If I could choose any profession, I would be a singer. I wouldn’t even care what kind of music I sang, as long as I could really sing well and get paid for it. Country, cabaret, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, opera, Broadway musicals, barbershop, whatever. I’d really be in heaven if I could also accompany myself on guitar or piano.
There was a time when I thought my voice was going to be good enough to do something with it besides singing lullabies to my children and doing backup for Stevie Wonder in the car. Or as it has turned out, writing jingles on my baritone ukelele.
I had an auspicious start, I thought. In high school and later in college I was good enough to be in singing groups and performed in school shows all the time.
High school was probably the pinnacle. I made it into the top groups – the Senior Women’s Ensemble and the Opera Group, so I could be in the yearly musical. I also made it into the school talent show, Lagniappe, because I was funny, too. For one skit, three of us became a female version of the Everly Brothers -- the Averly Sisters. Our rendition of Tutti Frutti still makes people roll their eyes. In a good way, of course. I was also in a girls’ quintet called the High Five, because we were all over 5’7.” This was long before “high five” meant anything but five things that were way above ground.
We had an excellent choral faculty at my high school. One of the most popular teachers was Mr. Milnes. Tall and handsome, he had a wonderful baritone voice and as a special treat he would sing for us at music club recitals. We were awestruck when he later went on to a huge opera career at the Met as one of the world’s leading baritones. That’s when I learned that good old Mr. Milnes had a first name – Sherrill.
In college I added writer and producer to my repertoire, winning two homecoming skit competitions at Duke and two May Sing competitions at Northwestern. So you might think there was hope. I did. But I didn’t get a lead in Once Upon a Mattress or Bye Bye Birdie at Duke and had to settle for being a writer for WaaMu, NU’s talent show.
Several of my friends and classmates from those days went on to film, opera, Broadway, and cabaret careers. But, for whatever reason, my voice had a case of arrested development. It stayed the same, pleasant enough for harmonizing, but not for solos.
Meanwhile my friends would come back from summer vacations with bigger boobs and increasingly more volume and range in their voices. One girlfriend got so loud she sounded like there was a microphone installed in her vocal cords. With hooters to match.
Ironically there was one time when my gentle, harmonizing sound and tall skinny self were perfect. I was part of a small group of eight chosen from the ensemble to compete at a big high school choral competition. The soloists stayed home because their voices didn’t blend as well. Hey, that’s why they’re soloists.
We sang Jesu, Priceless Treasure again and again for a bunch of different judges, going head to head with other groups. None of us had competed as singers before so we were all pleasantly surprised when we won our division. You can bet public school choral competitions aren’t singing anything with Jesu in the lyrics these days.
My first exposure to really huge voices was on my sixteenth birthday. My aunt took me to the Lyric Opera in Chicago for the first time to see Madame Butterfly. I remember being mesmerized by their vocal power. How do they do that without mikes? That was my first lesson in gaining real perspective on the limitations of my own voice.
Our seats were in the first row of the balcony. So both the acoustics and the view were wonderful. I was familiar with the music because my parents used to listen to Madame Butterfly at home. Basically it’s the story of an American sailor who knocks up his Asian girlfriend and leaves town. But it was sung in French so who knew? For me that opera was a wonderful introduction to the over the top experience of the music, the singers, the costumes, the sets, and even the intermission. I loved it all: But tickets weren’t cheap, so that was it for a while.
After college my interest in opera picked up again. [Aside from singing in a jazz ensemble that performed at the Ravinia Festival, my voice, such as it was, had been packed in mothballs for good.] Meanwhile, I was now employed so I could split the cost of four season’s tickets with two other friends. That way we could each take turns bringing a guest to a performance.
My memory of those operas is in snapshots. William Marshall’s huge stage presence and majestic speaking voice in the narration of Otello. Jon Vickers singing Wagner with his bare back to the audience. The tenor duets in the second act of The Pearlfishers. Leontyne Price’s beautiful voice and terrible acting. A flawless Carmen. A boring Cinderella.
I also saw two different productions of Cavalleria Rusticana, which taught me not to expect consistency. The first version I saw of this one act opera, usually combined with Pagliacci, was a delight. The curtain came up revealing a charming Sicilian village at dawn. As the sun began to rise we watched the village come to life while a beautiful aria was being sung offstage.
