My Inner Italian

Fluency is a survival skill.

If you have a vague desire to become fluent in a language, you will probably fail. But if you need to be fluent, your brain will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Nothing can stop you.

I know this to be true.  This is the story of how I (briefly) became Italian.

When I moved to Italy in the spring of 2005, I stuck out like a sore thumb. You could tell I was a foreigner from a mile away. It wasn’t just my blonde hair and my H&M wardrobe; it was my whole way of being!  My gait, my mannerisms, my accent. Of course, it wasn’t obvious to everyone that I was American. Many people guessed that I was Swedish or German. But I was definitely not Italian.

Strangely, this came as a complete shock to me. Having lived in Austria for seven years, I already felt very much at home in Europe. I thought that I was good at adapting to new cultures. But I did not realize how much my comfort was tied to my northern European look. When I moved from Vienna to Florence, I suddenly stopped “blending in.”

Fortunately, I did speak some Italian. After all, I had been singing Italian opera for years! My education at the Mozarteum had included three years of Italian classes, and I had continued to study the language in Vienna.  But when I won a scholarship to study with Mirella Freni at her academy in Vignola, I discovered just how much Italian I didn’t know.

I remember my first night at school in Italy.  I was sitting at a long table in a local restaurant in Vignola with all of my classmates from the academy. I was at the middle of the table, so I could hear about four different Italian conversations going on around me. But I didn’t know what anyone was saying. I had made an effort to speak Italian all day long, but now it was after 10 PM, and I couldn’t even speak German and English anymore, let alone Italian. “I have to learn fast,” I thought to myself.  “I’m the only American at this school. I have to get comfortable in Italian as soon as possible.”

And amazingly, I did.  But I would never have succeeded without the help of my roommates. I was rooming with two extraordinarily talented young singers: Beatriz Diaz from Spain and Chiara Amarù from Palermo.  The three of us became the best of friends! Chiara was so kind and patient with us as she taught us to navigate her native language.  Together, we laughed and cried through the intricacies of Italian verbs.

But we only roomed together while we were at school in Vignola, and that was only one week out of each month.  The rest of the time, I lived in Florence, where I was working for Opera St Mark’s. I loved living in a city of history and art and culture, but I couldn’t get used to the fact that strangers were constantly approaching me! With my bright hair and touristy image, I attracted a lot of attention.

At first, I enjoyed chatting with people. But I got so tired of the question, “where are you from,” that I started to make up outlandish answers.  “I’m from Brazil,” I would say firmly. Or I might claim to be from Greece or Korea or Egypt.  This made the Italians laugh until they cried.  “Please, miss, where are you from?” they would ask as I passed them on the street. And I would reply, “Dalla Antartide. Non si vede?” (From Antarctica. Can’t you tell?)  It was my little joke.

Out of sheer necessity, I enrolled in Italian classes at the Istituto Italiano in Florence.  They have great intensive courses, with fun field trips! After a few months, I had earned certificates in advanced grammar and conversation and diction. I passed all my exams.

But the real test of my language skills came when I was asked to be the official interpreter at an opera master class taught by Sergio Bertocchi! Three students from Australia and Singapore had come to Italy to study with Maestro Bertocchi, and since I was the only native English speaker in residence at the academy, I would be their interpreter. I didn’t have too much trouble translating their voice lessons, or helping them order at the restaurant.  But I gulped when Maestro Bertocchi asked me to spontaneously translate his lecture on vocal anatomy and the philosophy of singing! Somehow, I managed to translate an hour-long graduate level lecture, but when it was over, I couldn’t remember a thing that Maestro Bertocchi had said.

Meanwhile, I worked very hard to create a life for myself in Florence.  I made friends in the local ex-pat community.  I bought a membership card for the Uffizi Museum so that I could look at great art every day. And I also got to know the churches of Florence very well: I worshiped in one, sang concerts in another, and practiced my music in a third!

Day by day, things began to change.  The people in my Florentine neighborhood started to accept me as one of their own.  The guys in the pizzeria nodded as I went by. I had a “regular” order at the caffè in the piazza.  I shopped in Italian stores and read Italian news. Once, I even got interviewed for a market research survey about Italian brand names!

