In Kyoto, / hearing the cuckoo, / I long for Kyoto. —Basho
Previously, I used my current production of Entführung as a lens for some musings on identity: how a character can change us, and then about some of the challenges of physicalizing such a piece of music. I’ve known there was a third post I needed to write, the most personal one (strange when the others were about love and body image!), and it’s taken some time for it to come. Now that it’s all out, I realize that it is 1. the longest (sorry!) and 2. the most important—that is, it’s the most specific to my own experience; it’s the story that only I can tell. We open tomorrow night, and I’m glad to have verbalized these thoughts at last in this space. For a singer, this is pretty vulnerable: talking about the intersection of identity and the voice itself.
First, a memory that is pre-music, or outside of music.
I was a painfully shy kid, which made it all the more special to have a very tight-knit group of neighborhood friends growing up. We called ourselves the Circle Gang, and we played Capture the Flag, baseball, badminton, and hide and seek, made up little plays and stories, and sledded down our backyard hill on a bed of pine needles—because snow in North Carolina is rare, but it doesn’t mean you have to deny yourself the joy of sledding. On days that were rainy or too hot, we played board games inside, and we designed all manner of bizarre contraptions, most triumphantly a go-kart we called the Mosquito that was built from plywood, a roller skate cut in half, and some wheels off a rusting lawnmower. It was almost idyllic, in hindsight. But even during some of those long summer afternoons, I would sometimes be stabbed suddenly by the painful feeling that this wasn’t permanent—a feeling of nostalgia for the present moment. There were occasional internal problems, of course—fights, crushes that got out of hand, competition that turned nasty—and the group as such didn’t last past our adolescence. Eventually people moved away, withdrew, and made new friends.
It was a particular moment in a particular place, but it was defining for us all, I think. There must have been one final time that the whole group was together, playing outside. I don’t remember it, because it was probably much like all the other times, but there had to have been a last time, after which our numbers reduced, the vibe changed, we all grew up.
Nothing is permanent. This was (is) a hard lesson for me to learn. I cling tenaciously to things I love, especially things that have helped define my identity for a while—the Circle Gang, but also other things: a part-time movie theater job that made me a film nerd, some bizarre college fashion choices, cooking as a way of showing love. And, significantly, I’ve held on tightly—too tightly, maybe—to every iteration of myself as a singer and musician. I’ve gone through so many stages of development, so many fluctuations of interest and ability, that I’ve sometimes joked that I have a musical identity crisis once or twice a year. In fact, it’s not really a joke.
For the first half of my life, my musical identity was mostly choral singing. From age ten onward, I did a lot of it, and more every year. I was lucky to grow up in a place where the arts were pretty well-supported in the public schools, and where there were various state-funded opportunities for gifted kids in the arts. My parents started me on piano lessons early and switched me to voice lessons when it became clear that was becoming a stronger interest. I talked my way into a couple of local amateur choirs who found my nerdy eagerness endearing. So I had logged a lot of singing hours by the time I graduated from high school. Singing helped me relax, helped me overcome my awkwardness and social anxiety and use my voice in a way that felt safe—I knew that my contribution was valuable, and I loved that I could let go of the confusing, ego-ridden worries of adolescence and focus on making something beautiful with others. And I was good at it, which gave me confidence. I was especially singled out for my great ear and ease with notation—I could sight-read anything, I could hold a harmony part immediately, I could intuitively understand musical structure and sing in a way that reinforced it.
All of these feelings intensified in college, where I was fiercely loyal to my choir, the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, a sixty-ish-voice auditioned group. I believed there was no higher musical calling than slotting your own voice into place with others’, making minute timbral adjustments for the most perfect uniformity, spending hours of rehearsal time on intonation and articulation, shaping a perfect musical gesture with a group of eight singers, or sixty, or anything in between. But I sometimes still had those weird stabs of longing for the moment I was in—the Basho poem again. There were a handful of pieces we sang over and over that made me cry copiously—and it wasn’t just the music, beautiful as it was. I would look around as I sang, see the faces of these people I’d become close to, and have the feeling that nothing could match the beauty of this moment; and I’d grieve for my future self that wouldn’t be able to do this any more.
