Tuesday, April 28, 2015

For Love of Opera

Reaching for the Gold Ring
Attempting a career as an opera singer is akin to climbing Mt. Everest. It seems almost impossible, but those who make it do so by taking one step at a time and making the most of each step. My former voice student Thomas Lehman, a young baritone with all the necessary attributes, is currently singing at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. He is there because he was a winner last year in the annual competition of the Opera Foundation, a commendable organization which has since 1987 provided the opportunity and the funds for up to four young American singers to be “interns” at three major European opera houses.
Tom attended Ithaca College for his undergraduate study and earned his Master of Music in Vocal Performance at the Eastman School of Music. Last year he was in the Young Artist Program for the Florida Grand Opera, and now he has this amazing opportunity to work abroad and hone his craft … for opera singing is a craft as well as an art. It requires a great deal more than most people realize. Years ago, the kinds of programs and scholarships now available in this country did not exist, and many young American singers went to Europe to study, and hopefully, to work. In Germany opera is supported by the government. Opera has long been a vital part of the culture of Europe in a way it is not in the United States.
Tom shared some thoughts with me on what he has learned during his first year in Europe and gave me permission to pass these on. I generally ask him about his health when we communicate, because a cold or a sore throat is something a singer does not want to deal with. The best singers take excellent care of themselves; they have to. As a singer, your body is your instrument, and fatigue, depression, muscle strains can adversely affect your voice.
Here’s part of Tom’s reply (emphasis throughout is mine):
Thanks for your message! Fingers crossed, but I haven't even contracted a scratchy throat or cough since I arrived, so that is great! (I’m) about 2 months into my better diet and workout plan and things are going much better vocally, so I am happy. I’m encouraged that my bosses seem pleased with what I’m doing.
As you said, Europe used to be the best way for a singer to get a good start. I like to think this is still the case. So many people obsess about getting into schools of "repute" that they don't realize the truth of it all. Getting into school is a nice accomplishment, but this business does not reward such things. Opera auditions can certainly be aided by connections, but if you go in and lay an egg, your chance is ruined. Young singers seem to forget that every year, 10-20 or so singers enter these college programs, so year by year those numbers add up astronomically. There are really maybe 6 or 7 Young Artist programs that are truly valuable, so each year, there are maybe 40-50 spots total in the Opera world for young singers to snatch up and feel that their career is being "vaulted".
The reason Europe is such an important place, specifically Germany, is because of Governmental support and most of all, youth interest in the art form. I have begun to suggest to some of my friends that they look into schools in Europe, whether in the UK, France, Italy, or Germany. Seeing 2000 seats filled every single night I perform is really inspiring. By the numbers, I will have sung for 130,000 bodies (some repeated, of course) in this season alone, which amazes me.
The trap that I know exists in the states is "what do I do after school if I don't get into a YAP (Young Artist Program)?" People who feel like they "aren't ready" at 24 to step on a stage professionally had better be Wagnerian soprani or some other "huge" voice type that takes years to develop. I see Musical Theater and Theater folk who are just MEANT to be on stage. In opera, it seems as if the problem is that young singers are not given the chance to go on stage and do much of anything. I know plenty of people who were lucky to get a 1 or 2 line part in their 4 years of school and then they are left confused and wondering if it was all worth it. Sometimes, as in my case, you get lucky and do 4-5 roles in 4 years and learn a billion wonderful things about stage deportment, but what about those who haven't?
A lot of thoughts. It's a wonderful thing that schools are taking more and more singers in at colleges these days (so was the trend in my years at both schools) but I think with tuition rates ever climbing, there is very little reason to do advanced studies in a place where the amount owed is more than the amount earned through 5-10 years. I think the wonderful thing about the US is that there are plenty of schools that aren't asking for tuition fees of 60-70K that can provide in a lot of cases MORE roles and opportunities with voice professors who are just as helpful and talented. People just assume that if they go to the "big city", everything will happen. I see it happen far too much with my colleagues and it breaks my heart. I feel lucky to be where I am.
My thoughts are more or less indicative of my worries for fellow singers who are perhaps less fortunate than I. There are far too many factors in play in this profession, but I have to admit that the best singers are not always the most successful. It's not just their voice that matters, even if sometimes we wish that were just the case. Sadly, no one can get a minor in Luck along side of their degree in Voice. I just feel blessed to have had some of it thus far!
Tom is so right about luck. A lucky break can “jump-start” a young singer’s career, without a doubt. But the singer needs to have worked hard to be prepared to accept that break. Tom’s comment about schools not giving young singers the opportunities they really need to perform made me think, and I plan to look more carefully at smaller, less prestigious schools which have active opera programs to suggest to my students. These are often schools that are also more affordable and don’t leave the student with the financial burden of repaying excessive student loans.
Lastly, I wish I could find the magic potion that would make opera much more a part of the culture of this country outside of the metropolitan areas which support active opera houses. The Deutsche Oper Berlin season runs from late August through early July … nearly a full year. And to his great credit, because this happens seldom, the opera house has engaged Thomas Lehman, American baritone, for a second season. Toi toi toi Tom!! (That’s opera talk for “Way to go!”)
Link to Tom’s website: http://www.thomaslehmanbaritone.com/

