Monday
May142012

Spring for Music

This week was a crazy week. My plan was to go to all but one of the Spring for Music concerts here in New York City, but unfortunately I ended up being under the weather for the middle of the week, and was only able to attend the first and last of the concerts. But even just seeing the bookends was enough for me to get a sense of what the festival is all about, and why it is such a wonderful addition to the cultural offerings in New York City. 

I've been thinking a lot this week about pressure - in my case, the pressure I put on myself to try to be all things to all people. I have always been like this - an only child overachiever, who thinks that I have to be perfect at everything and loved by everyone or I am a failure. I bring this up because sitting in the audience at Spring for Music, I was noticing how even though we were in Carnegie Hall, in New York City, listening to classical symphonic literature, the normal pretense that often pervades concerts like this seemed absent. There was no pressure to act like a classical music audience and nod to each other politely over the bridges of our noses.

When the concerts began, they almost seemed more like sporting events. Whatever orchestra was playing had a huge "hometown crowd" present in the audience, and they were given colored scarves to wave in the air, while hooting their support for their orchestra. The audience was made up of people of all ages and walks of life, dressed in everything from suits to jeans. People seemed relaxed - there was no sense that anyone needed to act with a specific sense of decorum, or to understand everything that was being played on the first hearing, or to refrain from boisterous shouting during the applause. In just the two concerts I attended, there was a Russian bass who hid behind a podium so he could change into different disguises while he sang, and a concert that contained both a piece that required 5 different conductors and another piece written for solo electric violin. There were no "rules" - just exuberant music making. The pieces certainly weren't always "easy" - the Houston Symphony played all Shostakovich, and the Nashville Symphony played all 20th century American music, including Ives' unfinished 5th symphony, which was very difficult for me - a musician myself - to comprehend and internalize on my first hearing. But with each concert being preceded by an unstuffy explanation of what was about to be played and why it was chosen, and with the environment itself - the warmth and enthusiasm of the conductors and the musicians for the music they were playing, combined with the encouragement for the audience to enjoy themselves with abandon, I personally experienced two very joyous and fulfilling evenings of musical adventure. 

So often, what keeps people from enjoying classical music is that they think they won't feel comfortable in the environment, or they think they won't understand the music. And certainly, classical musicians and presenters often take themselves too seriously, and encourage the kind of attitude that only the cultured intellectuals belong in this world. It becomes a vicious circle and keeps ordinary people from discovering what the many genres of so called "serious" music have to offer. But Spring for Music is onto something. They really thought outside the box in terms of marketing, holding blogging and programming competitions via their website before the music making even began. They encouraged these symphonies to bring as many of their hometown fans as possible, giving the orchestras and their regular listeners the opportunity to have a shared experience outside their normal sphere, and enjoy and be inspired by what New York has to offer. They encouraged this all important "come one, come all" idea that is often absent, by making the tickets remarkably affordable and making the concert environment one of unbridled enthusiasm as opposed to quiet thumb twiddling. But the best part is that instead of combining all of this with "classical music's greatest hits" they allowed the audience to still be challenged by presenting works that were very likely new to many of the listeners, but infusing those new works with the absolute passion and commitment required to make them resonate. 

This is the big thing - how to make classical music more accessible without dumbing it down or distilling it to it's most basic famous pieces and nothing more. I think Spring for Music has found one answer to that question, and I hope that after their second, successful season, they become a model for more presenters and arts organizations down the road. And I'm not just saying that because they wrote me a check. I already cashed my check - at this point I could say whatever I wanted. And what I want is for people to know that this is a really good idea.

More like this, please. 

Monday
May072012

My year for going viral

I don't know what I did to please the internet gods before 2012 began (hopefully it wasn't the same thing I must have done to apparently piss off the jobs-a-plenty in classical music gods), but somehow I seem to be having a lot of my internet action get a lot of attention. It started with the video I made that I thought 20 people would watch, which now has over 100,000 views, followed by the shock of winning the Spring for Music Blogger Challenge, and culminating in my most recent article for the Huffington Post spreading like wildfire. Eeee-aaaa-saaaa-naaaa-oooooooohhh. (I don't know what language the internet gods speak, so I'll just offer up a random vocal exercise and hope they like it. Or maybe that's a line from the Mikado. I can't be sure.)

The thing that inspired me to write "Shouldn't You Be Fatter (and other opera singer myths)" last week was simple. I flew to Columbus to sing some Chausson and Durufle with the excellent Columbus Symphony, and when I checked into the hotel, the very friendly desk clerk asked me, "So - you're here with the symphony? What do you play?" and when I answered that I was a singer, she replied, "Oh! I didn't know they had singers at the symphony!" It made me realize how the average person has absolutely no idea whatsoever what it is that we opera singers do, and so I started forming some sentences to explain it. I kept having to duck down to the Starbucks across the street from the hotel because I refuse to pay $12.99 a day for the privelage of having the internet in my room (Why do hotels DO THAT? Don't answer that, I know, I know. But ARGH!!) so that I could publish and edit the essay on the Huff Post website, and I was shocked when it started to go viral. But it reminded me of just how many people out there either are either professional opera singers or studying to become them, and how passionate we are about what we do. However, based on some of the less supportive comments on my article, I think we may have to all band together and start a revolution to educate people about why what we do deserves more attention and yes, even admiration! 

The funniest thing that happened to me in Columbus happened while I was waiting to go onstage before the second half of the final concert. I had spent the day following the progress of my article, and enjoying watching it fly around the world at record speed. I was feeling pretty confident about myself, although nervous for the second half of the concert to begin when a gentleman from the chorus approached me and said "Boy, with a voice like that, shouldn't you be fatter?" At first I thought he must have read my article and was having fun with me, so I asked, "Do you read the Huffington Post?" But he responded "What's that? A paper here in town?" So it was purely a coincidence that he asked me the exact question that was the title of my article the day after it was published. It really made me laugh and cut the tension I was feeling before I walked out onstage, so for that, I thank him. 

And now that I'm back in New York, I'm headed to the first of the Spring for Music concerts at Carnegie Hall tonight. I will very much enjoy being at a concert where I don't have to worry about remembering the words or projecting into the hall. And where I bet noboby will comment on my weight. :)

Tuesday
Apr242012

Public Relations for Dummies

My friend and former roommate Will was always teasing me about my collection of those yellow "For Dummies" books. "Have you drawn anything lately?" He would ask, grinning. "Hey - have you trained for your marathon this week?" No, Will. I have not drawn anything (except my Draw Something doodles, and those are not helped by that damn book) and I certainly haven't run any marathons. However, I do like learning new things, which is why I am prone to keep buying those books. And one of these days I'm going to learn how to write in HTML, I swear.  

 

But in the meantime, one of the books I wished those Dummies people would write was the one about PR in the classical music industry. Instead of being one of those people that is convinced that PR is ruining the industry by foisting less talented but more beautiful people onto audiences, I think it can be used very creatively to bring in new audiences and to promote talented but under exposed artists . Plus, I'm always having some "great idea!!!!" but when using myself as a guinea pig, have had some mixed results. 

Some years ago, I had this burning desire to appear in Opera News Magazine. It just seemed like that was the big thing that happened to you when you were a young singer, and I wanted them to feature me in their "Sound Bites" section where they profile a singer at the beginning(ish) stages of their career. But I wanted to try to think of some angle that would make me stand out and appeal to them, and I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea. My best friend Georgia and I had been singing together since we were freshmen in college, when I was a mezzo and she was a soprano. We then swapped voice types for the rest of college, and ended up swapping back in grad school (precipiated by the fact that I heard her singing Chi il bel sogno one day in our living room when she was supposedely a mezzo and I was supposedly a soprano, and I knew that she shouldn't be able to decrescendo the high C that well, especially when I definitely couldn't). We had the same voice teacher all through college, moved to NY together and were roommates, had the same agent, and had even managed to sing opposite each other at the Caramoor Festival, at NYCO, and at Lake George Opera. I thought we had a cute story, and that it would be neat if we appeared together as the "Sound Bite." I wrote up a little article, had my agents pitch it to Opera News, and they were interested! They said they just needed to hear recordings of both of us to approve us for the magazine. 

