Singing for Hope

Living in New York City enlivens, pushes, and challenges me. In a subway car, you might find me working on my attitude toward life, reading a book like The Fifth Agreement by Don Miguel Ruiz and Don Jose Ruiz. The other day, I stumbled onto a concept that confused me at best. In the book, the Ruizes combat an often heard saying, “Nobody’s Perfect.”

In their Toltec beliefs, “the truth is that everything in creation is perfect, including the humans.” Continuing to explain the concept, they further insist:

“Everything about us is perfect, including any disability or disease that we may have. Someone with a learning difficulty is perfect; someone born without a finger or an arm or an ear is perfect; someone with a disease is perfect. Only perfection exists, and that awareness is another important step in our evolution.”

Perhaps I present these inspired authors unfairly by dropping you in the middle of a probably unfamiliar and weighty concept; however, after my morning volunteering at The Cerebral Palsy Center of New York, I can honestly say I met some amazing people, perfect in their current state. About a month ago, my work as a soloist began with a concert at Mt. Sinai Hospital for some incredibly grateful patients and staff. On that day, my definition of an audience changed forever.

Audience at Mt. Sinai

Today, singing with Jacqueline Ballarin, I caught a glimpse of happiness in handshakes, stories, and wheelchairs. George and Karik came in early and talked with us about puppies and trips and asked what we would sing. The pure joy oozing from Karik’s face when we shook his hand melted my heart.

When looking for a quiet concert venue, do not choose The Cerebral Palsy Center of New York, where the inhabitants laugh, sing along, and joke uncontrollablly as they experience the emotions we usually temper and control with a beautiful abandon. Jacquie boldly navigated the crowd as she sang, making them feel wanted and entertained, and they responded with exclamations of “Wow” and “I wish I could sing like that.”

After our songs had ended, Timothy showed us to the front door, pulling his wheelchair along with the wooden railings installed on every wall. Smiling as brightly as the applause that had rung through the corridors, Timothy thanked us, laughed, and corrected the staff member we passed who insisted that he raps. Apparently, he writes poetry and sings R&B. After seeing the paintings along the walls done by artists in their community, I don’t doubt it one bit.

Perfect? I suppose that depends on how you define the word. Despite their illness, these stunning people find and share joy by the mile – a talent we could all stand to develop further. Personally, I cannot imagine a better way to have spent my day. I don’t know for whose hope I just sang – theirs, or my own.

A New Invitation to Last April’s Event

Rehearsal for April in Paris
Rehearsal with Benjamin C.S. Boyle and Eugene Sirotkine

I love social media. You probably know that. I also look forward to Social Media Week twice a year, when this amazingly free conference graces major cities worldwide with their advice and musings about the history, direction, and uses of social media. Why? As Gary Vaynerchuk points out in his book The Thank You Economy, “Social media has transformed our world into one great big small town, dominated, as all vibrant towns used to be, by the strength of relationships, the currency of caring, and the power of word of mouth.” As someone who relishes bumping into friends from Israel on the subway in Manhattan, I can’t resist having another tool to turn my big city life into more of the small town environment in which I once lived as a child.

Since you’re reading Skydiving for Pearls, I imagine you also value the ability to “pop in” on friends, checking out their statuses and “liking” their newest smart purchase, recent personal triumph, or webisode (like the next installment of the Kara Morgan Show). Perhaps you don’t anticipate streaming events on Livestream with conferences from Social Media Week, or you’ve never actually seen a TED Talk. Either way, we’ve all seen video online and more of it as time moves forward, live or pre-recorded. Watching performances of friends, episodes of our favorite shows, that adorable cat who likes to shower.

Sometime last year at a Social Media Week conference, I discovered the value in video. Livestream still has me hooked, and I can learn from online clips how to do everything from folding a shirt to making my next iMovie. At this discovery, I had a million ideas and no real clue of how to execute them. My April in Paris recital with Eugene Sirotkine seemed the perfect opportunity to attempt a live video stream, had I only the money and tools, which I didn’t. Instead, I gratefully accepted the offer of a professional audio recording from my friend Rich Salz, an accomplished audio engineer and the brains behind On-Site Acoustic Testing.