Thomas Lehman, baritone
photo by Gerry Szymanski

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"A Love Story That Will Stand the Test of Time"

Eli’s Heart

     Just to state the obvious (which I’ve been told I do well), writing a book and directing a musical theater production are really different. I can say this because I’ve done both. When I was writing my first novel, How I Grew Up, a theater friend kept reminding me “There’s no opening night.” He was cautioning me about rushing to finish the book. Even so, from putting my first thoughts together to holding the printed book in my hands was about a six month process.
     My second novel, Eli’s Heart, took longer. When I first started the book a flood of memories meant an outpouring of words. Much of the story takes place on the campus of the old College-Conservatory of Music of Cincinnati, and revisiting that time in my life brought back many of the moments I had lived, and had loved. Remembering the place, the people, the experiences, I wrote and wrote and wrote. Most of what I wrote I didn’t use in the book, but at a writer’s workshop at our local library one of the panelists made a comment that resonated with me: sometimes what we write the reader doesn’t need to read, but we need to write it. I think I understand. Those words immerse us in the world we want to create.
     With a book, there is also no closing night. Eli’s Heart was released at the end of June last year. I’ve had some modest success with it. It’s not a performance such as we experience in theater, where the audience is present and together applaud our work. Instead, our audience comes along one reader at a time. Just to have someone say to me, “I read your book and I enjoyed it” is a round of applause. 
     A reader review on Amazon can be a standing ovation, and I received one of those yesterday. This reviewer didn’t just enjoy Eli’s Heart. He got it. He recognized who Eli was and appreciated his courageous life. Thanks, Steven Daniel. You made my week!

Excerpt from Eli’s Heart

     Before his final lesson in the afternoon he knew he was in trouble. He was having pain across his chest and in his neck and his heart was racing. He knew he needed to get to the hospital immediately. He didn’t want to frighten his student, a freshman boy named Jamie. “I’m so sorry, Jamie,” he said as calmly as he could. “Something’s come up I have to take care of immediately. I’ll try to make up this lesson next week.”
     Eli’s plan was to get to the street, hail a cab and get himself to the hospital, but that didn’t happen. He walked out of his studio and started to close the door, but the horizon tipped crazily and everything faded. He heard the voice of one of his students shouting too loudly and frantically for this to be a lesson – or a dream. Through the fear and pain he had one clear thought: I never want Krissy to be as scared as I am right now.
     Krissy was in Aaron’s office going over lists with him when the phone rang, and the staff member who picked it up took the message. She tapped on the door and said as gently as she could, “Krissy, Eli’s being taken to the hospital. He collapsed at the school. I’m so sorry, I wish there were a better way to tell you.” Krissy sagged against the desk and Aaron stood quickly and put his arms around her to support her.
     “Get my car here immediately. Immediately,” he snapped. Krissy was white as a sheet and looked at Aaron with fear and pain in her eyes. He helped her with her coat and put his own on as they ran to the elevator.
     She whispered, “He could be dying.” Aaron’s car was waiting at the curb when they stepped off the elevator, and they ran through the lobby and onto the sidewalk. Aaron’s driver pulled away quickly.
     Krissy clung to Aaron as they drove. “Ever since I married Eli, I’ve known this could happen. Do you know what I think to myself sometimes that I can never say aloud to him? ‘Please don’t die, Eli. Don’t ever leave me.’” She started to cry. “No, I can’t cry, I can’t. I have to be strong. I don’t want Eli to see how terrified I am.”
    When they reached the hospital ER entrance she ran inside, identified herself and asked where Eli was. She ran into the examining room where Eli was lying, hooked to a frightening number of tubes and wires.
    He had been given a mild sedative and seemed calm. He looked at her and smiled. “I’ll be okay,” he said softly.
    She was shaking, but tried to control herself and smile back at him as she went to the bed and rubbed his arm. Everyone in the room seemed remarkably calm to her. She looked at his heart monitor and it seemed as if her own heart stopped. It was all over the place. How could they be so calm? Her husband could be dying.
     “Can I stay here with him?” Why were they waiting? They should be taking him into surgery right now. How could they possibly wait? In spite of herself she looked at his heart monitor again. It looked even worse.
     “For a while. We want to be sure he gets a good night’s sleep and is more relaxed.” Someone brought a chair for her to sit on so she could be close to him. She held his hand and rubbed his arm. There was an IV in his other hand. There was so much she wanted to say to him, but the medical people seemed busy with checking all the equipment and what she had to say was private, between them.
     Eli looked at his wife, wishing he could say something that would help her. He could see how distraught she was. The sedative had calmed him. He said again, “I’m going to be all right, Krissy.” She gave him a shaky smile. He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her, but that wasn’t possible.