But I didn’t realize just how Italian I had become until the day I moved back to the States.  My mother had come to Rome to help me move, and we were shoving all of my worldly possessions into the trunk of a taxi.  But the taxi driver, thinking that we were gullible tourists, charged us triple the usual rate. Naturally, I started to argue with the taxista in a loud voice, with my hands flying. The Italian language had become a part of me, gestures and all!  (Click here for a quick guide to Italian gestures.) I won the debate and got my money back, but then I looked over to find my mom suppressing giggles.  “I can’t help it,” she insisted. “My daughter sounds like Sophia Loren!”

So that is the story of how I became Italian, just for a little while.  It wasn’t a permanent change. After returning to the United States, I lost some of my italianità.  But every now and then, my inner Italian comes out!

My Italian side can be triggered by little things: the smell of oregano, the sound of a vespa, or an exquisite piece of Renaissance art. And suddenly I feel like I’m back under the Tuscan sun, my heels clicking on the cobblestones while I adjust my sunglasses and chatter away in Italian with my friends.

If you really want to learn Italian, make it a top priority! Then, get in touch with your Italian side. Eat Italian food. Argue with an Italian taxi driver. Read an Italian website. Listen to an Italian opera! Release your inner Italian. Arrivederci.

Why I Like Shiny Knights

I like knights in shining armor.

These days, medieval warriors get a bad rap. Their popularity has really gone down over the last two centuries. But that’s not fair.

Seriously. What maiden wouldn’t welcome a handsome champion with a sword, a shield and a swan?

In most German Romantic operas, the hero gets to be a hero.  He slays dragons, he fights for what’s right, and he lavishes attention on the ladies. It’s kinda nice!

Take the characters of Lohengrin and Elsa.  They could have used some marital counseling.  But their goodness is so refreshing.  Here are 3 things I like about the opera Lohengrin:

1. Virtue is hot

When Elsa first sees a vision of Lohengrin, she’s pretty excited about him.  She can tell that he’s one of the good guys. She sings,

In Lichter Waffen Scheine         In splendid, shining armour
ein Ritter nahte da,                   a knight approached,
so tugendlicher Reine              a man of such pure virtue
ich keinen noch ersah              as I had never seen before

Bad boys just don’t have that same appeal.  They’re a lot of fun in Act I, but then it all goes downhill. Who would choose the philandering Duke of Mantua over a noble knight? (Even Gilda regrets her choice. Sort of.)

2. Charity is cool

Lohengrin, the mysterious knight, shows up on a boat drawn by a swan. His quest is to find Elsa and fight for her innocence.

Have you noticed that international charity projects aren’t cool anymore? It’s considered arrogant and condescending if we want to improve somebody else’s quality of life. Our gifts are deemed culturally inappropriate. We can still send money to starving children, but we’re not allowed to feel good about it. If we do charity, it’s only because we have a hero complex.

As a world traveler, I know that it is essential to respect local cultures, and to honor the dignity of every person I meet.  I know that it is naïve to assume that other people need (or want) my help. I know that it is dangerous to launch a short-term service project that has no sustainable effect. I know that local problems usually have local solutions.

But I also know that problems are real. There is genuine suffering in the world. We can’t pretend it’s not there. And we have to do something about it. We need to respect cultural boundaries, but we must not use multiculturalism as an excuse for laziness!

Every charity project has flaws. But is it really better to stay home, hoard your cash and read an e-book?  That’s not the way to change the world. Sometimes, you have to take a risk. Grab your sword, call your swan, and get on that boat.

3. Chivalry is still alive

Lohengrin is kind to Elsa.  He’s not very forthcoming about his own past, but he’s very respectful of hers. He rescues her when she’s in distress.

I once had to be rescued by a lifeguard while swimming off the coast of California. The waves got too big for me. As a novice triathlete, I had made some poor decisions and I’d spent all my energy. I knew that I didn’t have enough strength to make it back to shore, so I waved to someone who did. (No, he wasn’t wearing a suit of armor.)

