Coconuts and connection

While lying in a hot bath one chilly November morning in Seattle, trying to soothe my jet-lagged body before a concert and catching up on back issues of the New Yorker, I read the following:

“What are you doing? I don’t mean what are you doing with your life, or in general, but what are you doing right now? The answer, in one respect, is simple enough: you’re reading this magazine. Obviously. From a certain economic perspective, however, you’re doing something else, something you don’t realize, something with a sneaky motive that you aren’t admitting to yourself: you are signaling. You are sending signals about the kind of person you are, or want to be. What’s that you say—you’re reading this in the bath, or on your phone in bed, or otherwise in private? Well, the same argument applies. You are acquiring the tools for a ‘fitness display.’ … Fitness displays ‘can be used to woo mates, of course, but they also serve other purposes like attracting allies or intimidating rivals.’ So there you go: that’s what you’re doing, there in the bath with the magazine. Your rivals are right to feel intimidated.” (John Lanchester)

Intimidated! I burst out laughing and sank deeper into the water, and my eyes rested on my chipping toenail polish: a saturated, dramatic dark blue, most of which was already worn away. The blue might be a signal, too, it occurred to me (rivals, feel intimidated!), and the lack of maintenance yet another (I’ve had too much on my mind since the summer to think about my toes).

The polish had been applied three months earlier at a salon in Buenos Aires where I got the best pedicure of my life. I was in Argentina for concerts, and I had made a date at the salon with a friend who happened to be in Buenos Aires as well on an unrelated gig. We had met in Rouen in the spring, when she was singing Blondchen to my Konstanze. Pauline is an exceptionally lovely singer, colleague, and person, a refined and beautiful French coloratura. That day in Buenos Aires, she chose a soft pink polish for her toes, a funny contrast to my goth blue-black. I snapped a photo of our feet, giggling, and then fired off the photo to the Entführung cast and crew chat group, with the following caption:

“I took Pauline for her first pedicure, and the colors we chose indicate that she’s the princess and I’m the wicked queen.”

Quickly, from another continent, laugh emojis piled up, along with one reply from the director, who had made a habit during the production of seeing straight into my soul: “who had ever doubted that?”

Which am I, actually? Am I a princess or a wicked queen? Or an awkward misfit, a loving friend and partner, a femme fatale, a manic pixie dream girl, a glasses-wearing nobody, an influencer, a domestic goddess, a nerd, an idea generator, an anonymous worker bee, a flamboyant diva, an intimidating boss lady, or some other archetype? Surely I’ve been all of those things at various moments, to others and to myself, and have reinforced people’s perceptions by certain behaviors. Konstanze is the “lead” role of Entführung, ostensibly noble and pure of heart and purpose, talking endlessly about her faithfulness to her lost fiancé. But under her straightforward words, her music seethes with indecision, resentment, entitlement, disorientation, boredom, violence toward herself and others, and ambivalence about her happy ending when it comes. What signals is she sending? Does she wear dark, brooding blue nail polish? Does she read New Yorkers in the bath to woo her allies and intimidate her enemies? I have spent this last year getting inside the character of Konstanze, relating to her in startlingly personal ways. Is she me, and if not, what am I? How much of my idea of myself is actually who I am and what I’ve chosen, and how much is formed by the peculiarities of my work, which associates voice type (a physiological designation) with archetypical character traits?

We all like to think that we’re living out a story, a coherent narrative, instead of just blindly bumping through our days from birth to death. So we tend to impose narratives on our lives, to try to identify the beginning and middle and end, and to impart intention and forethought to our actions. It’s why we love stories and archetypes. But I’m coming to realize that actually, we’re all just muddling through as best we can, responding to stimuli with neurological, hormonal and behavioral impulses so hard-wired that we would never realize they weren’t our own choices. A book I’ve been reading (From Bacteria to Bach, by David Dennett—highly recommended) goes deep into the evolutionary reasons for this, while also poking holes in our belief in individual agency, free will, and self-importance.

“We tend to see what we chose to do (a chess move, a purchase, parrying a blow) to have been just the right move at the right time, and we have no difficulty explaining to ourselves and others how we figured it out in advance, but when we do this we may often be snatching a free-floating rationale out of thin air and pasting it, retrospectively, into our subjective experience.”

Even massive, storied human achievements, Dennett argues, like the building of the pyramids, and even the works of seemingly individual geniuses like J. S. Bach or Alan Turing, come about as an aggregate of human experience and accumulated knowledge, rather than as any one person’s or group’s single intelligent effort or choice. They weren’t necessarily invented, they were shaped, as a planet is shaped to be spherical by the forces acting on it.

