Monday, 28 July 2014

The Cinderella Diaries - Part 2

So much has happened since I first arrived in Ferreira do Zêzere. Time has flown by, and we're now into the second week of staging for La Cenerentola.

The past week has been intense, to say the least.  It all began bright and early on the first day with a musical rehearsal.

The first sing-through of an opera is always a bit rough.  It takes time to get used to the other singers, to understand each other's voices and musicalities and really gel together.  And of course you want to make a good impression on the director, the conductor, and the other singers.  So at first everyone feels a bit stiff and shy.

"Wait... you want me to sing it now??"

But once the initial nerves wore off, it didn't take us long to warm to each other and really bond as an opera family.  Rossini's operas call for a lot of energy and humour.  Luckily this is something our cast has in spades.   We're a lively bunch of singers with an even livelier director, and our rehearsals have been full of belly laughs.

One thing we bonded over immediately is our astonishingly bad sense of direction.  One night after a couple of glasses of wine, I realised I had no idea how to find my way home in the dark.  My stepsisters had already left, and the women are staying in a different place than the men.  So my male colleagues, being chivalrous, decided they would help me find my way.  The only problem was that they were even worse at navigating than I was (and trust me, I'm really really bad).  Before we knew it we were hopelessly lost.  We finally gave up after an hour or so of wandering aimlessly around the Portuguese countryside.  It was almost midnight and after all, I didn't want to turn into a pumpkin.  So we headed back to the men's house and I slept on their couch.  We've got on like a house on fire ever since.

As for my stepsisters, they're as lovely offstage as they’re nasty onstage.  It's hard to pretend to be afraid of them when I know they're so sweet in real life.  Every minute they're not abusing me they're helping me up and apologising profusely for their fictional abuse.

Between the long hours of rehearsal, we like chat and relax together as we enjoy the delicious local coffee, the mouth-watering fresh fruit, and of course, my favourite Portuguese pastry, Pasteis de Nata.

The Best.

Since the first day, our staging rehearsals have moved ahead at warp speed.  Every day the director sets a goal for how many pages we'll get through, and come hell or high water we get through those pages.  Thankfully I feel very secure by now with my music.  My character, however, is another story.

Rossini's Cenerentola is a bit different from the Cinderella most of us know.  First of all she has an evil stepfather instead of a stepmother, and it's a servant of the prince instead of a fairy godmother who helps her go to the ball.  But more importantly, there are no helpful mice or magical wands to help Cenerentola find her prince.  She has to get by with her own spirit and determination.  And she doesn't accidentally leave behind a glass slipper.  She intentionally gives the prince one of her bracelets.  She tells him to come and find her.

So she's a unique kind of heroine.  On the one hand she's a victim of circumstance.  She's constantly bullied and belittled by her stepfather and stepsisters.  But on the other hand she's very strong.  She doesn't let anyone crush her spirit.  She insists on singing while she does her chores, even when her stepsisters try to stop her.  She still dreams of finding love, and even plucks up the courage to ask if she can go to the ball.  And when she arrives at the ball, she doesn't just let the prince make all the moves.  She sets her own terms: take this bracelet, come and find me.  Learn who I am before loving me.

Rossini's Cenerentola may be sweet, but she's certainly not passive.  As her feisty coloratura passages imply, she has fire in her belly.  She isn't a wet blanket or a timid little mouse.  She's a real protagonist.

The audience has to be on Cenerentola's side.  They have to want her to win.  So from the very beginning, even as she stays in the background cleaning, she has to shine with a certain kind of charisma.

Which is easier said than done.  How do I stand out as the star when I'm wearing rags and my two silly sisters are preening like peacocks in the foreground?  Even under the most ideal of circumstances, I'm not used to being the centre of attention.  How do I create my own spotlight without seeming to try?

Kid, you gotta have star quality!

I guess you could say that my diva skills are a bit rusty these days.  Since moving to Germany, I've mostly been getting work in choirs.  It's been at least six months since I've performed as a soloist, and at least a year since I've performed in an opera.

So as we began staging this week, I kept blending into the background.  Again and again my director would point out that I was turning away from the audience, or hiding behind a chair.  I didn't even realise I was doing it!  I was just so accustomed to shrinking back, being a secondary character in someone else's story.

"Oops... was I doing it again?"

One day after rehearsal, the pianist was telling me I had to give more onstage.  And I launched into a very familiar story.  I'm not a stage animal, I told him.  Acting doesn't come naturally to me.  I'm an introvert.  Despite my year at the opera studio, I still have so little experience onstage.  Other singers my age have done so many more roles.