Getting rescued isn’t such a bad thing.  It doesn’t make me less powerful as a woman.  It means I needed some help. That’s all. We all need help sometimes. And I really appreciate being alive.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting that we return to a tenth-century worldview. Or that women should only date Wagnerian tenors. 

I’m just challenging the idea that there is no value in medieval German legends. Lohengrin is only a story, but it has a compelling message. Heroic stories are very inspiring. The Dark Ages weren’t really that dark.  After all, some of those guys knew how to shine!

My Name in Japanese

Tokyo, 2005 ~ By the time I landed at Narita International Airport, I knew that something was wrong.

I felt sick, and this was very annoying, because I almost never get sick. In fact, people can usually count on me to “jump in” at the last minute to sing for sick colleagues.

But sinus headaches are my Achilles’ heel. Just before the plane took off, I had sensed a familiar throbbing between the eyes.  Then after thirteen hours of breathing airplane air, I was congested and my throat felt raw.

What a great way to start my first Japanese concert tour!

My friend and pianist, Ayako Watanabe, met me at the airport. She had planned the details of our tour. We were scheduled to perform eight concerts in twenty days.

I’ve mentioned Ayako before, but this was long before we ever performed in Moscow, Los Angeles, and Kathmandu together. Back in 2005, we had only recently graduated from the Mozarteum, and we had just given  a series of Liederabende (art song recitals) in Salzburg and Vienna. Now we wanted to “take our show on the road” and perform in Tokyo, Ayako’s hometown!

Our first rehearsal went well, but when I finally admitted that I “might” be getting sick, Ayako gasped. “Lindsay! That cannot happen.”

She took me straight to the doctor. As soon as we got there, she filled out my paperwork for me; people smiled when they heard us chatting in German. We took off our shoes before we sat down in the waiting room. I stuffed my big American feet into dainty little plastic slippers.

I was still admiring my plastic slippers when the nurse came to the door and called out, “Rin-Shee-San?”

“That’s me?” I exclaimed in German.  “My name is Rin-Shee?”

“Rinjii,” Ayako giggled. “I tried to spell it out in Japanese.”

“What’s my last name then? Is it still Feldmeth?” I asked.

“No, it sounds more like Perdometo,” Ayako said sweetly. I threw her a confused look as we followed the nurse inside. (I guess there are just too many consonant clusters in Feldmeth.)

The doctor gave me a combination of herbs and medicines and told me to take it easy. By the next day, I felt much better, but I was still a little weak.

Right before our first concert, I found a quiet spot backstage where I could lie down.  I rested there for a few minutes. When I opened my eyes, I saw an older gentleman looking down at me with a worried expression.

“¿Tienes fiebre?” he asked.  I decided that I must be delirious because it sounded like this nice Japanese man was speaking Spanish to me! “Me duele la cabeza,” I told him. My Spanish isn’t great, but it’s much better than my Japanese.

Later, Ayako explained that the owner of the concert hall was an excellent musician, himself, and that he had studied music in Spain.  Then it all made sense. My name was Rinjii and I was speaking Spanish in Tokyo. Stranger things have happened, right?

And I was still singing Mozart and Strauss. So at least that was familiar!

Once I got my strength back, I started to really have fun in Japan. Ayako is a fantastic tour guide.

I ate sushi. I got fitted for a kimono. I went on a river cruise. I saw Mount Fuji. I experienced the Chinatown in Yokohama. On a cold night in Kyoto, I even saw a geisha hurrying along the road.

One morning, we woke up to discover that it was snowing in Kyoto! The famous temple gardens were now frosted with snowflakes. It was dazzling. I have pictures, but they don’t do it justice. The scenes I tried to photograph were large and bright, so Ayako and I look like tiny black smudges against a pretty white world. But I still consider this once of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life: a Japanese flower garden dusted with fresh fallen snow.

And of course, we had our music. Everywhere we went, our audiences were very warm and appreciative. We sang in some amazing venues and we felt humbled to receive several standing ovations. We even got to do some concerts with the Japanese violinist, Misai Takahashi.  It was an unforgettable tour.

