Almost four years ago I had the distinct pleasure of being chosen to participate as a vocalist at the Amalfi Coast Music and Arts Festival in Maiori, Italy. This is part of my journal during my time there…
PART 1: GO CONFIDENTLY IN THE DIRECTION OF YOUR DREAMS
So, here I am. Sitting in the Greenville/Spartanburg airport. It’s 7:25…I should have flown away 5 minutes ago. But my flight has been delayed due to mechanical something or other. So instead of buckling up and gazing out the window, preparing to be lulled into a good plane nap…I’m looking at this…
Yes, the ummm, BUSTLING Greenville/Spartanburg airport. I’ve never seen an airport surrounded by so much lovely greenery. When the taxi pulled up to the US Airways terminal, I looked around and asked my driver “Is this it?”. “Yeah. It ain’t big”, he replied. “It sure ain’t New York.” Truer words have never been spoken. It’s small, and full of very nice people. Including the US Airways attendants who politely informed me that my bag, overweight by 22 pounds, would cost me an extra $90. These same ladies patiently helped me redistribute my belongings so that I could avoid the $90 charge. These very same ladies squealed and gushed with 5-year-old delight when I told them I was in ‘The Lion King’. I had hoped name-dropping Mufasa as my play baby daddy might cause them to ease up a bit on the rules. Nope. Not this time.
So, I’m sitting here with two carry-on pieces full of the random items that made my checked luggage too heavy; novels, bar soap, hiking shoes, Italian and German diction books, a first aid kit, and other things one might need when taking a short pause for the cause from one’s day job (in this case, ‘The Lion King’, one of my DREAM GIGS…for real) to pursue one of the fantasies of a little girl who wanted, among other things, to sing like Leontyne.
Yep, that’s me. I used to sit in front of the television with my eyes glued to PBS or some other arts programming, mimicking Jessye, Leontyne, and the like. I didn’t know what they were doing and I didn’t know exactly how they were doing it. All I knew was I loved the way they sounded…and I could kinda sound like that. I never had any formal vocal training as a child. My first voice teacher EVER was in college. At the tender age of 18, when many singers I know already had diction and theory and arias and art songs and performances of the national anthem under their belts, I entered Howard University (BISON!) as a Musical Theatre major, with none of the above, hoping I’d achieve the dream of being an opera singer. And…well…it got me close. My eyes were cracked open just a tiny bit to all types of theatrical and artistic expression. I fell in love with acting and musical theatre. I had a wonderful teacher who informed me that I was a soprano (in every choir experience I’d ever had, I had been told I was an alto…I didn’t know…I just said ‘ok’ and kept it moving) and encouraged the development of my natural and very light soprano voice in the midst of others who encouraged me to…ahem…’sing the way God intended black people to sing’. Wow…all I knew was when I opened my mouth, something high and pretty to my own ears came out. But…that wasn’t the way God intended black people to sing? Talk about confusion. So, fast forward a bit, I put that opera/Leontyne/Jessye thing on hold and instead of exploring my own voice, spent lots of time trying to make my voice sound like…something else.
NOTE TO SELF and OTHERS: don’t ever do that!
I worked hard, graduated college, started auditioning, moved to NY and got lots of gigs. Every once in a while I’d work with some music director or friend who heard something in my voice that hadn’t really been explored and that person would encourage me in a direction that excited me. And scared me. I figured I was too old to start something new. Yeah, I know. How can 20-something be too old for anything? I thought maybe my voice was ruined from too much big, brassy, forced belting that I didn’t want to do but had to do in order to work because, after all, that’s how God intended black people to sing…right? I had been told by countless teachers that I couldn’t do both musical theatre and opera. I had to choose between two loves, one of which I had absolutely no experience in but every desire to pursue. And so I thought and hoped that maybe, one day, something magical would happen and I would wake up with an opportunity and the ability to, finally, sing like Leontyne.