Our agent sent what they had - for her, it was a professionally made recording of her singing La Sonnambula amazingly, and for me it was a mini disc recording my dad made from the 4th row when I sang Cenerentola. After they had listened to the recordings, they called our agent and said they wanted to proceed - but just with Georgia. Her initial reaction was that she would refuse the article because she felt terrible, but I forced her to do it - I wanted at least one of us to benefit from the whole ordeal! 

I was excited that my idea had, to some degree worked - it had gotten Georgia in front of Opera News, and had gotten them to pay attention to her. I was also, however, obviously crestfallen that they hadn't chosen me. But it taught me a few important lessons about creating your own PR;

1. The idea is important, but so is the execution. If you have an idea to get someone's attention, don't follow it up with a shoddy product (in this case, it was a non-professional recording of me).

2. Journalism is based on subjective judgement, and you have to be able to accept rejection if you're willing to put yourself out there. I really took it to heart when they "rejected" me, but in the end it didn't hurt my career that I wasn't in there - it was just one article. I should have used that enthusiasm to pursue other ideas, but instead, it really soured me towards thinking about PR for awhile. 

What has changed in PR in recent years is that artists actually have many more options and much more control over their ability to put themselves in front of people in a variety of ways. Not only can we create websites and write blogs, but we can create fan pages on Facebook and amass great followings on Twitter. I had actually resisted joining Twitter until about three quarters of the way through the Spring For Music competition. I was wondering aloud on facebook how some of the other competitors were able to get the word out and gain votes in the first couple of rounds, and someone in the professional PR industry who I had come to know mentioned that some of the bloggers were popular on Twitter. I felt like a real old lady when I first made a few steps towards setting up my Twitter account, but luckily, I had the help of both my tech savvy boyfriend Michael, and the PR professional I mentioned above, Maura Lafferty. 

Maura is a San Francisco based freelance publicity consultant for artists and arts organzations. I came to know her because she had appeared as a guest on the OperaNow! podcast, and I had already grilled her in that setting about PR within the classical music industry. And when it came to Twitter, she proved that she really knew her stuff - getting me set up with all the proper contacts within the music industry and helping me understand the etiquette of professional Twitterism. I asked her this week to answer a few PR questions for those of you artists who might like some advice on where to get started with your own PR and when a publicist might be able to help you. Here's what she said:

JR: What are a few PR essentials that artists and classical musicians can start thinking about for themselves? What is the best way to use social media (Facebook, twitter) for publicity?

ML:PR and marketing is about building relationships through telling compelling stories. The most important thing that artists can do is determine what makes them special, and figure out who that appeals to (this is what we mean when we talk about “target audience”). Social media is great for lowering how much work and resources it takes to make this happen – the free tools and information available online mean that anyone can build relationships, given some time, careful research, and a clear sense of the story they’re trying to tell. Bonus points if the story is culturally relevant and/or plays up familiar points of entry that will allow new audiences to connect.

JR: When is it time to seek the help of a professional publicist? How are independent publicists paid - by the hour, by the month, or based on how many sources they can get you in? Can you give us some ballpark figures?

ML:Publicists offer a variety of services, and the most important thing is to be clear about what you want when you hire someone. Services like consulting (advice on a project, list-building, etc) are more likely to be billed on an hourly rate, and more comprehensive projects (promoting a show, raising a specific artist or company’s profile, etc) are more likely to be billed on a retainer (monthly or project fee). Hourly fees tend to be more expensive than committing to a retainer or project fee, because the work is more difficult for the publicist, and less reliable. Pricing is generally determined by the current market, how much work the consultant currently has on his/her plate, and the quality of the service & results you can expect.

Performance-based pricing is difficult for PR or marketing consultants, just as it is for an artist. Placing stories is an inexact science, and results are dependent on a variety of factors, from the quality of the product, to the writers’ interests and how their schedule aligns with the production schedule, to how closely and authentically the project ties into to current media trends and stories.

A colleague provided this list of questions for clients to answer before starting a new project, which I think is a really valuable exercise for artists and administrators to be able to answer, as not articulating the answers to these upfront usually leads to problems on a project:

     What are we trying to do?

    Who’s our competition?

    To whom are we talking?

    What do we want to tell them?

    What do we want them to think about/do?

    What do they currently think about us?

    What is critical to our success?

    What are you concerned about?

    What is working currently?

    What do we do better than anyone else?

    How will we know we’ve been successful?

JR: What are some mistakes you see musicians and artists make in regards to their own PR - either things they do themselves or things they do with the help of a publicist?

ML:PR is just personal conversations played out in a grand arena – people join in because they’re intrigued by what’s being said, feel important, have an opinion to share, or want to be part of something larger than themselves. The same best practices apply to PR as you would treat any other relationship – with a friend, colleague, conductor, spouse, roommate, etc.

Most people who make PR blunders are the ones who do something that would be unacceptable in a personal relationship – making it about their ego and getting into some kind of fight, pulling a stunt that is considered out of line with the image we associate them with and therefore expect them to portray, or otherwise upsetting the balance between their personal desires and the expectations of stakeholders, whose trust is key to maintaining the relationships (donors, journalists, colleagues, etc). When it takes place in a public arena, the effect is magnified, and the power of the internet is the increased speed by which everyone is inter-connected, so each decision becomes more important. What we call “blunders” are decisions artists make that will generate a negative result which we can all collectively anticipate.

*******

So there you go. Some valuable information for artists about the role PR can play in our industry. Special thanks to Maura for her help with Twitter and for taking the time to answer these questions. You can find her on Twitter @MLaffs (she has over 3000 followers!!) and her personal website is mauralafferty.com. Now go out and get yourself noticed!

Oh - and you can find me on twitter @jjennymr - Maura would kick my butt if I forgot to mention that after all that work she did on my behalf! 

*edit - I realized after reading this that it looks like Maura is my official publicist and I have retained her, which is not the case. I have never had the occasion to retain a professional publicist - Maura helped me with twitter, and you all with these answers, purely out of the kindness of her heart.

Saturday
Apr212012

What a blog competition can teach you about mankind

Ooooooooouf. Phew. Hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaammmmmmpppphhhhhhh. 

Sorry. I had to do those noises you make when you're doing yoga or exercising and you suddenly realize you've been holding your breath for the past 5 minutes and you have to let it out. Except instead of five minutes I've been holding my breath (and driving my boyfriend insane) for the past four weeks, and now I can finally exhale. I exaggerate a bit for comic affect, but it has been a rather harrowing but also rejuvenating experience entering and then finally winning (!!!) this Spring for Music Blogger Challenge

In addition to the cash prize (which is always welcome when you are a freelancer and income is sporadic), I gained some interesting insights about myself and other people. First, I was utterly amazed by the support I got from the people in the operatic community, especially during the last round when I finally decided to actually campaign a bit and let people know what I was up to and ask them to vote for me. In the first three rounds I posted about the competition on facebook, and that was about it. By the last round, I had wised up and realized that quasi facebook campaigining wasn't enough, and I needed to be more proactive, so I sent out emails to people, I joined twitter and tried to rapidly gain as many followers as possible, and I asked people on facebook to help me get the word out. And unlike my unsucessful campaign for Student Body Activities Director in 11th grade (my campaign speech consisted of a tap dance - I cannot imagine why I didn't win), it seemed to work. But more than that, I was incredibly moved by the fact that people took a geniuine interest in helping me, and got really involved in campaigining, asking friends and relatives to vote, and making me feel an unbelievable amount of support and friendship from all over the world. I have said before that one of the absolute best parts about having chosen this job is the people I am lucky enough to meet and get to know, and this competition was real evidence of that. I had people from Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, Russia, and all over the U.S, and Canada not only rooting for me, but sending me notes of encouragement, sharing the competition with their friends, and watching each day as the votes were counted. That sense of community, despite the fact that my friends are scattered around the world, was absolutely the best part of this whole experience. 

