You may know me as a cabaret singer and jazz vocalist, but on June 12, I auditioned for . . . . Opera San Jose!? My vocal cords may have been baptized in the old-time gospel hour music, but my first formal training was definitely classical – in both piano and voice. (Well, back in the olden days, what other kind of training was there?!) When a musical associate messaged me that OSJ had just dismissed over half their chorus from last season, and were re-auditioning singers – preferably good sight-readers (those who can read and sing a line of music on sight) who could dispense with vocal vibrato if necessary (can you say jazz?), I couldn’t resist the challenge (hey, it’s a paying gig!).
In my early 20s, I had spent a couple seasons with Opera San Jose, and an operatic career was a strong possibility. When I dashed off to the East Coast over a love affair, Director Irene Dalis told me “Come back to us! You hear me?” Needless to say, like a predictable libretto, love didn’t win out, and neither did the opera. “Life is what happens, yada, yada . . . “ Most of us have one or two roads not taken, and it’s interesting to note what feelings come up in us when some little bell from the past gets rung. Most of us wonder what we may have missed, or what might be there that is still of value to us.
I signed up for a few classical voice sessions with voice instructor Linda Draggett at The Music Tree, Morgan Hill, to see if I could actually “eek” out a high C – OK, a solid B on a clear day. I was a bit nervous about the first session – did I remember any of this stuff? As I worked with Linda on vocal drills and classical technique, I did realize how over the years, as vocalists we can get into patterns of singing – an old style, a particular placement, a lazy habit or a downright rut. These can limit our creativity or inventiveness and may not be good for the voice either.
Although I am also a vocal teacher and regularly take my own inventory when doing exercises, it is not always easy to self-diagnose if there are potential problems or things just generally getting a bit “muddy,” less polished. You’re used to your sound, the way you produce it, and you may have become accustomed to your own bad habits. And if the bulk of your performing is in more contemporary styles, you’re used to microphones amplifying the voice. Not so in opera – you access projection and power through resonance, vowel formation, and placement. If you’re reliant on a mike, chances are you’ve gotten more than a bit relaxed in diction and articulation; you may have let your breath support slide and the microphone account for dynamics and vocal substance or “effect.” Although there are differences in the vocal placement/register/diction demanded by the opera discipline as opposed to most jazz/contemporary/pop music, I found lessons with another coach, especially a classical expert, an opportunity to “clean up” my work in general. I also discovered a couple new techniques that I believe will serve, no matter what style of music I’m performing.
After some serious doubt about whether I could actually pull off singing an aria (let alone two!), I was amazed to find that the voice I’d left behind was still there – almost as though the resonances and higher partials of my range had been waiting for me. I have to say it was sort of like riding a bike. It took a few sessions to find my balance, but I braved the audition. In fact, I felt I nailed it – no sour notes, no sobs, no collapse, no 911 – only a few familiar butterflies and that shimmer in my spirit that happens when I sing up there with the angels.
I guess you could say I finally “went back” to visit a path not taken – and a few tears on the drive home from the audition affirmed it was more important to me than I had anticipated. As a performer, I find it’s vital to get on those uncomfortable edges every so often in order to grow . . . whether it’s a dare, a doubt, or a dusty dream that takes you there. And sometimes, in order to move forward, you have to go back and claim parts of yourself left along the way.
I hope someone at Opera San Jose remembers to tell Ms. Dalis I finally showed up!
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