Now what? Well, I had a (supposedly) high-quality webcam. Perhaps I could bring my laptop, record in HD, and mix the professional audio together with the video. Not a brilliant plan, apparently. Logitech‘s webcams have a surprisingly notorious issue of recording in too few frames per second and crashing certain professional video editing softwares, such as the one installed on my old PC and Adobe Premiere Pro, used by a professional video editing friend I had hoped to employ. Whoops.

No more tech talk, but I did have to return to the drawing board. Many months later, I have a new Apple laptop and a plethora of YouTube videos to teach me how to use iMovie 11. Thank you social media. Uploading my first song of many to come, today I finally joined the digitally functional community of video. Although April in Paris: A Recital with Abigail Wright and Eugene Sirotkine definitely sounds clearer than it looks overall, I present to you a new song by a brilliant, living composer and a fresh beginning for my online community. Expect much more to follow.

Tritle’s Recital

Update coming soon. Well, let’s just say I’ve busied myself lately, surrounded by geniuses and working harder to walk among them. In the meantime, I wanted to alert my New York City fans to a great last minute opportunity.

Kent Tritle’s Organ Recital. Tonight. 8pm. You have 2 hours to get there. Go.

Seriously, aside from the fact that the title of the event rhymes brilliantly, Kent Tritle is an incredible organist. According to an extremely talented friend of mine who has played upon this recently refurbished Schantz organ, it remains one of the best early music organs on the East side. If that doesn’t mean much to you but you love the organ, believe me, you’ll understand by the end of the concert.

Tonight, Kent will feature works by George Crumb, Larry King, Ned Rorem, and Julius Reubke, and I can pretty much guarantee you won’t regret attending.

A Concert for New York

I never quite made it to the World Trade Center buildings before they fell. You know, one of those things I assumed I’d get to eventually. I did manage to stand within a couple of blocks from the site on September 12, 2001 (although of course I’d rather I could just hop on the subway and visit them today, still standing). Singing my first professional gig after achieving my undergraduate degree, I had a scheduled rehearsal on September 12 at New York City Opera (which, ten years later, also very sadly seems to be falling down) for I Capuleti e i Montecchi.

In 2001, I lived in Newton, NJ, a two-and-a-half hour commute from the opera house, with my husband at the time (Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus), a music teacher. Newly out of college and too poor to pay for cable, we had no television. We tried rabbit ears once during the World Series, but returned them when we could only view the RAI Italian network. On September 11, my friend called to warn me not to go into the city in case I had rehearsal. When she told me about the plane (only one had crashed by then), I assumed she meant a comparatively harmless private plane. Attempting to understand, I turned on the radio. As the plane crashed into the second tower, I only had one radio station left to hear, NPR. All other radio towers broadcasting to my region were conveniently located on top of the towers.

After a day of receiving images via the Internet, phone calls from my mother, and updates out of London on the BBC network broadcasting for NPR (not an exaggeration), I felt oddly out of touch with my nearest major city. I also doubted I’d have rehearsal in the morning but had no way of determining my next course of action. I called our rehearsal hotline. No change. Still no change. Still no change.

I took the NJTransit train in the next day from the Dover station, not knowing what to expect. What didn’t I anticipate? A free ride to and from the city on NJTransit, the only way into New York City on September 12. Plumes of smoke visible from the train, from Penn Station, from Lincoln Center. People walking slowly in Penn Station and locking eyes with one another on the subways. Strangers of all ethnicities praying together and speaking frankly, as if related to one another, on the trains in from NJ. An eerily empty Broadway.

With rehearsal of course canceled ten minutes after my arrival at Lincoln Center, I went to the now also defunct Barnes and Noble on 66th Street and Broadway to gather my thoughts, like a deer in headlights who couldn’t move. I stumbled upon a week-old article in a weekly Washington-based journal that asked the question, “What needs to happen for us to realize we need to change something about our intelligence community?” In the surrealism of that moment, I knew I wouldn’t turn around and go home.

I’d like to blame my lack of television coverage for the remainder of my actions that day, but I now realize I suffered from the same first stage of grief that most Americans felt: denial. My husband and mother would both scold me for venturing down to Ground Zero on September 12 but in doing so, I witnessed the heroes who continued to volunteer well after 9/11 and the unfathomable beauty of strangers made brothers up close. Taking the 1 train (since the 9 suddenly no longer operated) as far as I could, I got out at Canal Street and continued walking south. In itself, that fact still astonishes me, considering I get lost there now as a New Yorker, having lived here for several years.

