I am he who kisses his comrade

Today I want to write about love.

It’s 5:30 a.m. in Los Angeles, and I feel overwhelmingly, distractingly full of love. My computer clock says 14:30 Paris time. 36 hours ago I had an emotional final show, then said a lot of hard goodbyes, spent 11 hours on a plane (most of the time spent trying to memorize songs about love), landed last night, slept only a few hours, in my insomnia read the first chapter of a book about consciousness that—far from being drily scientific—made me overflow with love all the more, and am now trying to sort myself out for a recital I’ll sing tomorrow as the sky lightens outside my window overlooking Disney Hall. I haven’t written a blog post in a while, and I think it’s because I just haven’t had the time or mental space to process what’s been happening this year—it’s been such a big year and every potential post feels huge. But I’m not able to keep this down, and I think it’s something we all should feel freer to talk about.

It’s not cool to talk about love, I’ve noticed—not in this profession, where it’s often considered a liability. There’s often the idea that it can negatively influence your professional choices, it can distract you, it can complicate relationships with colleagues, it can make it hard to keep the cool head that you have to have to do a job as vulnerable as a performer’s. On the other hand, artists are happy to talk about sex, as though that’s in a different and safer category of human weirdness, a forgivable foible like smoking or shoplifting or collecting vintage dishware. What a weird list, right? Yes, because society’s idea of where an interest/behavior crosses over into something unhealthy/illegal is erratic and makes no sense. Among musicians, all of these latter things, including sex, are joked about, gently made fun of, mostly tolerated. Our relationship with love—or with talking about it—is more uneasy.

Of course everyone wants to be loved, and lots of people in unstable jobs like mine feel like they’ve won the lottery when they find a partner they love, who loves them, who can tolerate their partner’s bizarre life. It’s safe, culturally, to talk about love in the context of an established monogamous relationship. I’ve written about it before, here and elsewhere, without feeling that I was revealing anything too specific or personal; and I’m still immensely grateful that I know that kind of love and can enjoy its benefits.

But a rich emotional life doesn’t stop there and doesn’t require that particular brand of love, and that’s what gets hard to talk about, because there’s less acceptance, less openness, and often downright rejection of other kinds—and this job makes that super challenging, because we encounter and nurture and explore love as part of our work. As a friend said as we talked about this, the problem comes when we think that love either has to be ROMANTIC or PLATONIC, that those are the only options. Recently I’ve been struck forcibly by the wrongness of our silence/discomfort, by how much harm we do ourselves by not talking about it or admitting it, by how much good can come (in our lives and in our work and in our relationships) when we stop pretending that there’s only one acceptable way. In no particular order, here are some moments from the last year’s work that made this obvious to me. (I feel I have to redact all names, sadly.)

I did a lot of traveling and performing several weeks ago with a colleague, friend, and former housemate I know so well that we easily communicate without words, we can anticipate each others’ choices, we know each other’s schedules and habits, we completely accept each other’s weaknesses and admire each other’s strengths, we laugh endlessly, we can be silently grumpy or introverted without worrying the other, we can influence each other’s moods and actions, and we can talk about anything. I got distracted in one performance by how much I love his feeling for Purcell, and I ended up garbling the verses and making up half the music. Didn’t matter—we somehow got each other to the end of the song without anyone realizing.

This year I’ve gotten to see my quartet—a labor of love—bloom and change; musically it’s more mature than ever as we understand each other more deeply, we’ve all made big individual progress, we’re finding our voice in every way. I recently listened again to the recording of Brahms’s Der Gang zum Liebchen we made almost two years ago. Of everything I’ve ever recorded, this is maybe the recording (video and audio both) of which I’m the most proud and that makes the happiest to watch again and again, because I can see and hear love tied to a musical accomplishment greater than the sum of its parts. I watched it at a moment when I was suffering from a clot of love with nowhere to go, and it was at least partially released; but even as I watched, I could notice that our ensemble now is better, our way of feeling each other’s breaths and the travel of the words is more intuitive; and later in the summer, we get to record Brahms again on our first commercial release, with a pianist and producer who couldn’t be more wonderfully sympathetic. The deeper the love, the better the music.

We choose our families to some extent; for a major performance in Rouen, I got to experience a confluence of visitors—biological and chosen family—who all came to see my work and to see each other in the same week. I was the reason for these little reunions, but it was about much more than me. Many people who would never have had any connection otherwise were in the same time and space, enjoying each other’s company, deepening relationships, some seeing an opera for the first time, talking about the characters and their motivations afterwards. Love did that.

I have a colleague and friend who believes in me more than I do in myself, who has lifted me out of discouragement countless times, who can kindly give hard advice and who can exult for me when I’m too timid, who encourages me to stop putting up with bullshit, who has seen me through the most uncertain years, who can take the edge off a hard day with a dirty joke, and who incidentally makes the best gin and tonic I’ve ever had; and this year I could finally give back a little in a specific way and help start a positive chain of events that can hopefully provide long-term lift. Love makes us so much stronger than we think we are.

