Scribblings of a Mad Soprano

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

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.

2018 Holiday Newsletter

Happy Holidays!

2018 has been a year of poetry, art song and…the movies!

The Femme Lunatique project, One Art, has had a bumper year, with debuts in Chicago and Tenby, Wales, as well as showcase performances in Margate (POW! Festival), Broadstairs (BroadstairsLit Fest) and Faversham. The companion CD was named a winner in the Hawai’i Public Radio International Art Song Contest, with the winners’ concert broadcast in April .  A song recital version of the One Art monodrama will be presented in April 2019 on the Music at York Street concert series.


After more than 10 years, I viewed the film RocketMen, a documentary about NASA in which I provided the vocals in the music soundtrack. Appropriately, it was during a family holiday to Orlando, Florida, where we visited the Kennedy Space Center! Netflix (US version) carried the film at the time, so I finally know how the musical tracks fit the plot. The film was originally released only in Japan, was shown later on PBS in the USA, and has yet to be shown in the UK. Here is a little video I put together with images that reflect the mood of the film (password: rocketmen.) I always wanted to be an astronaut, after all…

Another blast from the past was a 16 minute highlight reel from last year’s performances of Zaïde/Adama at Theater Freiburg, uploaded onto Vimeo by composer Chaya Czernowin.


Other 2018 events included a Brahms Requiem for Faversham Music Festival, and singing art songs by Dominick Argento for a magical ‘goddess unwrapping ceremony.’


Argento’s music will be making further appearances in 2019 and 2020, with planned performances of his chamber opera Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night. More details soon!

Another new role for me is Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer. I’m very exciting about my first foray into Wagner-land, and will feature a duet from this opera in an upcoming gala performance. Some upcoming local appearances and workshops in 2019 include:

12 January 2-3 p.m. Sing for your Sanity workshop Horsebridge, Whitstable

9 February 2-3 p.m. Sing for your Sanity workshop Horsebridge, Whitstable

16 February  (time TBC) Opera Gala Faversham (venue TBC)

9 March 2-3 p.m. Sing for your Sanity workshop Horsebridge, Whitstable

27 April  7:30 p.m. One Art MAYS York Street Methodist Church, Broadstairs

(As always, up-to-date listings and more details can be found at

Happy New Year!

A life in opera: a confession

I have a confession to make. I once did a very naughty thing on tour. (No, not THAT. You think I’d be telling you THAT??)

Now, bear in mind this was a long, long time ago, back when I was an apprentice/young artist and didn’t know any better. Well, maybe I did know better, but I did it anyway. Please don’t judge me. Besides, it was irresistible at the time.

Where to begin? Well. The tour was an educational outreach type thing. The opera company in question (which shall remain nameless) hired four young singers, fresh out of graduate music programmes, to sing two school shows (one for primary schools and one for secondary schools) plus various fundraising events, opera galas, concerts with orchestra, etc. A soprano (me), a mezzo, a tenor, and a bass. We rehearsed for a few days, and then toured all over the region presenting opera to children. Four singers, a pianist (with his very own electric keyboard) and a driver/stagehand/admin/general overseer. In a van. For over two months.

Now, when you are thrown together with a small group of people, for whatever reason, and asked to work together intensely for several weeks, things happen. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. You can have affairs, you can end up hating each other, or driving each other crazy. Or, as happened for me and the bass, you can bond through adversity and forge a life-long friendship. Friendship encompasses many things: confiding in each other, spending time together, building each other’s confidence, offering a shoulder to cry on when needed…and behaving like tiny children in a sandbox.

We had fun. We discovered that the ‘only gay bar in the village’ was affectionately known as ‘the wrinkle room’ because the clientele were…greatly blessed in years, shall we say. (We certainly stood out.) My friend read aloud to us in the van and we all enjoyed hearing novels in his marvellously soothing rumble. In one very, very small town, we walked into a local tavern and were immediately picked out as strangers and had to buy everyone in the bar a drink to avoid being burned as witches (well, almost; luckily beer was cheap and the crowd was small.) We got up the noses of patrons at a motel (who all seemed to know one another; I can only think they were travelling salesmen and frequently stayed at this particular motel) while watching TV in the lobby, by shouting out the answers on Wheel of Fortune before everyone else. Apparently they weren’t used to people who were (ahem) slightly faster than them. Oh, and the first to guess the right answers got free beer, so I guess we were stealing their drinks. (Hey, we’re opera singers. Over educated and very good with languages. And often in need of beer money. But even we couldn’t drink THAT much beer…we were happy to share with the disgruntled salesmen.) 

But, despite all the bars and beer (quite a lot of that, wasn’t there?) none of that makes me feel guilty. How to explain my dreadful sin?

More background: while the tour went on, we began rehearsing for a finale concert with orchestra, and each of us had a big show-off aria to sing. The other piece of backstory you should know is that at one of our promotional appearances, the caterers provided large tins of alphabet biscuits – a bit like party rings or animal crackers, but shaped as different letters of the alphabet. It may have been at a school where we were being filmed for local television, but the food was for the adults involved so it seemed rather incongruous at the time. Anyway, nobody ate the cookies and, knowing we were all starving artists and probably getting bored on our long tour, the hosts of this little tea party gave us the left over tins to carry around in the van and snack on as we pleased. There were a lot of biscuits: as I said, nobody really wanted to eat them at the reception.

OK, so, four singers, a pianist, and our long-suffering driver/stage manager/minder in a van. School show, lunch, rehearsal, back to the digs. Big tins of alphabet cookies under the seats of the van. I’m rehearsing Lucia’s mad scene, the mezzo is going to sing Cenerentola’s aria, my bff the bass is doing the catalogue aria from Don Giovanni, and the tenor…Daughter of the Regiment. 

Now, that aria is a challenge at the best of times. 14 high C’s. When Covent Garden did a new production of Fille du Regiment after 40 years it was front page news. Everyone thought that NOBODY could sing that role except Pavarotti, and, until Juan Diego Flórez came along, they were right. This tour was many, many years before the Covent Garden revival. I will not reveal the name of our tenor in this story, but I will tell you one thing:

He wasn’t Juan Diego Flórez.

(Even typing that makes me feel guilty, so I won’t say any more about it…I will leave it to your catty imaginations. Meow.) (Seriously, I have a thing about not bad-mouthing colleagues. Karma, and all that. This is a confession, people!)

Anyway, we were tired, we were overworked, we were underpaid, and we were in need of a laugh. And nobody wanted to eat those damn cookies.

I can’t remember whose idea it was. (I’d like to think it was mine: I’m a big fan of crossword puzzles and, as noted above, a wiz at Wheel of Fortune. But it was probably Monsieur Bass, who was far funnier than I can ever hope to be.) Somehow, the thought came over us that we should ‘help out’ our friend the tenor. We dug the cookies out from under the seats. Our giggling – which we really did try to suppress so as not to spoil the surprise – became so noticeable that the driver wanted to know what was going on. (‘What is so flipping funny? Don’t make me stop this van you kids!’) 
It took quite a while to fish out all the letters ‘C’ from those cookie tins.
We presented them to our colleague in (what we hoped was) a spirit of supportive fun. Everyone, even the tenor, laughed.

To tenors everywhere, and especially my colleague from that tour, sincere apologies. I know it’s not easy. (I really hope he’s forgiven us by now.)


For MDJ, with love forever.