Saturday, April 4, 2009
Recital-related stress tends to manifest itself in a variety of ways, depending on the singer. Some of the most common symptoms are hysterical crying, night sweats, food-related hallucinations (i.e. Pavarotti bathing in olive oil), and a neurotic urge to crawl around looking for high Cs in the carpet.
Some singers are better than others at hiding these symptoms of stress as the date of their recital looms ever nearer, but chances are, they still are teetering on the precipice of an operatic breakdown. The best test is pupil dilation: once those babies hit the size of quarters, it’s probably a good time to hit the singer over the head with your “Tännhauser” score…just to provide some perspective.
Surprisingly, I myself have been suffering from some unfortunate symptoms related to stress, particularly, an obsessive preoccupation with the term “recital.” As of this moment, I am still mulling over the fact that if you remove the letter “i,” you have a much more accurate description of the excremental nature of voice recitals.
But really, such overwhelming stress is completely unnecessary. If anything, huddling into a fetal position to escape the image of Pavarotti playing warship in Bertolli Extra Virgin is only going to distract from the more important preparations for your recital, such as watching fifty episodes of “West Wing” to solidify the emotion behind your Schubert set or calculating which pair of high-heels would be the most aero-dynamically supportive of the final high note in your Rossini aria.
Of course, mere will power isn’t enough for a singer to overcome their recital neuroses and focus on what really matters. But don’t worry, Lily is here to save the day, this time with a solution for every single recital concern you could possibly have.
Music: Unfortunately for many of us, you simply cannot put on a recital without singing at least fifty or sixty minutes of music. This, of course, means that you actually have to PICK fifty or sixty minutes of music.
The best thing to do is to pick a theme that really inspires you. Not some rainbow-sunshine theme like “Songs about Love” or “Voices of Women,” but something that truly expresses your inner sensibility. Two such examples: “Songs that Are So Bad They Make Me Want to Stab My Pianist With a Tuning Fork” and “Songs Written by Composers Who Were Addicted to Paste in the Third Grade and Then Changed Their First Name to Harold.”
Or my personal favorite: “Songs that William Wallace Would Have Sung if He Were an 18th Century French Opera Singer with Mommy Issues Instead of Mel Gibson in a Kilt.”
Memorization: Once you have selected a theme for your recital, you have to be sure to memorize each song in your program. Some people recommend writing out the lyrics on flashcards and quizzing yourself, while others suggest going on a strict starvation diet until you can repeat each phrase backward.
My suggestion is to scrap these tired memorization techniques and take advantage of the Chamber Music Loophole. This oh-so-helpful rule allows a singer to use a music stand for any and all chamber music pieces, thus ensuring that you don’t have to waste precious hours of the day on memorization.
And if your recital program doesn’t include any chamber music pieces? Trust me, Schubert and Strauss would surely have preferred their art songs performed with a tambourine obbligato.
Dress: The gown that you wear for your recital is far more crucial than anyone thinks. Not only does it give you an opportunity to look fabulous (and perhaps finally close the deal with that baritone), it also provides a helpful vocal safety net by ensuring that the audience will be so dazzled by the number of sequins on your bodice that they won’t even listen to the first three sets of your performance.
If the second half of your recital is just as problematic as the first, the halfway point might be a good time for a costume change (perhaps with twice as many sequins).
Audience: According to tradition, a voice recital isn’t much good if you don’t have an audience of at least 20-40 people. Parents, siblings, boyfriends (if more than one is invited, I highly recommend assigned seating), voice teachers, conservatory colleagues…their presence in the recital hall weighs heavily on a recitalist’s already dangerously heightened nerves.
As far as recitals are concerned, I am a proponent of the “less is more” mentality when it comes to the audience, simply to cut down on the possibility of multiple fainting fits backstage. By all means, invite friends, family, and teachers to your recital. Just be sure to tell them the wrong location.
So there you have it. If you know what to do, recitals are really no big deal.
For all of you singers who have recitals coming up, break a leg, toi toi toi, and in bocca al lupo!
And that reminds me…
Don’t forget to come to my recital on Tuesday, April 21st at 6:30pm…
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
During the first few days of 2009, I had high hopes for my bank account. Things have been tight, to be sure, but the New Year, new President, and new national optimism would surely result in a few extra zeros magically appearing at the end of my check book balance. At the very least, I figured that Mr. Obama would stop by and give me a coupon to Denny's.
