Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Mechanics of Inspiration

A reader over at OperaRox asked me: Who or what inspires you the most to do what you love?

I love this question!  There are so many ways to answer this, so it might take me a little while to get all my thoughts out.

To start, I'm not really sure if the reader is asking what inspires me to sing opera or what inspires me to pursue the things that I love (which happens to include opera, of course).  I think that both are very important questions, so I'll be sure to cover everything.

It's not always easy to have the courage to pursue what you love and, in my case, it was especially risky since music isn't a surefire job market in any sense.  Also, there's sometimes a certain stigma associated to pursuing a career in the arts -- some people don't think it's a "real" job.  That is (of course!) nonsense, but it's something that I confronted when I decided to pursue music.  I went to college for book publishing, but I changed my major to music during orientation.  On the car ride home from orientation, I told my father about my decision and he didn't say anything.  Instead, he laughed for five minutes straight.  In his defense, he has since drastically changed his mind and is extremely supportive, but it took a while.  However, disbelief or skepticism is the general reaction when I say that I want to make a living in opera.  There are so many obstacles and factors involved with a career in opera, so I guess that I can understand some of the skepticism.  Needless to say, I need a lot of inspiration to keep me strong.

The things that first inspired me to pursue opera were my overwhelming love for music and the works of the great composers.  These remain two of the greatest driving forces that inspire me to sing opera and create music.  There's nothing like a little Mozart or Massenet or Strauss to get me going.  If there's ever a doubt in my mind, I just sit and watch Le nozze di Figaro and it all comes rushing back to me.  The love that I have for music nearly overwhelms me at times.  If I tried to cut it out of my life, I'd have a very hard time getting through.

Another great source of inspiration is other artists.  I love listening to the greats, the currents, and the up-and-coming.  Every artist has something to offer and I try to get something out of every performance.  I have been inspired sitting alone in my room, listening to Fassbaender or Callas or Hampson and I have been inspired sitting in a live concert, listening to other students like myself.  There is inspiration everywhere.  I also love to listen to instrumentalists and to watch dancers -- all art inspires me in new ways and I just love to soak it all in.

But besides music and art itself, the people in my life are the greatest force of inspiration to me.  In the beginning, I wasn't sure that I should pursue opera, but people encouraged me.  My mother has always pushed me to chase the things that I love.  Both of my parents have done everything in their power to help me become what I want to be.  I've also been blessed with awesome friends and family who support me and cheer me on.  Teachers have helped me immensely along the way, giving me resources and help when I most needed it.  There have been so many people who have deposited hope and love into my life and they inspire me more than I could ever express.

My curious reader, I hope that answers your question!  Since I think that I should be more specific, I'm going to make a few lists.  These are by no means extensive, but they'll give you an idea.  :)

Most Inspirational (to me!) Composers
J. S. Bach
R. Strauss
R. Schumann

Most Inspirational Singers
Brigitte Fassbaender
Maria Callas
Cecilia Bartoli
Vesselina Kasarova
Joyce DiDonato
Susan Graham
Marilyn Horne
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Christa Ludwig
Renee Fleming

Monday, July 23, 2012

Opera Teens Taking Over the World

I'm very excited to announce that my liveshow viewer and blogger buddy, OperaTeen, has been picked up by the Huffington Post!  You can view his debut article about Classical music apps here.

It's so thrilling to see the opera world recognizing the young people who are interested in opera.  Everyone always thinks that opera is some stogy, old art form that can only be appreciated by the elderly and sophisticated.  I have been working very hard to prove that this is not true.  That is why my other blog is named OperaRox and its motto is: contrary to popular belief, opera can be cool.  OperaTeen's succession to contributor in the HP is just more proof of this!

I went to the public library today and my friend the librarian informed me that the library was selling opera VHS tapes.  An older man, probably between 80 and 90 (bless his heart), perked up his ears and asked the librarian where he could see the videos that were for sale.  So, I darted to the video section and ended up rifling through tapes at the same time as the old man.  If a stranger had been watching, who would they have guessed would be more excited about opera tapes - the elderly man or me?  Well, I can tell you that I'm very happy because I walked home with Tannhauser, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Tosca (all fantastic recordings) and it only cost me a dollar.  That is highway robbery in my mind.

But here's my point: opera companies are always trying to find ways to "attract young people" but young people are already excited about opera.  I host opera liveshows every week and people of all ages come and fangirl about opera.  I'm finding more and more people my age on Twitter and Tumblr who not only care deeply about opera, but are very knowledgeable about it.  When I went to opera camp, I met so many young people who geeked out over opera the same way that I do.  OperaTeen is just another one of us and I'm so proud that he's bringing our voice, the voice of the young opera lovers, into the mainstream opera community.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Pants Role Concerns

I've been getting some questions recently on my other blog about pants roles.  They're very good questions - questions that I think a lot of singers have - so I'm going to put them up here.