And while all this was happening, I got contacted by the Huffington Post, asking whether I wanted to be a regular contributor to their Culture section. I said absolutely, sent them one of my articles, they chose it as their lead story the next day - and suddenly I had an even wider audience. This is actually a dream come true scenario for me because one of my passions is the idea of spreading understanding about the arts and culture, and opera in particular (since it's what I know) to a larger audience by showing them that it's not as difficult to understand and appreciate as they've been led to believe. I hope my articles in the Huffington Post will be able to accomplish that in some small measure - and I've already gotten ideas for many more articles based on the comments that have come in from my first article. I'm excited about this new chapter. 

Another interesting by-product of this whole shebang was the things I was able to observe and learn about varying people's attitudes within this industry. First of all there was the whole idea for the competition, which I personally think was brilliant. It drove people in hordes to the Spring for Music website, and got bloggers all over talking about the competition. The fact that there were people bitterly complaining about the existence of this competition and it's merits is laughable to me. That kind of intellectual snobbery is exactly the kind of thing that keeps regular people from possibly gravitating towards these forms of art that might intimidate them already. My whole deal is that yes, there is certailnly a great deal of scholarship involved in the study of classical music and other "fine" art forms, and that is definitely an important element of what we all do. But as this now viral video reminds us, music engages so many different parts of the brain that even people who have become basically non responsive can literally reanimate their brains with the help of an ipod. And shutting people out and looking down on those that are deemed less scholarly is the perfect way to make the fine arts totally inaccessible to a huge swath of the poplulation - which keeps our industries from growing and keeps us from having jobs! How is that doing anyone any good? I really wanted to include some of the specific quotes and tweets complaining about how either the competition or more specifically I lacked "intellectual relevance," but Michael convinced me that it would be "churlish." True dat. 

But the reason I even thought to include those comments and tweets is that, if I feel marginalized by these people, who obviously are worried that their art forms are being corrupted by people less intelligent and intelletual than they are (I mean - come on folks, I'm not Katherine Jenkins or Jackie Evancho - I did go to Juilliard for heaven's sake!), imagine how a regular person who doesn't know Beethoven from Rembrandt must feel! It just doesn't behoove us to shut people out and make this an exclusive club that you can only enter if you qualify for Mensa. It doesn't help our art forms grow and it certainly doesn't help us gain what we desperately need - a wider audience. I understand that you don't want things dumbed down - I don't want people to confuse what Jenkins and Evancho do with what I do either - but you can't expect everyone to know everything that you've had the privelege to learn. Shame on you, you artsy fartsy intellectuals. Don't shut the door on the rest of us - we need high culture just as much as you do - probably more. 

But I would rather not end this post on a sour note, because the people that really matter to me - those of you that were kind enough to support me and encourage me not only during this competition, but since I began blogging - far outnumber the negatives. YOU are why I keep writing and you are what inspires me to keep coming up with new ideas. And you know what? There was one dude complaining about me that had one thing right - I should blog more often. So thank you to him and to you all. It's a great time to be an artist - we have so many challenges, but we therefore have so much purpose! 

And one more thing; if you're in New York - please check out at least one of the Spring for Music concerts - the tickets are only 25 bucks and they've got some cool music programmed. See you there!  

Friday
Apr132012

Semantics and scrappiness

Well, I've made it to the final round. Four bloggers still standing. All classical music bloggers. I'm not surprised we're the last ones left - we're scrappy. Music may still be a big part of our society, but classical music has become such a specialty genre (remember when big record labels used to give tons of classical artists their own recording contracts?) that in order to stay afloat, we classical musicians don't just have to learn to swim, we have to Michael Phelps it all the way. So here goes - outta my way - I'm going for the gold!

The final question the Spring for Music folks have chosen is quite a doozey:

"Save the arts? Really? Why do so many people think the arts need saving? Do we need to save the arts, and if so, what does saving them mean?"

I got docked some points in the last entry by Judge #1 for mentioning Nicki Minaj's Grammy performance without much back story, and in hindsight, it did seem kind of random thrown into that post. But the thing is, when I watched her performance, it had a strong effect on me. It was my first time watching the actual Grammy broadcast in ages. I had spent the afternoon watching the webcast of the Classical Grammys - they put the classical nominees in a whole other theater and don't give them any actual TV time, but at least they are watchable somewhere. Anyway, I was really interested in the proceedings because two friends of mine, Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein, were nominees for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for the recording of their Opera Elmer Gantry. I happen to be extremely well acquainted with that opera because I sang in the world premiere in 2007, and knowing both the story of how the opera finally came to fruition, and loving the composition itself, I was really rooting for them.

The short version of their journey (sorry, I know I can be long winded - you should see my agony when trying to compose a tweet) is that after they originally composed the opera, the company slated to perform it changed hands and the new management had other ideas. Bob and Herschel then spent 17 years - SEVENTEEN!!- trying to get someone else to produce it with no luck (here's the whole story in more detail from a New York Times article), until Nashville Opera finally agreed, which led to more sucessful performances, a recording, and this Grammy, which by the way, they ended up winning! The opera is based on the 1927 novel of the same name, which tells the story of a conniving fake Evangelist, and his religious adventures and romantic exploits. It suited itself perfectly to an operatic retelling, and the premiere, when it finally did happen, was an enormous success. And it never would have happened if the composer and the librettist hadn't been scrappy classical musicians who were determined to keep going even in spite of seemilngly insurmountable odds.

So, after I watched the webcast of the Classical Grammys, and cried tears of joy when Bob and Herschel were finally recognized on a national stage for their achievement, I figured I would just go ahead and watch the regular Grammys on TV. Why not? Let's see what the kids are into these days, I figured. After I spent the first hour shouting at the TV (Chris Brown is back? When did that happen?) we came to the grand finale, the Nicki Minaj version of a rapping religious exorcism. I actually hadn't heard of her before that moment and I was personally just plain confused by what was happening on the Grammy stage. I knew she was trying to be shocking and unique - and in fact, there was something vaguely operatic about the performance - all the crazy costumes and sets and singing and dancing, and even the whole idea of "concept" music making. But the thing that made me mad was that literally millions of people were watching this spectacle, compared with the tens (lets be honest here) of people who tuned into the Classical Grammy webcast, and even if they did, there was no excerpt played from the Best Contemporary Classical Composition anyway. All these people were watching an artistic opinion being expressed about the part religion plays in society, complete with singing, dancing and acting, but they had no opportunity whatsoever to even know that there existed another Grammy nominee that was tackling the same topic in a totally different way. I wanted the audience to have the chance to be moved to tears. Or to be scratching their heads in confusion (as I happened to be at her performance). I wanted them to have a choice. Both Minaj and the Gantry composers had overcome various adversities in order to express their message (Minaj made it from Trinidad to the U.S., studied clarinet and drama in high school, and found her way from back-up singing to stardom - no easy feat) . Both deserved to be seen and heard.

Minaj's performance was definitely an artistic one, and the fact that I'm still talking about it means that she obviously had a point of view. And even though I didn't really "get it" I would never suggest that the art she was creating that night is in any way inferior to any opera or other form of classical music making, dance, or visual art (all art is subjective, after all). But the difference between what she's creating, and what my friends Bob and Herschel created is that she currently has this enormous national audience - even international, because pop music and movies are the two biggest artistic exports from the U.S., while my opera composing buddies had to spend 17 years schlepping around their fantastic (grammy winning - did I mention that?) piece of art in order to finally get somebody to show it to people, and even then it was limited to the 2500 people or so who were seeing it in Nashville. A lot of the audiences watching Nicki Minaj probably think they would have no interest in watching Elmer Gantry because it's an opera, I just happen to think they don't have any idea what they're missing.

