The inner voice: the making of a singer

Table of ContentsTitle PageDedicationCopyright PageAcknowledgementsIntroduction CHAPTER ONE - FAMILYCHAPTER TWO - EDUCATIONCHAPTER THREE - APPRENTICESHIPCHAPTER FOUR - MENTORSCHAPTER FIVE - SUCCESSCHAPTER SIX - CHALLENGECHAPTER SEVEN - BUSINESSCHAPTER EIGHT - LONGEVITYCHAPTER NINE - IMAGECHAPTER TEN - PERFORMANCECHAPTER ELEVEN - ROLESCHAPTER TWELVE - BACKSTAGECHAPTER THIRTEEN - CODAPraise forThe Inner Voice“With plain spoken honesty and a wealth of technical detail made reader-friendly, Fleming has fashioned a manual that should be required reading for all young singers.”—Boston Herald “Fleming’s book is not only an indispensable asset to those who want to know her better, it’s also a huge asset to aspiring young singers.”—The Seattle Times “The tone of her writing is as elegant as the tone of her voice.”—The Baltimore Sun “Renée Fleming writes almost as well as she sings. . . . [A] revealing account of how an opera career is launched and sustained. Fleming is particularly good at describing the physical demands and mental challenges of making beautiful sounds while at the same time trying to act. . . . Illuminating.”—The Charlotte Observer “Beautifully written, elegantly told.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “As decorous as the author herself . . . Renée Fleming continues to make much of her great gifts.”—Terry Teachout,Commentary Magazine “Fascinating”—Women’s Wear Daily “[A] candid account . . . A realistic portrait of what it takes to succeed and a volume intriguing for its advice and honesty.”—Publishers Weekly “Her perceptive account of what it takes to become and continue to be a great performer will resonate with all those who dream big. . . . A beguiling self-portrait of a great artist at work.”—Kirkus ReviewsPENGUIN BOOKSTHE INNER VOICERenée Fleming’s vocal artistry is acclaimed worldwide as “the gold standard of soprano sound.” An international artist for more than a decade, she is recognized for her compelling artistry, beautiful sound, and interpretive talents. A sought-after performer onstage and in recordings, she has won two Grammys and has been nominated eight times for the award.To Amelia and Sage, who give me reason to singPENGUIN BOOKSPublished by the Penguin GroupPenguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto,Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, EnglandPenguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell,Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, IndiaPenguin Group (NZ), cnr Airborne and Rosedale Roads, Albany,Auckland 1310, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue,Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin,a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2004Published in Penguin Books 2005  Copyright © Renée Fleming, 2004 All rights reserved eISBN : 978-1-101-09888-21. Fleming, Renée. 2. Sopranos—Biography. I. Title.ML420.F565A Photograph, copyright Jacques Moatti.  The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

AcknowledgmentsWITH THANKS TO:Ann Patchett, whose silent work on paper is the equal of the most colorful songbird. I would never have had the courage to undertake this project without her friendship and help. Richard Kot, my editor: patient, kind, and, fortunately, enormously knowledgeable about opera. His hieroglyphic attention touched every paragraph in this book. Darrell Panethiere, my ever positive muse, inspiration, dear friend, and consultant on all things musical. I was your dependent for the length of this project. Mary Lou Falcone, who has advised me every step of the way and in all things. You gave me the courage to be honest. Alec Treuhaft, who made this possible and who convinced me that I had something to say right now. Evans Mirageas, for solving my existential dilemma during a long afternoon in Köln with the complete history of recorded sound and the voice in twentieth-century culture. Christopher Roberts, president of Universal Classics and Jazz, in whose crystal ball and fearless leadership I implicitly trust. My family and especially my sister, Rachelle, for a lifetime of love.Alison Heather and Mary Camilleri, for their daily support, patience, and humor. At Viking: Patrick Dillon and Bruce Giffords, for their meticulous attention to every line in this book; Herb Thornby and Francesca Belanger, for their elegant jacket and interior designs; and Alessandra Lusardi, for managing very complicated traffic. The following friends and colleagues, who helped me in the final stages with their thoughtful comments: Matthew Epstein, John A. Fallon, Ann Gottlieb, Mary Jo Heath, Matthew Horner, Pat Kingsley, John Pascoe, Costa Pilavachi, Jacob Rothschild, Sue Schardt, Dr. David Slavit, Ann and Bill Ziff.IntroductionIAM NO STRANGER to having my luggage searched. Like any other international traveler, I have spent a good portion of my life waiting in customs lines while people I did not know rifled through my musical scores and peered inside my shoes. But the dogs were something new. I wasn’t in the airport, after all, but in my dressing room, waiting to rehearse Tchaikovsky in St. Petersburg, and the bomb-sniffing dogs had come in to make sure that I wasn’t a terrorist disguised as an opera singer. German shepherds shoved their muzzles into my purse and nosed between the gowns hanging in the closet. They sniffed at the makeup, the wigs, and the piano and then looked back at me with heavy skepticism, making me feel vaguely guilty.I had come to St. Petersburg to take part in a gala performance, a beautiful evening filled with music and dance. I was the only non-Russian who would perform for fifty heads of state for the three-hundredth anniversary celebration of the city, and I was to sing Tatyana’s letter scene fromEugene Oneginon the stage of the historic Maryinsky Theatre. During the nineteenth century, this elegant theater had been home to the Russian Imperial Opera, founded by Catherine the Great in 1783. It had seen the world premieres of such landmark Russian operas asBoris Godunov, Prince Igor,andThe Queen of Spades,and Verdi’sLa Forza del Destinohad been written for the house. The world-renowned ballet of the Maryinsky Theatre had premieredSleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker,andLa Bayadèreall on this stage, and in the orchestra pit had stood Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, and, most important of all to me today, Tchaikovsky, conducting their masterpieces. I took a deep breath. This wasn’t the first time history had weighed heavily on my shoulders.I had never been to St. Petersburg before, and many people had warned me about the dangers there. I was told to watch out for the mafia, potential kidnappings, hotel robberies, and at the very least a mugging, but my information was clearly outdated. Everyone was helpful, and the whole place wore an air of elegance. I found the city beautiful, with its splendid baroque palaces and neoclassical facades set out like a series of pastel cakes along the wide boulevards. The cathedrals, the canals, every street and sidewalk were groomed for the anniversary. The sea itself seemed to have a polished glow, and the government had even sprayed the clouds to keep it from raining during the visit of President George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, Junichiro Koizumi, and other world leaders. It was the city’s finest hour, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t mine: my translator and guide was a fourteen-year-old girl who lived only for AC/DC, Alice Cooper, and basketball, and my hotel room had no window. When I say “no window,” I don’t mean that I had a bad view—I mean that I had, quite literally, no window. When I was told that there were no other rooms available, I pulled out my Valery Gergiev trump card and said I would have to call him about getting another hotel. There are many ways in which a soprano relies upon the guidance of a conductor, and not all of them are confined to the stage. As a result of dropping the most powerful name in Russian music today, I got a windowanda view.Some aspects of the performance turned out unimaginably well: I was given a beautiful nightgown and robe from a production ofLa Traviatato wear, and they fit me perfectly. Other things didn’t go quite so smoothly. There were no plans to block the performance, and I was simply instructed, “Do it the way you did it last time.” But I hadn’t sung the role for years and couldn’t remember where I had been standing on some other stage with a different set. The famous Maryinsky Theatre was an impossible maze of back passageways that all seemed to lead nowhere. I could have used the assistance of one of those bomb-sniffing dogs to find my way from my dressing room to the stage—a feeling that perfectly mirrored the hopelessness I felt inside the Russian language.Though my German and French are fluent, and my Italian, taxi-, restaurant-, and opera-interview-proficient, my Russian beyondnyetanddais nil. I had learned the role of Tatyana by rote years earlier when I first sang it in Dallas, and of all the heroines I’ve sung, she is the one I feel most closely aligned to: “Let me perish, but first let me summon, in dazzling hope, a bliss as yet unknown.” Even if I didn’t speak the language, it was still my responsibility to find a way to sound as authentic as a national, especially since I was singing the most beloved soprano aria in the Russian repertoire to a house full of Russians. This requires, first, not only memorizing the words, but taking apart every sentence in order to understand how each word is translated. It also involves a painstaking study of their exact pronunciation and inflection. I pay close attention to how words end, whether the vowels are open or closed, which consonants are doubled. Many of the most challenging sounds for a singer are in the Russian language, and it takes a great deal of time and patience to learn how to make them seem authentic.
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Once that’s in place, the subsequent task of learning the role comes along much more quickly. When performing an opera, I have to memorize not only my own text, but the text of everyone around me onstage, so that I’m ultimately involved in a dialogue, as opposed to simply staring blankly at my colleagues while they make unintelligible sounds. I’ve devised many tricks over the years to help with memorization, and although it seems obvious, the most important one is learning to connect the words with their meanings. Ten minutes of concentrated memorization with a full understanding of what I’m saying is worth hours of mindless repetition. Using alphabetization, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and rhyming, especially in languages like Russian and Czech, and having a visual memory of the music on the page are also essential. I do anything I can come up with to grind the text into the gray matter between my ears. Interestingly enough, the more difficult the etching, the longer it lasts. Six years after learning a role as complex as Tatyana may find me mumbling the confrontation scene with Onegin while waiting in line at the post office, despite the sideways glances of other customers.Of course, I was hardly the first American soprano to find herself in this position. Our national tradition of pressing ahead and assuming everything will work out in the end dates all the way back to Lillian Nordica, formerly Lillian Norton of Farmington, Maine. She must have been the first true American superstar on the international scene. When she came to the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg in 1880, she was twenty-two years old and had virtually no career behind her, but the Maryinsky engaged her to sing a dozen leading roles in the 1880-1881 season alone. A dozen roles at twenty-two. Comparatively speaking, I had nothing to worry about.For this performance, I was coached in Russian by Irina, a smartly dressed and professional musical presence in the theater. Valery Gergiev has single-handedly built up the reputation of the Kirov Opera until it has achieved a towering international position, often keeping his artists employed through more lucrative Western tours. Russia is a society that recognizes artistic potential in children from a very early age, and it has consequently produced not only talented performers but a people with a deep and intelligent appreciation for the arts.Which only made me all the more nervous about Tatyana. Her letter scene is fourteen minutes long and extremely wordy, and I suddenly wished I could trade my program with the Maryinsky’s leading soprano, who was to perform Glinka’s Vocalise instead. Singing “Ah,” after all, is foolproof! I decided the only way to get through this was to steel my mind and not allow doubts to flood in. Of course, this was nothing compared with the first time I sang the role in 1992 when my daughter, Amelia, was two months old, and uninterrupted sleep was a distant dream. Memorizing between her birth and the premiere had been agonizing, and I felt vindicated when I read years later that pregnancy and a sound memory are mutually exclusive. Now I willed myself to think only of Tatyana and her letter, to forget that this event would be televised around the world and that Vladimir Putin himself would be seated directly in front of me, judging my pronunciation. All I had to do was put on my nightgown and robe, step out onto a stage without any blocking, and begin to sing in a language I didn’t understand. It’s impossible, at moments like these, not to stop and wonder how I got there. How does a girl from Churchville, New York, come to be asked to represent her country at a major international musical event, standing on the stage of a theater filled with dignitaries? The answer is unnervingly simple: it all comes down to two little pieces of cartilage in my throat. Those vocal cords—delicate, mysterious, slightly unpredictable—have taken me to unimaginable places. I have slept at the White House after staying up until two in the morning talking music with the Clintons and the Blairs. I have sung for Václav Havel at the end of his presidency and sat beside him at dinner for four hours afterward while he spoke of his life.Apart from the moments of celebration and commemoration, I have performed at more solemn occasions. I have sung “Amazing Grace” at a ceremony at Ground Zero, only a few months after the attacks of September 11, with nine thousand people crushed into a space that was impossibly small for them, filling up the streets, pressing against one another shoulder-to-shoulder in every direction until they became one single life of sorrow. In the week leading up to that event, I had sung that song again and again, trying to imprint it into the muscle memory of my throat so that when the time came to perform it, I would be able to get through to the end without crying. I remember a young girl who was sitting at the front of the crowd with her family on the day of the ceremony. She was about sixteen years old, and I had no idea whom she had lost, but among the obviously grief-stricken people who carried photographs and signs and wept, her expression seemed utterly empty. Her eyes were dry. It was as if she had lost her own soul when those buildings went down, and when I started to sing I had to look at the sky or I knew I’d never be able to maintain my composure.Given the fact that most classical musicians are not household names or faces recognizable from television, it’s interesting to speculate about why people so often turn to a classically trained musician, and most often a singer, in times of national conflict or grief. Why choose a soprano to represent our collective emotional experience, rather than a familiar singer from the world of popular music who has sold millions of records? Why turn to a far lesser-known voice whose music is appreciated by a smaller audience? I think the answer lies in two places. First, the tradition of music grounds us and connects us to one another through a sort of universal appreciation that transcends taste, particularly in such songs as “Amazing Grace” and “God Bless America.” Second, a trained voice has a kind of innate authority that transmits a sense of strength. We can be heard without a microphone. We sing with the entire body. The sounds that we make emanate not just from the head, but from the whole heart and soul and, most important, the gut. The word “classic” has come to be applied to so many things in our culture—cars, rock music, a particular episode of a television show—when in its truest sense it carries the weight of something that has been distilled over time and represents the highest quality in a given field. The music we sing has been loved in many past generations and will continue to flourish and find life and love in the future.Thanks to the instrument of my voice, I have been fortunate enough to be invited to step onto the stage at great national and international occasions. I have seen the world from the vantage point of the greatest opera houses and recital halls. I have been incredibly fortunate in my career, and people often remark to me, “What a wonderful gift you have—how glorious it must be to open your mouth and have that voice pour out!” While it’s a fact that a voice begins with natural talent, any talent must be nurtured, cajoled, wrestled with, pampered, challenged, and, at every turn, examined.As I set about my education as a singer, I devoured the autobiographies of my predecessors, hoping to find the kind of advice that would improve my singing, but mostly what I found were entertaining accounts of celebrated lives. As much as I enjoyed the stories of intrigue at Champagne receptions, what I desperately needed was practical advice: When did these singers learn what they knew, and who taught them? How did they survive their early auditions, stage fright, and rejection? How did they learn all those roles once they finally succeeded? How did they maintain their voices over the course of a demanding career? I searched for such a long time for the book I wanted to read that finally I decided my only recourse was to try to write it myself. What I came up with in the end was not the story of my life, but the autobiography of my voice. My voice, after all, is my calling and my career, just as any performer’s talent—whether singing, acting, or dancing—compels her to find her place on the stage. I hope thatThe Inner Voicewill be a valuable companion to anyone striking out in this daunting but exhilarating profession.The story of my singing has a plot not unlike those of the horse novels I loved in my youth: A child finds a wild horse whose true potential only she can see. She loves it and cares for it, trains it tirelessly. The girl and the horse have a commitment to each other that no one else can get in the way of. She sticks by the horse through injury and doesn’t believe anyone who says the horse is all washed up. When the horse is thriving, she turns down all offers to sell it off. In the end, the horse proves to be a winner, and in return for her work and devotion, it takes her to victories she had never dreamed possible.This is the story of how I found my voice, of how I worked to shape it, and of how it, in turn, shaped me.CHAPTER ONEFAMILY    IHAVE LIVED A LIFE with a soundtrack. So many of my memories have music attached to them. Sometimes the music is at the center of the story, and other times it’s only an afterthought, a song that one of my daughters half-sings under her breath while we’re walking to the bus stop in the morning. Music can propel the story in a perfectly quiet room when I’m alone and learning a score. It has taken me around the world and brought me home. I can trace back so many of the dearest people in my life, my teachers and colleagues who became my friends, to a certain set of pitches. My memories so often involve someone singing, or me singing, or someone striking the first notes on a piano, that it becomes difficult even to imagine the precise place where those memories began. So while I can’t remember first hearing music, I can at least remember the night when I first fell in love with it. I was thirteen, and my family was living in a suburb outside of Rochester, New York, in a tract subdivision that had shiny new houses based on one of two models—the ranch and the split-level. It was summer, and the streets stayed light until late. The kids played in their yards, running games of tag through neighbors’ lawns, shouting to one another, until it finally grew dark and their mothers came out onto the front steps and called their names and one by one they went inside. It was warm, and because everyone kept the front door open, we could hear the calls of “Good night” and “See you tomorrow” and the slamming of screens, and then the world quieted down again, the sound of voices giving way to the sound of crickets and the cars driving past. On this particular night, I was in our living room and my parents were singing. They were both music teachers, and all day long they listened to singing—the endless scales, the songs learned and repeated again and again, practiced until every note was perfect. My father, Edwin Fleming, a high-school vocal music teacher, listened to legions of voices every day, while my mother, Patricia, taught at a small private college. They sang and listened to singing until you would have thought that by the end of the day every note would have been squeezed out of them; and still when they came home they would find it in themselves to sing even more, as if the music at their jobs hadn’t tired them out in the least. On this night they were singing for each other and for me and my younger sister, Rachelle, and brother, Ted. My mother played the piano and my father stood beside her, and together they sang Gershwin’s “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” ThePorgy and Bessduet was one of their greatest hits, a song that was romantic and yearning and completely suited to their voices, his baritone supporting her beautiful soprano. I stretched out on the living-room rug with my dog, Bessie, and felt a kind of perfect contentment.My father was handsome, with a soft lower lip and shining black hair that fell across his forehead in an Elvis Presley curl. My mother looked like the kind of leading lady Hitchcock always favored, a cross between Tippi Hedren and Kim Novak. They were a glamorous couple, and when they sang together, everything was right in our lives; we were all happy. I always associated the music they made with happiness, because how could the world not be perfectly in balance when such harmony existed in your own living room? I could have lain there forever, listening.It was something that happened regularly, the two of them singing after dinner, but on this summer evening their voices carried out across the lawns, and the children who had been playing put down their balls to listen, and the mothers who had come out to call them went back inside to get their husbands, and one by one the neighbors made their way to our house. They were moths and my parents were a single, irresistible flame. Some of them stepped inside our screen door, but most stood in our front yard, their faces close to the big picture window. Everyone I had ever seen in our neighborhood was there. It was a street made up of immigrants, mostly Italian families newly arrived in upstate New York. My parents now began to sing to them, popular arias and the first-act duet fromLa Bohème.My mother was working on her master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music, and she sang the Puccini arias she was rehearsing for her graduate recital, “Mi chiamano Mimì,” “In quelle trine morbide,” and “Vissi d’arte.” After every piece the neighbors applauded wildly, unable to believe their good fortune that such singing existed right there on our little street. The applause kept my parents going, and they performed until it grew late, holding hands, smiling, bowing, making their way through every duet they knew. Finally, it was over, and the thrilled and exhausted neighbors wandered back to their own houses, and my parents sent us to bed. I was Eliza Doolittle, too excited to sleep. I was the luckiest girl in the world to have parents that other people marveled at, to live in the center of such singing. “But it didn’t happen like that,” my mother said recently when I was recounting this memory.It didn’t?Of course there were plenty of nights when the two of them sang together, and people would come by; but on the particular night that seemed so unforgettable to me, my father wasn’t even home. My grandmother was visiting from out of town, and my mother was accompanying herself at the piano.
