Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Final Fortnight on the Farm

Less than two weeks remain of the Castleton Festival, and it is a very interesting time in the process.  After five weeks of living on this surreal farm of llamas, zebras, zonkeys, sows, and singers, it has become home.  I never thought I would call a town that is thirty minutes from civilization-- and by “civilization,” I mean Starbucks and Target-- home.  However, when thinking about returning to the urban jungle that is New York City, where I am surrounded by neighbors and noise, it feels unfamiliar and slightly overwhelming.  I am going to miss my lunchtime salad bar and the entitlement it gives me to gorge on my three vices: cake, cookies, and caffeine.  I’m going to be astounded when people communicate with me via text message instead of a Facebook post or a wild goose chase to find me in person.  I will miss warming up first thing in the morning, just in case someone needs a high D on command or a new opera chorus is being thrown at the CATS.  And most of all, it will be hard to let go of the new family that has been created in this petri dish we call Castleton.  A family that eats, sleeps, sings, breathes, and binges together, creating a loving bond and the kind of rivalry/dysfunction that can only be achieved with true intimacy.  We are at the point of the festival of “I love you, but I don’t have to like you right now” moments and hook-ups that seem almost incestuous.  Trying to respect who called dibs on whom and who’s mad at whom and who we’re not liking because our ‘bro’ doesn’t like whom is getting so complicated, we need some sort of social roadmap.   Plus, there’s a kind of final dash mentality that sends those who have been more reserved throughout the festival into hormonal hyper drive.  I thought this was something that only happened to younger people, since it reminded me so much of college, but it turns out, this can happen to anyone who has been cooped up in one place too long without outside stimulation like internet or television to provide an escape from reality. 

In my final fortnight, I try to reflect on the process to see if I can avoid having any regrets when I leave.  They are my least favorite souvenirs.   One looming doubt I have about the way I’ve conducted myself during the festival is the amount of interaction I’ve had with my peers outside of the dressing room and rehearsal hall.  I have always considered myself a good colleague, trying to abide by the same standards that I have observed in those who have more experience than me.  But perhaps part of being a good colleague involves a certain amount of commitment to one another when offstage, which is where I’m concerned I may be lacking.  I have not partied as much as my peers, who have an amazing ability to function on very little sleep and levels of very high decibels.  My allergic reaction to alcohol doesn’t help, since it seems to be a prerequisite to a good party.  However, sitting up on my high horse about being healthy and well rested for morning rehearsals means I’m separating myself from the people with whom I should be bonding.  I already feel uneasy when looking at Facebook pictures of my peers at parties and wonder, if they party, but aren’t capable of remembering it, is it the same as never being there at all?  In this sweltering heat, I do not want to be remembered as the one cold part of Castleton.  After all, Virginia is for lovers!

This penultimate week is also an important time because we’ve reached the point where  “So what happens now?”  enters the picture.  To finish my Evita reference, I do find myself getting lost in “Where am I going to…” and luckily, my pianist and dear friend has found a way to lovingly tell me, “Don’t ask anymore.”  Physically, I know I’m going back to California for a short stay, where I will cuddle with my German shepherd (with whom I sing many duets) and study/perform with Second City Improv of Hollywood.  After that, a return to NY, and then the questions arise.  I have a strong desire to change the way I’m living my day to day life, more coachings, more practicing, more yoga, etc., and not a clue as to how that could be financially or physically possible.  I’ve started pondering going back to school someday, somewhere, and wondering if it should be for singing or something else entirely.  I haven’t thought such thoughts in a very long time and they are scary, but perhaps necessary.  I am facing the terrifying questions of “Am I making enough progress?”  “Am I on the right track?”  “Am I wasting my time?” ”Am I too old?”  “Will I end up one of those scary spinsters with too many cats and embroidered pillows saying OPERA IS PURRRRFECT?”  This is when I need a slap in the face and a “Don’t ask anymore.”  This is when I decide to just live out each moment of these next two weeks and cross that terrifying bridge when I come to it.