The pianist listened to my excuses patiently.  Then gave me a puzzled look.  You're not such an introvert, he said.  Offstage, you're one of the most lively singers in our cast.  Why can't you bring that personality with you onto the stage?


I was flabbergasted.  I had never thought of myself as lively or having a big personality.  But once I really thought about it, I had to admit that I've come out of my shell a lot in the last few years.  Yes, I am still an introvert in my own way – I still need some quiet and solitude to recharge.  But when I want to, I can be the life of the party.

So maybe it's time now to move past the old "introverted" label.  Time to embrace a new role, and take on the spotlight.

"Non piu mesta accanto al fuoco staro sola a gorgheggiar.."

With five days left until opening night, and the whole second act still to stage, we've got our work cut out for us.  The next week will either make or break me.  So it's time to step up now.  It's time to get up from the fireplace and let my inner diva shine.

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Cinderella Diaries - Part 1

I've just arrived in Ferreira do Zêzere in Portugal.  No, I’m not on holiday.  I'll be spending the next two weeks here rehearsing and performing the title role in Rossini's La Cenerentola.

This is not just any opera role.  For me, Cenerentola is a dream role.  I began learning the aria "Non piu mesta" last year at the opera studio, and I was immediately hooked.  Something about this aria just clicked for me.  It felt like home for my voice.  Comfortable but not boring.  Challenging but satisfying.  I loved the thrill of the extreme high and low notes, the rush of the coloratura, and the sweetness of the lyrical sections.  The aria became a fast favourite for me: a staple item for recitals and auditions.  And I knew that someday, somehow, I had to perform the entire role.

It was such a good fit!

So naturally I was excited to discover that the Zêzere ArtsFestival would be putting on a production of La Cenerentola this summer.  I was determined to get cast.  When I did masterclasses with my teacher in Paris, I chose to spend the week focusing on "Non piu mesta".  By the end of the week the aria was in fairly good shape.  I recorded the final performance and sent it to the festival, asking to be considered for the role.

A few months later I received the email: I had been cast as Cenerentola!  Needless to say, I was thrilled.  After all, what girl doesn’t dream of being Cinderella, if only once in her life?

Bibbity bobbity boo!

Of course, it wasn't just the glamour that appealed to me – I knew it would also be a great learning opportunity.  Since graduating from the opera studio, I had only been able to find concert work, and after months of "parking and barking" I was chomping at the bit for the chance to sing opera again.  I would be able to learn and perform major role in the standard repertoire – and one which suited my voice very well.  In short, it was a dream come true.  I got the score and immediately set to work.

Learning a role can be a rather long and tedious process. It's the boring side of opera – the unglamorous grunt work which the audience never sees.  First there is the task of simply learning all the dots.  You spend countless hours studying the score in every possible way.  Bashing out notes at the piano, listening to recordings, and toting the score around to countless cafes, buses, airports and libraries for silent study.  If you have a substantial enough sized role to learn, as Cenerentola is, after a while the score becomes something like an extra limb.  It just automatically goes with you everywhere.

Of course, some days you take a more passive approach to score study...

After you've learned the notes, you of course need time to sing everything in: to practise the role technically and musically, and really get it "into your voice."  Here is where trusted teachers and coaches step in – to lend a second pair of ears and help you sound stylish and polished.

But all this is just the first phase of learning a role.  Because after all, opera is performed from memory.  Singers are expected to show up to the first day of staging knowing everything from heart.  To get to this point, you can’t just know the notes.  You can’t just have it "in your voice".  You have to really get the role under your skin.  And there’s only one way to do that: repetition, repetition, and more repetition.

This is the point where you start to go a bit mad.  You sing bits of recit to yourself while washing dishes, waiting for the bus, or chopping vegetables.  You mutter your text to yourself as you ride the train or walk down the street.  Inevitably, people think you're a bit crazy.  After a while, you get used to receiving weird stares from passersby because, without realising it, you were just muttering through that tricky bit of the duet.

When I first looked at the score for La Cenerentola, it was a bit like staring up Mount Everest.  Surely the task was unsurmountable!  How would I ever learn to sing all those notes, not just accurately, but with elegance and style, and from memory?  How would I ever know so much music so thoroughly that I'd be able to sing it all under pressure, in front of an audience, while following complicated staging?  But of course I knew it wasn't impossible.  I just had to keep chipping away at it, and eventually everything would become second nature.

I will conquer you, Everest!

