“Che l’immensa mia contento” warbles Elena at the end of a long night of bel canto emotional turbulence and vocal feasting as she begs the silenzio to speak for her, hoping its unpolluted simplicity will transport more profound emotion than any feeble words she might possibly voice on her own. (Of course, “silence” in opera redefines the term “oxymoron”, but we’ll forgive her that ~ she’s been waiting 3 hours for that final aria!) Aptly enough, in the silence of my final walk home after the last of my 14 shows (comprised of two very different roles) at La Scala, I understood a bit more clearly the depth and power of stillness to mysteriously convey those overwhelming emotions that coursed through me ~ emotions of exhaustion, triumph, relief, joy, melancholy, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, connection and absolute, pure gratitude.
I also found myself winding back to the beginning of my sojourn in Milan, disguised as a young, ardent 17 year-old boy trying to understand the concept of not being able to hold onto anything, most notably, unable to contain or hold on to the elusive figure of time. (When things are perfect, why can’t we KEEP them just as they are?) Driving in from the airport the first of September I had little idea of what Milan might have in store for me, but I knew 3 months would be a very long haul; and yet on the drive back to that same airport I found myself stupefied at how quickly the time had flown, and how many diverse emotions (tanti affetti, indeed), experiences and connections I had made in such a long/short period of time. It was rich beyond measure and a time I shall always treasure.
While the 2 worlds of Octavian & Elena/Strauss & Rossini, could not be more varied, (with the quick jump from one to the other mildly terrifying me), I did a lot of mental work to prepare myself for the challenge. Because Octavian is such an intensive and unremitting, relentless role, I knew that any chance to work the role of Elena back into the voice simultaneously was simply not possible. Instead, I had to be sure to keep Octavian lean and as vocally close to the bel canto world as possible. Vocalizing before the start of Rosenkavalier I included my normal exercises, adding in 3 or 4 of Elena’s killer phrases. Intermissions would find me simply checking in on a trill or two, being sure that the voice was staying flexible and would continue to respond to my commands. On my “off days”, I would simply vocally mark through the score lightly, being sure of the intonation and phrasing, but never giving full voice. It was the only strategy I could think of to yield the result I needed.
This was a first for me, having to prepare a role this way, but it taught me a world of valuable lessons, first and foremost that the mental work we do in preparation for the stage and for singing is, bar none, the most important, beneficial and worthwhile work we can do as singers. It enabled me to sing Octavian one night, and the next afternoon sing through the role of Elena on the stage of La Scala with orchestra without vocal fatigue setting in. Crazy? Definitely. But instructive? No doubt!
During the run of Rosenkavalier, I witnessed numerous feats that humbled me and made me ever more grateful that I am a participant in this astonishingly beautiful and endlessly fascinating world of opera which never ceases to teach me far-reaching lessons: colleagues battling heart-wrenching personal challenges with immense professionalism and grace; other colleagues finding new-born confidence and revitalized passion for themselves, their lives, and for their music, a conductor methodically, passionately, and brilliantly winning over a tough orchestra with foreign, decidedly NON-Italian music, all the while inspiring his cast to new heights each and every night (under his astute and fervent guidance, the trio was a divine and fresh journey every single night that always left me seeing life in a slightly different light); a director passionately committed to finding the truth on the stage while fighting numerous “only in Italy” obstacles to allow us to do our job; and finally, a company of beautiful friends that connected deeply, lifted-up when needed, supported unfailingly and played together beautifully, all allowing for freer, more inspired performances.
It’s also the first time I felt I had truly “gotten” Octavian, because for me, at least, those Strauss roles need to be slow-cooked and simmered for a long time before they are as seasoned as you would like them to be. And being a part of such a tremendously beautiful company made this a most memorable run for me.
Sadly, it was also a very SICK company towards the end. Our Baron Ochs was fighting an infection the entire run, our Sophie was battling severe allergies, our Maestro wavered between health and illness for weeks, we lost our Marschallin for the final performance, and on the morning of the final show I woke up with no voice. Yep. None at all. Now, this truly is the singer’s worst nightmare as you wake up and IMMEDIATELY know something is not right, but you’re not sure exactly what evil bug is at play. So with clenched fists and a beating heart you try out the first vocal “sigh” ~ and NOTHING arrives. Not a peep. I’m not talking about a morning voice that sits a bit low or groggy or froggy. I mean, not one decibel of sound is emitted because your vocal cords are incapable of coming together to vibrate. Heed my warning: you do not want to be around a singer when this discovery is made.
