Finding My Voice, #249

Photo by Michele Oh

Last year, I volunteered to work for six months at The Artist Co-op, a new co-working space with rehearsal rooms, geared towards connecting and supporting artists from theatre, film, opera, dance, etc. I met actors, singers, filmmakers, producers, directors, lighting designers, dancers, and most importantly, people who have and will continue to change my life. I’m grateful to be singing in a concert to support The Artist Co-op this Friday night, and I hope you’ll attend, if you’re in the greater New York City area.

On a couple of occasions, I mentioned to members of The Artist Co-op that I wanted to learn to expand my vocal abilities to include belting and musical theatre techniques. Although I’ve had a couple of really wonderful musical theatre gigs, I always knew I had work to do to really learn how to sing that repertoire at the best of my natural ability. Having several friends in an incredibly unconventional, grammy-winning group called Roomful of Teeth, I’ve been inspired for years to learn to expand my voice outside of the purely classical realm.

Growing up, I wanted to be Debbie Gibson. I learned how to sing like her, mostly with a pop mix and an unsophisticated teenage belt when needed. One night, at a karaoke bar in Koreatown, I reached the pinnacle of those childhood dreams when, while singing “Lost in Your Eyes,” a man dropped to his knees at my feet and shouted, “You ARE Debbie Gibson!” As a fully realized adult who had earned a living as a respected classical singer for two decades, I knew I could do far more if I trained my whole voice – not to mimic an 80’s pop icon, but to find the limitless possibilities within my own voice.

When the universe speaks, I listen. Personally, this means paying attention whenever more than one source produces the same message or advice. Several people mentioned the tiny street on which I now live, for example, as I was searching for an affordable apartment in Manhattan, and I cannot imagine living anywhere else. So when two different members of the Artist Co-op praised their teacher Jon Stancato and recommended I work with him on my much of a coincidence. “Are you Jon Stancato, by any chance?” I asked, and my journey began.

Since then, I’ve had several lessons, sometimes a week apart, sometimes spread out by months because of my performing and travel schedules. Now, preparing to sing everything from Troubadour songs to Alanis Morisette with medieval harp on an eclectic concert on Friday, June 14 at the Highland Lodge in Vermont with Christopher Preston Thompson and Heidi Lauren Duke, I have the privilege of meeting with Jon weekly. He’s an incredibly intuitive coach, working with me as we experiment together to find the authentic and meaningful sounds that color each song fully and appropriately.

On days like today, feeling raw with the emotions of loss and mourning and worn down by allergies and the thicker vocal cords that greet young women once a month, working with Jon reminds me so much of my intensely mindful work with Josh Pais, or training to become a life coach. I make sounds I wouldn’t dare to make in front of almost anyone, and Jon tells me that he can learn just as much from my voice on what I would consider a bad day. I relax into the present to play with what we have, which apparently is a lot more than I expected.

Singing, as a career, creates a life of wildly glorious and meaningful highs, coupled with social needs cut short, an unparalleled need for body awareness and physical health, and constant sacrifices to keep that voice, which earns me money and keeps me fed, fresh and strong. Today, I found a new way to play with it healthily and, as I so often do on this journey, I felt at turns vulnerable, scared, empowered, and exhilarated. Finally, we found a really rich resonance with which I can play across my range, and I felt good, as we heard a knock on the door, and the lesson came to an end.

As the door opened, a classical conductor with whom I’ve previously worked and who I respect walked in the absolutely not soundproof door. We briefly hugged, and I mentioned that I was working on some belting techniques, before he said, “I know, I heard. Sounds good,” and rushed off to setup for his rehearsal. Upon exiting, I passed by sixteen of my most talented friends and colleagues from the classical singer world, half happy to see them, half awkwardly mortified that they all heard my rather vulnerable exploration of self and voice.

Although I still wonder a bit how it all sounded and think perhaps I should start audio-recording my lessons, I trust Jon’s assessment, that I sounded great, and it’s a good thing they heard me. Despite a decent deal of stigma in the classical world about non-classical techniques, I’m nothing if not a proponent for change and plan to embrace the role of helping others to both embrace and seek it. If the three deaths I’ve experienced this month have taught me anything, they’ve increased my need for vulnerability, authenticity, and a mindful exploration of life. Finding my whole voice, accompanied by a talented and compassionate guide, fills me with just the right combination of nervousness and joy that tells me I’m on the right path. I’m glad my friends heard me, and I can’t wait to sing for that audience in June. This life is worth living fully, with every color, sound, and expression I can possibly find for the artistic manifestations of my spirit… Not just tomorrow, now.

Opera Sitcom, Episode 1

I present soprano Kara Morgan of The Kara Morgan Showas she embarks on a new production, Opera Sitcom, with my dear and talented friends tenor Nicholas Houhoulis and bass François Loup. Amazing.

You Should Read This

Should I Stay or Should I Go?Sometimes, I just don’t want to leave the comfort of my apartment. Of course, that’s why I created this blog in the first place – to force myself out into the world I really do love so much. This morning, I awoke next to an amazing person and enjoyed breakfast and a ride to my gig at Carnegie Hall. I met with friends, sang with a world-class orchestra, and listened as they performed Notre Dame by Franz Schmidt, an incredible and rarely done opera.