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Memory often works that way, splicing together its own greatest hits, so that the perfect night is matched with the perfect song, and the perfect moments of physical beauty and family harmony are set side by side. I would like to say that I completely trust myself to remember the details of my own life; but it was also my mother’s life, my father’s, Ted’s, and Rachelle’s, and each of us would tell a different story. But the most important element would be true for us all: there was always singing. Music was language in our house. It was air. Someone was playing the piano; someone else was setting the needle down on a record so that we could listen to the Schubert and Wolf lieder my father loved. It was practicing, teaching, rehearsing, but it was also spontaneous, unstudied, unconscious, as pervasive as the heat blowing up through the vents on the floor to push back the cold New York winters. When did my life in music really begin? With my first curtain call at the Metropolitan? My first Elton John record? Or was it my parents’ meeting at Indiana University in Pennsylvania? They once held hands while reading a bulletin board in the school’s hallway and had their hands slapped apart by an elderly professor who was walking by. “Stop that!” she warned them, but they didn’t listen. They married while they were studying to be music teachers, and the three of us graduated from college together, my mother holding me up with her diploma to smile at the camera, the two of them in academic gowns and mortarboards. My mother had meant to be an opera star, or even a movie star—everyone said she was headed in that direction—but the surprise of a baby put an end to that.I spent my infancy in a playpen beside the piano where my mother gave voice lessons at home while my father went off to teach music at a nearby high school. I remember her students warbling through their lessons. One girl wore a body brace and sang “When Love Is Kind,” committed forever to my memory in the sparrow-light voice of this girl who stood unnaturally erect in front of my mother in the afternoons.I have to wonder now what aspect of that exposure would be more beneficial to a baby opera singer: the music itself or the constant repetition, the never-ending drill of practice. My life might have turned out entirely differently had I been born the daughter of ticket takers at an opera house and so had grown up seeing opening nights, glamorous, glittery productions of the sort that would fill a child’s head with big ideas. I count myself lucky to have aligned my own beginning with the beginning elements of music: notes, scales, the constant hunt for the right pitch. I feel certain that if I absorbed any lessons at all in the first months and years of my life, they must have been about the work that went into making a beautiful sound.My mother says I was late to talk and early to sing, that she could call out a string of tones and by the age of one or so I could parrot them back to her, which is pretty good for a baby who didn’t have the skills to ask for apple juice. Before I was three, I was standing on the hump in the backseat of the car (having been born in those pre-carseat dark ages), making myself just tall enough to lean into the front seat between my parents while my father drove. Together we sang three-part rounds of “Frère Jacques” and “White Coral Bells.” Learning my part, I planted myself firmly between two wonderful teachers.So how is it that I had no idea, even at this early age, that I wanted to be a singer? I should have seen it at the very latest by three, when I gave my first solo performance as Suzy Snowflake. I was practically born into the job, and yet somehow it never occurred to me to take it. What I wanted were buckets of approval and love, and to be good. I was a notorious teacher’s pet, a straight-A student. Pleasing the English teacher meant producing a carefully written paper, just as pleasing the music teacher meant singing well. Seeing as how the music teachers were my parents, I sang and sang.For a child, the desire to please can push almost every other consideration aside. I was naturally shy—doesn’t every actor, dancer, or musician claim a childhood crippled by shyness?—but if I was told to get onto a stage, then that was where I’d go. If left to my own devices, though, I would always find a book. I could read instead of sleeping, read while I walked, read at the table, read in the car. It drove my father crazy after a while, especially when we took long family vacations, a whole world of scenery shooting past my window while I kept my head in the pages ofBlack Beauty.“Look up!” he would say, watching me in the rearview mirror as he drove. “Stop reading for five minutes and look at something! I don’t know why you’d want to spend so much time reading novels, anyway. They don’t teach you anything.” He was an avid do-it-yourselfer, instruction book always in hand.So I did look up, for five minutes, and the world was everything he promised it would be: beautiful, green, mountainous. But the novels were teaching me something else: the world I really wanted to look at was in those pages, and in my head. I could imagine myself on the back of Black Beauty, galloping in the rain through an English countryside. And that, of course, is a critical element in an actor’s craft—the ability to project yourself into another person, in another time, in other circumstances. No one thought that reading was a waste of my time, just that I was veering toward being a singularly unrounded individual.My stage triumph as Suzy Snowflake stood alone until Rachelle and I came back as a sister act withThe Ugly Duckling. In the seventh grade I was cast as the Mother Abbess inThe Sound of Music. It was a bit of a stretch to play an aging nun in seventh grade, especially after I was nicknamed “Mother Abscess,” but I was the only one who could sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”At least that nickname was a change from my usual one in junior high, “Miss Perfect.” I wore a stretchy pink headband, three inches wide, to school every day, and that was about as close as I came to making a fashion statement. I longed to be a renegade, to smoke cigarettes in the bathroom and sneak off from school after lunch, but I never had the courage. Instead I kept up my A’s. I entered a competition to write a new school song and won with the inspiring verses:Gates Chili Junior High is the greatest of them allAnd to her name we all give praise while standing great and tall.We love thee, alma mater, for showing us the way—Glory we give to you, we love you more each day.Perhaps such a wrenchingly earnest child deserves to be taunted and mocked, but I died a little every day when the school bully sang my song over and over again in a high falsetto on the bus going home. I was all orthopedic shoes and slumped posture, secretly wanting to be something very different, something dazzling.I got my chance in the next school play, a full-scale production ofMy Fair Lady. At twelve I played Eliza Doolittle and sang every note of the role. Ralph Jurgens, a tall, broad-shouldered man who looked more like a cop than an English teacher, rounded up all the even vaguely musical eighth-graders and gave them British accents to play with. Now for the first time I was really learning a part. Or I thought I was learning one—until my mother came to watch a rehearsal a week before opening night. She waited until it was over and we were safely in the car before she announced that we were going home immediately because there was work to do. A lot of work.There can be no underestimating my mother’s role as a teacher in my life. It was she who first introduced me to the idea of a total performance, that singing did not mean merely standing stock-still beneath a light, closing your eyes, and opening your mouth. She explained to me that the line “Just you wait, Henry Higgins” could not be delivered as if it were being read from a phone book. She taught me how to move, when to look at the audience and when to look away. She would dance my steps and I would dance along behind her. Good student that I was, I had always learned my lines, but under her guidance I came to understand that memorization was not the same as acting.“Smile!” she told me. “Try to look like you’re enjoying yourself.”My mother was an incredibly gifted and disciplined performer. Back then, the Rochester Opera Theater was a thriving operation, based at the Eastman Theatre, a gorgeous old auditorium that seats over three thousand people. I was mesmerized by the giant chandelier that hung over the audience like a bright planet. My father, brother, sister, and I would sit in the front row on the nights my mother sang there, stunned by her voice and her beauty, by how she held the audience so intently. When my mother was a little girl who sang at church functions, her grandfather would sit in the back row and promise her a dollar if he could hear her—a pretty clever way to teach projection. Was this really the woman who made us breakfast? Her stage makeup could be seen from the last rows: a black line under the eye, another over the eye, a streak of white at the outer edges, and a red dot in the corner, her false eyelashes sweeping her cheeks like Fuller brushes. Her costumes followed her across the stage in great, billowing folds. Heavy makeup and velvet gowns on your own mother—what could be more glamorous than that? Rachelle and I had the most exotic collection of dress-up clothes that any two little girls in upstate New York dared dream of.Mother sang Marcellina in Mozart’sLe Nozze di Figaroand Fiordiligi in hisCosì fan tutte. In the title role of Puccini’sSuor Angelica,she was up there onstage in her nun’s habit, crying over her child who had died, and I kept thinking,She’s crying for me!And then I was crying for her. Of course I was mortified by my outburst, for weeping was sure to be met with unrelenting teasing in my family. Still, secretly, I loved surrendering to the pure emotional display, just as I loved having a mother who was a star. I was certain that all the children in the audience were wishing that she was theirs.But no matter how much I loved seeing my mother perform, I never had any sense of reverence toward her singing. “You were flat in the first part of the third act,” I was telling her by the time I was ten. And while she herself had the tact to take me outside, away from my friends, before critiquing my work, I shared my comments with anyone who happened to be standing around. She was wise enough not to take me too seriously, and even seemed delighted with my precocious musicianship. I know this was the case because of my reaction when my own daughters started critiquing me when they were about eight years old. Even if they were only pointing out that the lipstick I was wearing was not exactly a flattering shade, they made it clear that they were watching me and that they knew a mistake when they saw it or heard it. Like me, they had no intention of letting their mother get away with anything. It was through my reading that I came to believe that happiness was something that required a horse, and because my mother had also always loved horses, my parents, on their very modest schoolteachers’ salaries, decided that I should have one. Her name was Windy, and she lived in the garage for a couple of weeks, until one day she pushed her way into the kitchen, having apparently decided she deserved a more intimate place in the family circle. Finally, someone from the city council came and explained that neither the kitchen nor the garage nor any other part of our tract housing complex was zoned for horses and that Windy would have to go.My mother and I also fell in love with a spider monkey named Jethro, who made his home in the pet section of Sibley’s department store, and so, on my twelfth birthday, he came home—fortunately, on a three-day trial basis. We soon realized that he was a bit beyond our suburban capabilities. Even if neither Windy nor Jethro could continue to live with us in our split-level on Valencia Drive, I learned a valuable lesson: There was no dream too large or too exotic to be realized.If my mother typically offered specific guidance regarding the shape of a note or a turn of the wrist, and set an example with her unflagging energy, ambition, and work ethic, what my father taught me about singing came packaged in larger life lessons, and many of those lessons had to do with horses. We moved to a house in Churchville, New York, in order to have a proper place for animals, and ultimately wound up with three of our own horses, four boarders, and three dogs on our five acres of land. It was exactly what I had dreamed of, but my father made it clear that with dreams come responsibilities. “Horses can’t feed themselves,” he’d tell me, and I would be out in the bitter cold mornings before school, breaking the ice in the ten-gallon water buckets, filling them up in the basement, and lugging them back up the steps to the barn. I regularly dragged hundred-pound sacks of grain from the car to the tack room after mucking the stalls. It was hard, heavy, freezing labor, but it was the price of having horses, and horses were what I wanted. I understood that you have to work for what you want, for what you love. Having observed the girls who sang at the piano for my mother, I knew that beauty could occur naturally, but more than likely it was the result of discipline, and so I curried and brushed and picked out hooves. There was no praise for my efforts; hard work was simply what was expected.Even when we went camping, my mother, who was given to high heels and stockings, packed a vacuum cleaner and a double mattress in the back of the seventeen-foot motorboat that trailed behind our car. When we set up camp for the night after boating to an island, with all of us holding the mattress on board, my mother would ferret out the camp’s single electrical outlet, plug in her extension cord, and then proceed to vacuum off the ground the tent would sit on. That was pretty much the point at which my father bade farewell to sleeping outdoors.I remember how my mother would teach all day and then have everyone in her family over for a giant meal. We would bake and stew and chop and sauté for hours, serve and pick up the plates and wash them and put them away, then scrub down every inch of the kitchen, and when I stumbled off to bed half-blind with exhaustion my aunt would shake her head sadly at my mother. “Renée’s a little lazy, isn’t she?” she would say.
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The women in my family often misused the word “lazy,” because they simply did not understand the concept. I can trace that attitude back as far as my great-grandmother, who came to America alone from Prague as a teenager to escape the unwanted advances of a German soldier. To be a girl alone in a new country without speaking the language would be a daunting story of courage in most families, but in my own it was just another example of an occasion to roll up your sleeves and do whatever needed to be done. That great-grandmother from Prague produced a daughter with a beautiful voice who played the piano. Her friends called her “the Girl of the Golden West,” after Puccini’s opera. My grandmother had wanted to be a music teacher herself, and so she steered my mother into that profession. My mother, for her part, wanted to be a singer or a movie star. We were all so intertwined that sometimes it was difficult to tell who was living out whose dreams.If a work ethic and a talent for music are transmitted through the genetic code, then I inherited them from both my parents. My father’s family was the most inexhaustibly capable group of people I have ever encountered. Need a house? We’ll build one! Don’t know a thing about foundations, plumbing, electricity? We’ll figure it out! It seemed that every one of them could rebuild an engine, shingle a roof, fix a refrigerator. My paternal grandfather was a coal miner in the hills of Pennsylvania, and my uncle Lysle spent five years in the service in New Guinea, surviving on the snakes and insects he caught for food. His stories of rescuing nurses from headhunters and keeping his reconnaissance soldiers safe, thanks to the training he had received from my grandfather in the hills of Pennsylvania, fascinated me. But even in this madly industrious group my father stood out. As a boy, he learned to play the trumpet, and it was the trumpet, along with his love of music and diligent practice, that got him to college, the first member of his family to attend. Even on his teacher’s income, he managed to own a small airplane, a Piper Cub, with three other men when I was a little girl, and I thought that taking afternoon flights was what every child did after Sunday lunch.In the face of so much accomplishment it was hard at times not to feel like a dull penny. I started going to horse shows and competing in barrel races, but like so many other things I longed to do, competition didn’t come naturally. The only person I know how to be competitive with is myself. I can push myself to any limit, but I am worthless when it comes to competing against other people. Those early horse shows nearly broke me. For me, fear manifests itself in a nearly catatonic state. The more panicked I feel, the more my eyes go dead. I become so utterly still that I could put down roots and grow leaves. While most animals experience a sense of fight-or-flight when they perceive danger approaching, I always fell into the “faint” category. As a freshman in high school, I was supposed to compete in the state fair horse show. I’d already ridden in a few 4-H shows by then, but they were much smaller events. I looked around at the crowds, the smiling girls with confident ponytails, and I leaned against the stall, mute and motionless with fear and nausea. My father, who saw me hesitating to get up on my horse, thought I wasn’t paying attention. He mistook my frozen panic for indifference, an unwillingness to make any effort.“I didn’t spend the whole day and all this money so that you could just stand there,” he said to me sharply. “I want to see you at least try.”It’s funny to think that my first inklings of stage fright came not on a stage but in a dusty corral, surrounded by horses and people in cowboy boots. But my father was right to lean on me and wisely did not let me give in to my fears. I went behind some bales of hay, threw up from my heavy sense of dread, tucked my shirt neatly into my jeans, and got on my horse and rode. I did my best, which was what my father expected of me, though at that moment my best wasn’t very good. It was that quality in my father, his no-nonsense determination, that instilled in me a drive to overcome my limitations. I was lucky to have someone who didn’t baby my fears, but was always there urging me on.I wasn’t the only one my father refused to coddle. His church choirs were also held to his exacting standards. He chose music that was very difficult for them, pieces like Leonard Bernstein’sChichester Psalmsor Bach’s long, complicated cantata “Christ lag in Todesbanden.” When they complained, he would simply tell them, “We’re going to do this. We’re going to learn it. It’s going to be hard, but you’ll make it.” If they tried to refuse and told him he had to pick a different piece, he responded calmly that if that was the case, they would have to pick another choral director. What he expected of other people was the same thing he expected of himself: to go out there and try. He didn’t look at anyone—not his students, not his children—and think,Well, you’re just not up to this. It was his higher expectations that pulled all of us up.Regardless of whether performing frightened me or I enjoyed it, or whether I was any good at it, one thing was certain: I kept doing it. In high school I was cast in yet another production ofMy Fair Lady,this time by the music teacher, Rob Goodling. In retrospect, I have to say it is nothing short of amazing that I had such talented teachers to work with early on, especially since we were not exactly in the heart of a booming metropolis. Rob was a man with big ideas who later toured groups of talented students through Europe. He cannily populated his musicals with handsome basketball players and track stars, which in turn made our after-school rehearsals the place to be. Suddenly, the popular kids were the ones onstage, and having a good voice made me even more popular. (I’m sure I have Rob to thank for later being chosen prom queen.)I only wish that all children had the luxury of the arts education I enjoyed. In inner-city schools, for example, where financial challenges are serious and relentless, music programs are considerably less widely available. Conversely, in Texas, music education has achieved a high level of importance, comparable to athletics. In New York State, many public schools operate robust music programs, and some assign them a priority that rivals more traditional academic subjects. This lack of uniformity makes it difficult to generalize about the state of music education, though there is clearly a relationship between the availability of financial resources and the existence of school music programs.When I was growing up, we crowded onto the school bus with our violin cases, flutes, and trombones and practiced “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and Chopin’s nocturnes as studiously as we drilled our multiplication tables and memorized our spelling words. Everyone knew that we weren’t all going to grow up to be musicians, but educators appreciated that the discipline of music, not to mention the joy that understanding it can bring, is both a deepening and a broadening experience in any life. Fostering creativity in children is as important as any other part of the school curriculum because it feeds the soul. A daily dose of creativity helps children imagine a better world and then create it.About that time I was accepted into a special weekly composition program offered to just a handful of students throughout Rochester. I had written songs and poetry since junior high school, and “Stargazer,” the first song I wrote, had become a veritable hit among my friends and family, a favorite at talent shows and holiday functions. I followed with many pieces composed on piano and guitar until my second year in college, when I learned to actually communicate through speech. There’s no doubt that composition provided me with an expressive outlet I genuinely needed to compensate for the shyness that kept me painfully bottled up. It was when I started writing music rather than just performing it that I first began to develop a sense of who I was as a person. Composition wasn’t about pleasing; it was about expressing. Not surprisingly in those days, my hero was Joni Mitchell, and I listened to her soulful lyrics until I nearly wore the grooves off the records. I thought that I had personally discoveredThe Hissing of Summer LawnsandHejira. Her unique poetic and music voice so perfectly expressed the world I wanted to inhabit.William Harper, a doctoral candidate at Eastman, taught the composition class and completely opened up my ideas about music. I’ll never forget that first session, when we listened to Penderecki’sThrenody for the Victims of Hiroshima. I couldn’t believe that these ideas existed and I had never known anything about them at all. I sat there, thrilled and silent. I remember everything about that moment: the little classroom where we met, the late-fall light coming in through the windows, William Harper sitting there on his desk listening, his chin down, his eyes closed. Everything in the world froze for a minute, and I felt as if I were hearing music for the first time. All of the interest I’ve had in new music in my life can probably be traced back to that moment, that piece.The lessons were encouraging, and yet there was still an unspoken understanding at that time that women didn’t grow up to be real composers. The best we could hope for was to someday write songs, not symphonies, and so I continued writing songs. That same year, however, Mr. Harper introduced me to a woman who would have a profound impact on my relationship to music for years to come, the mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani. I was wildly impressed with the number of scores she was working on. These were not the neat folders of music that were in the piano bench at home, but sprawling, misshapen scores of new music covered with penciled notations. It was almost as if you could hear the piece unfolding just by looking at it on the page. There was nothing static about this work; it was completely, actively in progress. When I sang for her, she listened to me with great seriousness. “Don’t train all the naturalness out of your voice,” she told me. The very fact that she took the time to advise me at all made me feel important. When it came time to go to college, I auditioned for several vocal programs. I was terrible at auditioning in those days, and would walk into the room looking guilty for taking up the time of the people on the judging committee. I was nervous and self-conscious, qualities I should have gotten out of my system while I was singing in school plays. My mother had really hoped I’d get into Oberlin College, and I did, but I didn’t receive enough financial aid to attend. She was so heartbroken for me that she cried all the way back from Ohio in the car. When I was a child, my family had had to struggle. My father hunted deer and fished to supplement the groceries that his annual schoolteacher’s salary allowed. I grew up eating venison, and I thought we were nothing but rich, which was a real testament to my parents’ positive attitude. But by the time I was through with high school, we had become a part of the classic middle-class paradox: we didn’t have enough money to secure a spot for me in a top-flight conservatory, yet we were no longer poor enough to qualify for some much-needed financial aid—which is how I ended up at the Crane School of Music of the State University of New York, Potsdam. That turned out to be the first great break of my career.CHAPTER TWOEDUCATION    THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS that go into making a singer—not just natural talent and hard work but tenacity, resilience, and luck. When I started my freshman year at the Crane School of Music, I began work with Patricia Misslin. Had I somehow found the money to attend any of the better-known music conservatories I had dreamed of, I probably would have received no more than one private lesson a week. As an undergraduate, I certainly never would have been onstage except as part of a chorus. At Potsdam, I not only had the full attention of a talented, dedicated voice teacher, but by the end of my first month at school I’d been cast as the soprano soloist in the Bach B-minor Mass. A freshman! No one was more surprised than I at this upset.Even though I had garnered a lot of attention as a singer in high school and was now studying music in college, I was here at Crane because this was the path of least resistance. I had no burning desire in my gut to sing, no moment of recognition that led me to this particular destiny. I don’t recall my parents’ ever having cultivated much of an independent soul in me. The question was never what I wanted to be, do, eat, or wear but rather what Ihadto be, do, eat, and wear. I was only too happy to comply and until graduate school never questioned the whys and wherefores of my career path. At that point in time, my voice was a minefield of problems: I couldn’t sing softly, I was physically tense, and I had no high notes. Everyone knows that a soprano with no high notes isn’t going to go very far in the world. Still, Pat recognized that I had innate musicality, real musicianship, and a genuine eagerness to learn and work.Pat had short, fine, curly brown hair and usually stood with her feet in perfect turnout, à la Mary Poppins. As she taught, she watched me over her glasses with her chin practically down on her chest, cheeks and eyebrows lifted, humming along as she accompanied me on the piano. She was a crack musician who could play anything. Dressed in crewneck sweaters and plaid wool skirts, she radiated a no-nonsense New England reliability that made me trust her. Somehow she managed to be warm and accepting of me as a person while maintaining a highly critical ear when it came to work, which meant that when she tore me down I always knew it was because she planned to build me up again in better shape. I’d count it as a good day if we got through a page of music in an hour. I’d barely open my mouth before she was stopping me, saying, “Wait. Let’s do that again.” It was incredibly detailed work, and I ate up every minute of it. I never fought her, never said, “No, I think it’s better my way.” Not only would it not have been true, but at that stage I didn’t want to have to think for myself. I wanted her to tell me how to shape every note, what to do with every nuance.
