Exclusive to Slipped Disc readers as a treat for your weekend, we publish an extract from the new tell-all memoirs of the outstanding international mezzo-soprano.
Jennifer writes here about what she calls ‘The Abyss’ period between college and career when nothing is happening… and nothing might ever happen.
You can purchase Una Voce at amazon, here.
Just the thought of everything I did wrong as a young singer makes me cringe! It’s not hard enough having to be young, innocent, protected, incredibly naive and downright ignorant at times, but I had to also learn all about life at the same time as I was trying to learn all about being an opera singer. But I survived to tell the tale and unlike “Ishmael” in Moby Dick, I’m not the only one. We all had to pay our dues and learn how to be real people. For me it started way back in college because I was already being groomed for this life. In fact, my whole childhood and adolescence was filled with singing, playing piano, flute and studying music. When I’d go out to play, my mom would tell me to “Tie up your head”– (in a scarf!–) so I wouldn’t get sick and hurt my voice. When I was fifteen, I wanted to sing in the Crystal Pistol “Wild West Show” at Six Flags America in Atlanta but my parents absolutely forbade me from auditioning because they thought it would be bad for my voice. My parents and family protected me and steered me in the right direction so that’s where I went. I remember singing in the shower and coming out to find my sister slumped by the door crying her eyes out. She said, “That was so beautiful!” My family did nothing but support me 100%. I had the great –and necessary –support system in place so off I went to make my mark.
In college, I won all the voice competitions, scholarships and got into the special top choir. I went to the Spoleto Festival Dei Due Mondi for four years in a row and got to rub elbows with some of the best singers of the day because our choir, the Westminster Choir was the chorus in residence for the Spoleto Festival in both Charleston and Spoleto, Italy. It gave me a chance to observe and perform, albeit in the chorus, but it was great experience! I sang “Happy Birthday” to composer Gian Carlo Menotti every year and even played the “Old Beggar Woman” in his opera THE EGG. I had to audition for the part —my first one in fact—all my friends from the choir were right there in line with me to audition for the part themselves and when I got to Menotti, he asked, “How well can you suffer?” I pulled up my knee length long hair and proceeded to suffer up a storm! He said, “She’s it!!!” I was young with big brown eyes, skinny as a rail and looking back on those photos, I can see that I was as innocent as innocent could be. I went to the rehearsals every day not having a clue as to what I was supposed to do. I had enough sense to keep my mouth shut and let the maestro tell me what he wanted and then just try to do it. I was enough of a ham to be successful. I didn’t have one note to sing, it was an acting part! But, I got to see the main singers work on their music and rehearse and it was a great education. I went between rehearsing my bit part in The Egg and singing in the chorus of Cosi Fan Tutte. I remember watching the Italian Mezzo (whose name I cannot remember) being so pleasant and nice to everyone no matter what happened and I think that impressed me more than anything else I have ever learned from that time! She made the rehearsals so calm and the atmosphere so easy that I always went home at night feeling happy. Through the years I’ve noticed that if one person in the cast is sullen or mean, then the whole atmosphere is poisoned. I’ve always tried to make the rehearsal feeling one of creativity and pleasantness and it’s because of that time in Spoleto. I also remember being too nice to a certain conductor while I was there and him getting the wrong idea. That caused some misunderstandings that I had to get myself out of, which wasn’t even a little awkward, it was a lot! I started paying more attention to just who I paid attention to after that.
I used to believe everything anyone told me back then. I’m still a little naive, even at this age, but back in those good ole’ days I was really a child in a lot of ways. I was nice to literally everyone and wanted to please and make people happy. So I didn’t catch it when a man would mistake my charm and sweetness for something else. I just didn’t see it. A very famous singer asked me out to dinner which I thought was so nice. This big, important man was taking time out of his busy schedule to take little me out to dinner. I imagined picking his brain about the opera world and really learning a lot! I did learn a lot, just not what I wanted. When we got to the restaurant I noticed we were totally alone. He had rented one whole section of the restaurant just for us. That should have given me my first clue but it didn’t. I was impressed by his power. Throughout the dinner he was making suggestive comments about certain foods but only when we got to the desert and he said that sorbet is such a “sensuous” experience and that I should only ever have it fed TO me did I start to suspect anything! As I was opening my mouth for him to spoon feed me the sensuous apricot sorbet it dawned on me that he wasn’t taking pity on a little beginner wanting to help me in any way but he was expecting me to be a woman that could recognize a “player” when she saw one. Maybe he even thought I was just playing a role myself. I just wasn’t awake enough at that point to avoid those kind of pitfalls but it was a nudge to get me thinking.
I wrote a chapter called The Abyss about that scary time between college and career when you look all over the place for the road you need to go down. Its a time when you’re doing anything but what you really want to be doing. I was waitressing, I worked at a Candy shop–I have the before and after pictures to prove it! I worked in a retirement home which I loved because the elderly treasures I took care of were magnificent and I learned so much from them. I still miss those people and think about them often. They taught me so much about patience, tolerance and endurance. I had to take care of stroke victim, Bernie. He couldn’t do anything for himself and I had to do it all with care and respect. When I would sing a little or tell Bernie about my hopes and dreams he would make unintelligible sounds that to me seemed happy. For all I know he could have been telling me I was crazy to want to do that kind of career, but I don’t think so! Anyway, Bernie was an inspiration to me. He made me want to take life and devour it all — every minute. I made a vow when I was there that I wouldn’t waste my life. I honestly don’t think that I have.