Afterwards, having dinner with a friend with whom I sang and another friend who came to the performance, I remembered what it felt like to eat and enjoy company for hours without really ever needing the time to end. Yay. Then shopping for groceries with a friend? Still actually a lot of fun. Finally, while on the subway coming home, I met Paul and Eric, a lovely couple who live in my neighborhood, and we talked about local news channels, cantoring, donating televisions, and our lives.

Why did I not want to leave the apartment today? Between watching my boyfriend’s Aikido test yesterday and all the events of today, I enjoyed a very charmed weekend. I suspect I sometimes hesitate to actively live because I’ve done a lot of “shoulding” myself in life. Saying that I have to go to work or that I need to leave for my gig makes me forget or even dread the important parts. I LOVE MY JOB! Furthermore, I love my life. I want to everything I did today, and most days of my life. I like to sing and act, and I choose to enjoy friends who try new things and value living in the moment with me.

Some things require more effort, and I admittedly will have a harder time removing the musts, shoulds, have tos, need tos, am supposed tos, and ought tos from my vocabulary on my next task: taxes. For a little inspiration, Marshall B. Rosenberg provides a story in his book, Nonviolent Communication.

I recall, however, from my childhood how differently my father and grandfather felt about paying taxes. They had immigrated to the United States from Russia and were desirous of supporting a government they believed was protecting people in a way that the czar had not. Imagining the many people whose welfare was being served by their tax money, they felt earnest pleasure as they sent their checks to the U.S . government. 

I feel grateful that so many without jobs can receive extended unemployment benefits right now. My taxes support student loan programs, some healthcare, education, some of the arts, and so many other great initiatives. Granted, I may not agree with or even know all of the ways in which the government spends my tax dollars. I certainly didn’t study accounting and usually prefer people to numbers, so crunching them doesn’t usually excite me as much.

That said, I want to change the way I think, live, and speak, in the most positive way I currently know how. Whether I sing, act, prepare taxes, hang out with friends, exercise, work, or just live, I want to do it well and as joyfully as I can. So perhaps tomorrow I may not wake up wanting to work on my taxes, but instead of “shoulding” myself, I will choose to take on our annual national ritual of filing taxes, with the beautiful music of Notre Dame still ringing in my ears.

A Pinky-swear Beats a Resolution Any Day of the Year ~ 148

Pinky Swear

Six years ago, on a very memorable New Year’s Eve, I needed a fresh start more than oxygen. Traveling to New York City and meeting a friend for the ultimate ball drop in Times Square, I converted myself to the worship of this annual holiday and sought to celebrate each year in style ever since. As for resolutions, I’ve lost weight, changed relationship status, exercised more, visited grandparents, made fewer excuses, and oh yeah, started a blog.

Beginning a journey of writing about abandoning excuses and embracing change led to regular resolutions, which changed my life and path and made the need for an annual “New Year’s resolution” a bit trite and, after a busy season of work and travel, unnecessarily exhausting. This year, I felt a bit under the weather and actually turned down party invitations to (gasp!) stay in with someone special, rest, and watch the ball of newly swirling lights descend above the crowd from the comfort of my upper Manhattan apartment. Despite my best attempts, the relaxation and healing ended a bit prematurely as I traveled on Sunday to Philadelphia after my church job to hear my friends sing an incredibly worthwhile concert with The Crossing Choir, conducted by Donald Nally.

Still recovering from this cold that thankfully waited for a short break in gigs and rehearsals to attack, I have now have a bit of enforced downtime to reflect, and the concert proved well worth the extra effort and travel despite the minor health consequence. Having sung for several years in Philadelphia, I sat in the audience at my old church job and home at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian and missed the acoustics, the beauty of the space, the clear and inspired conducting of Donald Nally, and the uniquely beautiful voices of my friends who perfectly blended to give life to all of the recently-composed works. Afterwards, I refrained from alcohol but not from colleagues or good company, as I enjoyed the brief time to reacquaint myself with some dear and beloved musicians and friends.

Somewhere amidst the din of the reception, I stumbled upon the best and most motivational impetus for resolutions imaginable : the shared goals of my competition. You may imagine classical singers sabotaging one another’s auditions, withholding valuable advice and information, secretly wishing for the other to fail. Although I too have heard the urban legend of pianists booby trapping the pianos at Juilliard with razor blades, I literally can only remember one instance of another singer intentionally giving me bad information since I began singing (from the womb), and I didn’t know her at all. Very much to the contrary, other professionals in my fach (voice type) have given me good advice on agents, jobs, upcoming auditions, networking, and just about every opportunity imaginable.

A few weeks ago, my dear roommate and fellow mezzo soprano Ariana Chris began turning my accountability wheels when she suggested reminding each other about important goals, from sleep schedules to marketing. Sorry Ariana, but I have stayed up way past my bedtime tonight and will have to work on that one yet again tomorrow. In the meantime, I have spent a bit of time thinking about my successes with Skydiving for Pearls and realized that with a few small exceptions, I have not accomplished the very longtime and important goal of increasing my number and quality of auditions, one of the many demons I still hope to face here. Enter Super Maren.

