Outdoor Opera

Opera doesn’t only happen in opera houses.

Don’t get me wrong — I love opera houses.  When I lived in Italy, I embarked upon my own personal “Opera House Tour,” visiting famous opera houses from Milan to Palermo. I have nothing against sweeping staircases, painted ceilings, gilded ornamentation, glittering chandeliers and plush velvet seats. The acoustics in many opera houses are wonderful. And there is a special joy in singing to a house full of opera lovers!

But opera is a thriving and dynamic art form; it cannot be contained! People are singing opera everywhere these days: on lakes, in parking garages, and in Swedish living rooms. Travis Pratt even sings Rossini in elevators.

Personally, I love to sing outdoors. Some of my favorite concerts have been outside: on a Hawaiian beach, in a friend’s backyard, in the middle of the Sequoia National Forest, and in the courtyard of an ancient museum in Nepal.  I occasionally sing while kayaking and parasailing.

For me, there is something thrilling about singing to the ocean.  Last week, I went beach camping with my family near Santa Barbara.  It was a wonderful vacation, but I didn’t really have anywhere to sing.  So one afternoon, I hiked up on a a little cliff and sang Gershwin to the sea: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…” It felt great to sing in the open air.  And at the end of my aria, I was rewarded with applause from the beach below! My audience consisted of 1 snorkeler, 2 kayakers,  a few hikers, and several seagulls.  Spontaneous concerts can be fun.

Opera is everywhere. 🙂

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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

Conduct Yourself Like an Orchestra

If your life were a symphony, what would it sound like?

Imagine that you have your own invisible orchestra.  It follows you wherever you go, creating a symphonic soundtrack for your life. Which instruments accompany you as you walk down the street, complete a task, or talk to a friend?  (Orchestra map courtesy of BillieSilvey.com)

Everyone has a favorite instrument.  Before I studied opera, I played the saxophone in my high school jazz band. My sister plays the Celtic harp. My mother loves the sound of the violin.  I once had a dog who liked classical piano: he would snuggle up to the stereo speakers whenever a Chopin sonata came on the radio! Which instruments would you choose to play the music of your life?

Opera singers imitate orchestral sounds in the same way that instrumentalists try to capture the sound of the human voice.  Some vocal music is very instrumental in style. When I sing a coloratura passage, I deliberately use my voice like a flute or a clarinet. But my voice also has a brassy shine, which is why I love to sing with trumpets, French horns and trombones!

I once got to sing the soprano solo in Mahler’s fourth symphony with the Mozarteum University Symphony Orchestra. Standing on that stage was like riding a wave of sound, with rich colors and textures swirling all around me. It’s a wonderful feeling to float high above the orchestra and then dive down into all that sumptuous sound. Gustav Mahler, of course, was a legendary composer and a brilliant conductor; he knew how to write music for every instrument, including the voice, and his orchestration was perfect.

I would love to conduct my life the way Mahler conducted his orchestra. I’d like my Friday afternoon to have the power and beauty of the Resurrection Symphony! But unlike Gustav, I am NOT a genius when it comes to instrumentation.

Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, I suddenly realize that I’m using way too much percussion. (Has that ever happened to you? You suddenly notice that you’re intimidating someone, just by being overly enthusiastic?) If I hear myself getting too intense, I cut the bass drum and cue the violins. If I’m complaining too much, I reduce the volume of my oboe. And if I’m getting shrill like an overblown flute, I give the solo line to the cello instead.  But if I find myself hiding in the back of the pit, avoiding what needs to be done, then I add back the brass.  It’s a good way to keep life in balance.

So if you’re feeling uncomfortable today, see if you can adjust your instrumentation. Be aware of your harmonic impact on other people. Aim for a rich and satisfying blend, what Lisa DuBois calls “the treble and bass of a balanced life.”  Orchestrate your to-do list and conduct your conversations.  Live a symphonic life!

Finding Your Own Tempo

What’s your tempo?

How fast are you moving today? How fast are you thinking? Are you in andante?  Allegro?  Molto agitato?

What are your tempo plans for this weekend? Are you hoping for a slow, luxurious adagio? Or something more exciting? Molto vivace?

When I lived in Italy, I found that my personal tempo was too fast for my neighborhood.  As an ambitious young opera singer, I would fly down the street, chasing after my professional goals. My neighbors would gaze at me in amusement. My speed was fine for the center of town, with the busy tourists and zooming motorbikes, but it didn’t match the slower pace of residential life.  In my piazza, people liked to drive quickly, but they preferred to live slowly.

But I was always bursting with energy.  I didn’t want to walk slowly, and I didn’t need a break after lunch. I didn’t want to wait in the long queue at the post office. I was even aggravated by my own voice, which was growing (slowly, leisurely, even languidly) into a more dramatic repertoire.