Well, that day has come. It wasn’t magical, but blessed and pre-ordained. A cast mate of mine introduced me to her voice teacher in NY. After one lesson, my voice felt golden. He insisted that he only worked from a classical technique, he adored and had connections to Leontyne…ahem…Ms. Price, and he told me I had the goods. I took a lesson whenever possible and after a short while, noticed changes in my voice that re-ignited that passion. One day I made an off the cuff comment to a friend of mine. “I’d love to just go to Paris or some place and just do some sort of classical voice immersion.” I was serious, but it was a random comment and I had no idea how to make it happen. So once again, I tucked away my dream and my slight frustration and kept it moving. And then one day I performed a random google search for “opera immersion programs” and the first thing that popped up was The Amalfi Coast Music and Arts Festival. I did some research and found out that all I needed to apply was one aria and one other song of my choice. There was no maximum age requirement (many of the other programs I’d looked into in the past had an age cutoff somewhere in the late 20’s) and I was informed that this program was proud of the fact that they worked with singers of all levels. Great! Challenge: I had to figure out what to sing, record it and send it off…and the deadline was a week away! EEK! I decided on an aria that I’d worked on with my voice teacher and a co-worker suggested an up tempo spiritual that I was able to learn rather quickly. I worked on the songs with the Associate Conductor of The Lion King and we recorded them with one day to spare. The whole process screeched to a halt when I realized that the recorded aria, for some strange reason, hadn’t saved. Great! I’m auditioning for an opera program and my only aria is nowhere to be found. I was between shows on a two show day, tired, frustrated, and I had no interest in trying to record again. After a mini nervous breakdown, semi-convinced that I wasn’t supposed to apply, I said “Screw it. I’ll just send the one song that I have.” And that’s what I did.
And I got in!
And I can ONLY say ‘Thank you, Jesus’. I applied with less than the minimum requirement on the final day of application. One step closer to a dream, just like that.
I requested a short leave of absence from the dream day gig to pursue another dream. Ha! Miracle of miracles; to be granted a leave from your dream to pursue your dream!!
So the past couple of months have been full of preparation. German and Italian and French and Czech (yes, Czech) diction. Vocalizing like mad, stretching my range, disturbing my neighbors and my tour roommates (although, they say they enjoy hearing me). And in a few days, I will wake up on the Amalfi Coast. I’ll spend my days traipsing through Italian hills and singing pretty songs with the beauty of the Mediterranean as my backdrop. I’m ready for whatever happens, whether easy or difficult. I’m ready for my voice to be stretched and poked and prodded. I’m ready to get my feet wet in this opera thing. I’m ready to see if it is as amazing as I believe it is and to find out if it is, after all this time, something that I really want to pursue.
So, yeah, here I am, on the first leg of my journey…going confidently in the direction of a dream that’s been lying dormant for quite some time.
Oh look! It’s time to board!
PART 2: MY DEBUT
“…watching you experience this is like watching a baby bird learn how to fly. or better yet, watching a caged bird embody its freedom when the cage door is open. there’s the tentative exploration. it extends its wings to stretch and feel its own power. then it starts to fly. after being surprised at what it’s capable of it then realizes that it has always had the strength to go beyond the cage. freedom. and i feel that there is no greater gift to give than freedom. you have given this gift to yourself. and i’m so glad you did…”
This is what a co-worker wrote to me in regards to my venturing into this world of classical music; a world that I have, for so long, dreamed of existing in. Thus far, this music festival that has plunged me into this world has been, all at once, exhilarating and overwhelming and quite emotional and so rewarding. And it’s only been 3 days!!
I began the week with a 10:30am coaching. Coming from my Lion King world, I’m certainly not used to singing anywhere around 10am. But I woke up, sucked it up, and prepared myself as best I could to be coached on a french aria, “Adieu, Notre Petite Table” from ‘Manon’. It’s a beautiful song that I’ve been familiar with and have wanted to sing for quite some time. I can remember when I was studying musical theatre in college, my voice teacher said to me (in regards to some song that I cannot recall) “I want to hear the tears in your voice.” At that time, as a very green singer, I understood what he meant on an intellectual level, but had no idea how to make that happen in my voice. Then, years later, I was watching the Classic Arts Showcase and I witnessed Renee Fleming sing this song in a production of ‘Manon’. At that moment I knew exactly what my voice teacher had meant when he said he wanted to hear the tears in my voice. I heard the tears, not so much in the notes that she sang, but in the silence, in the stillness, in her resolve, and in her breath. At that moment, I fell in love with Ms. Fleming’s artistry and this song. So, to finally have an opportunity to sing it is simply divine.
So…back to the coaching. It was…tedious. Every single thing about my presentation of the song was scrutinized-from my breath to my pacing to the ‘musical theatre-isms’ that I have because, well, I do musical theatre for a living-all these things that don’t work quite so well in a classical context were brought to my attention. Later that day, my voice teacher picked apart my French diction, my breathing and gave me new vocal exercises and worked on my technique to help prepare me for my first performance here in Italy as well as build my voice further.
