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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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.

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.

Florence for Beginners: Part III (Music, Books & Food)

How to eat, drink and be merry in Florence

So you’ve been to all of the museums and parks and now you’re thinking: where can I get something to eat around here?  Well, you’ve come to the right country. There are many culinary pleasures here.

Very often in Italy, I find that the food gets better the further you get from the city center.  The center of Florence is a touristy area and restaurants cater to an international clientele.  You will find that the food is less authentically Italian and also far more expensive than it should be. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get good food in the center of town.  Here are a few of my favorites:

FOOD

Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco Borgo Sant’Iacopo 43r, Florence

Good traditional Florentine cuisine.

Trattoria Mamma Gina Borgo San Iacopo, 37, Florence
I like the lasagne and the desserts.

Moyo Via de Benci 23/R
If you’re looking for a big fresh salad, this is your place.

Taverna Divina Comedia Via Cimatori 7r
This café is based on the works of Dante. Very funny. I prefer the Purgatory Pizza.

ICE CREAM

You shouldn’t have trouble finding wonderful gelato in Florence. It’s everywhere. But if you’re in search of the very best ice cream, try:

Vivoli Piero Il Gelato Via Isola Delle Stinche, 7/R – near Santa Croce
–quite possibly the best gelato in Florence. Certainly the most interesting flavors. But always crowded!

runners up:

Gelateria Carabe’ Antonio Via Ricasoli, 60 – near the Duomo

La Bottega Del Gelato  Via Por S. Maria, 33/R. – near the Ponte Vecchio

So now you’ve had lunch but you also need something to read? Never fear:

BOOKS
I include bookshops for two reasons: 1) bookshops are cool and 2) bookshops have public restrooms.

Paperback Exchange (near the Duomo) – Via delle Oche, 4R

English books and good service

Feltrinelli International
Via Cavour 12-20/r (near San Marco)

Libreria Edison
Piazza della Repubblica 5

So you’ve picked up an Italian phrase book and some British paperback novel, and now you’re looking for some ear candy.  I can help:

MUSIC

Florence is the birthplace of opera.  It was a group of poets, musicians and thinkers called the Camerata who invented the art form in the late 1500s. And 400 years later, it’s still a great place to see a show!

This site gives you a bit of the history of the different theaters, as well as the famous opera festival, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

When I lived in Florence, I sang with Concerto Classico.  The company performs at St. Mark’s Anglican Church (Via Maggio 18), just steps away from the Ponte alle Grazie. Easy to overlook from the outside, the building houses an ornate and hauntingly beautiful chapel. The church is part of an old Medici Palace that was once owned by Machiavelli and later renovated in the neo-renaissance style. Concerto Classico offers classical concerts and full-length operas. You can get up-to-the minute information here.

Florence for Beginners: Part II (Museums & Churches)

Want to enjoy some sacred sounds? Open this LINK in a separate tab and then come right back, so that you can listen to a little Rossini as you read…

#1. DUOMO (Cathedral) and BATTISTERO (baptistery does not open until 12 PM)

Now here is a cathedral with a huge amount of floor space! I would like to sing in there someday. I’ve performed in several Florentine churches, but alas, not yet in the Duomo.

The massive dome was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and it can be seen for miles around. But I’m more entranced by the exterior façade of sparkling polychrome marble panels in shades of green and pink bordered by white. It’s hard to describe just how cool it is, but when you see it for the first time, you may be tempted to spend all day just watching the Duomo’s façade change colors in the sunlight.

There is also a bell tower (Campanile) with a breathtaking view. I love it up there. But to access the tower, you have to be able to climb a lot of stairs while squeezed between other tourists. If that makes you queasy, stay below and take pictures.

The Bapistery’s golden doors have been grabbing headlines since 1401 when Lorenzo Ghiberti submitted them as his entry in a competition. (He won.)  Don’t you wish we still had competitions for “best bronze doors?” That might liven things up in downtown Fresno, for example.  Anyway, Ghiberti’s doors were so popular that he added another set of doors featuring imagery from the Old Testament. A younger Florentine artist called Michelangelo dubbed these the “Gates of Paradise” … and the name stuck.

Inside the Baptistery, you’ll find my favorite mosaic ceiling in the whole world. It’s hard to take your eyes off of the mesmerizing image of Christ.  But there are other surprising details to enjoy, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with their laps full of children (on the bottom panel beneath Christ’s right hand)!