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Pat put a tremendous amount of emphasis on resonance, focus, and placing the voice. These weren’t new concepts, but she worked in such minute detail that I was forced to hone each pitch individually. That in itself was a huge task: to understand the concept of actually aiming sound mentally, and to learn how to place the voice “in the mask.” The mask, I quickly came to understand, meant the nose and cheekbones—the nasal and sinus cavities where sound resonates. The use of mask resonance, as opposed to the natural tendency to speak with mouth and chest resonance, is crucial to every young singer’s development, as it’s the only way to project the voice to the back of a hall without strain. It’s the “buzz,” “hum,” orsquillothat develops the nascent shape of a tone into a full-blown operatic sound.Pat would further explain that resonance, in simple terms, is a function of the direction of your air. As you’re singing, you actually use your mind to direct the air to combinations of certain parts of your body: either to your head, because there are multiple sinus cavities behind the eyes; or to the mouth, which creates a different sound; or to the mask; or to the chest, which results in the lowest kind of sound. Resonance is easily understood by looking at any instrument. Imagine that the sound made by the vocal cords is the same as the sound that comes out of a trumpet mouthpiece: on its own, it’s nothing more than a buzz—it’s the resonance that creates the tone. What makes a voice what it is, is a combination of the sound from the vocal folds and the blending, or balance, or processing through the resonance tract.If I send air into the highest resonating chambers, I get a very light, childlike sound: the head voice. This is all that a lot of beginning singers have, a voice with no body to it. The head voice is something we associate with flaky girls, the high lilt of Glinda the Good Witch discussing the positive attributes of ruby slippers. Aiming at the mask makes more of a nasal sound. When someone has a nasal-sounding voice, it’s very distinctive: imagine Roseanne Barr speaking. A chest sound would be very low. Sarah Vaughan had a beautiful chest voice, all deep and smoky. In her later years, it was difficult to tell when listening to her in a blind test if it was a woman or a man singing. Ideally, an opera singer will maintain an enormous amount of focus in the mask while using all the rest of the resonance areas as well. The trick is going up and down and blending them all. I always imagine that the voice is a tapestry, and that as one thread goes up, different threads are woven in. Coming back down, those threads are woven back out and other threads are pulled through. What that creates is evenness in the tapestry, up and down, in length and breadth. The picture changes, the colors change, but the quality and texture of the tapestry remain consistent.“What’s your mental picture?” Pat would ask me. “Where are you sending your voice?” At that time I didn’t yet know, but I was working fast to figure it out. I was learning to think in imagery that would affect involuntary muscles and cause the body to produce a healthy, even sound. “Inner smile!” Pat would say. “Lift those cheeks!” “Breathe through your nose to find the lift!” “More focus!” “Breathe!” She likewise demanded rhythmic accuracy, complex shaping of phrases, and at least a working knowledge of foreign languages—in short, more musical multitasking than any eighteen-year-old was capable of. I felt infinitely stimulated by the challenge.I stood at the piano doing my best to keep up with her, trying not only to sing but to follow her instructions with my body and my voice. What parts of my anatomy was I supposed to use to focus my sound so as to have the least amount of tension and gain the most projection? Muscle isolation and coordination are first requirements, taking years to develop fully. I left her studio feeling as if my head were filled with the very resonant buzzing of bees, every one of them trying to tell me something I desperately needed to know. Every time I went to see her it was as if she threw open another window by teaching me how to be mindful in my singing. She was giving me the very foundations of how to think about my voice, an alphabet from which I could begin to build a technique. She instilled in me a sense of vocal health, very bright, with an emphasis on closed vowels. While another student might have felt overwhelmed by her exacting criticisms, Pat and I were the perfect match.Studying singing is really not so different from studying any other instrument, except that perhaps the exercises sound more peculiar. One of Pat’s warm-ups was a long series of undulating scales ending in a descending arpeggio on a single breath—“wa-MA-LOOO-see, wa-MA-LOOO-see.” Who knows where that came from, but it worked for the voice in the same way that playing scales helps loosen up the hands, shoulders, and arms of a pianist. A young student might come in with only a kernel of sound that’s interesting—maybe an octave or even just a fifth that shows some promise—and it’s the teacher’s job to take that kernel and develop it, to stretch the range into something both wide and deep and then fill it in with texture and light. In the beginning, the lessons typically involve instructions like “Keep your shoulders down,” “Take a low breath,” and “Pitches aren’t formed with your chin.” Young singers have to train the breathiness out of their tones, to rid themselves of the popping veins, the trembling jaws, the faulty pitches, the straining for high notes, and the inability to sing coloratura or move the voice without moving the whole body. I couldn’t roll myr’s at all. To solve the problem we discussed cutting the narrow flap of skin that attached my tongue to the base of my mouth, a prospect that didn’t especially appeal to me, and after several years of practice I was finally able to roll with the best of them.Even though I was only eighteen when I started working with Pat, I was not in a particularly pristine state. No voice is discovered on a desert island without having been corrupted by the desire to imitate a passing seagull, and mine was no exception. I’d been performing so much and mimicking the mature sounds of my parents and other adults for such a long time that I had developed some bad habits along the way. Pat had to take away my penchant for singing too darkly and maturely, and while she took some things out of my voice, she introduced others to take their place and corrected vocal difficulties through musical means.In order to reach even this point in a young singer’s training, a teacher and a student have to develop a terminology, to find a language in which they can easily communicate. The essential component is rapport. The student has to feel cared for, because singing is such an exercise in vulnerability. The voice, after all, is the only instrument that can’t be sold. You can’t say, “I really don’t like this one, so I’m going to trade it in for a Stradivarius.” It’s the only instrument that can’t be returned, exchanged, put in the closet for a wild night on the town, or—fortunately for me—left in the trunk of a taxicab. For that reason it’s also important that teachers be able to navigate through a student’s psychology. Criticism can feel extremely personal when you are the instrument that’s being discussed.In most cases, it would take any two people at least six months to build up a relationship that would provide a foundation from which they could really get to work, but Pat and I had to start off faster than that since I had the B-minor Mass to learn. The first thing she said to me after I got the part was, “You’re going to sing this well if it kills both of us.” In the end both parts of her statement were true: I sang well and it nearly killed us. By the day of the performance, after daily sessions with Pat, I was thoroughly drilled, utterly prepared—and had a bad case of laryngitis. Pat came over to my little dorm room with hot chicken soup, and my new friends and roommates bolstered my morale, telling me I could do it and not to worry, while I spent two hours steaming in the shower. Everyone rallied, and the flurry of activity made me feel momentarily that I wasn’t quite the invisible wallflower I thought I was. I adored the attention and went on and sang without the slightest hoarseness.But what the day really marked was the start of my performance ritual. Some singers have a rabbit’s foot, and others depend on a lucky undershirt. Luciano Pavarotti needs to find a bent nail onstage before he sings, and heaven help the singer who wears purple in his presence. Renata Tebaldi was always escorted to the wings by her assistant, Tina, who held a picture of Renata’s mother, Giuseppina, which Renata kissed before stepping onstage, as well as a tiny teddy bear whose nose Renata pinched. Lily Pons wasalwayssick to her stomach before a performance. Birgit Nilsson liked a cup of black coffee when she came into the dressing room and a bottle of Tuborg beer at the end of a performance. Several singers depended on the bottle to get them through. Sexual superstitions also abound. One conductor’s wife was supposedly asked, “What’s it like to be married to a famous conductor?” to which she replied, “He won’t the day before, he’s too busy the day of, he’s too tired the day after—and he does three concerts a week!” Not surprisingly, food rituals are the most common, and they are too numerous to list. I happen to like having a lot of people I’m very close to in a state of complete panic, because, frankly, it relieves me of having to carry the performance anxiety alone. It’s as if there’s a certain amount of worrying that has to be done before any performance, and I can either take it on alone or have other people share the burden with me. For years my sister, Rachelle, was my designated worrier. I would whip her into such a frenzy before a performance, saying, “I can’t do this! I’m terrified!” that she would soon be terrified herself. A few years ago, though, she finally retired from the role, complaining that she’d had it with the worry. She knew by then that I was going to be fine, and she wanted to be able to sit in the audience and watch a performance like everyone else without having her stomach in a knot about whether or not I’d be able to hit my high notes without gagging. In fact, by now I’ve established such a reliable track record that I haven’t been able to find anyone who will take on the job, and the function of misery in performance preparation has come fully back into my court. Maybe I should place an ad: “Seeking opera lover with finely honed hand-wringing skills, paranoid hysterics a plus.” Fortunately, I now tend to save this particular ritual for only the most high-profile engagements, and the rest I am actually able to enjoy. Of all the lessons I was taught during my years at Potsdam, one of the things that gave me the most pleasure was learning how to practice. As a child, I had always memorized my part, attending every rehearsal religiously. Practice, though, was something I associated with musical instruments—in my case the piano, the violin, and then the viola. Heaven knows I pulled the string instruments out from under my bed on lesson day and dusted them off, erasing the evidence of not having practiced—as if the teacher wouldn’t know. Now that I was studying music fully, I began to understand that I had to put in my time on my voice the same way I would have done were I in school studying the piano. I headed off for the practice room day after day, the tires of my beloved bicycle, George, crunching through the snow. I always loved walking into that small, spare space. As I made my way through the hall, I could hear people in other rooms singing or playing the violin or practicing whatever instrument they were learning, but that room would be mine alone. I would begin by vocalizing for twenty to thirty minutes, using the list of exercises I had conscientiously copied, and then I would practice whatever song or aria I had been assigned, trying to train my ear to catch my own mistakes. The words “practice” and “practical” are almost one and the same, and the more I worked, the more I saw their similarities. It was here that I began to develop my real passion for singing, for the process of exploring every corner of the enigmatic instrument of the voice. I still think it’s a miracle that anyone learns how to sing well, since the mystery of coordinating involuntary muscles can seem impossible to unravel. It is a beautiful thing to sing in front of an audience, but singing to myself alone in a room, breaking down phrases note by note, word by word, is even more satisfying somehow, and that is how I began to learn. Pat’s other great influence on me had to do with repertoire. The vast mountains of music she owned represented unexplored terrain for a musical adventurer, much as my mother’s music cabinet had earlier held similar treasures. Pat challenged me with Petrassi songs, a Brit-ten canticle I adored, chamber music, Haydn and Handel arias in German. Once she saw that I was a good musician who could learn quickly, she moved me on to obscure song literature. One day, she handed me an old-fashioned and weathered piece of sheet music. The title was the “Song to the Moon” by Dvořák, which I learned in English. Little did we know how much this one aria would eventually forge my future. I was like an open well in the ground, waiting there to swallow up anything that came my way. Pat wasn’t just training me vocally; she was also shaping me musically.Any point she wanted to make about singing could be backed up by the recordings she had, and she was always encouraging me to listen to them. I would sit in her house in the evenings and make piles of cassette tapes: Janet Baker in Handel, Elly Ameling, Pilar Lorengar, Victoria de los Angeles. I still recall watching my first live television broadcast from the Met—Don Giovanni—curled up on her couch.Ameling was my favorite singer then, because the great Dutch artist actually came to Potsdam a few times and performed. I listened to her recordings so intently that her influence could be heard in my singing. But it was also Ameling who, a few years later, taught me the power of a backstage visit, when, still a heart-on-my-sleeve student, I tried to tell her in a single, brief sentence that her singing meant everything in the world to me—even as, completely uninterested, she looked past me to the next person in line. I was crushed. Of course, it’s not fair to expect an artist to respond to the needs of all her fans; but as a result, I have tried to emulate Jan DeGaetani, who would make each person in line feel as ifshewere the one who had given of herself that night and therefore deserved to be appreciated in kind. Jan would say, “Oh, I adored the recipe you sent!” or “My, how I love that necklace! Where did you find it?” and we would all stutter with delight, unable to imagine how she could be thinking of anything but the beautiful performance she had just given.
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 Music was so exciting to me in that period of my life, you would have thought it had been invented the week before. There were two pieces that absolutely obsessed me. One was Anne Trulove’s aria from Stravinsky’sRake’s Progress,“No word from Tom.” I would sit in my dorm room every night and listen to it before I went to bed, and then it got to the point where I had to listen to it three or four times in a row. But it was almost like drinking three or four cups of espresso: the energy of that aria and the way it built made it impossible for me to sleep. Its jagged vocal line and its use of English with wrong syllabic accents were so quirky as to seem nearly electric in Judith Raskin’s performance. I learned it and I sang it in a lot of auditions, but it was never that successful for me. People weren’t familiar with the piece at the time; it seemed too long, and I didn’t sing it quite well enough. It was hard for me to know the difference then between the things I madly loved and the things my voice was meant to sing. I operated under the mistaken impression that only an aria that was difficult for me would be impressive in an audition, rather than the correct idea that if the piece was easy, perhaps that meant it was a good fit. Still, this constant stretching ultimately gave me the solid technique I would need to withstand the real rigors of a career. The other piece that lodged itself in my imagination was Jan DeGaetani’s recording of George Crumb’sAncient Voices of Children. I was so attracted to the mystery of the piece and the vocal writing that the “Todas las tardes en Granada” section—with its marimba tremolo and its exotic-sounding toy piano, DeGaetani’s voice resonating directly into the piano, whispering, then the next moment shrieking—became my favorite piece for a while. Years later, when I had the good fortune to study with Jan and had the chance to get to know her better, it made me admire both the song cycle and the artist all the more. Classical wasn’t my only interest in those days. Potsdam was the place where I fell in love with jazz, a love that, for a while at least, I thought would be my life. When I had the chance to audition as a big-band singer my sophomore year, I jumped at it. My mother had taught with Esther Satterfield, who was Chuck Mangione’s soloist when his Rochester-based band was enormously popular. Esther sang “The Land of Make-Believe,” and that song, with all its sweet exhilaration, had always stayed with me. It was the piece I used for my audition, and I would picture myself as Billie Holiday, my hand cradling an old-fashioned silver microphone, a gardenia pinned behind one ear. I had worn out the soundtrack album ofLady Sings the Blueswhile learning every song from the piano/vocal score. I got the big-band job, which soon led to a weekly engagement with a jazz trio. We performed every Sunday night for two and a half years, developing an incredible following and packing the house week after week.Singing with that group was a great release after spending school time disciplining my breathing and my resonance. Instead, this music was teaching me about performing. Jazz is, of course, incredibly interactive, and every time a given song is played, its actual performance is going to be different. Singing jazz was a great way of letting go of my fears, because the music was just going to happen, and I had to make constant decisions about which direction I was going to go. It also taught me to be much more instinctive. As the vocalist, I quickly discovered it was my responsibility not only to sing but to make the friendly patter between numbers. I could handle the vertiginous high notes and the endlessly extemporaneous melodies, but simple sentences like “How’s everybody doing tonight?” proved to be almost too much for me. Pat O’Leary, the bass player, would lean forward and smack me on the shoulder. “Saysomething!” he would hiss. “Tell a joke!”A joke? No one had mentioned that in my job description. The worst of it was that at every performance it had to be a different joke, a new direction in my one-sided conversation. (“Pretty cold out there tonight, eh, Potsdam?”) It was perfectly acceptable for me to sing the same songs week after week, but my unwritten monologues expired after a single use. The audience was like a shy blind date that expected me to make all the conversation, and so out of sheer necessity I did, but never with any flair. There are a lot of different ways to capture your audience’s heart, but learning how to talk to them wasn’t a bad place to start.Jazz was also a perfect opportunity to experiment vocally. Pat came to see me a few times and during the breaks would say, “Do you know you just sang a high D above high C above high C?” Pat had perfect pitch, so she knew exactly what I was doing even when I didn’t. I could hit those high notes as a jazz singer, mostly because I had no concept of just how high they were at the time. I was simply improvising. The trouble was that I couldn’t yet manage the high notes I actually needed for the soprano repertoire. Anything above the staff, from G to high C, was still difficult, at best. These pitches were inconsistent, still strident and shrill.Sometimes we would go out on tour. The guys in the group were a little older than I was, a little wiser. Larry Ham taught me how to make perfect omelets, and Eddie Ornowski drove me around the countryside in his big old white Cadillac with a red leather interior while listening to Schubert string quartets. I drank it all in.My turning point came when legendary saxophonist Illinois Jacquet came to teach a master class and suggested later that I tour with him. (He had teared up when I sang “You’ve Changed,” songs of unrequited love then being my forte.) That offer forced me to decide whether I wanted to be an opera singer or a jazz singer. In my heart, I knew I was too young and too frightened to move to New York, which a career in jazz would have required. I had not been raised to be an independent thinker. I couldn’t decide what to cook for dinner without asking someone else for guidance. Jazz is the music of free will, and I still preferred to toe the line. So I stayed with what I knew, which was how to be a student. After the Bach B-minor Mass, I sang Laurie in Aaron Copland’s only opera,The Tender Land,the lead in a chamber opera by Gustav Holst calledThe Wandering Scholar,and Elsie Maynard in a great production of Gilbert and Sullivan’sYeomen of the Guard. Those roles, along with my jazz performances, placed me before real audiences and not just teachers and classmates. The drama and dance classes I took at Potsdam were incredibly helpful to me too. If I had gone to Eastman or Juilliard as an undergraduate in those days, I wouldn’t have been able to study drama, because at that time there was no crossover between different divisions in the conservatories. This changed later when the necessity for fully rounded acting singers began to be appreciated, but by then my school days were behind me.My major at Potsdam was music education. My parents, forever practical, insisted that I graduate from college with a skill that would ensure me a job. They had confidence in my abilities as a singer, but they had also been in the music business long enough to see that the streets were littered with talented sopranos who couldn’t achieve a professional career. I had to be able to support myself on the very real possibility that my big dreams might never materialize. All I can say is that I’m lucky I made it as a performer, since the trials of Mozart seemed minor next to the semester I spent student-teaching in a public middle school. Eighth-graders, with their cracking voices and pinging hormones, remain one of the greatest challenges I have faced to this day. I had always respected what my parents did for a living, and had even thought I understood it, but it wasn’t until I did some time in the classroom myself that I came to see what a daunting task teaching in public schools really was. When my brother, Ted, later followed in the family tradition and became a teacher, he earned my greatest admiration.When the time came for me to graduate from Potsdam, I had a great deal of hesitation about leaving Pat, but she gently though firmly pushed me out of the nest. “Go out there and learn new things from different people,” she urged me. I loved Pat and appreciated all she had done for me, and, as I reminded her, a lot of singers do spend their whole professional lives with one teacher. But she was insistent that it was time for me to go. With her encouragement and a lot of nudging, I moved on to Eastman to study for a master’s degree in music.In my first audition at Eastman I landed the role of Zerlina inDon Giovanniin another upset, surprising everyone, most of all myself. It was my first bona fide full-scale opera production, and I was thrilled to be on the stage of the Eastman Theatre after spending so much time there when I was growing up. This was an enormously ambitious production, and the baritone and I both worked out madly at the YMCA across the street, because he had to lift me in a dance scene. During the course of my career I have sung all three female roles inDon Giovanni,and Zerlina is certainly the place to start, her “Vedrai carino” being that opera’s precious jewel of an aria. Donna Anna is the most difficult role to sing, with her two glorious scenes and one of the greatest accompanied recitatives ever composed. Da Ponte and Mozart portray her ambivalence toward Don Ottavio and then subtly allow us to surmise that Don Giovanni’s attack unleashed a repressed passion in her, followed closely by the murder of her father and then a torrent of shame and sorrow. Donna Elvira, with whom I made my inauspicious La Scala debut, is wildly temperamental and more obvious: a perfect example of fatal attraction. Mozart was the solid cornerstone of my operatic repertoire for the next ten years, and I ultimately sang nine different Mozart roles, in many different productions. The Countess inLe Nozze di Figaroserved as my debut role, first as a student at the Aspen Music Festival, then in Houston, at the Met, in Paris, at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, in San Francisco, at both Spoleto Festivals, and in Hamilton, Canada, and I went on to sing her at Glyndebourne, in Geneva, and in Chicago. If anyone needed a Countess, I was the Go-to Girl, and I was lucky to have come to prominence at the commemoration of the bicentennial of Mozart’s death in 1991. Frankly, I would have chosen Berio, Puccini, Berlioz, or Stravinsky—anything but Mozart—as my introduction to the international stages of the world. While I would have preferred to avoid having to live up to his requirement of crystal-clear, naked perfection, in retrospect I’m grateful for that repertoire, as it helped protect my voice. I had no choice but to sing well and carefully for that first decade of my career, maintaining a youthful weight and quality to my voice, when the demands of other composers—full-voiced drama over a heavy orchestration—would have used me up by now, and I’d likely be hearing from opera companies, “Thank you very much, but you have a wobble and your top isn’t what it used to be.” Sheer luck again sent me into Mozart’s demanding but safe hands.Director Richard Pearlman was running Eastman’s opera department then, and I’ll never forget the day he played a recording of Maria Callas in a class devoted to her art. He had known her, and he loved to tell a story about offering Callas a cup of cocoa during a rehearsal in Dallas. She refused it, saying, “No, thanks, honey, chocolate gives me pimples.” The story made a huge impression on me, not so much her response as his reverence for her. All those years later you could still see the power she had over him as a young director. Every soprano in the class sat there thinking,What would that be like?As we listened to her singing he would tell us that her voice was beautiful, as if it were an objective fact rather than a controversial opinion. The first time I heard a Callas recording—and, for that matter, one by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf—I didn’t understand why they were considered iconic when to my ear they weren’t even particularly accomplished singers. Callas’s voice seemed unattractive, with its overly covered, steely edge and its wide vibrato on top, and Schwarzkopf ’s vocal production struck me as uneven and eccentric, however beautiful the voice. But as often is the case with things that are unusual and unfamiliar, we develop a taste for them. We come to love certain voices because of their very flaws, their strangeness, and, most important, the way they can be identified by little more than a single note. After I had listened long enough and thoughtfully enough to these two sopranos, I came to a point where my heart belonged to both of them, along with those of their millions of other fans. I was probably especially sensitive to the idea of flaws at this time because I was trying so hard to iron out my own. Arleen Augér once remarked to John Maloy, who was one of my teachers at Eastman, that I’d be great if I could only get my technique together. I had the talent and the discipline, but I was still learning to sing, which meant I had plenty of kinks to work out if I wanted to make a career of singing. And while I had some successes at Eastman, I had my share of dismal failures as well—the very worst being my first audition for the Met National Council Auditions, a program designed to assist promising young singers in the development of their careers.My accompanist was Richard Bado, a friend and a fellow student at Eastman. I was a quick study even then, and that talent did nothing but exacerbate my tendency toward procrastination. I memorized Pamina’s aria fromDie Zauberflöte,“Ach, ich fühl’s,” the week before the audition. My parents were in the audience with several of my friends, and the adjudicating panel, which had flown in to represent the Met, was right in the middle. I was polished and brushed and made up and well dressed, and as I looked out at all the people who loved me and the people who wanted me to do well and the people who were ready to give me a chance, I fell apart completely. We’re talking white knuckles. All I could do was fantasize about fainting or falling through a hole in the stage. So many nervous singers long to fall through nonexistent stage holes that I have to wonder why recital halls across the world don’t just go ahead and saw them into the floor-boards. “Ach, ich fühl’s” is a very exposed aria, sung for the most part very quietly. That’s always been the thing that frightens me the most: anything that’s exposed. Not the fireworks, fioriture, leaps, trills, or chest tones—those I can file my nails by. The terrifying place is that soft pitch in the middle voice. That drenches me in cold sweat. This was one of the first pieces I’d sung with this kind of exposure, so you have to wonder what I was thinking of when I chose it for such an important audition. My throat tightened completely. My breath stopped working, and I had a flutter in my sound that you could drive a truck through. I can still see my family’s faces fall, and everyone in the house just sitting there with a look of growing embarrassment. Richard Bado told me later that he wanted to stand up in the middle of the audition and say, “We’re going to stop now. She can do so much better than this, and I think we should just try again another year.”
