Category Archives: Laura

Sehnsucht: The ultimate in finding Fabulous in the Common.

I’m not a particularly “feely” person. A friend of mine described how I function with emotions as a “low reactor”. It takes quite a bit to get me upset/mad/sad/lonely. I remember getting really mad for the first time in college. My poor, sweet (although totally deserving in the situation) brother was the first victim of Furious Laura. She hasn’t shown up much throughout my lifetime, although Disgusted Laura makes regular appearances (see Inside Out for more reference). I always say I feel positive emotions very deeply and find the negative emotions pointless and unhelpful. (This should help explain why the turmoil and frustration of the vocal transition has been so difficult for me. I HATE crying, especially when its over the same thing over and over and doesn’t fix what I’m crying about or when I wasn’t prepared to cry or don’t know exactly which issue is making me cry. Negative emotions are ridiculous. sigh)

HOWEVER, one of the most amazing parts of what I do is that it gives me regular access to one of my favorite emotional experiences.

The experience of Sehnsucht.
The word Sehnsucht is a word for which I haven’t found succinct English equivalent and brings together my Faith, (as spoken through my favorite writer, C.S. Lewis), love of my career in opera, and the beautiful and real experience I have when listening to music that touches my soul. Sehnsucht is a German word that embodies a huge theme in all of Lewis’s writings. For Lewis, Sehnsucht was the sense of deep, inconsolable longing, yearning, the feeling of intensely missing something when we don’t even know what it is. I found a blog post that explains his ideas on it pretty well. It is also related to his experiences of joy:

“Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.” – Surprised by Joy

I think most people have experienced this sometime in their life. I describe this intangible concept as a moment of sheer bliss or contentment, that only lasts a moment, but begs for more. I often feel it when driving through beautiful areas with the windows down. Also, when I get engulfed by a piece of music I’m listening to that is especially beautiful or meaningful. It can even happen when I’m overwhelmed by warm, fresh wind. I love wind. I love standing in the impact of something I cannot see, but obviously know is there. It is such a beautiful representation of my experience with God.

The opera world also uses this concept. I remember learning about it back in undergrad at St. Olaf. Alice Hanson, the BEST and most terrifying teacher I have ever had (who passed away in 2013, leaving a legacy of St. Olaf music majors who remember more from her lectures than all of our other classes combined), explained it as a concept of the Romantic Era, especially in regards to Wagner. Richard Wagner used themes or “leitmotifs” in his operas; these are musical melodies or chords that represent characters, items, or concepts. They are the groundwork for his operas. He introduces a leitmotif, repeats it, develops it, and combines it with other leitmotifs to represent the coming together of two people, or an object with its owner, or a character and the emotion they are feeling. It is brilliant. This made Wagner my favorite composer to study. The more you learn about the music, the more you love it.

Wagner wrote a “Sehnsucht” motif in The opera, Tristan und Isolde. Sehnsucht is also connected with the romantic concept of “Liebestod”, which refers to the theme of erotic death or “love death” meaning the two lovers’ consummation of their love in death or after death. It is also representative of sexual fulfillment/climax. Yep, opera is basically about sex and death. It’s super sexy. Go buy tickets.

I love that this concept is not only felt when listening to music, but also in the construct of it. This is why it is one of my favorite words. I am toying with the idea of getting a very small tattoo of this word. Yes, mom and opera world, it would be done so it is easy to cover up or hidden from others.

I recently found this quote about one of THE great sopranos, Maria Callas:

“Of all the female singers, Callas’s expressiveness, the intensity of her performance ‘was such that for him time stood momentarily still, keeping at bay fear – even fear of death – and thereby promoting a state of happiness and a feeling of immortality’ Callas embodied the most extreme feeling of “Sehnsucht” (yearning), yet simultaneously the fulfillment of “Sehnsucht”.”

I LOVE this. Callas was a complete performer. She threw herself into every character and every performance. Even if her singing wasn’t perfect, she left the audience in tears. When I lived in Italy, Claudia, the mother of the family I stayed with, put on a recording of Callas singing Bellini’s “Casta Diva”. She sat with me, doing some sewing, and silently cried at the beauty of the music pouring through the speakers. This memory will never leave me. It inspires me to continue trying to “let go” when singing and to barrel forward with complete and genuine commitment to each moment, with each character. THIS is how Callas gave the world Sehnsucht. It does not come from technical perfection or mechanically calculated singing. My brain that desires those things needs to take a back seat to my love of the Sehnsucht experience and my desire to give this to others. It’s time for Joyful Laura to take the reins. 

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The Dirty Truth About Becoming a Diva Soprano

The start of this blog is coming right smack in the middle of a process/journey I have been on for a couple of years. To bring you up to speed, I’ve spent the past two years transitioning from a mezzo-soprano to a soprano. For those who don’t know, a mezzo-soprano is the lower female voice type and soprano is the higher. I often compare this transition to going from being a sprinter to a marathon runner; they use the same muscles to run, but in very different ways and for very different kinds of running.pianomusic

My path has always been one of being a little behind. I started my musical endeavors as a trumpet player, working hard and planning my future around this goal from middle school till college. After 8 intense years of trumpet study and beginning a trumpet performance major, I switched to vocal performance my sophomore year of college. Working to catch up in the vocal world, I studied and performed as a mezzo soprano for the next 4 years of college, 3 years of graduate school and 2 years as a young artist at Arizona Opera. Guided by trusted teachers, coaches, and colleagues, I then made the decision to switch to soprano. The Lyric Opera of Chicago final auditions were the first time I had sung or auditioned as a “soprano” in public, even though I hadn’t even begun the process of transitioning. They took a chance on me and I won the soprano spot in the program. I STILL can’t believe that happened. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and this also meant I was behind, once again.