Created by a famous Hollywood set designer, the attention to detail on the set, even down to live chickens coming on stage, was a feast for the eye. After enjoying that production so much, I couldn’t wait to see the Met’s version when it came to Chicago a couple of years later. What a difference.
The curtain rose to reveal a stone road with a stone wall. Period. As the offstage aria was sung, we could count the number of grey cobblestones on the road and when we were done with that we could count the number of grey stones in the wall. Except for the road and the wall, the stage was bare. There was nothing going on. And we had to look at that set for the entire production. Did the Met think that people in Chicago wouldn’t notice how stupid it was?
When I got married my season’s tickets to the opera became season’s tickets to football games. I did get to see Placido Domingo in a nameless Russian opera during a bye week once. The performance was most notable for how long it took the heroine to die at the end. I was sure she was gone about five times. And Placido’s character didn’t seem to care too much.
And then, TA-DA -- last weekend I got a ticket to Aida.
Finally, I would get to see one of the grandest of the grand operas. A veritable Verdi spectacular. Row J. On the aisle. $170. * Cough * Sheesh. That was the price for a whole season’s worth of tickets in the old days.
Aida is the story of a love triangle in ancient Egypt between an Ethiopian slave, Aida, her mistress, Amneris, and an Egyptian warrior, Radames. [Not necessarily in that order.] Amneris loves Radames who loves Aida. Because it’s opera, two out of three of them must die.
There is a huge men’s chorus, lots of trumpets, several enormous columns, fire and smoke, gold statues, a big parade, and more arias than a Time-Life collection. Live elephants have appeared in some of the very lavish productions.
From their headshots, the singers looked very attractive, which helps so much when you’re performing a love story. However, when they appeared on stage, both women could have easily crushed the tenor in a smackdown. The mezzo looked like Rikki Lake in Hairspray. The soprano looked pregnant. The tenor was barely their height. And couldn’t make weight.
This may have explained the unusual staging, which often had the tenor downstage and the two women strategically placed way behind him. Forced perspective as it were. Which doesn’t mean their voices weren’t lovely. But their size, coupled with the enormous girth of the guy sitting in front of me who pretty much blocked out one side of the stage or the other, made me realize what can happen when you eat an entire restaurant for lunch.
I went with a friend of a friend whom I had met once years ago. He had the extra ticket. He is one of a number of out of town people who get subscription tickets to the Lyric, the only opera that offers the “fly in for a weekend and see two operas” option.
He’s also one of those people who make the rest of us look like we’ve wasted our lives. A research biologist/photographer who went to architectural school, then became a counselor to troubled teens, he is also an Egyptologist of sorts. So during the intermission he carefully explained to me how the painted backdrop of the temple filled with sand was from an entirely different period than when the story took place.
I personally had a problem with the giant gold leaf statues, which represented some of the booty taken from the captured Ethiopians. They looked like projects executed by a high school remedial art class, rather than museum quality statuary. The female statue in particular caused a couple of sniggers. Her perky gold lame breasts looked like she’d had an Extreme Makeover augmentation. And her hair was very 1950 AD instead of 1950 BC.
For some puzzling reason, the Ethiopian prisoners were all in blueface. With strange rags in their hair. In fact one reviewer has nicknamed this production the Smurfs because of the odd makeup.
The unusual Greek headdresses on the men’s chorus also caught my eye. They looked like the braincases for some creature on Star Trek. Once again the music and the singing overcame these awkward style moments.
The woman who played Aida was making her debut in the role. She sang her best when the orchestra was subdued and you could enjoy the nuances of her voice, which seemed overpowered when everybody was on stage going full tilt – orchestra, chorus and principals. Regardless she and the rest of the cast got great revues.
It turns out that her management company representative is almost a relative. He is my younger daughter’s boyfriend’s brother. Three degrees of Kevin Bacon. Come on, that’s almost family. He wasn’t in town for the production or, as it turns out, I could have seen Aida for FREE. Darn.
Meanwhile, I’m back to harmonizing with my Toni Braxton CD’s in the car. And imagining what my life might have been like, if only I could sing.