Opera is all about details. We practice and polish and hone and obsess, sometimes to the point where we forget what all those details are in service of: performing. All of it is so that when we get up on that stage we have the tools to really, truly, make the art as we want it to be. We so desperately want to share and communicate with the people watching on a primal level, and working towards perfection allows us to communicate more easily and deeply.
Last Saturday I was able to do that thing where you make a roomful of people forget to breathe and wait to clap. Where they're still with you as the last chord fades and they need to sit with you for an extra few seconds while you hold the final energy of your aria. Honestly, that's the moment I live for in opera. It was exactly what I was aiming for with that particular piece, so even though I didn't advance in the competition I was singing for, I'm proud of myself. I didn't sing perfectly, but I took the audience somewhere else. I performed. That's what it's about. That's why I do this. To make people feel, to make them empathize. Not sympathize; empathize. To help them immerse so deeply their neurons line up with mine and they feel with me. I forget what I'm about sometimes when I get caught up in the day-to-day of making specialized throat noises, but that was not one of those days. I lost, but I won.
Late last year I hung out with jazz musicians for the first time in a long while. My friend (a jazz pianist) and I had just watched an amazing band play a great set, and went to talk to the clarinetist. We introduced ourselves and midway through the conversation the player casually asked, "oh, are you a musician?" in response to me using some musical jargon. I outed myself as an opera singer and suddenly he looked really impressed. His eyebrows went up and he said, "that's amazing, you're a legit singer!" He then explained that legit was the jazz-industry term for singers who sing in a more classical style. I knew the term, and nodded and smiled as the conversation flowed back to what we were previously talking about. This man had just shredded on the clarinet, playing with an easy and virtuosic style that had me alternately slack-jawed and grinning like an idiot, but deemed me worthy of extra esteem just because of the style of music I perform.
That term bounced around my head the rest of the evening, as I kept meeting new jazz musicians and seeing their eyebrows raise, newfound respect crossing over their faces, every time I said those magic words: "opera singer." Mind you, none of these people have ever heard me sing -- I could be complete crap for all they knew -- but the mere mention of my "legit" style was enough to earn their admiration. My friend received no such response; when he or I would mention his prowess as a jazz pianist, he would get a nod and warm smile of camaraderie.
I have immense respect for vocal musicians in other styles; it takes practice and skill no matter the genre. Musical theater singers have to be in insanely good shape to meet the demands of their genre; jazz and R&B singers can riff in ways that put my coloratura to shame; country music has that wonderful ping ("twang") to it that I aspire to in my squillo; folk music from all backgrounds involves meticulous research and immersion into regional styles and oral histories; pop is universally appealing to a degree that no other genre can match; rock and metal put demands on the voice that I can't even begin to rival or comprehend. Opera is a demanding, physical, technical, emotional art form that takes a mind-blowing amount of invisible work, but other genres are equally deserving of respect.
This happens among non-musicians as well. When I (eventually) get around to mentioning that I'm an opera singer, I get the same sky-high eyebrows and genuine excitement. I'm not going to lie, it feels nice to get automatic awe, but it also makes me uncomfortable, especially considering the usual shape of the conversation immediately after the revelation.
Me: I'm an opera singer.
Person: Wow that's so cool! I've never met an opera singer before! Opera is amazing!
Me: [excitedly] Oh you like opera?!
Person: Well I've never seen one, but I've always wanted to go.
Me: If you don't mind my asking, what's stopped you from going?
Person: I've just never gotten around to it.
I've had this conversation easily 10-20 times in the past year. If it continues on past that point, I usually end up recommending easy/cheap places to find and experience opera (during the summer there's the Met Summer HD Festival, which is free, easy, low pressure, and fun, and the NY Opera Fest, which has a wide variety of affordable options). If I have something coming up, I'll also invite them to that. Opera just isn't that high on people's list of leisure activities. It's seen as Work, as an Event, a Special Occasion. It's the art-house foreign film of live performance. This elitist stigma and niche core audience hurts ticket sales, but translates to respect in a one-on-one conversation. Opera is incredible and has the ability to bypass logic to reach directly into the emotional core of a person, but the fact that people have a distant reverence for it without having experienced is a little disconcerting.