 cover by Tristan Flanagan

Here’s the link to the review:
Kindle edition is available for the ridiculously low price of $3.99.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Back to the Nineteen-Fifties

Time Travel

All three of the novels I have written (You Are My Song, Eli’s Heart, How I Grew Up) take place in the middle of the twentieth century. How I Grew Up is based on a true event which took place when I was a junior in high school. Revisiting the events in that story meant recalling how different my world was then. And it was a little disconcerting, switching back and forth between centuries ... while I was spending a lot of time in the twentieth century at the computer, I did occasionally have to return to the twenty-first, to feed the cat and pay bills.

My hometown, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was unique. I suppose there were periods in the history of this country where towns sprang up nearly overnight, such as during the California gold rush, but I’m not aware of any other period in the history of the U.S. when towns were developed in great secrecy by the federal government, under the purview of the U.S. Army.

Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Hanford, Washington, were three towns that were created in the early 1940s with one sole purpose: develop an atomic bomb to defeat the enemy. As I understand it, there was a great fear that Nazi Germany was well into exploring the properties of the atom with the purpose of creating a bomb, and the feeling was the United States had to beat them to it. You can Google “Manhattan Project” and find a wealth of material about exactly how and what went on, which is something I did. I also read a couple of books about my hometown to immerse myself in the era, which was post-World War II.

I grew up basically in a town that was still under the control of the federal government in the best way possible. I went through a superior school system, because the staff and faculties of all schools were on the government payroll and much better paid than teachers in the rest of the state. There was no unemployment; for years no one was allowed to live in the town who wasn’t employed either by the government or had been allowed into the town to provide goods and services to those people working for the government. It was nearly a classless society, because all the houses had been constructed under the supervision of federal employees, and housing was assigned. At that time, all homes were rented from Uncle Sam. There were no “mansions” or “estates.” Notice I said “nearly”: there was segregation. It was the South, and it was before the civil rights movement.

People had moved to Oak Ridge from all over the country during the early years from 1943-45. Where there had been farmland and rolling hills, there was a nearly instant small city of over 75,000. The town diminished in size after the war; eventually, it established its own government, houses were put on the market and people were even allowed to buy land and build homes as time went on. There was a military presence for years. The work that was being done was top secret for a long time.

As a kid, I wasn’t aware of any of that. I just knew it was a great place to grow up. It was safe. We had wonderful “woods” to play in with lots of tall trees to climb. We could ride a bus anywhere for free. We had great teachers; my high school had two choirs, a band (concert and marching), an orchestra, even our own harp, which I learned to play a little (enough to do showy arpeggios in our production of Carousel). We had an auditorium that seated fourteen hundred, and we had state-of-the-art everything. We had great football and basketball teams. We did a school musical. I took ballet class, piano lessons, and voice lessons, and lived in a very comfortable house. We had two movie theaters and a drive-in. We had a nice little public library and public tennis courts and a good hospital and medical care. We had a huge community pool with a minimal admission fee and swim classes for every level that was open all summer. We had an indoor roller-skating rink. What wasn’t to love?

I had a safe, happy childhood, until the day my friend Anita’s estranged brother-in-law entered her home one January night and shot and killed both her parents and mortally wounded her other brother-in-law. The entire town was rocked. It’s in the book.