Singing-through-thenight asked: Hello! I will be auditioning for pant roles in the fall for a few productions, and I was wondering if I should invest in a pant suit? Is it really unacceptable to call for a pant role while in a dress? What do yo do? Help! :)

My answer: Great question!  I’ve asked this same question to many different coaches/conductors/directors/etc and basically gotten the same answer.

First of all, it isn’t completely unacceptable to wear a dress.  If that’s all you have, then go with it.  Also, if you’re doing a general audition where you’re singing arias from several different roles (and they’re not all pants roles) then you should probably side with a dress.

However, if you are specifically auditioning for a pants role, it is a good idea to come in a pants suit or at least dress pants and a blouse.  It’s good for them to see you in a way that is closer to how you’ll look in costume.  I’d also do your hair in a way that’s flattering but is off your face/pulled back.  My hair is short so I don’t really have to worry about this part. ;)

Pants suits are a touchy subject, though, because it’s easy to go wrong.  You must wear a suit that flatters your body - you don’t want to hide your form or make it look different from what it normally looks like.  Also, you must find a suit that is professional and classy yet stylish.  Remember, you’d normally be wearing a dress for this audition - the suit should be on the same level of formality but you don’t want to look like you’re headed for a business meeting.  You still want to show a bit of your personality with what you’re wearing.  It’s a tough balance, but it’s completely achievable.  When in doubt, wear something that makes you feel confident and that shows you off in your best light.  :)

Mag4ever asked:  Saw your photos from Hansel and Gretel! My performing arts high school is doing that as our opera this year! Super excited! Any advice for a teenage mezzo on performing, pants roles, or anything else? How about specifically for the role of Hansel (which is who I want to be)? Thanks! 

My answer:  Thanks!  And this is definitely a question that I’m more than happy to answer.  :)

First of all, check out this website for some of the best tips on playing a pants role.  It goes over everything and even gives helpful examples.  Hansel is mentioned specifically there, so it’s definitely worth a look.

Second, watch and listen to every production of Hansel and Gretel that you can get your hands on.  How do professional singers portray the character, both vocally and physically?  What can you learn from them?  My favorite Hansels are Brigitte Fassbaender and Angelika Kirchschlager.  And besides listening to the singers, just really get the music in your head.  That opera has an extremely complex orchestration and it will help you immensely in the long run if you know all the vocal lines and the orchestration inside and out.

Third, practice the crap out of your music.  Just when you think you know that part, something crazy will happen and you’ll be headed right back to your piano to relearn something.  Know every note, every dynamic, every meter change, etc etc.  Hansel is a tricky role - he’s all over the place both musically and physically - so be over-prepared so you can be ready for anything.

Fourth, do some hands-on research of your own.  Watch how little boys play, how they move, what they’re interested in, and how they interact with the people around them.  I’m sure you have brothers or cousins or neighbors who could be helpful in this.  I’ve learned almost everything I know about pants roles from observing.  Just start mimicking guy’s movements and gestures.  It will all come in handy later.

Fifth, have fun!  Good luck with everything and please ask if you have any further questions :)

If you have any questions for me, or if you have anything to add to what I've said here, please don't hesitate to send me a comment.  I'll do my best to answer your questions or pass along your suggestions.

Also, a very happy birthday to a favorite mezzo of mine (who plays her fair share of pants roles!), Ms. Vesselina Kasarova.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Nerves of Steel

It takes a lot for me to get nervous.  It happens so infrequently that I can distinctly remember every time in the past five years that I've felt nervous about anything.  Granted, I wasn't always like that.  Between the ages of 14 and 17, I used to get so nervous that I couldn't sing well at all.  It's been a journey between then and now - a journey that I almost forgot about.  And I think this is an issue that almost every singer deals with.

I've found that it's common for singers to beat themselves up for feeling nervous for an audition or performance.  Honestly, I've done the exact same thing at times.  But what I think we all forget is that it's normal to be nervous.  Many singers have written or spoken about nerves and how they deal with them.  It seems to be part of the craft.  I've read many singer autobiographies where the author admits to dealing with large amounts of stress and nerves related to their job.  There's a really interesting blog post about it by mezzo Jennifer Rivera that proves that even professional singers deal with performance-related anxiety.

I had an epiphany this weekend while I was waiting with my boyfriend at an open casting call.  It was the preliminary step, so he only had to fill out some forms, take a picture, and hand the agency his headshot/resume before we were all set to go.  While we were waiting, I noticed that he was nervous.  My immediate (and rather insensitive) thought was "He doesn't have to do anything.  Why would he be nervous?"  But then I realized that these sort of environments breed nerves and it's perfectly natural to feel that way.  It's basically biology and you almost can't escape it.