Alas, my grasp of economic theory has never been strong. Instead of watching my wallet swell with additional Grants and Franklins, I instead have been watching opera houses close, small businesses fall into financial ruin, and Britney Spears make a come-back – all horrific signs of an economy that now has the stability of expired cottage cheese.
Sadly, the time has long since passed when I prepared for such disasters by stashing sweaty dollar bills between pages 386 and 387 of "Anna Karenina" and plucked out my gold fillings for safe keeping in the toe of my left bunny slipper.
Still, always the optimist, I have decided to take this economic down-spiral as a chance to refine my craft. I have happily turned "Yes We Can" into "Yes We Can Subsist Solely on $1 Hot Pockets" as a way to really grasp the character of Mimi, sunken temples and all. Plus, the yellowish tinge to my skin has done wonders to highlight the jewel tones of my favorite ball gown, and my consumptive fainting fits as Violetta have never been more realistic.
Perhaps you think that I am approaching this economic crisis from a slightly skewed perspective. I simply should tighten my corset strings, hold my head and soft palate high, and get a regular job like the rest of you.
Pish and posh! Please do not offend my artistic sensibilities with such a suggestion! Hot pockets and scurvy are one thing, but a civilian job is something else entirely. Let me assure you that my wallet could never shrink to such a wasted shadow of its former self to require a step of such drastic proportions.
So, instead, I have come up with several cunning plans that will supplement a limited "-ina/-etta" income without betraying any operatic inclinations.
1) Find an elderly gentleman who keeps his cash safely stored in an old Bud Light bottle beneath his front porch. Transfix said gentleman with a rousing rendition of "Glitter and Be Gay" until he begins to asphyxiate, then take the money and run. If you feel guilty at such gold-digging behavior, remind yourself that "Candide" isn't really an opera and you can't be held responsible for your actions.
2) Lock yourself in the airplane bathroom during a transcontinental flight and channel Florence Foster Jenkins as you alternate between the high Es of "Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln" and the high Fs of "Der Hölle Rache." By the second hour, the passengers will begin pushing tear-stained $50 bills underneath the door. Just remember to give the pilot ear plugs unless you want to make an unscheduled stop in the Atlantic Ocean.
3) Form a mafia family with your fellow opera singers and go to the mattresses against all of the a cappella groups in the country. If they refuse to pay monthly dues for "protection" against awkward harmony and flat singing, send them to sleep with the Rhine Maidens.
4) Rip out the pages of your least favorite opera aria anthology and sign each page as Johann Sebastian Bach. Dip them in a bath of jasmine tea and Slippery Elm cough drops for effective aging, and then sell those puppies on Ebay for $5,000 a pop. If anyone asks you, assure them that Bach did, in fact, write "The Rake's Progress."
5) Write a self-help book brimming with nuggets of operatic wisdom. Assume a suitably punny pseudonym and then sell it to other opera singers for an absurdly high price.
There you have it: five foolproof ways to beat the economic odds, all while maintaining your elegant opera singing persona.
But these are only the first five of hundreds of brilliant strategies, all described in full detail (with color illustrations) in my new book, "Lily Puns: Surviving the Hindenburg of Economic Recessions While Maintaining Your Charmingly Tremulous Trills," only $39.99 if you order now!
Or buy a copy for one of your friends, and get two books for the low price of $89.99!
Don't miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to solve your financial problems!
Will that be credit or debit?
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Please gag me with a candy cane. The holiday season isn't all baked ham and egg nog. Presents, trees, and gingerbread men are all well and good for materialistic, tree-hating cannibals, but let's take a closer look at some holiday statistics.
Over the course of this holiday season, three million unhappy individuals will discover too late that they are fatally allergic to the color combination of red and green; five million, three hundred thousand and four performances of "The Messiah" will be sung embarrassingly out of tune; seven hundred thousand and nine awkward couples in matching reindeer turtlenecks will inadvertently consume poisonous berries while attempting to canoodle under mistletoe; five hundred thousand and eighty-six utterances of "Happy Chan-oo-kah!" will set back Judeo-Christian relations by 500 years; and seventeen members of the Associated Union of Reindeer will finally reveal that aggravated syphilis was the true cause of Rudolph's luminous nose.
And, if you are expecting Santa Claus to pay a house call this year, don't hold your breath: old Saint Nick was just diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and is now confined to a wheelchair and restricted to a steady diet of pureed wheat germ.