I don't really know where I'm going with this, but I just wanted to bring it up. It's one of those weird things that come up as an opera singer.
Fellow artists (of all styles!), have you experienced this? Do you see it as good, bad, neutral, hilarious? What have you observed? Let me know in the comments!
I have finally started making vlogs! This first installment is my adventures on Sunday, 29 April. So excited to share this first video with you!
I had the privilege of attending the Met Opera National Council Finals and learned a lot. If you are a singer, I highly recommend watching as many competitions as you can. It teaches you about, in no particular order:
In case you were wondering (and didn't just click on the MONC link above), the winners are:
Ashley Dixon, Mezzo-Soprano, Northwest Region
Jessica Faselt, Soprano, Upper Midwest Region
Madison Leonard, Soprano, Middle Atlantic Region
Carlos Santelli, Tenor, Western Region
Hongni Wu, Mezzo-Soprano, Eastern Region
I had a lot of fun making my first MezzoNerd video. Please subscribe to my youtube channel - there will be more vlogs in the future!
My generation is doing this odd thing where we call out our own #adulting, and I honestly think this celebration and glorification of adulthood is good. Gamifying achievements like cooking something elaborate, opening a savings account or retirement fund, or just actually doing that laundry you've been putting off gives you a burst of dopamine, making you more likely to adult in the future (yes, "adult" has colloquially been verbed -- deal with it). Sharing accomplishments boosts self-esteem. Honestly, I feel great every time I pay bills. Still. I've been responsible for paying at least one utility since I was 17, so you think that would have worn off by now, but strangely enough the novelty remains. I batch-cooked a beef and vegetable soup for the week and brought in a tupperware-full for my coworker. When she wolfed it down today, starting when it was still too hot but persevering because it was yummy, making happy noises and faces and exclaiming "this is so good!" more than once, I felt an indecent amount of pride. I didn't want to let it show, but having another person -- especially an older colleague whose opinion I respect -- really enjoy my cooking straight-up made my week. I've also been riding the high from organizing my bookshelf and tacking up fairy lights in my room for like four days now. And I know I'm not the only one to experience these small moments of pride and joy in everyday events.
This feeling goes hand in hand with the impostor syndrome common among my generation where we can't quite believe we're adults. For many of the financially middling and more affluent among us, our parents have been helping us pay for basic expenses into our late 20s, which definitely contributes to that phenomenon (let's be real here, I'm still on my mom's cell phone plan and I lived with her for 2 years post-college). But is it so bad that we're holding onto our sense of fun? Is it so bad that we're turning being an adult into something to be excited about? As long as we're actually being responsible human adults, where's the harm?
I was lucky enough to represent OperaWire at the Girls of the Golden West Works and Process presentation at the Guggenheim on September 21st and had the opportunity to write an article about it. They let me write from whatever angle I wanted (!), and Peter Sellars (librettist/director) and John Adams (composer) were so woman-oriented in the way they talked about the opera that I had to go with a woman-centric take.
It was really special to be able to hear them talk about the show. Both men are so meticulous -- everything they do is well thought out -- and I love hearing Sellars in particular speak about opera. He always touches on something profound or historical and makes me think about the work in a way I hadn't considered. I heard a radio interview about his Clemenza this summer and it completely blew my mind.
Watching the creative team during the discussion last Thursday really brought home that there is no excuse for writing operas dominated by white males. These two white men, one of whom just turned 70, spent a majority of the time talking about the forgotten multiculturalism of the Gold Rush. The story they wove for the opera revolves around real-life accounts of two women, Louise Clappe and Josefa Segovia, and although they took artistic license with the details and how they structured the story, especially given the lack of historical records surrounding Josefa, they clearly did extensive research and made every effort to create real, powerful women. These men looked around at their privilege and opportunities and decided to tell someone else's story.
