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Yesterday I got to Port-Royal with an hour to kill before my voice lesson. It was a perfect autumn day–crisp, breezy, cool enough to wear a coat but not cold enough to button it–so I decided to find a bench. While I was walking to the nearby park, I heard a familiar jingle that seemed to be moving. I turned around to see where it was coming from, and there was a Lubavitch Chabad Sukkot truck! They have one of those in Evanston. Earlier in the day, around St. Michel, I saw a little Orthodox boy walking home with his lulav and etrog. All of which leads me to believe it’s Sukkot, or nearly. Alors, joyeux féstival de Souccot!

And then I had a perfectly marvelous voice lesson. Yesterday was actually a bit of a stamina experiment for me. Usually on Mondays before my voice lesson, I do absolutely nothing. I want to be at my best, so I don’t do any extra singing, no practicing, no running around like a crazy person. But yesterday I practiced for an hour after lunch (which consisted, by the way, of homemade tomato sauce and pasta. I have come to the conclusion that the only way to make great tomato sauce is to move to Paris where the tomatoes are out of this world. And now, Radio 4 will explode…), all new music, which I find rather more taxing than technical work on music I already know, and then I spent the afternoon on the train/bus and wandering. So by the time I got to my lesson, I would not have said I was in top form.

Today was the fatal day that we were going to start working on my pianos. I remember a poster in the choir room at PCDS that said “Any choir can sing forte–it takes a good choir to sing piano.” I think the same applies to solo singing. I, for one, sing loudly extremely well. I love a good wail. But at this level, what I need is subtlety, nuance, expressiveness. And up until now I didn’t really think I was any good at that. I’ve always said that “floating” notes was not really my strong suit, which is why I’ve never attempted this aria, for instance (starting around 2:05):

Anyway. Madame has an exercise in minor that is all about nuance, all about singing high notes softly and eventually doing a diminuendo up there–all things that generally speaking terrify me. But while we were working on my other vocalises, she said to me, “Smile. Now open your mouth without forcing your chin down, and don’t change the shape.” I also realized that I had been manipulating my lower lip, because relaxing it just feels so odd. But I thought, why not let it all chill out and see what happens?

So I did. When we got to the high note, I opened my mouth naturally and relaxed my lips like Madame said. And you know what? She looked at me after about three modulations and said, “You HAVE piano. Why do you sing everything loud?” I told her it was news to me (or tried to–I couldn’t come up with an equivalent idiomatic expression in French). It’s really just something I’ve never tried. I’ve been approximating piano, because up until a couple of years ago, subtlety was not an option if I wanted any sound to come out. But that’s clearly not a problem anymore. The world is my oyster, preferably from one of those nifty seafood places where they display all of the shellfish outside so you can smell it as you walk by. Mmmm.

After that we worked on “Monica’s Waltz.” A word of introduction for Monica. I tried to learn this aria in high school, to no avail. It was just too tricky and my musical skills were just not up to it. I picked it up again sophomore year of college, I think, to sing in a collaborative piano class at 8:30 AM. What was I thinking? Over the years I’ve sung it periodically–at CoOPERAtive, for one ill-fated grad school audition, for my Yeomen of the Guard audition, for a local opera audition last year–and worked on it a bit with my teachers and coaches. Everybody agrees that it’s perfect for my voice, but that no American audition panel wants to hear Menotti in auditions. This has never made any sense to me. Giancarlo Menotti wrote some truly splendid music, and better than that, he was a consummate dramatist. My senior year of college, we did The Consul (I say “we,” but I wasn’t involved). That is an opera that is engaging from start to finish–even my mom liked it! The problem with Monica is that so many teachers assign her to their freshmen and sophomores, who tend to sing her rather poorly, and then the expectation is that they will move on to bigger, better and more difficult things as they get older. In fact, I wanted to post a Youtube video, but the only ones I could find said things like “17-year-old singer sings ‘Monica’s Waltz’!” No, thank you.

Anyway, the really refreshing thing is that Madame LOVES Menotti, and even better, she LOVES “Monica’s Waltz.” As I said to a friend afterwards, it’s a lot easier to work hard to make something beautiful when somebody cares about hearing it done well. When Madame asked me last week if I could bring Monica this week, I groaned inwardly, because every time I’ve brought her one of my old war horses, we’ve discarded it due to an infestation of bad habits. And maybe it was that exercise for piano, or maybe it was just Madame’s enthusiasm, but I didn’t crash and burn. Actually, I did much better than simply “not screwing up”–it was pretty excellent. There are a few high notes that I’m still forcing a little, but on the whole, I was incredibly proud. Not to mention that I’m in the unique position among Madame’s students of being able to tell her how to pronounce the words.

Afterwards, we sang “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen,” because it’s the pianist’s favorite aria of mine to play (“the pianist”–her name is Anna and she’s Russian, which means there are no native Frenchwomen in my lesson, and sometimes, like yesterday, Madame has her come over and put her hands on my ribcage to make sure I’m breathing properly during vocalises). Madame told me that there will be “auditions” at the Schola in December, and she would like me to sing Monica and Ännchen (that’s this German one). I think it’s just the piano and voice faculty showcasing their students for each other, but I was tickled pink to be asked (or, you know, TOLD, but whatever). Plus it gives me a deadline, something to work towards. I can’t just mess around with learning the Weber–by December 16th I have to be so comfortable with it that I could sing it in my sleep.

It’s really so exciting when you discover that something you had always assumed you couldn’t do is something that comes naturally.

Maybe you could show me
How to let go, lower my guard,
Learn to be free…
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.