Chi il bel sogno - A rare glimpse of the human instrument in action
LA Opera recently partnered with UCLA's Dr. Dinesh K. Chhetri for the STEAM symposium at East Los Angeles College, a platform that explores connections between art and science. I was asked to present a recital with other LA Opera artists as part of the symposium, and to participate in a master class with LA Opera vocal coach, Douglas Sumi. A few days before the program, I also agreed to meet Dr. Chhetri at the UCLA Head and Neck Clinic where he used an endoscope to view and film my vocal folds while I sang Puccini's "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta." Why on earth did I volunteer for that, you ask? Well, this wasn't my first time at the rodeo!
Actually some years ago, when I attended the Richard Miller Pedagogy Seminar at Oberlin College, I participated in a similar exercise in collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic. On that auspicious occasion, I was sitting backstage, being scoped, while a live audience watched my vocal folds on a big screen in the adjacent recital hall. On the spot, I sang the first thing that popped into my head, "Benedictus" from Haydn's Missa Brevis. Instead of an endoscope that went up my nose and down the back of my throat, the doctor held my tongue and put a long metal tube at an angle down my throat. I remember gagging a good bit, and saliva just poured out of my mouth, but once I started singing (on "Aw" as I couldn't very well enunciate while the doctor was holding my tongue), and I heard people in the audience exclaiming, I was happy to be on display, allowing others this unique view of the human instrument in action.
The way the filming of my folds took place in Dr. Chhetri's office was the best possible scenario for this kind of experience. I was surrounded by an examining room full of otolaryngologists, as Dr. Chhetri's curious colleagues had filed in one by one. When he applied lidocaine to the inside of my nasal passages before inserting the endoscope, the gel slid down the back of my throat a little, which felt SOOOOOO strange - try speaking, let alone singing, when you can't feel the back of your throat and tongue! As soon as he inserted the endoscope and we'd found the right position for it, I started to sing. I knew I couldn't control my gag reflex for long, so I just went for it. We did it in one take, and then he zipped the scope right back out of my nose as soon as I finished. He used the video during his lecture "The Science of Singing" at STEAM, and I got the same thrill standing backstage listening to the students say, "Wow!" "Whoa!" "That's amazing!" only this time my singing was pre-recorded so I wasn't drooling all over myself!
It's a very intimate thing, allowing people to view your vocal folds. I can't explain it. You feel somewhat vulnerable and exposed, like they're seeing the Wizard of Oz out from behind the curtain. Still, I'm really proud of the final result. When Dr. Chhetri completed his lecture, I took the stage and sang the aria again, live, as nature intended, no scope. What an ovation we received! I hope you enjoy the video.
Douglas Sumi & Dr. Chhetri (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Opera)
To view more photos from the STEAM symposium, visit my Gallery page.
Leonora: Il Trovatore
Wow, what an experience this has been. I have been in Italy now for nearly three weeks performing the role of Leonora in Teatro dell'Opera di Milano's production of Verdi's Il Trovatore. I have made so many wonderful new friends, and have enjoyed working with both the director, Mario Migliara, and conductor, Vito Lo Re, immensely. We performed in beautiful venues in and around Milano for very appreciative audiences. This was the perfect opportunity for me to learn and perform this role for the first time (Visit the video page to view more excerpts). As an added bonus, I also got to enjoy a mini-vacation in Bologna, exploring the city and catching up with old friends. Thank you Italy, for being such a lovely host. I can't wait to return! Perhaps this summer...
David Foster and Friends - Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas
What a blast! I recently worked backstage at the David Foster and Friends concert in Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay. I was hired to assist with American Idol winner, Ruben Studdard, from load in until curtain call. He was so nice, and wow, can he sing! He performed a solo set, and also sang a duet with Natalie Cole. Going into the dress rehearsal, the duet was a little shaky, but the concert was recorded for PBS, and by show-time, like a true professional, Ruben was in top form. I also enjoyed getting to know the Canadian Tenors backstage as well, and even sang a preview of Leonora for them in the green room. Their performance of "Because We Believe" totally inspired me to arrange it for Bella Diva. Other memorable performances included a duet between SEAL and Michael Bolton, loved everything about Chaka Khan - omg, so fierce - and Jackie Evancho schooling the band during her rehearsal of "O mio babbino caro" - I nearly fell out of my chair watching this 8 year old tell them what's what! I was invited to stay for the after party, too, and enjoyed celebrating with all of these legendary entertainers. It was beyond inspiring. I can't wait to be up there singing on a David Foster and Friends tour myself!
