I am going to open up and give a short history of how I got here where I am today. Which is not, you may notice, sipping fine expensive champagne poolside at my villa in St. Moritz while listening to my Grammy-winning CDs, but that’s not where I would aspire to be anyway — really. No, really.
And there is a current reason why I’m going to go there, which will be clearer at the end of this post.
I showed some musical talent as a child, flourished under the music programs at my high school, and was accepted at a nice university with a decent fine arts college. Doing well there, I went on to a very nice music school for graduate study, and left there with a master’s degree, a couple of performer’s certificates, a few roles under my belt and a lot of insecurity as to where to go next. What does one do after getting a master’s degree in vocal performance? Enter a doctoral program? I wasn’t that interested in the academic side at the time, I wanted to sing. Move to New York City? I had no money. After a second year at a summer music academy in California, I stayed in the area to continue taking voice lessons with the academy’s voice guru, and got by as a live-in nanny for a local family. It was a nice enough life but my career was going nowhere. The family father, a laid back surfer dude, had compared it nicely to surfing. “You stay here, you get into a groove, and all the big waves are elsewhere.” I moved back to the northeastern U.S. 6 months later, lived with family, and began working with my then-boyfriend’s voice teacher in Manhattan, who was sort of big name at the time, being the teacher of a famous singer. I worked all manner of part-time singing gigs (semi-professional chorus, church jobs) and in retail, which allowed me to take a weekday off for the regular trips to Manhattan for lessons and auditions. My teacher convinced me that we needed some time to build and develop my voice, and that I was going to be a very exciting spinto soprano (I was sitting on the fence between mezzo and soprano and hoping for someone to just tell me what I was!) My teacher was also damned expensive, and used a kind of utensil with which he’d push my tongue back to “get it in the right place”. Was he a charlatan? I’m still not completely convinced. He was at least a very attentive teacher, in contrast to the stories I’d heard of other expensive, famous teachers who balanced their checkbooks while their pupils sang for them.
This went on for three years, with me working in retail, singing in church jobs, commuting one day (or sometimes two days!) each week to New York for lessons and coachings, my auditions unsuccessful, my career still going nowhere, only now much more expensively.
One day, right after yet another failed audition for Prestigious Vocal Academy, my friend Darryl (with whom I sometimes coached) threw out the suggestion that I go sing for the opera department at the city university, which had recently come into a big pile of money and offering nice scholarships to build up their program. Having literally nothing better on offer, I did, and was accepted, and it was the beginning of my career turnaround.
I stopped going to New York and went back to school locally. Being 29 years old, I was a bit older than most of the other students, but not by much. Some of them had their master’s and were in the professional studies program. Some were foreign students looking for a way to stay in school and keep their US visas current until they could take those Met auditions.
But I had been “on the outside”, I had slogged through years of part-time dead-end jobs with no health insurance, and customers who treated salesgirls like the Help, and nights of unsatisfactory restaurant tips. I was happy to be there, and made a three-year-plan at the opera director’s suggestion (John Douglas, one of the best teacher-coaches I ever knew. May he rest in peace, he went too young.) I wanted to go to Germany and try my luck there, like friends of mine had already done. I took German language classes, I immersed myself in the opera program and all it offered. My assigned voice teacher did not get very far with me, but neither did she do harm. In her defense, I was an amicable but stubborn student. I questioned what I did not understand, and I didn’t understand a lot. What exactly is breath support? How will I know if I am doing it right? You tell me I am making the sound “in the throat” but what does that mean? This of course introduces the question as to how I could have been taking regular voice lessons for, like, twelve years, from at least 5 different voice teachers, and still not really understand vocal technique.
I know there are more than a few singers out there who can commiserate.
Well, I got my act together as well as I could in those two years at the city university, fell in love with a German exchange student (free place to stay in Hamburg! It’s not why I fell for him, but the timing couldn’t have been better. I prefer to think that the universe was conspiring to help me), scrounged all my funds together, left my dog in my sister’s care, and took the plunge with a one-way ticket to Europe via Air Hitch, and never looked back.
Is this getting too long? Are you bored yet? I’m going to keep on, I hope you bear with me.
