How I Became an Opera Singer
Thirteen years have passed since I made the movies you saw. I worked as an opera and concert singer for twenty or so years. I spent twelve years working with the avant-garde Peter Sellars, starting with a modern dress “Don Giovanni” in 1980, then a forty-show run of Handel’s opera “Orlando” in 1981-82 at American repertory Theater, and other wonderful projects as well. Working with Peter was the most fun I ever had by far. I also sang musical comedy, early and contemporary music, song recitals, musical comedy and Bach sacred music.
I did my graduate studies next door at New England Conservatory having taken an undergraduate music degree at Indiana University. I had sung since childhood, and took voice lessons at 15. My aim was a life in music. I was naïve & lucky.
WHY DID I DO IT? THE MMANAGEMENT DOES NOT RECOMMMEND THIS CAREER.
I trained for a singing career as long as a doctor or a lawyer, with, of course no hope of comparable financial rewards. I knew I was doomed to be poor before I went to music school, because my parents and my music teachers had warned me. So why did I do it? Because I couldn’t really imagine not doing it.
Conventional wisdom says that if you are lucky, you have ten years to put your act together. During that time you study vocal technique, at least three languages, acting, some dance or movement, literature, poetry music history and literature, and musical style. With even more luck you may get ten years of prime working life, where you win a major competition, get an agent and a publicist, and if possible a patron, do endless auditions, shmooze important people, continue voice lessons and repertoire coaching, behave yourself so you don’t get a rep as “Temperamental,” If you succeed you will live on the road much of the time. When you are past your prime you may negotiate your way through ten years of decline if you stay healthy. In women the decline comes sooner is much more rapid than in men: another clear proof that God loves men best.
I did a few of those things, but since I was a maverick, or maybe just naïve; I went my own sweet way, and stayed poor. I was lucky enough to get interesting work as a musician, even though it was a rough ride sometimes. The low points were truly low, especially if you have issues with being rejected or shopping in thrift stores or living in slum housing with roommates until your are 32; but the highs of life in music were imcomparable..
What are the highs? First the physical joy of the work and making the sounds. Singers get into zones they way athletes do. In your zone you are totally in the moment mentally and physically. You see thousands of choices before you every second and you know whichever one you pick will be right. The music talks to you. The music takes you captive and you are so happy to be its slave. You are aware of every sound and thought of the other performers, and even the audience’s emotional state. Sometimes you are aware of God.
Music, the biggest high. It can put us in an hypnotic hyper-aware state. Musical tones and rhythms have great power by themselves; even a single note, like a tolling churchbell or a lighthouse horn across the bay or monks chanting: or the rhythm of trains or windshield wipers or clocks ticking can put you in an altered state. If single sounds can do this, image what a Mozart opera accomplishes.
Music is also a language that refers to itself. And also alludes to other things, like moods or emotions or ideas, very complex ones.
Singers have the task of putting words together with music. Some people I went to school with talked about ‘absolute’ music, being the only real music, and that music with words or some “program” or story, or an uplifting moral message is inferior. I stand with Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Guillaume de Machaut, Heinrich Schuetz, Debussy, George and Ira Gershwin, John Harbison and many others who like music plus poetry. Music with a story.
That’s really self-serving because I’m a singer. I liked using my whole brain and whole body, the verbal and the musical, building up layers and networks of meaning, a nice rich mess. I can’t balance my check book but I had a way with a tune and a lyric, a gesture and a little dancing….
But careers come to an end. After you crash and burn, or gracefully fade out of performing life, you teach, or design websites. If you’re lucky, you enjoy it. I do, almost as much as I enjoyed performing. Do you believe me?
WHAT IS OPERA ANYWAY? WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?
EVERYbody wants to sing opera. People in showers worldwide…even pop stars now want to sing opera. Singers can actually make more money singing concerts or Broadway shows, but ridiculous numbers of singers want to do opera. Why is that? Ideas?
For a performer, Opera is the Olympics. Opera is the X-games of singing. A great operatic singer needs physical prowess, endurance, and just plain raw guts She has to be able to go for it, to hang it out on the naked edge and keep it there and not think too much about the risk of a wipe-out. Opera is finding your limits and then violating them.