So, there you have it. Society has pulled the pine-scented wool over your eyes, and, as your faithfully-opinionated blogger, I have a moral obligation to A) burst your Christmas bubble, B) splinter your candy cane, C) amputate the limbs of your favorite gingerbread man, D) contaminate your egg nog with salmonella, and E) generally "grinch-ify" your Christmas in every way possible.
Truth be told, I may have a slightly ulterior motive when it comes to destroying your holiday spirit. It may be hard to believe, but my acerbic wit and cynical sarcasm were once decidedly pro-Christmas.
But then, one fateful Christmas in 1990, all of my Christmas spirit was disastrously and irrevocably destroyed.
In my color-coded Christmas letter to Santa Claus, I had asked for only one thing: Kiri te Kanawa's Christmas album. Yet, when the key moment arrived and I gleefully ripped open my Christmas present, I discovered not the charmingly alliterative "Christmas by Kiri," but rather that premiere Christmas album by...CHARLOTTE CHURCH!
It was seventy-three days before I was able to consume solid foods again.
Ever since that traumatic day, I have faced every holiday season with undeniable hatred. Plum pudding and baked ham turn to dust in my mouth; the scent of gingerbread makes me froth at the mouth; even the slightest hint of Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" causes my right foot and left nostril to twitch uncontrollably.
After decades of extensive anti-Christmas therapy (involving several unnatural uses of reindeer antlers and Christmas ornaments), I have finally determined that the Christmas spirit is not to blame for my affliction, but rather Kris Kringle himself. After all, it was none other than Santa who gave me the wrong cd and thus burned the permanent image of sugarplum Charlotte Churches into my brain.
With that in mind, I have decided to postpone my war against other sopranos for the time being and focus all of my malignant power on that unnaturally rosy-cheeked, diabetes-inflicted figure of holiday evil. I urge you to do the same, if only to prevent the same unhappy experience from damaging another impressionable young soprano.
So, I beg you: inject your gingerbread cookies with gallons of insulin, spray your Christmas tree with poisonous pesticides, and set your sniper rifle to the "reindeer" setting.
I myself plan to build a roaring holiday blaze in my fireplace on Christmas Eve and enjoy some delectable Santa flambe.
Could someone please pass the salt?
Monday, October 13, 2008
Opera singers are no exception to this rule. In fact, opera singers are far more neurotically superstitious than any other type of performer, a fact that is directly linked to the same “diva” gene that necessitates contract clauses, soprano catfights, and the placement of a dozen white lilies in the lead tenor’s dressing room.
Opera superstitions fall into two categories. First, there are pre-performance superstitions: relatively harmless traditions used by individual opera singers to ensure a successful performance. These superstitions can range from the benign (drinking a cup of jasmine tea and watching “The Sound of Music”) to the bizarre (sleeping with a musical score under the pillow in order to transmit musicality through osmosis) to the positively fanatical (dressing up in Joan Sutherland’s old nightgown and hopping on one foot while singing “The trumpet shall sound”).
The second category of opera superstitions is made up of more personal, more potent, and far more dangerous superstitions. These beliefs generally don’t have anything to do with opera in the grander sense but they are somehow always found in massive quantities in the twisted psyche of the average young singer.
To the untrained eye, Claire Coloratura may appear to be a well-adjusted young woman. She comes to rehearsals on time, engages in healthy competition with her fellow sopranos, and hits a hell of a high E on a regular basis. Scratch beneath the surface of those shimmering cadenzas, however, and you will discover that Claire has been wearing the same pair of lucky socks every day since the 7th grade. She also brushes her teeth in 147 cycles of counter-clockwise rotation, eats a jar of capers with milk every Thursday at 4:13pm, and has taken a personal vow only to date men named Sam.
And it isn’t just the sopranos. Barry Baritone certainly looks like a regular Joe six-pack (without the six-pack, of course), but he also has fourteen lucky turtles, only speaks in Pig Latin to his girlfriend, and paints his toenails a delightful shade of maroon before every performance.
Tommy Tenor coordinates the color of his boxer-briefs to the musical keys of Pavarotti’s Greatest Hits albums and writes emails in a code constructed from “Die schöne Müllerin.” And, in case you couldn’t tell from his inspiring performance as Don Ottavio, Tommy also sings a rousing falsetto rendition of “Sempre libera” every morning between shampooing his mustache and shaving his chest.