Elmer Gantry with Keith Phares and Vale Rideout, Nashville Opera

And so when people say art needs saving, I don't think they mean pop music or the movie industry (which is definitely art, no matter how snobby you wanna be about it). I think what they mean is that more people in today's society need to be exposed to other art forms as well, so that we can encourage more diverse and creative thinking among our general population. People tend to praise artists like Minaj and Lady Gaga because they are so unique and creative in their presentation. But Gaga and Minaj have nothing on some experimental theater groups, or the wacky quacky Regie opera productions, or some modern dance companies that use movement in new and astounding ways. So "save" probably isn't the best word - I would say a better word would be "expand." Let's expand the average citizen's knowledge about the existence of all the different art forms with the justification that more exposure to creativity usually leads to a more open mind, and allows for a better dialogue on a variety of subjects. And with all the conflict we have in the world today, I'd say creating any outlet for dialogue is a very valuable thing.

Georgia Jarman in English National Opera's The Tales of HoffmanLady Gaga at Grammys

 

 

 

 

How we expand people's exposure to more art forms is a whole additional blog post (and I did have a few ideas about it in my last post - mostly education, education, education). But there is one topic that is hugely important and unignorable because it is exemplified beautifully by this very competition for which I'm composing this post. Digital technology and social media are tools that should not to be ignored as very potent ways of getting people to pay attention to otherwise marginalized art forms and artistic organizations. A friend of mine who is an English musician living in London had never heard of Spring for Music, but became aquainted with the Festival as a result of going to the website and religiously voting for yours truly in this competition. "But what an intriguing idea for a festival!" He told me "I would totally come if I were in New York!" Now, he happens to be a classical musician himself, but I doubt that every single person who has gone to the S4M website as a result of this competition has that same pedigree, and even if only a small number of people say to themselves "$25 tickets for a concert at Carnegie Hall? I've never been to a symphony concert before, but this sounds really interesting," this competition has done its job. Not to mention all of the arts bloggers and writers who are enflaming the twittersphere and comingling with information about the competition, and therefore the festival itself. It's a brilliant PR move - and one that will actually have some positive consequences not just for the festival, but for the potential audiences, both new and old. Just showing people what's available to them is often half the battle.

So I think we need to look at our vocabulary choices when attempting to promote any form or art. If we swap out "save the arts" for "expand peoples exposure to all types of art," it gives us an entirely more positive and concrete mission on which to focus. When we say we need to "save" symphony music performances, not only does it diminish the participation of the people already actively engaged in loving that type of music, it suggests that there may be a time when people will no longer perform Mozart and will only perform Moby. My instincts tell me that we don't have to fear any kind of crazy dystopian future in which Mozart won't exist, but I do think we need to be constantly vigilant about making sure that as many people as possible are aware that Wolfgang can be one of the many choices on our ipods. And we classical music bloggers are doing our ever loving best to get the word out.

After I found out that I'd passed on to the next round in this competition this morning, I called my parents to let them know, and to tell them what the next question I was answering was. Being a very independent thinker, I didn't want their input, but my mom, being a painter, sculptor and potter herself, couldn't help but weigh in just before she hung up, with, "Don't forget, the arts are irrepressible!!" She has a point. The arts will never need saving, because throughout history, we have proven that we need creativity in order to survive our own humanity and to help understand our own mortality. Art seems to stick around as part of the human condition, and no matter how the society evolves or devolves, creativity remains. Art is irrepressible - we know because it has been created in even the most horrendous and repressed conditions, like the concentration camp in Terezin, whose prisoners produced inumerable pieces of art, including a complete opera; Der Kaiser von Atlantis, which is still being performed in opera houses today. Art is not something that can ever be repressed because within every human being exists the ability to create. We don't need to save art because art saves us. This, at least, can give us some hope for the future.

Thanks Mom.

Voting begins Monday, and this is the final round, so I really need your support if you read my blog. You can vote every day, Monday through Thursday, so please vote early and vote often as the say. Click here or here, and select Trying to Remain Operational and click vote. I was knocked into 4th place at the last minute by ONE VOTE, so yes, every vote counts! Thank you!!

Friday
Apr062012

Arts in America

Why am I home right now, staring out the window, attempting to be a brilliant writer instead of wailing my guts out somewhere in an opera? Well, one reason is that I was supposed to have a gig this spring with San Antonio Opera - I was going to sing Rosina in a production of the Barber of Seville. Except San Antonio Opera filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and no longer exists as of a few weeks ago. Too bad for opera lovers in San Antonio, and too bad for opera singers who were supposed to make their living singing there. So instead of singing, I'm sitting in my apartment thinking about how a lack of arts funding in the U.S. really really stinks for someone like me.

I don't like to disparage the U.S. - I really do like it here and choose to make it my home, even though I have almost moved to Italy, France, or Germany about 16 times per country. But in the last three years, almost 70% of my income has come from my gigs abroad, and so I spend a lot of time contemplating why there seems to be so many more opportunities for artists (opera singers, particularly) outside the U.S than here at home (this is not to discount the fabulous network of regional opera companies that have developed here over the years - but there are currently more singers than there are jobs here, and a lot of very talented, but out of work artists). I've had more encounters than I care to recount with seemingly cultured, educated Americans who have thrown questions at me like, "You're an opera singer? Is that like Phantom of the Opera?" or "An Opera Singer?!?! Aren't you too skinny to be an Opera Singer?" compared with the dozens of conversations I've had with Italian taxi drivers and fruit sellers, and Austrian shopkeepers and maitre d's about what repertoire the opera company in town has planned for this year, or what type of mezzo soprano I am, or whether I prefer Mozart or Verdi. Now, this is not the fault of those Americans asking me those less than informed questions (I could have easily been one of them had my path not steered me towards singing) - the problem is that not only is our country young, and our history doesn't intertwine with our cultural heritage for the past bunch of centuries, but we are also not brought up to believe (as they are in other countries) that arts and culture are a human right, one that we all deserve and are entitled to.

Which brings me to this week's question for Round Three of Spring for Music's Blogger Challenge:

Many countries have ministries of culture. Does America need a Secretary of Culture or Secretary of the Arts? Why or why not?

It's a subject I contemplate all the time because of the pull between my "love of homeland," as cheesy as that sounds, and my need to make a living. A couple of years ago I had just finished two great gigs in Berlin, was slated for a few more, and had spent a fair amount of time in Germany having those kinds of fulfilling conversations with shopkeepers and restaurant waiters that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. I was all set to just pack up my life and move over there, where there was lots more work, more respect and admiration for artists by the general population, and government subsidized opera companies who were not likely to go bankrupt and close their doors any time soon. But then life got in the way - I fell in love with an American, if you must know - and I realized that deep down, I really did want to live my life in my own city in my own country, where I didn't feel like an outsider, where my family was nearby, and where I could shop at Target and easily find a decent burger. But it left me wondering why things were always so freaking hard over here for an artistic type like me, and more importantly, what could be done about it.

So, to answer the blogger challenge; YES!! Of course we need a Secretary of Culture or a Secretary of Arts or even an Undersecretary of Anti Reality TV! We need somebody to run naked, wearing nothing but a hat made out of ketchup bottles, up and down the aisles of the televised Grammy awards screaming "WE NEED MORE CULTURE IN THIS COUNTRY -AND I DON'T MEAN NICKI MINAJ DRESSING IN RELIGIOUS ROBES AND PRETENDING TO LEVITIATE!!!" (if you don't know what I'm talking about check youtube - it totally freaked me out, and made me feel about 150 years old when I saw it on TV). But realistically, are we ever going to get one? And the answer to that, I fear, is; Probably not.

