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.