Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Useless!

Five years ago today, I shook the dust of Zürich off my feet after nearly a year of the most intense frustration and disappointment as a member of the Internationales Opernstudio, the Opernhaus Zürich young artist program.

While trying to think of an appropriate story to share out of the vast catalogue of disasters that befell me that year, I happened to have lunch today with an old friend who, coincidentally, had recently auditioned in Düsseldorf for an agent I once sang for.

The agent heard me in a concert in the opera house in Zürich and invited me to Düsseldorf to sing for her there; the directors of the opera studio impressed upon me that this was a tremendous opportunity and a great compliment, as she was very influential in securing resident contracts for singers in many of the top houses in Germany. I was also the only member of the studio to receive such an invitation.

So, on a bitterly bleak weekend in January, I headed north to Germany. One of the much-touted perks of studio membership was their agreement to pay travel expenses for any auditions in Europe. They got around this atypical Swiss generosity by generally doing absolutely nothing at all to secure auditions for studio members and then, in this case, deducting the border tax and mandatory reservation surcharge when reimbursing me for the train ticket. There was no meal stipend, nor would they pay for hotel.

Düsseldorf is seven hours by train from Zürich; my audition was scheduled for 3:00 on a Monday afternoon. In order to make this audition on time, I would have to take the Zürich-Amsterdam Eurostar, leaving at 6:30 a.m., and arriving at 1:30 p.m., then wander around in the freezing cold with no place to go – and no place to warm up, freshen up, etc. – then try to catch the 4:45 return, getting me back to Zürich shortly before midnight. Altogether, 14 hours on the train, with a break in the middle for 10 minutes of singing and three hours of hanging out in northern Germany in January.

I did not think I could reasonably be expected to turn in a good audition under such circumstances, so I asked if I could have extra money for a hotel the night before. They thought I was being extravagant.

So I decided I would just splurge and take a little vacation. Now, it must be said, my salary in Zürich was 1200 franks a month, which in those days was about $700. Nonetheless, I opted to take the train up on Saturday morning and spend the weekend there, coming home after the audition on Monday. I managed to find a very cheap hotel near the train station, which I think cost about 35 German marks a night.

The room was small and basic, and very, very cold, which isn’t good for a singer, with shared bathrooms down the hall. The men’s room was just a toilet; the “shower” was in the ladies’ room, but it was – no kidding – a tub with no curtain and a garden hose with a sprinkler attached to the faucet. I never did figure out if men were actually allowed to use the “shower,” but foreigners can always plead idiocy, especially Americans.

My official letter of invitation had specified that the room would be available for one hour prior to the audition to warm up and practice, a stipulation I was totally relying on. Of course, I had to check out of the hotel at noon the day of the audition, which still left me with two hours in the freezing cold with no place to go, so mostly I window-shopped in the train station.

When I arrived at the hall – a lecture space in the back of a library rather unusually on the second floor of a building where the ground floor was occupied by a XXX theater and store – there were about 50 other people there, all dressed up, toting their trademark black audition binders, mostly women.

I had been formally invited to a cattle call.

The warm-up space was the audition room itself, and all 50 of us had been expecting to be able to use it for an hour; moreover, there was no “schedule” for the audition, we were told to just work it out amongst ourselves. I had two minutes to “warm up,” which was pretty useless, and then I went out to negotiate my audition time. I said I just needed to catch the 4:45 train; other than that, I didn’t care. Some of the girls had real knock-down, drag-out diva fits. I tried to be entertained, but mostly I was angry; I felt that I had been very, very misled about these circumstances. The lobby was ice-cold, so I spent about an hour wrapped up in my coat and gloves, with my scarf over my mouth so that I could breathe recycled warm air and muffle my humming to keep the voice warm while not disturbing the auditions in progress.

Finally it was my turn; normally I opened with a Mozart concert aria, “Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo,” but in my non-warmed-up, frozen, angry state, I didn’t think that was a wise choice, so I offered the similar, but less demanding Count’s aria from Le nozze di Figaro, in which I had great confidence, having just understudied the role in Santa Fe.

“That doesn’t show anything, what else do you have?” barked the agent.

