One good thing about getting older….

I can now sing the repertoire that caused people to say, “Ms. Thomas, why are you singing this aria?” back in my 20s.

I’ve started working with Connie Haas – I had a couple of lessons with her before she went to teach at Eastman a few years ago but by the time I could afford to have lessons on a regular basis again, she’d started teaching in Rochester. Now she’s back, and I want to get back on the “someone listen to me” train again.

It’s going well – she speaks in the same kind of language I speak in to my students, and it cracks me up when she’ll say “Does that make sense to you?” because I say that all the time, usually after I’ve made some bizarro request to my student that they then manage to execute with the exact outcome I wanted.

So we’ve decided to work on some heavier mezzo rep, and for the last two days I’ve sat down and sung through “O mio Fernando” and “Stride la vampa” (!!!) and man, does that feel good.

Sometimes aging doesn’t suck.

What the Skylight means to me

Last week, Skylight Opera Theater announced the elimination of its artistic director and company manager positions, and consequently, the termination of the two people filling those positions, Bill Theisen and Diana Alioto. I have worked with both Bill and Diana – Bill in the 80s, when we were both in the Skylight’s Gilbert & Sullivan choruses, and Diana when I sang Pilar in Rosina in 2001 and Dottie in Viva La Mamma in 2003. And later in the week, they also fired the music director, Jamie Johns, who is probably the best musician in the city – no, the region.

Although I haven’t done anything with Skylight since 2003, its place in my heart and in my history has never diminished. It’s the Skylight that set me on the right track as a performer.

After college, I studied with Judith Erickson for a couple of years. During that time, she suggested that I audition for the Skylight. I hadn’t heard of the company – my very sheltered Sout‘ side upbringing and Alverno education had limited me quite a bit (when your parents don’t let you go east of 27th Street, you don’t do much). I was really only familiar with the Florentine Opera, with whom I was singing chorus. So Judy gave me comps to see A little night music, which was being performed in Wehr Hall. I loved it and wanted to audition – so Judy set something up. (Judy was not the teacher who gave me the wrong rep, as referred to in an earlier post.)

I auditioned for Colin Cabot and Donald St. Pierre – I had no idea that this was a big deal audition, so I wasn’t particularly nervous. I sang “Una voce poco fa” and “Memory” (back in the days when “Memory” was a viable audition piece) and at the end of the audition, Colin said, “Christine, did Judy misrepresent you?” and I said, “I… I don’t know… what do you mean?” And he said, “Well, she said you just wanted to be in the chorus.” Again, I stammered out a response. I had no thoughts of doing anything other than chorus – I had no idea of what else I could do.

I sang 6 shows with Skylight over the next few years – Pinafore, Patience, Pirates & Mikado (the latter of which broke the alliteration cycle) as well as The Student Prince and Desert Song. It was Skylight that offered me my first role – Pitti-Sing in The Mikado. Going on tour with Skylight for Pirates and Mikado exposed me to other singers who had career aspirations and showed me that my current direction was limited and that I needed to learn more, do more, find more.

It was also Skylight’s co-artistic director, Stephen Wadsworth, who asked me the question, “Why are you singing this aria?” and more importantly, told me why I shouldn’t be singing it, which resulted in my re-educating myself about fach and context. It also made me leave my then-teacher and seek out someone who could give me what I needed.

I left Milwaukee the June after the 1986-87 season but whenever I came home, I tried to catch a show at the Skylight. When I came back in 1996, I auditioned for Skylight and was cast the ensemble in Sweeney Todd, which was a magical experience. My role in Rosina resulted in my first and only review in Opera News, which was thankfully positive (and that issue arrived on my birthday, to boot!) and my 2003 performance in Viva la Mamma resulted in my meeting Matt Flynn, who performed my wedding to Bill.

The Skylight’s cabaret series also opened my eyes to a venue in which I have found myself at home – through the inspiration of performers such as Becky Spice, Joel Kopischke, Carolynne Warren, Linda Stephens, Jack Forbes Wilson, and always, always, the incomparable Jamie Johns.