Learning La Cenerentola has had its own unique challenges.  Some of these I was prepared for, and some came as a total surprise.  Of course, having sung the aria, I knew there would be a lot of coloratura and high notes.  Not a big problem per se – that’s the kind of thing my voice does rather well.  But when I looked at the full score, I was confronted with an unexpected enemy.  Patter.  Lots and lots of patter.

For the uninitiated among you, patter is the art of singing lots of words very very fast.  The most well-known examples of this are Figaro's opening aria in The Barber of Seville, or the Gilbert and Sullivan classic Modern Major General.  La Cenerentola is chock-full of patter – sections where you have to rattle off a series of tongue-twisting Italian words at a million miles a minute.

Learning the patter was a big task for my brain, as well as my teeth, tongue, and lips.  There was no way around it but to spend hours speaking the words to myself, over and over, getting gradually faster until it became automatic.  Even when I knew the words well, I often found myself stumbling over the syllables.  There was just so much coordination involved!  Everything had to keep clicking forward like a well-oiled machine.  If I let my mind stall just a millisecond too long, or involved my jaw too much in the articulation, I was done for.  The words flew by and I was left behind.

Just keep going, just keep going...

All of this meant that I most definitely got used to looking like a crazy person.  I needed to get the text into my muscle memory.  And so I would spend every spare moment speaking the patter to myself, wrapping my tongue around the syllables and familiarising my lips with their unique shape and order.  To anyone who has seen me wandering around talking to myself in Italian over the last couple of months, please accept my apology.  I'm not crazy, I swear.  I'm just an opera singer.

The last couple of months leading up to my arrival in Portugal, I've had my share of ups and downs.  At times it's been a struggle to fit my role study between travel and rehearsal schedules for other gigs.  And with my recent health problems, there were times I was worried I wouldn't be able to move onstage at all!  But just like a fairytale, everything has come together in the end.  I've found time to practise and prepare everything, and also managed to get some good lessons and coachings on the role.  And thanks to a combination of medication, physiotherapy, and one very sexy-looking knee support, I'm now able to move naturally and without pain.  So here I am, at the ball and ready to dance.  I can’t wait to get started!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

On listening to your body...

Just over two months ago, my back went on strike.  Completely gave out on me.  If I so much as tried to sit up, a sharp spasm of pain shot up and down my body, freezing me in place.  I couldn't stand.  I couldn't walk.  I was paralysed by pain.

It was a rather quiet picket line.

The warning signs had been there, of course.  This had not come out of nowhere.  Since the new year I had been suffering lower back pain on and off.  Sometimes it was tolerable, only a slight twinge here and there.  Other times it had me limping stiffly, wincing every time I stepped on my right side.  I stopped running and stopped wearing heels.  I consulted a doctor, and later an orthopedist.  The orthopedist prescribed painkillers, muscle relaxants, and physiotherapy.

The pills were easy enough to swallow, but the physiotherapy was hard to keep up.  I was travelling all the time for work and saw no need to slow down.  I only made appointments when I could, between gigs.  So my treatment ended up being completely inconsistent.  Always at a random time, and always with a different therapist.  The therapists gave me exercises, but I only did them occasionally, when I had time and remembered.  Most of the time I didn't bother.

I'm not sure what exactly I was thinking.  Maybe I expected the problem to go away on its own.  Maybe I thought I could reschedule its healing for a more convenient time.  Maybe I thought it would disappear with the help of a few magical pills.  In any case, I didn't make time for my body.  I simply didn't think it was important.

So the months went by and the pain continued, and I carried on travelling and singing as usual.  Until one day I flew to Sweden with a heavy backpack, and ended up immobilised on my boyfriend’s couch.

It's a funny thing, having a body.  Most of the time you don't really think about it.  As long as everything is working, you take it for granted.  It will always be there, carrying you from place to place, digesting your food for you, and taking whatever punishment you throw its way. 

My body and I have never had what you would call a healthy relationship.  As a young girl I always resented it for being bigger than other girls' bodies.  I called it bad names.  I told it I hated it.  I cried and complained about it.

Later, in my early twenties, I became bulimic.  During this time I committed horrific atrocities against my body.  I starved it.  I overexercised it.  I stuffed it full of junk food, poisoned it with laxatives, and forced it to throw up.  All of this my body suffered quietly, without complaint.

I am no longer bulimic, but I'm still very hard on my body.  I regularly put it through long journeys, alcohol-soaked weekends, sleepless nights, and stressful auditions.  I often feed it excessive amounts of fat, salt, and sugar.  Even when I’m doing something "good" or "healthy", like exercise, I don't do it to love or nurture my body.  I do it to punish it for last night's chocolate binge, or to control its weight and size.

