in praise of feeling less

Hi from my couch (mustard-yellow). No soprano glamor here: I’m wearing an oversized cabled sweater (the color of late summer sunlight) I knitted years ago, candy-cane-patterned socks a friend gave me as a joke, and slippers (caramel) I bought on a blustery day in December between rehearsals. I’m leaning against a woven wool pillow (white, black, turmeric) I got in Oaxaca in January. I’m drinking my third coffee of the day out of a favorite mug (stormy blue) handmade in North Carolina, and I’ve just set down another knitting project (purple, spring green, white) that matches the crocuses popping up all over Rotterdam. My pet rabbit is snoring; the kids in the schoolyard behind my house are shrieking, as usual.

I’m grounding my body in sensory experience—color, taste, tactile fabrics—as a bulwark against the waves of feeling that come as I reflect on the last year or so, since I finally feel able to write about some of it. No doubt I should be pointing to the lovely concerts I got to sing, name-dropping orchestras and colleagues, or teasing future work, but instead, all I want to do is write about this year’s particular mix of music and vulnerability.

The most notable event, professionally, was making the album Forget This Night. It was so close—to us, its makers, Sam and Frerik and me especially, plus many more who contributed in vital ways—that it was hard to keep perspective on it, and even harder to let go when the time came.Forget This Night is a program of little-known French and Polish pieces by Lili Boulanger, Karol Szymanowski, and Grażyna Bacewicz, ending with a track that no one, not even Boulanger’s biographers who had studied or transcribed her manuscripts, had heard before: a scrap of melody and words that I decided to treat as the lovely music it could be, although Lili had jotted them down only as a private expression of pain in her final miserable months. That fragment was the first track to be played on the radio in the weeks leading up to the album release; it resonated with many people.

The complete disc went live on November 17th, 2023. We couldn’t have asked for a warmer reception from friends and critics. (I still need to write a separate post that sums up the press. Soon.) I was gratified that people responded so strongly to the music’s power, beauty, and intimacy; I was glad that the care we’d invested in the whole project was clear. But the birth of the album was long, and at some moments it was painful. I worked incredibly hard on it, and ever since, I’ve been feeling something akin to postpartum depression, as well as normal exhaustion from a year or two of overwork. Nice reviews don’t change that.

I couldn’t have anticipated this when we planned the program, but the music also ended up echoing some confronting moments in our personal lives, which tangled me up further.

The theme of the album was impermanence—how we cope with endings of love, life, innocence. A few weeks before the release, I witnessed death for the first time. I’d already recorded the songs and sunk into their poetic metaphors of black ponds, mouths choked with dust, lilacs shedding blossoms, and nightingales singing over graves. I’d written articles and liner notes, making elegant points (I hope) about the narrative arc of the music and texts. But that Sunday morning in October in an Alzheimer’s care home, there were no metaphors, only inescapable physical realities. I saw my mother-in-law’s skin change from white to gray-purple to gray-yellow. I felt the temperature of her hand shift under my own. I listened as her breaths quieted from voiced groans to soft puffs. I watched her pulse quiver in a vein at her throat and settle under the watery autumn sunlight. Although there wasn’t one obvious dividing moment, at some point her quietness seemed final. Everyone in the room had their own reaction; each person who came into the room afterward also did; emotion changed everyone’s face uniquely. Eventually calls were made, kind strangers began to arrive, her body was washed and dressed and her mouth closed. Later, although I have little memory of how we managed it, we went through routine motions of heating up food, setting a table, and eating, together or separately; talking, laughing a bit, planning, being quiet. Later still, we all somehow went to sleep in a world that no longer contained a wife, mother, grandmother.

Two of the toughest performances I’ve ever done followed shortly thereafter: first her funeral, then our album release concert in Rotterdam. One was supposedly sorrowful, the other a celebration—but both seemed to contain the whole range of human feeling, and both required every ounce of my training to keep singing, to keep my throat open as a channel for the music instead of blocking it with my own grief. Rituals! They’re important, and music matters at these moments. After this, I somehow got myself through a few more projects before the holidays (though I did have to withdraw from one—the first time I have ever canceled due to illness), and then I crashed harder than I have in years.

It’s March. I’m emerging with the crocuses, but recovery and re-balancing are not linear processes. Burnout and sadness still manifest in surprising ways even as they release their hold on me. There have been periods when I wanted nothing more than to throw myself into other people’s art, when I felt relief in the uncontrolled flow of emotion that came during a Beethoven slow movement, the last pages of East of Eden, the perfect film Past Lives, or in the final two rooms of the Frida Kahlo museum in Mexico City. But for longer stretches, I’ve shrunk away from feeling so much. I’ve spent days sitting, puttering around the house, moving wool through my hands, listening to interesting but unemotional history podcasts. I’ve let sun fall on my face however it might. When I’ve seen or talked to friends, I’ve mostly avoided heavy topics. Whole weeks have been measured by little more than tedious repetitions: bringing groceries into the house, taking rabbit poop out of it.

