part-time jobs during slow patches once we’ve had a little luck later on, or running a second business or ‘side hustle’ parallel to our singing career, even quite successful artists find that singing doesn’t always pay the bills; and/or doesn’t completely feed our need to be creative, fulfilled and in charge of something in our lives (being a singer can make a person feel very dependent on others: for employment, direction, career guidance etc.)

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But. (There’s always a but!) We have also been made to feel that admitting to this fact is admitting failure. That a ‘real singer’ (whatever that means) would never need to do anything else, and would definitely never want to do anything else. Sure, write your memoirs (or have them ghost-written) after you have retired from the stage. Ditto for teaching: be asked by the most prestigious conservatoire in your country to be on the faculty, or barring that, do some well-publicised masterclasses. 

Being an entrepreneur somehow doesn’t fit the popular image of being a Diva. 

My friend exhorted all us moonlighting warblers to ‘fess up, proudly, to what we do ‘on the side.’ So, I’m coming out of proverbial closet: I’m a singer, and also a teacher of singing, a writer, a business/personal coach, a keynote speaker, artistic director of Femme Lunatique Productions, and, most recently, a jewellery designer and maker. (Check our the Merch page on this website!)

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Much is being said about the new ‘gig’ economy arising for the next generation. We singers have been surviving that way for a very long time!

Getting out of the Zone

Business and personal coaches are always advising clients (and the general public) that it’s important to ‘get out of the comfort zone’ to allow change and growth. I’ve often wondered how those of us in the performing arts can apply this advice, seeing as our very choice of profession is already way outside most people’s zone of comfort in the first place…

What, me? Comfortable?

Then again, after a reasonable amount of experience, singing in front of an audience gets easier (although the nerves never entirely go away.) It can even start to feel like part of the routine. It is our job, after all!

But even those of us out here on the high wire need to keep growing: as artists, as people, as professionals. So what can we do? We’re already scaring ourselves daily, auditioning, entering competitions, putting our performances up for scrutiny by critics, audiences…other singers (yikes!)

I have been at this for a number of years (ahem) and had settled into a certain level of comfort: singing rep I’m confident of (and seemed to get asked to do fairly consistently.) Then, for myriad reasons, I have started to step outside that ‘zone’ (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.) New music is not particularly unusual for me, but a contemporary piece that requires me to perform as a cabaret artist? That was different.* Working with a composer? Fine. But a JAZZ composer? Gulp.** Moving into heavier rep? Well, fairly normal progression for a singer, but I never, NEVER thought I would be singing Wagner.***

Bye bye comfort zone, nice knowing you.

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*One Art: an opera/cabaret, most recently performed at Tête à Tête Festival 2019.

‘Fantastic show, perfect marriage of form and content, and…a pitch-perfect lightness of touch that was devastatingly poignant.’

**Wonder Woman, May 2019.

‘…a soprano with an open, expressive face, and an off centre stage presence…she was never less than engaging. A tremendous singer…the audience were held, almost not daring to breathe. The contrast of a trained soprano and a jazz(y) backing is something I’ve seldom encountered, and it’s sensationally successful, certainly on this occasion.’

***I will be singing Irene in Rienzi at St Johns Smith Square, July 2020, and covering Brünnhilde for Longborough Festival Opera’s Ring Cycle 2020-2022.

ONE ART at Tête à Tête: the opera festival


ONE ART: an opera/cabaret made its London debut on Saturday night at the Tête à Tête festival 2019. Below is some early audience feedback:

‘Thrilled’

‘This was brilliant! I really loved how you – with well-judged amounts of humour and pathos – told this story.’

‘Extraordinary’

‘Fantastic show, perfect marriage of form and content, and I loved your voice. A pitch-perfect lightness of touch that was devastatingly poignant.’

‘Daring’

‘Wonderful…a great achievement.’

Careful! Opera might change your life.

An opera changed my life.

In 1994, I was a fledgling opera singer, fresh out of grad school and temping in New York City while I tried to fit in gigs in the evenings and weekends. One organisation that occasionally offered me performance opportunities was American Opera Projects, who support living composers by showcasing new operas and works in progress. They asked me to be part of an evening of opera ‘readings’ – that is, concert style, barely rehearsed, nearly sight-read, public run-throughs of short scenes from new operas, many not even completed yet, so that the composers had a chance to hear their music performed live and (perhaps more importantly) potential sponsors could hear the works as they developed. On this particular evening, I had a few lines to sing in a scene from Patience & Sarah, an opera based on the novel by Isabel Miller. After a quick rehearsal in the afternoon, a group of opera singers stood, photocopied scores on music stands, in front of a small audience in a dance studio in SoHo, and read through our scene.