These personal superstitions may seem to be innocuous. After all, Claire’s obsession with capers, Barry’s penchant for poikilotherms, and Tommy’s color-coordinated Calvin Kleins do not affect their operatic performances in a negative way. Just the opposite, in fact: listen to one of Claire’s coloratura runs, and you’ll be damned if you don’t notice that each staccato note is as dazzling clear as a tasty caper.
But don’t be fooled. These superstitions may appear to help opera singers achieve success, but they are actually more likely to transform a performer into post-op Bruce Banner than Beverly Sills.
Moreover, this threat to musical sanity is growing more powerful every day. Dozens of new singers are infected on a daily basis, and the superstitions are getting more and more bizarre. I recently met a young mezzo-soprano who makes every life decision depending on the responses of her Magic 8-Ball. Clearly, it is only a matter of time before we have Toscas who brandish rabbit feet instead of daggers and Mimis who die of triskaidekaphobia instead of consumption.
Still, I urge each of you to try your utmost to defeat that sneaky demon of superstitious nonsense. Superstitious traditions can’t replace solid hard work when it comes to a performance, and only a fool would actually expect those crusty socks from 7th grade to help with that melisma at the end of “Spargi d’amaro pianto.”
The only way to overcome your superstitions is to face them. So, make friends with black cats, walk underneath ladders, and wish everyone a boisterous “Good luck!” for their production of “Macbeth.”
And if you still don’t think that you’ll be able to overcome all of your superstitious hocus pocus – don’t worry.
I’ll be crossing my fingers for you.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Step into the green room and see the truth: in the left corner, Alfredo is pelting Rudolpho with throat lozenges; in the right corner, Germont is dodging Papageno’s rotten eggs; in the back, Cherubino is challenging Octavian to a beer-chugging contest; and, of course, in the middle, Violetta and Pamina are throttling each other.
The ego wars between tenors, baritones, and mezzos are certainly ferocious, yet none can compete with the epic battles of soprano versus soprano in terms of sheer savagery.
Sopranos follow a simple but precise model of behavior. Each year, Soprano A reviews and facebook stalks all sopranos joining her musical community. After determining which sopranos pose the greatest threat to her territory (i.e. “fach”), Soprano A initiates several stages of “friendly” behavior with the one deemed to be the most dangerous: Soprano B. Over coffee and amid friendly discussions of repertoire, the ever-cunning Soprano A pretends to bond with Soprano B in order to gain her confidence and gradually discover each of her vulnerabilities. At the exact moment that Soprano B reveals her greatest weakness, Soprano A plans to impale her with her most piercing form of passive aggression and thus, maintain her dominance.
If you are beginning to worry about the safety of sweet little Soprano B, fear not. She is not an innocent victim, but actually just the opposite, having selected Soprano A as her archrival weeks ago and hastily planned a suitable counterattack.
If we look closer, we see that Soprano A is already losing this battle. So far, her “friendly” behavior has only helped her to discover that Soprano B has a tremulous vibrato. Soprano B, on the other hand, has discovered that Soprano A has a problematic high F, insufficient breath support, a preference for handsome baritones, and a pair of extremely ugly sandals. Within a few minutes, Soprano B will strike, Soprano A will be defeated, and the power in this fach will shift. Soprano A will spend the evening licking her wounds in a practice room and then plan for another battle tomorrow.
Those of you who saw Susie Soprano and Corinne Coloratura eating lunch together yesterday witnessed this power struggle in real life. Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary, but a gauntlet had clearly been thrown. Each bite of sandwich was carefully timed; each comment was a subtle test in the waters of the other’s insecurity; each friendly smile was simply a feint before a cutting blow. And who won the battle? The triumphant flash of scarlet in Susie’s eyes in between bites of grilled cheese tells us everything we need to know.
The opera world is a dangerous one, and we must all learn the best way to protect ourselves. Having battled numerous nemesis sopranos since 7th grade, I have learned to expect a soprano attack at any time. And, after years of carefully study, I have crafted a handbook of tried-and-true defenses to use against the most lethal soprano assault. I offer you the top five:
1) Always carry a digitized recording of Florence Foster Jenkins singing “Der Hölle Rache” on your person. When threatened by a savage soprano, simply play the recording as loudly as possible and wait for the soprano to run away screaming.
2) Memorize the following three phrases: “You have SUCH a cute voice,” “Have you ever thought about doing something else with your life?” and “Your voice teacher is really sweet to keep trying to help you sing better.” Use any of these phrases whenever necessary to clear sopranos from your path.
