Monday, February 28, 2011

Baby, it's cold outside!

'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose'. That's the romantic picture of New England in winter.


We have had more snow and ice this winter than I ever remember in fifty winters in New England. I was fortunate to miss a few of them while I was in Puerto Rico for three weeks, but I'm making up for lost time now.

Today, the last day of February, we usually see some sign of Spring. Looking out of my studio window, all I see is that every twig is sheathed in ice. My poor birds, the Chickadees, Finches, Tufted Titmice, and a female Cardinal, are perching on frozen twigs to wait their turn at my three feeders. I have not seen the male Cardinal so I don't know if she is a widow or if they've had a divorce. Do birds get divorces?

While everyone else prefers the two feeders filled with sun-flower seed, she seems to like the one with 'the low-priced feed' for some reason. She gets it all to herself.

I haven't tried to budge from the house today. I would probably break my neck. And as for 'chestnuts roasting', I have never liked chestnuts and an open fire brings on my allergies. Give me my Franklin gas stove!

So much for romance.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Victory in sight?

Today President Obama announced that the Justice Department will no longer fight cases which have been filed against DOMA. As someone who has been involved as a plaintiff in the GLAD suit to defeat DOMA since 2008, I herald this decision. Now, possibly, one day in my lifetime we will see true equality in this matter.

Friday, February 18, 2011


I was discussing how to audition with one of my students recently. She was about to sing a major audition for an opera company. We had worked long and hard on the arias she had chosen to sing and I was giving her last minute instructions.

I told her the first two rules of auditioning are:
1. Show up on time
2. Sing all the right notes.

Beyond that, everything is gravy. Yes, you must have a beautiful voice. And yes, you must sing musically and emotionally. And yes, you must be perfect. But slip up on one entrance or pitch, and you're consigned to the 'Don't call us, we'll call you' file.

Spencer Tracey is reported to have said when asked how he prepared for a scene, 'Say all the words clearly and try not to bump into the furniture'. Perfect advice for the actor or the singer.

Auditions are dreadful but necessary parts of having a career in any of the performing arts. If you allow the auditioner to choke you up, just go home and start knitting or inventing new recipes for tomato sauce.

Before you audition for anything in the performing arts you must have killed all possible snakes that could attack you in mid-performance. Otherwise, you will be eaten and swallowed whole.

I can remember people in New York City holding auditions, who after hearing four bars of some sublime aria would say, 'Thank You.'........Period!

Cattle call auditions are the worst. You barely get to utter a few bars when the person sitting in the second row of the theatre says, 'Next!'. Elaine May wrote a brilliant play with this title.

In addition to showing up on time and singing all the notes, here are some other audition suggestions:

1. Show up looking like a professional person. You don't need to deck yourself out like a Lipizzaner stallion, but get yourself together. No blue jeans or sweats. The Marlon Brando era has passed.
2. Arrive on time totally prepared to sing whatever is on your list of songs or arias. Don't ever put down a song that you 'almost know', because that is the very one they will ask for.
3. Present yourself in a happy, outgoing mode. Let them do most of the talking.
4. When you finish singing, walk away in a serious, calm manner. Save your ideas about what you just did, or didn't do, until you are having a drink with your accompanist at the nearest bar.

Fortunately, my student did all of these things just right today and walked away knowing she had done a splendid audition. We are hoping that this audition will lead to more substantial things- like contracts!

Auditions are a dreadful part of a singer's, or actor's, life until you reach the point where you don't have to audition. They just call you from the Met and ask when you are going to be available.

It happens! Trust me.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Whatever happened to Baby Jane? Or John?

Recently I heard a former student of mine singing a major role in a major opera at a major opera house and thought, 'This can't be the same person I used to teach'. Admittedly, it's been a while since he sang for me, and I have no idea what viscissitudes of life and health he has gone through in the meanwhile, but I didn't recognize the voice at all. What I remember as a strong, free, sonorous instrument sounded pushed, covered, especially at the top, and raw.


What a rude awakening. I can remember Mrs. Neidlinger, my first voice teacher in New York City in the fifties, saying that when her 'Stars' came back to her after a tour (this was back in the days when the Met toured every year), she had to scrape the rust off their voices. They had fallen into bad habits while dashing around the country singing, singing, singing. Probably not always thinking what they were doing. And, believe me, she had a number of stars.