Now, I’m just starting my third and final year as a young artist with the Lyric and the transition has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. All of the sudden, in the midst of my career path and at an extremely high profile company, all of my understanding, history, defaults, and confidence with my instrument went away. I started the painstakingly slow process of retraining my muscles, building new endurance, and learning ALL new roles. The 20+ roles I had learned over the years as a mezzo would never be repeated and would disappear from my resume. Every new soprano role had brand new challenges. As a mezzo, I was able to sing basically every role given to me with ease. Soprano roles tend to be longer, more demanding, and there are so many different types of sopranos. Finding the right repertoire to sing isn’t an easy feat for someone who has been studying as a soprano for years, much less one who has only started to understand the new instrument.

toomuchmusiclauraAll of this has felt like trying to lose weight and weighing yourself every hour. The progress is clearly happening, but it is very slow, frustrating, and often scary. Many have tried to make the vocal switch, only to discover it’s not right and to go back to what they were before. I do not like “unknowns”. I do not like that I have had days when I don’t know what will come out of my mouth. I do not like that my expectations for my performances and the dramatic choices I want to make have been, at times, beyond my current abilities.

However, it has also been the best decision I have ever made. I finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Soprano is absolutely, 100% right for me. In the right repertoire, it is starting to feel simply like releasing what has wanted to come out for years. I also will have the joy of playing some of the most wonderful roles ever written in the operatic repertoire: the epic Strauss, Puccini, Wagner, and maybe Verdi heroines. These are the roles I would hide away and sing through even as a mezzo, never dreaming I would be able to sing them for real. I am also discovering the perfection of many beautiful and powerful roles in the Slavic repertoire that happen to fit me like a glove. On top of that, I am surrounded by amazing people, who believe in me and in my future as a soprano. I couldn’t be more blessed.

This process has brought me more emotional ups and downs than anything else in my life. Because of this, I am starting the process of redefining my expectations of success and failure as a performer. There is often a massive juxtaposition between what the audience sees at my performance and what the brain of Laura thinks about it. I foresee many of my blog entries having to do with this juxtaposition, wrestling with the truth of an experience, finding joy in the beautiful act of singing, and dealing with the rest of life on top of it all. Get ready, blog world, for more than you ever wanted to know about the mind of a performer, from the perspective of a Type A, analytical, emotional-robot soprano. Get excited.

Meet Laura

The life of an opera singer looks, from the outside, like non-stop excitement, glamour, and accolades. While all of that is a part of the life, it is, by no means, the entirety or even the majority of how I experience my life. Yes, I get paid to do what I love. Yes, lots of the shopping I do is for fancy gowns. Yes, I end many of my workdays with applause and a bow. However, the majority of my time is spent tediously translating musical scores from German/Czech/Italian/French/German/Polish to English, learning and memorizing the music and text from 300+ page operas, running scenes over and over and over, continuing on the never-ending and often excruciating journey to understand and take command of my vocal instrument, booking extremely expensive flights, figuring out how to pack heels, gowns, and stage makeup into a carry-on bag, putting my heart, soul and voice on the line in countless auditions, and sleeping. The “common” reigns in my life. But the common is what I love.

As a Type A personality in an unconventional, artistic world, I often struggle with the irregularity and the overwhelming influence my career has on my life. My desire for structure, consistency, regular paychecks, health insurance, and stability often clashes with the realities of my career path. The day-to-day work is what gives me that structure. Every time I crack a new score, I know the outline of how the learning process will go. I have consistent vocal exercises that begin my daily practice routine. I have a set, trusted team of people I go to when facing any new decision, vocal frustration, or career question. And even though my instrument is ever changing (a highly irritating, but exciting aspect of being a singer), it is my constant companion.

As I begin this blog journey with my sister, I am struck by how different our writing is. My brain is straightforward, fact-driven, and linear, while my sister has the artistic, creative, outside-the-box mind and writing style. How did I end up the professional artist and she the stay-at-home mom and grant writer? How did I go from being that little kid who would dance and sing for anyone (willing or unwilling) to the grown up who gets paid to dress up and perform for crowds, but wishes she could skip the bowing, center-of-attention part? How did I somehow lose my deep sense of creativity and how do I find it again, amidst the endless amounts of analyzing, translating, and micromanaging my craft demands?

All I know is that this can only help. My hope is that this blog can help me explore what I love about my day-to-day life, warts and all. I hope to be encouraged by my sister’s quirky, imaginative perspective and to allow myself the freedom to create, get lost in my craft, and cherish the tedious aspects that make it, strangely, the perfect job for me.

duellaura