Those details wherein lies the devil!

One thing I’ve always told myself, is that if the payoff moment in a performance doesn’t happen, none of this is worth it. (By “this” I mean the schedule, the travel, the absence, the luggage, the pressure, the stress, etc.) Let me clarify a bit: there will most certainly be “off-nights”, and there will be rough patches to trod through, but in the grand scheme of things, if the opening of the curtain fails to bring me a rush and a thrill, and the closing of it brings relief more than ecstasy, I’ll know it’s probably time to leave the wailing to someone else. I try to do the work that I need to do in the studio that will enable me to let loose and enjoy the privilege of appearing on stage and performing. Perhaps I’m terribly selfish in the fact that I want to truly enjoy what I do! But come on – life is TOO short, otherwise!

But as great as the performance rush can be, my other great passion lies in the much less glamorous world of rehearsal. Collaboration: when it’s good, it’s so good! David and I spent 4 days in Madrid before our opening concert of this past tour. We had each been working in our own separate studios, preparing like mad: both translating all the texts, he working on fingering, me working on breathing, he sorting out pedaling, me sorting out breathing, etc. Then we meet! After hugs and gossip and “how’s the family”, he sits down to strike the first chords, and the business of music making and expressing commences.

It’s a very thrilling but challenging moment, because we both have arrived with our own strong ideas of what these little pieces might mean, and yet the task at hand is to find a cohesive story that we both will contribute to – a mutual understanding must be agreed upon before unity on the stage can begin to emerge. The advantage of working together again, is that we already have a musical understanding of each other, and so much of the awkward “sizing-up” is way past. Scalpels are in hand, and we’re searching for that musical/poetic bone marrow!

My favorite moments are those where a color he finds on the piano inspires me to try a different approach to a note, or a shade I find on a word ignites his imagination in a different way.

“Let’s see what happens if we go piano very suddenly when I first say her name.”

“Maybe the heartbeat figure comes back in a more anxious way on the 2nd verse.”

“Oh, we definitely need to take time over this phrase … oh no, that doesn’t work at all. Now it’s too indulgent. No wonder he didn’t indicate a ritardando there…!”

Exploration. Experimentation. Imagination. Curiosity. Trial and error. GROWTH.

Ah…so sublime!

We spend hours and hours preparing a recital, and then (to put it rather crudely) we give birth to it on stage in front of hundreds (thousands?) of people, and it is officially no longer ours. It now belongs to the public, and we lose all power to interpret – if we’ve done our jobs correctly, it’s up to the audience to decide what to feel and what our little shades and murmurs and hints meant to them. That’s daunting, but ultimately it’s incredibly freeing. It means we have had to let go.

Those moments in the studio, so intimate and intense, have taught me more than any school book ever did. We discuss the poetry, the meanings, the possibilities, and then we attempt to convey that through our music. This all was described so beautiful by one of the most beautiful musicians I have ever known, Leticia Austria, who was a coach for the Houston Opera Studio while I was there xxx years ago. Now retired from the opera world, she is also a wonderful poet and wrote the following poem (which she kindly gave me permission to reprint here.) I thought you might like to read it:

IN AN OLD STUDIO

There used to be a piano in this room,
a mid-size grand, whose lid was always strewn
with scores of Verdi and Rossini.
On the walls hung photos of the Tuscan hills,
a poster of a street in old Milan–
they’ve left their imprint, ghostly squares against
the graying of the years–and on this spot,
a music stand held up the legacy
of genius waiting to be issued forth
through chosen throats. Be still a minute. Listen.
Distant phrases of a long-lost life
will breathe across your brow and tell the tale
of striving for sublime exactitude,
of discipline and repetition, of
the just dissatisfaction with an end
that’s less than art; then close your eyes to touch
the keys that are no longer there. And you
will hear the splendor that was crafted in
this room, and leave it with the cadences
of ancient passions sighing in your soul.