Two fortunate things happened that night: Patience & Sarah got picked up by a sponsor, which led to the opera being completed and premiered, four years later, at the Lincoln Center Arts Festival. And I met my future husband and father of my eldest son.

OK, so far, so romance novel…but wait, there’s more. My husband (he is no longer with us, but that’s a different story) wasn’t a New Yorker. He wasn’t even American. He just happened to be visiting New York that weekend, and just happened to be friends with a woman from my temp job who I had begged to come to see my performance. If it hadn’t been for Patience & Sarah, I wouldn’t have moved to England, I wouldn’t be living there now, and I wouldn’t be mother to my eldest son (who I was pregnant with during the premiere performances of P&S four years later, but again, another story…)

Why am I telling you all this? Well, in 2014, I commissioned the composer of Patience & Sarah, Paula M. Kimper, to write some art songs based on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. I premiered these songs in 2016, and will be premiering two more as part of an opera/cabaret monodrama about Bishop’s life. It is called One Art, after her famous villanelle, and a line in that poem ‘Places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel’ reminds me of that life-changing moment in 1994, and the parallels between my life and Bishop’s. She never intended to spend 15 years living in Brazil, and her relationship with Lota de Soares would never have happened if Bishop hadn’t had an allergic reaction to the fruit of the cashew. I wouldn’t be living in the UK now, if it hadn’t been for Patience & Sarah.

Miranda Otto as Elizabeth Bishop in Reaching for the Moon

The reason I chose Elizabeth Bishop poetry to set into art songs was that villanelle, One Art. Like many fans of her work, it is my favourite, and like many others I feel I read deeper into it each time I encounter it. The art of losing certainly isn’t hard to master, and I can see many parallels in my own life to the cities, continents, etc that Bishop catalogs in her verse. We all can, which is why it is so widely admired. But along with the universality of loss is also the knowledge that we never know what events in our life will lead to, what is ‘just around the corner.’ In the end, it doesn’t really matter where it was you meant to travel, just where you ended up, and where you’re going next…

ONE ART: an opera/cabaret will receive its London premiere on 27 July, 8 p.m., at RADA Studios, 16 Chenies Street, London, WC1E 7EX. Tickets from https://www.tete-a-tete.org.uk/event/one-art/

Be there if you dare!

The Accidental Legacy

When my older sister was in middle school, she was named student of the month for her academic achievement. The prize, aside from a certificate awarded at an end of year ceremony, was a profile written up in the school paper.

It was this article that created one of our favourite family in-jokes: somehow (and my sister swore that she had not said this) the interviewer got the idea that my mother had once been a professional singer, and the article stated that ‘her mother is a former opera singer.’

(Some background: my mother had a naturally beautiful singing voice, with real professional potential, but never pursued a career. Her first husband (my elder siblings’ father but not mine) did sing professionally in Europe, but it would have been unlikely for my sister to have mentioned him. The origins of this quote remain a mystery.)

Anyway, from then on we took great delight in reminding my mum that she was a Former Opera Singer, which in the midwestern town where we lived seemed about the most exotic thing you could imagine.

Fast forward 40 years, and I am looking forward to picking up my mother’s mantle, except in my case, it will be true. I may not be ready for the ‘former’ part just yet, but for the better part of three decades I have qualified for the ‘opera singer’ part.

Did I subconsciously set out to fulfil my mother’s accidental legacy? Who knows. I definitely inherited her vocal gifts, which gave me the foundation to study music and pursue a career.

And I found out, years after my sister’s profile appeared in the school paper, and after countless jibes about being a Former Opera Singer and how we could hear her voice ringing out over everyone else in the church choir (so embarrassing), that my mum had once thought about pursuing an opera career.

She had been the one with a steady job while her first husband studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and then auditioned for fest contracts in Germany. She’d even sung chorus and sewn costumes in their self-produced opera workshops in Philadelphia and New York before going abroad.