But as soon as I got home to Austria, I made an appointment with a famous otolaryngologist.  I just wanted to be sure I hadn’t damaged my voice by singing that first concert when I was ill.  So I went to the doctor trusted by all of the singers at the Vienna State Opera, Dr. Reinhard Kürsten.

Dr. Kürsten examined my throat with his laryngoscope. It was hooked up to a TV screen so that he could give me a guided tour of my own larynx. “You’re fine!” he said cheerfully. “The voice looks very healthy. Nice, thick vocal cords. It’s a pleasure to look at them.”

The truth is that you can still sing when you have a slight cold, but you have to know how to protect your voice. My voice teacher, Horiana Branisteanu, had trained me very well for that contingency. She showed me how to take all unnecessary pressure off of my throat. In fact, I now teach singers and speakers how to protect their voices when they’re slightly ill.

So that’s the story of how I got my Japanese name.  If you want to know your own Japanese name, check out this website. Sayōnara!


Inside the Master Class

What really happens at a master class?

I’ve had the privilege of studying with several famous opera singers at master classes. They have taught me more than just vocal technique and musicianship.

Here are some of the secrets I’ve learned from great singers.

I remember the moment that I first saw Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. It was January 2002. I was sitting in a crowded auditorium in Stuttgart, Germany. Suddenly, the backstage door swung open.  In that instant, the room fell silent and three hundred heads swiveled to look at her. At the age of 86, Schwarzkopf could command attention simply by walking into a room.

A master class is a seminar for advanced music students (or young professionals) conducted by a master musician. The student performs a piece of music in front of the whole class while the teacher critiques the performance.

Frau Schwarzkopf was famous for making caustic comments at her master classes. She could be pretty brutal with her students.  I was thinking about her reputation when I climbed onstage to sing Hugo Wolf’s Schlafendes Jesuskind for her.  The song opens with the words, “Sohn der Jungfrau, Himmelskind!”  But it took me eight tries to get to the word “Himmelskind,” because Frau Schwarzkopf kept interrupting me.  A couple of times, I hadn’t even made a sound before she yelled, “Nein!”

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was a stickler for detail. Every breath, every expression, every vowel had to be just right. I learned a lot about Wolf Lieder that day. But I learned even more about willpower and charisma, qualities that Schwarzkopf possessed in abundance!

Master classes are never just about singing.  They’re about how to live your life.  (See Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture.) Singers are natural mimics — we learn by imitation and even by osmosis! We absorb a great deal of information simply by being around great artists. And this has little to do with what is actually taught or discussed.

Montserrat Caballé is one of the most joyful people I have ever met.  A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of singing at her master class in Zaragoza, Spain. Her curriculum included a lot of vocal anatomy; she enjoys the science of singing. But it was her contagious joie de vivre that most impressed me. Studying Casta diva with her was simultaneously gratifying and alarming, because her passion for Bellini is visible. It shines through her like a light.

Master classes are special times in the life of a singer because most voice lessons do not happen in front of an audience. Soloists usually take individual lessons. Professional opera singers continue to work with voice teachers and vocal coaches throughout their career, but this training is usually one-on-one.

And yet, there is something about the group learning experience that really works for musicians. Singers who have struggled for years can make huge breakthroughs in a master class. I’ve seen it happen. In just a few days, a student can experience an exponential learning curve.

That’s why I was thrilled to discover that Mirella Freni teaches her own students in a “master class” format. When I moved to Italy to study with her in 2005, I did not realize that my “classroom” would be a sixteenth century palace! On the day of my first lesson, I climbed up a magnificent spiral staircase to a large chamber with painted ceilings, where sixteen young singers were singing arias for each other while Signora Freni made suggestions.

Mirella Freni is, of course, a musical genius.  She sings in a very natural and authentic way, as if she were holding a conversation.

I think the best moment may have been when some of my colleagues asked Ms. Freni how to produce a pianissimo. They wanted to hear about the physical process, how to use their abdominal muscles and resonance chambers, etc. But she gave them a more profound answer.

“What is the best way to support a soft sound, Signora?”

