Friday, August 22, 2014

You Are My Song


On July first, Eli’s Heart was released on Amazon. On July third, I began to write my third book, which I’ve entitled You Are My Song. Today, August twenty-second, I completed the first draft of the book. It’s not a short book; probably between How I Grew Up and Eli’s Heart in length, though I haven’t done an official word count as yet.  I am surprised at how quickly I wrote the first draft. It will not be ready to be released for a while; I need to re-read and tweak and obsess for a while before that can happen.   
The story is of a young tenor who aspires to sing opera. I introduced Jamie Logan in How I Grew Up; he played opposite Melanie Stewart in their high school production of Carousel. I like my character Jamie. He has a naturally beautiful voice, he has innate musicianship and an ability to learn quickly, and no ego. He’s friendly, generous, outgoing, considerate. Oh yes, and unusually good-looking. He and Melanie have a strong connection, and they both wonder if they could be in love. But no, Jamie has a jealous girlfriend he later marries, and she doesn’t want him to sing.
When You Are My Song begins, it’s four years after Jamie’s graduation from high school, and his marriage has failed. I had to laugh at my readers’ reaction to that; two of them commented they weren’t surprised to learn of Jamie’s and Sarah’s divorce. I wasn’t either. Though I had not planned to write this book, it seemed to come into my head as soon as I let go of Eli’s Heart. The final steps in book preparation are stressful, and I’ve come to understand the expression “writer’s remorse.” But once the book is out there, it’s out there, for anyone who so chooses to read and hopefully enjoy or at least like something about it.
Some of Jamie’s experiences parallel experiences I shared with another tenor, my late husband Sam, who sang professionally for several years early in our marriage. Jamie’s lack of ego is unusual in a tenor. It’s a challenge to be a tenor in the world of opera; everyone wants to hear the tenor’s high notes, and if he doesn’t deliver, there are inevitably negative reactions. There’s a reason many of us love the tenor voice. There’s an intensity to the tenor sound. The response to that sound and those high notes is visceral. It’s a thrill to hear a tenor sing high notes with power and beauty.
My theory is the tenor ego may be a way to counter the combination of insecurity and fear. Today I can sing a high C; can I sing it tomorrow? That’s the standard in opera world. That’s why we find videos on YouTube titled “Guess the Tenor by the High C!” and “Tenor Sing-Off – Faust High C – 15 Tenors.” Even more, we love to hear a tenor who can not only sing that C, but hold it forever and play with the dynamics. All of these things are probably contrary to the laws of physics, or medical science, or something. But the poor tenor is stuck with it.
And woe to the tenor who asks for an aria to be lowered a half-step because he is exhausted from touring, or has a cold, or knows he won’t have the C for that performance. I think some die hard opera fans have pitch pipes in their pockets so they can announce at intermission, “You do realize that was a B he sang in the aria tonight?”
Of course, there is so much more to what makes a good tenor; evenness of scale, sensitivity to the music, the ability to shape a beautiful phrase, use of dynamics, command of many languages, connecting to his fellow artists and to the audience among them.
I’ve given Jamie all of that, and more. Here’s his introduction to the reader in my first book, How I Grew Up, remembering the narrator is Melanie Stewart:

“Alice [Melanie’s sister] was right; Jamie was a very handsome boy. He had very dark hair, but fair skin and startlingly blue eyes. But it was more than that which made him so appealing; Jamie was someone everybody liked. He was friendly and kind, and always had a ready smile. Jamie had a truly beautiful tenor voice and he loved to sing, but he wasn’t conceited about it. When people complimented him on his singing, he always seemed a little surprised. He was just doing something he loved to do, and if people liked hearing him, well, that was great.”

That was Jamie at eighteen. My new book begins when he is twenty-two and follows him through the next seven years of his life, and Jamie goes through a lot in those seven years. While you’re waiting for You Are My Song, if you haven’t read How I Grew Up or Eli’s Heart, you can order them in paperback or e-book format on Amazon, or people in the Poconos can purchase them at a slightly discounted price at the Pocono Community Theater. I’ve loved writing these books. I hope you enjoy reading them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Remembering Robin Williams and Tenor Jerry Hadley

“All is ephemeral, fame and the famous as well” – Marcus Aurelius

It was a shock to learn today that Robin Williams, known no doubt worldwide for his many talents, died at the age of sixty-three, an apparent suicide. It was impossible not to hear about it – it was splashed all over the social media and on all evening newscasts. What we are told is that Mr. Williams was, and had been, suffering from depression.

In one of those life is stranger than fiction parallels, I had recently been researching a very fine American singer, tenor Jerry Hadley, who also took his own life not many years ago, and apparently for the same reason, depression. Hadley had one of the loveliest voices I have ever heard. He was opera’s Golden Boy for a time, and sang all over the world for nearly a quarter of a century beginning in 1979. From what I have read about him, he was a generous and caring colleague, with charm and wit. He was a very good-looking man. He was a fine musician and was equally at home in the standard operatic literature and in contemporary works. He was also comfortable in musical theater.