There have been bits of work here and there. Although singing, finding my voice again, is also slow and non-linear, it’s felt mostly good. Yesterday, I met a team of people I may or may not join for a project next season. The vibe was collegial, promising—and the very first thing I was asked to do, after a short warmup, was to improvise a scene (singing or moaning or screaming, as I wished) of giving birth.

… Sure.

Sex and death on stage are both pretty normal these days. Both can be represented in many ways in the voice and body. Birth, though. That was a new one for me. In this room full of friendly, creative strangers, I felt a tiny lump of discomfort come and go—then I closed my eyes, collected my mind around the suggestions of pitches I’d been given (F-sharp, A, A-sharp), and went at it with abandon. I wasn’t at any risk (as many women are around the world when they actually give birth); I was safe. It’s just singing.

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about the intersecting vulnerabilities of being a singer and being a human. They’re ongoing, let me tell you. We’re buffeted on all sides by the vagaries of our own lives and by the acute misery we’re constantly invited to witness in the world. News agencies monetize it; politicians weaponize it; activists help us to fight it. Singing about misery, or singing through it, is necessary, and also it’s super-hard. I don’t actually want to numb feeling, to stop reacting—but my balance has been off recently, which immobilizes me and makes it tough to do anything at all. I still did my work creditably and well most of the time even when I was unbalanced, I think—but months after life slowed down, I still feel a primal, reactive need to rest, to breathe, to feel a bit less intensely for a while.

One moment that I did manage well (and it felt like a milestone in my professional life, because I wouldn’t have managed it in the past) was performing Barber’s Knoxville with Tapiola Sinfonietta and Ryan Bancroft in May. That piece, with its gentle lilt, its play of surreal warm images, and its sober child/adult soaring to an apotheosis of anticipated grief and loneliness, slays me every time. This was my first chance to sing Knoxville in its full version, with an orchestra and conductor I love. I knew as I practiced before traveling to Helsinki that it would be unusually tricky—but crucial to the success of the performance—to not cry in the middle of it.

I was well-prepared, we were all pros, and we had enough rehearsal time. Over several days, we tidied up the music’s fiddly corners, decided how long to linger over a few sensitive changes in tempo, and adjusted balance in the dramatic passages. I spoke lovingly about the text to the players and saw emotional responses spring into many faces. Later, some approached me with stories of grief, aging parents, ambivalence over raising children, ongoing struggles of identity and belonging. The piece can touch anyone who opens themself up to it; the subsequent challenge is to close back up enough to be able to sing or play it, letting enough but not too much personal feeling guide the performance—true, but not debilitating; sincere, but not mawkish; rested, focused, available.

In art as in life.

The recording of the performance is below, if you’d like. It’s both a snapshot of one moment and a culmination of many years. When I listened back to it recently, I let myself react however I would. Then I pulled myself together, stood up from the yellow couch, and quietly fixed dinner in my shabby, efficient little kitchen, with my respiratorially-challenged rabbit alternating between snores and sneezing fits nearby.

“By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying on quilts on the grass in a summer evening among the sounds of the night?
May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father; oh remember them kindly in their time of trouble, and in the hour of their taking away.
After a little, I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her; and those receive me who quietly treat me as one familiar and well-beloved in that home, but will not, oh will not, not now, not ever: but will not ever tell me who I am.”
—James Agee

  • Jeanmarie Lally

    March 6, 2024 at 6:34 pm Reply

    Your writing here is so evocative and comfortable-feeling. Having lost a few of our beloveds in my childhood – some in our home, as my father was a doctor – to Alzheimer’s, I empathize with and appreciate your observations of your mother-in-law’s departure. It is a slow leaving, expected, but never without an intense grief that seems surprising, given our foreknowledge of the loved one’s gradual loss. A funny thing, our humanity and our waxing and waning understanding of finality.
    What a beautiful, reflective performance of “Knoxville…”. : a perfect final stitch in today’s word knitting. One small highlight for me: in those last moments, your floating, delicate high notes ( g’s? a’s?) are glorious and so tender, gold-burnished memories of evening, love, and the childfeeling of drowsy drifting off in the safetysurety of family love
    Thank you, lovely Katharine, for giving pause and thoughtful reflection to me – as my little snoring cat Mittens snoozes alongside me – today. 💙🕊🙏🏻

  • Sue Perlgut

    March 6, 2024 at 7:36 pm Reply

    Beautiful. Your writing, your feelings, your voice, your grief. You.

  • Charles Humble

    March 6, 2024 at 9:11 pm Reply

    Oh, Katharine. So many feelings in this piece. So many memories. I was raised in Knoxville and knew the part of town where “Knoxville : Summer 1915” is set, know the summer evenings it describes. “A Death in the Family” was filmed there when I was in high school. By the time I read the book my own father had died way too young. Reading your thoughts and then this part of the book again as I listened to you sing was just what I needed on this cloudy, cool day in Chapel Hill. It never fails to move me. You will always have soprano glamor to me. My best to you and Ton and Halvard and the rest of your family.

  • Jim anderson

    April 24, 2024 at 1:00 am Reply

    Thank you, Katharine. In solidarity with you.

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