The Skylight has given me a great deal, personally and professionally. The short-sighted and knee-jerk reaction of TPTB at the Skylight, ostensibly to save money, has resulted in an outcry of artists and patrons alike. No one wants to see the Skylight fail – but no one wants to see the Skylight become a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all kind of company with no passion, that takes no risks, that brooks no challenges to its authority.

I hope to work at the Skylight again someday – I hope there will be a Skylight at which to work. I think things need to change in order to grow, but that change needs to be organic and well-thought-out, not the result of what some have called a coup.

Auditioning students

I just read an article at the music teachers helper website about auditioning students for acceptance in your studio.

I’ve thought about doing this from time to time. On the one hand, it ensures that you are going to have students who are serious and who can read music, who can hold a part, who can stay in tune. All of your students will be coming in with a basic level of ability on which you can build without needing to spend time working on matching pitch and plunking through parts for them to learn. What a luxury!

On the other hand – it seems kind of elitist to me, especially at the high school level. High school kids are insecure enough without having someone judge whether or not they are worthy of being taught. No matter how kind you may be in telling them that they didn’t make the cut, their emotional response is going to be that they are not worthy of your time. It’s part of the high school mindset. I don’t want to be a factor in someone deciding “I guess I can’t sing — so why bother?”

I have never dismissed a student for not being able to sing. I have dismissed students for poor attitude, for no-showing, for non-payment, for vocal health issues that they didn’t want to address (e.g., nodes caused by poor vocal practices outside singing such as yelling in soccer), because I felt someone else might be of more use to them in the style they wanted to learn, but never because I didn’t think they had any talent. Who am I to tell someone he can’t sing? Isn’t that my job, to facilitate his singing the best he can?

If I turned down people who couldn’t match pitch at their initial lessons, I would never have gotten to work with one of my favorite students, who is now a wonderful young basso. Working with him has been a joy, and not only because he can sing better now but because he’s a great kid with whom I’ve enjoyed working! How many great people would I not have gotten to know because I decided in the first half hour that I didn’t want to make the effort to take them from non-singers to singers?

To make that decision at an initial lesson, when people are nervous and feeling so vulnerable, just seems to me to be counter-intuitive. It takes several lessons for us to get to know each other and figure out where we’re going on this journey.

My high school students pay for five lessons at a time. This is for two reasons – to guarantee that they show up after the first week (the practical reason), and to allow them to become more comfortable with me. I can be intimidating, and not because I am on a high lofty perch but because I’m so intense about singing and because, frankly, I’m a little weird. (In a good way.)

I do like ideas in this article about structuring that first lesson and I’d like to implement them, but not because I want to determine if this student is worthy of acceptance to my studio. I think some of these ideas will allow me to determine what I need to do for new students more quickly and become more efficient in helping them progress and realize their potential.

A good week: Two performances – one for them, one for me!

This past Sunday was the annual high school showcase. This year I had decided to focus primarily on my juniors and seniors and go with more of a cabaret format. I wound up including a few sophomores after all but we still kept the program at 20 people total, which allowed us to go with a more intimate format and not have to pad the program in order to include everyone in enough numbers to warrant their recital fee.

It went really, really well. I wasn’t overwhelmed the way I was last year but I don’t think it was because of the performances. It was because the rep I chose was good, solid music that was entertaining and pleasant. We didn’t have “The ballad of Sweeney Todd” or the final chorus of Dialogues of the Carmelites (aka “The dead nuns’ chorus”) or any soaring opera arias, because that wasn’t the kind of show we did this year. We did a show that focused on American composers and allowed the singers to just sing without worrying too much about staging. There was some staging because we had to have some pretty pictures up there, but it was very simple and specific and consequently, very effective.