So a few more operas, a few more concerts, a few more coachings, and a few more cookies remain.  I officially give myself permission to go big or go home in every endeavor, because the latter is bound to happen in the blink of an eye anyway.  I can focus all of my energy on my resonance and my relationships, and refuse to worry about my life plan until I’m so far away from Castleton that I start to get cell phone service again.  I’m going to lick the icing off of my fingers and count my rhythms, not calories.  And by golly, I will embrace all things Southern: overly friendly locals, catcalls from tractors, and a Monday-Saturday love affair with Chick-Fil-A.   This coloratura will go out on a high note!

Sunday, July 3, 2011


 Eleven years ago, I had my first taste of classical music as a baby soprano at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute.  This summer, I am savoring that flavor at the Castleton Festival, and if you have ever been to this festival you know, it tastes like cake.

I am here as a member of the Castleton Artists Training Seminar, understudying Le Feu and Rossignol in L’Enfant et les Sortil├Ęges and singing in numerous choruses, as well as opera scenes and the usual young artists’ classes.   I haven’t had the luxury of being away from my day job in years, and it is very liberating to spend my day thinking only about “la voce” and not about how I will pay “la rent.”  (Thank God for la sublet.)

I am one of the older artists in this training program, and it has thrown a few curves my way.  I find myself somewhat jealous of the college and grad school-age singers who not only are used to singing full-time without balancing the demands of living independently, but also the fact that they have not yet experienced the reality of harsh audition seasons and the nagging question that keeps me up at night, “Will this ever happen for me?”  They talk about how they’re going to be stars by the time they’re twenty-five and how it must be terrifying to be twenty-seven (gasp!) and not yet singing at the Met.  As a twenty-seven-year-old coloratura, I do not need to be reminded of my vintage status and of some invisible deadline imposed on those with lighter voices.  Did I miss my chance? I already lost sixty pounds to accommodate my fach, do I need to discover a way turn back time as well? 

(Not pictured: Laura Diane Parker)
The program is seven weeks long, but I am confident that I experienced the highlight of the summer over the past two days.  One of the great blessings is the opportunity to work with Maestro Lorin Maazel, who has more energy for each performance than I have after an entire case of Diet Cokes.  The female singers and the orchestra had the great pleasure of performing under his baton with two Academy Award-winning icons, Jeremy Irons and Helen Mirren, in two performances of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I have always been a fan of Mendelssohn, due to my affinity for Swedish nightingale, Jenny Lind, but now the piece will be forever etched in my heart.  I worry I may walk down the streets of New York singing the wedding march to myself, which will only make my chances of looking normal to a single man that much more doubtful.   Mirren and Irons’ performances were beyond inspirational, they were transcendent.  They raised the stakes for the musicians and in turn, we did our best to support them with our talents.  The combination of exquisite actors and a superb conductor created an energy that was palpable.  Oh, and yes, the actors were very attractive in person.  Their beauty in their sixties makes me almost ashamed of whining about being in my late twenties.

Castleton is also a memorable experience because it requires a dramatic change in lifestyle.  I knew I would have to make the adjustment from living alone in a big city to living with many roommates on a farm. I lucked out, they are wonderful girls, so crisis averted there.   How many houses hold six sopranos that peacefully coexist?  I thought it was pure urban legend.   I did not know I would be spending the summer without cell phone service and very limited internet.  I’d call Castleton a monastery, but there’s far too much wine flowing for that to be the case.  I’ve learned here that many singers are able to party like rock stars while still singing like angels.  Where’s THAT class in the young artists’ curriculum?  We also sin through our stomachs, with an endless amount of decadent desserts that are almost, ALMOST as velvety as our Boheme Mimi’s luscious voice.   I must put my title of “starving artist” on hold for the remainder of the summer.

I have just under a month left of this program, and aside from taking in copious amounts of baked goods, I hope to continue to take in inspiration.  I am surrounded not only by food and farm animals, but also by incredible musicians of all disciplines.  I look to the mainstage singers to see what I can learn from their performances and career paths and the conductors and coaches to refine my own.   I listen to beautiful music, instead of subway sounds and cell phone ringtones.   I sing scales instead of advising those stepping upon them.  I miss the paycheck, but I’m loving the payoff.  It’s the icing on the cake, perhaps.