But this man's voice is way beyond the point where a little vocal de-rusting is all that is needed. It makes me very sad to hear something like this happening to a  voice that I have worked with and loved.

All of us as singers have to try to keep the rust off our pipes. Each of us is responsible for preparing whatever we plan to sing so carefully that a moment of nerves doesn't haul goblins out of our vocal closet. We must also make sure that we are well rested and filled with energy every time we perform. A tired singer can be a bad singer. Muscle memory can be a good or a bad thing. In this case, it did the dirt.

I find that if one prepares a new song technically and emotionally in a free and honest way from the beginning, old muscle memories can't butt in when we're under pressure. A song or aria that we have sung for a long time can have many bad habits attached to it if we are not constantly aware that just because it used to work in a certain way, it won't always be there unless we constantly pay attention to what we are doing.

When working with Lorraine, if she had a passage that was not working well, we would try this and then try that and then try the other thing, until we found an easy way to solve the problem. Then, on the spot, she would sing it over many times, one after another, until she was satisfied that any bad karma, aka muscle memory, had been tossed into the trash. It had become a part of her DNA. Then, when I would hear her sing the role on the stage of the Met or the Salle Garnier, or the Santa Fe Opera, she would sing it exactly as when we solved the problem. The technique was so much a part of her being that you didn't realise it was a technique. The technique, the musicality, and the emotion had become one. It seemed that no matter how many times I had heard her sing something in the studio, and she always, even within a lesson, sang completely involved musically, technically, and emotionally, when she sang the same thing on stage it sent shivers up and down my spine. She was able to add that magical thing that can only happen on stage when one unleashes all those wonderful forces each of us has within us. She had thrown out the garbage and kept the gold. It belonged to her. Even as she became very ill at the end of her all too brief life, this was the way she sang. She had an amazing strength within in her that is very rare. Hearing her sing the Neruda Songs by her dear husband Peter Lieberson with the BSO a couple of months before her death, somehow that stength of purpose was still there in full bloom. She simply pushed the cancer aside and sang.

Nervousness has to be channeled into excitement rather than being allowed to knock our vocal feet out from under us. This can only happen when we have so carefully prepared what we are planning to sing to the nth degree and have learned to channel our mind and voice and body into a well organized singing spot that we know it will work.

Olga Averino used to say, 'Think what it is you want to happen, and it probably will.'

I realise that everyone is different and that while some people can channel their nervousness in this way, others are not able to do this. To be a consistent performer you must find a way for this to happen. If you make wrong choices vocally at the time of performance, you're dead. What worked at home won't work on stage unless you refuse to give it other choices at the moment of truth. Because that is what every performance really must be!

With my student's singing the other day I thought, 'I wish I could have done something to help you.' Of course, you can't call up a former student and say 'Honey, you need a couple of rust-scraping lessons before you take on this major challenge', can you?

In real estate it's 'Location, Location,Location'. In singing it's 'Preparation, Preparation, Preparation!'

You'd better believe it!!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Home is the traveler

I returned home from Isla Verde late Wednesday night to find that my email was not working. Verizon- UGH!

I wrote a few blogs while I was in Puerto Rico. If you are interested in reading them, please begin with the one from January 20th to be chronological.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Party's Over

'The candles gutter and dim'....  No candles, just sand in my shoes, which I will have to shake out before I fly back to Sandisfield tonight. This has been a wonderful three weeks in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. Brilliant sunshine every day but one, ocean breezes wafting through my windows, my favorite palm tree under which I can sit and read...

It's too sad, I'll be crying in a minute!

I have fallen in love with this place. It is the fourth time that I have been here and I plan to come back. It's not that I don't love my home in Sandisfield, high on Rood Hill Road, surrounded by fields and trees with the pond at the foot of the lawn, but three weeks without ice and snow, runny nose and eyes, all the winter aches and pains, makes me fickle about the whole thing.

I recommend it! Try it, you'll like it!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

O, say can you sing?

Since I have never been a fan of most sports, I was not glued to my TV for the Super Bowl on Sunday, thereby missing the butchering of the National Anthem by Christina Aguilera. However since it was repeated on every news show for the next two days I caught up with it multiple times.

Apparently the 'I'll sing it my way' approach to singing the National Anthem at a public event began at least as far back as when Roseanne Barr sang it while scratching her crotch. One would think that was as low as one could go to ruin what is basically an unsingable song to begin with.