*Copyright 2009 by Leticia Austria

It’s a mystical thing that happens in the studio, and I treasure those opportunities to explore and embrace the discovery of music, of the world, and of myself. In a way, sometimes it is an assault to go from the intimacy and safety of a private studio and be thrust onto the public stage where you can feel quite naked and vulnerable. But then the music grabs hold, and you realize it was never just yours anyway, and so you let it pass through, and let go.

There is one other thing I wanted to share, written by the great tenor, George Shirley. He’s written an incredibly provocative article on the plight of opera today, in particular how it might affect African American singers, and you can find the full article here.

But one passage stood out to me like flashing Vegas lights. Young singers everywhere: print this off (crediting him, please!), and make it your guiding beacon if you’re serious about pursuing a career in music:

“To young singers who desire careers, I say, “Be ultra-prepared.” In studying, build perfection in layers. Solidify your vocal technique; master every detail and nuance of every language you sing in; know the score as perfectly as the conductor; develop your interpretative ideas from the score and libretto so that you don’t arrive at the first rehearsal an empty vessel waiting to be filled; in sum, don’t give anyone a legitimate opportunity to criticize any aspect of your artistry. A tall order? Yes, but not impossible! See to those things you can do to become competitive, and don’t sweat the petty stuff!”

Could never have said it better myself.

Just a few random thoughts here as I shift gears from the recital platform back to the infinitely lovable Cherubino…better go check on those details!

Cheers!

13 Responses to “Those details wherein lies the devil!”

  1. February 4, 2010 at 5:13 am
    SUNNY SOPRANO

    Joyce,

    My good friend is doing a scene as Cherubino and I told her to YouTube you, because, HELLO you are fabulous! All she said to me the next day was…"Wow. Simply wow."

    Just thought I would share the compliment!

  2. February 4, 2010 at 8:25 am
    Georgios

    Joyce what an interesting post, covering so many bases!

    As a listener. the most important aspect is the singer being a total musician. It's never enough being able to just deliver empty high notes. As a member of the audience there is nothing more dull than having a singer behaving as a stiff nightingale just concentrating in reaching stratospheric high Es and treating with flippancy the message the composer has to convey. It's always the tricky issue of interpretation that makes opera so intoxicating. The balance between the composer and the singer trying to communicate with an audience. Having a flat lifeless performance that just delivers the music in a lifeless fashion is excruciating but then having a singer making the music being only about them and their star status is even more.
    During your recital it was wonderful seeing yours and David's personality coming through the music, but I never thought you were imposing your ideas on the composers. The brio and panache created the right atmosphere for the music to hit its emotional target. The Willow Song (I'm sure everyone reading the blog will agree)was full of sentiment and a dramatic creation,befitting Rossini's great music. But then on your second night at The Wigmore Hall someone's mobile went off just before you uttered the first word…your reaction, to ask if it was Ottelo calling was charming and at the same time disarming. But then we were all grateful as we got to listen to Lucy's beautiful harp playing again!
    I just hope you can keep having such an emotional and intellectual journey for all of us to enjoy. And of course write all about it here for us to read (how selfish of me)

  3. February 4, 2010 at 3:23 pm
    Mr. Classical Guy

    Mr. Shirley speaks well of how to prepare yourself for life in general. Be it an office, construction site, truck, store or whatever. BE prepared beyond prepared!

    Thanks again for the peaks behind the scenes!

    SW

  4. February 4, 2010 at 5:10 pm
    Gi

    I love Ms. Austria's poem. Thank you both for sharing.

  5. February 4, 2010 at 7:57 pm
    Irishrover

    Must be thrilling to see something coming to life after hours of reflexion, talks and questions. I like what you say about music not being truly yours, but passing from one to an other. Thus even if you singers have the hardest part -working and singong and rehearsing again!- music doesn't belongs to anyone, but is shared by all. What a fantastic gift.

    I read Shirley's article, and I must say I'm a bit skeptical. Even if I agree on looks being irrelevant when it comes to opera, I think it is not about the voice above all else, as he says. For me, it goes farer than that. If I want beautiful voices, I go to a recital or I listen to a CD. But opera is this fantastic mix of music and theater, of voice and body language. I don't ask for realism, but for credibility, to be able to dream, laugh or cry. I know it's a tricky balance, because one may forget about the voice and favour the looks -damn modernity- but the singer is also an actor, and therefore must embody a character. Stratas's Violetta is imho far from vocal perfection, but boy, what an incredible actress!