“We are indeed living in the age of intelligent design, and it goes back several millenia—as far back as we have documentation. The builders of the pyramids knew what they were doing and had articulated goals and plans, which they understood and executed with precision, organizing thousands of human workers in a process … [that] relied on top-down control and an impressive level of comprehension. That is not to say that the pyramid builders didn’t rely on a massive amount of know-how—memes—that had been refined and optimized by relatively mindless differential replication over earlier millenia. … We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the authors of these treatises were often the inventors or designers of the principles and practices they teach.”

And out of this discussion of aggregate rather than individual forces comes an explanation of why we people—each of us much more worker bee than queen, wicked or otherwise, or any other particular archetype—make stories, why we talk to ourselves, why we question our motives and actions, why we narrate our lives as we live them.

“[Imagine ancestors who], having acquired the habit of asking simple questions when they were stumped about something, discovered that sometimes they discovered the answers they were seeking even when no one else was there to hear them. They found themselves answering their own questions. They invented talking to themselves, which had some immediate—and immediately appreciated—benefits. … The practice of talking to yourself creates new channels of communication that may, on occasion, tease the hidden knowledge into the open. … ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’ is a stock comic phrase in the aftermath of big mistakes, but far from being a badge of stupidity, this rueful phrase, if uttered truthfully, is a clear mark of intelligence; a thinker who can accurately recall what she actually thought and how she felt about it is more than halfway to taking a major step toward debugging her own thought processes so she won’t fall in that trap again. … Our practice of explicit self-questioning has the further huge advantage of making our broodings more readily memorable, so that we can review them with hindsight.”

A-ha.

I’ve had a strange year, a year of much growth and much gain and much loss, a year of questioning everything and trying to make sense of my assumptions and capabilities and desires. At the end of 2018, I can look back and be grateful for a lot of it, and for my ability to reflect on it; but sometimes I’ve been too quick to try to process it, blog about it, make a story from it, even while I was in the middle of something, and maybe that’s a bit dangerous. Not just because the writing is personal and published on my professional website—I’ve accepted that and I find it valuable, and I know other people do, too—but because I know I can sometimes, with this blog, over-mythologize my work process. I can rationalize the things that have happened to me, and the choices I’ve made, according to narratives and reasons that weren’t actually present in the moment but were pasted on later according to the result. There’s something inherently disingenuous about trying to create autobiographical stories about your own life with a beginning, middle, end, moral arc, or instructive lesson.

Nevertheless, I keep forming stories about myself, as most of us do. I write here to make my work as a classical soprano, which is often not well understood, more transparent, but there are other reasons. I write to troubleshoot and de-bug my own work; reflecting on my own reasons for doing things, and on the outcomes of my actions, is a kind of talking to myself, a sort of “it seemed like a good idea at the time,” that can help me improve and streamline my processes. I write as a kind of signaling, like the dark blue nail polish or the reading of high-brow nonfiction or any of the other millions of things we all do knowing that others are observing our behaviors. I write to help people who don’t know me get an idea of what I’m like and the kinds of things I think about and find important. I write to attract work offers and deepen relationships with like-minded people. I write because my singing, the sounds I make, the musical choices audible in my recordings and performances, are not the whole story of who I am. You think my singing sounds like a princess, or like a diva, or like an anonymous nobody? Open up my blog and pour yourself a cup of strong coffee. Let me show you that I’m also actually a wicked queen, or a loving friend, or an idea generator, or a boss lady. I am eternally a messy combination of what I think I am, or what I’d like to be, and what my capabilities and biases and shortcomings actually allow. I’ve learned that it’s professionally advantageous to me when people, especially potential collaborators, understand that—much more than when I try to market myself as an easily-classified single type of singer, even though it also complicates what I’m “selling.” That’s part of the reason I started this blog in the first place.

Drew (the baritone of Damask) and I talk about this constantly… about the tension between our ideas of ourselves as singers and the reality of how we spend our time. Neither of our careers is easily narrated, and not fitting into a box can be uncomfortable. We can’t really visualize our own lives as rolling along a pre-formed track, since every singer has a slightly different path according to their own abilities and quirks, and you can’t know the outcome of your story when you’re in the middle of it. That means that there’s probably no knowing it, not finally, not ever; it’s just lived experience, despite our constant attempts, while doing the self-promotion necessary for getting work, to tell a clear story about ourselves and what we do and what we offer.