You know you’re where you should be when you’re making deals with God to help get you through act III. You skate the line between frenzy and control. You have to sing very high and very low and extremely loud and unbelievably soft and fast and slow and long. Really long; you need the finesse of a gymast and the stamina of a triathlete. All without recourse to ‘roids,thank you Roger Clemens.
WHY DO PEOPLE STILL LOVE OPERA? When You can Go to the Movies?
It’s kind of magic that people can make those sounds without mics, without a mixer, just naked throat. Besides it’s beautiful and extreme and dangerous and powerful.
But plenty of people don’t get it at all. It just seems squally and pompous pretentious and boring, clunky, EXPENSIVE, grotesque, and irrelevant. Why are those big fat middle aged people waddling around whooping in foreign tongues and waving swords?
What can I say? If you don’t get, say, baseball there’s no way I could convince you it’s an elegant exciting game. No, you’ll say; It’s too long, nothing happens, they stand around chewing and spitting and scratching their jocks…well, if You don’t get it, you don’t get it.
I am here to tell you that opera is the high church of sex. With a few exceptions opera celebrates human transcendence through physical passion. This is the opposite notion from the idea the slaying of Self, as put forth by the religion folks,(see St. Jerome, St. Agustin, your favorite puritanical preacher, etc) but there are lots of sex enthusiasts throughout history. Somebody somewhere called the notion of salvation through the senses as “the left handed way.” You could call opera soft porn, but it’s more like loud porn.
My spouse and I made a list of some operas that are actually not about extreme sexual passion, and came up with five: or five and a half.
Moses und Aron, Schoenberg, philosophical, concerning religion and music, and the pitfalls of pandering to mass appeal.
Dialogues of the Carmelites, Poulenc concerning religion, loyalty and personal courage.
Peter Grimes, maybe, unless he’s a child molester.
Boris Godonov, Moussorgsky, politics and morality. Some sex was added in later, but originally there was no love interest.
Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams, international politics, ethics and morality.
Opera and its lusty heros and heroines are here to tell you that in love lies salvation.. They go with your gut, they transgress the mainstream taboos, and if they have to die for it, they don’t care.
Opera celebrates lust in all its forms from sweet young love to stalking and sexual harassment or blackmail, adultery, seduction, abduction, mutilation, crimes of passion, betrayal, cross-dressing, gender-bending, and even-- in the case of the castrati, those big pigeon-chested castrated male sopranos of the Baroque, actual gender busting. Opera even celebrates marriage, as in the case of “Figaro.”
We’ll pass over genderbusting and speak briefly about gender bending, which has always been part of theater world-wide. In China and Japan and Shakespeare’s England boys or men played all the women’s roles, often behind the scenes as well as onstage. In modern Japan there are all-male Kabuki troupes with men playing women; and all-girl musical troupes with women playing men, and these cross-dressing women have seriously devoted, all-female, fan clubs and frenzied fan zines. Takarazuka. I’ve been to Takarakuza and it’s a total hoot.
In western and Chinese opera men play raunchy old women sometimes, and in western opera women play boys or young men. This is called travesty, which means cross-dressing in Italian. It’s kinky, but kind of a kick.
Opera attracts gays also, both as performers and fans. The Florentine Camerata, a circle of literary young men who were also singers and composers, and who invented opera as we know it four hundred years ago, using the model of Greek drama, have been accused of being a homosexual club. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Modern gay opera performers are out or in, as the mood takes them. Boston baritone Sanford Sylvan and countertenor David Daniels both came out in the arts section of the New York times, how cool is that? Modern gay guy fans, known as opera queens, worship sopranos when you’d think they’d be swooning for the tenors. By the way, the gay gal fans also follow the women; Cecilia Bartoli is a serious lesbian icon, proving that women can be opera queens too. My theory is that gays empathize with women opera characters as members the oppressed class whose passions were also stifled or denied or punished by those in power.