#2. THE UFFIZI MUSEUM  is a must-see for any art-lover! I had a club membership to the Uffizi when I lived in Florence, so that I could focus on a different room every day. But if you don’t have several weeks to enjoy the Uffizi, you’ll want to order your tickets ahead of time. You will be assigned a specific time to see the museum; it’s better to request an early arrival (9:30 or 10 AM) to avoid the crowds. I have used this website: Weekend a Firenze.

There is an additional handling fee for this service, but it is more than worth the money. So many people freak out when they see the line of tourists standing outside the Uffizi; in their panic, they miss what could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the Birth of Venus and the Sacra Famiglia in person. There will be a throng of restless people who have been waiting outside the museum since dawn, but you can squeeze past them and use your confirmation number to pick up your pre-ordered tickets at the glass counter.

The gift shops are on the first floor and the museum is on the second floor. (There is a mezzanine floor with sketches, but most people skip it.) Most tourists take the stairs, but you can ask for the elevator. There are 45 rooms in the Uffizi, so be sure to take lots of breaks, and don’t worry about skipping some rooms if you’re tired. It’s impossible to memorize the entire museum in one day, and you’ll have a happier experience if you spend 20 minutes resting on the benches in the Botticelli room, trying to decide which of his paintings is more perfect, Primavera or The Madonna of the Magnificat?

The Uffizi Cafe has a great view of the Palazzo Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria. The prices for coffee and cake are exhorbitant, but again, it’s worth the money. The museum is shaped like a U and tourists usually move in the same direction, so that the cafe is at the VERY END OF THE TRACK before you go back downstairs. Don’t wait until the end, especially if you are traveling with younger art lovers, because the kids will need sustenance! When you are getting drenched in Italian art, you need some fluffy cake to absorb all that genius. So after you have seen the first half of the museum (medieval stuff, Botticelli, Da Vinci, etc.), skip ahead to the cafe and take a break; then you’ll all be refreshed enough to enjoy the second half of the museum (Michelangelo, Rafael, Tintoretto, etc.)

#3. THE CHURCH OF SANTA CROCE

The Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross) is the principal Franciscan church in Florence. You will find some amazing works of art there, both inside the church and in its adjoining cloisters.

You have to buy a ticket to get inside, but Santa Croce is still a true place of worship. It is also the burial place of some famous guys like Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Rossini. I attended St James Episcopal when I lived in Florence, but whenever I went to mass at Santa Croce, I would always sit “next to Rossini” in church, by choosing the pew next to his memorial.

If you’re not so interested in all the art and you simply need a good place to pray, just whisper “per preghiere” to one of the guards at the side door and he will show you a peaceful side chapel with candles. You cannot access the rest of the church from here. But in the middle of all of Florence’s noise, this is one place where you can just be still for a minute.

#4. PALAZZO PITTI

The Pitti Palace is a vast mainly Renaissance palace in Florence, situated on the south side of the Arno, a short distance from the Ponte Vecchio. It is a treasure house as various generations amassed paintings, silver, porcelain, jewelery and other luxurious stuff.

This is a good place for families because you can split up into 3 groups: 1) museum group 2) group that sits in the sunshine, eating ice cream in front of the palace 3) group that wanders through the gardens.

Kids usually enjoy the Boboli Gardens (attached to the Palace with a separate ticket fee), because they can run around on the little garden trails and in the big amphitheater.  Adults like it because they can take photos that make all their friends jealous when they upload them to Facebook – there are some amazing backdrops here.

#5. THE ACCADEMIA

This is where you can find Michelangelo’s famous statue of  David. (You will see copies of him in other places in Florence, but he looks even better inside.) But David is not alone in there. Going to the Accademia gives you a chance to meet some of Michelangelo’s unfinished statues, which are also very powerful. Once again, you will want to buy your tickets ahead of time to avoid the long line!

6. MUSEO SAN MARCO

If you’re into late medieval scandals (and who isn’t?), this where Girlamo Savonarola (the Dominican mystic & political reformer) ran his monastery. Each monk’s cell features a different fresco by Fra Angelico.