In my frustration, I went to consult with the great singing teacher, Maestro Sergio Bertocchi. “Why am I not developing more quickly?” I asked him. “Hai fretta,” he said simply. (You’re in a hurry.)  “The voice doesn’t like to be rushed. Never try to learn anything in a hurry. It will only slow you down.”  

Patience is a hard lesson to learn. (I have to keep learning it, over and over again, but I suppose that’s the nature of the lesson…) I must have slowed down a little bit, though, because when I returned to the United States, I was shocked by how fast everyone was going!

When I visited American universities, I was sad to see that so many young voice majors were stressed out!  They were rushing from class to class, juggling double majors, squeezing coachings in between after-school jobs.  They were so busy, and I wondered if they had enough time to practice.

To be a good musician, you need to have time to practice. It’s not just about learning the music.  It’s about forging your own identity as an artist.  You need to spend many hours in a quiet place, away from the noise and the bustle, so that you can hear your own music. You need to spend time in your own “artistic space.”

When I was an undergraduate in Salzburg, I spent many long Saturdays in the practice room. I would sing for hours and hours. And when I was too tired to sing, I would sit down and think about singing. My best friends were the other singers (and pianists) who were crazy enough to spend their weekends at school!  We listened to music, and we talked about music. We had time for music.

Of course, you can’t be a student forever.  These days, there are more demands on my time. But whenever I hear myself telling someone that I’m “too busy,” or that “I don’t have time,” I try to slow down and reset my inner metronome.

Life is like music, and it helps to be aware of your own rhythm. Listen for the beat. Does it match the music you want to hear? If not, you might want to adjust your tempo.

Upcoming Concert in L.A.!

Please join me on Sunday, May 13th at 4 PM at the First Presbyterian Church of San Pedro for a springtime concert.

There will be some fun surprises, including special guests and exciting music. It’s Mother’s Day, so treat your mom to something special, a bouquet of MUSIC AND ROSES!!!

Our festival of spring will include a wide variety of songs, arias, opera scenes and concert pieces. Works by Puccini, Verdi, Schubert, Bartok and more! At the piano, you’ll experience the award-winning Romanian pianist Bogdan Dulu!

Don’t miss this! Meet us on Sunday, May 13 at 4 PM at:

First Presbyterian Church of San Pedro, 731 S. Averill Avenue, San Pedro, California. Admission is free. Donations will benefit the church music program.

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.

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!

The Fear of Flying Cellos

Life just got a little easier for traveling musicians.

Last month, the U.S. Congress passed a law that musical instruments qualify as carry-on luggage, and that musicians may purchase a seat for oversized instruments (such as cellos). See the full text of the law here.

Until now, each airline has determined its own policy.  But this leads to unnecessary stress and confusion before take-off.

As a singer, I don’t usually have to deal with this.  My instrument fits neatly in my throat!

Cello photo by Miroquartet

But on my way to Nepal in 2009, I panicked when I realized I would need to transport a flute, a clarinet, and a viola on an airplane.  These instruments had been donated to the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory as part of the Kathmandu Music for Peace Festival, and I was responsible for them. I was terrified I’d have to put them in cargo.

My mother, who was traveling with me, threatened to wrap the viola in a baby blanket and carry it to Nepal on her lap.  She planned to tell the attendants that her baby was named Viola Feldmeth!  (That might have worked. My mom is very persuasive.) But fortunately, Thai Airways had no problem with our viola, and it arrived in Kathmandu in one piece.

The Canadian violist Paul Casey was not so lucky.  On a fateful flight in 2006, he was forced to check his $14,000 viola.  When he retrieved it at baggage claim, it had been crushed to pieces.

I recently heard a horror story about a cellist who purchased an additional seat for his instrument. It was very expensive, but at least he had the peace of mind of knowing it would be flying next to him. Then, as soon as he had strapped the cello into its chair, the airline attendant rudely told him to remove it. Shocked, the man tried to argue, until the pilot got involved. They finally forced him to put his cello in a closet.

Which makes you wonder, “why are people afraid of cellos on planes?”  Is this some kind of cellophobia (fear of flying cellos)? I mean, what’s a cello going to do at 30,000 feet? Pop a string?

Anyway, this type of thing won’t happen again.  Violists are now allowed to bring their violas aboard. And cellists have the freedom to spend a lot of money on a second seat. These are small victories, my friends, but important ones!

By the way, I think I’m going to produce an airplane movie. It will be a sequel to that horror flick, “Snakes on a Plane.”  I’m going to call it, “Cellos on a Plane.”