But she’d never actively gone for it, never sung a leading role, even in an amateur production. Soloist in church services, joining a close-harmony choir, and (both of us) singing chorus in a touring company’s Amahl and the Night Visitors performance were as far as it went.

One night in Philadelphia, where she had travelled from Ohio to cheer me on in the final round of the Pavarotti Competition, my mother told me she had always wondered what it would have been like to sing a leading role in an opera, just once. It was the closest she’d ever come to telling me she had any regrets at all, or that she might feel any envy for the lives her daughters were free to pursue. She had always been a cheerful, practical, and ‘look on the bright side’ type, quick to show gratitude and, while not exactly emulating Piaf or Sinatra, not one to spend any time regretting the past.

But there it was, the unfulfilled dream. And not the obvious ‘never gonna happen’ one so many of us might entertain: becoming a movie star or going to the moon; she had been around opera singers, up close and personal, and she’d possessed the talent.

When my time comes for retirement from this crazy profession, I will carry my mother’s ‘title’ with pride, finally, a generation on, making that student journalist’s hapless words true: I’ll be a Former Opera Singer.

(Oh, and…by the way: singing a role in an opera? It is kind of cool. Thanks, Mum, for making me appreciate it even more.)

Dirty Dancing with the Marvelous Mr. Lester

I am currently enjoying season 2 of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel…the one where they go to the Catskills. 

Now, I could go on about the amazing production values of this enchanting series, but I would only be repeating what several professional television critics have already stated. 

No, I want to talk about the fictional Steiner Resort in episode 4 (don’t worry, no spoilers…except that they go to a Catskill resort…sorry); during the early years of my singing career, I would be asked to do opera gala concerts at Catskills resorts during the summer: not terribly prestigious, and not terribly well paid, but still an opportunity to get out of the city and make music with friends in the mountains. For those of us who hadn’t booked a Young Artist Programme that particular summer in the Rockies, Alps or Aldeburgh, it was a welcome relief from our temp jobs.

Granted, this was in the 1990’s and long past the 1950’s-1960’s heyday of the Catskill Mountains’ resorts (as depicted in Mrs. Maisel and films such as Dirty Dancing.) By the time my colleagues and I were invited to perform in these upstate New York summer camps, they were getting a bit down-at-heel and no longer booking top comedians and jazz bands, but they were still a chance to get some fresh air and a walk in the woods. And, on one particular occasion, to add to my family.

On one of the hottest August days on record, a couple of carloads of us ‘starving artist’ opera singers headed up state. Even in the somewhat cooler countryside, it was ridiculously hot. We wore sundresses rather than evening gowns, the men couldn’t even contemplate DJ’s or tuxes, and with sweat rolling down our faces, Diva-esque amounts of makeup or hairspray were out of the question. The audience was lucky we could still sing, and not just faint and fall into the orchestra pit, so what we looked like became a secondary consideration.

Like the Steiner Resort in TMMM, our stage was in a barn-like structure and our dressing/green room was simply a side room near the main auditorium. In this room, we opened all the doors and windows to keep as cool as possible. And that was how Lester got in.

Lester was a small grey tabby kitten who was delighted to find us all waiting patiently for our turn to go sing…and eager to follow us onto the stage as we passed in and out of the door to the auditorium. So, to avoid being completely upstaged by an adorable little kitten (remember it was very hot and we all wanted this to be over with as soon as humanly possible) we took it in turns to hold him while the others were on stage. Several of our crew were cat owners and lovers already, so this wasn’t too taxing, and little Lester was spoiled for attention.

At the end of the concert, we made discreet inquiries about who his owners might be, to return him to the correct cabin. We were informed that he was a stray, probably part of a litter from a nearby farm, and fed by various resort goers who would soon be returning to New York City and abandoning him to the woods…

Well, what would you do?

I have kept cats for many years, before and after this one, and I have never had a cat so trusting and willing to be taking into a car without a carrier or crate of any description. I was prepared to spend the whole journey keeping him under control and calming him so as not to disturb the driver. As soon as the car moved off, he curled up in my lap and went to sleep. I managed to get him past my existing cat without a fuss when I got home, and introduced him gradually, as all the cat books say to do. They became fast friends. 

So, I will always remember the (appropriately named) Catskills fondly, as the place where I sang a gig and got paid with a kitten. Thank you, Mrs. Maisel, for the lovely reminder.