Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Losing one voice, finding another

SANTA FE, NM, August 2000: That's me in the pink, singing one of my dream roles, Dandini in Rossini's La Cenerentola, at The Santa Fe Opera, in an apprentice showcase performance. Dandini was so suited to my voice, build and personality that my colleagues actually called me "Andini." At the time this photo was taken, I was about as happy as I have ever been. I had just graduated with my master's degree in vocal performance from Manhattan School of Music, was completing an incredible summer apprenticeship in Santa Fe where I understudied Count Almaviva in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, another tailor-made role, and was just a few weeks away from flying off to Zürich, where I would spend a year in their young artist program.

Everything seemed to me like it was falling into place; though I try not to be superstitious, I couldn't help but notice what seemed like omens: that gorgeous costume I'm wearing above had previously been worn by Dwayne Croft in Don Giovanni, another role I was coveting. The shoes still had Richard Stilwell's name in them. For my Zürich debut in Salome I would wear Thomas Hampson's old Tannhäuser coat and later, singing my first Almaviva, I was garbed in Thomas Allen's threadbare costume from a previous Met production.

Perhaps you have noticed I'm no longer singing.

It's a long story that's still difficult for me to tell, so I'll spare you the details. The short version is that beginning in about June 2002 I began to notice subtle differences in my voice: it was duller, smaller, fatigued easily and never felt quite warmed up. At the time I attributed this to a punishing 8-performance a week run I was doing for 10 weeks in Chicago of Philip Glass' Galileo Galilei. I was still singing fine, just not my best. I assumed it would pass.

It did not. Onstage at the Barbican Centre in London in November of that year I found myself silently pleading with God just to get through my one important scene in the show, which should have been no challenge at all given that Mr. Glass had written it for me and I had already performed it sixty-odd times in Chicago and New York. It hurt to sing. My voice felt thin and tired, and no amount of steaming or pampering or rest that I could give it did anything to improve it.

The particular burn of humiliation foisted upon opera singers when their voices disintegrate is in a class apart from that which any other performer might experience. The act of singing makes you feel quite vulnerable; naked, really. If a model spent two hours a day, five days a week, for 10 years, in the gym, he'd be proud of his body. That was the amount of time I'd invested in my voice...and I liked to show it off. Now it was abandoning me.

Upon returning home to New York I was diagnosed with acid reflux. My doctor prescribed a drug which made me physically ill and didn't help my voice a bit. A colleague suggested a different medication, which didn't upset my stomach, but also didn't help my voice. I canceled my auditions for the season -- meaning barring a miracle I would have no jobs for the coming season or even the year after -- and rested. Eventually I went off prescription drugs altogether, began acupuncture treatments and took up yoga. Within a couple of months, my doctor pronounced me free of acid-reflux. I didn't have the symptoms anymore.

I also didn't have my voice.

I don't know what happened, but it was never the same. I had a thorough examination by my ENT, a top expert in her field whose office is graced by hundreds of autographed pictures of her clients ranging from platinum-album pop stars to network anchors to opening-night stars at the Met, and was told my cords looked like they had never been used, they were in such perfect condition. I went for a second opinion and got the same answer. Still, the voice just wasn't the same.

Trust me, this is the short version. It was a two year struggle, an emotional and spiritual crisis that left just barely-concealed scars lurking under my happy-go-lucky surface. Eventually I had to face the music, and find a new direction in life.

Not a day goes by that I don't miss my old life. I remember having a bitch-session with Jose Cura about our arrogant, soulless conductor. I remember Mirella Freni crossing herself before going onstage in Fedora. I remember rehearsing Galileo in Chicago for three hours one morning, then flying back to New York and proceeding straight to the auditorium at Hofstra University for a dress rehearsal of Figaro. I remember being so pleased with a high note in Die Fledermaus that I got distracted and stopped singing. I remember shiny gold nipples for Elektra. I remember knowing that last Traviata was, in fact, my last Traviata.

My new life isn't as much fun, and certainly isn't as glamorous. But I hope, in whatever small, administrative way I can, that I'm making a positive contribution to my life and to the world. My last life had humble beginnings, too. Let's just hope this one doesn't also end in heartbreak.


Esther said...

Hey, at least you have a really cool career to remember. It's very sad that your voice does not allow you to sing anymore. But you did not waste the change you had!

Anonymous said...

I clicked on the Manhattan School of Music link and there you were on one of the "Intro Screens." Who is the instructor?

Andy said...

Yeah, I noticed they were using that would be from first-year of grad school acting class with Dona Vaughn, one of my favorite teachers.

Jess said...

You're making a difference, not just through your work but also through the lives you touch. I'm richer for knowing you.

I'm truly sorry for the pain you've had to face in losing a career you cherished, but you'll still have a great life full of great things.

Jeff said...

It must be painful. But fortunately, you're still young, with your whole life ahead of you, and you've got other wonderful talents (such as writing). Many great options await!

obliquity said...

I have a great fondness for the Santa Fe Opera. I was aware you were a vocalist, but I didn't realize the reason you changed careers. I hope that some of your performances were captured for posterity.

Fortunately while one voice may have faded into the background, another voice rings strongly and beautifully in your words here and in your work.

Anthony said...

As many have already pointed out, you are making a difference now, albeit not in the way you'd originally have planned. It seems to me you've yet to be convinced of the value of your current work, which I trust will come in time.

I can't imagine it's as immediately satisfying as your singing career was, though for all the appreciation you'll have received as a singer - I'd also like to know if there are any recordings of you around, incidentally (I'm very fond of "La Cenerentola" myself) - your new career is certainly not without worth. For all the anguish losing your voice must have caused you, I doubt it's a gift you squandered at the time.