By the time I arrived at the theater a few hours before the 8:00 curtain, thankfully about an octave of my voice had decided to show up, but nothing above an upper “D” ~ so to say that I was worried is a rather vast understatement. No cover was on hand, and we had already lost a Marschallin, so canceling wasn’t really an option. My game plan was to slowly and gingerly coax the voice into submission, while consuming obscene amounts of hot tea with all the prescribed accoutrements. I also knew that Octavian is a role that one *could* sort of barrel through if necessary, in the fact that so much of his singing is declamatory and not always exactly subtle (with those few glorious exceptions that pop out of nowhere excluded). I also knew I had a superlative conductor in the pit that would have my back, and I felt mentally that I could weather the storm. And so I did … but I did feel as if the final note of the opera was the last one that I had in me at the end of the 4+ hours. This meant the only possibility going forward was abundant, unrelenting rest.
I missed a full day of orchestra staging for La Donna del Lago as well as the final dress rehearsal ~ the first time in my career I have cancelled a stage rehearsal, believe it or not. It was definitely a strange sensation for me, but I knew the only hope to get healthy enough to sing in the premiere (a mere 6 days after that final Rosenkavalier) was to shut up, lie down, and disappear from the world. And so I did. And recovery came … barely … but it thankfully came!
Singing Elena while operating at less than 100% vocal capacity is an entirely different beast from tip-toeing through Octavian, who can withstand the odd bruising here and there. Elena is a role that requires every last bit of one’s vocal and artistic resources, including reserves of delicacy, finesse and grace ~ elements that are not always at one’s command while at the end of a bad throat infection. (Oh ~ and did I mention that this was also going out live over the radio? No pressure there!) In this vocal world of Rossini there is absolutely no place to hide.
Having had very limited rehearsal, recovering from a doozy of an infection, and standing in front of the Milanese Public no longer singing “foreign music”, but their very own BEL CANTO, I was tremendously nervous. But I was also immensely honored to be there and knew that being a part of such a distinguished group of Rossini singers, it had the potential to be a most memorable night. So I simply took a leap of faith and went for it. And I’m glad I did.
Not everything worked as perfectly as I wanted it to, but this is the very reason we singers work so hard on our techniques – so that it can sustain us in times of crisis and trouble. But I’ll tell you, a strong will helps immeasurably, because I didn’t want anything to stand in the way of singing for the expectant public that night, nor for having the chance to dedicate the performance to my Father, who passed away on that day, 5 years prior. Singing “Fra il padre…” that evening held such special meaning for me, that I selfishly didn’t want to miss the chance to connect with my memories of him in a very meaningful way.
As I came out for my curtain call, astounded by the ovation and the warmth of the public, the emotion overwhelmed me deeply and I felt as if I was clearly stamping that moment in time in my heart thinking, “Don’t ever forget this feeling, Joyce”. (I had a similar sensation 10 years earlier debuting on that very same stage as I got the end of “Non piu mesa” and couldn’t believe what had just happened, making the mental note “Always remember this, Joyce”.) But a decade later, while the sensation was pregnant with very different meaning, and I am surely a very different person and artist from those earlier days, I still allowed myself the enjoyment of drinking in that moment fully.
See? When I say the stage and opera teach me, I really mean it: I cannot forever REMAIN on stage bathing in the applause, or continue holding a high note or trill trying to keep that moment in time forever, and I can certainly never REPLICATE exactly an emotion or musical phrase, because I am no machine ~ I can only do the living of the moment, and let what happens happen.
But what I love to do is take note of the moment and smile, feel it, drink it in, and live it fully, knowing that it cannot be kept. If I can truly do that, the satisfaction that comes is pure, so I feel safe to move on to the next moment. And then the next. Just as the Marschallin tries to instruct Octavian to do, for we really cannot HOLD a moment in time. We can NEVER recreate the very same trill that “worked” from one night to the next. We have to simply do the work it takes to succeed again with renewed conviction and relish the tumultuous, unpredictable, always surprising act of living that follows.
I wish each and every one of you the most wonderful Thanksgiving, full of numerous things that scream for your gratitude!