Americans are a society of self made individuals - we are pioneers who like to make our own living, and putting too much back in the pot for the betterment of society doesn't really jive with our capitalistic spirit. And I don't think we'll ever get a higher tax rate for government subsidised arts organizations like they have in Brazil for example (as discussed here in this droolworthy New York Times article about Brazil's surplus - SURPLUS - of arts funding), especially when we're too busy fighting over things like whether to raise the debt ceiling or whether to tax millionaires. When our elected officials gleefully make disparaging comments about the NEA (okay, it was Sarah Palin on Fox News, but still), it suggests that to even consider adding culture to our list of social responsiblitiies would be a big challenge. And with no government Arts funding, a Secretary of Culture would be sitting in Washington twiddling her thumbs, watching helplessly as one arts organization after another lost funding and had to shut its doors.

So where does that leave us? Adrift in a sea of sinking organizations that can only exist if rich people feel like making charitable contributions that year?

I think what it tells us is that artists have to take more personal responsibility for keeping the arts alive and vibrant. We create art, yes. But we must also, each of us, take responsibility for creating new audiences, and spreading culture to as many people as we can. American artists have the tools to create a better and more diverse environment for ourselves and our communities. Our cultural history is so short that it doesn't stare at us every day in our ancient works of art or our centuries old architechture. But we Americans happen to be great pioneers, entrepreneurs, and critical thinkers. So without a Minister of Culture, artists themselves each need to become Ambassadors of their Art.

Well, duh, you say. But how, exactly?

Let me take you on a bit of a tangent for a second here, but one I swear I will tie in with my whole spiel.

One of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my artistic life was part of an "Arts in Education" course I took while I was a student at Juilliard. The course was designed not to help us become music teachers (an under-appreciated and supremely important component in our society - but that's a whole other tangent - sorry!), but to train us to use our abilities as creative artists to empower students of any age to become engaged in the arts in new ways. As part of this course, I taught two classes twice a week for a semester in the New York City Public Schools. I was assigned a class of lower income first and second graders who couldn't have been more horrified the first day I showed up and sang an aria for them right in their classroom. But not surprisingly, after spending only one semester, a couple of hours per week with them doing interactive activities which gave them a foothold into this art form which initially couldn't have been more foreign to them, they were absolutely hooked on opera. It's difficult for me to explain the joy I felt when I witnessed a class of 6 and 7 year olds begging for me to replay sections of Ravel's Opera L'Enfant et les Sortileges- in french, mind you -over and over, so that they could sing along. Their collective excitement was absolutely unabashed, and I know for a fact that for the rest of their lives they will have a different association with opera than most of their peers, who simply have never been exposed to anything like it.

We could and should be doing so much more to educate young people about the arts in this country. And I'm not just talking about basic music classes, which seem to be diminishing to the point of non-existence, sadly. I'm talking about every university, opera company, symphony, theater, and musem using teaching artists to go into the schools and infect the young minds with their enthusiasm and knowledge about the arts. Every school of music throughout the country should have an "Arts in Education" program like the one we had at Juilliard, where artists learn that it is their social responsibility to share their knowledge, and they learn the tools to do just that, while still maintaining careers as artists. Every dress rehearsal at every concert or opera should be filled with kids - but kids that have been prepared and can understand what they are about to hear. Musicians, actors, artists, and dancers should spend those lean years after they graduate from college or conservatory and before they get their big break in their chosen field - not as waiters and shoe salesmen, but as personal Cultural and Arts Secretaries to their communities, and we should compensate them for it. That's not a tax, that's job creation - and neither side can argue with that!

I'm obviously not the first person to come up with these ideas. In addition to the Julliard program, Carnegie Hall has developed a wonderful program for young musicians, with a residency which is heavy in teaching artist activities. A couple of friends of mine from school created an incredible non-profit foundation called Sing For Hope, which allows artists to use their art for education and to raise money for charitable foundations . Most opera companies, orchestras and museums certainly have outreach departments. But even more than this, I'm talking about instilling a sense of responsibility into each artist as an individual, and encouraging a new outlook among American trained artists that makes us not only creators, but sharers. I know, I know; sharers is not a word - but it should be. We are the most creative people in society for goodness sake, shouldn't we be using that creativity to change the way people think? We already do that with the art we create, but if there aren't enough people left who appreciate the arts as older generations die out, for whom are we even going to be creating it?

So yes - we definitely NEED Secretaries of Culture and Arts, but we shouldn't hold our breaths, waiting around for somebody in politics to suddenly see their value. Instead, we must each take on new responsibilities and blaze a new path for what it means to be an artist AND an artistic ambassador. And the individual spirit that Americans possess makes us particularly qualified to do just that.

I lifted this photo off the NEA website: A Hubbard Street Dance Chicago teaching artist leads a fourth-grade classroom in a movement activity as part of the MIND (Moving In New Directions) residency program. Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Don't forget to vote for me in the Spring for Music Blogger Challenge between Monday and Thursday. Select Trying to Remain Operational on the right hand column and click vote. Thank you in advance!

Friday
Mar302012

Hey, look at me and my tight pants!

A woman stands backstage wearing a pair of skin tight leggings stretched over a pair of 4 inch stilettos and pulled up to her waist. The look is topped with a shredded men's shirt and a military style bolero jacket, all of which have been designed by the fashion icon Christian Lacroix. She enters the performance area by mounting a set of steep mirrored stairs, and has a very heated, sexually charged exchange involving another woman and an apple that is painted blue, which they hold in their mouths as they slowly dance around one another in a circle. The other woman exits and the woman in the tight pants proceeds to lie down on the floor and stick her crotch in the air, which by the way, I forgot to mention, is covered in a big sparkly codpiece.

Which high cultural art form was this a description of?

Well, what if I would have told you that the stairs being ascended were leading to a platform that extended into the theater of the Berlin Staatsoper, in front of an orchestra pit full of players from the Akademie für Alte Musik and the conductor René Jacobs, and that while said woman was lying on the floor with her crotch thrust in the air, she was simultaneously singing an aria? And also, p.s., that the woman was me? Well then you might have guessed "An Opera," on your first try -but that wouldn't have been nearly as mysterious. Plus, then you would have answered my next question for the Spring for Music Blogger Challenge right away (yup - I made it to round two), without allowing me a couple of paragraphs to convince you first.

I feel kind of bad, because the initial question they asked was about the cultural capital of the U.S., which I said was New York City, where I happen to live. And now they're asking the following question:

We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?

And I feel like I've been asked another question that I am particularly qualified to answer becuase the answer just happens to be my own profession. Maybe I'm biased, but they say if you wanna write, you should write what you know, so sue me, I'm standing by my answers.

I think there are two ways to look at this question - the first would be which art form has been the most affected by contemporary culture, and the second would be which art form is the most likely to be used as a platform to comment on contemporary culture. And my answer to both those questions is still: Opera. Go figure.

First of all, the way Opera as an art form has developed in the 20th and 21st century tells us a lot about this culture in which the image has become such a dominating factor. People in the opera world often point out that this seems to be the era of the director - as compared the previous eras, where impresarios and conductors ruled the roost. Also, beauty of person is coming dangerously close to knocking out beauty of voice for the most important factor in making an opera singer famous. In Europe especially, productions that are visually stunning (or often, shocking) are the norm, and most reviews that you read of operas both here and in Europe go into much more detail about the production itself than the level of music making. Directors often expect singers to do things that never would have been asked of them even 30 years ago, and singers, who are so frequently these days slim and athletic, usually comply. The infamous "Little Black Dress" scandal, where Deborah Voigt, one of the leading Strauss singers of her generation, was fired from a production of Ariadne auf Naxos because she didn't fit into the director's ideal of how she should look in the costume, was an example of how things are changing. Voigt then went on to have weight loss surgery, and the now slim soprano is taking on roles like Salome - a role she probably wouldn't have considered at her previous weight.