This summer I worked on Bernstein’s Candide, singing Cunégonde for the first time. Talk about someone who has a troubled relationship with archetypes! Cunégonde sings a whole aria, the most famous music in the show, about the tension between her archetypical idea of herself (a wronged noblewoman fallen from grace) and her actual desires, choices, and situation, which are much more complicated. In the end, her fractured realities become their own myth, their own identity, a different Cunégonde, as Konstanze’s also do. Neither woman is a flat character, although they’re often played that way. They are both women who have to come up with responses to impossibly traumatic situations, responses that in both cases end up being an imprecisely calibrated, messy combination of how they think they should be and what they actually do and want. Just like all of us—including Voltaire, Bernstein, and Mozart.

In preparation for the opera, I re-read Voltaire’s Candide, which I had read in high school French class. One of the most sympathetic characters is Cacambo, refreshingly unpretentious, clear-eyed, endlessly resourceful. He spends much of the book finding practical solutions to problems that seem impossible to Candide, who is blinded by the problematic philosophies of Dr. Pangloss. When he and Candide are stuck in an impenetrable jungle, Cacambo finds the way out, with the following line:

“I see an empty canoe on the bank; let us fill it with coconuts, throw ourselves in, and let the current take us. … If we don’t find anything pleasant, we are sure to find something new.”

I love this line, and also it rang familiar. After quite a while, I remembered that I had submitted it as part of my “senior quote,” snippets of text that we could choose to have printed next to our picture in the yearbook for our final year of high school. I hadn’t been able to choose, so I submitted two: one this line, and the other the matchless, eternal exhortation of E. M. Forster, another writer who embraced the tension between what we feel and what we know, or think we know: “Only connect.” The Forster, more fully:

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

Forster is talking not about connections between people, particularly, but between the disparate parts of ourselves, including all the ugly or unfashionable or taboo bits. Apparently, I’ve been preoccupied for my whole life with the tension of having too many sides. So much of our action is driven by non-linear desire for novelty, by following a spark of connection, by the need to signal and position ourselves; but so much self-knowledge is suppressed when we try to make our experience fit a narrative archetype. Neither I nor my singing career is an easy story with a beginning, middle, and end, a moral arc, and an instructive lesson.

It does seem that 2018 has been a turning-point year, one in which I experienced profound change. My musings here, plus some brutal self-honesty that’s beyond the scope of this blog, have helped me come to terms with it and understand it. It seems, looking ahead, that 2019 will represent a new stage—in terms of profile, confidence, and work that I’ve specifically sought out and chosen rather than what comes to me without effort—and that’s exciting. I feel ready for it. But I’m taking this moment, at the end of the year (though still very much in the middle of the work and feelings and challenges of 2018), to remind myself that my career isn’t a story that needs a tidy narrative, here on the blog or anywhere else. It’s a mess and can only ever be taken one day at a time—and reflecting on it, even imperfectly, helps me de-bug.

Recently I’ve read many accounts of other people’s work processes, in many media, and there’s a common thread. Even when there is passion and talent and intelligence and intention, everyone figures it out as they go, no one is simply executing a plan or living out a predetermined narrative, and all of us have to get through one day at a time, clinging over the years to what few threads of self-awareness and certainty come—and those probably not at all what we expected. But we can still end up with a life and body of work to be proud of, no matter how fractured or incomplete the process, no matter that each of our contributions is just a slightly varied pastiche of collective human knowledge. This (from another New Yorker article, of course!) about the film director Luca Guadagnino:

“When Guadagnino starts a movie, he works to build up the layers of a world with intense specificitythe feel of the buildings, the labels of the shirtsin order to help the characters find their pleasures and defenses among them.”

 

about failure and adaptation: “In the space of a few minutes, the project had started to fall apart … Guadagnino gazed wistfully out the window for a few seconds. ‘A terrible waste, because the actors are amazing,’ he said. Then he shrugged. In his younger years, he would have hustled to accommodate a rush request‘to be the good-will guy’but he now considered this folly. With experience, you learned what you needed in order to do your best work, and you learned to claim it.”

 

about resisting control: “‘You see that [Ingmar] Bergman is constantly lost, and has no shame about that.’ … Guadagnino decided that he would allow himself to be vulnerable and open, like Bergman. … He would dispense with storyboards and shot lists and would be free, even under scrutiny, to feel decisions out.” (Nathan Heller)

Let’s embrace the goth nail polish and the lack of top-down control and the blind following of instincts and the necessity of signalling. Let’s not worry too much about the storyboard or the outcome. Let’s be the wicked queen and the princess and the whore and the mother and the boss and the nobody, moment to moment, as we need. Let’s fill our canoe with coconuts. Let’s only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.