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When it was finally over, after what felt like twenty years of standing there with my throat in a vise grip, I had my first real existential crisis. I saw a school-appointed therapist for the first time to discuss my growing realization that I didn’t even understand what I was doing in graduate school. All I’d ever known was how to please others and how to do the right thing so that I could see a positive reflection of myself in their eyes. I was so steeped in the role of good girl that when I once skipped an opera rehearsal to attend a Bonnie Raitt concert, I couldn’t enjoy it for the intense nausea I was experiencing. I’d been the perfect chameleon, becoming whomever the person I was talking to wanted me to be, and I don’t mean only my parents or my teachers. I would behave this way with complete strangers. Somehow my botched audition brought all of that crashing down on my head. As a result of it, I started to pull together a genuine sense of who I was and what I wanted. It was then that music became mine for the first time, as I started to take responsibility for what I really wanted to achieve. This was not an amazing transformation, and it is one that many young performers experience, but it was the beginning of my real growth. John Maloy was very supportive through all of this, telling me it was all going to work out, and I believed him.As much as I struggled with my fears, it never once occurred to me to just stop trying. My parents had drilled into me the code of Never Give Up. In my family, you didn’t admit defeat, or change your mind and go on to something else. The core of my mother’s philosophy, whether it involved being in a play or taking piano lessons or having a horse, was that you can take on anything you want, but you can’t quit.When I look back on it now, I can see that this crisis was inevitable. If it hadn’t been the Met audition, it would have been something else. The passivity of my desire to please was holding me back from going on to the next level in my development. I needed to kick up all this dust and start questioning things so that I could learn the answers and move on. What I finally discovered was that in fact I really did love music, and especially singing, and I loved to learn about singing. It was time for me to stop worrying so much about what other people thought. It’s such a simple concept but it was completely foreign to me. My parents had divorced in 1981, and in the winter of 1983 my mother and her new husband, George Alexander, had a baby, my brother Geordie. I was there at the hospital waiting while she went into labor, and at the last minute I was invited in for the big event. There was my mother, at the age of forty-five, having her fourth baby! It was the moment I knew that I would have children myself one day. This angelic, curly-haired, towheaded baby is now Bryn Terfel-sized and is studying voice. He shadowed me in London last summer to see if the operatic lifestyle was one he could live with. The talent is there, but only time and his own strong desire to sing will tell.That year I spent the first of several summers singing and studying at the Aspen Music Festival. It was a very sweet time in my life, with blue skies, serious musicians, and endless possibilities. I bicycled seven miles up to the Maroon Bells and back down every day. The glorious scenery was there for me no matter where I looked. After a winter in Rochester, a summer in Aspen is an almost unimaginable reward, and every year I could hardly wait to pack up my suitcase and my bicycle and get back there. I had applied to a lot of summer programs, but the only two that accepted me were Aspen and the Spoleto Festival. I have a noble history of being rejected by a lot of places, only to discover that the one that finally lets me in is in fact the perfect fit.For two of my summers at Aspen I studied with Jan DeGaetani. She was a tremendous role model as a musician, above all. Her love of music and her gratitude for her art manifested itself through tears at nearly every master class. We students felt as if we had been granted membership in a clandestine and exclusive club, meeting in her crowded living room, singing for one another and discussing in hushed voices the intricacies of a text, the use of dynamics and resonance. I also met Ed Berkeley, who directed me in one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve had to this day, Conrad Susa’s operaTransformations,a setting of Anne Sexton’s poetry in which I played Sexton. We spent days on end just reading and analyzing her poems. The following summer I was cast as the Countess inLe Nozze di Figaro,in which Jorge Mester, who was the festival’s director, heard me. It was he who suggested that I go to Juilliard for a postgraduate program, the next step in my education. One of the many reasons that my work is so endlessly exciting is that you never know who is going to be in the audience or the orchestra pit, holding your fate in his hands.CHAPTER THREEAPPRENTICESHIP    THE HEAD OF Juilliard’s opera department was Erica Gastelli, an incredibly elegant Italian woman who was always perfectly put together in a way that seemed at once flawless and effortless. Whenever I think of her, I see a beautiful necklace she wore, which was made out of huge chunks of golden amber. The first thing I did when I made a little bit of money as a singer was to buy myself an amber necklace. This is often the way we put together our lives, adding the striking qualities of others into our own character. Whether it was Erica Gastelli’s style or Elisabeth Schwarzkopf ’s ease with languages or Beverly Sills’s ability to draw her public close to her, I made a careful study of the qualities I admired and did my best to emulate them. The other students in the program and I used to impersonate Erica’s thick Italian accent, mimicking the way she criticized our hair or our clothes, beginning with a finger-wagging “Oh, Renée . . . ,” followed by “Why would you wear thataaawfuldress?”It was Erica who had called me at my parents’ house right after I’d come home from Aspen to announce, “You have been accepted to the Juilliard program. We would like you to sing Musetta inLa Bohème.” She had a very low speaking voice, very formal—the kind of voice that makes you stand up straighter even if you’re only speaking on the phone, the kind of voice that under normal circumstances would have demanded a very dignified response. At this moment, though, I had no dignity. I felt as if I had been shot out of a cannon. I dropped the phone and screamed, running through the house, crying, “Juilliard! Juilliard!” My mother was home, as were Ted and Rachelle, and they joined in the shouting. It was pure bedlam, as it would be the three or so times later in my life when the truly great phone calls arrived. When I finally remembered what I had done, I crept back into the kitchen and picked the phone up off the floor, certain that if Erica was still on the line she would inform me that Juilliard had changed its mind. She was not amused; but then, as I was to find out later, she was never amused.Juilliard had a postgraduate training program then called the American Opera Center. Being accepted there was an enormous boon to me for many reasons, not the least of which was that it was free. For two and a half years I could audit any language class and study voice, perform in opera productions, and coach both music and diction. The only expenses I had to cover were my room and board. I could never have afforded to live in New York City and pay for so much instruction. I would have been lucky to manage the occasional voice lesson, maybe a bit of coaching, but I never would have been able to learn as much as I did. I still had a very long way to go.After witnessing my heartbreak over the failed Met audition and the tumultuous period of growth that followed, my father didn’t want me moving to New York. “You’ll end up jumping off a bridge,” he warned me. He worried that living in the city would overwhelm me, but I loved it. I found a temp job in Rockefeller Center with a group of opera singers at a law firm, assigned to an enormous asbestos case—a case from which my own grandfather ultimately would benefit. The firm had well-educated, reliable, and honest workers in us, and we had almost complete flexibility regarding our hours. I had earlier acquired excellent secretarial and touch-typing skills while temping, which was probably related to the eye-hand coordination I had developed through years of studying piano. This job enabled me to take advantage of everything Juilliard had to offer. I also added to my income by singing in New York City churches, which used students to supplement their amateur choral ranks.Jorge Mester was slated to conduct the production ofLa Bohèmein which I would appear, and Graziella Sciutti, who had only recently retired from the stage, would be directing it. Musetta would have been her role, whereas I was anything but typecast. My extreme inhibitions prevented me from displaying any of the sass and sway needed for a seductive Musetta. Sciutti finally threw up her hands and said, “I cannot make this girl do anything!” That was when my favorite coach, Ubaldo Gardini, stepped in. Ubaldo would work with me for hours. “Why do you want to bang on that note?” he would whine, as I pressured out the high A in “Dove sono.” He also gave me some advice that I follow to this day: “Sing in the mirror. If it looks funny, it’s wrong.” He was as frustrated with my Musetta as Sciutti was, and he finally ordered, “Just walk across the stage and swing your hips.” But I couldn’t manage even that. Musetta, of course, is a legendary coquette, and I was a famously shy girl from upstate. Even if I could learn how to talk the talk, I was hopeless when it came to walking the walk. Still, I was confident that once I got my costume on everything would be fine. Back then, I could be Musetta only if Ilookedlike Musetta. I had to be physically transformed before I could become a character onstage. Fortunately, I got over that. Learning to quickly assume a role is a necessary part of the profession. In my current rehearsal days, murder, rape, sobs, and vengeance often follow a coffee break. One has to swallow and simply take the plunge, embracing the dramatic, emotional language of opera.Of course, swinging my hips and batting my eyelashes as Musetta was a minor dilemma compared with what I faced in my next Juilliard production, Gian Carlo Menotti’sTamu-Tamu.Then the question was whether or not I’d go onstage topless.Tamu-Tamuopens with a middle-class family reading the newspaper, talking about how tragic things are in a third-world country they’ve never heard of before. There’s a knock at the door, and suddenly all the people they’ve been reading about are standing on their front doorstep, grass skirts and all. I played the suburban mother, and at one point one of the girls, who was sufficiently covered by her beads and long hair, and I were supposed to exchange costumes, which meant I would be going topless. It was a scandal. My voice teacher walked into the office of Juilliard’s new president, Joseph Polisi, and said, “Under no circumstances will a student of mine be pressured into performing topless. There must be another solution!” In the end I wore a body stocking, with garishly painted nipples. Who knew that real nipples wouldn’t read in the house, and that painted ones would look more realistic? My memories of Juilliard fall into two distinct categories: On one hand there was the school, the productions I was in, the friends I made, and my beloved diction coaches, Tom Grubb, Corradina Caporello, and Kathryn LaBouff. On the other, there was Beverley Johnson. Certainly I have Juilliard to thank for providing the means for us to work together. But then Beverley became a force in my life so much greater than any school could ever be that when I think of her it’s not as part of Juilliard, but simply as part of my life.All Juilliard students were expected to find a voice teacher, and at that time they were allowed to study only with someone on the school’s faculty. Beverley taught there and at the Aspen Music Festival, so I approached her about a consultation. Within five minutes she had me on the floor doing sit-ups while she admonished me about several vocal issues. And that was that. We’d found each other. I was looking for the kind of detailed instruction I had gotten from Pat Misslin, and there it was, on Beverley’s living-room rug.Beverley had an extremely distinctive look, with a very long chin that she was forever, in all the years that I knew her, trying to hide. Not long after I met her, she decided she would never be photographed again. She was a very slim woman with such perfect posture that if you saw her from the back, you would think she was twenty-five years old, not the approximately eighty she probably was. She might not have had much luck hiding her chin, but she hid her age perfectly.Beverley wasn’t a very popular teacher when I began studying with her. Teachers go in and out of fashion over the years, and someone who had taught as long as Beverley had become accustomed to going from being the instructor everyone fights to study with to being last on the list and back again, two or three times in the course of a career. I happened to catch her when she was out of fashion, which was all the better for me because she had more time.Although Beverley had studied singing, she was trained as a pianist. Her husband, Hardesty Johnson, was a singer, and it was he who had originally been brought to Juilliard to teach. She eventually joined the faculty in 1964. The interesting thing about her being an instrumentalist was that she intellectualized the voice, studying it much more than a singer probably would have, which ultimately led to her becoming so strong a technician.I had technical issues that still needed to be resolved, and she was so technically oriented and focused on physiology that we responded to each other immediately. Between the sit-ups, her breathing exercises, and the way we were able to communicate with each other, it was almost like hearing the locks on a safe all tumble into their correct sequence. I ultimately worked with Beverley for sixteen years, and it’s safe to say that she did more for my singing than anyone else.Of course, Beverley wasn’t the only voice teacher who was asking her students to do seemingly strange things. In one master class, I had to sing before an audience while lying on the floor. Another teacher had me leaning against a wall, then leaning over the piano, then singing while bent in half, touching the floor. Teachers will do almost anything to encourage the body to release tension in some areas while maintaining strength and energy in others. It’s a coordination process that is technically complicated and difficult to achieve both physically and psychologically, demanding all available resources to get the necessary elements to line up properly. Beverley used to say that tension in your upper lip could ruin your voice for the day, a connection that you wouldn’t even remotely think of making. She would instruct me to take my finger and press down on my upper lip while I was singing, and suddenly the sound would free up. It seemed impossible, and yet I could hear the difference. There are so many different muscles that can affect vocal production that it’s almost impossible to check all of them off in your mind, and even more impossible to control them, since they are largely involuntary.
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Beverley kept a battered copy ofGray’s Anatomyclose to her piano among the stacks of scores. She was forever pulling it out to explain something about the mechanism of the voice. “See that?” she would say, tapping on the page. She would show me a drawing of the pharynx and the larynx, the epiglottis and hard and soft palates, the breath cavities and the diaphragm.One of the first issues we addressed was fine-tuning my understanding of the principles of breathing and support. To think about breath, I first had to divide it into three parts. I had to learn the best way to take in a breath and to use the space in the lungs and body efficiently; the best way to control breath release; and the best way to support sound with breath. Unlocking the body’s ability to take in the most possible air is a process both of expansion and of releasing tension. Ask a nonsinger to take in a huge breath, and he will usually lift his shoulders and chest, pulling in his abdominal muscles, actions that are followed by a red face and straining neck muscles—not a posture conducive to beautiful singing. Contrarily, a singer learns to release her abdominal wall and back muscles outward, without pushing, as much as is humanly possible, allowing the diaphragm,involuntarily,to release down and the lungs to expand to their fullest. Crucial to this process is a release of the intercostal muscles, the ones that connect the ribs; releasing them allows the rib cage to expand outward and slightly upward as well. The chest rises last, but the shoulders and neck remain relaxed. This entire sequence should be carried out with as little tension as possible. Release, expand, visualize your torso as a barrel, imagine a low breath to begin with, release the back of your neck, make space in your mouth and nose, don’t suck in air, no tension in your mouth and nose either—these and similar instructions began to enable me to develop breath capacity.Second, breath control enables the efficient use of precisely the amount of air needed for any given phrase, whether a long, sustained line or a short, powerful burst. Contrary to what one might think, it takes more air to produce low notes than high ones. More air escapes through the vocal folds during the slower vibrations of a lower phrase than in the much faster oscillations of a top C. Think of how different pitches of whistling feel, or even of making sounds by blowing into different-sized bottles. The air flow is more concentrated for a higher pitch. It takes a singer time and physical maturity to develop the deep, sustaining breaths of a swimmer; negotiating a long passage of Richard Strauss is, in fact, a little like being underwater.The third requirement, breath support, is both the most complicated and the most controversial part of a singer’s breathing technique. This was one of the most important pieces of the singing puzzle I received from Beverley. Few are in agreement about the best way to support a voice, but it’s the support that allows a singer to manage a “cultivated scream” for three hours without causing herself pain and harm. When a singer uses her body and breath properly to support the voice, it takes the strain completely off the throat. My ear, nose, and throat doctor, David Slavit, marvels at the fact that we can sing for hours—a feat that ought to leave blood on the floor—yet come in the next day with baby-fresh vocal cords, showing no signs of redness, swelling, or strain. The same is rarely true of sports fans, who after shouting throughout a stadium match are generally hoarse or unable to speak. Stage actors have to learn support just as we do, or they could never withstand a regimen of eight shows a week, although the increasing presence of amplification even for plays is reducing the necessity for this kind of technique. Singers nevertheless rest between performances, for our Herculean “weight lifting for voices” needs a day off, just as power lifters would never train the same way runners do. Interestingly enough, the heavier the voice, the more such rest is necessary. A lyric voice such as mine, which less often engages in “extreme singing,” actually benefits from regular daily training, with flexibility being the key goal.How I support my breath is relatively simple to explain, but in practice a difficult process to really coordinate. Once I have taken in that optimal breath, and my abdominal wall is open, out, and expanded, along with as much of the rest of my torso as possible, I resist allowing these muscles to collapse again. “Resist” is the key word: if I continue to push out, I’ll lose the connection of the breath and create tension in my throat; if I allow it all to collapse quickly, I’ll have a breathy tone and not enough air to sing even a short phrase. Another crucial part of this formula is to keep the intercostal muscles out as well, and to prevent the chest from collapsing. I learned this particular technique from observing other singers, and there is a valid reason that caricatures of opera singers so often portray them as pigeon-chested. When I’m singing comfortably, I can actually imagine that my torso and my breath are doing all the work, while my throat is completely relaxed. Years of practice and experimentation led me to this optimal combination, which enables me to sing high-tessitura pieces, which are not by nature comfortable for me.While I was trying to understand how my own body worked, there was also music to learn and the entire concept of developing an artistic interpretation to wrestle with. For me, as for most singers, the process required a huge amount of time, energy, and practice. Of course, every now and then there’s someone who just happens to come by all of it naturally—the twenty-five-year-old who just opens his or her mouth, and by some miracle it’s all there. But even the greatest natural talent in the world needs to learn how to support and care for her instrument. In that respect the voice is like an inheritance: no matter how great it is, you still have to figure out a way to make it last. Everything breaks down at some point, and if the singer doesn’t know how to fix it, she will quickly fall by the wayside.I’ve finally accepted the fact that singing takes ten minutes to explain and ten years to accomplish. This was all work I had begun as a high-school student. Each teacher brought me further along with different explanations of the same concepts; often my understanding of those concepts was a result of my own experience or discovery, and sometimes it was just plain luck. Learning how to sing is rarely a process that follows a straight line, and it’s rarely clearer than fog until one grasps it in its totality.Most singers are like me, building up every little note, every notch, as if the voice were a mosaic put together one tiny colored tile at a time. It’s the puzzle again. Because I wasn’t a natural, I had to develop a very intricate understanding of how my instrument worked, with a clear-eyed assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. I had to create a technique that was reliable regardless of how I was feeling. Someone once said that there are probably seven naturally good singing days in a year—and those are days you won’t be booked. What we must learn is how to sing through all the other days. At the start of my second year at Juilliard, I had to make a choice: I could stay where I was, continuing my work with Beverley and singing the lead in Gounod’sMireillethe following year, or I could accept a Fulbright grant for study in Frankfurt, Germany. I have always been a big believer in auditioning. I knew enough to realize that most of the things I applied for would never come through, so I always thought it was best to just go ahead and throw my hat in the ring for everything feasible and then decide what to do if I won. This was just part of how I worked: if there was a grant, a competition, a scholarship, I gave it a try. For me, it was all part of the Shoulds. I should do this. I should try for that. “Should” was my steady diet my whole life. The Fulbright application was part of the Should diet.John Maloy, my teacher from Eastman, was on the Fulbright panel that year, and he strongly encouraged me to accept the fellowship. Beverley was equally adamant that I should stay and continue my studies with her, arguing in an almost maternal way that my voice and I weren’t ready for the wide world. Fulbrights are extremely difficult for singers to get. Although I would rather have gone to France or Italy, Germany took the largest number of vocalists. In Germany I would also have the chance to study with Arleen Augér, whom I had liked so much when I met her in Aspen and who had fortuitously agreed to accept me as a student.In order to help me make a decision, I started polling people, which is another lifelong habit of mine. Getting others involved in my decisions is a little like having them worry about me just before a performance. Jan DeGaetani told me I’d be a fool not to go, that it was a great opportunity. “I so regret never having learned a foreign language,” she said. I talked over the matter with my parents, my friends, and my boyfriend. I tallied up everyone’s opinions, and then I made my own decision. In the end, even if every single person had told me to stay, I still would have gone. Ironically I am actually quite strong in my own judgments, for as much as I crave to hear everyone’s advice about what I should do, I always know to listen to my inner voice where my career is concerned. This intuition, along with resilience, has been a fundamental anchor of my professional life.I kissed everyone good-bye and got on the plane confident that I’d made the right choice, but the minute we took off I was mortified. What had I done? Was I out of my mind? I was shy, I hated being alone, I didn’t speak German. It’s a good thing that they don’t turn planes around, because at that moment I was convinced that what I really needed to do was to move home and get a job as a secretary.When I arrived in Frankfurt, the first thing I did was to go and find Arleen. She had already warned me in Aspen, “It’s fine that you’re coming, but I really won’t have much time to work with you. My career is taking off right now.” She had just sung at Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s wedding, and she was suddenly becoming a big star in the United States. She nevertheless promised, “I’ll be here maybe six times this year, and then we’ll work.” Because I was happy for any attention I could get, I told her that arrangement would be fine with me.In our lessons, she compared the voice to floors in a hotel, with each tone occupying its own floor. It was my job to find the optimum space and place and position for each tone. She knew what she was talking about. Technically speaking, Arleen sang better than anyone else I’ve ever heard. She made 150 recordings in her life, and they were all as close to perfect as it gets; her Konstanze inDie Entführung aus dem Serailis a particular marvel.Arleen’s floors-in-the-hotel analogy helped me to consciously even out my range. One of the first tasks for a singer looking to develop an operatic range is smoothing over passages, or breaks. A break is a transition in the voice, the best example of which is the kind of high lonesome yodeling that made Hank Williams Sr. a legend. Yodelers go from high to low with a huge, audible break in between, and while it’s charming in goat herders and country-music icons, it can sink an opera singer in the course of a single aria. Our breaks may not be as audible, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still very much there. What a teacher has to do is to increase the singer’s range while establishing an even sound from the top to the bottom of it. We use the wordpassaggio,which is Italian for “passage,” to describe usually two transition points in the voice. A singer must make sure the passage is a smooth and seamless one. Within a range of anywhere from one and a half to three octaves, a classical singer, unlike a pop singer, needs to have a sound that’s homogeneous throughout, without any breaks the audience can hear. The sound also has to be beautiful, another burden that most pop singers don’t carry. In opera, vocal production must sound easy and effortless, and that’s where the challenge lies.I think of my voice as an hourglass. The bottom has breadth and width and a color that is deeper and darker. As I go up through the passaggio, which for me consists of the tones between E-flat and F-sharp at the top of the staff, I must imagine a sound that is narrow, like the waist of the hourglass. The passaggio is slim and focused, and there can be no pressure or weight there, just as you wouldn’t want to put any weight on such a delicate passageway of glass. As the voice moves into the top of the hourglass, the sound can open up and blossom. It takes on warmer colors and more breadth again. Every voice is different, and many singers might think of their voices as a column that is even all the way up and down, but for me the defining feature is the curve, the passaggio.It’s in the dangerous straits of the passaggio that many singers come to grief. They try to carry the full weight of the middle voice up through it, muscling their way to the top, or they carry the head voice down, causing weakness and fatigue in the bottom. Singers can also get away with a lot based on youth, strength, and enthusiasm, only to find ten years later that what was once just a niggling problem has brought their careers to an end. Lower-passaggio tones between the chest voice and middle voice are also problematic for women, especially for mezzo-sopranos. When we speak of a singer as having two or three voices, it’s because she has allowed these transitions to become abrupt gear shifts, which can be fine for dramatic emphasis or for Hank Williams Sr., but a steady diet of them isn’t recommended for a classically trained voice. I had a great deal of admiration for Arleen, not only as a singer but as a person. She had very high principles and she was always clear about where she stood on every issue. Early in our lessons she said to me, “I will teach you to the best of my ability, but I will not help you professionally, because really, you young singers are breathing down my neck. Professionally, you are on your own.”Coming from anyone else, such a declaration could have been off-putting to say the least, but Arleen presented it as simply a statement of fact, making it clear how she could help and how she couldn’t. I appreciated that kind of candor, as it meant that our lessons stayed purely in the realm of learning an art form, and I could, at least for the time I was with her, leave the business of business at the door. Of course, Arleen did help me professionally, not only by improving my voice but by virtue of the fact that I could cite her as one of my major teachers.