SEAL during sound check
Opera Heroines Concert
The Opera Heroines Concert was a huge success, from both the perspective of audience turn out and as a fund raiser for my trip to Italy, thanks in part to my friends and colleagues, Jennifer Royall Anderson, Polly Edmonds, Joseph Richter, and Susan Ricci Rogel. I couldn't have done it without you guys, thank you! Thanks also goes to Damascus United Methodist Church, my home town church, for hosting the event. For those of you who came out to enjoy an evening of "Love, Betrayal, Seduction, and More..." I hope you left feeling entertained, and inspired.
Unfortunately, and you can imagine how disappointed I am to report, the production of Otello that I was to sing Desdemona in with Teatro dell'Opera di Milano was canceled at the last minute, due to financial constraints. I made it a point at the concert in June to mention that opera is an art form that needs your patronage. This is especially true now, more than ever (click here to read an article about the current economic plight of opera in Italy). With the funds raised, I plan to return to Europe later this fall for a two week audition "blitz." I thank all of you again for your continued support.
This summer, I was thrilled to play Donna Anna in Teatro dell'Opera di Milano's production of Don Giovanni, a career milestone for me as it marked my European operatic debut! The hard work of my audition tour last fall has begun to bear fruit. The opera was presented on a sound stage, with full orchestra, in the courtyard of Castello Sforzesco, under the stars. It was magical! I enjoyed working with the formidable cast immensely. I pinched myself daily to be sure it was all in fact real.
Director, Mario Migliara, assembled a talented group of singers, musicians, costume designers, & crew, almost entirely from Italy. In our first rehearsal, Mario began by describing his concept for the opera, in Italian. He had already summarized this for me in a previous email, so even though I do not speak Italian fluently, I could follow what he was saying. A few minutes in, he stopped and asked me if I understood. "Yes!" I confidently replied. He proceeded to conduct the rest of the rehearsal in Italian! It was definitely challenging to keep up, but I know I ultimately impressed him with my musicianship, acting, and language skills. The conductor was equally pleased.
Overall, it was an extremely positive experience. I made several new friends that I remain in contact with today. I hope to appear with this company again as they may reprise Don Giovanni in the theater this spring, but I am also being considered for another role next summer. We shall see - stay tuned!
The Coronation of Poppea
Opera Vivente's production of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea closed Saturday evening to a sold out crowd, and then some - a new row was added down front right before the house opened to accommodate the overflow! This is my fourth show with Opera Vivente. I so enjoyed working with the stellar cast, crew, and capable directors, John Bowen and Joseph Gascho. The company is small and operates on a fairly modest budget, but still manages to produce gems, as evidenced by the favorable reviews the show received. Opera Vivente is one of the few local companies that is committed to showcasing local talent, and for that I could not be more grateful! Cupid, son of Venus, played by Joshua Garvey, conducted the above interview shot back stage right before the final scene. Following the performance Saturday, the cast headed over to The Mount Vernon Stable and Saloon for a final toast - Till next time!
The Inauguration Day Prayer Service, January 20, 2009 at 8:45am
Reverend Luis León greets the Obama's as they arrive at St. John's
My story begins January 20 at 4:00am, the time I awoke and readied myself for the Inauguration Day Prayer Service to be held at St. John's Episcopal Church later that morning. I had barely slept a wink, I was so excited. When I arrived at the metro station, to my amazement, there were already hundreds of people there. I smiled and thought, "I can't wait to see the National Mall later today"(When I purchased my fare card the night before, there were already at least a hundred people waiting in line to do the same).
I arrived at McPherson Square metro station at approximately 7:00am and walked one block to 16th and I Streets in time to check-in and receive my special security pass. I entered the parish house and told the secret service agent who approached the door that I was there to sing. He gently directed me back outside as I had somehow managed to get in without going through the metal detectors first! Once properly inspected, I joined the choir members who were gathering upstairs to rehearse the musical selections one last time. The rehearsal was very spirited, we were ready, ebullient as we got into our robes and went downstairs to the sanctuary.