Singing opera is really hard. The demands of training this instrument like you would a violin - but one that happens to be inside your throat, combined with learning to amplify your voice so that it can naturally carrry to as many as 4,000 people, and doing so with sure footed technique, taste, and style, and often in a foreign language is in and of itself pretty major. But in today's market, all that stuff I just mentioned is not enough - you should also be really, really pretty. The other day I was watching a video of Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne singing the famous duet from Norma. I'm not sure any two singers will ever sing that duet with more precision, beauty, and such an unbelieveable symbiosis, and it got me thinking about the two most famous singers that might be cast in those roles in a production today. I thought immediately of Netrebko and Garanca, two women who definitely have gorgeous voices, but who are also wrapped up in gorgeous packages. Don't get me wrong, Horne and Sutherland were both gorgeous too, but our standards of beauty have changed so much, I fear that if Marilyn Horne auditioned to sing Adalgisa today for a production at the Met that was going to be broadcast into HD movie theaters, somebody would say she didn't have the right "body type" for the role, and they would tell dame Joan that she was "too tall - and we're also not sure how that jaw of yours will read in a close up."

Of course, focusing on the visual aspect of this amazing art form isn't necessarily a bad thing. The production I was describing in the beginning of this post was Handel's Agrippina that I was lucky enough to be a part of in 2010 in Berlin. I say lucky becuase this was an example of all the elements of opera coming together for a production that highlights the visual beauty, the drama, and the music equally. The conductor was very exacting musically, and the director respected that the drama was IN the music, not IN SPITE OF the music, so we got to have our proverbial cake and eat it too. Plus I got to wear clothes designed specifically for me by Christian Lacroix. I mean, come on - in what universe can that be anything but amazing?

But as for my second reading of the question, that wonders which art form is the most effectively able to comment on our contemporary culture within the frame of the art form itself, I again have to answer that it's opera. Because opera combines all the elements of art - visual art, music, drama, and dance (maybe movement would be more accurate - but my crotch aria that I talked about before felt pretty dance-y to me, frankly), it is very alluring to directors as a platform for creativity. Not only does it combine all the above elements, but it also allows them to comment on questions that have been posed literally for centuries, but in a modern context. Both Peter Sellars and Jonathan Miller have set Italian operas (Cosi Fan Tutte and L'Elisir D'Amore, respectively) in an American Diner. Or more controversially, the director Graham Vick's recent settings of La Clemenza di Tito in the 30's, with Tito as a fascist, and Rossini's Moses in Egypt in contemporary times, where Moses was dressed like Bin Laden and the Jews were terrorists gassing the Egyptians. The list of opera productions that both push the limits and challenge (and often enrage or at least annoy) the audience goes on and on. What other art form not only allows, but encourages those kinds of provacative additions to pieces of art that have already been in existence for hundreds of years?

 

Because of its visual aspect, Opera has the unique ability to move forward with our culture of images, but still present a historical document musically of what has been around for centuries. So I don't think we should automatically poo-poo the current trend towards productions and beauty having their place in our world. I just think we should find the balance between all the elements, and I know it's possible because I've been part of productions that did just that. In fact, I like to think that my sparkly cod-piece and I are helping to keep opera relevant, one baroque thrust at a time.

 

 

 

 

 Just so you know I wasn't exaggerating in my first paragraph: Pictured: Me and Anna Prohaska, Berlin State Opera, 2010. Photo courtesy of Marcos Fink.

(there was one photo with the cod piece, but frankly I found it a little R rated for this highly reputable bunch of bloggers. Look it up on youtube if you want to be shocked) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don't forget to vote for me if you want to. Click this link beginning on Monday and ending Thursday, and look for Trying to Remain Operational in the right hand column and click vote.

Tuesday
Mar202012

Best Arts Blogger in America?

When I lived in an apartment on East 65th street for a brief time, I had a very grumpy next door neighbor who hated when I praticed, even if it was only to warm up for a half hour in the middle of the day. She used to pound on my door and yell "If I wanted to hear a concert, I'd go to Carnegie Hall!!" As much as her unsympathetic attitude annoyed me when I was just trying to get ready for an audition, she was actually one of the first people that came to my mind when I finally did sing at Carnegie Hall, and I recall those exchanges with great fondness now as a result. I think one of the reasons I can now enjoy it so much is that I know that it's a quintesentially New York story; It's not so unusual for crotchety old ladies to complain about noise, but there are certainly more loud opera singers per capita in New York City than anywhere else. Not to mention the fact that Carnegie Hall was evoked in a fight over a noise complaint - where else can you imagine that happening?

Which brings me to the reason for this blog post: Carnegie Hall's Spring for Music Festival is holding a competition for bloggers, looking for the "Best Blogger in North America." They pose a series of blog challenges, link to the blog posts on their website, and have the public plus a panel of judges pick the best entries. They then select one winner, who will earn the $2500 prize, as well as tickets to the Festival, which presents orchestras from around North America, innovative programming, and affordable tickets. Sounds like a win for everybody, no? Their first question piqued my interest, so I decided to throw my hat into the competition.

They ask: New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?

As someone who has called New York home since 1997, and who travels all over the world for my job, I have to answer that I believe New York can absolutely call itself the cultural capital of America. Why? Because of its residents. New York has the highest poplution by far of artists concentrated into one small area; musicians, actors, visual artists and dancers from all over have long made the pilgrimage to New York City as an arts mecca, and the city has continued to develop around its population. Because of the concentration of artists, and therefore artistic endeavors, people who are interested in culture are also drawn to New York and all it has to offer, and the cultural landscape continues to develop around the population. There is no other city that is able to maintain the sheer number of museums, galleries, theater companies, dance companies, orchestras, and opera companies both large and small that New York boasts, which in turn continues to lure more and more artists, hungry for opportunities and a chance to develop their skills. The reason my noise senstivive former neighbor was able to needle me when she knocked on my door is that like every musician in New York, making it to Carengie Hall is exactly why we all migrated here. And who knows - perhaps her little insult, combined with just how competitive New York City can be with its high concentration of talented artists, is what made me practice just a little harder and put me another step closer to that dream.

The wide variety of artistic programming available in New York City is one of the things that keeps me in the City year after year, despite the expenses and challenges of living here. One thing I've noticed during the experiences I've had working in Europe is that European artists sometimes have an advantage over American artists because they have so much more exposure to classic arts as part of their general cultural landscape for their entire lives. Operas are on tv far more often than they are over here, orchestral concerts are happening constantly, museums are on nearly every corner in large cities, and even children seem to be exposed to at least the existence of arts and culture from an early age. We don't generally have these advantages as Americans - unless we live in New York City. A lot of my European friends who have visited America said that they felt the most at home in NYC (although to be fair, they also loved cities like Boston and San Francisco, certainly) because of the cultural offerings, and because of how those cultural offerings affected the general population of the place, and vice versa. We New Yorkers make this city great, and The City makes us who we are.

All of the above doesn't mean that we don't face challenges in keeping our cultural landscape vibrant. In the March 12th issue of The New Yorker, music critic Alex Ross wrote an article entitled "Dimenuendo - a downturn for opera in New York City." He sums up his attitude about the state of opera in New York City, after the recent struggles of New York City Opera (which I wrote about in this post), in this final sentence:

This has been the most dispiriting opera season since I began reviewing music in New York, twenty years ago. Although the economic crisis has taken its toll, the problem is less a lack of money than a lack of intellectual vitality. Both the Met and City Opera are committing the supreme operatic sin: they are thinking small.

As someone who spent the first part of my career cutting my teeth at New York City Opera in the majesty of Lincoln Center, I was greatly dispirited myself to see the company struggle so terribly in recent seasons. Their tale should be a cautionary one to arts institutions in New York City - just becuase we are in this cultural capital, we can never become complacent. We must remain vigilant in our efforts to remain vibrant, forward thinking, and to use the resources this great City provides us to the best of our abilities. As the cultural capital, we not only have the ability to showcase the most current and exiticing talent in every artistic discipline, but we have the responsibility to show the country and the world what's possible.

