Saturday, February 27, 2010

Good Vibrations

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about sound and how we respond to different types of sounds. Why is the screech of a crow less appealing than the sweet tweet of a robin? Why is one voice appealing to us and another completely unmoving? Most people would agree that the operatic sounds of Florence Foster Jenkins are less desirable than that of Renata Scotto. But why? Okay, I know, pitch is a factor and consistency in breath production, blah blah blah…yes, I took vocal pedagogy in school. But, let’s compare two other voices. Why would someone love Leontyne Price over Eleanor Steber? Each one of these singers possesses outstanding qualities that put them in leagues way above the average singer, and yet there are still people who prefer Price to Freni. Okay, yes certain voice color and artistic expression is preferable to some and not a factor to others. The arguments could go on forever as to who has the best voice, and trust me, in some circles the arguments are still going on. To me it is like trying to count shades of light.

I have always thought of sound more as vibration than aural aesthetic. What I mean is, I like to feel sound rather than hear it. What I mean by that is, sound vibrations are more pleasing to me than simply listening to singing. When I listen to a singer and I can feel how that sound or vibration moves through their body then I connect to that singer. When I feel what they feel then I connect to them as well. I am not speaking necessarily of emotions derived from the text being sung. I can feel emotion with or without words and we know this well when we listen to symphonic works. I can be moved by the feel of a clarinet as well as a voice. What is that we are feeling? Why does is feel different for every person?

What we are feeling is vibration and energy and every being and object has it and every being and object is completely different. Is this too new-agey? Perhaps. But think for a moment about how sound is energy and has power in almost a magical sort of way. Think of sound as form and that it can affect other forms. What if you could hold sound in your hand or see it on a screen or watch it vibrate through water? Yes, pretty cool, huh? Well, we can. Enter stage left, the character , cymatics.

Cymatics isn’t a new discovery. The mastermind Galileo knew about it. Cymatics is the study of vibrations and their visual effects on particles. In its early study it was done by vibrating a sheet of metal and watching small particles move around according to the frequency of the vibration. I used to watch cymatics and didn’t even know it. I would stand and watch the saw dust move around from the vibration of my Granddaddy’s skill saw and marvel at how it always moved to the same spot. Some of the particles were moving because of the vibrating machine, but there were some that moved on metal because of the high pitch of the saw. It’s pretty cool stuff when you think about it.

Maybe we connect to certain sounds not just through our ears but through the vibrations that those sound make us feel. Or, we connect to those sounds because they vibrate us in a pleasing way. These sounds actually play us. Imagine that by listening to Beethoven that you are actually being stimulated by invisible massage hands. What a thought! I love thinking of sound this way and even more, singing. What if by singing we actually are vibrating people and spreading, oh my, good vibrations? (Sorry for that one, I couldn’t resist.)

Take a look at this clip from Ted: Ideas Worth Spreading. Here creative technologist, Evan Grant, gives us examples of how sound actually vibrates shapes. He states, “Well for me, Cymatics is an almost magical tool. It’s like a looking glass into a hidden world.” I feel he is right. What does each bird look like according to sound? What shape does the robin make? What does the voice of Florence Foster Jenkins look like? What does Rap music look like? How does the look of all these sounds through cymatics compare to the actual enjoyment of that sound. Can I dislike rap music but like the look of the music as art through cymatics? What if Florence Foster Jenkins’ cymatic picture is a brilliant work of art? Most importantly, what if sound is form and it does affect other forms? What does that mean for me as a singer? To me it means that we have the ability to change or alter people with our music. We know this to be true ultimately because we have experienced it at some point in our lives. We remember the first time we were moved by music but we didn’t really know what was happening. But, now we can see it. Our sounds, our words, our sighs, and our exaltations have energy and vibrations that ripple out to others. That is our tsunami of healing magic.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dream Big

Hello, is it really morning….Can someone please tell me that last night wasn’t a dream?? Okay, confirmed, not a dream. It was REAL, folks! I went on as Marie in La fille du Regiment last night at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City!!! I can’t even believe I just typed that sentence and I can’t believe that what I have had as a faint picture in my mind for many years, actually happened.