(Brucker: Os justi, 2003)
Despite my loyalty, I wasn’t always musically satisfied in the choir, and became less so as the years went by. I began to chafe at the endless rehearsal, at the repetition of repertoire. And my voice, body, and musical interests were still changing. My sound was getting a little loud, even in a group of sixty, and it was getting harder for me to pull my sound back to match the rest; I started to look for ways of making music in smaller configurations where I had a little more vocal freedom and could work at a faster pace. I started to do more small-ensemble singing, which I loved—a lot of Bach and Schütz and earlier polyphony. I was enjoying my music theory classes and wondering if I’d want to go into academia. I tried composition for a little while. I sang in the chorus of La Boheme. I conducted a chamber choir. I was a programmer and deejay in the classical department of the college radio station. I started to seek out information about the intersection of music and history. I was fascinated by Stravinsky. I sight-read Renaissance motets late into the night with whoever else was game in resonant spaces around campus. I stumbled into opera more seriously when, during a stint as a costume designer on a student production of Cenerentola, the lead singer was sick during a critical orchestral rehearsal. The conductor, a friend, asked if I wanted to sight-read the big final aria, “Non piu mesta,” to give the orchestra a chance to hear it. I gamely grabbed a score, stepped into the middle of the stage, and for the next ten minutes, did my best with the crazy runs while the rest of the cast danced around me. It was so insanely fun, and I got a prolonged ovation at the end—my vanity was flattered and my voice immediately began to hunger for more. The next year, I sang Fiordiligi with the same conductor—my first opera role.
What a rich and lucky time, right? Even though I had experienced a lot of upheaval of identity, I was devastated to leave Harvard after those four years. I had a very nice plan lined up afterward—moving to London to study early music at Guildhall, funded by a large and generous scholarship I’d won from the Harvard music department, a move that boded well for a potential performance career—but I could not stop crying in the final weeks of undergrad. I felt like I was abandoning the identity I had nurtured and loved and that had found a happy nest. It felt like the end of an era, the end of myself. And it was, actually. I have sung Bruckner’s Os justi a number of times since, but never with the same feeling.
In London, I was thrust into the rude world of conservatory training for the first time. I arrived pretty confident that I knew what there was to know about music and singing (what a bunch of little jerks we were in the year or two immediately after leaving Harvard!), but then I spent a hard two years at Guildhall learning how little I knew, being massively humbled. Suddenly, I was hanging out with people who had spent their adolescent and college years working hard on technical practice, and they were miles ahead of me. I had a lovely teacher who kindly but firmly tried to impress on me that the way I sang wasn’t sustainable, it wasn’t up to my potential, it wasn’t rigorous or well-informed, and that the qualities that make a successful choral singer don’t translate into solo repertoire—or even small ensemble repertoire, which is what I wanted to sing at the time.
This teacher was the first to really try to hammer home a different understanding of legato. The very concept made me angry and stubborn. It wasn’t just the opposite of staccato, she kept saying—it’s a technical and physical goal, a different way of using the body, a more musical and better way of singing. I still thought a bit like a choral conductor: I prioritized precision, intonation, style, and lightness of touch over vocal line. Legato as she described it seemed to put a singer’s bizarre physical peculiarities on a higher plane than the music itself.
But eventually these lessons, and the fact that I loved and trusted this teacher, began to manifest in my sound, which started to change. I found more sound than I knew I had. My high notes began to sparkle. I would listen to totally unfamiliar repertoire and then find a score and try to sing it. I got interested in rhetoric, in the dramatic possibilities of sound and silence in solo repertoire, in highly expressionistic music. I still didn’t know much about what really suited my voice, but the major shift was that I now was willing to try new things, and I could find beauty in almost any kind of music, once I started to listen. All this change also meant more shedding of identity, and more grieving. My own sound seemed less beautiful to me, less reliable, and less “perfect” than an ideal I’d honed over many years, and I didn’t know where I wanted it to go or where it was capable of going. I grew disenchanted with the London scene of professional musicians—everyone was so musically quick that we never rehearsed, which led to a lot of superficial performances. I remember one day at a church gig, singing the Purcell Funeral Sentences (a piece I knew so, so well) with a consort of lovely but disengaged voices, and having again the stabbing feeling that I was doing something that part of me loved, and part of me was already beginning to reject or leave behind.