Other favorite churches & museums (if you have time) include:

7. Medici Chapels
8. Medici Riccardi Palace
9. Palazzo Vecchio
10. Church of Santa Maria Novella
11. Chapel Brancacci – try to catch the film about 15th century Florence
12. Bargello National Museum
13. Museum of History and Science
14. Dante Museum

…and many, many more!

Florence for Beginners: Part I (parks & piazzas)

I lived in Florence for almost 2 years, I am often asked for tips.  And I thought it would be fun to share those with all of you. So here’s the first installment of Lindsay’s Guide to Florence.

I recommend that you open this LINK in a separate tab and then return immediately to this page, so that you can listen to Puccini while you read this post.

Piazza della Signoria  used to be the political center of medieval Florence, and it’s my favorite piazza in the whole city. It is especially beautiful early in the morning (when it’s quiet and bright) or late in the afternoon (when the sunlight makes shadows on the old Palazzo Vecchio.) There is a great fountain featuring a very cranky-looking statue of Neptune and some long-necked nymphs. The Uffizi is on the south side, towards the Arno River. The Piazza is dominated by the Loggia dei Lanzi, with a Gothic roof that covers 15 statues (including Perseus holding up the head of the Medusa, which is fun.) If it’s a hot day, you can climb up into the loggia and sit in the shade next to some beautiful statues, although there are strict policemen who will keep you from eating anything in there. (The Uffizi Café is on the roof of the Loggia but is only accessible from the museum). Theoretically, someone could toss down a piece of very expensive cake for you to eat inside the loggia, but it would probably be intercepted by one of the aforementioned policemen, so be good and don’t eat near the art.

Piazza della Repubblica was once the city’s forum, and then the city’s marketplace. Now, it’s a good place to find a post office or a bookstore! There’s a carousel in the center of the square, which is fun for kids. The Giubbe Rosse cafe has been a meeting place for famous artists and writers, and the square still has a bohemian feeling at night. There are often musicians busking in this piazza and aspiring artists making impressive chalk drawings on the ground.

Piazza Santa Croce is another lovely square facing the church of Santa Croce. Note the big statue of Dante outside the church, if it’s not still under scaffolding. I used to meet my friends next to the statue’s pedastal, just so that we could say, “Let’s meet at the foot of Dante.”  But this once backfired on me – when I arrived at Dante, the square was full of protesters.  Not the best meeting place, after all, if the Florentines happen to be on strike.

The Piazzale Michelangelo overlooks one of the most famous cityscapes in the world. Sometimes, brides and grooms will stop here to have their picture taken in front of the Florentine skyline. There is also a café nearby with good banana splits! But the walk up the hill is a steep one – try to find a bus unless you want some real exercise.

Piazza Santo Spirito was once an open-air theatre for the monks to preach, but it’s been used more recently for rock concerts and flea markets. It’s the “hip” part of the city, full of pubs and parties on a Saturday night. As I recall, part of the church dates back to the 14th Century. I used to sit on the steps of that church with my friends – we formed a group called the Zanzara Artists Network that is still making beautiful art today.

Piazza Santa Maria Novella is near the train station, just outside the Church of Santa Maria Novella. There are some lovely benches near a fountain. Beware of hungry pigeons.

PARKS & GARDENS

There is a lovely green park on the north side of the Arno, up by the Ponte San Niccolo. It’s very romantic. One sun-drenched Italian afternoon, a young man proposed marriage to me in that park. (I said no. Mostly because I’d only just met him. But parks can be very romantic.)

List of great gardens open to the public in and around Florence:

1. Boboli Garden (my favorite, great labyrinthine place behind the Palazzo Pitti with good views of the city)

2. Botanical Gardens
3. The Garden of Palazzo Medici Riccardi
4. Giardino dell’Orticultura
5. The Garden at Villa della Petraia
6. The Garden at Villa di Castello

SAFETY TIPS: While walking around Florence, be aware that street vendors and poll takers will approach you on the street and ask you for money/food/signatures, etc., in a variety of languages. Be friendly but firm, and don’t let them harass you. If you are in a crowded area, stop making eye contact and stare at people’s hands – the pickpockets will try to distract you, but it’s very hard for them to steal without using their hands! When crossing the street, listen for vespas (motorcycles) that are speeding around the city at record speeds – you will hear them before you see them. And if all that motorbike noise is irritating you, seek refuge in a restaurant or a park.