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I had completely the opposite experience that same year in Germany with a Canadian soprano, a woman I had never studied with, or even met, named Edith Wiens. She had a huge concert career in Germany, and I was fortunate enough to encounter her at a rehearsal of Britten’sWar Requiemin which she was singing the soprano solo. I had taken a seat in the front row, with only a handful of people in the audience, and I loved the piece so much that I must have sat there beaming through the entire rehearsal. When it was over, she came up to me and asked, “Who are you?” After I introduced myself she told me, “I love your face. I love what you gave to me in this rehearsal. How can I help you?” She sat down with me, a complete stranger, and wrote out the names of all the important managers in Germany. She gave me a couple of hours’ worth of business classes, telling me all about how to get started as a singer. It was strange and lucky that I found those two halves of what I needed in different people, and that they came together to form such a complementary whole.I had come to Germany armed only with some French from school, which of course wasn’t very useful. I had one month of intense study at a Goethe Institute on the Rhine before my studies began. After braving the train from the airport alone, with my two suitcases, which were meant to hold a year’s worth of my belongings, I arrived at my rented room, which belonged to a kindly retired couple. I walked around the village and was immediately picked out as an American by a brash local who spoke a little English and invited me for coffee. I nearly choked on my first taste ofSprudelwater, and after he left, when I reached for aBrötchen, the waitress nearly slapped my hand. I felt like Dorothy, hungry on the yellow brick road, trying to pick an apple only to be angrily rebuked by the apple tree. Needless to say, I had no clue that she was telling me that unlike at home, bread had to be paid for. I scurried back to my room and didn’t leave it until classes began the following morning.I ultimately enjoyed my intensive language study, both for the lessons themselves and for the stimulation of an international student body. I was pleasantly surprised one day before graduation when our teacher pulled me aside and said that if my singing career didn’t work out, I could pursue a career as a linguist. So, armed with what I believed was some degree of facility in the German language, I was placed with a family for a month in Frankfurt before my music studies were to begin. At the end of our first afternoon together, I remember thinking,Okay, this is a nightmare. I could not understand a word that anyone said—not a single word. And the Schulz family made no concessions to me either, by speaking slowly or simply. They just lived their lives—teaching me how to knit and to pick edible mushrooms and to light real candles on Christmas trees; discussing art and technology—and talked as if I could keep up. And eventually I did. By the end of this year of total immersion, I had learned to speak fairly fluent German, which has only become stronger with time. Whenever I return to Germany, people say to me, “I can’t believe how much your German has grown!” But I think that once the foundation is laid, the neurons just keep firing. Languages always improve for me over the years, regardless of whether or not I use them very consistently, in much the same way as music. The roles I have learned deepen and acquire more layers without my studying them or singing them or eventhinkingabout them in between performances. The fact that music is as much a language as German or French is one aspect of learning that fascinates me.After I left my new friends, the Schulzes, I moved into a dorm, a high-riseStudentenheim,where I had a tiny room and shared a common bathroom and kitchen with the other students. At the Hochschule für Musik, I befriended a British woman named Helen Yorke, a pianist. We were both so relieved on the first day of school, literally the first day, to find someone we could talk with. Helen and I laughed together constantly. We went to concerts and coffeehouses, endlessly discussing music and home and the future, reveling in the sound of each other’s English. Helen played many recitals for me after that.I applied to the opera department at the Hochschule but was rejected. As was true at so many points in my life, being turned down proved to be a stroke of luck. Excellent opera instruction was easy to come by at home; what I got instead was something much more valuable and rare: a year in which to study exclusively German lieder with Hartmut Höll. I thought he was a musical genius, illuminating for us his unconventional interpretations of the Wolf, Webern, and Schubert songs we were studying, and I’m honored now to have opportunities to share the concert stage with him. Helen and I coached with him as much as he would allow. Though it wasn’t a style that would have worked for everybody, I loved his way of dissecting every note. Faced with his method, many students would balk: “I don’t want to do it the way you’re doing it. I have a different idea about that phrase. Just give me a framework so I can develop my own interpretation,” but I used his interpretations as a template for forging my own, years later.It seemed that everywhere I turned in Germany, another golden opportunity was waiting. I also studied lieder with Rainer Hoffmann that year, combing the vast lied repertoire for undiscovered jewels. He later pointed me to Schubert’s “Viola,” which became the cornerstone of my Schubert recording and my Salzburg recital debut with Christoph Eschenbach. Imagine a whole year in which to indulge the thirst for the discovery of literature that Pat Misslin had instilled in me. With myStudentenausweis(student ID card), I also went to the opera three times a week for three or four dollars, soaking up new repertoire, absorbing every scrap of culture I could. The Frankfurt Opera was under the music directorship of the conductor Michael Gielen, who encouraged truly cutting-edge theatrical work at that time. Ruth Berghaus’s productions there were famous, as was anAidain which Aida is a modern-dayPutzfrau,a cleaning lady, in a contemporary museum of ancient artifacts. Audiences would bescreamingat the end of performances, whether booing or cheering, and fights would break out—and all over an opera! It was thrilling. My favorite opera was Strauss’sCapriccio. I would sit through the entire piece, barely understanding a single phrase, just to get to the final scene. My taste in what constitutes a successful operatic performance was developed that year. I realized that I wanted to believe fully in the characters and the story and I wanted to be moved. Vocal shortcomings were always distracting, as was a “diva” performance of Mimì or the Countess, since I couldn’t forget theperformer. When the piece was over, I would get on my bicycle and ride back to the dorm, singing to myself phrases of what I had just heard and dreaming of someday sharing the stage with the wonderful artists I had seen that evening. Professionally, I was growing quickly, but personally, I was miserable at times. It took me six months to gain enough comfort in the language so that I could communicate with other students and begin to socialize. Helpfully, Arleen sat me down shortly after I arrived and said, “Everything here is based on some form of one-upmanship. And if you can get comfortable with that, people aren’t offended. Nobody gets angry, nobody holds a grudge, but assertiveness is respected.” That at least gave me some sort of framework for what I was experiencing. My biggest triumph came at the end of the year when somebody cut in front of me at a vending machine and I cut back in front of him and said, “I was here first.” To do all of this in a foreign language was doubly challenging. Germany taught me a great lesson, because while situations could often seem aggressive, nothing was personal. Once I understood that there was no emotion behind the attitude, it just became a different way of maneuvering through the day. I also learned to be genuinely grateful for the directness of my fellow students. If I had an off day singing, they would simply say, “You sound terrible today.” At Juilliard, no one would have dreamt of offering so blunt an opinion, but they would have whispered it in the hallway after I left. There’s a comfort in always knowing where you stand, and in Germany I knew where I stood, every minute, every note.I’ve never been sure if sensitivity is a burden or a gift. The part of me that is moved to tears over a piece of music is the same part of me that can put that much feeling back into what I sing. On the other hand, when a nest of baby rabbits I was taking care of as a girl died, I was devastated beyond all reason. When a boy blew smoke in my face at a junior-high-school party, I thought I’d have to be carried out on a stretcher. In Germany, several things happened that sent me reeling. One was seeing an Iranian political protest poster in the hallway of my dorm, picturing a man being dismembered. I had a similar experience years later viewing the filmThe Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. While I believe that extreme emotion is a reasonable response to extreme cruelty, I knew I had to toughen up if I was going to get through life, to find a way to stay vulnerable to certain things while at the same time growing more thick-skinned about life in general. All of my emotions sat too close to the skin, and I needed to rein them in. For me that was as much a physical process as learning how to connect through my registers. Of course, there are some circumstances that would reduce almost anyone to a quivering bowl of Jell-O.If I had been asked how I felt about Elisabeth Schwarzkopf before I took her master class, I would have said that a week’s work with her was reason enough to spend a year in Germany. By now I had come to idolize her, and she only reinforced those feelings when she walked into the room that first day and spoke in three different languages to three different students inside of two minutes without missing a beat. It made a powerful first impression. Even by her very entrance, she epitomized everything I wanted to be: smart and glamorous and in command. She was the kind of person who brought the room to hushed attention just by walking into it. Everyone wanted to please her.We worked with her in two long sessions, every day, for a week. Master classes are themselves a form of entertainment, conducted before an audience, which creates a very specific kind of dynamic. In our public, evening classes, Schwarzkopf chose to entertain her audience, but often at the expense of the students she was teaching. In my own case, one day I was the golden girl and the next I could do nothing right. I would sing two notes, and her hand would slice through the air to cut me off: “Nein, das ist es nicht.”I would attempt the two notes again, and she would shake her head. “Haben Sie nicht verstanden? Nochmals!”My shoulders were drawing up toward my neck, my breath tightening. The other students looked away from me, relieved that for a moment I was the object of her attention. I tried again, and this time she was right: I sounded awful.I was young, probably too young, and certainly not a finished singer. I’m sure she worked much better with performers who were ready for her, who were more confident in what they were doing. I wanted desperately to please her. I would have sung balanced on my nose if she had asked me. Yet even in the worst moments when she would interrupt me to sing a note or a phrase herself, I would think,Oh, my God, it’s her! It’shervoice! It’s that silvery tone!Fortunately, she was also imparting a lot of information. Her interpretive advice was brilliant and gave me more of a foundation for understanding how to use language in lieder. Further, I had always concentrated on making a healthy sound, but she was the first person who ever said to me, “You are responsible for the sound you make, the actual tone quality and whether or not it is beautiful.” It was a powerful statement coming from her, since her own sound was so strangely manufactured, which is the very quality in her voice that I have come to develop a taste for over the years. She was the one who encouraged me to find a sound that was beautiful. Until then, my sound had often been criticized as too bright, even strident.Ultimately, it was one vocal concept she imparted that added another important piece to the puzzle of my voice. She introduced me to the idea ofcovering. Nearly all tenors and baritones cover if they want to maneuver well into the top. For women, it’s optional. In covering, as a singer moves up through the high passaggio, the transition area, she changes the very direction of the flow of air. Her use of resonance transforms the sound from a forward-placed, bright one that is entirely open to an almostohoroohposition, directed toward the soft palate. The basic forward direction of the sound is never abandoned; a “domed” quality is added just above the passaggio. This gives the tone a covered sound, as if the singer has just taken a bright tone and put a lid on it. High notes can then bloom without pressure, as opposed to being harsh or spread.As negative as the Schwarzkopf master-class experience seemed to me at the time, I look back on it now and can appreciate the two-year-long technical search she sent me on. Without it, and another six months at Juilliard fine-tuning my voice, I don’t know how I would ever have found security at the top of my range. And what’s a soprano without high notes? Schwarzkopf also established the very model of what a great Strauss singer is today, changing the focus from cantabile expression to declamatory expression, and emphasizing text over music. It sounds like something Strauss himself might have written an opera about. My week with Schwarzkopf contributed to the development of my own philosophy about the purpose and benefit of master classes. The student who takes part in them has a very short exposure to the teacher, who is often an idol, which gives each criticism or bit of praise heightened importance. While useful information can be imparted, there is never a follow-up session to see if these concepts have been correctly assimilated. Today, in my own master classes, I try to be generally diagnostic, always with the disclaimer that the student should discuss my ideas with his own teacher. I am also conscious of including the student in any “jokes,” so that no one feels as if he is being ridiculed. I enjoy entertaining the audience, but I never do so by undermining a student’s budding confidence in a very difficult art.
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Several different talents contribute to making a great teacher. Diagnostic skill is the first and most complex. Analyzing a voice and discerning why it isn’t functioning freely, beautifully, and artistically are like trying to dissect a snowflake. Each instrument is entirely different from all the others, because each mind and each body that produce it are different. Because the instrument itself can’t even be seen, one can only guess at the underlying faults by reading signals of tension, hearing fine gradations in use of resonance, and unlocking inhibitions and creativity in each young mind. The second major requirement is the ability to prescribe solutions for whatever these vocal issues are. If a singer cannot, say, descrescendo without the tone’s cutting out, or if she cannot sing above the staff at all, a teacher must have at hand the relevant exercises, images, and physiological explanations that might address the problem. And the solutions for one singer may not work for another. Among the important realizations I had in my own days in the practice room was that if one route to any one phrase didn’t work after days of trying, then the exact opposite route should at least be explored, as well as every alternative in between, as counterintuitive as that often seemed.I sometimes think it’s a miracle that anyone learns how to sing well, given the complexity of the instrument. It’s not surprising, for example, that most great singers do not become great teachers. Some will openly admit that they haven’t a clue how to explain what they do, and some can explainonlythat, without being able to apply it to other voices. The greatest barrier between the teacher and student is the involuntary muscles that produce the voice, muscles that have to be coaxed into fine coordination so that they can produce an even, beautiful sound extending through a singer’s full range. But another hurdle to overcome is terminology. It can take six months to develop a common language between teacher and student. What does she really mean when she says she wants me to have “higher resonance”? What does anyone mean by “more support”? Someone can tell you that you need to relax, but relax where? Relaxwhat? Oh, and now you want more energy at the same time? When I feel energized I also feel tense. How am I supposed to reconcile those demands?A third requirement is the interpersonal factor. A teacher needs to be able to read her students. She has to be able to know who is sensitive and who is thick-skinned, who is bullheaded and who is stubborn. She has to teach differently for different personalities and for different stages of development. She must also have a keen sense of how she is being perceived. If she is so aggressively negative with a young student that he begins to shrink into a little ball at the side of the piano, singing smaller and smaller, and worse and worse, then the teacher should have the sensitivity to know that her approach isn’t working. She’s going to have to try another approach, which may simply mean being encouraging on that particular day. Some teachers have achieved enormous success by doing nothing more than stroking egos and holding hands.And lest you think that the students are absolved of all responsibility, they face a challenge as well. Some of the greatest talents have the most fragile egos, unable to accept even the gentlest criticism and explaining away every fault. Needless to say, these singers don’t go very far. The student’s job is to stay open-minded, to quell the knee-jerk defensiveness we all possess in the face of suggestions for improvement, and to maintain patience when faced with a process that is often slow, confusing, and frustrating. On top of all that, the student must possess an unerring intuition about whether the instruction fits his particular needs. If not, he must be able to risk the necessary confrontation and move on to another teacher. Many young talents enter a studio, only to emerge three or four years later singing worse than when they began. A singer colleague of mine who had more drive and energy than I ever dreamt of having, not to mention tremendous vocal ability and intelligence, just didn’t have the right intuition about what sort of teaching would benefit her most. She gave up after ten frustrating years, several teachers, and an enormous expenditure of money and hope. If singing were easy, that would never happen. Perhaps it’s not intuition that guides a student but luck, or most likely a combination of both. Why did I have the good fortune over a period of ten years to keep finding the right keys to the doors, while my colleague failed? Although I used to joke that if I wasn’t born with a particular vocal flaw, I would do my best to seek it out and try it on for size, eventually I found my way. Ultimately, it’s the student who has to stand alone in the practice room and explore, using her creativity and imagination to flesh out the teacher’s suggestions. In the end, singing isn’t a science, but a highly cultivated, almost perverse use of our natural voices, and it requires persistence.Sitting in my hotel room at two a.m. after a recital and perhaps a CD signing in which a hundred fresh young faces waited to meet me, after flipping through the 169 cable channels at least five times to wind down, I often wonder just what will become of those bright talents when their dreams of a life on the stage aren’t realized. A conservatory director recently related to me the story of a young New York City taxi driver whom he complimented on the music she was playing on the radio. After he introduced himself, she burst into tears and said, “I’m a Juilliard graduate, and this is the only work I can get with my degree!” He rightly commented to me that her talents and top-flight education would have been put to better use helping our dwindling audiences grow, so that she could indeed at some future time have a chance to perform. One major study observed that in recent years, we have done a magnificent job of turning out fabulously trained performers with no place to play. More encouraging news is that employment options and a real strategy for developing the arts are becoming part of many conservatory curricula. My young singer friend eventually moved to Colorado Springs and started her own music school, using her vitality and drive to produce a new generation of starry-eyed musicians and, more important, providing a wonderful service to her community and, just perhaps, a new audience for the future.CHAPTER FOURMENTORS    HAVING FINISHEO my Fulhdght year, I tried to stay on in Germany and auditioned forLa Traviataat the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz in Munich. I couldn’t quite sing Violetta, but in my typical fashion, I rolled up my sleeves and tried out for everything. This time, no matter how hard I worked I couldn’t get hired anywhere. One morning I was just about to head for the train to audition for a small opera company in Bern, Switzerland, when they called and canceled, leaving me standing with the phone in one hand and my ticket in the other. At another audition for a small theater in the far north of Germany, the intendant said, “I’m terribly sorry, but your G is wrong! You need to fix your G. Don’t eventhinkabout having a career until you fix that pitch!” That was certainly the most original complaint I had ever received.Starting out as an opera singer, you have two ways of establishing a career: one is to get management directly and begin the audition process, and the other is to get exposure through winning competitions. Managers were not beating down my door, so I entered as many competitions as I could. During my time in Germany I had two incredibly fortunate opportunities. First, I was chosen by Eastman to represent the United States in a competition in Chile. I went to Viña del Mar, which is on the ocean, not too far from Santiago, where I lived in a hotel for a month and seemed to have one extraordinary experience after another. I was chased by Gypsies in the park and later befriended an American astronomer and his Chilean wife, who lived at the top of a cliff that hung directly over the Pacific. The other international competitors and I all ate together at my hotel every night, and we had a ball, even surviving an earthquake, which hit during one poor tenor’s audition. I often wondered if that prompted him to move on to another career or if he is the reigning Pavarotti of his country. I performed to the best of my abilities and won second prize.I was, in fact, the greatest second-prize winner of all time. More than Manon or the Marschallin, the Underdog has always been my favorite role. I loved the comfort of being number two—just high enough to make me feel validated but not so high that I felt the air getting thin. Being number two was a powerful incentive to keep me continually working and striving. I’m so goal oriented that I don’t know how my career would have turned out if I had found real success at such an early age. I felt as if the jury was saying to me, “You have promise,” rather than “You’re ready to have a career.”Not long after that, I was asked to represent Juilliard in South Africa. I had a lot of doubts about going there during apartheid, but I wanted to see things for myself. I lived in Johannesburg for a month with an Afrikaner family while I sang in Pretoria. There was political struggle and unrest in the country, yet at the same time it was an absolute paradise of physical beauty. The trip broadened my experience in a way that makes me believe strongly that all young people should travel if they possibly can. In South Africa I had the opportunity to reprise my role as the Underdog, coming in second to Marion Moore, an African-American soprano. Her victory made an enormous statement, and I was grateful that I was there to see her win. It was a rare meeting of music and politics.Even though I relished second place, I was not above taking some pleasure in a win. I finally landed first prize in a competition in Verviers, Belgium, at the end of my Fulbright stay. Rodney Gilfry, the wonderful American baritone, and I were there together, staying with a family who didn’t speak a word of English, and between the two of us we managed about three sentences of French. Rodney was hysterically funny, and for the two weeks we were there I never stopped laughing, which I’ve always thought was the reason I won. We saw one contestant faint dead away two phrases into her aria and wondered how much of a deterrent this would be to her, like the tenor who suffered the earthquake in Chile. Years later Rodney and I premiered Stanley and Blanche in André Previn’sA Streetcar Named Desire;he still makes me laugh.I went on to sing in several competitions in Germany, but I never got very far, which once again proves the theory that my greatest victories were often in losing. If I had won first prize in a major competition in Germany, I most likely would have stayed in the German system. Looking back, I’m sure my voice would not have withstood the rigors of aFest,or fixed contract, with demands to sing many different roles, sometimes back-to-back, because my technique simply wasn’t secure enough. The German network of theaters functions quite differently from those in the United States and the rest of Europe in that it is somewhat insular. Unless one is fortunate enough to break out, one rarely has an international career. The trade-off is a civil servant’s security, great benefits, and the only place in the opera world where a singer can practice his art full-time, and in one country. It is a great foundation for raising children and a fulfilling home life.During my Fulbright, I sang in the Munich competition, which is a high-flying operation with television coverage, contracts, and prize money. I made it, I believe, to the third round. The following year I went back and was released in the first round. The only one as disappointed in my performance as I was, was my pianist, who said, “You know, Renée, just go. Don’t do this anymore, just go work.”Although I didn’t realize it at the time, a big part of my problem wasn’thowI was singing butwhatI was singing. I was still being far too ambitious about the arias I chose. There was no such thing as a career adviser back then, so I didn’t have anyone guiding me on how I should be presenting myself. I thought I would impress people by performing extremely difficult music, so I sang Lulu’s aria by Alban Berg, the first-act scena fromLa Traviata,Constanze’s arias, and other music that was simply beyond me vocally at that time—not to mention obscure Wolf lieder. I feared I would fail to attract any notice if I sang simple pieces, but really, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. If I had sung a soubrette aria—say, “Deh, vieni, non tardar” fromLe Nozze di Figaro—and shown that I had mastered it, just presented the sound of my voice, then I think things would have come together for me much sooner. Still, I’m glad success didn’t come quickly, because I really couldn’t count on my high notes yet, and sooner or later anyone who hired me was going to find that out. It took a few more years of struggle before I could approach a high note without a creeping sense of panic. Was it going to come out this time, squawk, or abandon me altogether? Since there was nothing left for me in Germany, I came back to New York for another semester at Juilliard. By now I was completely confused. Of the many vocal souvenirs I’d brought home with me, one was Schwarzkopf ’s covering, a technique Beverley didn’t believe in and wouldn’t teach. She was adamant that I give up the concept altogether, which sent me into a complete crisis. Being someone who likes to take polls, I was forever going up to people and saying, “Okay, covering sounds like this”—then I’d sing them a line—“and not covering sounds like this”—and I’d sing the same line again. “Which one do you prefer?” It was all about sound, tone, and projection: What’s more beautiful? What works better? Ultimately, I realized that Beverley didn’t mind covering per se, but had been urging me to avoid it because she didn’t want me toovercover. It all goes back to teachers’ and students’ finding a way to communicate about the voice. It’s a bit like talking about God: you almost have to talk around it, because there is no exact language for the thing itself. And the lack of an exact language is always going to cause a great deal of misunderstanding. The frustrating thing is that while I’m perfectly capable of making a decision by myself on most subjects, I can’t remove my ears from my body and place them in the back of the room for a vocal check. What we hear while we’re singing just isn’t true, so we are always dependent on someone we trust to take the role of our “outside ears.”
