Traveling by Ear

ears

It was a warm, humid Thursday in Vienna and I was having a stressful day. I rushed onto a subway train (the U-3 line) and absent-mindedly picked up a glossy magazine. As I slid into the nearest plastic seat, a magazine insert fell into my lap. There was a picture of two little ears carrying suitcases and jumping off a railroad track. The German text above the picture read, “Schicken Sie Ihre Ohren auf Entdeckungsreise.” Send your ears on a journey of discovery. And for the first time all day, I started to smile.

The tiny ears were advertising the Haus der Musik museum in Vienna, but for me, the message had a different meaning. The reason I was feeling stressed that day was because I needed to decide whether or not to move to Italy for a post-grad certificate in opera studies. (I know that sounds like an easy decision, but it was complicated.) After completing two performance degrees in voice, I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to embark on yet another academic journey. Did I want to stay in school? Part of me just wanted to get onstage that very instant and SING!

But every budding opera singer has a unique path to follow, and my path included several years of intensive ear-education! By studying in Salzburg, I had already absorbed a distinctly Austrian Klangvorstellung (concept of sound). Moving to Italy helped me listen to music with a more Mediterranean worldview, and that was a good challenge for my German-American ears. It influenced my music forever.

Being a musician has changed the way that I travel. Ever since that moment on the U-3, every little trip has become a journey of discovery. My ears are always getting new stamps in their passport. They were happy to soak up Slavic sounds in Moscow and Hindustani vibrations in Kathmandu. And now as I prepare to spend April in Southern Africa, my ears are already tingling with… READ MORE

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the Nearsighted Soprano

“Don’t move a muscle,” said the stage director. “Don’t even blink.”

I was standing on a rehearsal stage in Salzburg, staring lifelessly into the auditorium. Mechanically, I lifted one arm, jerking my fan away from face in a single robotic movement. Then I began to sing, “Les oiseux dans la charmille…” I was singing the role of Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, an opera by Jacques Offenbach, and my character was a life-sized doll.  It was my very first role at the Mozarteum and I wanted to prove myself. So I worked hard to control my muscle movements.  By the end of the rehearsal period, I could pop off high E’s without moving … or blinking.

But on the day of the Hauptprobe, I realized that I had made a terrible mistake.  I had never practiced my aria while standing in the spotlight. (I usually love to be in the spotlight. But that’s because I’m usually allowed to blink.) This time, as I gazed out into the auditorium, my vision suddenly went fuzzy.  The spotlight was drying out my contact lenses! But I said nothing and stoically sang my aria… until my right contact lens popped out and landed on my cheek. Now I was singing half-blind and with a piece of plastic stuck to my face.

Fortunately, the role of my ‘father’ and creator, Spalanzani, was sung by my talented colleague, Thorsten Büttner. Without dropping character for a second, Thorsten leaned towards me with all the gentleness of a genuine dollmaker and delicately removed the contact lens from my cheek. He then passed it on his fingertip to another amazing singer, Mathieu Abelli, who dunked the poor shriveled lens into a chalice of water. It was not until we were all safely off-stage that we dissolved into laughter.

After that, I resolved to blink just once, but at the dress rehearsal, the same thing happened again. It became a routine: Lindsay loses contact lens; Thorsten rescues lens from Lindsay’s face; Mathieu rehydrates lens in the nearest stage prop. It was now part of our blocking! But the stage director didn’t like it. So on the night of my first performance… READ MORE

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For the Love of Lieder

Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn’t know much about German Romantic poetry. I did read some Goethe and Heine (because I had excellent high school German teachers) but I didn’t exactly grasp the scope of that literary movement. And I couldn’t have guessed that those poems would change my life. (Mendelssohn portrait from Linda Hines’ blog)

But when I moved to Salzburg to study opera, I discovered that other singers had moved to Salzburg to study Lieder. They wanted to make a career of singing art songs, and they were there to study with the great German pianist, Hartmut Höll.

Professor Höll is an inspiring musician, famous for his recordings with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Mitsuko Shirai and Renee Fleming.  And his music doesn’t sound like anybody else’s.  He has his own sound; his interpretations are always creative and original. The students at the Mozarteum had tremendous respect for him. They only wanted to show him their very best stuff. And to do that, they had to first understand the poems that the great composers had set to music.