3) Always travel in the company of a tenor or baritone (see blog posting “Falling in love…and not just with opera”). When an aggressive soprano approaches, push the tenor or baritone toward the soprano and run away as fast as possible. A small gratuity for the tenor or baritone might be considerate, depending on the extent of the soprano’s hostility.
4) When a soprano begins to talk to you, cough loudly. The soprano will immediately leave the area in order to find some Airborne, Vitamin C, or Mucinex. Sniffles, sneezes, and excessive throat clearing are equally effective.
5) Walk around with a wooden stake, a crucifix, several heads of garlic, and the complete series of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on DVD. Sopranos will definitely steer clear. Unfortunately, so will everyone else.
No matter what dangerous vocalists lurk in the halls, a true opera singer cannot help but thrive on a little passion and danger. And, who knows…perhaps one day Soprano A will extend a proverbial olive branch to Soprano B, the two will break into an exquisite rendition of the Flower Duet, and peace and happiness will reign supreme in the world.
But, for now, it might be best to make friends with the instrumentalists.
And keep your back facing the wall at all times.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
These days, thin is in. And, no matter how much we may cling to the beloved stereotypes of past generations, opera houses are simply no longer tolerating the “big-boned” look. As Deborah Voigt will be the first to tell you, a beautiful voice doesn’t mean anything if you are not hovering between dress sizes 4 and 12. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you are also stunningly beautiful and oozing with sex appeal; just make sure that the circumference of your waist continues to adhere to Scarlett O’Hara’s standards or risk losing your five-year contract.
For those of you who are now frantically swigging ipecac and dashing to the toilet to rid yourself of the day’s caloric intake, let me first point out that this whole dichotomy between fat and thin is fundamentally flawed. The issue is not really about weight…it is about health. The kicker is just that healthy sopranos usually don’t weigh more than 250 pounds.
Take Ms. Brünnhilde Soprano as an example. One of your standard hefty singers with three hundred pounds, a horned helmut, and an armored bustier at her disposal, Brünnhilde is an extremely talented singer and performer. Yet, after several years on the opera stage, her career begins to deteriorate because of complications caused by her weight. The fact is, Siegfried can’t get his arms around Brünnhilde's mid-section for the love scene in “Siegfried.” Worst still, the placement of a horse next to Brünnhilde in “Die Götterdämmerung” might result in a riot of distraction in which the entire audience begins to draw Venn diagrams on their programs.
Dramatic issues aside, Brünnhilde's weight interferes with her cardiovascular functions, her physical capacity for moving on the stage, and her ability to support vocal production. Her weight is clearly a contributing factor to an unhealthy physical state. Now, if any of you wants to inform me that Brünnhilde is actually the operatic version of G.I. Jane, one-armed push-ups included, I would be glad to hear it. But I’ll also want to see one of those push-ups before I post a retraction.
Rest assured, I am not insinuating that the plumper sopranos in this world should start sticking their fingers down their throats or buy lifetime supplies of laxatives. Nor am I suggesting that the slender singers in the pack should set up IVs of melted ice cream and whey protein. The fact is, there are different benefits associated with having both body type as an opera singer.
If you are on the portly side of things, you might be glad to know that the extra fatty tissue around your larynx may actually increase the resonance of your voice. Larger singers also tend to have more expansive rib cages and chest cavities, both of which result in bigger breaths and better breath support. There is also the added benefit of being able to belly bounce any arrogant conductor who questions the pitch of your high B. And, lest we forget, there is always a bonus to having more “cushion for the pushing,” so to speak.
Those of you with slender frames have your own set of bonuses, particularly a stronger core and tighter abdomen that help to support the diaphragmic pressure involved in singing. Moreover, you don’t have to worry about being stereotyped as a fat opera singer every time you introduce yourself at a cocktail party. Nor will you ever have to struggle to squeeze into a particularly little black dress in a Covent Garden production.
The time has come to cease the cellulite-feud between skinny and fat soprano and take definitive action. Buy some exercise shorts, set a standing date with a rival soprano (a little healthy competition never hurt anyone), and force yourself to engage in twenty minutes of cardiovascular exercise three times a week.
Not only will you finally fit into those seersucker capris you bought two summers ago, you will feel stronger and sing better. And if the opera producers at the Met decide that you still aren’t thin enough for their production of “L’Elisir d’Anorexia,” I highly recommend giving them the middle finger.
Or, if worse comes to worse, I can always lend you my personal tapeworm.