Bemused, Mirella Freni gazed back at them. “Con lo stato d’animo, ragazzi.” (Stato d’animo can be translated “mood,” “spirit,” or “frame of mind,” but what she literally said was, “With the state of your soul, kids.”)

When I went to visit Ms. Freni last spring, I found that she had moved her academy to Modena, the town where both she and Luciano Pavarotti were born. Her master classes are held in a former hospital, in what used to be the cardiology wing.  There is poetic justice in that, since Freni’s music is about singing from the heart.

Of course, master classes are often a mixed experience. When a student wants to learn, and a teacher wants to teach, there is nothing better than a master class.  But sometimes it gets more complicated than that.

Master Class is actually the title of a play about Maria Callas, written by Terrance McNally, in which Callas teaches students about singing while reliving episodes from her own life. And like the play, a real master class can reveal someone’s hidden agenda.

Sometimes, the student just wants to demonstrate how fabulous she already is. Meanwhile, the teacher wants to prove her greatness as a teacher. They both need professional affirmation; they both want to shine.  And they both end up feeling hurt and unappreciated. This is completely unnecessary.

A really masterful pedagogue can adapt to the student’s own learning style. Some students are more kinesthetic; others are more verbal.  Some make huge intuitive leaps simply from imitating the sounds in the room; others need a step-by-step methodology that they can write down.

An experienced maestro knows how to critique a student without discouraging him. He knows what to say and what not to say. Some of the best vocal coaches I’ve known have a Zen-like ability to teach without saying anything at all!

I was not quite that wise when I went to teach vocal workshops at the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory in 2009. I had prepared a several multi-media presentations on topics from breathing technique to the history of Western opera. And I think it was useful. But I noticed that my students got even more from my energy and attention than they did from my information. That’s how it works.

Master classes aren’t just about music. They’re about life.

Accidental Genius

Everybody wants to be a genius. But creativity is so hard to predict.  Most creative ideas seem to happen by accident.

So… how can we have more creative accidents?

The key is to create a dangerous environment.

I’m not talking about physical danger, although that might get your creative juices flowing. I mean artistic risk.

Personally, I need a space where I can play around with my creative ideas, where I’m not afraid to crash and burn. For me, this is usually a music studio. For you, it could be a laboratory or a gymnasium or a library or even a cubicle. Any space where you can approach your project with a bold sense of adventure.

Geniuses don’t play it safe. The most creative people I know are pretty comfortable with risk.

My brother-in-law has a fairly exciting brain. Rocket science isn’t terribly challenging for him. Even in college, he was able to imagine and produce projects of staggering creativity, but he usually injured himself in the process! This led his Harvard friends to call him a “genius of sorts,” and the nickname stuck.

This fearlessness is just as important in music as it in science. The best jazz musicians I know are great improvisers because they are not afraid. They invent great music on the spot because a) they’re good musicians and b) they’re not afraid to fail.

Creative minds maintain a curious balance between discipline and playfulness. In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer reports that while most great thinkers work grueling hours, the “incandescent flash” of inspiration usually happens when they finally relax and take a hot shower.

For some reason, creativity requires both work and play. The best thinking happens in the space between the two. That’s where the insight lives.

The practice room is probably the least glamorous location in an opera singer’s life. But that’s where we spend a big chunk of our time. And that’s where a lot of the magic happens.

Say it’s Tuesday night at midnight in New York City. You’re alone in your sound proofed practice room. You are singing along as you bang out some chords on the piano and suddenly — unexpectedly! — something amazing happens. Music pours out of you, more vibrant than ever before.

Then two weeks later, you’re on stage in New Haven, singing the same music, and you are flooded with fresh creative energy.  Why? Because you practiced. You actually practiced getting inspired.

It’s not really an accident.  Not really. But it feels that way.

Inspiration is completely unpredictable. You can’t know if and when it’s going to happen. But it’s much more likely to happen if you’re ready and waiting.

So if you need a creative boost, just find an “accident-rich” environment and spend a lot of time there. Somewhere down the line, you might have a stroke of genius.

Hawaii: Opera in Paradise

The Big Island, 2009 ~ I stood outside the Kona International Airport, squinting in the sunlight.