As the fourteen of us stood there at the entrance to the sanctuary, I had such a feeling of peace and contentment, butterflies too, the church seemed especially bright with the morning sun shining through the stained glass window panes. We filed in two-by-two, past the Bidens who were seated to the far right in the front row. I was immediately aware that the space reserved for the Obama's was empty. We were briefly seated, only to be summoned a moment later by music director, Benjamin Hutto, to rise and sing our opening piece, a hymn set to a Kenyan melody, "Give Thanks Unto the Lord." Still no President.
When we finished singing, I tried to inconspicuously scan the room for any sign of the President and his wife. Many celebrity and political notables were in attendance, including Oprah Winfrey and Stedman, Adrian Fenty, Mayor of DC, Leon Panetta, CIA Director-designate, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, Timothy Geithner, Treasury Secretary-designate, and Episcopal Bishop, Gene Robinson, to name a few. The Obama's? Not there. Ben lifted his hands to conduct our second selection, Eric Whitacre's, "faith, hope, life, love," from Three Songs of Faith. The poem by e. e. cummings reads: faith, hope, life, love. . . dream, joy, truth, soul; so the entire piece contains only these eight words.
When we sang the word "love" tears sprang to my eyes, so much love was palpable in that room! Whitacre sets the word "joy" boldly and broadly. As the word formed in my mouth, I imbued it with the joy I felt, and my own personal joy was further lifted by the joy evoked by the musical setting and the joyous way we all sang together, creating this beautiful charge and recharge of emotion. By the time we reached the end of the song and closed to the final "L" of the word "soul," my whole being was buzzing and tingling, my heart was thumping in my chest and ears. I looked up and noticed that Jill Biden was visibly moved by the rendition. She exchanged glances with her son, Beau, while the Vice President simply nodded his head approvingly.
Only a few minutes had passed since the service had started, but it felt like we'd been waiting for an eternity, when the man of the hour, President Barack Obama, finally arrived. As he and Michelle entered the room, everyone spontaneously applauded. They were seated at the front next to the Biden's, and then we all rose to sing the opening hymn "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." I managed to read ahead while we sang the verses so I could look up from the music and take in as much as possible. He was like a prince robed in light, his full countenance was so radiant.
Reverend Dr. Luis León, St. John's Rector, began by welcoming both congregants and guests. He briefly discussed the history of St. John's, telling a few anecdotal stories about past Presidents that had worshiped at the church, and then turned his gaze to President Obama and said what an honor and pleasure it was to have him and his wife there. The invocation was then given by Bishop Charles E. Blake, Presiding Bishop, Church of God in Christ, Inc., Los Angeles, who asked that God bless the Obama's so that, "they may finish these next two terms in office." After the laughter subsided, he finished the invocation, and the choir sang our third and final anthem, "This Little Light of Mine," arranged by Moses Hogan. The choir was fully warmed up and totally "on" for this piece, and while Ben was admittedly more worried about pulling off the Hogan than the Whitacre, once we successfully established the right atmosphere with the rhythmic feel of the opening bars, it just sang itself. When we reached the first ending and returned to the head of the second verse, I saw Ben really give himself over to the moment, he looked like he was just so enjoying the music and the choir responded in turn. We received an email from him today in which he wrote,
Thanks and congratulations for your extraordinary singing yesterday at the Inauguration Day Prayer Service at St. John’s. It was a real joy for me to work with you to prepare and present the music for that service, which was such a poignant and appropriate way for us all to begin that historic day. I do not think you could have sung with more fervor, beauty or expressiveness, and, considering the talent pool in the choir, that is saying a lot. -Ben Hutto
The service was truly special. Distinguished church leaders from all faiths and from all over the nation participated. Just before the sermon, gospel artist, Yolanda Adams, sang "Open Up My Heart." She held the congregation in rapt attention, it was an unforgettable performance. She must have gotten the memo because, like Michelle Obama, she wore a stunning dress suit in a sunny shade of yellow. However, unlike Michelle who already stands at 5'11" without heels, Yolanda wore a pair of spiky heeled gold strappy shoes, the likes I had never seen at St. John's! They may not have been sensible, but they sure were pert-ty!