He was married to a pianist, Cheryll Drake, whose photos show her to be as lovely as Jerry was handsome. She was his accompanist and mother of his two sons. It would seem Jerry Hadley had it all. Though his fame was not as widespread as Robin Williams, he was well-known and admired by opera lovers. 

And yet. In 2002 Jerry and Cheryll were divorced, and for five years he did not perform. Apparently he stopped singing, and suffered from a deep depression. Whether the depression preceded the divorce or the reverse was true, the result was the same: a beautiful voice was stilled. I read that in 2007 Jerry had begun a comeback, and it seemed he was on the threshold of a second career. There was a new woman in his life. And then on July 10, 2007, he apparently shot himself in the head, suffering irreversible brain damage. He was put on life support for a time, and after being taken off the machines died two days later, on July 18.

I’m sure we will hear a great deal more about Robin Williams’ death in the days to come, and perhaps learn more about the depression he suffered that caused him to end his life. Williams was a genius. It would be difficult to find anyone in this country who was not familiar with his work. Of his many films, two I admired greatly were Awakenings and Dead Poets’ Society. In recent years I don’t recall hearing much about his impromptu comedy, but for those of us who saw him on various television variety shows and watched him launch into an impossibly funny and brilliant routine, it can only be described as “awesome.” He was one of a kind.

So here were these two gifted men, still young (Hadley was fifty-five when he died), famous on at least some level, seeming to have all the things so many people aspire to. Yet both in such despair they chose to leave the world they seemed to have at their feet. Hadley’s depression we know was of long duration; it’s possible Williams’ was as well.

I’d like to think there may be a lesson here. Mental illness still carries far too much of a stigma. If we have friends we think may be in trouble, we have to learn to reach out to them. We have to learn to reach out to them.

Depression is a terrible disease, as we learned to our sorrow once again today. Godspeed, Robin Williams. You gave us much joy. How sad that it seems you had lost it.

Monday, August 4, 2014

An Unplanned Trilogy


As it happens – a very useful phrase for a writer, by the way – the three novels I have written/am writing are actually a trilogy, something I had neither expected nor planned.

How I Grew Up, my first novel, was based on an actual incident from my high school years, many decades ago. A close friend went through an unimaginable family tragedy: her estranged brother-in-law shot and killed both her parents, and mortally wounded her other brother-in-law. These things happened the weekend before Anita (she became “Melanie Stewart” in the book) was to audition for our spring musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Auditions for the show were delayed for a week, and “Melanie” was cast in the leading role of Julie Jordan. How her participation in the production helped her to work through her terrible shock and grief and deliver an inspiring performance is the essence of the novel. Though it is based on this event, the book is fiction, as are the characters.

One of those characters became a protagonist in my second book, Eli’s Heart. Melanie’s close friend Krissy Porter met a young pianist only a few months before the Carousel production took place. They became good friends, and might have been more but for the interference of Eli’s family. Krissy recounted that experience to Melanie in a chapter of How I Grew Up. When Eli’s Heart begins, Krissy is in college, and she and Eli manage to reconnect and eventually marry. The courage with which they deal with his congenital heart condition, the strong love they share, and the importance of music in their lives are the story told in this book.

Now I am working on a third book that again begins with that Carousel production. Working title You Are My Song, this is Jamie Logan’s story. Jamie played opposite Melanie in the show and they were drawn to each other, partly because of their friendship and Jamie’s sympathy for Melanie’s tragedy, partly because of the characters they were portraying. Jamie is a gifted singer, a tenor, who marries his childhood sweetheart and learns fairly quickly this marriage was a mistake. Five years after graduating from high school Jamie, now divorced, begins serious study as a vocal performance major in the music department of a state university. He wants to sing opera, a very difficult path for even the most talented and determined singer.

So I have a trilogy, unplanned and unexpected. The common thread is that all of these characters were part of that high school Carousel production. I will need some guidance at some point as to how to market what were three separate novels as a trilogy. Jamie’s story is proving to be a joy to write, as I revisit the world of music school and the world of opera.

Memory recall is fascinating. One memory opens up doors into other memories, some wonderful, some distressing, some very humorous. I walked this path with my tenor husband (who is NOT Jamie Logan, though some of Jamie’s experiences are based on those I have recalled) for several years. Opera is similar to musical theater, but there are definitely differences. Opera is a form of musical art, and in its truest – not necessarily purest – form it is a combination of extraordinarily wonderful music and great theater. Incidents can happen in an opera company that I don’t believe happen anywhere else. With many people, opera is an acquired taste. Jamie has the same experience I had: hearing the beauty of the music and the amazing ability of the singers to produce the sounds required by the art form, Jamie instantly fell in love with it, as I did at the age of thirteen.

I don’t want to project a publication date for my third book, because “there is no opening night” for a novelist (I’ve quoted my wise and extremely helpful friend Eric Mark before, but it’s something I always need to keep in mind. I’ve had many, many opening nights for musical theater productions!). I hope to have it in print within a few months, but I hope to make it my best effort to date, so I won’t release it until it’s ready. In the meantime – if you haven’t read How I Grew Up AND Eli’s Heart – you can purchase them on Amazon, paperback or Kindle. We authors who self-publish start to get very good at Shameless Self-Promotion!