Monday, September 16, 2013

Libra the Late Bloomer

Thirty – the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair. -F. Scott Fitzgerald

I am soprano on the verge of thirty and the verge of a nervous breakdown.  When I moved to New York at twenty-five, I said I would do anything to pursue opera and at thirty I would stop, rest, and assess if being a singer is a possibility or a fantasy.   While stop and rest don’t exist in my vocabulary, the assess portion has been difficult and confusing.

I’ve always feared being behind those around me, and not just because I was always the slowest kid in gym class.  In school,  I actually had a head start.  Having an October birthday meant my parents had the choice of putting me in school early and being the youngest in the class or waiting a year and being one of the oldest.  As a result of being the runt of the kindergarten class, I started out being labeled as one of the slower students.  Our class had a rating system of shapes to show progress, from rectangle, the simplest shape, to more complex ones.  Though I don’t remember which shape was the most advanced in the class, for the sake of this blog and my own personal amusement, I’ve decided to remember it as a dodecagon.   As Laura the Rectangle, I fell in love the story, Leo the Late Bloomer.  In the book, tiger cub Leo isn’t speaking, reading, or writing like the other animals of the jungle.  His parents worry, but Leo blossoms in his own time and finds he can do more than he ever imagined. Inspired by Leo, I pushed myself to climb the geometric ladder to eventually become a dodecagon, instilled with a desire to forever stay ahead of the game.

Age 20: Junior Recital, Boston University

Being a soprano of a certain age, I cannot help but feel I've fallen behind my peers in this operatic jungle.  I can't count how many times I’ve said to myself, “THIS is the year I’m going to come into my own as a singer. THIS is the year things are going to happen for me.” But THIS year, I am starting to question if I am late bloomer or if I already missed my chance.  I no longer feel the prestige of the starving artist label, thinking I’m so brave for working hard and suffering for my passion.  I can no longer say I am an aspiring opera singer with pride;  I say it with a tinge of shame, feeling a more appropriate title might be professional auditioner or musical masochist.  As hard as it is to admit, I feel slightly relieved most of my extended family has passed, because it would be too hard to tell them I'm not the successful singer they hoped I would be. I don’t know how to explain to people that sometimes hard work and talent isn’t enough.  Instead, I say THIS is my year!  I am a dodecagon of potential and now that I’ve changed my teacher and my repertoire, everything is going to fall into place.  I’m Laura the Late Bloomer.

I wonder if I will look back on this phase at age thirty-nine and think, “I was young, I didn’t need to put all of that pressure on myself.”  When I think about my twenties, I remember  frustration and tears over worrying about the milestones of a young woman.  My first kiss was at age twenty-two.  (Yes, my first kiss was after I’d completed a year of graduate school. ) My closest friends knew I carried a tremendous amount of shame about my never-been-kissed status, fearing I would never be able to successfully interact with straight men.  I thought I was ugly, I thought I was awkward, I thought I was unlovable.  At that time, I was often cast as the mistress or vixen in operas, performing simulated sex scenes on stage, not knowing if my actions even closely resembled the real thing!  But everything happened for me when it was meant to happen, and I learned a lot from the wait.  Maybe my career as a singer will be like the loss of virginity: quick, painful, and awkward, or maybe it will be as magical as that long overdue first kiss, when I had no idea what I was doing and never wanted it to end.  Either way, I hope the answers will come to me in my own time and I will find my place in this world.
Age Almost 30: New Year's Recital, St. Maarten

One way to combat my feelings of not living up to my potential is tackling something I never thought I would do in the first place. Two years ago, I started taking improv classes here in NYC and while it was fun at first, I’ve had my upsetting moments feeling behind my experienced and hilarious peers. So, I tried something else new!  I’m now tackling hip-hop improv and I never imagined I would find joy and ease in the rap genre. This little hobby ended up being the highlight of my summer.  Freestyle rapping may not be my calling as an artist, but the small victories make it much easier to face life’s big battles.  I’ll pounce on any chance to roar.

I’ve said a lot here, maybe too much.  I so appreciate the lovely comments and messages from fellow performers, it encourages me to continue to share (and overshare).  If anyone else is suffering from a crisis of age or faith, please be in touch; we can pluck each other’s gray hairs and create new shapes as we celebrate being fashionably late bloomers together. 

Happy Birthday, Libras!

Giuseppe Verdi
Dmitri Shostakovich
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Charles Ives
Camille Saint-Saëns
George Gershwin
Franz Liszt
Luciano Pavarotti
Yo-Yo Ma
Jenny Lind (We share October 6)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Broad Abroad (Again): High Teas and High C's

“A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.” – Muslin Uddin Sadi

Well, it has been about three months since singing in Germany and St. Maarten.  I guess it’s time to leave New York again.

