Tuesday, November 30, 2010


In which our Diva is polishing her holday repertoire

Yesterday I was asked on Formspring what was the most challenging song I've learned to sing. I answered that it was a tossup between the Gounod Ave Maria and "The Finer Things" from Jane Eyre, but as I think about it, it's really no contest. That Ave Maria just fills my heart and makes me cry every time, if it's sung right.

And oh, it's that "sung right" that's the kicker. The deceptively simple melody -- based on a keyboard exercise from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavichord -- leaves the singer completely exposed, with nowhere to fudge in the slightest on breath control/support and placement. Its tessitura calls for the most support, smoothness, and control right across the passagio of my particular lyric soprano voice.

In less technical terms, there's a killer ab workout going on that the audience (ideally) never sees.

You can sing it without feeling like you've done fifty crunches, and it may very well even be pretty, but there'll be something missing. (I'm looking at you, Hayley Westenra, much as I love a lot of your stuff. Though you get closer than some.) But when the mind and body and heart are in tune, and the natural instrument is Kiri Te Kanawa's, you get this.

I haven't sung it since the Elgin Opera holiday party last December, when I had a little bit of a support issue (there's only so much I can convince those gut muscles to do what I tell them when they want to clench up because I'm cold) that led to a little bit of a pitch problem, but made my mom cry anyway. December has rolled around again, and I'm singing at Villa Verone on the 5th and the 19th, so I'm working on getting it back up again.

All my adult life, the word "resonance" has been very personal in a rather literal way -- all about the bones and spaces in my body and head, and how sound spins inside them and out into a performance space. As you can see in my previous post, my relationship with the word is growing, to encompass not just the exciting project I've gotten involved in but the principle of physics that gives the project its title.

Which is, of course, the exact same thing as that personal sense I started with. The continuum of microcosm to macrocosm, in scientific or mythic terms, has always been a fascinating concept to me, and a mental image that winds through all my creative endeavors in one way or another. So when I ran across this awesome Flash toy illustrating the scale of the universe, I thought it was the coolest thing I'd seen all month. You might or might not be as childishly gleeful about it as I was, but you should definitely check it out and play with it. Slide the control and see what those words you've heard for units -- and maybe some you've never encountered -- look like in clear, cartoony color.

I've been pulling it up to play with at least once in a day, just because it makes me smile. And in a weird way, it'll be in my mind when I'm directing breath and muscle and magic to resonate from the small spaces in my body and out into the restaurant.

Song for Today: Self-evident, of course. My all-time favorite recording is Michael Ball's. It's not perfect, or even necessarily the closest to the ideal I have in my head (and there is a very clear ideal in my head, one that no real singer has ever quite sounded like), but my emotional attachment to the piece began with his performance on the 1990 holiday album recorded by Broadway and West End performers as a benefit for Save the Children. It's interesting to me that my ideal is a purely classical soprano, but I prefer Ball's rendition to those of straight-up operatic tenors.

Dunno what that means. But I know what I like and how it makes me feel, and that's knowledge of value too.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Surprises, secrets and serendipity

In which our Diva alliterates, ruminates and collaborates

In modern popular culture, our modes of storytelling, and of talking about stories, place a high premium on the element of surprise. We're all about the twist, the stunning revelation, the "everything changes." Creators of hotly-anticipated projects pile safeguard on safeguard to keep their story details under wraps, the spoiler mill works even harder to get the scoop on leaks, and some fans eagerly snap up those leaks while others are hard-pressed to avoid them.

With all this going on, it's hard to remember the twist isn't everything. (Even when people think it is. I seem to be the only person on the planet who liked The Village on other merits and didn't care that I saw the "twist" coming a mile away.) Not every story  is "ruined" if we know or can easily guess what's going to happen. Sometimes it's just as rewarding to watch how it gets to a place we fully expect.

And sometimes it really does matter. Sometimes there's a mystery, a puzzle, a picture best built gradually, piece by piece.  When you're part of telling that kind of story, you get really good at keeping your mouth shut, at keeping track of what you're allowed to tell whom and when.