So here's my point: we, as singers, get so wrapped up in everything that we forget how crazy singing opera truly is.  We're singing extremely difficult music, usually in a foreign language, for a bunch of people while trying to juggle a thousand things on stage.  I've met people who claim they'd never dream of doing what opera singers do all the time.  We should give ourselves a break!  Of course we're nervous! 

I'm not saying that opera singers are better or anything insane like that.  I'm just saying that the circumstances of opera singing are very different from normal life and if nerves begin to play a role, that isn't a horrible or unnatural thing.  The real challenge is conquering our nerves and doing well in spite of them.  I think we singers are too quick to find faults in ourselves and our performances when we should just take things as they come, do our best, and be happy with the fact that we've done our absolute best.  There's always another shot-- another chance to do it better.  The thing I'm talking about here is perspective.

Of course I'm not promoting laziness or a laissez faire attitude.  That would be ludicrous since opera singing takes a large amount of preparation, hard work, and dedication.  All I'm saying is that we all need to try to see things as they truly are and not let things get us down when they really shouldn't.

So I'm striving to build nerves of steel so that I can face the craziest situations and come out of them doing well.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

From Little Black Dots to MP3s

These days, it seems like every story starts with a phone call.  To make a long story short, I got a phone call from someone I had never met before and now I have a new summer project. 

I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to record a new piece for NYC composer Cynthia Lee Wong.  It's always been a dream of mine to be the first to tackle/record a piece of music and it seems that my dream has now become a reality.

I can't say much about it yet, but the piece is really right up my alley and it's been an absolute pleasure learning it.  I love the entire process of taking notes on a page and watching them transform into a work of art.  Collaboration is one of my favorite things in the world and I'm reveling in every moment of it.  Since I've spent time in orchestras, choruses, chamber ensembles, and opera casts, I've experienced all different types of collaborative environments.  This interplay between artist and composer (and, by extension, librettist) is a completely new realm for me and I'm really enjoying it.

And, of course, it's wonderful to work with Ms. Wong.  She is the best kind of collaborator.  She is so humble and yet she has accomplished so much.  Her compositions have been commissioned and performed by such prestigious groups as the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.  It's only an honor and privilege to work with such a high-level artist.

This year has been so exciting for me and I'm ready for things to get even more exciting.  I can only feel blessed.

Monday, July 9, 2012


I was sitting on my couch preparing my liveshow and listening to Chabrier's L'Etoile when my phone rang.  The caller ID read NYC Opera and I thought, "What's the chance that I just wrote a blog post about NYCO and now they're calling me?"  So I picked up.

It was a marketing representative from NYCO and she wanted to speak with me.  She told me that she'd read my blog post and wanted to inform me that I could, in fact, attend NYCO next year.  BAM and New York City Center are large enough to accommodate a sizable crowd and NYCO is offering a subscription program where you can purchase $25 tickets for each show of the season.

Naturally, I was overjoyed to hear this.  As you read in my previous post, I was extremely disappointed at my inability to attend the shows last year.  Yes, the student ticket program no longer exists, but they have come pretty close with this $100 subscription program.  You can read about all the season subscription options on the NYCO website here.

I asked the representative if she wanted me to change what I'd written and she said that there was no need to; they had simply called to tell me that I could, in fact, attend the upcoming season.  I've included the promotional video for their upcoming season below.

I'm thrilled and hopeful to hear this!  Obviously the future is bright and exciting for NYCO and I hope very much to be a part of it. :)


Let me begin this post by saying that I have a deep affinity for the New York City Opera.  I loved it the moment I learned of its existence and I've only loved it more as I've gotten to know it and attended operas there.  I'm not trying to criticize the decisions of NYCO's staff or complain about things that I have no control over, but I feel the need to air my feelings about how things have changed.

NYCO has been a part of my opera experience since I first got into opera.  My first live opera was at the Met, but many of the live operas I attended after that were at NYCO.  During the 2009-2010 season, my friend and I attempted to see every opera that NYCO was offering that season.  I only missed one, Partenope, and I actually attended L'Etoile twice.  Many of my friends saw their first live opera at NYCO that season.  I saw my first American opera there (Esther) and my first Puccini (Madama Butterfly).  It was easy to get tickets and since we were students, the tickets were extremely inexpensive.  I loved having the luxury of seeing incredible productions with fantastic singers for affordable prices.  In all fairness, the Met has gotten better since then about having student tickets and rush tickets and the like, but it will never be the same as the NYCO student tickets.