Fortunately, poems were thick on the ground in Austria! People were always throwing around names like Eduard Mörike and Hermann von Gilm zu Rosenegg (which is a long name to throw around).  I found that I could absorb a great deal of information just by standing around and eavesdropping on conversations! That’s how I discovered the Heidelberg poets like Brentano, Arnim and Eichendorff.

There is a special pleasure in reading poetry in a second language. It feels mysterious, like cracking a secret code. You have to let the words linger a bit longer in your mouth to catch the full flavor, but it’s worth the wait. I was floored when I first read Nikolaus Lenau’s “Frühlingsblick” out loud. I was so… READ MORE.

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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.   

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!

Chocolate Snails & Skating with Mozart

Well, it’s time to leave Salzburg and head home to California for Christmas…

It’s been a wonderful autumn in Austria! And I finished my last performances yesterday, so I was free to wander through the Christmas Market today.

I also indulged myself by eating a chocolate snail.  No, not a real snail. Die Shokoschnecke is a favorite pastry of mine.

I need to board my plane in just a few short hours, so let me leave you with a quick video clip of kids having fun on the ice skating rink in Mozartplatz. Skating under the shadow of Amadeus!

Vienna, All Dressed Up For Christmas

This week, I decided to splurge on a little pre-Christmas gift for myself: Vienna.

Every now and then, it’s nice to visit a beautiful city even if I’m not performing there that weekend. So I decided to head to the capital, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Imperial City is all ready for the holiday season, with the most elegant display of Christmas lights along its fashionable boulevards.

Sunday evening, I had the pleasure of seeing Verdi’s Nabucco at the Staatsoper.  The Ukrainian-Russian soprano Maria Guleghina was battling a cold that evening, but she still delivered an impressive performance in the role of Abigaille. When I last heard her sing it in Los Angeles, Ms. Guleghina gave an electrifying rendition, pinning people to their seats with a wall of sound. It was pretty exciting.  But this time, she sang with less wildness and more nuance, letting her voice blossom slowly into creamy high notes and chesty low tones.

The next day, I extended my mini-vacation to include the Naturhistorisches Museum.  If you read my posts about Florence, you know that I am a museum lover; in fact, I “visit” certain works of art whenever I’m in Paris (Winged Nike at the Louvre) or London (the Parthenon Frieze at the British Museum) or Rome (Michelangelo’s Pietà in St Peter’s Basilica). I consider these artworks to be my friends.  Since I was in Vienna, I had to drop by and say hello to the famous Venus of Willendorf, an ancient statue in the shape of a fertility goddess.  Some experts believe that this little 5-inch statue is 24,000 years old! So I checked in with Venus, not because I’m interested in fertility this year, but just because she’s that cool. In fact, the Naturhistorisches Museum is full of cool stuff, including amethyst geodes and dinosaur bones. There are a number of fun exhibits for kids, like a “time machine” that documents continental drift.

All in all, I had a marvelous time in Vienna.  It is a glorious city, steeped in culture and art. The Economist recently hailed Vienna as the city with the highest quality of life in the whole world! No one can deny that it is a great place to be. And yet, when I actually lived in Vienna in 2004, I noticed that the city also has a peculiar kind of heaviness to it.  There are so many old traditions that they can actually weigh you down.  All over the city, there are fantastic neo-classical statues in niches and fountains and columns and archways.  Very often, you will find statues of young men and women (and serpents and griffins and mermaids…) supporting the buildings of Vienna on their backs and shoulders and heads.

But if you’re strong enough to carry the weight of an Empire between your shoulder blades, then Vienna makes an unforgettable Christmas present.  🙂

From Austria with Love

In the opening scene of Puccini’s opera La Bohème, we find a couple of starving artists ( a poet and a painter) talking about life and art in their Parisian garret on Christmas Eve. They’re having some trouble paying the bills, so after a witty conversation, they decide to burn the pages of the poet’s latest play in order to keep warm.

Once again, I am living la vie bohème in Salzburg. That doesn’t mean that I’m having trouble with my central heating! But I get to be an artist among artists. I have the privilege of knowing so many talented and creative people in this city.