I am going to try and write about what it was like, but as I even begin to start, I realize that there are no words for the emotions that I had yesterday and there will be no way for me to really describe how I felt and how I feel now. Stay with me, I shall ramble a spell.

We grow up in this business being taught in school that at any moment we could get “the call” and be asked to go on for an ailing singer. I remember being told this in graduate school and actually thinking that after one of my performances at Indiana University that the MET could have heard about it and might give me a call. I’ve always taken things very seriously, you see. We were drilled into believing that we could never be prepared enough because we just may be called upon to save the day. We have been told numerous stories of careers being made by someone stepping in at the last minute. I know Renata Scotto rocketed to stardom after filling in for Maria Callas and I remember a similar story about Franco Corelli…you get the point, it happens. People get sick, things come up, they cancel.

Well, I have known it was a possibility that I would go on since I am covering this season at the MET. It has been in the back of my mind for some time that I very well could go on, and the thought of it sometimes made me crazy and sometimes made me wince. However, after doing the cover rehearsals last week, I was feeling pretty confident and excited about the possibility and after all, that is the job I signed up for and that is what I was prepared to do.

So let me give you all the details, because I know many of you are dying to know how this all works. I was notified Monday that Diana Damrau was sick and that she would be canceling rehearsals that afternoon for her upcoming run of Barbiere. People in the MET office said that she may feel better for the performance but that they wanted me to be on call just in case. So, I canceled my Hamlet coaching at 1:00 (I am also covering Natalie Dessay in her upcoming performances of Ophelia in Hamlet…..hmmm what if…….well, let me not get ahead of myself) and went to see Greg Keller, the fabulous assistant stage director at the MET. He and I went through the role together. He spoke the other singers’ lines, oh yeah, let me mention that this particular production has tons of spoken French dialogue. I have been working on it for months. We went through the staging quickly just to make sure I remembered where I was supposed to be. Then I spent an hour alone going through some of the phrases that I knew I wanted to double check. I left the MET that day feeling pretty good and on my way out I ran into an old friend.

Get this, the old friend I ran into was none other than Larry Brownlee. We went to school together at Indiana Univerisity not too long ago and we were catching up on things. The dialogue went a bit like this, “Oh that’s great! So, good to see you…..Wow, it has been so long…what two years?....How are things? Yep, married and you are a newly wed too, right?......Yes, I am covering Fille here and am on call because Diana is sick, but she probably will be fine for tomorrow…..insert more dialogue about how long we are both in NYC and about roles coming up etc…..then the big ender…… “So, we should get together while we are here and do something fun…….Yeah! That would be great!” Then we swapped phone numbers and went on our way. Who knew that less than 24 hours later that fun thing to do would be an opera at the MET! You can’t make this stuff up!!!!! Larry was called on Tuesday to fill in for the ailing Juan Diego Florez.

Tuesday afternoon we both got the call that we were going on. I was so excited! Really, I have imagined this moment many times. I usually do so when I hear other singers tell their stories about getting the call and when I have thought about it, it would always bring utter terror into my body and I would imagine the sky falling in. Luckily, when I got the call I heard my mouth say, “Sure, I’d love to sing tonight. I’ll be down at the theater as soon as I can!”
I calmly packed my bag, grabbed my score, an extra pair of underwear (it’s amazing what we can remember during these moments) and headed to the theater. It was blizzard number 2 in NYC yesterday and the roads were a mess. I hopped in a cab and within half an hour of sliding down West End Ave, I arrived at the Met stage door.

I went to the 5th floor studio and when I walked in, Larry and I burst into laughter. We told everyone the story of what had happened Monday afternoon and how casually we suggested we should get together again. Goose bumps. We rehearsed our scenes together and Larry was amazing. He had never seen the production and was learning French dialogue on the fly!! Fearless is this man and what a brilliant artist.