I was fortunate to have a few American friends living and working in Europe. These wonderful, generous friends let me sleep on their couches, had me house-sit for them, let me copy all the theater and agent addresses out of the Deutsches Bühnen Jahrbuch (nobody had home internet yet, this was the early nineties), helped me write and photocopy a resume in German, passed on all the gossip, let me come along and sit in on their dress rehearsals and voice lessons, introduced me to other singers. It was one of these friends who called to tell me that there was an opening in the opera chorus in his town’s theater. Was I interested? Eh, well, I didn’t know. I’d had a spate of auditions, some of them good, and was waiting for call-back info. On the other hand, none of them was a sure thing and I was ready to do anything at all, I’d teach English, hell, I’d sweep floors, before returning to the States with my tail between my legs and no employment prospects. I took the audition, got the job, and moved to Austria.
It was not an easy adjustment. The European professional opera chorus is a strange institution, at times a wonderful family collective, at times a frustrating show of proud, protected mediocrity, sometimes both at once. I wanted to keep auditioning, didn’t yet know how to best use my strengths and abilities, or even learn what they were. And then, as they say, life happened. I made new friends, met a new guy, considered myself lucky to live in a beautiful old European city where great musical legends had walked the streets I walked, and settle down into the life I was living.
At some point disillusionment arrived — the relationship went under, the work and the internal politics grew frustrating, and a friend convinced me that if I wanted to move on, I’d best do it now before I was too old. 37 was beyond the cut-off age for some choruses, but many have no “official” cut-off and may decide to hear a singer anyway if she looks promising, or is already in the system. I sang for the chorus-placement agency, took a handful of auditions, and it brought me to Innsbruck. I wasn’t sure about the job, but the moment I approached the theater and looked up at those mountains, I thought, yeah, I could live here.
Still with me?
So I began a new job and a new life in Tirol. My new theater was superior in ways I could not have imagined. The universe continued to conspire to my advantage — the pianist who played for my chorus audition liked me, and recommended me when a last-minute solo substitution came up at the theater, for a special repeat performance of her husband’s chamber opera composition. That may have been the first time our Artistic Director, the legendary mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender, heard me (she was doing the stage direction for that piece). I must have made a good enough impression, because I was called for a few more last-minute roles, and then later for regular castings. This theater uses their chorus singers for small (and sometimes medium) roles, which is a win for everybody. The theater doesn’t have to bring someone in from the outside for a smallish role, the chorus singer gets extra money and some solo time on the stage.
This went on for 7 years, and I began to build up a real repertoire of roles, albeit very little significant stuff. But the experience was gold. I was singing all the time, as in almost every day. I was also hearing a lot of other singers every day, and beginning to form a personal philosophy of what I considered good singing, what worked, what sounded good, and how to get those qualities into my own singing.
In 2007 I was quite unexpectedly asked by Frau Fassbaender if I would be interested in joining the solo ensemble. Practically in shock, I accepted immediately. The change meant doing more of the solo work I was already doing, no financial change to speak of, only no more chorus. Again, the universe conspiring, etc. I never looked back.
So, we jump to this week, the last in Frau Fassbaender’s tenure as Intendantin at the Tiroler Landestheater. There was a massive Farewell Fest in the theater yesterday, with speeches and music and food and drink, and it hit me again, a thought that I have had repeatedly over the last few years, that This Woman Literally. Changed. My. Life. Through her simply allowing me to do what I most wanted to do, she made my dream become a reality. As you see from what I have written above, my career was plagued with second-guessing, with settling for the sure thing due to financial fears, or due to the fear of overestimating my talents and my place in the business. I would not have become the performer I am today, nor the person I am today, if she hadn’t made that offer and begun to work with me as a member of her ensemble. She didn’t have to, either, she could have simply hired someone else and I would have continued on as the part-time soloist from the chorus. But she didn’t, and that decision changed my world.
I have good feelings about the incoming management. It’s going to take a considerable adjustment period for all of us, but the general impression I have so far is good, and I’m optimistic (that’s my nature). But I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the outgoing management (and they know who they are!) for all they have done for me, and that will never, ever be forgotten. Danke, Frau Intendantin. And thank you, especially, Jennie.