I recently sang an audition that, surprisingly and wonderfully, felt lovely, i.e. love as an adverb. Somehow, during half an hour of what was essentially a job interview with people I hardly knew, we connected without any nervousness or guardedness, with only a feeling of welcome and exploration and getting-to-know, of questions and sighs of musical satisfaction, and also with coffee and snacks and gorgeous Amsterdam sunshine. I don’t know yet if I got the job—they’ll have their pick of amazing singers—but whether I did or not, in that moment I felt seen, respected, and my particular combination of skills and attributes were (incredibly, because it usually takes more time) loved.

Earlier this year I did performances with two string quartets and fell in love with both of them, and in so many ways it felt the same as falling in love with a person. The trust, the vulnerability, the refinement of feeling and execution, the fierceness of expression, the emotional apotheosis, the grief when the performances were over: intimacy that is just as intense as romantic love, though shorter and expressed mostly through the performance. (There’s a reason musicians feel a strong need to get a drink together after shows: pleasure re-directed.)

Added a little after the initial writing of this post: in Los Angeles I’ve reconnected with a friend I haven’t seen in years, and it’s as though no time has passed, except that we have so much lived experience to talk about and process together since the last time. We were practically hyperventilating with joy the whole afternoon. We met in school, and I knew we would be friends when I heard her sing a Handel aria so honestly and passionately that it made my hair stand on end. Everything I heard and thrilled to in her performance of that aria back in 2006 (!) has borne itself out in our friendship.

And, of course, the process of learning and singing and making Entführung saturated what was already a love-filled year. I love every person on that project, each in a different way and for different reasons; the qualities everyone shares that I love especially are generosity, courage, humor, and incredible level of work. Their trust has made it possible for me to grow beyond recognition into the immense challenges of the piece. I shared moments of vulnerability and connection that I won’t ever forget. I can hardly recognize the fear and uncertainty we all felt at the beginning, because it’s been worn away and replaced with good work, confidence, physical grounding, the ability to laugh at ourselves, spontaneity on stage and in person. And with love, of course—among this group of people who were mostly strangers to each other six months ago. We’ve shared meals, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, frank discussions, mutual attractions, walks, drinks, moments of confusion and sadness, moments of silliness and hilarity (singers laugh loudly; in our last Airbnb the neighbors would bang on the walls when it got too uproarious). Every one of us is happily partnered, AND (not but) we were able to share a level of intimacy in the work and the time spent together that will always awe me.

I think it’s possible to have a positive work experience (on a concert, an opera, a project, chamber music) without something that I’d recognize as love—as long as there is respect, enthusiasm for the work, empathy, integrity, and patience. All of those are so important. But when there’s also love, you can tell. We’ve gotten so many reviews of the Entführung performances—from critics, colleagues, family members, partners, complete strangers in the audience—and despite a huge range of opinions on individuals and ideas, the love of the team is always recognized: we trust each other, work well together, make excellent theater together, love each other, even when our characters are at odds. It’s been true in my recital and chamber music work this year, too—whenever there is real, actual, unembarrassed love between the people performing, it’s always noticed, always commented on, and always makes the performance better (in addition to making the work more fun, of course). Is it platonic? Romantic? Both, and more. It’s also sexual, whether anything “happens” or not, because during the work we are emitting pheromones and sending cues for intimacy, and we are wired to receive and respond.

Once in a while, I’ll have a conversation with one of my close people (including my partner, with whom I can luckily be very open about all of this) that asks: why is this wrong or weird? Aren’t we instead incredibly lucky to be able to cultivate such relationships outside of our families? In a business that’s so hard and so uncertain, and where we’re so often lonely and isolated, isn’t love (continually renewed with old friends, or found suddenly with new friends on new projects) the best payoff? Isn’t it what shapes every opera plot, most poetry, and every harmonic dissonance and resolution? This isn’t to say that it can’t also be toxic and hurtful, because it certainly can be. And of course this job can also be a pressure cooker for unkindness, violence, selfishness, narcissism masked as love, prolonged and destructive emotional immaturity. And of course sex can complicate things, which would be a whole other post, or a whole other blog (or a book or a series! oh wait, Mozart in the Jungle). It can be very hard to draw lines when lines are needed. But when love comes in a beautiful form, whatever the form, why do we need to label it and fence it off to keep it small and out of the way? Why so many boundaries, so much silence and discomfort, so little frank acknowledgement (outside of the musical work) of what it means to us?

Tonight I’m singing in a performance of Bernstein’s Songfest, a fabulous piece I didn’t know well at all (probably because it’s difficult to program and pull off, thus infrequently done). A colleague just posted the text of his solo movement with some sober words, and reading it separately, I’m struck by how Whitman and Bernstein were also both circling around these problems:

To What You Said
–Walt Whitman

To what you said, passionately clasping my hand, this is my answer:
Though you have strayed hither, for my sake, you can never belong to me,
Nor I to you,
Behold the customary loves and friendships the cold guards
l am that rough and simple person
l am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips at parting,
And l am one who is kissed in return,
I introduce that new American salute
Behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious
Behold the received models of the parlors —
What are they to me?
What to these young men that travel with me?

We’re more permissive and open than we were 150 years ago when these words were written, but we have such a long way to go. “Customary loves and friendships the cold guards…” Yikes.

I don’t have any answers, but it feels important to talk about it; and having written this all down, I can now more happily go and find breakfast, hours after waking up, and start a day that will include two rehearsals, a yoga class, more joyful encounters with friends I haven’t seen in too long, and hopefully some of the sleep that wouldn’t come last night.

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