    I may be very demanding though :) Meanwhile, hope you're having fun with Cherubino!

    Take care,
    Marion

  6. February 4, 2010 at 10:25 pm
    Lauren

    wow, as a young singer, I so very, very needed this today. Thank you :)

  7. February 5, 2010 at 12:37 am
    AnnaO

    Cara Joyce,

    Thanks for sharing Ms Austria's lovely poem and your insights about the rehearsal process. I myself am not a musician, but my Mother is a piano accompanist, and her studio being our living room, I get to hear many wonderful collaborations in progress! I often find it quite as fascinating as the finished product.

    And completely off topic, I just wanted to thank you again for the Colbran cd. I've listened to it countless times now, and love it every time! Your Armida is delightfully terrifying! Is there any chance of a complete recording or performance of Armida sometime in the future?

    All the best, and enjoy the cheeky wee Cherubino!

    Anna

  8. February 6, 2010 at 5:13 am
    smurashige

    Thanks again for your wonderful insights into music; they help me to listen with greater focus and concentration. I think music depends as much on us, the audience, as it does on you, the performers. It's a dynamic and open-ended 2-way exchange. As I heard Erich Leinsdorf once say: it's entertainment, but entertainment in the sense of the French "entretenir," "to hold between." So listening ought to be concentrated, open, and engaged. I think your description of rehearsing can serve as a model for living: what if we think of ourselves as rehearsing and performing life: our every act in life is performance, but a performance that is also a rehearsal for the next moment. The real performance comes when we completely engage the unknown, as best we can, with a creative spirit and without fear. I'm so excited that I'll be able to hear you singing Cherubino in Chicago! Thanks so much!
    Stanley

  9. February 11, 2010 at 3:59 pm
    gaulimauli

    Just want to get my own "Happy Birthday!"in before you become inundated with congrats from your many admirers. Stumbled upon your wheelchair Rosina posting late last night and I'm still glowing. What a show!Along with the live audience I was holding my breath until the ovations broke loose.I've never heard anything like it in any concerthall or theater.How you cannot become intoxicated with such success beats me-you seem cool as a cucumber.One other[short]comment regarding your recitals:Mr. Zobel really tickles the ivories in Tanti Affetti-a master at his craft.Your Amarilli makes my wife cry, but then I have done that once or twice myself. Dear Joyce:You are getting better all the time, I truly stand in awe.Stay well!

  10. February 11, 2010 at 7:28 pm
    Laura

    I just wanted to say THANK YOU!! I just did a competition and got second place, which of course I was pleased, but every single comment was that I needed to connect with my music more and not be so "square" with my text and notes. One of the judges wrote on my sheet that I should check out your blog and on this specific article. It has literally opened my eyes and I have now a new take on all my music for the next semester. Thank you so much, your blog is now one of my new daily readings, and the excerpt by George Shirley is now on my wall!! Thank you so much and good luck in ALL your edeavors!

  11. February 13, 2010 at 1:49 am
    Raisa

    Dear Joyce:
    Thank you so much for the precious insights into creation process and for sharing that beautiful heartfelt poem.

    Wishing you a very happy birthday and all the best in the coming year.

    Raisa and little Troy

  12. April 7, 2010 at 1:30 am
    Evan

    I hate to be so off topic ….but the KC Royals sure could have used you yesterday afternoon. Heard your SSB at the stadium last season and it was a major highlight. And we won that evening if memory serves.

    Evan from Prairie Village

  13. April 7, 2010 at 1:37 am
    Evan

    Oh, could the Royals have used you yesterday. I was at your last stadium appearance and it was thrilling and refreshing to hear operatic tones at the K. Instead we got the American Idol winner and the bullpen hopped right into the toilet. Please tell me you're coming back.

    Evan from PV, KS

Leave a Reply