The next man who stood to speak, Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell, Senior Pastor, Windsor Village United Methodist Church, Houston, charged with introducing the keynote speaker, Bishop T. D. Jakes, Senior Pastor, The Potters House, Dallas, gave the most effusive glowing introduction I have EVER heard. Caldwell is truly a wordsmith, and the Bishop did not disappoint. His sermon drew upon lessons from the reading, Daniel 3:19-28. He talked about the difficult times ahead for the country and our new President, assuring us that we may be "entering the fire," but we won't be burned, because God is with us. At the close of the sermon, final blessings were offered and the Obama's stood to leave as the choir led the congregation in the final hymn, "God of Grace and God of Glory." I watched President Obama help his mother in-law with her coat, and he and Michelle turned down the aisle, shaking hands with everyone as they made their way out of the church. He was so reverent and gracious, so seemingly unaware that he was the center of all our attention.
As I returned to the choir room, I saw the same secret service agent who I'd met earlier that morning, and he said, "I'm so glad you made it!" "Me, too!" We laughed. Me, too.
God speed Mr. President, the world awaits!
The President and First Lady leaving St. John's At the Washington Monument watching the swearing in ceremony
Saint John's Episcopal Church
I am so excited to announce that I was invited to sing at the Presidential Inaugural Morning Worship Service to be held at Saint John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Historic Church of the Presidents. President Obama will attend the service at Saint John's just prior to the swearing in ceremony at the US Capitol. Musical selections will include Hope, Faith, Life, Love by Eric Whitacre and This Little Light of Mine arranged by Moses Hogan. As a former member of the esteemed Saint John's Choir, a professional choir comprised of 12 select singers from the DC metro area, I also sang at President George Bush Jr.'s second inaugural service. Return for a full report here on my blog following the festivities!
Happy New Year!
I returned home from Berlin just in time for the Christmas and New Year's holidays. My last weeks in Europe were busy, but extremely productive. I had auditions lined up immediately in Berlin, then flew to Paris to sing for Eva Wagner-Pasquier, great- granddaughter of Richard Wagner and co-chair of the Bayreuth Festival. I stayed with my friend, mezzo Andrea Hill, in her tiny, cozy, ooh-la-la, très chic flat. She was a fantastic hostess, we had so much fun catching up! I hadn't seen her in nearly two years, ever since she'd accepted an apprenticeship with the Paris National Opera.
Paris was followed by a trip to Salzburg for a coaching with famed soprano, Barbara Bonney. She was one of the judges at the Meistersinger Competition in Graz, Austria, summer 2007 (Click here to view my winning performance). We had a very productive session and I look forward to working with her again. I was back in Berlin only for the night and then returned to Mannheim for two more agent auditions, and a final visit with my friend, tenor Charles Reid, his wife, Julie, and their three kids. While in Mannheim, I also got to see Chuck play Tamino in a spirited production of Die Zauberflöte at the National Theater Mannheim where he has had a fest position for the last five years.
It was so hard to say goodbye to the Reid's, but before I could wax too nostalgic about it, I gathered my friends in Berlin together for a farewell round of Glühwein at the Weihnachtsmarkt at Schloss Charlottenburg. It was quite a send-off! The revelry continued well into the wee hours of the morning. I had only enough time the next day to do some last minute Christmas shopping and then pack for Amsterdam. I spent two beautiful days in Holland with old friends, reminiscing, celebrating the holiday season, and then flew home. In the final analysis, I made the most of my adventure, paving the way for more opportunities to come. Now that I have several agents interested in working on my behalf, I will return to Europe for house auditions through the spring - - - - Stay tuned!
Back in Berlin
Lisa and Joy after the Cosmos Club recital.
I arrived back in Berlin yesterday morning after a wonderful visit home for a concert at the Cosmos Club and Thanksgiving with my family. Pianist, Dr. Joy Puckett Schreier, and I delivered a fine performance at the Cosmos Club on November 19. The concert was well attended, and the space was absolutely gorgeous to sing in. Thank you, Joy, and Angela, for everything! I enjoyed Thanksgiving day immensely, lots of turkey and family fun. There's so much to be thankful for, including the fact that I'm here in Berlin doing what I'm doing. And, I'm so grateful for the opportunity to share it with you on my blog!