I haven’t been back to visit in decades, and I’m sure much has changed. But the Smoky Mountains, which are nearby, still stand, majestic, mysterious, and beautiful. I’m sure Knoxville is still THE place to go shopping. The green and swirling waters of the Clinch River still run past the smaller town of Oak Ridge (Wikipedia tells me the population as of 2010 was slightly under 30,000). Radioactive waste and pollution from the “plants” continues to be a problem (it seems that wasn’t given a lot of thought in the rush to refine uranium ore into weapons-grade U-235).

A high school friend with whom I reconnected while writing How I Grew Up still lives in Oak Ridge. She tells me for people of our generation it seems a ghost town: driving through town, remembering who lived where all those decades ago. Most of them have either moved away, or are no longer on this earth. I should probably go back; the high school is still there, only as a new, improved version. I would think the house I last lived in is still there. I’m sure if I made a visit, I would be greeted by many memories of times past, and more than a few ghosts.


All of my books are available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle, and local folks can purchase copies at the Pocono Community Theater in East Stroudsburg at a discounted price. I’d love for you to visit my website! www.susanmoorejordan.com

Friday, April 10, 2015

Revenge of the iPhone

My Love-Hate Relationship with My Smartphone

     My iPhone hates me. Oh, I know exactly why. I’ve referred to it too often as my dumb smartphone. So in revenge, it continues to garble my dictated text messages. I watch as a message which makes perfect sense changes a word the instant I hit “send.”
     It happened again this morning. I wanted to text a friend about seeing a production of The Music Man at a local high school.
     My dictated message read “do you want to see the music man at Strasburg?” I meant Stroudsburg, but was sure my friend would pick up on that since we live nowhere near Strasburg and people confuse the two towns all the time anyway. That’s why I carefully spell out the name if I order anything over the phone which these days is seldom. I can type faster than I can correct spelling, so I generally order stuff on line.
     Back to my vengeful iPhone. I swear, the millisecond I hit “send” the word “see” turned into “Siri” in front of my very eyes. So I immediately followed up with a second text indicating that correction. And a third text, saying “I figured you would probably know that Strasburg meant Stroudsburg.” Okay, I plead guilty … I didn’t proofread what I had just typed and the message that was sent read “met” for “meant.” Text #4 read “meant.”
     Response: “You’re a mess.”
     “It’s not me. My phone hates me.”
     “Overuse. Needs a vacation.”
     “Needs to have AutoCorrect turned off.”
     I know that’s the case. But the majority of the time having AutoCorrect is a pretty great thing. My phone finishes my thoughts and adds exactly the word I need. One of my least favorite things about the phone is the lack of a Qwerty keyboard. With a real keyboard I can type nearly as fast as I think. My iPhone 4S is handicapped. My friends are all flashing their snazzy new iPhone 6s at me. I’m still a few months away from my two year anniversary as an iPhone owner.
     I learned to text in self-defense. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time with teenagers, both as private voice students and as cast members in a musical theater production.
     About eight or nine years ago, I am in the middle of a lesson with a young baritone. He glances down at his side and announces: “Jamie says she is going to be late for her lesson.”
     He had his cell phone on vibrate, pulled it out of his pocket just far enough to read the message, and relayed it to me. I needed to be able to do that.
     I’d resisted even getting a cell phone until a few years before that. What convinced me to break down and take advantage of this technology was a trip to a costumer in New York. Not in New York City, mind you, in a barn near Port Jervis, New York, just up the road and across the Delaware. Three of us had agreed to go to look at costumes for the upcoming production. One of our party lived north of East Stroudsburg and we agreed to meet her at a resort about a half hour north of us.
     We arrived a little early and settled in to wait for Joanne. Time passed. More time passed. The cold rain was turning to sleet, and we knew she lived at an even higher elevation. I finally said I’d find a pay phone and call her to see if she wasn’t going to make it.
     Sounds like an easy solution, doesn’t it? This was a very large resort. I went into the nearest building and saw a bank of pay phones. Not one of them was operating. I walked through the sleet to a neighboring building. Same story. We turned around, drove to an eating establishment where we finally found a pay phone that would accept my quarter. This was a Friday, and the next Monday I purchased my first cell phone.
     Texting took forever. Painful. The phone was one of those where the letters were on the numbers so you had to figure out which number to press for every letter in every word. Not too long after that I bought a flip phone with an honest-to-goodness keyboard. Now I was cookin’!
     I was a happy texter for a long time, until I began to be jealous of the wonderful pictures my friends were taking with their iPhones. I seldom took pictures. My children had a deprived childhood because I took such poor pictures I seldom even tried. The only way they know what they looked like at certain times of their life was the annual school photo. And a few pictures other nice people took. And some nice blurs Mom contributed.
     So two years ago this coming July I broke down, went to the AT&T store (sorry, Verizon), and became the happy owner of a smartphone. And everything was lovely until the company decided to update the software on the phone. That’s when the trouble started. I don’t think my iPhone wanted to be updated.
     Recently I was texting my daughter-in-law about plans, and tried to sign off with hugs and kisses: you know, xxooxx. The phone sent “xxoocan.” What?? So I tried to explain, “I don’t know where that ‘can’ came from.” True to form, my dumb smartphone changed the word “can” to “camera” as the message went to send.
     Well, at least I know I am entertaining the recipients of my weird text messages. And I can take pretty nifty photos!


