It’s time for some stories. Let me be clear: my intentions with these reflections are to help my students learn to navigate the music industry and to gain knowledge on some discrepancies in how singers are taught to participate in the creative process. It is not to throw any company or person under a bus or submit them to ridicule.
But if it does lead some industry leaders to ponder how they run things, all the better. I won’t complain.
So, singers….Yes, you must be prepared and amicable to work with. Yes, you must listen to direction and be a team player. But you must also be keenly aware that it doesn’t mean saying yes all the time or losing your artistry in doing all that people-pleasing. So here is the story:
In 2009 I was cast in a new production of Thäis at the Metropolitan Opera as La Charmeuse. Also in the cast were Reneé Fleming and Thomas Hampson, two iconic American singers who had high-profile careers and had been dominating opera stages for over a decade. I was elated with joy and anticipation and felt I had moved into a new secure place in the lineup at a major US house.
My role was not long but required major skills in staccati, high notes, and pianissimi control. It was very exposed, meaning although it was short, it gave me a moment to show off some flair and skills. The Charmeuse sings a vocalise or a vocal intermezzo in the second act before Thäis enters to declare her intent to leave her extravagant life as a courtesan.
Because it was a new production at the MET, the rehearsal period was long, about 4-5 weeks if I remember correctly. The first day of rehearsal was overwhelming and extremely exciting for me. I adore Reneé Fleming, and singing with her was literally a dream come true. When I met Reneé, she couldn't have been more gracious and warm. Everyone was nice, and the entire cast truly a dream.
The staging of the second act crowd scene where I sing my vocalise happened 3-4 days after our first rehearsal. I had a nice rapport with everyone. Our conductor Jesus Lopez-Cobos worked the music with me making suggestions where he saw fit. And we were quickly on our way to staging. John Cox directed the opera, which was a revival for him but new to the MET.
During the staging, Mr. Cox explained that La Charmeuse was to be like an ice queen. There would be a dancer on stage with me doing an enticing dance around me, but I was to remain cold and distant, not interacting with her until the very last moment, where we would kiss and send the party scene into a frenzy.
Let me repeat. I was to stand there and sing. No movement, just a look here or there.
Super. Easy. Stand and sing my difficult music. No problem. That's a singer's dream and sweet spot.
For weeks after, I attended rehearsals for less than an hour, ran the scene, received praise and thanks, and then was sent on my way.
Dress week at the MET is a busy time, and this time, for some reason, we had less time on set than normal. The Act 2 set was a bit treacherous. The floor was uneven; imagine ripples in shapes like triangles where your foot had to nestle in between peaks. My first time on set, I had to navigate this floor AND a tight costume with a beehive wig which threw my balance off. My entrance was far upstage, in the back of the stage, and my staging instructions were to make the entrance slowly, coming down the stage.
My first time making this entrance was rocky, for sure. I didn't miss any music, but I do remember it being hard to hear and even more difficult to see the conductor or a monitor. But I didn't feel as if I wasn't going to be able to manage it. I just simply needed to rehearse it and feel it again.
You know, rehearse.
The next day I had a new wig look, and an assistant stage director came to tell me to make my way downstage quicker. The music staff came to tell me to watch the intonation on some notes. I guess the inability in my footing had caused some issues in the music that I was unaware of. I asked the costume designer if being barefoot under the dress was okay because the ballet slippers didn't allow me to get a sure footing. It was agreed I would be without shoes.
I tried again. This time I worked on balancing my feet between the angles of the pyramid-shaped floor while not stepping on my dress and keeping the regal ice queen presence requested by the director. I found coming downstage sooner helped me to be able to hear the orchestra, and although I still felt disconnected from the conductor, I managed to steal some looks here and there when I needed it most. Again, a rehearsal.
When I finished the rehearsal that day, there seemed to be a new buzz of negative energy backstage. This opera was being produced for the Live in HD series from the MET and would be broadcast worldwide. Every detail was being scrutinized.
I wasn't completely in love with my performance, but I didn't think anything I was doing was horrible; I just needed to do it again without changes. I knew what I needed to do to make it work. The entire scene seemed chaotic, and everyone was adjusting, including the dancer I had been working with for weeks. We both struggled with the odd-shaped floor and the distance. I took my notes from the music staff and headed out of the building. The next day would be our final dress rehearsal.
