Venice, 11 April 2010

The sun is shining!
That’s always a good sign, isn’t it?

I am battling through what must be the worst cold and flu season to date. It’s actually easier to count the weeks I’ve been well than those completely dominated by my runny nose, achy body, hoarse throat and complete lack of momentum. I’m sure there are people out there who know how to push through these kinds of things — I am just so unused to being sick, I feel like a fish out of water.

But I also think that sometimes our bodies do stop us dead in our tracks when in fact we need to stop dead in our tracks…

I’ve been trying to listen to that part of me. Taking stock of the year that has passed, and looking forward to what’s ahead.

A few things come to mind.

I took a self-development course years ago (10, actually. Wow!) at Landmark Education. It had everything to do with leadership (in your own life and at large); about achieving results with integrity; about living your life informed by the past, but not bound by it; and about creating a future that turns you on and calls forth the best and most organic “you”. About setting yourself up for the amazing ride that life can be, when you have goals and wishes in mind, but also have the audacity to ride the wave of inspiration with freedom from expectations.

Anything can happen.

I remember one of the teachers there explaining how your past can get in the way of a happy future with the following analogy:

When you are born you are like a kid in a clear, blue swimming pool. Happily splashing around, jumping in recklessly, taking the risk of an occasional gulp of that clear and clean water. There is no fear, but only joy and playfulness and an insatiable desire to BE THERE!

As time goes by with all life’s little gifts — teenage-hood, school, hormones, dreams and failures — you end up sharing the pool with randomly scattered unprocessed piles of poop.
Each pile representing the feelings of inaptitude, regret, sadness, fear, humiliation, anger or whatever else which life, without fail, bestows on each of us.

The question is not how we can avoid getting poop in the water, the question is, what do we do with it once it’s there…?

One way to deal with it is to simply get out of the pool, and give up swimming, and playing, and having fun — and retire to sitting in the stands and watching others float and splash and dive with abandon…

The other involves taking on the temporary discomfort of getting close enough to each pile of debris to scoop it out and deposit it where it doesn’t inhibit or spoil any of the play the pool can offer.

Easier said than done, apparently.

I didn’t really understand until recently just how disillusioned I became in Vienna in December. “I should be over it by now”, I’ve told myself.
And yet, here I find myself, four months later, feeling like there’s a GIANT pile of poop in my near future — one that seriously inhibits my sense of fun around the prospect of going back to Vienna to sing Lady Macbeth again.

It is not the singing of the part that scares me. I love her. And I love singing this music — even with its challenges and pitfalls.

It has been said that only two things seriously motivate human beings in a fearful way: Death and Humiliation.

Death we cannot do anything about. It will be when it is. As Eckhart Tolle says, “When it comes, it will be Now”…

But humiliation is another thing. We CAN go through life trying to avoid it. And, for many people humiliation comes in small forms — they seem big to us, but they go away relatively quickly.
As a performer, the threat of humiliation is rather big, however. And as much as we can train ourselves to ignore our fears, most of us have at least a few of the classic recurring nightmares of music not learned, clothing missing, being late, trap doors opening at the wrong time, or, simply being booed.

Welcome to our world.

It is only when knowing your own emotional wiring, and keeping your own expectations well directed, that you can regenerate your sense of play and childlike enthusiasm for the job. And that elusive yet absolutely vital, sense of humility in the face of doing a blessed and never to be taken for granted task. Singing for a living. Praise be!!

(I will get around to my point soon…)

I was recently reminded of the very prevalent tendency in our business of seeing any success in the present as a stepping stone to something else – something bigger and better in the future. The colleagues I know who have been in the business a long time don’t do this. Obviously because they have an enormous frame of reference of what it means to be successful in the business, but I think more importantly, they have come to understand the importance of being exactly where you are when you’re there! For the good of the art form. And for your own sanity and peace of mind.

I did an interview in the US a few years back, and one of the things the journalist was the most interested in was where I could take this role next, now that I had tried it out at a small regional company. That to me is absurd (and I told him so!). Not because it’s not possible or even wise to take on a role for the first time somewhere sort of off the radar, but because there is a paying audience wherever you go. And, in some of those places, the most important work you ever get to do actually takes place. Like inspiring new audiences, or keeping great opera happening in a small town. Not to mention that you get paid to do a job – one that is sorely coveted by hundreds, if not thousands of other, by definition more painfully struggling artists. A lot of whom are pretty great…

The only thing that matters to the audience is ultimately that you are committed to being where they are — HERE NOW! And it should be the only thing mattering to any of us too!

It’s life’s biggest lessons and cliches:
– The grass isn’t ever greener anywhere else!
– Wherever you go, there you are!
– As your potential for success grows, so does your potential for failure.
– AND, the air is hotter the higher you go…

OK. So this brings me back to my own sense of disillusionment.
First, you have to be ILL-usioned in order to be DIS-ILL-usioned.

So, thank God for the grace of being disillusioned.

Somewhere in life I (and many others with me) picked up the completely useless idea that circumstances in life make you happy. And if they don’t, then change them. Or blame them. Or damn them. Or just use them as an excuse for the perpetual state of bitchyness that for some strange reason exists in many circles as a cool end in and of itself.

Maybe, just maybe, the trick is to be happy no matter what…?