More miraculously, I found a way to continue walking past the initial barricades designed to keep anyone but residents out of the area, after walking into a small chapel, praying, and leaving through the other side. Along with so many volunteers and residents, I was able to walk down to Stuyvesant High School, close enough to see the flag so famously photographed among the rubble and far enough to stay out of the way of the work that still continues, now ten years later.

September 12, 2001
Photo by Abigail Wright

Of course it broke my heart. Inhaling the death and ash, a stranger I’d met along the way and I picked up used doctors’ masks on the ground out of desperation to breathe. We saw someone’s incinerated résumé, cars that had hardly any metal and definitely none of the rubber left from the destruction, ash… Lots of ash. Amidst all of the turmoil (most of which lay one day behind and too far away to see), we had the moment to watch as each person present came together to offer support, provide food, search for survivors, and begin the process of picking up the pieces of our sometimes broken world.

As AT&T offered free phone calls across all pay phones in New York, NJTransit offered free train rides to and from the city, and countless people offered their time, energy, health, and lives, a strange and beautiful sense of community entered into the actual heart of our capitalist society. Since then, we have struggled. Plugging our money into wars, banks, and Ponzi schemes, we have lost things too this decade, in addition to the people who have also perished. Our hopes rise and fall, and we wonder sometimes where to place our faith.

Buildings tumbled, and we bled, but the biggest difference I came to understand that day lay in the fact that we embraced the truth of our common reality. Each of us who lives, breathes, and dies saw for a brief moment the precious human mortality we all share and made eye contact. We knew each other and understood, and it was beautiful.

I don’t preach for a living, I sing and act. Last night, I had the unspeakable pleasure of singing in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony No. 2 with the New York Choral Artists and the New York Philharmonic. Tonight, it airs on PBS at 9:30pm, following the President’s address. As I sang, I remembered that day, the day after, and all the challenging days since through which we have endeavored as a people, sometimes together, sometimes apart, to resurrect ourselves. Imparting a message of hope through struggle, we gave the best gift we know through free music, and the most grateful audience I have ever seen applauded for what seemed like an eternity. I leave you with a translation of the text of the final movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Gustav Mahler, along with my sincere belief that together, we will rise again.

Original German
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n
Wirst du, Mein Staub,
Nach kurzer Ruh’!
Unsterblich Leben! Unsterblich Leben
wird der dich rief dir geben!
Wieder aufzublüh’n wirst du gesät!
Der Herr der Ernte geht
und sammelt Garben
uns ein, die starben!
O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:
Es geht dir nichts verloren!
Dein ist, ja dein, was du gesehnt!
Dein, was du geliebt,
Was du gestritten!
O glaube
Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!
Was entstanden ist
Das muß vergehen!
Was vergangen, auferstehen!
Hör’ auf zu beben!
Bereite dich zu leben!
O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!
Dir bin ich entrungen!
O Tod! Du Allbezwinger!
Nun bist du bezwungen!
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen,
In heißem Liebesstreben,
Werd’ich entschweben
Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen!   
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen
Werde ich entschweben.
Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n
wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!
Was du geschlagen
zu Gott wird es dich tragen!
In English
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.
To bloom again were you sown!
The Lord of the harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us together, who died.
O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!
What was created
Must perish,
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You masterer of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!   
Its wing that I won is expanded,
and I fly up.
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!

Wow, Wow

Blurry photos with mirrors? Sorry friends, but as you may have noticed, despite my own occasional excursions into the land of nude performance, actual nudity does not make appearances here at Skydiving for Pearls. If you look closely though (or catch one of their worldwide live shows), you might see the figures of the Wau Wau Sisters, hanging topless from their individual trapezes.

Tonight, I had the rare opportunity to witness this admittedly strange cabaret act involving insanely challenging feats of physical strength, hilarious audience participation, multimedia, and outlandish costumes. By the end of the show at the famous Spiegeltent, these two hilarious and sinewy-strong women performed attached together in various unbelievable positions on one single static trapeze, until they finally flipped together around the swing in a mesmerizing flurry of acrobatics. Wow, Wow.

