Bicentennial Bliss (why 2013 is going to be awesome)

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Happy New Year, my globetrotting operatic friends!

This year, the music world will celebrate the 200th birthdays of both Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi.

What a year for opera!

(Image courtesy of The Wagnerian, a fantastic site for Wagner fans.)

If you’d like to see Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 2013, there is a production for every month of year, so you can decide whether you’d like to see it in Darmstadt, Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin, Karlsruhe, New York, Vienna, Hamburg, Sofia, Paris, Seattle or Melbourne!

If you’re in New York, you can catch five sumptuous Verdi operas at the Met this season: Don Carlo, Otello, Rigoletto, La Traviata and Il Trovatore!

And if you’re here in Los Angeles, you’ve probably already seen Verdi’s I Due Foscari, and now it’s time to book your tickets for Wagner’s Flying Dutchman at LA Opera.  If you like big-opera-on-a-small-budget, check out San Pedro Opera; the season begins with Cavalleria Rusticana (it’s Pietro Mascagni’s 150th birthday, too) but the word on the street is that SPO will have some Wagner and Verdi galas later this year.

Of course, there is one MORE reason why 2013 is going to be awesome, and that’s because it’s the first year of the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival in Botswana! If you’re planning to be in Southern Africa in April, stop by Gaborone to hear us. We’ll sing some scenes from Wagner and Verdi operas, among others.

Wherever you find yourself this year, be sure to stroll past the local opera house to see what’s going on.  You might just catch Aida in St Petersburg, Un Ballo in Maschera in Buenos Aires, or Tannhäuser in Tokyo! It’s going to be a great year.

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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.

Full post at www.icadenza.com

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.

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!

The Flying Medicine Cabinet

Because I’m a singer, I am often asked how to get rid of a cold.

My personal remedy is very simple: SLEEP!  9 times out of 10, I can fight off a cold virus by taking a nap.

But when sleep doesn’t work, I do have some favorite products.  And since I’m a frequent flyer, I travel with my own personal pharmacy.

Some singers hoard antibiotics.  This is generally a bad idea. Always consult a doctor before indulging in the meds that end in -cillin and -mycin!

But what do you do if you get a toothache on the day before an important audition in Germany? Two weeks ago, I was preparing an audition when the left part of my jaw started to ache. An impacted wisdom tooth had chosen this particular day to get infected.

So I did what anyone would do: I sent a panicked text message my dentist in Pasadena!   He texted me a prescription for Amoxicillin.  (Hooray for technology!) When I got to the local Apotheke (apothecary), I simply handed my iPhone to the pharmacist.  She squinted at the screen and asked me in German, “Is this from a real doctor?”  I was able to demonstrate my dentist’s credentials, so I got my meds. The next day, I went to my audition happy and pain-free.

Of course, it helps that I speak German. I do not speak Russian (except for phonetically, which doesn’t help in a medical emergency). When my father broke his foot in St. Petersburg in 2007, I couldn’t find the word for “ace bandage” in my pocket dictionary. So I went to the pharmacy and mimed wrapping my leg with strips of gauze. Judging by the Russian pharmacist’s reaction, it was a very entertaining performance. He was giggling uncontrollably as he went to find the bandage. But that’s another story for another blog post…

Back to business. Here is my list of favorite cold remedies:

1. Tantum Verde (one of my all-time favorites, which I discovered at a farmacia in Rome)

2. Grapefruit Seed extract (don’t ask me why it works. It’s probably a placebo. I don’t care.)

3. Sudafed (not as good as Actifed, but it will do)

4. The neti pot (if you can handle it)

5. Foods with garlic. (Seriously.)

6. SLEEP!!! and lots of tea

7. Afrin sinus

8. Zinc lozenges

If you know another product that works for you, please tell me about it in the comments section!  I’m actually very healthy, so I haven’t had a chance to sample many things! But I’m constantly asked about these products, so I like to be well informed.

Some singers also take beta blockers to deal with nerves.  I have never done this because I don’t like to play around with my biochemistry.  Avoid the powerful drugs, people!  They can affect your voice. They can affect your life. Just say no.

In the world of pharmacology, a little goes a long way. I will never forget how helpful it was to have Imodium when I landed in Kathmandu and discovered that I was allergic to yak’s milk (yaktose intolerant?).  Or the herbs that I drank when I had an unexplained fever in Tokyo. These were just simple over the counter remedies, but they made it possible for me to get onstage and sing all my concerts.

Here’s a link to a funny little video about opera singers and hypochondria. Stay healthy!