On Wednesday night, I sang with the newly formed “Trio con Brio” at the Italian Community Center. We did a 2-1/2 hour program (!!!!) of arias and show tunes. The soprano was Wendelin Lockett, the mezzo was ME, and the bass was Tom Weis, with whom I worked in Cosi 10 years ago. We were supported by the amazing Amanda Carnahan on piano – a lovely young woman who is doing her masters in the collaborative piano program at UWM. (Collaborative piano is the preferred term these days instead of “accompanying,” which relegates the pianist to a subordinate position instead of being an equal partner – which is what the pianist should be.) I definitely want to work with Amanda more often – perhaps on future studio recitals when Ryan is not available?

The program was great – it was wonderful to sing with 3 fantastic people who were not only fun to work with (which I knew would be the case going in) but with whom I could make some really beautiful music. We all blended well with each other and we were able to stimulate each other to make wonderful interpretive choices. The audience was small but enthusiastic and stayed for the entire show (which did include a 20 minute intermission). We have another show tentatively scheduled for August 8 on the Delafield Summerstage program, and I got a name from a friend of a contact to call for a high-end retirement community.

As far my performance – I still have issues with using reading glasses for ensemble numbers, which we chose not to memorize, at least not for this initial performance. I find it very difficult to emote wearing glasses. I memorized my solos although “I can cook” tripped me up at rehearsal (who’d have thought that not having sung a song for 10+ years would result in my forgetting the words?). So I typed up the words in a big font so that I wouldn’t have to wear the reading glasses. I did the same thing for our closing number, “Together wherever we go,” since I didn’t really need the music for that number. I may do that for the future, at least for a few pieces. I think I might look into progressive contact lenses later this year – like my glasses, which allow me to read and drive and function without having to change glasses. I think the time has passed for me to do Lasik – because I would STILL need to use reading glasses (unless they’ve developed a Lasik format that corrects presbyopia). Aging doth suck.

I’m on a break post-recital – I feel inspired to return to teaching and performing next week – and to start learning some new rep for myself!

Showcase today!

Today is our Showcase, which this year will meld two of my great loves – cabaret and American Song. I’m excited about the program, which will open with the title song, “Look for me in the songs” by Craig Carnelia. The final solo is John Bucchino’s “Grateful,” which pretty much sums up how I feel about working with these great kids. We close with the song “Joy” by Ricky Ian Gordon as a big group number, which sounded GREAT yesterday.

Too much to do to write much more, but if you are in the vicinity of Underwood Memorial Baptist Church (76th & Hillside) at 3:30pm, please come on in! Admission is free and you will hear wonderful high school age singers from the entire Milwaukee area (and I’m going to sing “What a movie!” from Trouble in Tahiti, which seems to be my new signature piece).

This Wacky Economy

This week I lose 8 – possibly 9 – students. The majority of them are because of graduation. However, a couple are because of the economic hardships that American families are facing right now.

I’m always willing to work with people who are having troubles. I remember when I lost my day job in October 1990, right when I was starting to make some significant inroads in my singing career – getting roles with Opera Theater of Northern VA, bit parts with Washington Opera, etc., and thinking of going back to school for my masters. I had to go to Marianna, my teacher, and Gillian Cookson, my coach, and tell them that I had to stop working with them because I had no income and was having trouble even finding temp work (the job I’d had for 3 years used MultiMate word processing software, and suddenly the standard was WordPerfect, which I didn’t know). Both of them agreed to work with me on a deferred payment basis. I worked with them for no charge for about 6 months, and as soon as I started working again and had some income, I paid them both. I have extended this courtesy to people who I felt were talented and who I would hate to see interrupt their studies. And I’ve been compensated. Emotionally and financially.

I am not willing to work with people who are deadbeats. That sounds harsh, and I don’t mean people who don’t have money. I mean those who for whatever reason are willing to take your services and defer payment without making arrangements. If this kind of deal exists in your own head and you haven’t talked it over with me, it’s not an arrangement, it’s taking advantage. And it’s not going to happen any more. I don’t care how talented you are, if you aren’t upfront, there’s no relationship, professional or otherwise.

I only meant to post a link to an article from Making Music magazine about how “Music Fits the Budget,” but I went off on a rant. Ah well. I have that right, don’t I?