* The voting has begun. Here is a link to the page where you can vote - blogs are listed on the right, and mine is listed as Trying to Remain Operational, near the bottom, should you wish to vote for me, oh dedicated readers (hint hint)* 

Friday
Feb172012

That's not my job! 

It seems like a lot of my blog entries lately are directed towards younger singers, or at least people trying to make their way in this career. I'm not sure why I'm so drawn to speaking to that demographic - I guess I just figure when you spend a certain amount of time making enough mistakes, you hope there is somebody out there - besides yourself, of course, who can learn and benefit from all those little trips and stumbles. 

I've been thinking this week about how we define our job as opera singers. There is the obvious; become as good as you can at singing opera (and all that goes along with it - acting, languages, etc), show up to rehearsal on time, be a good colleague, and work hard. There is also the less obvious, but becoming more and more important aspect in today's market; self promotion, being in good shape, looking good, and all that. But one thing that I think people neglect to realize is that it is also their job to keep in touch with people within the industry. There seem to be two schools of thought on this subject. One is the people who are incredible schmoozers (and I mean that in the best way), who are excellent at keeping in touch with and keeping tabs on every single person they've met, people who send out email updates on what they're up to and where they're singing to a huge list of recepients, and who write thank you notes at every possible turn. (If you're one of those people, you can probably stop reading now.) Then there are those of us (I generally fall into this second category) who are so afraid of coming off as phony, insincere, or as pests, that we basically never correspond with anyone except our families and a few close friends. And a thought dawned on me this week - perhaps there is some happy medium to this situation - what if we considered it part of OUR JOB to keep in touch with people, but instead of just feeling pressure to connect with every single person that could ever potentially help us in some way - what if we just kept in touch with people we have come into contact with that we geniunely liked and connected with, and had something interesting to say to?

The reason this came up for me this week was that a few weeks ago I ran into the amazing Marilyn Horne at a Music Academy of the West alumni reception. Marilyn Horne is absolutely one of the people I most admire most in the world, and it's not just because she was such an incomparable artist. It's also because she really is a great lady who spends the bulk of her time now that she has retired from singing helping other people. I'll never forget a concert at Music Academy one summer (which is the summer program in Santa Barbara where she heads the vocal program), when she was still singing, and gave a recital for the Santa Barbara public. The 20 voice students from the program were seated on the stage behind her while she sang her recital. When it came time for her to sing an encore, she turned her back to the paying public, and dedicated and sang the entire song to the 20 of us. The gesture made me weep to the point that my boyfriend at the time had to nudge me and tell me to quit being such a baby. And that moment perfectly describes what she is like as a person, and how she is so generous with sharing her gifts. 

But I digress. The point is, I ran into her at this function, and she mentioned that she hadn't heard from me in a long time and would love to know how I was doing. I not only attended the Music Academy, but Marilyn acutally attended my Master's recital at Juilliard, and asked me to participate in her "On Wings of Song" Foundation which I did for years. We used to comminicate somewhat regularly, but as time went on, I began to feel like I was probably just bugging her if I emailed her - not becuase of anything she said, mind you, just because that's how I am. After seeing her the other night, I promised to email her soon and get back in touch. I went home, weeks passed, and I did nothing. Why? Because a) I didn't want to bother her, and b) I didn't want to seem like I wanted something from her. But hang on - she asked me to email her, it's not like as soon as she saw me she went zipping in the other direction.  And I genuinely adore her - I don't have any expectations for her. Then I started to think about other people in the business who I genuinely had relationships with, but who I had lapsed in keeping in contact with. People who yes, possibly could have recommended me for something here or there, but who I wouldn't be keeping in touch with for that reason, but because I really liked them. 

There are a lot of fields for which keeping a large updated rolodex is very important for your business. But many people don't tend to consider singing one of those businesses. We imagine it's important for our agents, and certainly for our publicists (I'm using the royal "Our" since I obviously don't have a publicist), but the art of singing itself is pretty complicated, so many of imagine that as long as we're good at that, we should leave the rest to the professionals. But not even staying in touch with the people you've met who you really have a connection with is actually, sorry to say, slacking off. Not only do you kind of owe it to people who've helped you along the way to keep them aprised of your accomplishments, but you owe it to yourself to maintain relationships with people who not only care about you, but who are in the same business as you and who can help you - if not with jobs or recommendations, then with advice, support, and perhaps words of encouragement. It is not your job to kiss people's asses, but it is your job to remain connected to the people who have been integral to your development in some way, or who have shown an interest in you as an artist and as a person. Ask yourself this question - do I have something interesting to tell this person? If you do, I think it's okay to email them - as long as it's not just some kind of blatant self promotion (I personally think that sort of thing can backfire). 

I'm thinking this list of things that are part of the job will continue to grow (and believe me - I'm teaching these things to myself as we go) - but for now, item number one is: Stay connected to people you like

And by the way, I finally did email Marilyn, and she wrote me back right away. And now that we're back in touch, I feel more free to ask her advice about things. And who on earth is a better expert for me - an american mezzo - to consult with than the greatest one of all time? I also wrote to a couple more people in the business who I really like and haven't spoken to in too long, to congratulate them on recent successes they've had. I wanted to communicate with them, and I actually had something to say. I didn't let my own considerations get in the way. It felt right. I'm very glad I took my own advice. 

Tuesday
Feb142012

How to be happy - a Valentine for you!

Valentine's day can be soooooooo annoying for those people who are single, and I certainly remember from my years of singledom how it could seem cloying and depressing if you thought too much about it. So I say, let's hijack the holiday and make it about being nice and loving to everyone, not just a significant other. And in that vein, I want to send all of you a Valentine because if you're still reading my blog even now, when I only post something once every 42 years, you deserve a little love from me. 

I started reading a book this week called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Basically, she's a writer with a perfectly lovely life who realized that like many people, she could be much happier with the life she has. So she made a list of the ways in which she could improve her general feelings of well being, and began implementing them month by month, and documenting the experiment in a memoir. And since she is a freelance writer, a lot of the things that were tripping up her happiness were things I could relate to as a freelance musician, and I'm finding the book very uplifting. I like reading about her journey torwards improving how she feels day to day, one item at a time. 

I think a lot of us can easily feel upset and frustrated by life, even when our lives are pretty great when you judge them just based on the facts. We're doing something we really like, we have interesting people to meet along he way, we often have supportive friends and family (it's difficult to even get into this career if you haven't had at least somebody supportive in your path), and we always get to learn new things and grow as artists, and therefore as human beings. But we get so mired down in the difficult parts of what we do; the loneliness, the rejection, the lack of job security - that we tend to focus on that and let the great parts just pass us by un-noticed. And for that reason, I've made a list of how to "be happier" as an opera singer. I think it could apply to a lot of people, because I've learned a lot these past years of participating in this very unusual life, and think I have come up with a few solutions to at least look at. Not that I always do every one of these things mind you - we need to be reminded about this stuff constantly to make it stick. The list is as much for me as it is for you. So here goes:

How to be a Happier Opera Singer

 

1. Remember it's about the journey, not the destination.

This one is hard, because we need to be ambitious to make this career happen, and with ambition comes the need to think about where and what we should be doing to forward our careers. Plus,  because it is such a small world, it's easy to compare what other people are doing and think we don't measure up. But if our ultimate goal in life is actually to be happy (as opposed to being successful), then we have to remind ourselves that a specific job is not the thing that is going to make us happy. Often we strive for something, and when we obtain it we realize it comes mired with all kinds of stress, frustration, and pressure. So actually, the fancy job singing at Blahblah company isn't a THING that is meant to make you happy. The feeling of acheivement you get when you are hired might make you happy - but have you ever noticed that you can get that same feeling or endorphin when you accomplish something that seems to your mind far less "successful" like finally noticing that you know a whole role from memory, or helping a friend solve a problem? Not to mention the fact that often, a goal you think you really wanted - you NEEDED to be happy, but which you didn't acheive, will lead to something else even more exciting - either a chance to grow or even another opportunity that would have been missed had you been given the first one. The thing that seems to make human beings happy is the ability to grow and learn things, and whether or not you are super succesful or just making your way, this particular career path gives us ample opportunities to experience that feeling of growth and new knowledge.