Click below to read my article!
Also, on a personal note, I got to meet J'Nai Bridges and Peter Sellars, and re-meet John Adams and let him know what an impact he had on my affinity for new music (On the Transmigration of Souls was one of my earliest experiences performing contemporary vocal music). It was awesome!
"Opera is sexy!"
I remember the time this innocent tweet from a music community tweep sparked a long, lively conversation between me and another tweep. His problem was that people always say that in an attempt to give opera broader appeal and reel in new audience members. He argued that not everything needs to be sexy, that opera can stand on its other merits, that "sexy" doesn't have to come into play. He's right. For example, The Met's ad campaign from last year clearly utilizes the sex appeal of the international stars gracing its stage, with Anna Netrebko in the throes of ecstasy, Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo entwined atop silk sheets, and Elina Garanca giving us her best 90s Leonardo DiCaprio, one hand seductively stroking Renee Fleming's hair.
This is only the latest in a string of aesthetics-based choices at The Met. Then we have those regie European productions, where nudity is practically de rigeur. Gratuitous nudity is in vogue, for example the shower scene in Glyndebourne's Der Rosenkavalier.
So, yes, not everything needs to be sexy and this trend towards hyper-sexualization is not doing the art form any favors. He's right.
He's also wrong. Opera IS sexy. It's intrinsically sexy, for so many reasons. The stories are emotionally charged and sparks constantly fly between lovers. They deal with seduction, revenge, sex, and passionate love. The music is intoxicating and sweeps through the fourth wall to envelop and arouse the audience. Singing opera can be arousing. Opera is a safe space to explore and experience the many facets of desire.
Opera doesn't need to be sexy. It just is.
In case you missed me yelling about this in person or on every social media platform known to man -- I have a concert this Friday, June 23rd. I am insanely proud of this particular concert. It features works by a bunch of composers, and excerpts from an opera in progress. I am singing one of the lead roles in the opera scenes and an entire song cycle by the super-talented and crazy-nice Ross Crean, who is in absurdly high demand in the Chicago new music scene. I am extremely passionate about new vocal works, and this is an opportunity to really dig into some very satisfying music. These composers are all so smart; their music is full of nuance and little touches that bring home just how talented and brilliant they are. AND THE SINGERS. We have a group of amazing singers who have really brought this music to life. I'm so excited to bring this concert to fruition. I can't fully express how important it is to me, and I hope you come to see it. TICKETS
June 23, 7pm at Opera America National Opera Center (330 7th Ave)
I'm going to start a regular vlog in the next couple months. Keep your eyes peeled! It's going to be a smorgasbord of things that interest me, published in vlog form! You can find me under the tag MezzoNerd once it's live. For now, get a sneak peek at my title sequence:
From before I was born, you have been a master at manipulating my emotions. From Mufasa, to Bambi's mom, to The Fox and the Hound, with its deeply dissatisfying ending and surprising nuance that was totally lost on me as a child, you have been toying with my feelings. And don't even get me started on the beginning of Up (I'm not crying YOU'RE crying). I've loved it. I've grown up on your ideals of who I should be as a woman, I've always played princess. I owned a beautiful collection of VHS tapes as a child, and still watch your new releases. When you merged with Pixar I was ecstatic that two amazing powerhouses were joining artistic forces, and you did not disappoint. However, you have begun one type of emotional manipulation that I do not appreciate, cannot stand, and will not accept: queerbaiting.
