Erika Sunnegårdh

Tokyo, 13 October, 2011

In the post-Oprah Winfrey Show era, an “appreciation list” generally takes on a connotation of depression-fixer, humility adjustment, reality check, and/or a feisty attempt at generating some positive energy in order to attract more of the same…

Actually, I subscribe to all of the above…:-)

And although, this morning I feel the intense missing of some of the people I love most in the whole wide world (!!), and it’s making me feel a little bit pitiful (read, Häagen-Dazs before 11AM!), I have been struck over and over again by the little things in life that absolutely knock me off my feet, shut me up, stop me dead in my tracks, and/or move me to tears… not because they are big, intense or externally life-altering events, but for their gentle, small and totally timeless ability to remind me.

To re-mind me.

A year and half ago, my life was a little too challenging. My health was quite seriously compromised by both internal and external circumstances, and I most definitely felt I was at a cross-roads in how, or if to proceed.
Sometimes I meet people who express admiration for, or at least appreciation of, what it must take to live this life-style. The sacrifices that are inherent in living on the road. The single-minded commitment, and thus exclusion of normalcy, that actually is absolutely necessary in attempting ever greater degrees of creative purity and refinement.
I never used to give them much room for their musings… I used to simply express how very lucky I feel to have a job… considering what the world at large looks like.
I still feel very fortunate. And I am ever so grateful for the work that keeps coming my way. But I no longer hold a space of disconnect between what I am doing and what actually happens to me. It is hardly random. And yes, it does take something to continue doing this job! Being happily “successful” is neither easier nor harder than unhappily being in the “trying” stages… But it is a lot different, and the stakes only get higher.

I am certainly aware of the, by all standards, “lucky break” that catapulted me from being a waitress to singing full-time. But only God and the greater Wisdom of the Universe can tell you if that was based on some form of merit – or not.
What has happened since is much easier to track in terms of my own hand in the results – whether through my actions and choices, my level of development and consciousness, or my overall readiness at any given moment. Or lack thereof.

It’s been seven years since my career started. A cycle of sorts. A period in which things have been tried, tested, found, kept, tossed out, refined, re-evaluated, experienced, expressed, internalized, solidified, fought for… I am proud of all of it!
It’s made me a better artist, and above all, a more nuanced person.

In this period I have had a selection of the most coveted experiences in my field (and probably a few of the “not so much so”!!), and I guess onlookers of a certain ilk could ask: “Whatever happened her…?”

But I feel that I am finally landing now in a place of more balance and readiness. Balance between internal and external. And readiness for the work that truly reflects me, my voice, and my collected body of sensibilities.

When my career started, the question was always: “What will work?”
In other words, what will “get you work???”
(In fact, these seem to be the operative words out of every teacher, coach and casting person – especially in the United States!)
At the time, the answer was being an unknown Turandot coming out of left field.
And it worked! And I can still sing the daylights out of those icy princess high notes. It utilized one of my acquired New York survival skills – “getting the job done” – in any circumstance…!

And, it is something I do relatively easily.
But,… it’s not necessarily what my voice aches and yearns for…
(And this is the point I will get back to…)

A few days ago, someone asked me what else I want to achieve professionally… I had a hard time answering the question. Seven years ago I could have given you a list a mile long – But what to say when the reality of everything you thought you ever wanted has already been experienced? (And by the way, it has been less fulfilling, more disappointing, and absolutely more awesome and fun than I ever imagined!)

I think the answer is that there is a time for everything.

My life leading up to my career was a time for gathering experiences, for creating friendships and solid foundations, for developing my self and my relationship with the world and everyday normalcy, for gaining the confidence of survival and competence, for knowing myself as human – not a talent, not a product, not a special person – just me.

And honestly, it was a time for living in New York and having a boyfriend and going to the movies… and waitressing with comedians and doctoral students and jazz musicians and actors… for “wasting time” watching TV over take-out chinese food… for deciding what to do when, where and with whom… for studying, singing, learning, failing… and for experimenting with philosophy, religion and psychology… for growing up and wising up, and soaking it ALL up!
I LOVE this period of my life – and when people in the business have eluded to it as having “set me back”, I feel sad that they can’t see the inherent value of a normal life experience – especially to a serious artist.