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In fact I was obviously overdoing the covering, because when I came back to New York everyone kept saying to me, “What happened to your voice?”“What happened to your voice?” is not a question a singer wants to hear.What had happened was that not only was I working in a repertoire I couldn’t master, but I was now trying to make beautiful sounds that were more suited to lieder in a small room than to opera. The result was that my voice had shrunk and moved to the back of my throat. Now I had a lot of work ahead of me to undo all the work I’d been doing. The confusing part was that this new sound I was making was lovely in my own ear, in my mind’s ear, so I didn’t believe Beverley when she told me that I should stop singing this way.Along with this confusion came a fresh wave of stage fright, since I now felt unsure of every note. I sang in a master class at Juilliard that fall and broke down in tears, saying, “I just can’t do this!” Fortunately, Jan DeGaetani was passing through town the same day, and after I finished bemoaning my fate she said, “I never won any competitions. Nobody ever handed me anything.” In short, she gave me a brisk slap and told me to get to work, which was exactly what I needed. She also mentioned that it looked as though I had tension in the muscles in my chest. That one comment sent me on another exploration of physical tension, which later provided another piece of the puzzle, as I tried to understand how I could possibly survive my choral singing job.In the end, I could see that what I had learned wasn’t wrong, but that I had simply taken it to an extreme. My task now was to incorporate a brighter, healthier, more open style of singing. Taking a vague vocal concept from another singer is a little bit like sinking your life’s savings into a stock tip you overhear at a cocktail party: even if there’s a momentary boom, chances are it’s not going to be the thing that sustains you into old age. Such is the potential danger of master classes, which can begin to seem like smoke-and-mirrors once the “idol” has boarded the plane a few hours later. You finally have to learn to pull all the different kinds of teaching and training and coaching together on your own, so that your voice and body and technique form a sound that is consistent and solid. It sounds simple enough, but it took me forever to achieve. Still, I wouldn’t want to be someone who did everything right from day one, because then I wouldn’t have any experience with correcting small changes in vocal production myself. I would have liked it if things had come together a little bit more easily, a little faster, but I also know it could have gone the other way and taken me five years longer than it did. After all this effort, I’m confident now that I know what I’m doing and I have the tools to maintain my voice.Even though this was a time in my life when a lot of things were going wrong, the most important thing was suddenly right: Beverley and I were now in a state of perfect communication. Ever since I’d come back from Germany, we’d been growing closer, and our relationship only continued to get better for the rest of her life. It turned out that she had been taking a lot of prescription drugs for minor ailments in the years before I left for Germany and she had no tolerance for them. She must have had one particularly horrible day while I was away, because she flushed every last pill down the toilet and went to a new doctor, John Postley, who told her she couldn’t take anything from then on, not even an aspirin; and it turned out to be exactly the advice she needed. She was a different person, energized and excited by the world again. In her eighties she was learning new things every day. She was obsessed with learning more about the voice, singing, and physiology. She loved doctors, and I suspect to a great degree they came to replace her husband. Besides, she was especially fond of Dr. Postley and the famous Dr. Wilbur Gould, ENT to the stars. She stayed in close contact with them not because she was ill—she was rarely ill again until the very end of her life—but it was because she wanted to talk to them about the body. She was constantly inspired and would come up with ingenious new exercises. I would ask, “How did you think of that?” and she would tell me, “I don’t think of it. It just comes. It flows through me.” It was the richest time in our working relationship, which at times could also be oddly reminiscent of that of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins. She wasn’t just working on my voice; she was working onme. She taught me how to walk and pick out dresses for auditions, how to stand, how to write a proper thank-you note, how to say no in a way that was kind but firm. I used to think, if only I’d known her in my jazz club days, she could have taught me the fine art of stage patter.We eventually became so attuned to each other that I could call her up from some foreign country and say, “You know, I’m having trouble with this note. Can I sing it to you over the phone?” and she always knew how to fix it. When I was especially nervous, she wrote me notes and e-mails that kept me on track.Dear One:Have you got a heating pad or hot-water bottle and a nice big bathtub that can be filled with warm water? Not too hot, just warmer than body heat. Now get into bed and put the heating pad on your neck and shoulders. Also, when you get into the tub of warm water, take a towel and wring it out of quite hot water and put it across your shoulders and then lie in the tub for at least twenty minutes counting from a hundred down. Don’t rub yourself, just pat dry and then put some moisturizer on and GO TO BED TRYING NOT TO WAKE UP AND SEE IF YOU AREN’T PHYSICALLY RELAXED. I BELIEVE MUSCLES TENSE UP TO MATCH ONE’S OWN INNER AND MENTAL TENSION.First, you KNOW HOW TO SING and telling yourself that will remind yourself how much you do know and how well you use that knowledge. There is NOTHING IN THIS PARTICULAR OPERA THAT YOU CAN’T HANDLE. That is the first thing to remind yourself of, and you have people around you that know it, too!!! Every one of your coworkers loves and respects you and will be helpful without their being aware of your tensions. I believe everyone at your level gets tense as they remember their responsibility. Try to snap your fingers at the so-called difficulties. They are there but you have handled much greater difficulties and come through with flying colors.I love you and believe in you all the way and now try to accept the way it is with being way up there!!! Prayers and belief.Always and always and always,BeverleyOne of the many gifts I got from Beverley, along with an enormous amount of comfort and love, was my top, my high notes. She taught me how to open the back of my mouth. When I came to her I was leaving virtually no space in the back of my mouth when I sang high notes, so in essence there was not enough room for them. It’s not enough merely to open your mouth by creating space between your upper and lower front teeth; the jaw must literally unhinge. What works best for me is a square position that runs from the opening of the mouth to the back of the throat—not a long, vertical oblong, but a more horizontal placement. Different singers use different openings. Sam Ramey’s long, narrow position has certainly worked well for him, but for my bone structure that approach would never enable me to move into my higher register. I tried it—and everything else, for that matter.I also had enough tongue tension to choke on, and I regularly did. My tongue wanted to fall back, basically inhibiting the larynx from hanging freely and thus strangling my high notes, sometimes creating a gargling sound, sometimes cutting them off altogether. It wasn’t pretty. Beverley would have me place a honey drop in the center indentation near the front of the tongue to tame its unruly wandering back and down. Not wanting to choke on the foreign object, the back of the tongue rises slightly and stays forward. One has to keep the tongue relaxed and ungrooved as well, resting softly behind the front of the bottom teeth. With the honey drop, the only scales that can be performed are on anahvowel, as any other vowel would indeed put one in danger of choking. Then I had to learn how to lift my soft palate. Using hardkandgexercises helped it to gain flexibility, and even plugging my nose as I moved up into the top of my range was useful. Every time I had a cold, I sang better, since this blockage somehow helped me to relax the palate into position.Covering came back into play when I picked up the “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’sRusalkaagain. This aria not only gave me so much of my success then and now but taught me how to sing the “money” note, a soprano’s B-flat. It was that blessed B-flat sung on anevowel that led me to find the exact right combination of a square opening in the back of my mouth and a relaxed, low mental image of pitch. When I’m singing well, two and a half octaves feel like five pitches. There is absolutely no sense of an up-and-down direction, but only a forward one, which is led and never pushed. My top feels as if I’m not hitting high notes at all, but still singing comfortably in my middle range.None of these concepts on its own creates good high notes. I had to coordinate them all, while never losing the forward direction of my sound. (Holding a pencil between my teeth while singing on anevowel helped reestablish the correct position if I got too far back in resonance.) The subtle interplay of all of these ideas with the body can ultimately produce a sound that is completely natural. Once I managed to figure all this out, listeners would tell me how fortunate I was to be born singing so easily. The first few times I heard this comment, I was frustrated, wanting my hard work to be acknowledged, but eventually I realized that this was the very compliment I should welcome, as it meant that everything was working properly and that the seams weren’t showing.I helped the search for the high notes along by incorporating some of the more finely tuned breath concepts I had been working on. I watched countless videos of singers and learned an incredible amount by studying how they used their mouths, how they held their chests, how they would take a breath. Watching Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, live, in a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall helped me to understand further the importance of chest expansion. He looked like a pigeon when he sang late in his career, with his chest puffed up to the extreme. From watching videos, I came to realize that all the great singers of that generation sang with very big, high chests. I don’t think that I ever supported properly until I figured that out. Tapes of the oldBell Telephone Hourprogram from the sixties, or in fact of any compilation of singers, should be a requirement for every vocal department in every music school in the country. I had the chance to watch Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Anna Moffo, Joan Sutherland, and all of the other wonderful singers of that era. Because they were all singing in television studios, I could really view them close up. So much can be gained from watching other singers, seeing what they do and what they don’t do, seeing how they look when they breathe, how wide they open their mouths for a high note.Another of the missing pieces of the voice puzzle came from an unlikely source: my job singing in churches. Choir singing is deathly difficult for a soprano, because choir directors are always telling us to blend, which requires mostly soft, high passaggio singing. I would die whenever I attempted this, for I was strangling, thinking I was never going to be able to sustain it.If the choirmaster’s so interested in soft singing, then why don’t we just drop out altogether? In fact, why doesn’t he just get rid of three of us sopranos? It felt impossible and frustrating to constantly have to hold back. But what I had been trying so hard to understand about support in school I finally understood when I was in church. I made the connection between intercostal expansion—the expansion of the muscles between the ribs—and the relatively high chest position I had observed in all of the great singers I’d been watching. I kept my shoulders relaxed, as well as my back, trapezius, and neck. I remembered what Jan had said about tension, and when I began to experiment with an even fuller expansion of my chest when I took a breath, I suddenly felt as if I had no neck. It seemed as if the distance between my chin and my chest was growing shorter and shorter, and that my neck was spreading out and in a sense dissolving into my shoulders. As a result, I never needed to reach my chin up for a pitch again. The other key was making sure I didn’t sing with any pressure in the voice. I realized that I had been singing with a high larynx for years. Every time I finished practicing, my speaking voice would be up an octave, and that’s a sure sign that tension exists somewhere it shouldn’t. Soon I was singing comfortably in the passaggio, and for long stretches—something I would need for a lot of the Mozart repertoire I eventually specialized in, not to mention Strauss’sDaphne,which involves extreme singing at its most intense. It’s so important that a young singer—and really, anyone at any stage of her career—remain open-minded, for you never know where you’re going to learn your lessons.Once I got a taste for singing softer, I was adamant about learning how to sing softly. I was in awe of Montserrat Caballé, who was famous for her pianissimo. She seemed to be able to use that skill at will, anytime, in any place, and in any piece. It was a spectacularly beautiful sound. Some would criticize it as an effect, but I loved it nonetheless. With Beverley’s help, I began to find this space, which involved two concepts. First, I learned to aim the sound mentally into the two slight indentations on either side of the nostrils. The result is not at all a nasal sound, but this technique aids in focusing the use of resonance and in lifting the soft palate. I still use this concept often, particularly in extended passaggio and pianissimo singing. Second, I imagined leading the tone rather than pushing it. It was helpful to visualize this process with images like serving the tone to the audience on a platter, pulling taffy with a phrase, or extending spaghetti out of my forehead to the back of the hall. (Food-related images work well with singers, of course.) The best exercise for practicing these ideas is themessa di voce—which begins very softly on one tone, crescendos to a forte as loudly as is comfortable, and then scales down to pianissimo again—moving evenly up and down the chromatic half-steps on a scale. This is a painstaking and slow process, but it can teach all there is to know about dynamic control.
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There are many pieces involved in assembling the puzzle of the voice, and no one teacher can provide everything that is needed. I can still trace the origins of all the key elements of my own voice: the foundation from my mother and then Pat Misslin, the most important pieces and a solid understanding of technique from Beverley, the contributions from Schwarzkopf, from Jan DeGaetani, and from choral singing. These were all crucial components, but there were also dozens of smaller lessons from other coaches and teachers along the way, and I brought them all together in incremental stages. I still discover something new with every engagement. Today, it often involves learning how to incorporate new repertoire and how to manage the voice from day to day, when stress, fear and other emotions, hormones, acoustics, colds and other health issues, diet, and the interpersonal dynamic of a cast and conductor can all have an effect on my singing. I look back at myself at six, sixteen, and twenty-six, and I reflect on how much of my identity was tied to my relationships with my teachers. I never stopped being a good student, for I genuinely like to learn and I have always been eager to please. Even after I left Juilliard and began to make my way in the world, I still worked with Beverley, and I always kept my eye out for other people who had something to offer. I found a whole new crop of mentors when I was a young adult, and I found them in a group of women some might regard as a highly unlikely source of sisterly support: other sopranos.Sopranos are burdened with a stereotype that is rivaled perhaps only by librarians and mothers-in-law: we are, as a group, invariably labeled divas and prima donnas, though neither term had a negative connotation in its original usage. We are selfish, high maintenance, and hugely demanding. We drink only Swedish spring water without ice from a Lalique glass that has been chilled to exactly sixty-seven degrees; if it is sixty-eight degrees, we simply will not perform. We call our managers from the backs of our limousines so that they can call our drivers and ask them to adjust the air-conditioning. We wear scarves copiously, and preferably Hermès, Gucci, or Loro Piana. We speak in high voices, à la Julia Child, in a “continental” nonaccent; or we don’t speak at all, but write on little personalized pads; or if we’re terribly modern, we type on our tiny laptops or personal organizers, which are also cell phones, iPods, Palm Pilots, and digital cameras. We travel with an entourage of assistants, so we needn’t actually speak with a hotel receptionist or flight attendant (what a waste of the five thousand utterances we may have left), a dresser, hairdresser, and, as I recently observed of a very famous tenor, a personal hat maker. Before performances we eat only carbs, avoiding apples and any gas-inducing vegetable, or we eat only protein, and apples to combat phlegm. We never consume an acid-producing tomato sauce or spicy food, and we wouldn’t dream of eating past seven p.m. for fear of causing the dreaded reflux (I’m crossing myself ten times in both the Western and Russian ways just thinking about it). We drink lactose-free, low-sodium, soy-based, and decaf everything. We don’t drink alcohol before a performance, since it dries the throat. We instruct our secretaries to call ahead and make sure our hotel rooms have not one but two humidifiers running at least twenty-four hours in advance of our arrival. We have not touched our own luggage since we graduated from high school, lest we stress the trapezius. We wear spike heels and have our hair teased, straightened, colored (an absolute three-color minimum), and cut to within an inch of its life for rehearsals. Some of us wouldn’t feel dressed without false eyelashes, while others won’t allow anyone in the theater to actually look at them. We’re not very collegial, especially within our own voice type—i.e., with the competition. Did I miss a stereotype? Trust me, I’ve heard them all, even though I’ve seen little to support these images. I much more often encounter a group of generous women who are happy to share what they know.The first in my own career was Renata Scotto, who kindly gave me a private lesson in Beverley’s apartment in advance of Scotto’s master class at Juilliard. She laid the music out in front of me and told me to read what was on the page, to do that and nothing else. “Just sing what the composer asked you to sing,” she instructed. Because Scotto is famous for being a brilliant singing actress, I had thought she would care more about the theatrical values than musical ones, but I was wrong. She has enormous integrity and intelligence. During a conversation at the end of the lesson, she said, “Have children.” I was young at the time, and that was a subject I hadn’t even begun to think about. She told me that after she had had her son, she approached singing from a much healthier perspective. “I don’t live or die on the stage every night,” she explained. “I have more than that in my life.”When I met Joan Sutherland, I actually was pregnant with my first child. (Good student that I am, I had taken Scotto’s advice.) I was singing in Geneva—my debut inCosì fan tutte—and my manager, Merle Hubbard, drove me up to the mountain chalet where Sutherland lives with her husband, the conductor Richard Bonynge. It was for me, as it would be for anyone who loves opera, a dream come true. The Bonynges’ living room was painted a dark hunter green, and every inch of its walls was covered with drawings or needlepoint. The entire house was full of needlepoint, which was Sutherland’s hobby between acts, while traveling, and while waiting around at rehearsals. Bonynge was an avid collector, and he had stacks upon stacks of original manuscripts and scores, including first editions of obscure Massenet operas that he brought out to show us. I had a chance to gingerly ask Joan Sutherland a few questions about singing, and what I most wanted to know about was her extreme high notes. How had she managed to sing them? She told me she aimed them directionally, not just out of the front but more toward the back of her head as she climbed into the stratosphere. She also said she loved not singing anymore; her grandchildren were the greatest joy in her life. “Absolutely have children, and don’t worry about when. Years after the last engagement, a beautiful child will be loved, and the engagement will be completely forgotten.” It was her most impassioned piece of advice.Marilyn Horne has been a great friend ever since we sang together in John Corigliano’sThe Ghosts of Versailles. I love her no-nonsense, down-to-earth style. She knows what she thinks and she’ll always tell you. One day during rehearsals, I took her aside and told her that someone had asked me about singing Norma. She stared directly at me and said, “OOOOOH, no, you don’t! I’ll tell you right now that role would be a terrible mistake for you.” And of course, she was exactly right at the time. I had asked Joan Sutherland about it, too. “It’s not that there is anything on the page that is so difficult,” she explained. “It’s just that the role is incredibly long. One has to have an enormous amount of stamina to get through it.” Fortunately, though I have tended to consistently work too much and have been known to spread myself too thin, I’ve always been naturally disinclined to take on anything that has the potential to harm my voice.Marilyn has also been a real mentor to me, advising me about repertoire. She suggested that we do an album together, for which we rehearsed, but after both of us became ill during two different scheduled recording periods, the record company gave up on us. She’s always been so generous whenever I’ve called on her, as has Frederica von Stade, who helped me through a difficult personal time. Singers don’t get together just to talk about music, after all.When I think of the remarkable singers I’ve met in my life, the one who took my breath away was Leontyne Price. She had said to a mutual friend not long ago, “Tell Renée I would like to meet with her,” and so I went down to her home in Greenwich Village, a house that once belonged to the first mayor of New York.Though I was paying my first visit to her home, it was not the first time I had met Miss Price. When I was ten years old, my mother took me to see her in a song recital at the Eastman Theatre. After the performance, we stood in a long line that wound up a narrow staircase, all of us wanting to pay our respects to her backstage. I listened to my mother talking to another music teacher about Miss Price’s technique, how her neck stayed soft and showed no signs of strain when she sang, and they agreed that this was something of a miracle, considering the power of her voice. This conversation, the hushed and serious discussion of her voice, was indelibly etched in my memory. I nodded slowly in agreement, feeling as if I had just been allowed into some exclusive club. When we got close enough to see her, I watched as she signed programs and greeted fans, one after another; but when my turn came, she smiled hugely and took my hand. I told her I wanted to be just like her, even though I didn’t understand precisely what that meant at the time. I doubt I even meant that I wanted to sing like her; I simply wanted to have her beauty and power and presence. She wrote out my name across my program—“To Dear Renée”—and then signed her own name close to mine with a flourish. I walked down the staircase pressing it to my heart.Of course, I told her none of this when we met again. I am old enough myself to know how often a soprano hears “You’ve been my role model since I was ten years old.” None of us likes to be reminded of our relationship to time. “Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding,” to quote the Marschallin inDer Rosenkavalier. I simply shook her hand as I had done the first time and told her what an honor it was to meet her.When I walked in the door, the first things I noticed were nineteen Grammys displayed on a table in the living room. I could only think,If I work for the rest of my life I will never achieve anything like this. Miss Price was surprisingly petite and still very beautiful, and she paced the room while she spoke. “It’s funny the way people talk about the voice as if it is a separate entity, like it’s another being separate from us,” she said. “It’s not.” She had put the needs of her voice first for her entire life, and as long as her voice was in top condition, she was fine. Her voice was her comfort, and she had lived for the gift she had received.She stopped her pacing for a moment, looked at me firmly, and said, “I called you because of what you’re going through right now. I thought you might need some advice. You’re experiencing the noise.”“The noise?” I asked.“The noise, the hype, the demands that are being made on you from all corners.” She talked about people literally crowding around me, wanting this and demanding that.“Miss Price,” I asked, “would you mind if I took notes?” I was in school again, but she was more preacher than teacher, so impassioned was her speech. She nodded her head and I began to write.“You have to learn to tune out all of the noise and focus on one thing.”I looked up at her, and she tapped an index finger against her throat. “This is all that matters. Because the minute this goes, they’ll disappear so fast you won’t even know what happened.”And of course she was right. It was a moment of complete clarity.“I feel intuitively that you are in a place right now where you need to hear these things. You’re confused and torn by the decisions your success is forcing you to make. The priority is to stay focused here.” She pointed to her throat again.She said she wanted to be helpful because she thought we had some similarities. We were both what she called “three-prong singers,” which meant that we sang not just opera but recitals with piano and concerts with orchestra. She spoke of the strength she had developed when she faced tremendous racism at the beginning of her career. When she first toured with the Met, she was not allowed to stay at the same hotels as the rest of the singers and was forbidden to enter the theater by the same doors. Time after time she made her debut in houses where no black artist had ever sung before. But she always took the high road and maintained her dignity, over time developing a self-protective persona.She had had a career of extraordinary longevity, touring and singing into her seventies, but she had handled herself with tenderness and care. She never went to the theater, never went to hear other singers, explaining that she preferred to avoid the drafts created by air-conditioning. She had little interest in the business outside of her own career. After she retired from the operatic stage, she sang recitals and premiered the music of American composers, giving back to the profession, which adored her. She would sing a recital program that wasn’t especially strenuous or long, but then would return to the stage and sing six demanding arias back-to-back as encores—a feat I couldn’t imagine having the stamina to accomplish even now. Whenever people ask me about my favorite voices, hers is always the first one that springs to mind. I used to joke that I was hoping for her high C in my next life.When I was leaving, I stood at the door and held her hand. I felt as if I was touching someone who was a sacred part of musical history. I thought of how one day I would say to my grandchildren, “I once held the hand of Leontyne Price.”“I can’t begin to thank you for being so generous,” I said.“I can tell you this, I can be generous with you because I can still sing all of my roles.” She looked at me hard. “And I can still sing them in their original keys!” In short, she wanted me to know that if there was ever an occasion for us to be in competition, she could go head-to-head with me any day.And there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that she would win—over me, over any of us—every single time.CHAPTER FIVESUCCESS    PICTURE THE EDUCATION of an opera singer as a beautiful country—say, England—full of museums and concert halls, palaces and rose gardens, where people can study and learn and grow. Now picture a career as a successful opera star as another country—say, France—and imagine it as being full of culture and couture, Champagne and the Eiffel Tower, where the power of a single voice is lauded and adored. Now picture the English Channel separating those two countries, with its icy gray waters and choppy waves. Having completed my stay at Juilliard in 1987, I found myself stranded on the English side with no boat, no plane, and no Chunnel, trying to figure out how to get across.