Just a few days earlier, I had been walking around Kathmandu, in the shadow of the biggest mountains on earth. Now I was on an island in the middle of the Pacific.

Talk about culture shock.

This was my first trip to Hawaii.  I had come to the Big Island to sing at the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, but my heart was still in Nepal. Here I was in a tropical paradise, but I could barely take it in.  It felt like I was dreaming.

I rented a small convertible and started driving north along Queen Kaahumanu Highway. The ocean sparkled in the sunlight.  When I glanced up the lush green hills, I caught sight of the biggest and brightest rainbow I had ever seen! Everything seemed so surreal.

The road twisted up a steep hill, away from the ocean. Suddenly, I found myself in a new sub-climate with cattle ranches and pine trees. The air smelled like wet grass and eucalyptus. I parked my car outside a little chapel and checked my wristwatch.  It was 6:29 PM.  I was on time for the concert!

The legendary Wagnerian singer Jeannine Altmeyer was about to sing an excerpt from Die Walküre, right here in this church on the Big Island of Hawaii.  And I was going to hear it live.  Just for a second, I leaned back on the headrest and closed my eyes. “This is the most amazing life,” I thought to myself. Then I rushed inside to hear some opera.

Over the next two weeks, I got to perform all over the Big Island with my new friends from HPAF.  We sang Mozart under the fir trees. We sang Puccini on the beach.  We sang Kurt Weill at a little theater in Hilo.

We also met the famous American composer, Ricky Ian Gordon, and performed one of his operas, The Grapes of Wrath. And I even got to sing some Wagner arias for Ms. Altmeyer! The Hawaii Performing Arts Festival was a truly amazing experience.

But by the end of July, I needed a vacation! Singing is a dream job, but it’s also a lot of hard work. As soon as the festival was over, I decided it was time for a little rest and recreation.  First, I took my convertible all over the Big Island. And then I hit Oahu with my friend Karina. It was the trip of a lifetime.

So here are my tips for the Ultimate Hawaiian Vacation:

#1. Meet a Volcano

Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes.   It’s a pretty exciting day trip.

#2. Stand in A Waterfall

I loved exploring Akaka Falls State Park.

#3. Surf the Waves in an Outrigger Canoe in Waikiki

Yes, it’s a tourist trap.  But this is more fun than you can possibly imagine. If you want to to experience the rush of surfing, but you can’t control your own surfboard, this is your sport:

#4. Go Snorkeling 

I met a gorgeous yellow butterfly fish just under the surface of Hanauma Bay.

#5. Go Horseback Riding in the Jungle

My horse really just wanted to eat the rainforest. He kept munching on the scenery. But what a beautiful ride!

Oh, and here I am on the “set” of LOST.

Needless to say, I had a pretty good time in Hawaii.  I made my Facebook friends so jealous that some of them started boycotting my status updates. 😉 It was an amazing adventure. I will never forget the summer of 2009.

My one regret is that I did not get to see a production at the Hawaii Opera Theatre in Honolulu.  I guess I’ll save that for my next trip.  Aloha!

Food for Singers: The Diva Diet

How do you feed a singing voice? What do you eat? When do you eat? What foods should you avoid?

For a singer, eating right is a balancing act.

Food is fuel, and you need enough fuel to get through your show. But too much food could make you lethargic on stage, and the wrong kind of food could irritate your throat, ruining your performance.

So you have to juggle everything that you know about nutrition… with everything you know about your own body. This photo is by She Knows Health & Fitness, a good resource for health tips.

When people travel to far-off places, they usually relax their diets and enjoy the local cuisine. But singers do not have the same luxury. When we travel to Rome or Tokyo for an opera gig, we have to think about how the food will affect the voice.

This week, I asked my singer friends what they like to eat before a performance.  I got responses from opera singers all over the world! And the results* are fascinating.  Here are their answers: the 5 best foods for singing … and the 5 worst foods for singing!