This past season, I was really looking forward to what NYCO had to offer, especially Alden's Cosi fan tutte and the production of Telemann's Orpheus.  Even though we were all sad about NYCO leaving Lincoln Center, I was encouraged by the fact that they were still presenting the same sort of productions.  I love how NYCO dares to be edgy and unpredictable with its productions and opera choices.  (Seeing the upcoming season package, I'm glad to report that they are continuing this trend.)  But when I went to order tickets, I was completely unable to afford them on my student budget.  I know that this is due to the fact that the venues are smaller and NYCO is suffering financially.  I respect that and I know that I should have just been glad that a season even existed, but I was still so disappointed that I couldn't attend these operas that I so much wanted to see.  And, of course, the friends and family that I would have brought with me missed out as well.

I was a bit crushed when I got the NYCO bulletin in the mail yesterday.  I was excited by the new season, but then something stopped my enthusiasm: the prediction that NYCO would not be returning to Lincoln Center for at least another three years.  For me, that means that I'll most likely be unable to attend NYCO for that amount of time.  And if they do return to Lincoln Center, I'll no longer be a student and I will have missed all those opportunities to see great opera at one of my favorite companies.  I realized that that part of my opera-going experience is over and it's not coming back.  It may seem silly, but I have very fond memories of NYCO-going as a student and I wish that didn't have to end so soon.

Of course, many people are much more affected by all this than I am.  There are people for whom this is an end of an era-- people who were so much a part of the opera and now can no longer have any ties to it.  There is an inevitable history to NYCO and a community that goes with that history.  Now all that is over and I can't help but be saddened by it.

The one thing that I really hope will return is NYCO's ability and propensity to hire Young Artists.  From the day I saw Julie Boulianne sing Lazuli in L'Etoile, I've wanted to perform as a Young Artist at NYCO.  It seemed like such a nurturing yet exposing place to be a Young Artist.  Many great artists have sung in that house and many YAs have come through and gone onto great things.  I know that mezzo Jennifer Rivera got her start there, singing many leads (including Lazuli) and gaining international recognition for her performances.  It's a great opportunity for a YA to be so close to the Met and yet not have the pressure of it.  Besides, I love NYCO so much and I can't help but want to be a YA there. 

NYCO always seemed like the friendly neighborhood opera where old Vets and YAs could meet and grow together.  It was a place where anyone could afford to attend the opera and they could choose to see a traditional production of a well-known opera, experience a fresh and edgy production, or see an opera that no one else was producing.  It was a low-pressure and welcoming environment for the artists and the patrons.  And, yes, I'm glad that places like BAM and New York City Center have taken NYCO in and I'm glad that NYCO can continue to do the sort of productions that it always has, but it's still not exactly the same.  I guess we all hate change and we all hate to be reminded that nothing lasts forever, but I do miss the old NYCO and I really hope that I will see it again one day.

Edit: I have written a follow-up post to this one, which can be found here.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Coming and Going - A Singer's Tale

Sometimes the summer can feel very void of opera and sometimes it can feel very full of it.  This summer is most definitely the latter.

I returned from the Westchester Summer Vocal Institute about two weeks ago and I still feel that I'm recovering from it.  It was a wonderfully huge dose of opera and singing.  It was also a huge dose of getting my butt kicked by coaches and conductors.  But there is nothing better than that!

I'm still trying to get everything straight: to apply everything that I've learned and fully understand the things that I've simply absorbed without even realizing it.  Every experience changes you and this seemed like a lot of change jam-packed into ten days.  I met so many new people, heard so many new opinions, and learned so many new techniques.  My brain is still trying to categorize it all, but I'm beginning to think that maybe some things can't be categorized.  Maybe, like opera, these things span a wide variety of categorizations.  Maybe I need to stop trying to box them up and start trying to accept them simply for what they are.

So much is happening!  I've just come from that great ten-day adventure and I'm headed toward another two-year adventure at Bard.  The whole Bard acceptance thing has been quite a roller-coaster ride for me.  At first, I was overwhelmed by the euphoria of getting in.  Bard was such a pipe-dream for me and when it really happened, I almost didn't know what to do.  I had let myself think for so long that I would never, ever get in and that I could only give it my best shot and then settle for my second or third-choice school.  So when I got in, I could only be amazed by it.  That stage of amazement continued as I got a scholarship and then a personal phone call from Dawn Upshaw herself.

But, finally, the high wore off and I realized that I had to prepare myself for the huge task of actually attending Bard.  Of living up to the potential that I'd shown in my audition.  Of making good on my promises and paying forward on it all.  And that can be a very scary thing.

I was in that stage when I left for Westchester.  And now that I'm back, now that I've experienced all those things at WSVI, I am in the next stage-- the stage of purely excited anticipation and a dogged determination to be the best I can be.  I can truly thank all the people at Westchester: my fellow singers, my coaches, my mentors, and everyone who came to support me.  Of course, I always have people back home who encourage me and help keep me strong, but Westchester was like an IV of criticism, encouragement, and just plain enthusiasm for the incredible artform of opera.  It did me a world of good and I can't wait to see what's in store for me at Bard.