We are shaped by our circumstances — And our beliefs about ourselves are too. But, there is always another way to interpret.

Close up, any circumstance can be overwhelming. But, if we can take the time, and have some faith in the process, we can also allow ourselves to pan out, to see the bigger picture — to attempt to inhabit our life as a whole — and then get a greater sense of the purpose, or depth, that a particular set of circumstances give us access to.

I really hated my circumstances in December. And I’ve resisted seeing the point of them ever since (although there have been moments of light and clarity revealing a hint of something bigger).
But when I think of my life as a whole — of my future into old age (yup, it’s going to happen…!) — I see myself as a teacher, writer, a person in some sort of leadership position in the arts and culture. And, how could I possibly speak or have insight into the nature of any of that without personally having experienced light and dark, success and failure, admiration and rejection, friend and foe, trust and deception, comfort and dis-ease?

I have had an amazing number of great successes in my career. And I feel grateful for those. And the same must apply to the difficult experiences. I know my part in each of them — and I appreciate the part that other people play — both in giving me a boost, as well as giving me the opportunity to grow and deepen. And to continually soften my core — no matter what!

Being in a defensive mode of resistance doesn’t really blend well with being happy, does it??

The criticism I received over singing Lady M has led me to reevaluate many things, and certainly, one is my choice of repertoire. And that led me down another interesting path of self-discovery.

I noticed during my shows in Vienna, that first of all, the booers were men. There may have been a few women in there, but, the really pesky ones that came back more than once, were men.
However, among the people who came to the stage door, most particularly the novices of stage door etiquette (i.e. the ones that patiently waited outside, away from the doors, for a quick word as I was walking home — not asking for an autograph!!) — those were mostly women. And, bless them, they gave me strength to go on, as they expressed, teary-eyed, that they’d never seen a Lady M that broke their hearts before. That they were moved, not disgusted.

This is a comment I have gotten more than a few times over the past few years, for characters that rarely solicit a charitable response: Salome, Turandot, Lady M.

I also realize that there is something in the iciness, the brutality, the wretchedness of these women that attracts me. Somehow, I think I’ve decided that because they are difficult and so often depicted as ugly, it would be “safe” to take them on, with my particular blend of voice, vulnerability, feistyness and abandon…

I have completely backed away from trying to compete among the beautiful, sweet, womanly voices that grace opera houses all over.
And yet, here I find myself bringing those very qualities to these rough characters. They are, after all, feminine first. Scorned and damaged, second. Redeemed or unraveled, third.

I sort of know something about all of those things.

Hm.

After my two wonderful and successful experiences singing Salome at the beginning of the year, in Bologna and Munich, I went on a three-week long vacation to South Africa.

With friends, I traveled by car out to the Indian Ocean to go camping on a beach in Mozambique and go dolphin swimming. The nature there is astounding and beautiful — and so completely wild and undisturbed. It was a feast for the senses, and a shocking reset of the gauges of how nature should be treated and valued.

I am a water person. I am happiest by the sea, and I really do not fare well during long absences from it. However, I have never thought of myself as a strong swimmer, or terribly comfortable in the water. But I grew up by the North Atlantic. And the Baltic.
I don’t know if you’ve ever spent any time in these, but they are cold, dark, massive, often riddled with ice. The Atlantic particularly, is fierce in a very uninviting way — unless you are strong, proactive, fierce, knowledgeable, competent, and lets face it, fearless!

The Indian Ocean however, is transparent, clear and warm. It is still huge and fierce and completely awe-inspiring, but its attraction lies in its enveloping warmth and playfulness. There is time and space and safety. People and animals go to PLAY there!

On the first day, we encountered a super-pod of dolphin, about 35-40 of them. As I slid into the water (although I fear it was more of a pfloomfpshhh!!), and swam along, about 6 or 8 of them swam about one meter below me, swimming toward our guide for an unadulterated fun romp — twirling and circling and jumping happily at the joy of reuniting with her.
They were enjoying the sea all on their own, and they welcomed us for playtime when we came along too. It’s their space, and they either choose to share with you — or not!

But, there was never a moment of fear or discomfort in being in this body of water. It is, in its essence, inviting. Comforting. Attractive. Enfolding… Feminine!

I realized that, in the right waters, I am not a bad swimmer at all.
That in clear, warm waters I easily use my flippers and snorkel to dive down to participate in the world below, only to return to the surface and blow the water out of my snorkel and keep on going — Just like the dolphin do.

Having the capacity to buckle down and navigate the dark cold waters on its terms gives you a certain level of raw confidence. What doesn’t kill you… doesn’t kill you! — as my therapist used to say.
But, it is also good to become acquainted with your own most sweet and easy gifts, in their own habitat.

Merging masculine and feminine in a dance of self-expression is at the core of all creativity. And to do that one can’t hide or put aside one aspect in favor of another.

I found my girly, playful heart in the warm and forgiving hands of the Indian Ocean. Nothing to prove. Just be.

And I have faith that if I can bring my Atlantic masculine fierceness and ambition, as well as my Indian feminine heart and warmth with me into these next few months, I will be able to give what I came to give — to sing to those individuals sitting in front of me – now!

I love my job. And I am so appreciative of ALL the opportunities I continue to be given. I really do always give all that I am to it. That’s just how I am wired. And I am so tickled that it’s all ever expanding!

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