For the second time this fall, I've been all cryptic lately about a new endeavor. The cryptic will be with us for a while, but I can at least stop typing Sooper Sekrit Project. (As amusing as that may be, if only to me.) Resonance isn't a whole lot shorter, but it does sound cooler. And, courtesy of a serendipitously-timed email I wasn't even sure anyone was going to read, I'm now part of its development team.

For the moment, that's all I can really say. But I was excited about the possibilities of the project before I was ever in contact with anyone involved in it, and now I've found them very much kindred spirits. I'm in, not quite on the ground floor, but certainly the first floor, of something that promises to be pretty huge. Perhaps more to the point, it's something I can't wait to see, and I get to help make it happen. Does it get any better than that?

Lots to do in the coming months, but before you know it we'll be asking: Will you help?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The persistence of poppies

In which our Diva follows a flower through a labyrinth of meaning

This week marks Armistice Day, more commonly referred to as Veteran's Day here in the US, and Remembrance Day in the UK, where its specific reference to World War I tends to be more noted than here. Digital poppies have been scattered through my Twitter feed for a week or more, adorning the userpics of Brits and Canadians, many of whom are presumably also wearing fabric ones in real life.

I didn't know until I was an adult that the tradition originates with John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Field," and it wasn't until a couple years ago that I learned of the alternate tradition of wearing a white poppy, signifying hope (specifically for peace) rather than sacrifice.

All I knew when I was a kid, living in England from ages 7-10 when the Air Force stationed my dad at RAF Lakenheath, was that the British poppies came out around my birthday and were manufactured completely differently from the wire-and-crepe-paper ones I was familiar with thanks to the American Legion.

Legion and VFW poppies come out for Memorial Day (end of May, for those not in the US), which originated with the Civil War, but which in my lifetime has tended to emphasize WWII. Perhaps especially in my experience, which included, at age 5, riding in the Memorial Day parade, on the back of a red convertible generously decorated with those crepe-paper poppies, as Poppy Queen for my WWII-vet grandfather's Legion post. It was quite the day for a little girl already inclined to show off, and I still have the red pageant-style sash, long white dress, and little white gloves. (Tangential factoid: I was quite small for my age until age 13, at which point some weird biochemical switch flipped and I shot up a whole foot over the next five years. Both dress and gloves -- which I clearly remember wearing for Easter and Memorial Day that year -- look impossibly tiny now.)

The American Legion figures prominently in many of my memories of Grandpa W. I even have my original membership card for the Legion Auxiliary, issued shortly after my birth, when I was among the first granddaughters admitted to the organization when the eligibility rules changed.  The point was rendered moot within months, when my dad's number came up and he became a Vietnam-era veteran, eligible for Legion membership himself.

The poppy-wearing tradition, at least in my adult lifetime (probably earlier, but I have next to no frame of reference for the civilian world during my childhood), isn't as ubiquitious in the US as in Britain and Canada, a fact that surprises me over and over again. (It shouldn't by now. It gets harder every year to find a Legionnaire to buy one from.) It happened again this morning, in a Twitter exchange with film writer Neal Romanek, an American living in London who was mystified by the poppies all around him this week until it was explained to him today.  And, though almost exactly two years older than I and the child of a Vietnam vet himself, he wasn't aware of the American poppy tradition at all.

As a small child, I was perennially puzzled by the Wicked Witch of the West using a field of poppies as a weapon to stop Dorothy and her friends from reaching the Emerald City. "Something with poison in it," she crooned to the captain of her flying monkeys. I'd never seen a real poppy before we lived in England, but I knew they existed, and I knew some plants were poisonous if you ate them, so that potentially made sense. But just walking across a field putting everyone to sleep? I have a vague recollection of asking my mom about it, around the same age as my pretend-royalty-for-a-day experience. I don't remember what her explanation was, only that I didn't really understand it. In retrospect, I suspect she was at a bit of a loss for something that would make sense without recourse to L. Frank Baum's turn-of-the-century vantage point, when opiate-based medications were still freely available but their hazards widely known. Fifteen years passed between the publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and John McCrae's battlefield composition, and it's the latter that invokes the common European wildflower rather than its potent cultivated cousin.