So, fast forward…..yes, I know, get to the good stuff. I went to the MET cafeteria and got something to eat and then went to my dressing room. It was 6 pm and make-up came. I don’t even remember that whole ordeal and hardly remember getting my wig put on. But, what I do remember is looking in the mirror and seeing Marie! I know, weird, but when I was dressed and all put together my energy surge was enough to power all of Manhattan. Yep, just like that. I started jumping around. I went into the hall to show everybody my cute little wig and bouncy pony tail. I WAS Marie!

People started coming by my room. Music staff, props people, microphone lady, dressing people who had worked with me before, colleagues who needed to rehearse lifting me up (yep, my Lincoln Co. cheerleading days came in real handy last night.), it seemed like Grand Central for a spell. General Director Peter Gelb stopped by to wish me luck and Maestro Marco Armiliato, the conductor for the evening stopped by to give me a pep talk. You would think that we talked about music, but we didn’t. He is a singers conductor for sure. I was not worried in the least that he would be with me. His kind eyes and exuberant face say everything about this man. He told me, “Leah, give the audience a good time. You have a good time, and they will have a good time.” Simple. Good.

I went out onto the stage. They were holding the audience so that Larry and I could walk on the set. I checked my props. I moved things around so that they worked better for me. I ran around a little bit. I made peace with the vastness of the MET. It’s huge but very intimate. I was feeling good. On my way from the stage I saw Peter Gelb talking with Kiri Te Kanawa. Without a thought I ran over to them and introduced myself to Dame Kiri. She is a legend. I was going to be sharing the stage with her and I wanted to introduce myself. She was lovely and very encouraging. Then, I bounced all the way back to my dressing room.

I stood a moment. I sang a verse of Blessed Assurance. I flipped through my score and sang a few passages from the beginning of the opera. I was calm. I don’t know what happened exactly, but the mean little gremlin that sometimes creeps his way onto my shoulder when pressure is high took the night off. Hallelujah. I went to my place off stage to wait for my entrance. I had such support backstage. My friend and colleague Steven White, who is assistant conductor on this production, was in the wings and told me he would be there. He was just an arms length away. It is a marvelous feeling having positive energy that close to you when you are about to throw yourself into the unknown.

The next thing I knew, I picked up a pile of laundry and walked out on stage and started singing. Everything became like an out of body experience. Really, there were times that I felt as if I were hovering above myself. I was having fun. I was playing with my colleagues and I was FLOATING, BEAMING, REJOICING, PRAISING…..I don’t know. It was all the hard work of my entire life coming out of my body. It was all the people who had helped me in some way holding my hand. It was all the memories of people I miss so much now, there with me. I know, I sound like a commercial and please let me have this moment of indulgence, it was unforgettable.

I can’t remember every detail, but some of my favorite moments were singing with Larry in the duet. We were both so happy to be there and his energy was so positive and confident. I loved singing with the soldiers and all the energy I was getting from them as I slapped their hands during Chacun Le Sait. I really enjoyed the lesson scene in Act II playing with the hilarious Meridith Arwady as my Aunt. Meridith and I were in the MET competition in 2004 together. She went on to be a winner, I believe, and I was in the semi-finals. She was a sweetie and gave me a back massage during Tonio’s 9 high C’s aria. I absolutely loved singing Salut a la France and running across the stage and banging on the piano. I messed up the ending to the aria because I just had a brain slip, but I kept going and ended with a heartful high note while being lifted into the air by 5 strong dancers. I laughed out loud on stage when Kiri Te Kanawa screamed in my ear. She did it exceptionally long last night and Larry and I were in shock just looking at her. It really was like a silly dream, all of it.

I had some random thoughts throughout the show like, I am glad I shaved this morning, I wonder if these Army pants give me a camel toe, thank God I remembered my toothbrush….those kinds of things that make you laugh at yourself. Most of my thoughts were of telling myself to breathe. Then I would tell myself to exhale and then breathe again. I found this really works. Simple, huh? Hard to do when the world is watching.