(d’India: Lamento d’Olimpia, 2005)
Knowing I needed to keep training but wanting to be back in the US, I wound up in New York at Mannes, where I realized quickly that my confrontations with musical identity were just beginning. I had a famous teacher who helped me enormously for a year or two and then grew tired of me, as I wasn’t bending my will to hers enough to make progress as swift as she wanted. She didn’t care about my musical interests and saw them as an obstacle to my vocal development. Luckily, Mannes was full of supportive people who *did* value my quirks and helped me navigate this tricky teacher for a few years, get what I could from her (which was a lot), and then propped me up when the relationship finally soured beyond repair.
Outside of my voice lessons, I was pulled in several other strong directions that sometimes conflicted with the technical work. The most important was a church job at Trinity Wall Street that turned into my tribe, my community, the first group of professional musicians in New York who really got me. It was a good job and a demanding one, allowing me to live almost entirely off my earnings as a singer for the first time; and it required a lot of vocal manipulation, covering, thinning out and straightening, to make the “house” ensemble sound. My Mannes teacher hated that I was doing choral singing, because all this manipulation made it harder for her teaching to take—she was striving for freedom in the throat, and this job limited that. But for me it was complicated: I was working as a professional singer, I was happy, I loved my colleagues, the level of music-making and concentration was very high, and I felt valued there, maybe more than I did at school. I was doing these things that had been dreams for a long time—singing early music, singing small ensemble music, both at a high level; getting paid a good salary to do it; and getting lots of great solo opportunities. So I resisted her. I stayed in the job for quite a while and really built my identity in New York around that work—maybe more than around my studies.
(Handel: Rejoice greatly, 2008)
This conflict—between the many different types of singer one could be—turns out to be the central conflict of my musical identity, and it was in sharpest focus during those New York years. Despite the dire pronouncements of my teacher, I did still manage to make a lot of progress, technically, while holding down a demanding schedule as a gigging singer in New York. My sound grew exponentially. I began to add strength and lyricism to my agility and easy top. Earlier, I had learned to speak the working language of ensemble singing and of chamber music with early instruments; now I began to learn the language of pianists with whom I was exploring the rich song repertoire, and of modern players with whom I spent a year learning Pierrot Lunaire. I listened ravenously, I fell in love with Schoenberg and other barrier-breaking early 20th-century Romantics, I started chamber ensembles, I continually challenged myself, I tried out wildly virtuosic arias in the practice room, I helped commission new pieces, and I continued to hate when people tried to draw lines around me. I had a new teacher who got me, who could raise me up technically while helping limit the damage I did to myself with overwork and outsized ambition. I resisted specialization. I wanted to do it all. I gave some recitals during those years that I’m still very proud of; I began to get some young-artist type work as a soloist for the first time; I sang a lot of Messiahs. Simultaneously, I sang in many professional choruses and lived comfortably off that work. At times, it felt like a double life, and I felt like I was getting away with something taboo and forbidden. But, tellingly, I didn’t make progress in the one part of the rep that is the traditional marker of success: I didn’t sing any Italian opera, or even any Mozart, outside of the practice room or my scenes classes.
(Medtner: Winternacht, 2010)
I have nothing to be ashamed of from this time, except maybe my own willfulness. But still, my memories of my New York years are haunted by some sort of guilt, a feeling that I was spinning my wheels—that by refusing to decide whether I would make a professional life as a soloist or a chorister, I was preventing myself from reaching my potential in either field. I resisted this insinuation loudly and at length, but so strong were the voices of dissent within the conservatory environment, and so strong did the divide feel between my colleagues who were already working and my fellow students who were maniacally focused on pursuing opera careers in the standard 19th-century rep, that it still feels like each side cast shade on the other—it still, in fact, feels like there were two “sides.”