A Soprano in Bayreuth (an epic tale)

It was a dark and stormy night.

I couldn’t see anything out my window as the train chugged along. And because there are no fast trains to Bayreuth, I was traveling at about the same speed that Richard Wagner did back in 1870s. 

As a Wagnerian soprano, I was pretty excited about seeing Bayreuth for the first time. This is the town that hosts the famous annual Wagner Festival.  And it’s the place where Wagner himself spent the last decade of his exciting and highly controversial life.

Wagner’s music set the world on fire, and I just couldn’t wait to see the place where so much music history had happened. But when I arrived, it was too late to go exploring. I checked into the Golden Lion hotel and fell into a deep jetlagged sleep, with visions of flying Dutchmen in my head.

By the time I woke up, snow was falling softly on the picturesque Bavarian streets. So I put on my hat and gloves and hit the cobblestone road. But Bayreuth is very quiet on snowy Saturday mornings! It was several minutes before I saw another human (of course, I did see three Norns, a couple of valkyries and a talking bird… Just kidding. Wagnerian humor.)

The snowflakes didn’t stick to the ground, but I could hear the crunch of frozen leaves under my feet as I walked around the Hofgarten. First, I went to the Franz Liszt Museum (the great Hungarian composer was also Wagner’s father-in-law), where I studied handwritten manuscripts of Liszt’s compositions (!) and stood quietly in the room where he spent his final hours. And then I visited Wahnfried, the historic Wagner family villa, although the house itself is being refurbished and will remain closed until 2013.

Finally, I arrived at the Festspielhaus, the opera house that Wagner built to his own specifications in 1876. This is the site of the famous summer opera festival, the Bayreuther Festspiele.  I walked the length and width of the enormous stage and tested the hall’s spectacular accoustics. I would dearly love to spend more time on that stage.

But you don’t have to sing at the Festspielhaus to experience Richard Wagner in Bayreuth. The town is peppered with subtle references to his operas. Need directions to the station? Take a right on Meistersinger Street. Want to go to the festival? Meet me on the corner of Nibelungen and Tristan! If you want to relax, you can enjoy the local spa: Lohengrin Thermal Baths. (I wonder if they have any swans there?) And if all this talk of opera is giving you a headache, just get some aspirin at the Tannhäuser Pharmacy!

Nevertheless, this city is not just about Richard Wagner.  As I walked around the Old Town today, I started to get a vision for what Bayreuth had been like before its most famous (and somewhat infamous) resident arrived.  There is a beautiful 18th century castle as well as several charming Baroque churches. Best of all, there’s another opera house! The Markgräfliches Opernhaus is a breathtaking example of German Rococo.

But at the end of my magical weekend in Bayreuth, it still seemed like I had forgotten something. So I went through my mental checklist one more time: Festspielhaus, Baroque opera house, castle, Liszt Museum, Wahnfried… but I didn’t slay any dragons, marry any mysterious knights, or steal any golden rings.   I didn’t even immolate!  I guess it doesn’t matter.  After all, you should always leave something for your second visit to Bayreuth…

I’ll take Passau in gold, please

Yesterday, my musical adventures took me to Passau, a charming German town near the Austrian border.

Since my itinerary is dictated by my audition and performance schedule, I was delighted to spend my Monday in such a pretty place. Passau is in a very lush corner of Bavaria, and it’s known as the “Three-River City” because it is built at the place where the Ilz and the Inn Rivers flow into the Danube.

I was there to sing some Strauss. But as soon as I finished singing, I strolled over to Passau’s splendid Baroque cathedral.  Cathedral-hopping is one of my hobbies, anyway, but I was especially excited to visit St Stephan’s because it boasts the largest cathedral organ in the world. Happy happy joy joy! 🙂  

I love Baroque ornamentation, in music and in architecture.  I realize that some people cringe when they see too much gold.  You know the type — people with exquisite taste, who talk about “simple elegance” all the time? Yeah, I feel sorry for them. Personally, I like gold.  I like the sparkle of it. I understand that “not all that glitters is gold,” but when it actually is gold, I say, “relax and enjoy the glitter!” Especially if it’s in a big public space like a cathedral, where everyone can revel in it. As an opera singer, I spend a lot of my time in the 18th century, so I have no trouble with gilding. I live by the motto: when in doubt, gild it.  I don’t mind a plethora of cherubs and painted ceilings, sculpted marble and mirrored chandeliers. I might not put them in my living room, but I like to see them in church. To me, these are all signs of cheerful abundance, so my visit to Passau put me in the perfect mood for Thanksgiving week.