I was so happy that some of my dear friends could come at the last minute and I was THRILLED beyond words that my loving husband braved all the snow and drove from Philadelphia and was on the third row. He was a nervous wreck from it all, but so proud. I never thought I would be thankful that he was laid off from work and forced to move to Philly, but seeing that it is 80 miles from NY, that painful layoff allowed him to share in my big day. That is how life works.

Today I am happy. I had an incredible time doing my work last night. I love, absolutely love and adore what I do for a living. Sometimes, I have such fear that it all will come to a screeching halt. Last night those fears were very far away. Was it perfect? No. Was it fun? YES!! Did I give all of myself? Hell, yes! I am sore in so many parts of my body today like I am when I work out with a personal trainer. Would I change some things? Oh, of course. But, it is live theater and anything goes. Oh, did I mention it was broadcast live on the radio? I didn’t really let myself think about this aspect, you know that thousands more people were listening live on Sirius Radio. Better that I didn’t think to hard on that one. But, I was thrilled to find out that a bunch of Mercer Students listened together at Jittery Joes on the Mercer campus! C'est chouette!

Well, I know that my story was a ramble and you can probably tell how frazzled my mind is today. I slept 4 hours and I am coming off one gigantic adrenaline rush. But, there is work to do! I have Hamlet rehearsal in a few hours. Who knows, maybe I’ll have another story to tell in a few weeks. I would like to share some music with you. I got in the shower this morning and turned on my ipod to shuffle. This song by Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband came on and I cried like a baby. Tears of joy, of course. DREAM BIG!!!!!!!!! Cause when you dream it might come true, so when you dream, DREAM BIG.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I went to a debate last week at Columbia University and the topic was Freedom of Expression: The Controversy. During the debate the panelists centered around the idea that although we have freedom of speech, there must always be a limit to that freedom and that the controversy lies in who determines what type of speech is appropriate and what is blasphemous. It was an intense conversation between the panelists who were arguing that 'insanity' or false proclamations tend to exhaust themselves and die out (example given in the debate was the denial of the Holocaust by certain groups) and that truth will eventually triumph. By the end of the discussion, as you can imagine, there wasn't a resolution as to who or what should control our freedom of speech. Words can be the most vile weapon and certainly can be the soul that unifies a people. Insert large audible inhale and exhale.

All I know is that I love words. I love to talk them and I love to sing them. I love to express myself and for others to do the same. I hate the thought of limits to our speech and freedom with words but I also hate how irresponsible people can be with their words. So, insert another long large audible inhale and exhale. The pendulum swings.

Enjoy these words from a poet, who I believe knows the power and responsibility of her words.
Say Yes by Andrea Gibson

Monday, February 1, 2010

Under Cover

I am in New York City right now for the next few months working at the Metropolitan Opera. My job is to cover two main stage roles, both of which I have never performed before. I have told family and friends that I am covering at the MET and they are completely lost as to what this means. I know, it is an odd term. One person actually thought I was hovering at the MET and that is really closer to what it feels like. Basically, it is the new term we use instead of ‘understudy’. It is like being second string on a football team. I have to be prepared with all the plays and strategy in the case that I get put into the big game. So, I learn the music, watch rehearsals, get some play by play staging rehearsals, and then sit around waiting to see if I am ever needed to come in and save the day by throwing the 90 yard touchdown pass. Yes, it is stressful work but I am happy to say that I am very excited. Covering is more stressful because you lack the rehearsal time to get the role into your body. You have to do all of this on your own, in your apartment or in the small amount of rehearsal time you get when they give you the blueprint of the role. I am covering the effervescent Diana Damrau in La fille du Regiment and the show opens this Saturday and I still haven’t staged Act II. Am I worried? Nah. Do I fret at night over the pages of French dialogue that I will have to perform? A little, but Nah. For me there is something so enticing about the possibility of being thrown on stage with little rehearsal. I know it sounds crazy but I am kind of an adrenaline addict. I’ve never done drugs but I can only imagine that an adrenaline rush must be something close to it. So, I say bring it on! Opera is my drug!