Curious, comedic, crazy? Perhaps. Controversial, for certain. Without a doubt, the word that came to my mind was courageous. These at times completely bare, often thoroughly ridiculous women, had me applauding on my feet with tears in my eyes by the end of their performance not because of their comedy but rather their fearless and unstoppable selves.

Thank you, Nik Quaife, for having a wait list for this understandably sold out performance, and to the Wau Wau Sisters, for turning a mirror toward my better self and reminding me of the stunning nature of living life fearlessly. May we all be so shameless and strong.

Finding my Post-Apocalyptic Peace

The world did not end yesterday, making possible at least three weddings and two performances in my path. Today brought a long day sprinkled with filming, choreography, singing, posing, robing and disrobing, all to prepare for another day of the same and two performances of Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant. I can’t wait to sleep tonight. The only portion of this week I await more passionately? Tuesday night, after the second performance and the fourth aria, after singing for the VIP vault event, when I get to relax with my incredible friends and have a drink.

Although I imagine that my dear friends Matt and Liz felt the same way before their wedding yesterday, as likely will all three couples participating in the wedding portion of our two tableaux, such a step in one’s relationship requires as much courage as singing nude, alone and in front of an audience. In my recent history, I’ve grown to accept my marriage to my career, a commitment to which I’ve felt drawn since birth. Among other pursuits of mine (like participating in Tableau Vivant), friends, family, and strangers have asked so many questions surrounding this passion that sometimes I feel overwhelmed, as if my silly head might spin itself off and away from their doubts and my fears.

Despite the sometimes good intentions of those inquiring, questions such as “Why aren’t you singing solos at the Met,” “Doesn’t it make you nervous to…,” “Don’t you feel like you should get more compensation,” “You’re so busy, why don’t you have more time for…,” and “Why don’t you try doing this other job on the side, since you do it so well?” frankly, make me want to scream sometimes. All performers also deal with the pressures of other artists and industry professionals working beyond our fiscal or physical boundaries and have to constantly draw our lines and weigh the benefits of the product and experience with the inevitable trials that affect someone within the process. Some seem to handle these pressures brilliantly and easily; others quit the business.

After months of drawing few and often last-minute and therefore less successful and more stressful boundaries, I have learned some incredible lessons in sanity and personal integrity. First and foremost, the word “yes” works best when never used against one’s own judgment and instinct. More than about just wanting to please others, I struggle most trying to make sure everyone understands me. I really do care, work hard, want to help, and want everyone with whom I work to know that. No wonder I feel stressed, trying to control others’ ability to empathize with me, an actor, opera singer, puppeteer, nude model, ex-conservative divorced woman living alone in the city and preferring it that way!

As I smile to myself writing this post on the subway, I feel oddly like one of the sane ones today. I’ve decided to let go of how others perceive the articles by Huffington Post writer Daniel J. Kushner, part one and part two, from which I have discovered my tendency to say “like” far too much. I do not know what tomorrow will bring (aside from a long day and exciting tableau performance), but I finally! accept that I can not control the outcome. Magically I seem to breathe more deeply, letting go of my drive to make everyone “get” or accept me. I can’t wait for tomorrow. This tableau promises to surprise even the performers in its many but honest intricacies. If you have any interest or curiosity in seeing this completely unique artform live, I recommend buying your tickets now for tomorrow or Tuesday, in advance. General admission tickets especially have increased sharply in sales since our listings in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and I’d love for you to experience it. If you find such an eclectic and exposed medium uncomfortable, offensive, or not your cup of tea, I’m okay with that… Well, at least I’m working on it. Finally.

Peaceful Pandemonium: Reflections on Tableau Vivant

Once upon a time, several of my readers asked, “Why?”  They continue to ponder, “Why the nudity,” “Why the Bulgarian music,” “Why you (a question more likely uttered by acquaintances or colleagues)?”

