Friday, March 25, 2016

He Was Despised and Rejected of Men

Yes, it's Good Friday. Now, I don't write about religion or my spiritual beliefs on this blog, but I feel compelled to write something this year because of what Handel's work showed me last week. I'm sure that I have many more Messiahs in my future, but this year marks my very first.

Last week, I worked on the incredible alto solo, "He was despised," with my coach at school. As usual, we worked on diction and technique, but after all that, she made me sing it while forgetting all about that and just focusing on saying something with the piece. She encouraged me to dig deep and be vulnerable with it. Naturally, this scared me to death. But I did it anyway.

He was despised and rejected of men-- a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief.
He gave His back to the smiters and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair. He hid not His face from shame and spitting.

Singing the words and really meaning them changed me. I had always understood the story of Jesus but I realized in that moment that I'd never personalized it. Before the events of the past year, I had felt some rejection in my life. I mean, we all have to some greater or lesser degree. But I had never endured rejection as I have this year and I had never considered it in the light of this story.

Now, I'm not asking you to believe anything. You can just take this story for whatever you take it to be. But consider a Jesus that loved and accepted everyone and yet suffered the greatest rejection of all. Handel felt and understood this; it's obvious in his setting of the text.

So I thought: all the pain of rejection that I have felt this year, all the sorrow that I waded through-- it was so tiny in comparison to what Jesus felt. It is infinitesimal and yet it felt like my entire world was shaking loose. The story suddenly came alive to me and I felt that I had something to say. Something important.

Is this not what music is for? What live performance is for? Because, of course, so many other singers can sing it "better" than me, technically or otherwise, but no one can imbue the piece with my story, my rejection, my suffering. And in that way, I can reach out to those in the audience and show them something that they have not seen before. And that, to me, is the beauty and power of my career.

So here is the great irony: I was rejected on religious grounds and yet, that experience brought me closer to Jesus and His story than I've ever felt before. I don't claim to know or understand very much when it comes to spiritual matters, but I do know that this story means something to me and I would like it to mean something to those that hear me sing about it.

I have uploaded a clip from that coaching. You can hear a recording here.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Artist on the Ace Spectrum

Demisexuality: A sexual orientation in which someone feels sexual attraction only to people with whom they have an emotional bond. Most demisexuals feel sexual attraction rarely compared to the general population, and some have little to no interest in sexual activity (

I am demisexual. I always have been and, as far as I know, I always will be. When I was going through puberty, I didn't have crushes like my friends did and, being the (sometimes arrogant and sometimes just distracted) person that I was, I didn't worry too much about it. I was lucky. Due to a lack of education on the asexual-spectrum, many others on the spectrum (who I know personally or who I've read about) go through a period of feeling "broken" or "wrong" in some way. But that's a soapbox for another time.

So what does performing opera have to do with being demisexual? Allow me to explain.

Being on the ace spectrum doesn't make much difference in my everyday life. In fact, it's something that I rarely think about. However, I've been thinking about it a lot lately and confronting it in an entirely different way while working on Bard College Conservatory's production of Oliver Knussen's Higglety Pigglety Pop!   

Let me give you some background: the opera is a rambunctious setting of Maurice Sendak's book of the same title. It was commissioned in the 1980s, but its final form came about in 1999. We will be presenting its NY Premiere as part of a Double Bill which also includes Mozart's The Magic Flute (March 4 & 6, 2016 at the Richard B Fisher Center for the Performing Arts). The role of the Pig-in-Sandwich-Boards was originally written for a bass voice, but in our production, I'll be singing it (one octave above what was written) and I've been asked to infuse a good amount of femininity and sexual energy into it. Vocally, I'm having way too much fun with it. Dramatically, I've been hitting walls. This led me to investigate why.

Going into this role, I was consumed by the complexity and difficulty of the score. Knussen is nothing short of a genius and his music proves it. So I spent (and am still spending, to be honest) a lot of time just getting notes and rhythms. But now that I'm past the learning stage and heading into the final stretch of staging rehearsals, I've been working the most on my characterization and physicalization of the role. Our version of this character requires an amount of feminine sexual prowess that I've only had to evoke once before: while performing scenes from Bizet's Carmen.

I have to be honest; I find it difficult at times to evoke sexual energy on the stage. I find that this happens more often when the character is female and/or more mature. When the character is male and younger (Cherubino, Orlofsky, and most pants roles in general), I don't have this issue. But on the rare occasion that I play an overtly sexy woman, I have to work harder to get everything just right. My acting method depends heavily on the use of substitution and I think it boils down to the fact that since I have experienced far less sexual attraction than most, I have a lot less material to draw from for these kinds of roles. I just really never considered the connection between my demisexuality and my difficulty with these roles, but now that I have, it makes so much sense!

I think it's really great to take on these roles that present new and particular challenges because it forces me to examine not only the world around me, but also the world inside me. We are each such interesting, unique, and complicated individuals and it's a thrilling journey to discover the details of that reality. I'm excited, too, to realize this now, because it will help and inform me in the future when I have far more difficult (or far more visible/criticized) roles.

I'm so excited for this role and for this Double Bill in general! If you're in the Hudson Valley (or even in NYC), please consider coming up to experience this sparkling and poignant show! Tickets and info here.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Sometimes, You Just Can't Listen

I feel like recently I've been having a lot of conversations with singers on the topic of idiotic advice, so I'm going to elaborate here. To illustrate my point, I'm going to tell you a story:

Once, I was in a masterclass with a successful NYC agent for classical singers. I sang a Handel pants role aria for them and they proceeded to critique my performance. They immediately began to compare me to my colleague (who has recently switched fachs and is now a soprano); they told me that since my colleague was smaller and thinner than I, that I shouldn't ever play pants roles. Instead, I should only portray female characters onstage, because I am "more curvy" (the agent's words). Not only had they directly compared me and my colleague (which I think is an unhealthy habit, especially in a masterclass setting), but they hadn't commented on my voice or my acting ability at all. They had only critiqued me on my physical body. I was furious.

Up to this point in my career (when this annoying advice was given), I had been cast in six operas. Four of those roles had been pants roles. I had worked hard to do well in this niche and I had had success. (Also, if you know me at all, you know that pants roles interest me in particular and four out of five of my current dream roles are pants roles.)

Obviously, I ignored the agent's advice and kept on pursuing roles that I sang well and that I thought suited my particular artistry.

Let's fast forward to now. I recently sang Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro and was given the following reviews: "Kimberly Feltkamp, the Cherubino, had me checking the program for her gender when she tumbled onto stage, so convincing was she as a twichily teenage boy" (Patrick Dillon of OperaNews) and "The Cherubino of Kimberly Feltkamp was a treat to see, with all the awkwardness and dumb enthusiasm of a teenage boy" (Taminophile). I'm not trying to toot my own horn here; I'm trying to prove a point.

My point: don't listen to idiotic advice when it goes against everything you know to be true about yourself, even if it comes from a reputable source. Sure, if everyone is telling you the same thing over and over again, maybe you need to listen, but you can't let one person's opinion change your self-image or self-worth.

Sure, I could have listened and pursued all female characters. Or, I could not limit myself and work hard and go for whatever interests me as an artist (and fits well in my voice and is appropriate for my age, of course). So, if you happen to get some idiotic advice, please take it with a grain of salt. Don't listen to everything you hear and follow your gut. It usually knows what's up.