Regretting another night with Ben and Jerry...

And I do all these things without thinking.  Because after all, I'm young.  I can get away with this behaviour.  My body can take it.  My body is invincible.

Until it isn't.

I suppose at a certain age all these things begin to catch up with you.  The wear and tear begins to show.  And suddenly you find yourself paying dearly for transgressions which used to go by unnoticed.

Back in Sweden, I spent four days lying on that couch.  It was a surreal feeling, suddenly losing the ability to move.  Getting up to go to the bathroom was a huge ordeal.  It would take several agonising minutes to sit up.  Then I would use my boyfriend's music stand as a walking stick as I hobbled across the room slower than an arthritic 90-year-old grandma.  The pain was horrific.  Even with the maximum dosage of painkillers and anti-inflammitants – I was taking 16 pills per day – it was excruciating to move.

My "stand-in" walking stick

Gradually, I began to rely less on my "walking stick" and limp without it for longer distances.  I began to walk again – still crookedly, and still with pain, but walking nonetheless.

And so began a long and arduous healing process.  From then on, I made my health a priority.  I visited doctors, orthopedists, chiropractors, and osteopaths.  Everyone had a different idea of what exactly was wrong and what I needed to get better.  It was difficult to weed through all the different opinions.  But I tried my best not to over-rely on popping pills, to listen to my body, and to figure out what was working best for me.  I dedicated time to my body every day.  Whether it was stretching, getting a massage, or simply resting when I needed it, I made sure I was taking care of myself.

I continued to work, which was a humbling experience.  Everyone noticed my limping and could tell how much pain I was in.  People were very sympathetic.  They meant well, but their concern often frustrated me.  I wanted to be strong and independent, not an object of pity.  Of course, by this point I was accustomed to my condition.  I had accepted that for the time being, this was the state my body was in.  But to everyone else – every new colleague and employer I encountered – it came as a fresh shock.  And I grew tired of hearing their shock, of thanking them for their "gute Besserung"s and accepting their opinions and advice on what I should do.

So. Many. Opinions.

There were times when I gave in to despair.  I cried about how unfair it all was.  Why did my body hate me so much?  What had I done wrong to deserve this?  When was I ever going to feel better?

Other times I let myself think I had found a miracle cure, a definitive diagnosis.  Now it was all over and everything would be fixed.

Then a few weeks later things would take another turn for the worse and my frustration would return.  Whatever I did, it seemed my body would find a new pain or affliction to hold me back.

In my more lucid moments, I would think that my body was trying to tell me something.  But what?  Did I need to travel less?  Sleep more?  Eat better?  Cut back on coffee?

It took a while before I realised that my body's message could in fact be very simple.  Maybe my body just wanted me to notice it.  To acknowledge its presence, to thank it, and to treat it with some dignity and respect.

You see, that's the other funny thing about having a body.  You don’t really have your body, do you?  Your body is a part of you.  It's who you are.  And yet we insist on using this language of ownership.  As though our bodies are something separate.  A vessel, an unthinking object, a vehicle to transport our brains from point A to point B.

For as long as I can remember I've thought of my body as something completely remote from myself.  At the best of times I've tolerated its existence.  At the worst of times, I've berated it for being so fat, so ugly, so stupid and useless.  With all these aches and pains holding me back, the temptation to scream at my body has become bigger than ever.

But I don't want to keep screaming at my body.  I want to start a new dialogue, a dialogue of patience and understanding.  I want to connect with it, listen to it, learn to love and appreciate it.  Because my body is myself.  If I don't love my body, I don't love myself, and I am neglecting a huge part of what it is to be human.

I'm building a new relationship with my body, and it won't be built overnight.  It will take a long time to undo such a long history of abuse and resentment.  I need to accept that there are no miracle cures or overnight fixes.  Like any relationship, it needs time to develop.

This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

It's been over two months now since my back gave out on me, and the healing process is far from over.  After an MRI and a diagnosis of a bulging disc, I've been through a long stint of physiotherapy (this time with much more intensive and regular treatment).  But despite all the work in physio, all these months of limping have left me with a knee problem which just won't go away.  I begin staging for an opera in less than a week, and I'm still not able to walk completely normally.  I've had to inform the director of my physical limitations, and – perhaps even more difficult – I've had to accept for myself that I'll be working with a less-than-perfect body onstage.  It's not ideal, but it's the way things are.  And no amount of railing against fate or cursing my body will change that.

The best I can do now is to keep loving my body.  Nurture it, cherish it, thank it for everything it does.  And trust that in time, with the proper love and care, it will find its own way to heal.