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I had loved my student days, and between college, graduate school, the postgraduate program at Juilliard, and the Fulbright grant in Germany, I had hung on to them for as long as possible. I was accustomed to living in a world where people told me what they expected of me and I worked hard to meet those expectations. But so little of what I learned seemed to have any bearing on this new period of my life. For competitions or apprenticeships, I would go into an audition room and sing for a group of people. In return they would look at me, unimpressed, and tell me no. They didn’t invite me to try again, or ask me what I could sing that might better reveal my talents. They wouldn’t even tell me what I was doing wrong. It was simply “Thank you,” and then the next soprano would come in and take her shot at it.For potential engagements, the catch-22 was that it was very hard to get an audition if you didn’t have a manager, and it was almost impossible to get a manager unless you’d won an audition. Beverley, as usual, paved the way by introducing me to a friend of hers, Merle Hubbard from the Herbert Breslin Agency. I sang for him at Beverley’s, and while he was very encouraging, he didn’t sign me. He promised to stay in touch, and I was back to auditioning for summer apprenticeships, competitions, and studio programs.For all the progress I had made with my voice and with languages, style, and musicianship over the years, I had advanced very little in my auditioning skills. I was fine on the stage once the part was mine and I could concentrate on working out its nuances, but in auditions I inevitably felt insecure. Everything about me had the air of an apology. I continued to believe that it was my job to impress people, to dazzle them with my bold choices, so I persisted in singing pieces that were beyond my technique. I auditioned with lyric and dramatic coloratura arias such as “Qui la voce” fromI Puritani,when I should have been singing something like Musetta’s Waltz. Alternatively, I would select pieces that were perfect for my voice, but not perfect for an audition. I still refused to part with Anne Trulove’s “No word from Tom,” for example, which at that time seemed simply too long to hold a jury’s interest. While a student at the Aspen Music Festival, I had the opportunity to audition for August Everding, the great Munich intendant. Feeling very much in the know about the German theater system and its devotion to new and difficult music, I figured I had a leg up on everyone else there by choosing the Stravinsky aria. Mr. Everding, however, leaned over to the audition assistant and asked, “Why on earth is she wasting my time with this awful piece?” The faster you can go in there and show them what you’re made of, the happier they’re going to be. If there’s some other aspect of your voice they want to hear, they’ll ask.Choosing repertoire is a critical part of a great presentation. Some juries will want to hear only the most popular pieces, which give them a standard by which to judge you. Other, more experienced judges will throw your biography in the trash if you force them to listen to yet another Juliette’s Waltz. They would be interested instead to hear one of the two never-sung short arias fromThaïs. It is often difficult to second-guess any jury, but for an audition like the regional Met finals, tried-and-true might be safer. For a large company or studio program, which typically has a jury that auditions hundreds of singers every year, something off the beaten track might be refreshing to tired ears. If nothing else, you would be presenting yourself as an inquisitive and thoughtful musician. Since five arias are often requested, a mixture of both might be the most solid choice.Since there was no such reference book asThe Soprano’s Handbook for Landing a Spot at the Met,I had no choice but to keep dusting myself off and trying again. At one point, an acquaintance asked me to audition for a competition with which she was involved. I was excited because it was clear that she was familiar with my talent and would put in a good word for me. It was a three-round competition, and after I sang the first round I felt that I had done my best, but I was immediately passed over. It was too much. I went to my sister’s apartment in abject despair.“You can’tinvitesomeone to sing and then kick them out in the first round!” I complained. “I hadn’t even planned to go to the audition. They pulled me in just to squash me!”“You just had an off day,” Rachelle said.“When am I going to face up to the truth? I have to stop doing this. I have to get a job. I have to get going with my life. How many people have to tell me they don’t want me before I start to get the message?”“Renée, you have the talent, and you’ve worked so hard. You know that.”But I felt that I couldn’t stand the rejection anymore; I was wearing down.Rachelle put her arms around me and then took me out for a cup of coffee. Over the course of an hour she very gently talked me down from the ledge on which I was so precariously perched.There are some things that a book can teach you, and others you figure out just by virtue of showing up over and over again. Through the latter method I finally learned to use my acting ability when making a presentation. I still might not have felt completely confident, but then again, I hadn’t felt like a coquette when I was rehearsing the role of Musetta. If I was a good enough actress to fake sexual confidence, then I surely could fake self-confidence as well. Simply losing the self-consciousness that was immediately apparent in my presentation was difficult, if not impossible, because I knew I was being scrutinized—which is, after all, the whole point of being in an audition. So I pretended. I learned to enter the room with a warm smile, to introduce my pieces without mumbling, to suppress the apologetic body language and nervous twitches and shuffling feet. Naturally, my being at ease put the jury at ease as well. Although I was still having a hard time grasping the fact that they didn’t actually want or expect me to fail, I learned not to stare the judges down or sing directly to them, as they probably weren’t eager to feel my adrenaline-crazed eyes pinning them to the back wall. If I was performing a declamatory piece that required contact with the audience, I would include them, but if it was an interior piece or a dialogue with another character, I found I was better off picking a focus that was just over their heads or to the right or the left of them.It is always critical in an audition to tell whatever story you have to tell, to enact your dramatic scene and let that process take the place of vocal self-consciousness and whatever terror you’re feeling. Staying connected to the text can help you avoid the following inner dialogue:Watch me tense up as I lead up to the phrase with the high B.Yup, I’ve stopped acting altogether, my fists are clenched and my legsare shaking, but wasn’t that a good turn of phrase there? And howabout that pianissimo?Darn! While patting myself on the back about nailing that last pitch,I lost my concentration, and that long decrescendo that was goingso well just ended in a machine-gun stutter.And while worrying about its ending badly, I forgot to prepare for thetop phrase, and now it’s too late.I’m trying not to grimace, but I can’t help it.The extra tension provided,thank you very much,by my nerves hasjust caused me to blow the top B-flat, and at the same time my peripheralvision just saw my right arm rise in perfect Frankensteinfashion, seemingly unattached to the rest of my body, as the perfectvisual accompaniment to this perfect disaster.I can see the disappointment on your faces.You were hoping you could choose me and pay lip service to the othertwo hundred sopranos waiting outside the door.Once, my accompanist got lost on the last page of music after a cut, and despite a bit of fumbling to find his place, he finally simply stopped playing. I kept on going and reached up for the high E-flat at the end, but without piano support, I was so distracted that my top note, which would have been difficult in the best of situations, was quite simply a scream. The two judges immediately hunched over, shoulders shaking, pretending to write furiously in the hopes of disguising their laughter—not that I could blame them.The sad Murphy’s Law of auditioning dictated that at exactly the moment when I became good at it, I no longer needed to be, for I was finally getting hired without submitting to this difficult and sometimes humiliating process. Try to make the experience your friend far sooner than I did. I’ve given enough master classes by now to know that the thing that really distinguishes an individual, voice and singing aside, is Personality with a capitalP. Charisma. Touch me, move me, take me out of this stuffy little room with its fluorescent lights and dropped ceiling, its linoleum floor and badly tuned upright piano. I want to hold Rodolfo’s hand while he tenderly explains his life, all the while seducing me—er, I mean, Mimì. That kind of conviction and engagement will win the audition and, later, the audience.In the end, I felt things really started to turn around for me when I began auditioning with the “Song to the Moon” fromRusalka.It wasn’t a widely known aria yet, but it was perfectly suited to my temperament and voice. It was Merle Hubbard—who, true to his word, did continue to check in with me from time to time—who had suggested that I sing it. Not only had I learned to sing it in English at Potsdam with Pat, but I later studied it in Czech while at Eastman. My friend Charles Nelson Reilly sent me a Dorothy Maynor recording of the aria and told me about her extraordinary career. Maynor was a wonderful African-American soprano who was never invited to sing opera on any of the major stages, and so made a concert niche for herself in much the same way Marian Anderson had. She provided a wonderful service to music lovers by recording unusual and obscure repertoire, which she sang with a voice of unparalleled sweetness. Charles always maintained that it should have been her recording of the aria in the filmDriving Miss Daisy,because she deserved the recognition and because her recording actually coincided with the period of the film. Once I picked up the aria again, it felt as if I were slipping my hand inside a glove. This coincided with the period in which the aria’s final B-flat, because of the approach to the note and the vowel involved, enabled me to crack the problem of how to sing above the staff. The ease with which I performed the piece gave me confidence, and this confidence in turn helped me to embark on the beginning of my career.Dear Richard Bado, my friend and accompanist from Eastman who had played for me at my disastrous first audition for the Met competition, was at that time working for the Houston Grand Opera. He suggested I audition for its young artists program and promised to give me a good character reference and perhaps pave the way for me if he could. Once I passed the first round in New York, I was flown to Houston for the finals, where David Gockley, still the acclaimed general director; Scott Heumann, the artistic administrator; and the composer Carlisle Floyd made up the jury. The audition was set up as a competition for a place in the studio program, which I won, but at the end they took me aside and said, “We really think you’re beyond the studio level. We’re going to keep you in mind for a main-stage role.”Beyond the studio level? I hadn’t come close to being accepted by any of the studio programs, and now I was beyond them? I felt as if I had been toiling away trying to get a spot in the secretarial pool and was now being handed the keys to the executive washroom. I floated back to New York on a cloud—though still without any work.More good news came quickly after that. I won the Metropolitan Opera competition a few months later in a year when the other winners included Ben Heppner, my friend Susan Graham, and Heidi Grant Murphy. A week later, I won the George London Prize. Fortunately, grants from the Shoshana Foundation, the Sullivan Foundation, and the Musicians Emergency Fund had been supporting me with the money I desperately needed to pay for voice lessons and coachings in preparation for this sudden rash of wins. Nothing succeeds like success. I finally had my arias worked out, my confidence in place; and when Merle Hubbard signed me, I then had a manager as well. Drenched, frozen, exhausted, and completely exhilarated, I was pulling myself out of the English Channel and onto the glorious shore of France. In all my years as a student, I had been undermined by a very negative inner voice, a little nattering in my ear that said, “Don’t do that. . . . Don’t do this. . . . That’s awful. . . . What a horrible sound! . . . You’re grabbing. . . . You’re holding. . . . Your breath is tight. . . . Your tongue has gone back. . . . Your palate is down. . . . The top is spread. . . . Relax your shoulders!” I carried inside me a running monologue of nagging complaints that wore me down as effectively as any rejection from an opera house ever did, and so I made a very conscious effort to rid myself of it. I read books likeThe Soprano on Her Head, Zen and the Art of Archery,andPerformance Anxiety,and I came to the conclusion that it was as essential for me to work on my attitude as it was to work on my voice. I decided that I was going to start repeating mantras to myself, to fill my head full of positive thoughts to counteract the infinite loop of negativity I was feeding into my subconscious. I would ride the subway between Queens, where I was then living, and Manhattan, saying to myself, “Iwillwin the Met competition. Iwillwin the Met competition. No, Iamwinning the Met competition.” I found that if I gave myself a list of positive tasks to concentrate on during a performance or an audition, I would have something to think about other than the success or failure of the aria at hand. Without those tasks, fears would start to creep in. I always did better when my mind was occupied. I would think,Tonight my job is to keep the back of my neck open, relaxed, and free. I will find more space in the back of my mouth for my high notes while easing up on my breath pressure, so that I’m not forcing them out. I will review the text carefully before the performance, so that when I go out it will be fresher and clearer and delineated with more detail. I will keep my visual focus simpler and not become distracted by the audience. With every performance I tried to come up with something new, something positive to focus on, instead of something negative to worry about. I still use this technique when singing multiple performances of the same piece, and for exactly the same reason.
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Unless someone is universally lauded as the talent of the century at the age of twenty-three and it’s obvious to everyone that she is going straight to the top, what a singer needs more than anything else to get a career going is one brave impresario who is willing to take a chance and put his or her stamp of approval on her. Because it is an impresario’s job to discover talent, it would seem that this should happen regularly, but somehow it doesn’t. What they’re looking for is someone with buzz. Buzz is critical to a young singer’s career, but it always comes down to who is willing to start it. Who wants to risk being wrong? For me, it was David Gockley and Scott Heumann who gave me my first, unequivocal, important vote of confidence. Based on my Houston studio audition, Scott hired me to sing a concert of bel canto scenes in Omaha, Nebraska. A duet from Donizetti’s rareMaria Padillawas so successful that I was hired back to sing the entire opera. This experience solidified my love of the bel canto repertoire, which I would pursue further with Eve Queler in New York. We sadly lost Scott Heumann soon after to AIDS. Speight Jenkins, of the Seattle Opera, was also one of the few impresarios to take a chance on unknowns. Based on our Metropolitan National Council Auditions wins, he brought Susan Graham, Ben Heppner, and me to Seattle for a production of my belovedRusalkain 1990. If Speight had bet his life savings on those three young singers’ having stellar futures, he probably could have retired. This is the joy of discovering young talent, for the casting directors in whose hands our potential lies, and for the audiences and aficionados alike. For the three of us, it was simply wonderful to have a real live engagement.Shortly thereafter, and true to their word, I got a phone call from the people at the Houston Grand Opera saying they’d had a cancellation in the role of the Countess inLe Nozze di Figaro,and could I be ready to sing the part in two weeks? This, I knew, would be the single biggest turning point in my professional career. I threw myself into learning the role, spending hour after hour trying to perfect the pronunciation of each word. The Italian recitatives are among the most difficult aspects of singing a Mozart opera. These declamatory sections, accompanied by harpsichord and cello alone, which are half-sung, half-spoken dialogue between the arias, move the story forward and require an exhaustive understanding of the language. It was a huge amount of work, but I loved it and felt as if I were in school again. Finally, I wasn’t trying out for the part; Ihadthe part, and now I could settle down into the work of it, which was the place I felt most comfortable.Houston was presenting Göran Järvefelt’s Drottningholm production ofFigaro,which remains one of my favorites among the many I’ve appeared in. Unlike most productions, which focus on Figaro and Susanna, this one centered on the Countess as its driving force. Small wonder that I found it so appealing. I was onstage with Thomas Allen and Susanne Mentzer, among others. The standards of the cast were so high that it seemed as if I’d moved from the wading pool to the ocean overnight. Tom Allen, especially, is such a brilliant actor that I literally felt as if I were on fire when I had a scene with him. You can study in the classroom forever, but to rehearse on the stage with a great actor is the fastest way to refine your own skills overnight. His delivery of recitative is among the finest and most imaginative I have ever heard. It was Tom who suggested that I might add to my list of positive tasks a change in the way I presented the character, just to keep performances fresh. He made his Count Almaviva a seducer one night and an abuser the next. Just to react to him while staying in character and managing to get through my lines without stumbling took every bit of training, talent, and courage that I had.Christoph Eschenbach, the new music director of the Houston Symphony, was also making his operatic debut in Houston conducting ourFigaroproduction. Christoph took me under his wing and worked with me every day, a practice that is, unfortunately, highly unusual in today’s opera houses. Conductors rarely have the time to help young singers now, or the desire to do so. It’s not that they aren’t generous—as a group, conductors, and other musicians tend to be very generous people—but there are simply never enough hours in the day, and the tradition of conductors’ learning their craft as repetiteurs, or musical coaches, in the theater is gone. So when Christoph gave so freely of his time and talent, we formed a deep and lasting bond. He gave me inspiration, which is what great conductors can offer to singers, and in turn, I trusted him. He urged me to push myself to greater heights, to take risks, to sing and express music in ways I wouldn’t have been brave enough to manage on my own.This was especially true for my performance of “Dove sono,” the cornerstone of the role of the Countess, and the aria that really launched my career. It was at once my signature piece and my personal cross to bear. It is terrifying because it is so sustained and exposed, and because its tessitura (or median range) lies consistently in the passaggio, which makes it uncomfortable to sing. Add to that the fact that there are virtually no interludes in which to rest muscles that are beginning to tighten, leading to the vocal equivalent of repetitive stress syndrome. Oddly enough, I never had any problems with the Countess’s other great aria, “Porgi amor,” which, though equally exposed, moves more and doesn’t lie quite so unrelentingly in one place. What Christoph had me do with “Dove sono” was to sing the aria slowly, and then sing the repeat, or da capo, even slower and very softly. The risk in that interpretation was that my voice would give way altogether or falter, and I was prolonging the very elements of the aria that intimidated me in the first place. But in singing, as with many things, it’s the risks that always bring about enormous gains.The production was a huge success. I was paid approximately $12,000 for the entire run, which was a staggering amount of money considering that $300 a week was the most I’d ever earned before that. I was launched, I was rich, and I was incredibly happy. I went home to New York and made plans to get married. Within a couple of months of my moving to New York to study at Juilliard, I had started dating Rick Ross, a young actor working as the orchestra manager on the production staff. But it wasn’t until I moved away to Germany for the Fulbright the following year that we really became close. He wrote me beautiful letters every day, filled with stories and affection. He explained that he wrote to me so often because when he had been in the army stationed in Korea, he hadn’t received much mail from home, and he wanted to make sure I didn’t feel the same isolation.Rick was wonderful for me in so many ways, the greatest of which was his unflagging support. I believed in his art, and he believed in mine. I see other women who struggle with their partners’ being envious or wanting them to work less or to stay home more. What Rick gave me was total independence and limitless encouragement to pursue my dreams at full speed, an environment that men have traditionally expected from their partners but which professional women are very fortunate to ever find. Rick never set up any sort of contest between my love for him and my love for my work, but was always there, encouraging me. He understood that I had to travel, just as I understood that he needed to stay in New York and audition. Rick helped my ups and downs by being a sympathetic ear and continually reinforcing the message that I really didn’t need to go through life taking every setback so seriously, which ultimately helped me recuperate from a disappointment or a bad review that much more quickly. He taught me to take a level approach to life and not allow myself to be blown around by my emotions as much. It was also just comforting to have him there. It’s easier to go out on the road when you know someone is waiting for you to come home. Besides, he’s a saint for surviving my most neurotic singing years. Once on a blisteringly hot and humid New York City August night, when the temperature in our tiny railroad flat had probably reached 105 degrees, I leaned over and said, “Honey, could you please turn the fan off? It’s drying my throat.”So now, in a matter of months, I had a husband, a manager, and a serious role with a major opera company to my credit. The years of hard work and disappointment were finally bearing rewards. Merle was able to use the success of the engagement in Houston to launch my career, and we ultimately had a very successful six years together. He had tremendous confidence in me, certainly more than I had in myself, and felt that I should simply skip the regional level and sing in major houses. I was still inclined to work my way up through the ranks and learn what I could along the way, convinced that I would gain valuable experience by taking things step by step. Merle, however, would announce, “Let’s have you audition for the Paris Opera!” And I would think,Oh, no, I’m not ready for that. But he believed I was ready for everything and pulled me along accordingly. I also benefited from his representation of Carol Vaness, because I was able to piggyback onto the many Mozart engagements that she was too busy to accept. Carol was in great demand, and companies could occasionally be persuaded to at least consider a newcomer when the star they’d hoped for wasn’t available. Merle gave me the same basic speech he had given her a few years earlier: “You will be fortunate to follow in Carol’s footsteps, just as she followed in Mirella Freni’s footsteps by taking over engagements Mirella wasn’t available to accept.” Merle felt that his responsibility at the time was simply to make it possible for me to make a living singing, so I could hone my skills onstage instead of in a practice room while temping.After I auditioned for the Royal Opera in London, a note came back to Merle that said, “We like her very much because she doesn’t sound American.” My Slavic ancestry had proven to be a real benefit because my wide, open face and the color of my voice made me distinctive. Oddly enough, a drama teacher at Potsdam had made a similar observation when I was an undergraduate, remarking, “You’ll look great onstage because you have a big face.” I wasn’t exactly insulted, but I didn’t take it as a compliment, either. I realize now that larger faces do look better from a distance, in the same way that larger people generally look better onstage in period costumes. The Royal Opera’s reaction also made me realize for the first time that my citizenship might prove to be something of a detriment in my career. Americans who want to perform in Europe face a cultural and vocal uphill battle. We’re considered good students, very professional and often technically sound; but though there are droves of us to choose from, a European singer is almost always going to be the first choice of a European company—and often, of an American company as well. That preference is understandable, as singers who are native speakers of the languages operas are composed in sound more natural singing them. Also, at that time Americans were regarded as being somewhat bland and as having voices that often seemed indistinguishable. Once I understood this, I knew I’d simply have to focus harder on languages and to attain fluency in as many as possible.My next audition was for Hugues Gall, the intendant of the Geneva Opera. The company had asked for several arias, and so I sang “Dove sono,” Rusalka’s aria, Micaëla’s aria fromCarmen,and Pamina’s “Ach, ich fühl’s.” Gall and his artistic administrator sat in the audience and whispered loudly to each other the entire time I sang, which, needless to say, made me wretchedly uncomfortable and convinced me that they weren’t even listening. I kept thinking,They must hate every note of this. At the end of the audition, Gall stood up and asked rather formally, “May I see you in my office, please?” And I thought,Well, at least that’s polite, he’s going to take me aside and thank me for coming all this way and reject me in private. It’s a nice touch. When I went into his office and took a seat, however, he proceeded to offer me five roles. It was the beginning of my European career.Hugues Gall has a place in my heart next to Christoph Eschenbach, because they both made a point of looking after my career. With Christoph, it was the repertoire. I debuted my Strauss roles, some Mozart repertoire, and Strauss’sVier Letzte Liederwith him. Hugues tried to interest other important intendants in me, but often they said, “No, she may be fine for you, but not for our theater.” One of the tremendous satisfactions involved in fostering young talent is that you later can say, “Renée Fleming? Oh, yes, I saw that she was the one right from the start.” In exchange, both men have my undying loyalty.One of the many opera houses that was convinced that I wasn’t yet that interesting was the Metropolitan. Even after I’d won the Met competition, Merle was told, “She has pitch problems.” Being considered “special” is a hugely important asset for a singer. A soprano can have a perfect technique, but she has to have something more than that, something ephemeral that makes her voice memorable. I sang at Chautauqua when I was very young, and the soprano Frances Yeend and her husband, the vocal coach Jim Benner, told me then that my voice was unique. They then patiently explained that this was an element that was absolutely necessary for real success. I’m sure the concept went right over my head then. All these years later, that was exactly what I needed my voice to be: an instantly recognizable sound. In the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s opinion, I was “a B singer, not an A singer. Not for this house.” Which is all to say that although I’d had some significant breakthroughs I hadn’t arrived yet. In a way, these rejections were almost more disappointing than those earlier in my career, because now I really did feel that I was doing things right.Still, there was plenty to be happy about. Covent Garden cast me as Dircé in the French version of Cherubini’sMédée,and I made my debut in Geneva as Fiordiligi inCosì fan tutte. The New York City Opera hired me to sing Mimì inLa Bohème,the first of only two times I have performed that role, and I won the Debut Artist of the Year award, sponsored by the generous philanthropists Rita and Herb Gold, who had helped me with a Shoshana Foundation grant earlier at Juilliard. The most important competition win—and vote of confidence—came a year later with the Richard Tucker Prize. At that time it was an award for which one auditioned; today it is bestowed upon a deserving young singer by committee. It carried with it a $25,000 prize, which enabled me to focus entirely on music (and, I hoped, would free me from worrying about how I was going to pay the rent). It also came with a telecast, which introduced me to a much larger public: my real debutante ball. I sang regionally from time to time, but it didn’t always go especially well. Once I got a scathing review after an engagement in California, during which the general director came backstage at intermission and asked me if I was marking (meaning “half-singing” to save my voice). I wasn’t, but clearly I was doing something very wrong. I was probably listening to myself too much or singing in what I thought was a more artistic manner, but whatever the reason, my voice wasn’t projecting that night. I was discouraged by both the response and the review, but when I told the story to Beverley, she just said, “Listen, you have to be more generous with yourself, because even though you’re singing professionally, you’re still learning. You have a lot of ground to cover and you’re going to have to do it on the job with other people scrutinizing you.”