In my Abyss period, I got together a resumé on which I lied through my teeth! Those were the days without INTERNET so a person would pretty much say anything they wanted to and you’d have a hard time checking on it to make sure it was actually true. According to my very impressive resumé, I sang everything everywhere! To look at me, you would have thought I was already years down the road, but my little resumé tripped me up one day at an audition. I put down that I had sung “Rosina” at the Tulsa Opera. Well, the Tulsa Opera were there and they knew I had not been there singing that role. I sang my little guts out and they loved me, but I slinked out of the room in embarrassment anyway! Ugh! Just thinking about it makes me cringe. They, however were extremely gracious about it. I promptly took quite a few “engagements” off my resumé and stuck with listing the obscure outlaying cities from then on. I still lied but I did it better. Nowadays I don’t even try to lie, especially about my age because it’s just too easy to find out. I may be the only female singer out there that tells her age but why shouldn’t I? I found that the older I got, I got worse at lying. I think people could always tell when I was fibbing about where I’d sung what. But I learned that, like the old saying, “You have to have money to make money”, I felt that I had to “have jobs to get jobs!” I auditioned for an opera company once with my skimpy new and improved, well, honestresumé and afterwards, they told me that while they really liked me, they wanted someone with more experience. I told them that the reason I’d auditioned for them was to GET more experience! It didn’t make any difference. They didn’t hire me.
Making mistakes is normal for everyone in any business. You can’t make mistakes for someone. That’s the beauty of being young. You can only make them for yourself! They’re yours forever! Hopefully, if you get a big career and a lot of recognition and prizes, etc… you can remember every once in a while being young and stupid. It’s a perfect way to keep yourself in check and your world in balance! We go through life stumbling here and there, and into this and that not realizing that one day, we’re going to be able to look back and see an actual life lived in a real specific way. We aren’t just leaves being blown around haphazardly. It’s really like the domino effect. We make a decision which sets us spinning on an axis and the world starts forming around us. We become a part of it and all our mistakes and funny mishaps and tragic blunders someday make up our life. Hopefully we can look back and laugh at ourselves. If we can’t then we have a problem.
When a singer is young, they are all about the voice. The voice has to be protected — the voice needs refinement — the voice takes on it’s own personality and is the sun and the moon! We talk about it in the third person as if it’s someone that’s constantly by our side going through life with us. We marvel at what it can do and we’re totally frustrated by it at the same time. When I was in my early 20’s I had a fantasy voice in my head. It was the sound I wanted and with it would come the career I wanted. But, I just wasn’t there yet! It used to run me crazy. I think I grew into my voice in time and learned how to make it be a lifestyle and not something that controlled me, but I think from time to time, even now I still think of it as “The Voice.” We want to make the perfect sound and so we tend to forget about little things like character analysis, text and meaning and style. We think that if we sound good enough, they’ll want to hire us. That’s true to a certain extent but the voice without anything else gets boring really fast. I never liked the “Bobby Baritones” or the “Susie Sopranos” where everything was so perfect and yet boring. I think that’s why so many people have idolized Callas for so long. Besides her life and celebrity, she had an imperfect voice which made her infinitely more interesting than the perfect sounds you heard coming out of the studios; not only that but she was an actress and creative onstage. Put that all together and you have a winner. I’ve never had a perfect voice and will sacrifice the beauty of “the voice” for drama any day. But I had to learn how to use everything in my arsenal and so did Maria. We all did because we were all young once.
Putting a foot wrong is almost a daily occurrence when you’re young. It’s all about learning what not to do. There are very few people I know who haven’t made any mistakes–in fact nobody fits into that category no matter what they may say. “Paying your dues” is something that almost all of us have had to do. I worked in every little town in France, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland for eight years before I came back to America and made my debut at the MET. I got fantastic experience in all those opera houses and one of the most important things I learned was that this career was definitely for me! I was making my mistakes in small towns and enjoying their wonderful hospitality. I was honing my craft and preparing for my big break. In the early 90’s I sang Cosi Fan Tutte with Renée Fleming in Geneva and we really became like sisters. She told the incomparable Eve Queler, former conductor and director of the Opera Orchestra of New York that Eve needed to hire me and Eve took her advice. I was just starting out in the U.S. Eve hired me for “Romeo” in Bellini’s opera I Capuletti ed i Montecchi. It was a perfect bel canto role for me to show off what I could do and had been doing for the last eight years. That performance started everything for me in America. The “Powers That Be” from the MET came to hear me and hired me that night to debut as “Rosina” in the Barber of Seville for the next year. That same year came debuts with La Scala and then Covent Garden — the Big Three. The snowball started rolling uphill and it was a heady time. My mistakes, dues paying and all of that energy before had lead to this moment in time. It all helped to shape me into a viable product for the Classical music industry. It took time but I finally got to a more refined, awake and polished place in my life and career. There are still moments when that little naive and innocent girl tries to peak through but now the older and wiser one is there to guide her back where she belongs, in the past. I won’t ever forget her though. I can’t because she’s still there under the surface, even after thirty years and tons of success when I walk into the dreaded first rehearsal and feel those butterflies in the stomach, or when I have a long awaited opening night, she mutters almost indistinctly wondering if there’s a back door to escape through, or when someone says something mean and she wants to cry. She’s still there to a certain extent. She always will be.
Each one of us have made our life portraits: years of trial and error, of mistakes and lessons learned, silly awkward moments, unsettling times and all in the name of youth and innocence. We forgive a lot of a young person simply because to be young is to be inexperienced and we just chalk it all up to that one excuse–youth. Period. It’s fun and exhausting all at once to look back on our youth and try to remember episodes that shaped us into the person we are now. In fact, I think it’s really very healthy and forces you to remember a time when you weren’t so confident or sure of everything. A little vulnerability isn’t a bad thing. My portrait pleases me even with it’s silliness and pain because it shows me who I am and where I’ve been and honestly, it’s been wonderful!
(c) Jennifer Larmore, 2015.
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