2. Be kind to everyone you meet. Not fakey fakey nice, but genuine and kind.

This one is VERY hard for some people (I won't mention any names, but Jenny Rivera finds this really hard). We are soooooooooo stressed and worried and subject to our own moods, and we often get used to having our needs met because let's face it, singers often get very special treatment. Of course, that is certainly not always the case, and we've all spent our hours paying our dues singing 7 AM school shows, and riding on stinky buses and whatnot. But being nice is not only good for your career, it really does make you happier. I'm not talking about fake nice, pretending to smile and act all googly eyed, and then turning around and saying how much you hate someone. I mean, finding ways to be kind and to like all the people that you come into contact with. In my experience, a great deal of second engagements result from the people involved in the company liking you, not just as a singer, but often, more importantly, as a person. And have you ever noticed that when you are in a good mood, and you walk down the street and make eye contact and smile warmly at strangers, you feel really good? The thing that's difficult is that there are a multitude of very large personalitied people in this business, and sometimes you feel like they are working for the specific purpose of making your life difficult. I'm NOT saying to be a pushover to these people, but from my experience observing people who are very successful at dealing with difficult personalities, they are rarely mean. They are usually calm and kind, and they usually manage to get what they need. This is really a challenge for me; first of all I kind of look mean if I'm spaced out and my face just goes into a scowl. Second, I can get very defensive and hyper when I feel like there is an obstacle to what I'm trying to do. Third, I'm overly sensitive and impulsive. But despite all of that, I really like being nice to people, because it makes them feel good, and that makes me feel good. And when I'm feeling bad about myself, finding people to be nice to, no matter how much I have to push myself to do it in that moment, always helps me feel better. That doesn't mean you will become friends with everyone, just treat them with kindness and fairness as best you can.

3. If you feel helpless, DO SOMETHING! 

One of the worst feelings we all have in this business is helplessness. And it comes often in this line of work because you can sing like a god, and still not get hired, you can have the best year of your career and still have no jobs the following year, or you can give of yourself a million percent and there are still people who won't like it. Sometimes I get really down in the dumps because I don't feel successful enough, validated enough, busy enough, famous enough - you get the idea. And I can't call up Jimmy John, the GD of Blahblah A House and say "Okay, it's time you hired me already. I mean - everybody is asking me when you are going to. My friends think I'm totally good enough, so seriously, just stop dilly dallying and give everyone what they want." There is nothing you can do to get someone to hire you - you can't even just try to sing better, because that may not work anyway. But that doesn't mean there is nothing you can do to feel proactive and productive about yourself as an artist. You can sit down and make a list of all the roles you could possibly sing. You could work on your website (ahem, Rivera - I think she's talking to you, who hasn't updated her calendar in 3 years), you could get a group of other singers together and brainstorm about ways to be better artists, or ways to publicize yourself, you could write emails to people you really like in the business but haven't corresponded with in awhile, you could read a self help book about proactivity, you could organize a group of singers for a peer masterclass, you could learn a new song cycle, you could try to read a book in italian, you could make a list of every single opera company and symphony in america, you could just take a walk and listen to a fast Handel aria on your headphones (that always jazzes me up, but that may just be me), or you could make a list of goals, or of music you want to learn, or of people you want to work with, or of companies you think you should sing for. Or you could just old fashioned practice singing. I promise you that after you do a few of these things, you will be out of your funk, at least for the time being. 

4. Don't read bad reviews.

Just don't read them. Get someone you trust to just send you the good ones. I don't see any reason on earth to read things that one particular person writes about you that they don't like. Someone else could easily like the same thing that the first person hated. Record yourself singing or have someone who's opinion you trust come to the performance, but don't bother to read bad reviews. I see absolutely no purpose, and I don't think they are constructive because often the person has no idea what they are talking about. Now, if you do this, you can't really "believe" the good reviews - you can't use them as some kind of "get out of jail free" card to pretend like you are perfect all the time. But most singers I know are so furiously hard on themselves, they know exactly what they did wrong the instant the sound leaves their lips. They don't need a journalist to tell them. 

5. When you feel competitive with, or jealous of someone else, be supportive of them instead.

I know this one sounds a little cuckoo, and like it will backfire, but I firmly believe that it works to make you a happier person. Being able to admire people only makes you a more effective artist, and trying to undermine them either in your head or when you talk to other people doesn't make you look very confident and isn't very attractive. Plus it kind of eats away at your soul. Let's say you are singing a role, and your gorgeous young cover sings a rehearsal, and you hear her and you think "SHIT! She's really good! And young! And gorgeous! And now looking at her website I see that she has Blahblah job that I really wanted! ARRRRGGGHHHH!!" You are human - your first instinct will be to hate her guts. But like they tell you to do when you are trying to meditate, if you have a thought, label it, and let it go. And when you next see her, tell her how gorgeously she sang, and tell other people nice things too. This doesn't work if you're being fake. Don't go around telling people you think somebody is fabulous when you don't - that's very transparent in my opinion. Just accept that jealousy is natural, it's human, label it, and move on. Your journey is not hers and you wish her well on hers while you take yours. If you think that is too hoo ha for you, just try it next time it happens, and tell me it didn't make you happier than sitting there wishing you had a voodoo doll to stick with pins. As competitive as this world seems, nobody "takes away" anybody else's opportunity. That's just not how it works, even though our minds tell us it is. 

6. Deal with fear.

Here's my problem; I get terrible stagefright for certain performances. Not all of them, just certain things make me excrutiatingly nervous. How do I usually deal with it? Pretend like it's not there until it comes up and makes me utterly miserable. And because I don't get it before every performance, I'm particularly good at ignoring it until I feel like throwing up, and by then it's too late. And fear really can take the joy out of performing - BIG TIME. I have had more conversations with myself about other career possibilities when I've been nervous before a performance than at any other time in my life. Fear, and this includes both stage fright and fear of failing which causes you not to take risks either in performance or in life, is something that needs to be addressed. I can't offer you the ultimate solution to this because it's different for everyone - therapy, hypnosis, accupuncture, meditation, exercise, breathing, body work, and personal coaching are just some things that have been succesful for people I know. But deal with it - it's a really mean little thing that can make you hate something that should be joyous. 

7. Don't compare yourself to anyone else.

This kind of ties everything together. The journey, the competitiveness, the fear, the bad behavoir. Our natural tendency as humans is to measure ourselves by those around us. Some are worse about this than others, but singers are natural candidates for this because we are constantly auditioning against others, being compared to other singers, being asked to sound like other singers, being made to feel inferior to other singers when we're not working as much as them, etc ad infinitum. And it really doesn't help that our field is small enough that we can compare ourselves very specifically to very specific people, and decide immediately that we don't measure up. The humongous problem with this is that we really are all unique individuals, and you can't turn into a pineapple if you're a banana. So you are setting yourself up for failure and unhappiness if you begin to play the compare game. I am sitting here writing this blog post, not singing an aria at the Grammy's - but I can't make myself into a Joyce DiDonato pineapple no matter how hard I try. I am a banana, and some people really like bananas AND pineapples, and some people only like one or the other, and there's not way to combine the two because then you get a Tangelo and those things are just creepy. Better to stick with what you've got and make as many banana cream pies and banana breads as you possibly can. And while you're at it, admire yourself some pineapple and learn from her recipes as much as you can, because she sure can sing Non piu mesta like nobody's business! 

I wish you a very HAPPY Valentines day!!