And yesterday was the day. My debut as a classical singer, in Italy of all places. In my final rehearsal with myself there were LOTS of nerves, almost to the point of wanting to back out. But I recognized the fear that was rising up in me as something that has stopped me before. And, in the words of Sweet Brown, “ain’t nobody got time for that!!” I said a prayer, gave myself a stern talking-to, reminded myself that I was capable of everything I had been asked to do, and prepared myself.
The performance went quite well. To my very critical ears it was far from perfect, far from the standard that I wanted to reach, but I was happy with how I sang and my teacher was also quite pleased. And I was pleasantly surprised by the response of the audience when the concert was over. I received lots of compliments. People told me they loved my voice, they loved my poise and presence. But the comment that sticks with me the most was from one of my fellow students. She simply said that she believed me. As an actor and singer, my job is to tell the story. Throughout my career, I have watched many a singer/actor perform a scene or sing a song and felt that they weren’t invested in what they were saying or doing. I simply did not believe that they, the actor, were truly in the circumstance they were portraying. So to be told that someone could tell that I was invested and that they believed me, that’s high praise for me. Truly high praise.
I believe that what I have, the ability to sing and interpret a story through song, is a gift and a responsibility. I want to know that I’ve taken what God has given me and developed it to the very best of my ability so that it can reach the very height of it’s ability. I want God to know that I cherish it and strive to be a good steward over it. I want to use it to inspire, encourage, touch, heal, and bring joy to anyone who encounters it, myself included!
I don’t know how many people reading this have ever truly experienced a dream of their own coming true. But this life that I’m living right now, this beautiful place, this work, this attention to detail and this ability to stand in front of a room full of people, open my mouth, and let my own voice sing, is a dream come true. It is an exploration of what has always been there. It is freedom. It is not perfect as there is no such thing. But, it’s mine and it’s just the beginning. I pray that everyone can, at some point in their own life, experience the overwhelming joy that comes with this territory.
PART 3: TELL THE STORY
So, my whole reason for coming to Italy (this time around) has come to a close. Wednesday was the final day at The Amalfi Coast Music and Arts Festival in Maiori, Italy. It was such a wonderful experience to work with teachers and coaches who are truly masters in their fields and watch myself grow alongside students (most of whom are younger than me) who have been studying this way for a long time. I could go on and on about vocal technique, appropriate breathing technique, diction, the perfect vowel sounds, technical knowledge of music, etc, etc, etc. All those things are valid and important for a singer. But I have to say, I think my most important lesson from this experience is to take the talent and ability that I already have and infuse it into everything that I do. Well, duh!!
I went to The Amalfi Coast to work from a classical technique and repertoire and to improve my vocal technique with music that I don’t sing on a regular basis. What is quite interesting to me is that the performance that received the most accolades, the one that people were still talking about days later, was a song from the musical theatre repertoire. Yes. I came all the way to the other side of the world to sing classical music, and people rave about a song from a musical?!?! Of course, I’m honored and humbled by the response I got because it’s a song that’s close to my heart, but I came here to sing opera!!! Yes, I know. This is not a real problem. 😂😂😂 What I learned, though, is that my ability to communicate the story and the intense emotion of that song is something that I need to infuse in every piece that I do, whether from a musical or an opera, whether an art song or traditional spiritual. It’s all about telling the story.
In my mind, this style of music has been placed on a pedestal so high that I felt like I had to go to a place far outside of myself to produce it in an acceptable way. And in doing so, some things were not communicated as effectively as I would have liked them to be. So I’ve decided to take it off the pedestal, stop thinking of every aspect of it, (the language, the breathing technique, the diction, blah, blah, blah) in a way that scares me and makes me feel like I can’t do it, bring it back down to a human level and just tell the story. And this is why I will keep working. The goal is to have all the technical shtuff figured out so that I can move through my voice and not have to wonder if everything will come out “correctly”. Of course, there will always be something to work on. Your most favorite singer in the world, regardless of their style, still has to go back to basics at some point. That is work that will never end. But at the end of the day, I just want to tell the story. I don’t care if it’s in English or German, has high notes or low, is very simple or full of musical complexities. If it’s a story that I’ve chosen to tell, I want to communicate it in a way that allows people an opportunity to experience it through me. So, yeah. That’s the goal! So far, I’m enjoying the journey!! And I have the beauty of the Amalfi Coast to spur me onward.