Saturday, January 19, 2008

Over the Line

Recently I saw a performance in which a singer teetered dangerously on the line between telling an emotional story and telling a personal story. It reminded me of my own experience with this difficult aspect of honest performing, during the first Sun Valley Opera Competition in 2003. I wrote up this story two years ago, to share with some friends, and knew that the time would come to share it on the blog. It seems that time is now, so, take a trip down memory lane with me...

The competition is held in a church in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood, so for the “green room,” or holding area, we used the fellowship hall. The competition monitor came back to get us one at a time, and lead us through the maze of classrooms and nursery rooms in the church basement, up to the sanctuary where the actual competition took place. Imagine my surprise when, shortly before my turn to go, a beautiful tabby cat entered the room! Her name was KittyBob, I would later learn (yes, KittyBob is a girl…), but at the time all I knew was that I wanted to pet her and love on her. But the monitor soon appeared and called my name, so I said, “I have to go, but I’ll be back soon, kitty, and we can get to know each other.”

(Yes, I’m a dork when it comes to cats. We’ll just leave that be…)

I made my way to the altar area, which is raised up a bit from the rest of the sanctuary, making a nice stage area. The three sides of the space had choir loft benches against them, with a railing and kneeling bench for communion. I started singing Norina’s aria from Don Pasquale, getting through the opening cavatina and had moved into the sassy cabaletta when I heard people in the audience start to chuckle. I thought, “Wow, I’m really selling this! They think I’m funny!”

Well, it turns out the KittyBob was not content to wait for my return. She had appeared behind me, rubbing up against the kneelers and lying on her belly and generally looking adorable. When she worked her way into my sightlines at the front of the stage, I quickly realized that the audience was not laughing at me! I know that you can’t fight with animals or children on stage; people will always watch them to see what unexpected thing they’re going to do next. So I went with it: Norina had a cat! I sang to KittyBob for as long as she stuck around, then turned my attention back to the audience for the finish. When it was over, we – the audience and I – shared a good laugh, and I made my way back to the green room to await the second round.

My piece for the second round, the musical theatre round, was “The Sound of Music.” Yes, “The hills are alive” and all that. One of the judges told me later that when he saw my listing in the program, he thought, “She is really going to have to sell this to win with this song.” I had just come home from my first summer at Tanglewood, a place where the hills were indeed alive with the sounds of music. It was an amazing summer, and I was missing it, having a hard time adjusting to life “back home.” So I really let myself get lost in the words and the sentiment. When I got to the line “…like a lark who is learning to pray,” I brought my hands into a prayer position at my heart without thinking; it was a motion I had never done before, and it hit me.

“I go to the hills, when my heart is lonely. I know I will hear what I’ve heard before.”

I wanted to be back in the Berkshire hills. My heart was lonely, and I was missing the refuge of the musical community there.

“My heart will be blessed, with the sound of music…”

And my throat closed.

I had crossed that line that a performer needs to flirt with in performance in order to affect the audience, the line between control and indulgence, between telling a story and living the story. It is a line we should flirt with but never cross. A friend later told me that he had been just about to cry himself, because I was conveying the beauty of the song so well, but as soon as I cried, he became worried about me as a person, rather than emoting with me as the character.

The competition pianist, whom I had never met before that day and whose name I cannot remember, was completely with me. She slowed down and stopped just as I did, waited while I recovered my voice – surely a matter of seconds, but it felt like hours – then breathed with me and we finished the song, my voice shaking with held tears.

“…and I’ll sing once more.”

I didn’t even want to take a bow. I was mortified; I felt that I had let the audience down. They didn’t need to know that Anne-Carolyn Bird, the soprano, was having a rough night; they only needed to feel Maria’s joy at being in her mountains, surrounded by music. Another soprano in the competition reassured me, though, by telling me that every time she performed the role, she had to fight against the urge to cry at that point. It is a simple song, one that has become “cheesy” with overuse, but it is powerful in its simplicity. There is a reason it is a classic.

These events, I knew, made it so that I would remember this night and its lessons forever. I was almost embarrassed to be announced the winner.


Gregory said...


This is a very very important post. I find that the only way that I can flirt, but not leap is to absolutely go there in rehearsal. I cross the line in rehearsal/practice room so that I know very clearly where it is in performance.

Very recently I was rehearsing a recital and came completely unglued during my French set. (Hahn's "À Chloris" was the culprit). I stopped and sobbed. Luckily, my accompanist is also a close supportive friend, so he just held me while I got it all out of my system.

And then, we went to perform, and it was magic.

Now, the trouble is when those little magic moments happen where you don't expect them. Live!

Love this post, Thank you!

Unknown said...

The last time I gave a voice recital (my sophomore, over a year ago), I sang a Britten arrangement of The Ash Grove. The tune is simple and one nearly every person has heard, and I simply thought it was a cute little song that worked well in my voice. A week or so before the recital, though, I was reviewing the texts to all of my songs, and I got to The Ash Grove.

The last few lines are: "Ye echoes, oh tell me, where is the sweet maiden? She sleeps 'neath the green turf down by the ash grove." When I got to those lines, I realized that the song (in a strong major key) was not the cutesy song I thought it was. It was heartbreaking, and I was excited I figured that out before my recital.

So I spent that week working on my character for the song, hoping to accurately portray the heartbreak and longing my character was feeling. When the recital came, I was so excited to sing the song. It was the last in my English set, and when I got to those last few lines, my throat, too, closed.

I was lucky and didn't have to stop, but afterwards my mom came to me to tell me how much she loved that song - she was moved to tears throughout, but the last few lines worried her. She was taken out of the story I was telling b/c it was no longer a story; it was real for me at that moment, and it strongly affected me.

I had forgotten that experience, and I'm glad you posted your own experience. My junior recital is at the end of this semester, and I'll have to remind myself not to cross that line. said...

Excellent post!

I sure wish a conductor I work with could understand this. He gets SO emotional and it is disruptive to the music.

I have continually said that our job is to move the audience, not to move ourselves. If that makes sense.

Josh said...

My good friend Randy Behr, may he RIP, said "Either you feel it or we feel... and WE bought the ticket."

Great post!

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