None of which I knew when we moved into our housing unit at Lakenheath, with a lawn that was covered with tiny daisies in spring and early summer, and with wild poppies in late summer and fall, so thick that friends and I would run through them over and over again toward an imaginary Emerald City.  That profusion is the image invoked by Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine in his account of the famous opening of Lizzie's grave to recover the poems DGR had buried with her seven years before: "fresh poetry and new poets arose, even as they now arise, with all the abundance and timeliness of poppies in autumn." Even so, as Stephanie Pina notes in today's blog post on LizzieSiddal.com, the choice of metaphor is striking in reference to Lizzie, for whom the cultivated opium poppy, processed into laudanum, brought relief, addiction, and finally death.

DGR painted three oil versions of Beata Beatrix. In the first, housed at the Tate Gallery in London, and the second, which I visited this summer at the Art Institute of Chicago, a red dove delivers a white poppy into Beatrice's open hands. In the third, completed by Ford Madox Brown after Gabriel's death and now in the collection of the Birmingham Museum, the colors of bird and flower are reversed.

It would be half a century later, on the other side of the war whose technology irrevocably changed what war meant in Western culture, that those colors would come to denote the hope and sacrifice I mentioned at the top of this post.  What they meant to DGR when he conceived the painting(s) is open to interpretation and debate. Beata Beatrix is often referred to as his tribute or memorial to Lizzie, but the more I think about his repeated execution of the design, the more it feels like an attempt to make peace with her spirit. Metaphorically speaking. (Or mostly; there are those seances with the Brownings to consider.)

But it's the inside of Lizzie's head I'm trying to explore these days. There's only so far I can or should try to puzzle out Gabriel's too!  (It was a pretty scary place for a while there. I don't envy him inhabiting it.)

Song for Today: When I bought Sting's Dream of the Blue Turtles, my teenage mind was completely blown by the lyrical continuum from WWI's "lost generation" to the modern lives destroyed by the drug trade. Today, 25 years later, war and the drug trade occupy the same space, where opium cultivation appeases the Taliban and puts food on the family table.

Poppies for young lives. Bitter trade indeed.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so

Insighful, thought-provoking post over at Hoyden About Town on Ophelia, violence, and what is and is not in the text: On Ophelia, Who Never Got to Be a Hoyden:

There is no indication in the text that Hamlet harms Ophelia physically in this scene, no stage direction and no line that specifically requires such an action for it to make sense. If anything the text suggests a Hamlet who is trying to remove himself from Ophelia’s company, not run her to ground. He says ‘farewell’ three times, as well as repeatedly saying ‘go’, ‘go to’ and ‘go thy ways’. Nevertheless, the scene is often staged with Hamlet tipping over from verbal abuse of Ophelia into physical.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

November already?

In which our Diva wonders how the heck that happened

Halloween down (and much fun -- my first one in this house without a show, so I finally got to hand out candy and freak out the neighborhood kids as Zombie Tinkerbell), Election Day nearly done, and birthday just around the corner! This fall has flown.

Realized I forgot in my last post to mention one of my favorite moments in the Divine Comedy reading. In Canto 26, where we encounter Ulysses and Diomedes, Virgil turns to Dante and says, essentially, "They're Greek. Better let me do the talking." Seriously, I'm barely even paraphrasing there. I was sitting next to Racole Fisher, Storefront Shakespeare's executive director, and we looked at each other and (silently) cracked up. And nobody else seemed to get it! Yes, even in the Eighth Circle of Hell, there are geeky giggles to be had.

This coming Sunday I'll be back at Villa Verone with fellow Elgin Opera singers for our periodic casual cabaret evenings. Not sure yet what other Sundays I'm going to do, but we have six of them coming up: all through November and December, with Thanksgiving and Christmas weekends off.

Meanwhile, I'm hunkered down and bundled up (getting chilly out there, and trying to keep the ol' gas bill under control), making slow but reasonably steady progress on the Lizzie project and doing various electronic housekeeping.  Promo materials for Scarlet X are in the works; I'm excited to see  and share them. And as always, there are other potential projects swirling in the offing, and I'll keep you posted as any of them solidify.

I know that winter is inevitably on the way, but I'm holding tight to fall, with a little assistance from another animation Daryl made from the "Cemetery Girl" photoshoot.  Enjoy the pretty leaves while we got 'em!

Valerie - Cemetery Girl from Daryl Darko on Vimeo.