Traveling Diva’s Recommendations for Passau

* ACHAT Comfort Hotel– an affordable hotel that features a fitness room, sauna, jacuzzi and high speed Internet! They are opening a new hotel Budapest and I will definitely consider it for my next trip to Hungary.

* Stadtgalerie – a centrally located shopping mall (pictured here in full Christmas décor!) where one can spend a couple of happy hours in between auditions.

* Cafe Stephan’s Dom – serves an excellent potato-pumpkin strudel on a bed of apple kraut.  However, caveat emptor: it can leave you with “cabbage breath,” a rare Teutonic condition cured only by copious amounts of peppermint. 😉

An Afternoon of Opera, Cathedrals & Bratwurst

More adventures in Munich…

I had an audition in Munich today, so I hopped across the border to Germany with another Bayern-Ticket.

My audition was right in the heart of Munich’s Old Town, not far from the famous Frauenkirche (Dom zu unserer lieben Frau, “Cathedral of Our Dear Lady”). So when I finished singing, I decided to stop by the church for a visit.  The Gothic brick facade and the Byzantine domed towers are just so inviting!

I’m a big fan of European cathedrals, so I spent an hour wandering up and down the expansive nave, peaking into candlelit chapels, and admiring medieval artwork.  A beautiful way to spend an afternoon.

As I was leaving, I was amused to learn that the Frauenkirche now has its own iPhone app! For €3.99, it gives you all kinds of details about the art inside the cathedral; in fact, iTunes offers this “artguide” for several important German churches.  I was tempted to download it, but I had a train to catch.

When I finally arrived back at the Hauptbahnhof, I realized that I had forgotten to eat lunch. Sometimes, after singing German opera, I crave protein. (As opposed to after singing Italian opera, when I find myself ordering gnocchi.) Instead of sitting down at a restaurant, I stopped at a German sausage stand. After all, Munich is known for its excellent bratwurst.

In general, the sausage is served along with a Kaiser roll and a blob of spicy mustard on a tiny paper plate.  But this time, it came without the plate.  My bratwurst was perched on a thin paper napkin.

Balancing a sausage on a napkin can be a little awkward, especially if you are wearing something nice … like an audition outfit. I know that we live in a world where billionaires wear jeans to work. But in opera, even starving artists try to dress beautifully. We represent an elegant art form where taste and style are part of the job description. So spilling mustard on your dress is really frowned upon!

Fortunately,  I avoided catastrophe with nothing more serious than a few crumbs of Kaiser roll on the sleeve of my coat;  I tried to brush them off with dignity. And I still managed to catch my train.  So it was a good day, after all. Tschüß!

the Frozen Glockenspiel

an Austro-Bavarian tale of food, friends and figurines

Today, I caught up with my friend Mirva Lempiäinen, a very talented globe-trotting journalist. We met up for lunch in Munich, Germany.

As we pushed open the heavy door to the Augustinerbräu, we inhaled the unmistakable aroma of malted wheat. There were lanterns beneath the vaulted ceilings and deer antlers on the white-washed walls.  It’s a very traditional Bavarian beer hall, and the food is delicious, even if you don’t plan to imbibe.  Mirva and I sat down on a long wooden bench and munched on doughy pretzels; we hadn’t seen each other for a couple of years, so we traded our latest travel stories from Bucharest and Zürich, Havana and Kathmandu.

After lunch, I attempted to show Mirva the famous Rathaus-Glockenspiel.   We jogged towards Marienplatz to catch a glimpse of the clockwork statues doing the “Dance of the Coopers.” Unfortunately, I completely forgot that the Glockenspiel only comes to life at 11 AM and 12 PM.  So when we finally emerged from within a throng of German tourists at 1:04 PM, we saw… nothing much.  There were no chimes and the life-size figurines were frozen in time. But this is what it should have looked and sounded like:

 

The Glockenspiel is neither an amazing feat of technology nor the very height of culture, but – come on – it’s cute!

My whole trip to Munich was made possible by a wonderful little invention called the “Bayern-Ticket,” which enables me to travel anywhere in Bavaria (and certain parts of Austria) for just € 21.  It is valid on the train and it even allows me to use the public transportation in Munich while I’m there.  This is smart marketing because it encourages day trips!

In the evening, when I got back to my flat in Salzburg, I found a house-full of people there! I got to spend time with some good friends I hadn’t seen in years, and we chatted about opera while eating Gugelhupf by candlelight. I have to admit: it’s a wonderful life.