OPERA AS WOMEN’S LIB
Women are the center of attention in opera. Women characters are the ones who set things in motion, who risk and dare the most. Women are the ones who transgress the norms and challenge the powers that be; that would be the men. Women let their earthier feelings hang out in opera, and many fans, including gay ones may hear messages of emotional and class liberation, as well as sexual release, in the soprano’s towering high c’s.
Reading: The Queen’s Throat, Wayne Koestenbaum, not good as lit, but provocative.
Opera as work is also a vehicle of women’s emancipation. Women are the vocal and emotional equals of men in opera. Women can sing just as loud, just as intensely, and way higher than most men. Nobody lowers the net for the women’s game. The women characters are frankly, more interesting. They are the ones who declare their desires, come what may: I want the toreador, not the policeman, I want the poor young poet not the rich old guy, I want Tristan and not the King. I want to marry Figaro not be the mistress of the Count.
You notice, if you study Figaro, that although the title character comes up with a lot of schemes to foil the count, none of them works, and it’s the women who pull it all together and trap Count Almaviva in the act of ravishing his own wife.
Women in control? Recipe for damnation! The end of civilization and The sanctitity of marriage! The destruction of family values! Dogs and cats living together!
Until quite recently women weren’t even supposed to have minds and libidos, but opera has always said the opposite. This idea of strong independent women unleashing the toxins of their illicit lust on the world is still threatening to many status quo adherents. Ask your friendly local Taliban, or the American religious right, or take a poll in your local sports bar.
Female opera characters who don’t play by the rules include such social embarrassments as Violetta, a whore who wants to marry a nice middle class boy,, Cioc-cio-san, a geisha who converts to Christianity and expects to be treated like an American citizen, Carmen a promiscuous gypsy who is not going to settle down and have kids, Poppea, a Roman army wife who sleeps her way to the Empress job, Cleopatra who jumps Julius Caesar’a bones and becomes Queen of Egypt, Lucy of Lammermoor who murders the husband she is forced to wed and goes kookoo, and so on and so on. Some of these ladies get their prize, and some die, but my opinion is that they are not so much being punished for committing lust as for making an I statement. I will live and love my way and no other way.
Opera in America has had a reputation for deadly dullness. Mainstream American doesn’t like its fine arts too hot or too decadent. We leave that hot business to popular art. So 19th-and 20th c. American opera went through this sort neutering process, during which opera attendance became a cultural credential. Opera societies imported a few Italian singers, dressed up in their finest and dragged their husband to it so they could fall asleep at $100 per seat.
Read Edith Wharton’s great novel “The Age of Innocence” for a wonderful description of opera in New York high society; mostly a place to be seen and to exchange catty gossip about each others’ clothes. However. The form doesn’t need to feel like a visit to the mummy room in the museum. It’s theater, it’s drama, it’s loud and raucous sex calls; it’s alive and crazed and in the moment. Or it should be.
I liked working with Peter because he pushed ideas and images to the brink of good taste and then some; that made social credential-seekers very uncomfortable. Even the modern dress we wore made people uncomfortable. Why? Too close to real life? I’m not sure. Maybe they missed the white wigs and the hoop skirts. After the 1980 Don Giovanni, with its wild-orgy first act finale, with shocked patrons were heard to say “The Spanish Nobility would never act in such dissolute ways.” Of course that’s just about all the nobility did, and do. Check out the British Royals today, or any nobles any time in history.
You could think of opera as the mother of M-TV with better music, and without the eye candy; Opera singers do with their voices what modern pop stars do mostly with dance and sexual writhing. That would be, exhibition and narcissism and signaling readiness to mate; going for the extremes of everything including good taste..
Consider, in 1905, the character of Salome in Richard Strauss’s opera of the same name, sang very explicit music and stripped off all, not just some, of her clothes and then made love to a severed head still oozing blood, which before Janet and Justin’s little prank seem quite wholesome. By the way, Karita Mattila did the same moves at the Met when she sang Salome. All the way naked.
