My junior year of high school, my voice teacher gave me “O had I Jubal’s Lyre” from Handel’s Joshua. It was a beast. That summer I heard a girl about my age fly through it with ease, and I thought, well, I’ll try it again this year. Nope. Still a beast. So I put it away for a while, until the Dunbar Early Music Festival at Northwestern actually DID Joshua, and I thought, perfect! I already know this aria, I’ll audition for that solo. But I didn’t, because three years after the last time I tried it, it was still uncomfortable and difficult. At this point I’m probably just psyching myself out, but I think were I to pull it out again, not that much will have changed. My voice has improved and matured and loosened up, but the piece is still full of melismas in my middle range and passaggio, which will always be tough to support.
Jubal’s Lyre aside, there’s a moment for all singers, I think, when we realize that the things that were so hard when we were kids/freshmen/twenty-two have become a walk in the park. I’ve had more of these moments in the last few months than I have in the whole rest of my life put together, I think, because the main thrust of my work with Madame has been to eliminate tension and pushing. It’s particularly fun to revisit the songs that I used to sing in my living room when I was thirteen, because it’s almost hard to remember what was so difficult about them ten years ago.
Like Abigail Adams in 1776. “Oh, Abigail, Abigail, I have such a desire to knock heads together!” I’ve tried, in the years since discovering 1776 (one of my family’s favorites, and one of the many Broadway Playbills in my closet at home), to become legitimately interested in John and Abigail Adams; I read David McCullough’s John Adams biography for A.P. U.S. History class, I tried to watch the HBO miniseries with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, I even bought a book in HARDCOVER of Abigail Adams quotations.
But you know what? I like my history singing. And I feel okay about that, because I was the only one in my American history class who could name all five members of the Declaration Committee (no brainer–Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Sherman, Livingston!), and could tell you that it was Richard Henry Lee who got Virginia to agree to propose independence (“This business needs a Virginian”–obviousLEE). A propos of this post, Sherman Edwards pulled many of his lyrics for John and Abigail from their real-life romance and letters…and he wrote Abigail as a soprano. She is smart and funny and hey, she saves the day in the end. “Abigail, what’s in these kegs?”
It’s a short role. Really, 1776 is a show for the dudes–and that’s a really, really good thing, because it yields some brilliant music. But Abigail Adams is one of those petite-sized parts that packs a huge punch and for me, can make or break the show. And I’ve been singing her since I was a kid, and dreaming of the day when somebody would mount a production of 1776 so I could play her and get to sing lines like, “Don’t smirk at me, you egotist, pay heed to what I say!” Awesome, right?
Last night I was feeling a little lonely (says she, staring woefully at the empty box of Speculoos cookies in the garbage can…), so I listened to “Yours, Yours, Yours.” John Adams sends for Martha Jefferson to hasten the Declaration-writing process–“I just thought, the sooner HIS problem was solved, the sooner OUR problem would be solved.”–but he regrets not having sent for his own wife. So he sits and imagines talking to her, and walking around their farm in Braintree together. She sings, “Come soon as you can to my cloister / I’ve forgotten the feel of your hand,” which is a line, both of text and music, that I’ve always loved.
So I sang it. And then I sang the whole role through. (Except “Compliments,” which isn’t on my recording so I’ve never learned it, and all I can remember is something about Saint Claire. ALL FOR YOOOOOOOU, JOOOOOOOHN!) And wow, was it easy.
So if anybody knows of a production of 1776 that needs an Abigail (or a Martha, you know, I’m not that picky at the moment, plus I’m probably about fifteen years too young to be a believable Abigail), give me a holler.