And I’ll bet you thought I wasn’t going to stoop to shameless self-promotion in this entire blog post. Book Expo at the Eastern Monroe Library on Saturday, April 18, 2015, from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Large crowd of local authors will be there hoping you will buy their books, but I know you’ll find me and buy one of mine. Just in case you don’t have the titles burned into your brain, they are How I Grew Up, Eli’s Heart, and You Are My Song.

  pretty picture I took with my iPhone

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Jamie's Story

Not a Fairy Tale 

     One of my reader reviews on Amazon for Eli’s Heart states “The story was fairy tale, full of music and wonder.” There is a fairy tale element to the book; there had to be, given Eli Levin’s dual challenges of a serious congenital heart defect and a prodigious musical talent. It could have taken place anywhere and in any era.
     Jamie Logan, on the other hand, the protagonist of You Are My Song, is very much a product of small town America in the 1950s, He is a good-hearted, naïve boy when the story begins. Jamie has a beautiful tenor voice and is an unusually handsome man. He loves to sing. He has a lot to learn about life, about himself, about what he wants and what he wants to do. About what it will take for him to achieve his dream.
     Jamie is fortunate that he is white, and that he’s straight. He learns through some of his friends and fellow college students that being other than white and straight – especially in the 1950s and 1960s in the South ─ could lead to complications. To his credit, he does what he can for his friends who face these problems, and grows as a man and an artist because of it.
     Jamie just wants to sing, and it’s not that simple. Despite the many attributes he has, and the fact that he is more than willing to work hard at perfecting his craft, the “gold ring” he is after is not easily attained. Good things happen to him and for him, but there are definitely challenges he has to face, both personal and professional.
     What was most enjoyable about writing the book was revisiting “opera world” by listening to – and watching – recordings and videos of operas, and appreciating all over again those glorious voices I have admired and loved for many years. YouTube is great. I saw full length productions of CarmenLa TraviataLa Bohème. I saw the Met’s HD broadcast last year of Tosca and recently of The Merry Widow and The Tales of Hoffmann. I watched again my DVD of Manon Lescaut with the wonderful performers Kiri te Kanawa and Placido Domingo.
     I listened to numerous recordings, both my own and on YouTube, of a number of tenors from the 1950s and 60s: Jussi Björling, Giuseppe di Stefano, Jan Peerce, Richard Tucker, Franco Corelli, Mario del Monaco, Nicolai Gedda, Fritz Wunderlich, and yes, Mario Lanza. Great tenors, all of them.
     I was reminded of both the immense satisfaction an opera singer can experience and the intense frustration he can face. It’s not an easy life. But as Jamie learns, if you are born to do this ─ sing opera ─ you will try to find a way. And there’s a chance if you have the voice and the drive – and the luck – you might know the amazing sensation of standing on a stage with fellow artists and singing with a full orchestra, without a microphone, and feeling your voice soar to the far reaches of the opera house.
  The almost overwhelming joy of bringing music to life as few people can.
You Are My Song is available on Amazon, paperback and Kindle. The Kindle edition is only $3.99 and the paperback is currently listed (as of April 2, 2015) at $11.52 (retail price is $14.35). It’s a good story, and I loved telling it!

Photo: Franco Corelli as Don José in Carmen