Here in our cozy Alpine flat, my friends have been hosting a lot of coffee parties, even more than usual. And it’s Christmastime, so we always have candles burning in the window and sweet treats in the kitchen.  We have had honored guests from Stockholm and Vienna, and more local friends, as well.  They all come over to discuss Life and Art over coffee or wine. Most of them are classical musicians, of course, and they tend to quote German poetry and refer to Italian operas in the same conversation, so it always feels like we’re about to burst into song, and sometimes we do.  This week, our coffee table  has become a kind of nexus for artists, where we all discuss and compare our latest creative projects. It feels a little bit like Paris in the ’20s… but for the Facebook Generation.

Of course, Salzburg is much smaller than Paris and I feel the urge to visit a larger city quite soon. Can you guess which one?  (Hint: it’s not Paris.) Stay tuned…

And while you’re pondering that, enjoy this clip from La Bohème:

 

Advent in Salzburg

Christmastime is one of the most beautiful times of the year to be in Austria.

It’s a lovely place in every season, but Salzburg does Advent especially well!  And that’s because, one day in mid-November, the Christmas market suddenly comes to life!

The Salzburger Christkindlmarkt (Salzburg Christmas Market) has been been open since November 17 and will continue until the day after Christmas.   It’s a little kitschy, but it’s fun! You can walk beneath the golden lights humming German Christmas carols. You can buy some hot roasted chestnuts.  You can even sip a mug of hot spiced wine (Glühwein) as you stroll from booth to booth, admiring handcrafted Christmas ornaments, woolen sweaters, Austrian crystal, baked goods, and all kinds of other wonderful Christmas gifts.

Here is a quick video clip of the marketplace tonight. It’s not my very best cinematography, but I think it will give you a sense of the ambiance:

One of the most fun musical traditions is led by Salzburg’s Tower Brass Band (Salzburger Turmbläser). Every Saturday night in Advent, at exactly 6:30 PM, the sky above Residenzplatz fills with music as the band plays Christmas carols from the rooftops.  Imagine hearing a solo trumpet play the first phrase of Silent Night from one church tower, and then being answered from across the square by a quintet of horns and trombones in another tower.  It’s a magical thing.

Now, if you really need to hear some Christmas carols played by an Austrian brass band, and yet you can’t get all the way to Austria, fear not! The city of Graz also has a tower brass band, and you can download the music of the Grazer Turmbläser on iTunes.

No matter where you are in the world tonight, I wish you a very happy Advent season!

that autumn feeling

Autumn has arrived in Salzburg. You cannot walk through Mirabell Garden without hearing the crunch of red and gold leaves underfoot!

I keep thinking about my favorite fall poems, the ones in English by Donne and Dickinson, and the ones in German by Rilke and Trakl.

And then there are the ageless songs of autumn, like September and Im Herbst … and Autumn in New York.  😉

Since I was once a college student here in Salzburg, that music always reminds me of past autumns in Austria. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to separate the memories from the music. In her wonderful book, The Inner Voice, Renée Fleming describes this phenomenon: “I have lived a life with a soundtrack. So many of my memories have music attached to them.”

And I know just what she means. I would take it even one step further.  Not only do my memories contain a soundtrack, but certain playlists seem to contain my memories!  When I hear a song that I love, I often remember where I was when I first heard it, and what was happening in my life at the time. It feels like my own story is written into the harmony.

The most vivid memories come from arias that I have studied or performed.  After all, learning a piece of music is a very personal experience, and hearing the music again reminds me of that experience – I can usually remember singing the piece for the very first time. I remember the people who were there, and what was happening, and what was said. When you live so closely with music, listening to a song can be like re-reading your own diary.

It’s a little dangerous to live this way, with some of your most personal feelings tied up in standard repertoire.  It means that you can walk into any concert hall and get knocked off your feet by a couple of measures of music. A well-placed chord is a powerful thing, and a single arpeggio can reduce me to tears. The pianist finishes some rich, luxuriant passage and I want to say: “You had me at the G minor sixth chord.”

Oh, the nostalgia. Of course, autumn isn’t just about memories.  There is always fresh new music to sing! And there is much to be excited about this fall. May audition season begin!