Rehearsal for Tableau Vivant
Rehearsal for Tableau Vivant

My answer, written in January but as yet unpublished, seems all the more poignant to me as we prepare for our upcoming, much grander, longer (less than an hour), and far more ambitious performance this coming Monday and Tuesday, May 23 and 24 at 7pm and 8pm, respectivelyWithin this tableau, one will find weddings (yes, actual weddings), dance, improvisation, Bulgarian folk singers, a string quartet with a few additional players, opera singers, new compositions (none of mine in this production), classic opera arias, and just about every body type imaginable, both clothed and exposed. Within this preparation time and Tableau Vivant itself, I hope to find the peaceful pandemonium of life so perfectly expressing the imperfect we all discover each new day.

My answer:
The Peaceful Pandemonium of Tableau Vivant
By Abigail Wright

In September, at our first rehearsal for the current incarnation of Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant, a large circle of fascinatingly varied introductions confirmed my role as the only nude singer. Although CJ Body joined me in my exposed expression as an unclothed upright bass player for our fall tableau as part of the DUMBO Arts Festival, I bore that undertaking alone in January’s Bathhouse Studio performance. Rima Fand, a brilliant composer I’ve had the extraordinary joy of knowing in three separate artistic endeavors, entered into the equation and introduced an unusual task for most of the models as well. As musical director, she and Sarah Small designed an aural tapestry that placed almost every performer equally far from their comfort zones by layering voice upon voice (mostly untrained), until each added his unique sound to the swelling chorus of suspended, sighed, and soared tones.

Since September, the larger group of artists composing Sarah’s tableau has grown closer in companionship and familiarity, and something about the quality of the picture and drones of the sonic landscape feels more cohesive and powerful as we join together again, now at Bathhouse Studios. The Black Sea Hotel, a hauntingly beautiful Bulgarian folk quartet fully clad in bright crimson wool dresses, ever-powerfully intones a stirring folk song about a man waiting for his friend’s death in order to marry the woman for whom he pines. Sarah Small, whose musical arrangement they sing, enters into the living picture to enliven selected groups of models, static poses beginning to unfreeze and interact with one another.

As eventually the motion quiets and our once crescendoed chorus comes down from the swell, this photographer/composer/creator adds her voice as a soloist which then melds with the folk quartet to conclude the perplexing but poignant song. Almost ominously, as the melodic love story ends on the Bulgarian word meaning “death,” each of us personalizes it, as chanted, spoken, shouted, and vibrated pitches echo a resonant “umre” throughout the space. Upon this scattered final iteration, each person in tableau releases her individually held pose, engages the eyes of a random audience member, and waits for the first note of my aria after extended silence as a signal to fade away and drop her head.

In September when Sarah and I first met to discuss which aria I might perform to conclude her Tableau Vivant, I had a comparatively vague sense of the profound nature of her living picture as a whole. After hearing her focus for the tableau as a means for exploring life and death, I chose music and a text that would minister to her spirit as the creative energy behind such a feat. In “C’est l’amour vainqueur,” commonly referred to as “the violin aria” from Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, the character of Nicklausse sings this song to the poet E.T.A. Hoffmann, imploring him to write. Referencing the beauty of music, its transforming power, and finally triumphant love, Nicklausse exclaims, “It is all-conquering love, ah, poet, give your heart!” Little did I understand at that moment how much the aria and tableau as a whole speaks not only to Sarah Small as the creator of the concept, the musicians and the models inhabiting it, and the audience in the room, but especially to everyone as a microcosm of life as a whole.

In my brief but meaningful experience with the art of tableau vivant, I have enjoyed an insider’s view of her “Delirium Constructions” as a means to explore in public all of the common human experiences most hide. Fusing truly implausible combinations of the primal with the classical, musically and visually through the clothed and bare, static and engaged, healthy and deformed (some models in particular have body paint and positions to indicate bruises, rashes, and injury), proud and meek, this odd concoction of life without pretense explores some of the most profoundly universal themes in a short twenty-minute span. Reminiscent of the musings of Shakespeare as Hamlet tells Claudius how “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar,” this photographer brings to light in one small space a truly living picture of the simple complexities of humanity, seen and unseen. By insisting upon such an unapologetic depiction of existence, Sarah Small presents the most honest public offering in which I have ever taken part. As society imbues her art with love, death, life and its intricacies, may she continue to inspire audiences in the peaceful pandemonium of her Tableau Vivant.