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 My Paris Opera debut, inFigaro,was on Christmas Eve in 1990. The gleaming new Opéra Bastille presented another opportunity to sing with an organization that had an illustrious history of presenting great artists and operatic premieres. It was humbling to be there, and in Paris, which I came to adore and now refer to as my second home. I rehearsed the beautiful Giorgio Strehler production until the arrival of Lucia Popp, who was to sing the first five performances, after which I would finish the run. Hers was among the voices I truly loved—pure, spinning, and seemingly effortless—and once again I was privileged to witness a great artist’s generosity. Rather than scrutinizing the competition and behaving accordingly, she immediately invited me to lunch. She spoke of things I honestly couldn’t fathom then, for she was in love and felt that as she had already worked hard and had paid her dues, it was her time to enjoy life and revel in her relationship. I’m sure that as I listened to her I had a look of total incomprehension on my face, since I was at that time so desperate to be where she was, in demand as a great artist and recording star, and I couldn’t imagine wanting to wish that away. I didn’t know then that she was terminally ill, and indeed, I’m not completely sure that she herself imagined that she would be gone just a few short years later.The Metropolitan finally came through with a cover contract for the Countess in 1991. One morning at ten a.m., the word came that I would be going on for an indisposed Felicity Lott, whom I was understudying. It was one of those phone calls, like the one from Erica Gastelli when I got into Juilliard. Rick and I were living in a railroad flat, and I ran up and down the hallway shouting with joy. I made a few calls and tried to pull together all the friends and family I could to be in the audience and share this momentous occasion with me.The Met’sFigarowas Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1986 production, already a classic. I remember making my entrance feeling calm and prepared, and within minutes I was joined by Samuel Ramey and Frederica von Stade, two artists for whom I had tremendous admiration and two people I had never actually been introduced to before. And now there I was, singing with them on the stage of the Met! It was one of the many, many times in my life I felt grateful to Mozart.I had never chosen to become a Mozart specialist but felt, rather, that Mozart had chosen me. With performances of the Countess, I had already laid a relatively complete foundation for an international operatic career. It was unusual and fortunate that I could achieve it so quickly, for there are many examples of great singers, such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who never appeared at the Met, while very few artists manage to sing in all of these places, preferring instead to focus on only two or three markets. However, as Merle had to remind me, getting hired is easy. Getting hiredbackis the goal! It was my good fortune that the Countess was so difficult to cast, as the role requires a pure and consistent tone, perfect pitch, style, quality, and nerves of steel, because the singing is so exposed. I was young enough and hungry enough to embrace these opportunities enthusiastically. If someone had laid out all the facts for me before I started, I would have passed on the Countess and been much happier singing Mimì all over the world, as Mimì is an easier role. But the Countess taught me how to sing, and in that respect, Mozart kept me in the role of the good student long after I had left school. By the time I was called upon to make my Met debut, I was as comfortable being the Countess as I was in my own skin. In 1992, while I was pregnant with our first daughter, Amelia, I left New York for three months for engagements in England, at Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera. Though I was relieved that my career had taken off, I was under tremendous stress. I didn’t want to be away from Rick for so long a time, and I was anxious about all the work that faced me in my condition. As I was changing planes in Europe, the flight attendant took my carry-on bag but I was so sad that I didn’t think to get a claim check from her, and in this case the bag contained everything that was important to me, including the paperwork for the mortgage and the co-op application for an apartment we were hoping to buy in anticipation of the baby. The suitcase vanished. Every day I went back to the airline office to plead, but no one could find it, until, after a two-week-long detour to Saudi Arabia (where all stylish luggage longs to go, I suppose), it made its way to England and then, miraculously, to Glyndebourne, unharmed.Before the luggage was returned, I started to bleed in my fifth month of pregnancy. I was completely alone in an apartment fifteen miles outside the town of Lewes in the middle of nowhere. I used to think it was a good thing to cut myself off from people before an engagement because I would get more work done, studying scores and practicing in the evenings, or, in this case, answering the year’s worth of mail I’d brought with me, but now I know there is such a thing as too much isolation.The Glyndebourne administration found a general practitioner who made house calls, a service that’s still possible to find in rural England. He ordered me to lie down and not move, put my feet up, and stay in a horizontal position for five days, or I’d lose the baby. That meant no cooking, nothing but quick trips to the bathroom and then back to bed. The festival staff was remarkably gracious, sending someone to bring food and visit me every day. The experience would have been awful enough if I’d been in New York with Rick, home in my own bed, but to be so alone with the terror of perhaps losing my baby was nearly unbearable. I didn’t have the money to talk on the phone all day to my family and friends, so I just had to wait it out.In the end, we two bounced back, and I wound up performing until a few weeks before Amelia’s birth. The beauty of singing while pregnant is that the baby provides the support that the abdominal wall usually has to work much harder to offer. With pregnancy comes the lovely, buoyant pillow of a womb for the diaphragm to press against, which makes singing wonderfully easy up until the last few months, when there’s simply no more room for breath. However, as long as I was breathing intercostally, with the most horizontal opening of the rib cage possible and an open chest and back, I could get through everything by simply breathing more often than usual.The real challenge was singing again after I had the baby, but I didn’t have the luxury of time to regain the supportive abdominal strength I needed. I would have to do it on the job. When Amelia was a month old, I took her to Dallas to sing my first Tatyana inEugene Onegin. Memorizing an opera in Russian is difficult under the best of circumstances, but now it seemed virtually impossible, since like every other new mother I had given up sleeping through the night. This was the time when I discovered that having an infant and memory are mutually exclusive, and in my case I also had no ability to concentrate for long periods of time, which is another essential component in memorization. The Russian conductor and largely Russian cast were understanding, and it was with this engagement that I began to forge a life on the road with young children in tow.After a quick trip back to New York, Amelia, my new nanny (a young singer), and I were off to Milan, where I made my La Scala debut as Donna Elvira inDon Giovanni. I was just learning how to travel with everything I needed: baby food, formula, diapers, a stroller, and soon a portable high chair, a jumper, and a walker. It was a true exercise in packing ingenuity to travel to a foreign country and set up shop with a baby for six weeks. Beverley used to call me the earth mother with a core of steel, and I think that pretty much described it.I didn’t have an especially enjoyable time at La Scala, due in large part to the house’s tradition of the Sala Gialla, the Yellow Salon. The Sala was a conference room in the theater where rehearsals were held. At that time, all of La Scala’s productions were double-cast, and ultimately there would be an A cast and a B cast. Normally, opera companies have understudies, or if a singer cancels, another singer is flown in at the last minute. When an opera is double-cast, the configuration is set and contracted long before anyone arrives. But at La Scala, Riccardo Muti, the house’s music director, would host rehearsals with both casts, at which everyone would get up and perform his part, in effect a sing-off, as Muti alternated between the two casts. There were the people who were clearly the big stars, and then the rest of us, who were jockeying for a position on the A team. Unfortunately, I was one of the youngsters, in a brilliant group that included Thomas Allen, Carol Vaness, Cecilia Bartoli, Vinson Cole, and the late Gösta Winbergh. Despite the tension that the circumstances created, I was thrilled by Muti’s talent. He was incredibly charismatic, and the sounds he could wrest from the orchestra were inspired.At the very last rehearsal, I received a call from the artistic administrator, who said, “Maestro is concerned about you. He doesn’t want you to be booed and so he’s thinking you shouldn’t sing opening night.” In fact, I had already been informed that Iwassinging opening night, and, more to the point, I had been rehearsing with the first cast. I thought the situation through quickly and replied, “That’s okay, really, but I’m going to leave now. It’s better if I just go home to New York.” A great deal of back pedaling followed, and he promised that the maestro would call me. Muti did phone me and said the same thing, and again I said that this was demoralizing and that I would prefer just to get on the next plane. I had enough of a sense of myself by now to know that I probably wouldn’t embarrass the theater by singing Donna Elvira. I was part of an ensemble, and I knew the other artists in the cast and felt comfortable with them. In the end, they agreed to give me opening night, and I wasn’t booed. I did, however, slip on the stage and tumble backward within seconds of my first entrance. Fortunately, the Leporello was quick on his feet and managed to catch me, but I should have known right then where things were headed. American audiences love an underdog. If I’d tripped on my opening night at the Met they probably would have signed me to a lifetime contract merely because I was brave enough to pull myself together and go on. But European audiences are a bit less tolerant. When you slip in Italy, the audience thinks,Is this the best they could find? In 1993, I sang the title role in Rossini’sArmidaat the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Italy. Even though I had debuted in several Mozart productions in Europe, this was the moment the door finally opened for me there. It was a wonderful engagement; I was living in the beautiful town where Rossini had composed, and I was eating fresh fish and pushing my darling towheaded cherub in the stroller down to the beach every day to cries of “Che bella bambina!” TheArmidahad an especially imaginative production by Luca Ronconi, with striking costumes and wigs. (One cannot underestimate the contribution a good costume makes to how one feels in a role.) My character was made to look like a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Judy Jetson, complete with a futuristically swirled platinum-blond wig. I was particularly amused when Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, a young Italian bass, wore a mask molded from my features and a copy of my costume, and from the theater, my husband couldn’t tell us apart. I’m not sure which of us felt less flattered. At the final performance, the audience rained rose petals down on the stage—a dreamlike conclusion to a perfect run. I love the complete immersion in the work of a single composer that a festival allows. Whether Rossini in Pesaro, Wagner in Bayreuth, or Mozart in Salzburg, festivals appeal to the musicologist in me and give me the luxury of time to create an in-depth interpretation.One of my favorite things about the work I do is that it presents so many opportunities to grow. Sometimes, in a case like the Rossini Festival, that happens because of the circumstances in which I get to sing. At other times, I learn things about myself by exploring the character I’m portraying, as we all have a little of the Countess in us somewhere. And of course there is always something to be learned from the music itself. But perhaps the best education for a natural-born student is through a mentor, and in Sir Georg Solti I found both a wonderful teacher and a valued colleague.Solti had cast another soprano as Fiordiligi inCosì fan tutte,but the role was too heavy for her and at the last minute she wisely stepped down. As had happened so many times before in my career, I benefited from someone else’s cancellation and my own ability to step up to the plate on short notice. Decca’s senior vice president of artists and repertoire, Evans Mirageas, had recommended me to Solti because he had faced a similar problem two summers before, when an unexpected vacancy came up in the role of Ilia inIdomeneoand he had summoned me to Tanglewood. He knew I worked well under pressure.When Solti called me, I was singing my first Desdemona inOtelloat the Met, with Valery Gergiev conducting. I was in the second cast, and the Met generously released me from my final performances. I was grateful at the time, but even more grateful later when I realized how important theCosìperformances would be to me. I got off the plane to London at two o’clock in the morning, my time, went directly to Solti’s studio at nine a.m., and sang through the entire opera—not the kind of thing singers normally do, but now and then it’s good to know you can rise to the occasion. I was immediately struck by Solti’s intensity—not to mention the record thirty-two Grammys lining the windows of his studio. I felt inspired just being in his presence.We worked for three solid hours, there in the sun-drenched studio overlooking the lovely garden of his house, and Solti’s commanding presence and musicianship—not to mention the much-needed coffee sent down by his beautiful and supportive wife, Valerie—soon made jet lag a distant memory. And so began another of the central relationships in my career. My recording contract came about in large part because of Solti’s excitement about my voice, which he was to christen “double crème” in Paris, when we reopened the Paris Opera’s Palais Garnier inDon Giovanniafter a long renovation—a nickname that has stayed with me to this day.
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CHAPTER SIXCHALLENGE    BY 1995 I was taking on new roles at the insane pace of five to eight a year, and there was even one period in which I was scheduled to sing ten new roles in fourteen months. I had become a great procrastinator when it came to learning operas, not because I was lazy but because my schedule demanded that I learn one role after another in quick succession. Ultimately, the adrenaline of working under pressure became addictive and created a work habit that I still find tough to break. (My former manager Matthew Epstein’s pet name for me is Mother Courage.) When I was pregnant with our second daughter, Sage, I was engaged to sing my first Marschallin inDer Rosenkavalierwith Christoph Eschenbach in Houston. In this case I was really backed up and had to learn the Marschallin in two weeks, so that I could arrive in Houston and be onstage for a dress rehearsal the same day, since a previously scheduled Vienna engagement curtailed my availability. As I started to study the score, I was thinking it wouldn’t be impossibly daunting. After all, the Marschallin doesn’t sing at all in act 2, and makes her third-act entrance only toward the end of the opera, and of course I already knew the trio from concert performances.Unfortunately, I didn’t take into account how difficult act 1 was, how wordy, how conversational, howlong. There was so much singing, and it was all so chromatic and rhythmically challenging. It was hard enough for me to understand it on the page, much less read it and memorize it. While in Vienna I had rented one of Plácido Domingo’s apartments, and if I close my eyes right now I can still see the wallpaper, the pictures on the walls, the piano, everything. The entire apartment is etched in my mind forever, because I ended up sitting in a chair all day, studying the score, sunup to sundown. By the time I got to Houston I knew it cold, and in this way began my love affair with one of the greatest characters ever created for a soprano. Strauss, anything in Russian or Czech—those parts are graven in my memory forever. Even roles that I haven’t sung very often over the course of my career I could sing again tomorrow, if they required painstaking attention the first time around. I appeared in Benjamin Britten’sThe Turn of the Screwonce as a student and then had to sing it again several years later on one day’s notice. I was surprised to find that I could conjure it up again in twenty-four hours. Repeating operas also helps to establish them in my memory. Not only could I still sing all three soprano roles inDon Giovanni(though I’d need a little warning to brush up on Zerlina), I could probably sing Leporello and Giovanni as well. If you perform in an opera often enough, everybody’s roles become familiar.Sage was born in August 1995, and again I sang until late in my pregnancy. I was engaged to open the Met inOtellowith Plácido Domingo, which was an exciting opportunity, both for singing with him in his signature role and for opening the season, so two and a half weeks after she was born I pushed myself to begin rehearsals. Opening night came two weeks after that, and somehow I managed. I lived only five blocks away from the Met, which was enormously helpful, and rehearsals were not strenuous, given that we all knew the production, but the performances certainly were. Being in New York with Rick and my family there to help me made things much easier than having to scoop up the baby and run to Dallas, the way I did after Amelia was born. It also helped that I wasn’t learning a new role in Russian. But mostly it worked because I was young and energetic and had a very strong will.Having children has been an incredible gift to me. Only time will tell if my daughters will feel equally fortunate, but so far they seem to be happy, well-adjusted girls. It was easy when they were very young, because I simply packed them up and took them with me on the road. In the days when my schedule consisted almost entirely of opera, we’d simply travel to a new city and set up camp in an apartment, staying in the same place for a month or two. The girls thought of home as being wherever I, their current nanny, and their respective toys and paraphernalia were, and they didn’t seem to mind that it wasn’t a stationary place. Rick would visit, and when we returned to New York he would largely take over the nuts and bolts of care so as to have his time with them as well. It truly was the perfect existence. I had everything I wanted without the pain and guilt of leaving my children. I kept this up for as long as I could, even moving the girls to schools in Houston and Chicago for longer opera engagements. Amelia actually extended her kindergarten year in Paris, and two years later, both girls attended the bilingual school. Because the Paris school year lasts until the middle of July, it meant some extra weeks of work for them, but I wanted the girls to have as much exposure to another language as possible.Once Amelia entered the first grade and school became more demanding, I knew things had to change, as Rick and I both felt that the girls needed a solid education combined with a stable social life—no traveling tutors for us. Eventually, I switched over from what was almost entirely an opera schedule—which had me on the road for as much as ten months out of a year—to a schedule that balanced operas with concerts. I made a general commitment to sing opera only at the Met every season and in Europe in the summer, when the girls can come with me, with very few exceptions. The rest of the season, I take only short trips, typically three concerts in five days to a week, as opposed to an opera engagement, which requires three to six weeks’ rehearsal before six to ten performances—a commitment of up to two months. This system still presents a challenge, however, because operas are planned five or six years in advance, making it next to impossible to work around the school calendar and its treasured plays and dance recitals. Fortunately, concerts are scheduled much later than opera, so I sometimes have the flexibility to confirm a date just a year in advance. I feel tremendously fortunate to have both riches in my life: the satisfaction of a thrilling career combined with the sharing and unconditional love of a mother-daughter relationship. Amelia and Sage know without a doubt that they come first, but they can also see firsthand the joy I experience in my work. It was this same kind of personal satisfaction I observed in my own mother’s life, and one that I hope my daughters will experience as well.But even as I was managing the scheduling and the girls, I wasn’t managing everything well. In the early part of 1998 Rick and I began to discuss divorce. Most people would look at us and assume that our marriage broke up because of my career, when in fact it was just the opposite. Rick and I had fallen in love when we were living in different countries, and while I was away so often we did very well. But once the girls were older and established, and I started staying home more with them, we were finally forced to confront the problems we had, which were not unlike the problems any other couple has. We’d grown apart.Feeling initially relieved that a step had been taken, I was completely unprepared for the havoc this was about to wreak on my life and sense of well-being. We had already been leading largely independent lives and remained devoted parents, so I naively thought that our separation wouldn’t really amount to too dramatic a change. My subconscious had other ideas, though, and was soon to knock me down—hard. Professionally, 1998 began very promisingly. In January I sang a televised concert with Plácido Domingo, Daniel Barenboim, and the Chicago Symphony, followed a week later by Strauss and Mozart in Cleveland. Everywhere I went I sang with incredible ease, loving every second I was onstage. I felt that things were settled for the girls, who would be accompanying me for a long upcoming opera engagement in Chicago, and who had been accepted into two different French schools. Although Rick and I were beginning to map out our divorce, we were managing to put the girls’ needs first and to work well together to take good care of them. I began to feel a tremendous sense of relief.Then, while I was performing the Countess at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, I experienced some stage fright during “Dove sono.” It caught me by surprise. That aria was never an easy piece, but it was certainly one with which I had had an enormous amount of experience. Suddenly I found myself growing nervous every time I heard the music coming up, and I couldn’t seem to shake it. The aria proved to be difficult to perform for the entire run, and there were a couple of phrases in particular that I started to dread, tensing whenever I had to sing them. Opera singers are rightly terrified of fear, because by affecting our relaxation it undermines our breathing. I recognized that I had good reasons to be feeling stressed. Besides the divorce, I was facing three new roles back-to-back in the coming months: the title roles inArabellaandLucrezia Borgia,and Blanche in the world premiere of André Previn’sA Streetcar Named Desire. It made perfect sense that the pressure would show up somewhere. If it showed up in “Dove sono,” well, at least I had identified the problem, gotten through it, and could move on to the next engagement.I went to Houston and began the rehearsal period forArabellawith my beloved Christoph Eschenbach. I was glad to be starting a new opera, safe with my friend and with my art, my girls with me, away from home and the stress of the addition of lawyers to begin the process of separation. I didn’t have any trouble learning the role this time, but I had an incredible amount of physical tension in my shoulder muscles and neck—tension that grew so strong that I began to wonder if, by the time opening night came around, I’d even be able to get through the performance. Somehow I managed to calm myself down and find a great masseuse, who worked on me as if with a hammer and chisel, and I survived this beautiful but demanding role.From Houston, I went on to La Scala for Donizetti’sLucrezia Borgia. I felt physically better, and with the love and support of the girls and my visiting family, I was able to put my previous experience inDon Giovannibehind me and think of this as a fresh start. I did have a slight run-in with the conductor, Gianluigi Gelmetti, over decorations and cadenzas that I wanted to add to the piece, to all of which he was patently opposed. They were beautiful and all stylistically correct, since Philip Gossett, a superb musicologist who specializes in nineteenth-century Italian opera, and with whom I had collaborated ever since singingArmidain Pesaro, had written them. Although Gossett’s scholarship is greatly respected, Gelmetti insisted, “We are in Muti’s house and so we will follow Muti’s strictures,” which meant to sing what was on the page only. Gelmetti, who was advancing in age, was making his own La Scala debut with this performance and was probably fearful of doing anything that might cause Muti any displeasure. After some discussion, I gave in on almost everything, with the exception of one particularly dramatic cadenza in the final scene that I lobbied to keep. Finally Gelmetti agreed, and I was pleased that we’d managed the whole issue in the spirit of civility and compromise. The final dress rehearsal was perfect, the chorus and orchestra were supportive, and we had an excellent cast. I thought that everything was going to turn out beautifully, which is a tribute to my particularly American naïveté.The first piece of troublesome news on opening night was that the tenor had canceled. I think he knew there was trouble brewing and had been advised to distance himself from it. Fortunately for me, my friend Marcello Giordani had been scheduled for the second company. We had worked together often in the past, and I was relieved to be sharing the evening with my friend. At the end of my first aria, just as I finished the last note, I heard a loud thud, and when I looked down I saw that the conductor had disappeared. There was a gasp from the audience. Gelmetti had collapsed, and Marcello and I continued standing in our places, peering into the pit, not even sure if he was alive, though at that moment I feared the worst. Eventually the curtain came down, and we learned that he had only fainted. After fifteen minutes he pulled himself together, and we resumed, though it was all downhill from there. At the end of my first big duet with Marcello there was some scattered booing, but I felt remarkably unscathed by it. It really wasn’t until the much-discussed cadenza at the end of my final scene that all havoc broke loose and the serious booing began.Now, just to set the record straight, the protagonists in this drama were a very small group of men, probably fewer than ten, who were sitting in the very top reaches of the theater. Rachelle and several friends who were there witnessed it all from the audience. Fortunately, those of us on the stage are very limited in what we can hear clearly in the house, and if I’m actually singing I can hear almost nothing at all besides the sound of my own voice, which in this case was a blessing. So I am relying on others’ reports when I say that many audience members in the orchestra section and other areas in the house began screaming at the catcallers, warning them in no uncertain terms to stop the disruption. Nevertheless, the screaming and booing continued throughout the final scene, which is Lucrezia’s scene entirely, as she realizes she’s just poisoned her own son by mistake (one of opera’s more ludicrous plots). I kept my focus and stayed with the music. Thankfully the force of what had happened didn’t hit me until it was over. And then I began to shake, and I shook for days.When the curtain went down, Gelmetti turned to the auditorium and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Well, it wasn’t my fault,” and then left us to face the audience on our own. The cast bowed together with me in solidarity. Naive to the end, I called the clinic to which Gelmetti was admitted and inquired about his health. He wrote me a telling letter that said simply, “Your Lucrezia is very special.” “Special” is not a compliment in the Italian language. At its very best it implies ambivalence, and at its worst it implies no ambivalence whatsoever.
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