Now, I’d had people stop me before I reached the end of a piece, or ask me to start in the middle, but I had never even heard of anyone rejecting the first aria. The Count may not show much in the way of sustained high notes, but it requires exemplary diction, great acting, and despite its relatively narrow range, would clearly reveal an unhealthy voice or poor technique. Furthermore, as Figaro is one of the most frequently performed operas, Counts are always in demand, even if they’re not hard to find.

So instead I offered “Bella siccome un angelo” from Don Pasquale, which in terms of vocal demands is not really any different than the Count, but apparently it was acceptable. It got off to a rocky start, as I was completely cold, but by the end I felt okay.

Then there was a pause. “Okay, let me hear the Count.”

Huh? So I sang it. It wasn’t the best I’d ever done, but it was in the ballpark.

Another pause.

“What can I do with you?”

[Me, blinking blankly, a la Homer Simpson.]

“I mean, you’re useless, absolutely USELESS to me. You have no technique whatsoever. I can’t send you to a German house, you’d never last a whole season! THANK YOU!” she bellowed.

“Okay, well…,” I stuttered, struggling to find the words, “thank you,”as I picked up my binder and headed out of the auditorium. “Useless,” she muttered again, as I passed her.

Now, you might think I was angry or embarrassed or insulted, but the truth is, I actually found this hilarious. I was struggling to maintain my composure. What a sick, twisted bitch, I thought, bringing people here at their own expense under the impression that they have been “invited” to sing for an influential agent so you can torture them. I knew one thing: I wouldn’t want to work for an agent like that, so I was glad she DIDN’T like me.

And as for her criticism, the very next afternoon back in Zürich, I had a voice lesson with no less of a taskmaster than Elisabeth Schwarzkopf herself, who told me, after working with me for 90 minutes on Schubert, “You have a beautiful voice and a flawless technique.”

Take that, bitch.

9 comments:

LeshDogg said...

Fantastic story.

Just out of curiosity...why did you leave the opera? I truly hope it wasn't this prig.

Again, appologies if you have covered the story.

Andy said...

I developed acid reflux, which burned my esophagus, and required that I stop using my voice in order to allow it to recover; unfortunately, that took about two years, by which time it was necessary for me to take a real job, as I could no longer live on what I could earn as a temp, especially without benefits, which meant I had to give up the flexibility that is critical to getting a career off the ground. Plus, the whole experience pretty much knocked the wind out of my emotional sails. I think my voice is fine now, but I have lost the inspiration required to work as hard and sacrifice as much as it would take to get back into it. At least for now.

DJRainDog said...

Actually, Andy, would you really be that much worse off if you went back to singing than you are working for that lovely little non-profit down in the Financial District? I mean, from what little I've heard, I think you're probably a better singer than I or the people with whom I sing, and we make a living at it. (And your apartment's almost as big as mine, despite having only one bedroom, and I think your rent's less...) Just a thought from the RainDevil. ;-)

kr pdx said...

I am so glad to har you think your throat has recovered!!! Am I allowed to tell my mom? She'll be way excited ... but might put some pressure on you the next time she sees you if you haven't at least joined a choir or something ;).

DJRainDog said...

You should, kr. There are ZILLIONS of places Andy could sing in this town, and what came out of his mouth STUNNED me when we were sitting in a very loud bar having drinks a few months ago when he opted just to inject a brief phrase of song into a conversation.

Jade said...

Andy has the most amazing voice. What I wouldn't give to add him to my iPod :)

kr pdx said...

hah, DJR, really? Well, Andy, if you've loosened up enough to really sing even a little in public, I suspect you've already made a singing-decision subconsciously ;).

Give the world(/God) back your voice, eh? Someday, I'd like to own a better recording than the one from my wedding ;).

Andy said...

It's amazing what a little alcohol does for one's inhibitions. Sigh.

DJRainDog said...

I must say, I'm much better off both vocally and sitting behind the piano if I've had a (ONE) drink. It's terribly difficult to be honest and raw and nakedly artistic in one's normal state (when one is as over-wrought as I am, anyway), and a little alcohol does a nice job of ripping some of the pesky phlegm from the pipes...