Steven Blier and the Vocal Rising Stars performance
March 12, 2012
Drama, drama, drama, every day. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. Friday I was irritable. We had a donor event at night and it put a little roadblock in our process. The cast circled their wagons, protected what they had, didn’t take too many risks, saved their voices, worried about memory. The 30-minute show went fine, and afterwards we got the usual kinds of questions: “You guys are so good at those popular songs. Why aren’t you on Broadway?!” It’s a lovely compliment, but really…what would these beautiful artists sing on Broadway these days? Spider Man? Rock of Ages? Jersey Boys? Book of Mormon? Don’t get me started. I behaved pretty well until Eugene blurted out (incorrectly) that José Carreras had created the role of Tony in West Side Story on Broadway. I heard a strangled yawp come out of me that doesn’t usually emerge in public. (The first Tony was Larry Kert, who could actually speak English, in case you are coming up blank.)
But Saturday was a day of grace. We did a workthrough of the show and all four singers plunged in to do the final lock-and-load, running a Dustbuster over the French diction, tweaking the musical details, and rolling with Michael’s and my good cop/bad cop duo as we laid down the law about matters of singing and acting. If the four of them were treading water on Friday, they swam the English Channel on Saturday. I was very proud of everyone.
But I was even prouder on Sunday when they sang the Caramoor performance. Everyone was in great voice, the hall was packed—a full house in Westchester for French art song!—and I felt blessed. Meredith is like a muse to me—she inspires beauty with her charismatic sound and classy phrasing. Kristin merges good taste with take-no-hostages brass, a patrician walk on the wild side. Brent has sweetness, sensitivity, squillo, and smarts in such abundance that he’s like a Teuscher truffle that got into Mensa. And Eugene? 100% animal and 100% artist, a singer who can be pelvic and exalted at the same time.
Today we had our dress rehearsal in Merkin, which sounded cavernous and echoey after a week in Caramoor’s Music Room, and the piano had all the delicacy of the F Train. We’ll all be ready for it tomorrow—it always takes a day to adjust but Merkin is ultimately a great place to make (and hear) music. We had a visit from royalty: jazz legend Bucky Pizzarelli, who’s playing in the NYFOS’s gala on April 2, was so fascinated by what he saw on our website that he stopped by to hear some of the show. I was very nervous playing Irving Berlin in front of him, but I think Kristin and I passed muster. “You weren’t playing what was on the page!” he exclaimed. (“Duh!” I thought…I mean, I don’t have any idea what’s on the page.) “It was great! Both of you!”
Thursday is always a critical day up at Caramoor. The free-wheeling exploration period is just about to end and everyone feels the pressure. It’s not quite as innocent to forget lyrics or smudge a passage on the piano. After all, tomorrow we’re doing a part of the concert for some donors, Saturday is dress rehearsal, Sunday is a performance in Katonah, and Tuesday is the Big Apple. Every singer and pianist knows the feeling: time to get your act together.
We had a visit from our guest teacher today: baritone William Sharp, one of my closest colleagues and someone I’ve performed and recorded with for over thirty years. Bill is also very close to Michael Barrett, and it was like a reunion of dogs who’d grown up in the same kennel. Bill and I were finishing each other’s sentences. I would be thinking, “This song needs…” just as Bill was saying exactly what was in my mind. It’s always delicate to rehearse in front of an “outsider,” but Bill is not that. He was just an insider who was having his first (and only) day with us. He was so positive with everyone, unfailingly helpful—and, like his name, sharp. He is not afraid to say, “I loved it. Let’s fix the one spot that bothered me.” A perfect Thursday visitor.
Highlights: Eugene got on the hot core of his beautiful voice and rode it through Fauré’s “Les roses d’Ispahan”; Meredith coaxed and caressed her Poulenc song into submission; Kristin morphed into a haughty but vulnerable Chinese wife in her Roussel piece; Brent found both the charm and the cojones of his Roussel song. I gave a little lecture about not making what I call “Phony Faces of Motivation”—those little moues I see at auditions where singers pretend to show they’ve “just” thought of the next line of their aria by looking at a spot just to the left of their shoes (or the corner of the rehearsal room) and pensively pursing their lips before they sing again. Bad Opera Acting 101, and I’ve seen it on the rise recently. When I caught a tiny moment of “P. F. of M.” today I decided to nip it in the bud. I was rewarded with a short, hilarious demonstration (by Eugene) of his pantheon of Execrable Opera Stage Behavior.
Twenty years ago I stepped foot into Kindergarten, and last spring I received my diploma for a master’s degree in music. Since then I have been haunted by the question, “Now what?” Yesterday in a coaching with Steve Blier, I was psychologically thrown off when he referred to me as a professional singer. “Me, a professional?” was my inward response, “No, no, that’s not me… not yet,” I thought. This naturally got me thinking, being the pensive person that I am. Since my time out of school, it has been incredibly difficult for me to come to terms with myself as an artist, and even more so as a person. The structure of a school, university, or young artist program leads you from one level to the next (socially as well as professionally), but what about this nebulous era in life when for the first time the structure of a program is no more? My voice teacher, coaches, or conductors no longer guide me on a daily basis. They have filled my toolbox with a plethora of invaluable information, and now I am forced to reach into the toolbox myself without their showing me which tool to grab.
For me, since I’ve been on my own, I have plagued myself with self-doubt and insecurity because I simply am not confident that the practice and work that I’m doing is “correct,” so-to-speak. Yet, since my time here at Caramoor, I have further realized that the great artists of the world - past and present - all share one special, unique quality: the ability to unabashedly take risks, metaphysically naked in front of other people all while feeling confident in their choices. The “safe” performances – one could even call them the “correct” performances – leave us feeling unaffected and apathetic. Conversely, the performances when the artists jump off of a cliff without a parachute, confident that they will land on both of their feet just as healthily, are the ones that make us weep… make us angry… make us excited… make us question what our own lives are about.
In my quest to develop a vocal technique, I often forget that vocal technique exists to serve the music. A seamless legato line, a high C, a mezza di voce, the unification of registers – ALL of these are servants to the singer’s musical instinct. We refine our technique in order to add dimensions to our craft, whereas many (including myself) are at times guilty of making their singing one-dimensional whilst in pursuit of a masterful technique. This refreshing air poised an important question to my now-out-of-school self: Are the tools that I’ve received from such wonderful people over the years meant for me to try and fit into a certain “mold” of an artist? Or are they tools meant for the shaping of an artist that has always been within me? Working with such gifted musicians this week has guided me away from the former and toward the latter.