Likewise, these past few years of my career have been so fantastic! A complete roller-coaster ride of tremendous experiences, challenges, successes and failures; of lessons learned, friendships and alliances forged, priorities defined and re-defined…

But what “worked” to launch a career into a cut-throat business isn’t necessarily what works long-term… And an “overnight sensation” is as attractive a few years down the line as an open bottle of flat champagne the morning after…:-)
So, the past year has been a year of hard choices and new beginnings.
Between moving to Europe, making an overriding change in professional management, working with a new voice teacher, and tweaking my choice of repertoire….
Well… let’s just say there are some big adjustments.
But the results have proportionate potential.

Imagining your future after having basically fulfilled all your wildest dreams has the added benefit of being completely devoid of desperation.
Or maybe I should say, devoid of the desperations of youth…
of proving who you are, of making a mark, being a success…
But it also lacks the “necessary” hunger, which so often is the very reason some people do make it, even when it seems unlikely.

So, what is it? What’s the carrot that’s going to cause me to chase down the road of self-reinvention? Learn to sustain the pace and create energy instead of just using it?
Eat ice-cream alone in an apartment overlooking Tokyo, instead of with MY friends on MY sofa in front of MY TV?? (Highly underrated, by the way!!)

This morning I watched Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Address from a few years ago, and yes, the answer is the most quoted notion ever:
LOVE what you do! And do what you do with great LOVE!
Watch it on www.ted.com

All other possibilities become available through this choice alone.

(Think about that for a second! No other good thing is possible unless you love what you do, and love where you’re at! It’s a tall, uncompromising order to fulfill on – but I really do get that this is as fundamental as the law of gravity. And it’s at the heart of co-creation!)

One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is to put my voice up for “renovation” with my new teacher. I’ve been asked why I thought I needed it – after all, I was working and singing some pretty hard music with relative success – But… well… it’s a gut feeling. I knew in my heart of hearts that I was nickel ‘n dime-ing my instrument… forcing it to buckle up and do what I needed it to do, not what it could do.
I’ve been asking it to serve my purposes, not allowing it to reveal its own..

And this is the point, isn’t it?
I’ve been talking for years about the redemptive power of music – The purpose of singing! And the sad part about a career in opera is that it so easily distracts you from the very thing that is redemptive – the experience of the human voice!
All its strength, resilience, beauty, earthiness, ethereal fragility…
It is in fact a direct access to the soul of humanity!

And it is one of the most moving experiences of my life to discover the infinite generosity that my voice extends to me… given even the tiniest amount of respect and tenderness… It is, by its very nature, willing
But it does need to make its own rules and take its own path.

And my goodness, that is really difficult to combine with making a predictable and sustainable living in opera!

I can’t guarantee that I will succeed in realizing the true potential of my instrument, but at least I am giving it my best shot!
And that – surprisingly – is at the core of what I want.
Simple as that.

Every singer/artist believes somewhere in their being, that they are gifted.
That a talent lives in them that should/could be expressed and given away.
I do too.
My talents are the substance of my heart and mind (something I have in common with all people!)…
and, this voice! – the fragile, unique, powerful, feisty, elusive, soft, and frighteningly temporary physicality of it…
Surprisingly, IT has something to share – something completely different than the art of “survival” it has been engaged in so far…
and, something that is significantly beyond me…!

Desperation, adversity and struggle may be considered necessary “evils” for creative people to go through. But it is my deepest conviction that pure, deep and personal realization of creativity is born in a space of perceived safety, maturity, insight and playfulness.
Maturity and insight are certainly greatly aided by adversity, but playfulness and a sense of safety are choked by it… Integrating these requires balance and patience…and humor!
None of which is easy to sustain – for anyone, anywhere.

Thank God I thrive on challenges…:-)

So with all of that in mind, the journey has now begun anew.
What conscious choices can I make to facilitate it?
How can I more sensitively follow my intuition?
Who are the people who can hear and see the potential, and who are capable of holding a safe space for that future to unfold?

But, while I “hurry slowly”, as we say in Swedish, I’ll share with you a partial list of all those funny and amazing things I’ve “appreciated” lately… because yes, I believe appreciation is at the heart of all creation, humility and love…

The dog I regularly see taking himself for a walk in Venice – his owner unconcerned that he’s 30 minutes away from home… (we called and asked!!)

On a flight to Leipzig, after all of us “business travelers” had settled into our seats, a group of 25-30 young exchange students with backpacks and shopping bags boarded the little plane – each of them having requested a window seat (!!), carrying on perfectly private conversations…while seated!