5 BEST FOODS FOR SINGING

1. Water – Dehydration is a singer’s worst nightmare. Dry vocal cords are less flexible and more susceptible to damage.  But don’t wait until the last minute to get a drink! The vocal folds are one of the last places in the body to get hydrated. So you can’t moisten your throat (from the inside) until you have consumed enough water to hydrate all of your vital organs. The singers in my survey reported drinking up to a gallon of water on the day before a performance. They drink more water as soon as they wake up the next morning. And they keep a couple of water bottles backstage during the performance.

2. Veggies & Fruit – Singers pile their plates full of green leafy vegetables. These help the body shed toxins and fight diseases. For optimal vocal performance, Aaron Lim, author of Your Personal Singing Guide, recommends fruits and vegetables rich in Vitamins A, C & E. One of the singers in my survey is a vegan and she selects raw foods packed with nutritional value; before singing, she drinks a green smoothie with kale or chard, juicy fruit, flax seeds, dates and water.

Fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut and kimchi, are cancer-fighting, mood-improving, probiotic superfoods! But wait until after your performance to indulge your saurkraut habit, because salty foods absorb water.

3. Protein –  Just like athletes, singers need protein to maintain their strength and stamina. Many singers like fish and poultry, because they are high in protein but low in fat. But a couple of the singers in my survey reported needing iron-rich red meats on the day before a performance. Vegetarian singers prefer protein shakes and energy bars.

4. Small “Combo” Meals – Many singers eat a small meal about two hours before the curtain goes up. They can’t afford to get dizzy onstage, so they avoid sugary and starchy foods that could spike their blood sugar. Instead, the singers in my survey picked foods with a low glycemic index. They also balanced their proteins and carbs.  Favorite meals included salmon and salad, eggs and toast, or chicken and rice.

5. Vocal “Lubricants”– Food and water never come in direct contact with the vocal cords. But there are some snacks that stimulate saliva production, bringing relief to singers who suffer from “dry mouth.”  These include apples, lemons, hard candy and ginger tea.  If you’re feeling hoarse or scratchy, a spoonful of honey will soothe your throat and fight off bacteria.

5 WORST FOODS FOR SINGING

1. Alcohol – Many people only sing in public if they’re tipsy, but opera singers finally stop singing when they drink.  Here’s why: alcohol causes the tissues in the larynx to swell, reducing vocal control.

2. Heavy Foods – Singers avoid fatty foods, greasy foods, and anything that might give them gas. Remember that food is fuel, but don’t overtank! Singing depends on good breath management. If you eat too much, your digestive system will slow down and your abdominal muscles will relax and you’ll find it harder to support your air.

3. Caffeine – Caffeinated drinks steal moisture from the body. Also remember that caffeine is a real drug and it can hype you up. Performing is exciting enough by itself; you don’t want to flood your body with caffeine and adrenaline.

4. Spicy Foods – Garlic and other spices are fantastic for the immune system, but they are hard on the vocal folds. They can also irritate the stomach, causing acid reflux. You’ll also want to avoid foods with nuts or small particles that could get lodged in your throat.

When I was singing and teaching in Kathmandu, I lived on naan and tea for days at a time. Why? Because my digestive system was in shock. I couldn’t tolerate yak’s milk at all. And I loved the spicy boar, but the spicy boar didn’t love me.

5. Milk – Dairy products have been linked to sinus infections.   To a singer, there is nothing worse than having a raging infection in the ears, nose and throat. For many years, we were taught that drinking milk actually produced phlegm.  This turns out to be a myth, and yet some singers do get congested when they use milk products.

I was lactose intolerant until I moved to Austria, where my digestive system cured itself. (Note that this is medically impossible, but it happened anyway.) I thank Austrian cows for my current ability to eat cheese — after all, Austrian cows appear to be happier and healthier than American cows, and they have better cowbells, so I think they deserve the credit. 😉

It’s best not to be too neurotic about what you eat. Anxiety does not help you sing better. But clearly, food plays an important role in the singer’s life.  If you want to stay in peak vocal condition, you need to choose your meals wisely. And that concludes this episode of the Diva Diet. Bon appétit!

* Please note that this was an informal survey with a very small sample size. It does not attempt to be a formal study with statistical significance.   