So Let’s talk about my favorite opera, The Marriage of Figaro. We could say it’s a classic French farce, people jumping in and out of each other’s boudoirs and windows, and putting on disguises. But Mozart converted Beaumarchais’s socially revolutionary play into the farce of the human condition, in which every possible emotion plays out. It ends with a pro-bourgeois message and a few questions. Will the count give up his philandering? Is serial adultery forgivable? Why does the countess forgive the bastard anyway? Many reasons, I think.
I played the boy Cherubino.What was it like to play a boy? I’ve looked at boys with deep interest all my life and had played a man (Nero in the oronation of Poppea) onstage before so it was not all that difficult.
I did some movement coaching with the great choreographer Mark Morris, who has also looked at boys his whole life too. I also watched “Risky Business” thank you Tom Cruise, several times, and the hockey movie “Slap Shot.” For the high-stick moves. I borrowed my daughters eye-rolls and pouts and other expression heavy irony, stuck them on to Tom Cruise’s and Mark Morris’s body language.
Et, le viola.
Cherubino is an adolescent held hostage by his hormones. He has no control over his own body, a state that he both hates and loves. He observes the womanizing of the Count, and unconsciously takes him as his big role model. Although Cherubino is still a cute innocent boy, he is in a dangerous place. He could tip either way, into a sweet young man or a pig. He is on his way becoming a little bastard, as a viewing of his behavior in the third and fourth act shows.
I felt that the Countess’s pardon of her husband is a redemptive moment for Cherubino, a moment in which he sees the better choice. Because the Countess pardons her swine of a husband, Cherubino may chose grow up to be a nice guy after all. I was happy to play a character who does some not nice things, like cop a free feel and kiss off Susanna in Act One, ditto the Countess in Act IV, and also punch out the gardener and get seduced by his daughter maybe, in Act Three.
I also liked the idea that even though my version of Cherubino is practicing a lot alone, he is still a virgin but he is growing up fast. If called upon he would have been fully capable of bludgeoning the count in act I, or responding to the Countess’s seduction plans in Act II.
How I, Susan, got through Act I alive is not clear to me. I know I had cuts and bruises all over my body all the time, mostly from working on that man-eating convertible sofa-bed. I told myself it’s all part of the job, that Michael Jordan probably gets beat-up the same, and then I reminded myself he was making a whole lot more money to buy bandaids than I was. Oh well.
Have you seen non so piu? Not too subtle is it? Very athletic, All about appetite, and self-grat. My main concern was how to sing “non so piu” with an oxygen debt; because fine breath control takes a back seat to getting enough air to your screaming muscles… a few times when I had strained my back I sang non so piu standing pretty still and was amazed at how easy it was to control my breath, and how truly great I sounded.
There is a reason why opera singers prefer to stand and sing during the difficult parts of an aria. Notice that Fred Astaire danced after he sang, not before. He knew what he was doing.
About Cleopatra. My favorite role. It was fun to play the part of one of the most famous people who ever lived on earth. The story of Caesar and Cleopatra is based loosely on history, the couple lived, they loved, Cleo got Caesar’s support in the civil war she was having with her husband and brother (same person) and became queen of Egypt and Caesar’s squeeze. She had a child by him whom the Emperor acknowledged as his son. Then she was Marc Antony’s squeeze.
Handel’s Cleo is probably based on the Shakespeare and the Plutarch versions; so I read those. Cleo was funny and witty and liked practical jokes and sports and gaming and throwing fabulous parties; she spoke many languages and had excellent political skills, and had no qualms about trading on her charm to get what she wanted. Why modern dress? A modern story.
Unlike Figaro there is no strong moral message in the opera. Figaro is actually propaganda for bourgeois virtues as opposed to aristocratic entitlement and opressivenss. Cleo states right up front she is going to seduce the leader of the free world and help her win the throne. Which she does. Handel makes her fall in love and suffer capture and imprisonment, which makes her a very rich acting task.. Also I got to wear a lot of gold lame and fish lures in my hair. To get in shape I spent about a year on the stairmaster. I have to admit I looked pretty good.
You can see me singing in Peter’s Operas on Youtube,
Or get the DVDs of Julius Caesar in Egypt, The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan Tutte from your library system. They are on the London Records label.