A muslim man doing his evening prayers in the pouring rain, on a little sliver of dry stone, on the steps of a boarded up church…

Rehearsals – Perfectly organized and scheduled, led with clarity, openness, and grace!

Sitting next to a little Italian girl singing her heart out in German (Mahler’s 8th Symphony), complete with the softest, inaudible Italian consonants, but with a legato to die for… and she was wearing skinny, shiny, silver leggings too…:-)

The Mahler 8…

The fact that you can check on a Tokyo subway chart exactly which car door you should be by in order to match the exits of the station you’re heading towards…

The fact that if you’re traveling on the subway in Tokyo with a wheel chair, you can/will be met by an official at your subway car door, who will help you off the train (brings his own ramp!) and get you up to street level or your transfer.
I’m sorry, but I realize the pedantic level of Japanese organization drives some people crazy, but I have to say, I appreciate certain things being exactly where you expect them to be… when you expect them to be there. There is simplicity and respect in not leaving things out of order for other people to deal with. I think it might be the Swede in me that likes it so much…:-)

The Japanese fans tearfully expressing their gratitude for us simply honoring our engagement to come here – earthquake or not…

The Four Last Songs by Strauss…

My Sister…

Uncontrollable giggles one-on-one…

Chocolate-dipped potato chips… (trust me!!)

Love, in all its incarnations…

As I look upon the future; all the uncertainties and wide open potential, my new home in Vienna, the uncharted territory of the next 15 years of musical expression, the friendships and personal attachments I hold so dear…
I am struck by the generosity of it all…
The seemingly endless abundance of wonder!

Venice, 7 February 2011

Finally I’ve spent a few days “at home”… At home being Venice, where otherwise some of my clothes and books live full time. Winter in Venice is a special time. My favorite, I think. Lots of shops and cafés are closed of course, but there is this fantastic calm and relief that settles over the city, within and without.

On my second night here, I was walking the dog down the Zattere around to Salute at about 11.30PM. The sky was clear and starlit and the streets were empty except for a couple of loners clearly on their way home. I had a strange but familiar feeling in my bones as my shoes settled more firmly into the stones underfoot. I am always aware when in Venice, of the age and history of the buildings and streets. You can’t escape the experience of being one of many generations that have inhabited the place.
But the thought that hit me was one that made sense of my feeling of comfort in this relatively foreign city. Given the amount of time (or lack thereof) that I have spent here, it seems I shouldn’t feel this much a part of it — or have it feel this much a part of me.
The thought was that Venice in the winter is like a dark theater. Everybody who is there has a job to do, belongs there, “owns” it in one way or another, and everybody savors the calm of the off-hours, the purpose of which is eventually to put on a great show. Audiences come and go, and we appreciate them for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that they keep the city alive. And, to anyone who has worked in a theater, there is this very special feeling once you have become part of it. It is as if the place itself, the stones, the floorboards, the doors, the feeling and sound of a door handle as you turn it, the stairs – they all know something about you. It’s as if your innermost secrets and dreams, the ones you don’t breathe a word about in daylight hours, have a home in a dark theater. In a dark theater there is always the hope of magic, and the hopeful planning for it. It doesn’t happen often, but it is the very reason people buy tickets to a show — they’re hoping for that one in a thousand nights when everything aligns and sparks fly and for a fleeting moment, that place and that moment seem like the very reason all of us exist. The very reason we live through so many “other” kinds of moments and places.

Venice always holds that promise, I think. Why else would it attract all those newlyweds and couples trying to put love back together again? Why else the revelers during Carnivale? It isn’t the food (go to Bologna or Toscana!)… It isn’t the hotels or the low prices…(!!) And as cynical as this might sound, an awful lot of the tourists really aren’t there to see the art or the architecture.

I believe it is the promise of magic!

I’m realizing I am probably a little bit of a magic-junkie. I have given my life to a career in the theater; I “live” in Venice; and I am still, maybe more by compulsion than will, holding out for a partnership that has both substance and… yes, you guessed it, magic!

Sometimes the Universe gives you one of those moments — A moment when energies align, miraculous and ingenious individuals show up to partner with you, you grow into something better than you thought you might, people around you seem to “get it” and they show their appreciation…

Singing Tosca with Kirill Petrenko conducting is one of those times.

Magic — in the theater… and for my little junkie alter ego too!