I was going to see your new live-action Beauty and the Beast. That was my absolute favorite movie as a young child. As an extremely nerdy brunette, who always had at least two fiction books in my backpack and another six under my pillow, who was shunted to the fringes of the cool kids' social circles, I totally identified with Belle. I still get chills and tear up when I watch the gorgeous opening sequence. This movie means a lot to me. Then, it came out that one of the characters was gay. "Finally," I thought, "Cogsworth will have his day." Haha nope. It turns out that LeFou is the gay one. "Okay," I thought, "that could make sense. I wish it wasn't one of the villains, though." As more and more details and statements leaked, I became more skeptical. Vague statements about a "moment" were circulating. A "moment" is about the smallest amount of time one can devote to a subject, so that was the biggest red flag, and the terminology surrounding the whole thing did not make me feel better, since "gay moment" is an actual trope. Queer people have been seeking out "moments" in entertainment since time immemorial, so that's a pretty minimal commitment, since the community was bound to find a gay moment anyway (for example in the original, when Gaston talks about his DEEEEcorAAAting, or any glance between Kirk and Spock in the Star Trek franchise).
Then the movie actually came out. Everyone who saw it said that the moment was literally a moment, and that the gayness was cliche. I was so disappointed. I knew the hype was for publicity, but I was hoping to be proved wrong. I still might see this film, but I'm no longer in any hurry.
I don't expect you to be progressive on this front; I know better than that. But please don't pretend.
I have a confession: there are a buttload of operas, some of them standard, some of them obscure, that I haven't seen in their entirety. Like, a helluva lot. I've listened to some of them, but the magic of opera is in the Gesamtkunstwerk. Most of them, I'm just not particularly interested because there aren't any good mezzo roles in them (unfortunate truth). Like, I hadn't seen Boheme in its entirety until the summer of '16. SO. I'm going to track my list of operas I want to watch in this post. I'll update it as I think of them and move them to the list at the bottom as I check them off. If you have recommendations for certain operas or productions, lay 'em on me! I'll let you know if I've already seen it, but I've seen so many operas that I don't feel like torturing myself trying to list them all here. Maybe I'll start adding ones I've seen as I feel like it/remember. I've seen so much, but there is SO MUCH MORE. GUYS, THERE'S SO MUCH OPERA. :D
Dido and Aeneas
Abduction from the Seraglio (Mozart)
Der Schauspieldirektor (Mozart)
Orpheus in the Underworld (Offenbach)
Eugene Onegin (Tchaik)
The Maid of Orleans (Tchaik)
Pique Dame (Tchaik)
Die Freischutz (Weber)
The Ring Cycle (Wagner)
Arabella (R. Strauss)
Capriccio (R. Strauss)
Die Frau ohne Schatten
Salome - LIVE (I've seen it on film)
Tristan und Isolde
Turn of the screw
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
Dead Man Walking (Heggie)
Little Women (Adamo)
Dr. Atomic (Adams)
Einstein on the Beach (Glass)
Prince of Players (Floyd)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Picker)
Frankenstein (Libby Larsen)
Things I've seen (hella incomplete, don't judge me yet):
L'amour de Loin
Ariadne auf Naxos
Baby Shower (Bruce Trinkley)
Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Breaking the Waves (Mazzoli)
I Capuleti e i Montecchi
La Clemenza di Tito
Le Comte Ory
Les contes d'Hoffmann
Così fan tutte
L'enfant et les sortileges
Falstaff (WITH BRYN TERFEL!!!)
La Fanciulla del West
La finta giardiniera (Mozart)
The Flying Dutchman
Higglety Pigglety Pop!
Hydrogen Jukebox (Phillip Glass)
L'Italiana in Algeri
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
The Little Prince
Les mamelles des Tiresias
Maria Stuarda (Donizetti)
Die Meistersinger von Nurenberg
The Merry Widow (sexist)
Nixon in China
Le nozze di Figaro
Orfeo ed Euridice
Pelleas et Melisande
Pirates of Penzance
The Rape of Lucretia
Roberto Devereux (amazing!)
Romeo et Juliette
Sir John in Love
Sweets by Kate (Griffin Candey)
The Wake World (David Herzenberg)
Die Zauberflöte (my first! I had a friend asleep on each shoulder by 10 minutes in)
Maayan is a Manhattan-based opera singer.