Why are there “sides”? Why do we feel, in music, like we have to pick a team early on and stick to it, and everyone who’s not on our team (the opera team, the choral singer team, the early-music team, the new-music team, the crossover team, the lieder team, the singer-songwriter team, the music-theater team, the pop-music team) is an enemy or somehow in a different field? We’re all performing artists with many shared skills and loves. My life would be immeasurably poorer if I had limited my experiences to just one or two micro-fields. I could name right now fifty people who had a huge influence on my vocal and musical development, and they come from all “sides,” all “teams,” all specialties, and all stages of my development, up to this very week. Despite my continual battles with musical and vocal identity, I am so grateful that I had all those struggles—that I had the opportunity to redefine myself so many times, to step back from my assumptions and take stock of myself anew, to grieve my older dreams that, even when realized, were giving way to new ones; to love so many kinds of music and music-making so well and so passionately. I have been so lucky—I have sung and listened to so much beautiful music; I have been so moved by so many different kinds of performance; and I have been able to move others with my singing in many different styles. I would never trade all of this away, not for any measure of “success” or fame or fortune. Some part of me knew that, all along, which is why I was never permanently defeated by any one disappointment, any bullying interaction with a teacher, during this long and vulnerable process. But the certainty I feel now came late—too late to prevent a lot of pain, soul-searching, feeling like a failure, desperately trying for auditions I wasn’t prepared for and wasn’t excited about… looking for work in the wrong places, sometimes undervaluing the work I did have, not knowing who to trust… a lot of identity crisis, in fact.
It probably is true that maintaining such a huge repertoire did slow down my vocal development as a soloist. It certainly did limit me in some of the traditional ways of building an opera career, like winning competitions—to do that well, you really do have to focus your effort on a very limited list of pieces, and I didn’t have the patience for that for a long time. (I’ve only started to win competitions in the last five years, right around the time that I’m aging out of many of them.) Eventually, I amicably quit my job at Trinity, thanks to a frank conversation with the contractor there, who would have loved me to stay but knew that I was limiting myself; he cared more that I get out and spread my wings. This was another moment of grieving, of shedding an identity, of trying to understand that my needs were shifting. I couldn’t, in fact, do it all, at least not at an equally high level.
The New York conflict surfaced again, but thankfully in a more limited and more grown-up way, in Europe. I moved to the Netherlands in 2012 without having lined up any work beforehand. A year went by in which I found a new teacher and did a lot of necessary technical work I hadn’t had time for while on the gigging New York hamster wheel. But I didn’t win any auditions, and the work I had maintained back in the US was dwindling, and I was getting desperate and feeling, again, like a failure. Despite having tried to put this chapter of my life behind me in New York, I began to audition for, and get, choral/ensemble work in the Netherlands—this was, at least, something I knew how to do very well. This work solved so many problems in those first few years. It made me happy, it introduced me to a huge and lovely bunch of colleagues all at once, it renewed my confidence, it got me started on learning Dutch, it paid well, it kept me musically interested. And a lot of solo work came from it, too—I became known immediately as someone who could step out from the chorus and sing the solo when someone got sick or canceled, which happened on my very first gig with Cappella Amsterdam. I was surprised at how this all felt, both personally and professionally–good, less complicated than before, quieter, less fiercely emotional, satisfying. For the first time, I had re-assumed a part of my identity I’d left behind.