The Art of Getting Discovered

Exciting news! Over the next few months, I will also be blogging for iCadenza.

iCadenza is a magnet for fresh talent. Their mission is to empower classical musicians to survive and thrive.

So if you need an extra shot of creativity and inspiration, check the iCadenza blog. I am joining a fantastic team of bloggers. We’ll be talking about the artist life: the joy of music, what it takes to be a musician, and how we can give our audience (YOU!) more access to our music.  My first post went live this morning: Blogger Profile Lindsay Feldmeth    Please stop by!

Airplane Novels for Opera Lovers

“Novels and opera are like sisters. They love each other, they feed each other, they grow together.” – Antonio Skarmeta

I love to read and I love to travel.  So I need a large selection of airplane novels. I’m always looking for my next “good read.” And some of my favorite stories are about traveling opera singers!

It’s not that I’m obsessed with opera. (Well, not much.) But novels about opera usually have that intoxicating mix of glamor, romance, history, intrigue, and European locations. They are usually self-indulgent without being cheap and superficial. So if you’re looking for an operatic airplane novel, you’ve come to the right blog.

But what are the best novels about opera? This has been a popular discussion on my Facebook page. My friends and fans always have the best suggestions. Here are some of their top picks. Just click on the picture for more info:




If you love your Kindle as much as I do, you’ll be pleased to see that most of these are available for instant download.

Have I missed any great books? Let me know!  Happy reading.

Addicted to German

The German language is like coffee.

It tastes bitter at first, but it’s incredibly addictive.

To the English ear, it is not the most beautiful of European languages. But at least it has some bite!

This authentic picture of German coffee is provided by Research in Germany.

My grandfather was German and I was familiar with the sounds of German before I ever studied the language. I had the rare chance to learn German in an American high school, and it changed my life. German opens whole new worlds of opportunity, not only for engineers and business people but also for scholars and musicians! Still, it was not until I moved to Austria (at the age of 20) that I realized that German could be habit-forming.

Gutteral sounds are not the most pleasing to hear, but they are extremely satisfying to say!  And if you crave elegance, you can find it in German’s pure, round vowels. Best of all, the explosive consonants give the listener a special rhythmic pleasure that is absent from, say, French. German snaps and crackles and pops!

In my first few months in Salzburg, I let the German language seep into every corner of my mind. I limited my contact with my English-speaking friends and insisted on only speaking German to my professors and colleagues. All of my courses at the Mozarteum were taught in German and the lingua franca of the cafeteria was German. My brain adapted to my personal linguistic experiment.  By the end of my third year in Austria, I was thinking and dreaming in German.

The wonderful thing about thinking in a different language is that you start to think in different directions. You can’t help but have new creative insights!  This happens automatically when you use a different word order, or express your feelings with a different metaphor, than you would have used in your own language. You start to see things differently, not just from a different cultural perspective, but from a different linguistic perspective, as well.

My parents were a little alarmed when I first came home for vacation and had to search for English words. But it provided a lot of spontaneous humor at the dinner table.  Naturally, the brain adapts (again!) very quickly to conversation in its native language. And all of this brain exercise is very healthy; recent studies indicate that people who are bilingual have higher cognitive function and better long-term brain health.

Of course, I was studying music, and music has a way of getting under your skin. By singing German opera and German Lieder (art songs), I ensured that German would stay in my soul forever.  There is a deep beauty in German Romantic poetry that has been set to music.  Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür!

So why is German considered so difficult? It has a relatively small vocabulary, but a very sophisticated grammatical structure. That’s why German is not the easiest language for an English-speaker to learn, even though English is a Germanic language. I made a ton of mistakes while learning German — and I still do!

But now, I have a tender spot in my heart for German syntax. I even get nostalgic for the sound of the Austrian dialect. If I stay away from Austria for too long, I have to feed my German addiction by reading German novels and watching Austrian TV programs.

You may have seen this chart on Facebook.  It insinuates that German is not as pretty as other European languages. Which is true!!!

But German has its own crackling energy. So be careful the next time that you pick up a German book, or start talking to a German friend. German is extremely addictive.  You might just like it!

Auf Wiedersehen!