But Christina managed not only to re-write the melody to suit herself, she re-wrote the lyrics. What talent. Francis Scott Key's grave must have been heaving.

Aretha Franklin came a close second to this performance when she sang it at Obama's inauguration, but her hat distracted everyone so much that no one really noticed the singing.

I probably shouldn't even be trying to analyse this kind of singing. It merely shows my age and predjudice, but, what the hell, sue me! To me this falls in the vocal range of caterwauling.

I remember an age when we simply tried to sing the tune as written. Admittedly it has a wide range and the end goes pretty high for many voices. In World War II when I was in high school, I played the organ (a four manual Skinner in the Kellogg Auditorium) at every assembly. After I had played the kids into the room with numbers like 'Tico-Tico' and 'I'll be seeing you', we all sang the National Anthem, as written. Admittedly, in those days we put the key down to A flat so the high note was an E flat, not a high F, but we sang it lustily.

This rage for reinventing the melody and words to suit one's 'style' is really pretty dumb.

Alexander Wolcott once said that the National Anthem should NEVER be sung, only recited by a boy whose voice is changing. 

Maybe that's the answer, Christina.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Now it becomes clear

A while back in this Puerto Rican series of blogs, I wrote lamenting the apparent lack of classical singers here in the island. Today the fog has finally lifted from my brain. Every afternoon I generally go to the beach, which is right outside the door of the Water Club, have the young man charge of beach chairs place one for me in the shade of a couple of palm trees, where I sit to read, do a crossword puzzle, or just watch my fellow beach-combers. To sleep, perchance to dream.

Today a group of young men arrived as I was still sitting on the front balcony, getting ready for my beach experience, bringing with them the Mother of what we used to call Ghetto Blasters. Blasting it was, at the highest possible decibels. The music, if it can be called that, was probably Salsa, Raegae, Rap, some such. None of them is a part of my musical vocabulary or interest.  I realize that I am 'out of it' when it comes to 'Pop music. There was an incessant, possibly electronic, noisy beat going interminably, with a sort of Anglican Chant, I wouldn't call it singing, repeating the same words and monotone over and over. Hardly the Robert Shaw Chorale! Phillip Glass and John Adams meet Puerto Rico.

I have an incredibly one-track mind when it comes to reading a book. If there is music playing, no matter how annoying it may be, or how un-musical, I feel compelled to listen. Also, the volume at which this is played offends my poor ear drums; I'd like them to last another few years if possible.

I have heard the same kind of cacophony emitting from cars that drive up and down Calle Loisa, the main street a block behind the hotel. This, I guess, is the national music of Puerto Rico. I am too old and too square to understand it or enjoy it. The overall desire seems to be for repetition and volume.

The amazing thing about the young men on the beach with the Ghetto Blaster is that no one was paying any attention to it. They  were talking, tossing a ball around, and when some young women showed up after a while, no one danced or moved to the sounds. I think this is a part of the modern fear of silence in so many young people. They all simply stood there, talking, as if the sound was not deafeningly going on- and on! We see them everywhere with ear buds plugged into their ears while walking, texting, and talking on their cell phones, often getting hit by cars, since they can't hear them coming. The idea that one could sit and read, or sit and think, quietly, apparently is archaic to them.

So it's no wonder that there are no opera singers from here. It's just not in the blood. Either that, or they have all lost their hearing.

P.S. This cacophony began at about 1:00 p.m. At 5:00 p.m. I heard them begin to leave the beach. They departed up the walkway, which is right under my windows, from the beach to Calle Loisa. I could hear the loud sounds long after they reached the main street. I predict a whole generation of deaf people in the next few years! What a boon for the hearing aid companies.

P.P.S. The same thing happened again yesterday all afternoon (Saturday) and into the evening. I wonder the neighbors don't complain. Today is the super bowl so maybe they, and their Ghetto Blaster will be glued to their TVs. Or maybe they'll bring a TV to the beach. Enough, already!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

War in your living room

In the Revolutionary War it took days or weeks for reports from the battlefield to reach the citizens of the country. In the Civil War a few brave reporters, photographers, and artists went into the field to send reports, photos and drawings to newspapers. In World War II my family and I sat around the radio and read Extras from our local newspapers to catch up on what was happening in Europe and in the Pacific.