Since then, my work in Europe has filled out again to include a little bit of everything I love. I feel immensely grateful for this. I co-founded a chamber group, Damask, that is satisfying and challenging me in ways I’ve never experienced before—I can think about all the subtle questions of timbre, of subsuming ego in favor of something greater than the sum of its parts, that I loved in high school and college, but this time within the context of my adult solo voice and all its color, with three other singers I love and admire so much I can hardly stand it. (Four, in fact, including a co-founder who’s moved on to other things.) I’ve had some nice oratorio jobs (though I’d love more), a lot of super-interesting experimental opera and theater that’s continuing to stretch my fitness and my courage, a whole lot of really wonderful chamber music and song, and enough exciting jump-ins that it keeps my adrenaline high and my sight-reading game strong. I was asked to collaborate on a new composition and could probably do more of that if I want. I found a conductor who loves how I sing opera—yes, all the standard Italian rep, and Mozart—who has given me some invaluable experience in learning and performing whole roles. I’m a braver and more skilled performer than ever; my repertoire probably looks just as fragmented on paper as it ever has, but I am finally starting to feel like a whole musician, a whole singer, made up of all the pieces of the musicians and singers I’ve ever been.
Once again, I had to limit the choral singing in order to make space for further technical development. I resolved in early 2017 to slow down a little, to practice more carefully, to focus more on fewer things, and to see if I couldn’t jump up another level. I managed: I finally got the arias of Konstanze, which I’ve been practicing for years, up to a professional performance standard, which resulted in winning the competition that got me to Clermont-Ferrand. Our Entführung opens tomorrow night. For the first time, I think I’ll be able to perform with both the theoretical approval of my least generous, most technically rigorous teacher, but also with all the other shards of my identity, all that love and grief and music, stitched on somewhere and enriching my performance. My long years of thinking more like a conductor than a singer ensure that I’m in tempo; my early music years give me a sensitivity to style and articulation and instrumental color; my years of choral singing allow me to see the whole cast on stage as a single unit, without hierarchy, and to mind the details; my introverted, literature-loving self can delight in finding new subtleties in the text each night; and my recent re-focusing on the utmost technical discipline, along with all my previous technical work over many years, ensures that I’ll be able to deliver my ideas clearly through my sound. This is the kind of work I want to do.
I am absolutely not a perfect singer, musician, actor. I can still point to a million things I want to improve, that other people do more easily or with better control. There are still some areas where I’m a bit complacent or lazy, and many areas where I’m still harboring fear. I will never be finished learning, improving, and having to shed and reject older versions of myself. I don’t think I’ll ever be done with that odd stabbing pain of loving an experience a bit too much, or knowing that it can’t last.
But I can finally acknowledge a few things:
It is not shameful to be exactly the strange creature you are, whatever that is, whatever boxes you don’t fit into.
Our interests, our passions and nerdy preoccupations and loves, can all come home to roost—eventually—if we let them.
Shedding layers of identity takes a stunning amount of objectivity, vulnerability, and humility. But it’s worth the work to shed them, to keep exploring, to keep challenging ourselves. Because eventually we might be able to reclaim them, to knit them back into ourselves, to become more whole.
Legato is not the enemy. Neither is articulation. People who single-mindedly want a career in opera are not the enemy. Neither are people who sing in choruses for their whole careers. Neither is anyone who has any kind of career in the performing arts, or anyone who tries it for a while and then chooses to do something else, or anyone who sings avocationally. We are all artists, and we’re all on the same team.
p.s. I am so unbelievably privileged to be able to even have this conversation with myself. I wish that everyone had the same resources I had growing up–the same opportunities to find out who they are. North Carolina’s support for the arts was pretty good in the 90s, but it’s a scarier world now, in some ways–or maybe I just know more now about how rare my experience was. Let’s all support the arts in public schools, OK?
(Credits as follows. Photo: Ludovic Combe, 2018. 1st audio track: Brucker Os justi, Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum under Jameson Marvin, 2003. 2nd audio track: d’India Lamento d’Olimpia (excerpt), with theorbist Jorgen Skogmo, 2005. 3rd audio track: Handel Rejoice greatly (Messiah), with Rebel Baroque Orchestra under Andrew Megill, 2008. 4th audio track: Medtner Winternacht, with pianist Renate Rohlfing, 2010. All tracks were recordings of live performances, and were shared to show my vocal development over a long period–not as representations of my current work, which I hope goes without saying. For how I sound now, check out my audio and video pages, under Media.)