Maren Montalbano sings and writes, brilliantly, in Philadelphia. While that somewhat places us in different markets, we each have sung in the other’s city, share the same voice type and interests, and could shy away from encouraging the other to succeed in order to maintain some kind of edge. Not for a second. Instead, we decided to keep each other motivated and auditioning with a pact. Actually pinky swearing, we pledged to initiate a minimum of five contacts per month, either applying for auditions or completing them. While this number pales in comparison to some incredibly motivated actors in New York who manage to audition at least that many times per week, I find it both realistic and a less overwhelming place to begin.

Born with a desire to perform in almost all aspects, I find my career bewildering at times with choices, options, obstacles, and rejections. On the docket for ways to improve my career this new year includes far more time in deep practice, improved preparation, and increased visibility in networks, auditions, and media. I sing, act, and write. Apparently, in the new year, I also research and learn as much as necessary to act as my own agent, publicity and press manager, and perhaps most importantly, strategist. Already swimming with infinite possibilities and fears, my brain has much to assimilate, understand, and initiate. Still, I hope it helps you as my readers if I share sort through some of it here, reporting my progress and findings along the way. In the meantime, I thank God for my friends who share my burdens, goals and dreams. In the end, you make each year and every day worth the reinvention and resolution.

Making Musical History

American Lyric Theater

So you want to write music? Count yourself amongst a small population of confident and brilliant people who can craft beauty via the mind. Personally, I’ve tried writing songs to no avail, and my only compositional success came from a perfect score on a Bach-inspired invention I wrote for a theory course in college. Try writing a just a song sometime – not so simple. Of all of the gifts in my life, I consider myself so fortunate to know and have known so many talented composers, from song writers to choral writers to opera composers. They infuse our culture and our history with their intellectual, spiritual, and emotional contributions, and we do ourselves a great service by supporting them to continue their efforts.

Thanks to American Lyric Theater, budding opera composers have a friend and ally in their Composer Librettist Development Program. A tuition free, full time training program for composers and librettists, ALT offers an opportunity for talented musicians to find quality mentors to aid them in their journeys as writers. Although they accept new applications in the spring, current and future students can now benefit from funds raised by this month’s online auction. Want to help? Bid today through November 30 on any one of seventeen items available from tickets to vacations to chocolate. All proceeds benefit current and upcoming students and future composers. I for one can’t wait to hear the results sometime, perhaps at a new opera by American Lyric Theater!

Thank You, Leon, Day 70 (9 of 25)

With a weekend too full of travels and contemplations for my current focus here, my head swims with happiness and sadness, excitement, and plans too grand to set in motion just yet.  Earlier this past weekend, however, I had the fantastic opportunity to celebrate the wonderful direction in which my life went just a few years ago, to the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland.  When I received the invitation to honor Leon Major, the Director of the program, of course I had to find a way to make the trip work.

Five years ago, my dear friend since eighth grade, Nicholas Houhoulis, contacted me about the possibility of auditioning to fill the unexpected mezzo soprano position available in Delores Ziegler‘s studio.  After a whirlwind audition in Maryland on my day off from the Bard Summerscape’s Regina in upstate New York, followed by an immediate acceptance and attendance only three weeks later, I think Leon Major’s initial interest and memory of me surprised me the most.  When he remembered my performance as a chorister from his production of Don Pasquale at the Opera Company of Philadelphia from the year prior, I caught my first glimpse of his brilliance.

Today, I recommend the opera studio to anyone who asks.  Designed on many of the principles set forth by Stanislavski in his opera studio, no other postgraduate opera training program I know offers such a comprehensive study of acting.  Among its other opera-related requirements, with straight acting, Shakespeare, improvisation, mime, mask, movement, stage combat, opera performance classes, workshop classes, and even a recitative class during my study there, I owe Leon Major so much for my life as a singing actor.  Each group of incoming students receives tailor-made instruction and productions, depending upon the talent and voice types available, and Leon truly provides an oasis of opportunity for any smart and hard working singer blessed enough to gain acceptance into the small studio.

Early this weekend in the studio’s main rehearsal room on campus, I happily hugged my professors and friends while waiting to surprise the guest of honor and marveled at how much I actually missed everyone.  Rarely in life do we have overwhelmingly positive experiences with no regrets such as the two years I spent at Maryland Opera Studio.  Since much of that responsibility falls to its creator and sustainer, Leon Major, I stood, hooted and hollered, clapped, and smiled with everyone else in that room with a full heart and all sincerity.  With all of the new thoughts and confusing possibilities and so many events both happy and sad to attend, I know I have a solid foundation to keep me grounded and performing my best in any situation, thanks to everyone at the Maryland Opera Studio and especially Leon.  As he said in his speech to us, “I don’t know what I did to deserve this, but thank you.”  Thank you indeed, Leon.