Last night, in the comfort of my hotel room in Isla Verde, I witnessed at first hand the brave reporting of Richard Engel and Brian Williams perched high above the conflict going on in the streets of Cairo. Their cameras detailed Molotov Cocktails being thrown, bullets being fired, men on horses and camels with machetes and whips riding through the crowd of freedom seekers attacking them, tanks belching smoke screens to allow some of these attackers to escape, a truck pulled over and the driver beaten- Well, I was watching war live at my bedside.

It scares the hell out of me to see this happening in a country that for five thousand years has had an incredible history, parts of which were being destroyed in the Cairo Museum yesterday.

Our world is becoming more and more violent from the recent massacre in Arizona to the hate-filled rhetoric coming out of Washington to this frightening conflict in Egypt.

Somehow people must learn that violence only breeds more violence. We don't have to love everyone in the world, but we must be civil to them.

What are the chances of this happening?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Puerto Rico to Prague

Yes, I am exploring every place that begins with a 'P'. 

I will be flying to Prague in late March to visit my good friend Will, who is really a prince of a fellow and a real Prince. I mean really. His family, the Lobkowiczes go back seven hundred years in Bohemian and Czech history. He, with his family, has been in Prague for a number of years reclaiming and restoring a number of castles and works of art that were taken from the family in World War II and were given back in 1991 at the peaceful split up of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The properties include a number of Castles, including the Lobkowicz Palace which stands next to the Royal Palace in Prague. Will studied voice with me at Harvard in the 80s and we have always kept in touch. While he is technically a Prince, he does not use the title. Titles are no longer being used in the Czech Republic. But he's still a prince to me.

The last time I was in Prague was in 1975. John Ferris and I were in Vienna checking up on the Hradetzky pipe organ that had been built for my church in Red Bank, NJ, and decided to visit East Germany and Czechoslovakia while we were there. 

We obtained the proper visas and drove first to Leipzig, where Wilhelm Hoffman had arranged for us to visit a number of 'Bach' organs in the area. These are organs on which the great Baroque master had actually performed. It was a once in a lifetime experience. Everywhere we visited a church and its organ, the people would say to us, 'If only the Americans had not pulled back,we would be in West Germany!' So sad.

Leipzig was gloomy with long lines forming at every small shop for bread, meat, whatever. When the shop ran out of provisions, it closed for the day, leaving some people still in line.

Wilhelm invited us to his apartment for dinner one night. When I asked for driving directions, he told us to meet him at his church, the Nicolai Kirche, and walk with him to the apartment. He was planning to serve wine and told us that if we were stopped with wine on our breaths while driving, we would be arrested. When we were ready to go back to our hotel, he suggested that we walk through the enormous train station which was very near to our hotel. He said 'When you go through the station, remember that some people can actually get on a train and leave the country.'

From Leipzig we went on to Dresden, which was still largely in ruins from the war. Both cities were depressing, gray and unhappy.

Then we set out for Prague, which was still under Communist rule. When we reached the East German-Czech border, we got through German security without much of a problem, but when we drove on a bit to the Czech security point, it was a different story. We were pulled to one side while our documents and car were given a thorough examination. On the back seat of the car was our Czech guide book, Fodor or some such. The guard said to us 'I would like to see that book.' I handed it to him and he walked away. He was gone for at least twenty minutes. Eventually he returned and when I asked for my guidebook back he said 'I keep book, you go to Prague, I give you book, you go back to East Germany'.

We didn't have a choice. Of course, I had carefully mapped out our stay in Czechoslovakia in the book and was lost without it. At our hotel I bought another guide book in English but published in Czechoslovakia. It had almost none of the sites listed that we wanted to see. Lots of Russian monuments were there.

There was a youth festival going on in Prague at the time, and the sight of these bright young people skipping around hand in hand reminded me of Hitler J├╝gend, a youth movement in Nazi Germany during the war. It was scary.

Discouraged, we decided to cut short our stay and go back to Austria. Since we had had to pay in advance for our hotels, we had a hard time getting our money returned. They said they would mail it to us in the US. I think eventually a check did arrive; not for the full amount.

As we started driving out of Prague, heading for Austria, we were in a lot of traffic. It was the weekend and many citizens were heading into the countryside in their tiny little Russian built autos.

The nearer we got to the Czech-Austrian border, the fewer cars there were going our way. For the last several miles we were alone on the road. All by ourselves we crossed over the border into Austria. The name of the town was Freiburg. I nearly got out to kiss the ground!

That was a long time ago. I am looking forward to my trip back to Prague with much happier expectations. And to seeing my Prince and his lovely family.