Rather than beginning with "as many of you are aware," I choose "as everyone knows."
As everyone knows, the world is shutting down. Whether it's your favorite neighborhood restaurant, office, college campus, museum, airport, opera house, or country's border that has closed - we are all feeling the effects of the smear of COVID-19 throughout the world.
Last weekend, I was set to perform a recital in The Woodlands as part of The Verreaux Collective's Recital Series. Due to a slew of performing arts cancellations (including the deletion of our upcoming spring productions - Salome and Die Zauberflöte - at the Houston Grand Opera) and government's insistence on "social distancing," we decided that it was in everyone's best interest to postpone the performance indefinitely.
While doctors and physicians in the medical field take the "Hippocratic oath," artists never formally take any vows. Yet, particularly during times of uncertainty, discomfort, emotional upheaval, or panic - people look to artists to be guardians of the human spirit. Doctors care for the physical being, while artists nourish the soul. In moments like these, those in the medical field may look to us, and us to them, for strength. So much is intertwined, anyways...
Portions of the Hippocratic oath / "I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug."
"I will not be ashamed to say 'I know not,' nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery."
"If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help."
I know not exactly what I should do to help, but I know that whatever I do will help.
Since our performance was cancelled this past weekend, The Verreaux Collective never had the opportunity to publish the answers I wrote to a short interview they sent over before the US - European transportation restrictions were enacted. In case you need a COVID-19 distraction, below are a few anecdotes about my life, outlook on music, and fleshing out characters. Well, my "early COVID-19" outlook.
How’d you get into singing? Growing up I went to Catholic School and every week we would attend mass. One day, the church hired a new choral director and while sitting in a pew only about ten feet away, I listened in awe as she made the most glorious sounds I had ever heard. I later learned that she was a retired opera singer. Hearing her sing the “Ave Maria” left me speechless. I began taking lessons with her when I was ten years old, and my infatuation with making music only grew from there. I thought, being the clever and slick child I was back then, that I could exchange my (then dreaded) piano lessons for voice lessons, but my parents rewarded my negotiation skills with twice as many piano lessons each week from there onwards. But truthfully, it was one of the greatest gifts I ever received. I believe that starting my musical journey with piano lessons from the age of five thru college greatly influenced my current understanding and approach to making music.
What’s your daily life like as an HGO Studio artist? No two days have ever been exactly the same. And that makes answering this question incredibly difficult (but fun trying to give you a sense of the organized madness)! Generally when we are not “in production” (which is what we call the rehearsal period for a mainstage show – typically lasting a few weeks at HGO, but it can range anywhere from a couple of days to months), our days are filled with one-on-one foreign language instruction, voice lessons, vocal coachings, movement classes, miscellaneous donor/community outreach performances, and a ton of private practice. All the training we receive is to help us develop the skills needed for a career as professional opera singers. When we are in rehearsals for one of the mainstage operas, most of our days are filled with staging rehearsals, costume fittings, and musical coachings with music staff and conductor. Most days when we aren’t “in production” we start no earlier than 10AM and finish around 6PM, unless we have an evening gig. When preparing for a show, particularly during “tech week” (or the period of time in which a show moves from being in a rehearsal room to on-stage, and spacing, lighting, orchestral, and costuming considerations take priority), we can be called sometimes as late as 11:30PM. Since our performances often land on weekends, we don’t have set “days off,” though they typically occur every 7-10 days.
How did you come up with the program for this concert? For this recital I wanted to present pieces that are honest, direct, and complicated without any inkling of pretentiousness. The idea of a “cabaret-style” program, focusing on pieces which could be stripped away of their accompaniments and be presented as poignant spoken word, was born. Ginastera and Poulenc, for me, are a perfect pairing. Utilizing traditional Argentine musical elements, Ginastera’s Cinco Canciones Populares Argentinas showcases melodies which are exceptionally beautiful and welcoming. The first time I ever listened to them, I immediately felt as though they were tunes I had known my entire life and could easily digest upon first hearing. The perfect balance to the off-kilter, stream-of-consciousness which is Poulenc’s Metamorphoses. I included two selections from Obrador’s Canciones Clasicas Españolas to bridge the two cycles, as the poetry fits nicely alongside Ginastera’s cycle, further expounding upon romantic love. For the second half of the program, I wanted to mix in familiar tunes with more “true” cabaret pieces. Programing Britten’s Cabaret Songs with selections from Carousel, Merrily We Roll Along, Oklahoma!, and The Wizard of Oz proved to create a dramatic arch in my mind which mimics the roller-coaster of emotions derived from experiences we as humans can expect to encounter in a lifetime (if not only in a day).
What goes through your head when you have to switch characters and styles so many times and so quickly, and how is it different than getting into a single character for an opera? Besides the dire physical repercussions of mental whiplash (only kidding), switching characters frequently over the course of one single performance is what fascinates and draws me into recital work. For me, I treat all characters the same – with honesty. I spend time envisioning each character’s life, feelings, relationships, habits, physical movement, and thoughts away from the music. Just as if I was getting into a single character for an opera. But the difference is that instead of two to three hours of character development, you have two to five minutes to exist in a new reality. Wiping the slate clean between songs or cycles.
What has been your favorite production so far with HGO, and why? Every experience on stage has proved to be a unique learning experience. My first role on The Houston Grand Opera’s mainstage was Zerlina in Don Giovanni, and what a rush it was to be thrust into a sizeable role, particularly one so potentially controversial and relevant amidst the “Me Too” movement! But, I must say that my favorite role so far this season has been singing the High Priestess in Verdi’s Aida. Typically, the High Priestess is a role heard but never seen, as Verdi indicated in the score for her to sing off-stage in the Incantation Scene. However, in Phelim McDermott’s production, the High Priestess is very much center stage, draped in red silks and hoisted into the air by phenomenally costumed dancers. Quite a bit less conservative than I typically am in “real life,” playing a character who is so in tune with her femininity, strength, and sensuality is a liberating experience. Plus, the vocal writing throughout the score’s entirety is decadent, and hearing my colleagues sing each night with such finesse and ease will remain in my fondest memories forever.