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.

Oh, the Glamour!


Anyone labouring under the illusion that opera singers lead a glamorous life need to take a glance at my diary (pictured)…and this was for a pretty good gig, too. The ‘bus’ listed wasn’t for me, it was to remind me that I had enough time to take my (primary school age) son to the school bus stop before heading to Germany (via Taxi/Train/EasyJet/Coach) for a performance the following evening. A leisurely school run…followed by an 8-hour commute to work. 

I once witnessed Jessye Norman arriving at Heathrow with at least 6 porters following with trolley loads of her matching designer luggage. 

Perhaps our friends Renee and Placido have minions to carry their bags (and ferry their children to school) and private jets to convey them to their next engagement: I once witnessed Jessye Norman arriving at Heathrow with at least 6 porters following with trolley loads of her matching designer luggage. So, OK, some megastars have a very glam existence, but the rest of us are saving pennies by using public transport and discount airlines. (An opera singer made some headlines recently by wearing her concert gown on the flight so the airline wouldn’t charge her for excess baggage.) 

Most of us jobbing singers lead fairly ordinary lives, with brief interludes of exquisite abnormality when we get the chance. The glamour is not found in first class travel and designer handbags, but in the music itself, and sometimes, when we are very lucky, amidst beautiful workspaces and famous faces. After all the schlepping and budget airlines, it is pretty wonderful to look up and see this as your ‘office’:

———-

Soprano Laure Meloy has presented ‘The Secret Life of a Diva: the glamorous (!) world of opera’ to community groups, clubs, and at business networking events. Bookings can be made through Femme Lunatique Productions

More Tempest:

‘…ma i famosi versi di Ariel “those are pearls that were his eyes”, che nella voce cangiante, e brillante nonché calda, di Laure Meloy, affascinanoquanto la parte nella foresta delle illusioni, quando i suoni di Adès diventano misterici come nella sua Polaris, e troviamo finalmente un suono che ci rapporta all’esoterismo connaturato della Tempesta del Bardo.’

(…in Ariel’s famous lines ‘those are pearls that were his eyes,’ which in the alternately brilliant and warm voice of Laure Meloy, fascinate like a glimpse into an enchanted forest, and Adès’ sonorities become as mysterious as those in his ‘Polaris’, we at last find a sound that relates to the esotericism inherent in the Bard’s Tempest.)

Livia Bidoldi, gothicnetwork.org


‘…de erőlködés és technikai problémák nélkül győzte a koloratúr „tűzijátékokat”, jól visszaadva egyben a figura játékosságát is.’

([Laure Meloy] sang the coloratura “fireworks” effortlessly and with no technical problems, and portrayed the playful character very well.)

http://www.operaportal.hu

The Tempest, Hungarian State Opera

‘Ariel, the mischievous sprite at Prospero’s beck and call, is a tour de force role that calls for supersonic hissy-fits above high C – the sonic embodiment of a musical tempest. During the overture, she begins the opera in pantomime, encouraging a rowdy crowd on their enchanted isle to toss around confetti and other detritus as their first act of tempest-in-a-teapot. Soprano Laure Meloy is astounding in her performance as Ariel, a role that’s a brilliant stroke from Adès’ pen. He has created a serious competitor for Mozart’s Queen of the Night. In this production, Ariel is an airborne theremin, a fireball of fioritura and a squeaky Scarbo flitting about on pulleys and wires. Needless to say, she’s a scene stealer and on this particular evening, the object of fascination by a bevy of equally squealy teenaged girls in the audience.’
Bachtrack.com

Official trailer:

https://youtu.be/lCNx8svB3Wg

Overnight success and other myths

‘It takes twenty years to make an overnight success.’ Eddie Cantor

Some of the most inspiring stories are the ones that admit failure, that admit things didn’t always go smoothly. Opera careers don’t happen overnight, but the media / singers’ agents / opera company PR departments want us to think that they do.

It would be useful to hear more about the failures and setbacks, and I don’t mean just for the schadenfreude. Everyone is so busy tweeting and tooting about all their successes, spin-doctoring the facts and erasing the difficulties, that it’s easy to feel that you are the only one who ever fails, or has to cope with periods of un- or underemployment, or gets the sneaking suspicion that everyone else is having a big party and you weren’t invited…

Recently one of my colleagues was complaining of having to battle her own demons in this area. This is someone I consider to be more ‘successful’ than myself, and it actually shocked me that she should ever feel this way. My first though was: but you’re doing so well – you’ve ‘made it!’ Then I realised that it was actually reassuring that she also sometimes faced feelings of insecurity: maybe we really are all in the same boat.

We are made to feel that it is too much of a risk to ever admit to anything less than complete unwavering confidence at all times: not just opera singers but pretty much anyone pursuing a career in a competitive field. ‘If they see me being insecure’ that little voice in our heads whispers – ‘if they find out I don’t have any gigs booked for next season, they’ll think I’m a big loser and reject me.’ Who ever ‘they’ are. But even the big stars in our field have difficulties. Joyce DiDonato is a good example of a successful singer who is not afraid to tell it like it is and also to be generous to singers further down on the career ladder. She did a fantastic podcast related to this issue: http://youtu.be/sQXNcoG2Z3w

Wouldn’t it be great if more star singers would be this honest! Perhaps we need some sort of anonymous blog where they could post their stories of failure, for the rest of us to read when we’re feeling discouraged. Because we all have challenges, every one of us. Nobody goes straight to the top (and if it appears that they do, they often go straight back down again.) When speaking to a student of mine who was getting discouraged about some failed auditions, I related some of my own audition horror stories. She looked at me in disbelief and said ‘could you please tell me when things go wrong for you? It would make me feel so much better!’ Who can claim to not feeling like that…occasionally?

‘Remember that failure is an event, not a person.’ Zig Ziglar

20130823-132749.jpg

Scribblings of a Mad Soprano

‘One does not need buildings, money, power or status to practice one’s Art. Heaven is right where you are standing, and that is the place to train.’
– The Art of Peace, Morihei Ueshiba

Throughout my educational and professional career (such as it is) I have collected little quotes and phrases, some copied from books, some scribbled down during master classes and workshops, that either inspired me in the moment, or seemed important enough to hang on to for later dissection and better understanding. As Facebook, Upworthy, cleverstuffyourfriendsarerading.co.uk etc hadn’t been invented yet, I had to keep track of all these pearls of wisdom myself.

From time to time, I have managed to type up a few of my favourites and share them with my own students, post them on Twitter, or otherwise try to spread the joy. But still I carry on collecting. Why? Don’t I already know all this stuff? Am I not out there doing the singing career? Do I still need advice, help, truisms to live by? Well, yes and no. Yes, I do know (most) of this stuff. However, a big life lesson for me is: one forgets nearly as much as one learns, and many important tenets of developing as an artist need to be re-learned, again and again. The best metaphor for this is to see the process as a spiral: you’re not going around in circles (really!) but rather you are learning the same things on an ever deeper level. ‘I knew what my teacher was saying the first time around, but now I really understand why he/she was saying it.’ No, perhaps I don’t need these ideas for my own practice anymore (or I have incorporated them into my practice already) BUT I do now have serious voice students, plotting their own path into this difficult and confusing industry, AND there is the wonderful world of the Internet: I can share these delicious nuggets with all of YOU, via Twitter, Facebook and….this blog.

‘Forget the idea that inspiration will come to you like a flash of lightning. It’s much more about hard graft.’
– Mark-Anthony Turnage