After starting 2013 with a period of intense self-doubt and an undeniable need for change, I feel like I’ve finally found some steady ground in New York.  Naturally, that meant it was time to leave again.   After months of running into walls with my job, relationships, and singing, I finally had a sense of direction in my life.  I started a new day job after seven years, started teaching voice on the side, cauterized some personal wounds, started forming a new and hopefully thicker skin, and made some big changes in the way I sing and the way I view my path and goals as a singer.    With all of the newness, I was thrilled to venture to a new and far away place, especially since it was for someone very familiar and close to my heart.

Yesterday, a dear friend of mine got married.  If you don’t know me, I am OBSESSED with weddings; I had only been to one until yesterday, and while the one was amazing, it was far from a “typical” ceremony.  I wanted to know what is was like to see the bride with the veil walk down the aisle with bridesmaids and a string quartet and all of the things in romantic comedies.  The leading man was to be played by a best supporting actor in my life, one of the members of my New York family.  He was not only starting a new life, but starting it in a new place, London.  I was honored to sing at the wedding, to close the ceremony on a high note. 

Leo proposed last October; the wedding was almost exactly six months later.  I had been ecstatic about the event ever since he told me was ring shopping, but once I started preparing the piece he had chosen for me, I became very overwhelmed, almost to the point of dreading it.   I knew I was grappling with some insecurity about my singing, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to give the performance this extraordinary couple deserved.  I was worried everyone would be able to tell that the song was not easy for me and it would look and sound like a struggle    Old memories of messing up on high notes back in school flooded my mind, along with the intense feeling of shame associated with performances that did not reflect my passion and dedication.  I decided to add extra pressure by convincing myself the five minutes of singing needed to express how much I treasure Leo and his fiancée and that they would remember this day, this performance, for the rest of their lives.   I was more nervous for this event than any audition in recent memory.    

Being in a foreign country was a pleasant distraction.  Whenever I travel to a new place, I feel like I get to start over and be the person I want to be.  I smile at everyone, I act without judgment, and I even feel a respite from my issues with appearance and dysmorphia.   Sometimes, it leads to me thinking this new person has a new metabolism (oooh, so much great food), but usually, it leads to a life of adventure, openness, and curiosity.  Is it a “yes, and” approach to the suggestions of a new environment or is it playing a new character all together?

 I think I’m a more desirable person when I’m in a new place. “Vacation Laura” always has more luck with men.  Perhaps they are interested in me because I am new and different (never underestimate the power of fresh meat) or because I am a more enjoyable and attractive person when I am journeying with limited baggage.  I was shocked when a man at the airport flirted with me and bought me dinner while we waited for our respective flights.  I was surprised because I was not wearing any make-up, my hair was in a ponytail, and I was wearing an old T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers.  These weren’t the “Man-getting” clothes I’ve read about in women’s magazines.   These were my “Weekend marathon of Ru Paul’s Drag Race and doing laundry” clothes.   But I was enough with them.  I was enough without cover-up on my face, so I didn’t apply to any in my personality, either.  I felt amazing after we parted company, not only because I liked meeting this guy (who I will never see again), but also because I liked who I was.   I lived like I was in an improv scene, rather than an audition.  I didn’t prepare anything, I listened and answered with honesty (and a touch of sassy humor), and I didn’t feel there was any possibility of mistakes, only new opportunities.  I couldn’t miss any notes because there was no score, I couldn’t get lost because there was no conductor to tell me where to go. 

So, how did it all work out when I finally put on the make-up and did the hair, wore the jewel-toned dress, and gave a prepared performance?   Well, the hot airport man ended up flying to London and showing up at the wedding, because he couldn’t bear losing me. No wait, that’s the wedding scene in the romantic comedy version of this story.  In reality, I can’t tell you how I sounded.  I wasn’t listening.  I was so caught up in the emotion and pouring out love with my two little vocal folds, that I didn’t distract myself with inner voices or monitoring the product.  My body felt exquisite.  It felt a warm, vibrating, and joyous energy, and energy that lasted until the last dance of the wedding at 2:00 am.  I’m sure someone could find fault, perhaps my vibrato was fast, maybe my breath wasn’t low enough, and I don’t care.  I celebrated love, I gave love, and I felt it.  I felt love, actually.

I am bringing this incredible memory and experience with me back to New York, along with all of my other trinkets, souvenirs, and fancy teas.  I also packed away a new optimism about love.  I have often worried it may never happen for me in a romantic way, but to give and receive love in any form, like yesterday, makes me believe it is possible for me to experience other forms of love in my life. More importantly, it makes me love life.

And it makes me want to re-watch the London episodes of Friends.