As I left the MET, I heard my cover (understudy) called over the intercom to come to the administrative office.
Hmm. I thought. Strange. Well, maybe she is in another opera?
This was only my second production at the MET, but I had never heard anyone be called over the speaker in this manner.
I went home. I felt uneasy. Something wasn't right.
I had been told that day that my costume still wasn't right. The wig wasn't working, and there would be changes to it again. There was a lot of mysterious energy going on backstage. Lots of fearful energy. People had been losing their jobs in wigs and makeup. But, I just chalked it up to it being a new production and that it was what it took to excel at something.
Dress rehearsals at the MET take place at 10:00 am. So, you must be there early for costume and wig calls. I've always been someone who likes to get there before backstage gets too busy so that when I walk in, it's in a calmer state. That morning even though I was early, tons of staff and costume assistants were milling about. I went to my dressing room at the far end of the hall.
It was empty.
Nothing was inside. My costume wasn't there, and neither was my wig. I don't remember; was my name on the door?
I decided it was because they were still working on it. But, come to think of it, I did receive some wide-eyed looks as I entered the backstage hallway. Paranoia?
I sat in a chair and stared at the door. What was happening? Time was ticking away. Soon the opera would start, and I didn't even have my costume. I don't come in until Act II. Be calm.
My fear started turning to anger. I took a big breath and went into the hall, and people avoided my eye. I found my makeup artist, and she said she would check.
Soon, a member of the music staff, the most friendly and kind one I've known, entered my dressing room.
He said, "Listen, I need you to do something today. I know you've been told to make this character still and unmovable, like an ice queen."
"Yes,?' I stammered.
"Well, I need you to go against what you've been told and think of what the character is about, what she is doing, what the music is telling you, and DO THAT.", he said. "It all depends on that."
"You mean, don't.."
"Just trust me. But, I didn't tell you this, okay?" he interrupted.
He told me something else about being grounded and supported, then left. Just, poof, out. The. Door.
Fairly soon, everyone entered in a frenzy with my new wig, costume, and to do my makeup, followed by an assistant stage director who came to tell me that I would be doing my scene with a new dancer, that the original dancer had been 'let go.’
I was told not to worry; the new dancer had been through the staging earlier that morning.
As I sat there being prodded by costume staff, I became overwhelmed with anger.
For weeks I had been overly conscientious of every move, mused over every note and possibility of phrasing, only to receive praise after praise and smile after smile. I commanded ice queen through my veins and practiced over and over the only gesture of my head I was asked to make.
And here I sat, coming to the realization that I had one chance to do something different, or else I, too, would be fired. From the MET.
Luckily my anger overtook my fear.
I felt played with, lied to, disrespected, and disposable. I felt despair for my dancer friend, who would have to try to explain to her family and friends what had happened.
I was pissed off that I would be searching for ways to explain if I didn't come up with a way to turn it around. And that angered me more than anything.
I HAD DONE MY JOB. I had crossed every 't' and dotted every 'i'. I was Leah, the most pleasing and subservient singer you could ask for.
And that's when it hit me.
Yes. You let them take your instincts. You let them tell you what to do without ever questioning what you desired and without making sure that it made YOU shine or fulfilled YOUR artistic desires. You came in as a puppet. And you are still being played.
Just like that, I decided to channel that anger and go out and do what I thought this scene needed. I decided to throw away anything icy or still and allowed myself to move throughout the entire damn vocalise, which helped my balance on that forsaken floor, and I interacted with the new dancer as if we were in an improvised piece.
There was anger mixed in it and her fear of doing something completely new. I sang louder than requested and just went out there with the biggest F-YOU attitude you can imagine. And I was PISSED.
I had no idea when I left the stage what had happened or how I had done. I didn't care. I was so done inside myself. As I entered the backstage dressing room area, I threw open the lobby door and saw at least 5 members of the music staff, a few dressers, and make-up artists lined up in chairs along the side wall. They all sheepishly looked at me and, through desperate smiles, began to clap and cheer silently.
I had saved my job.
"It was perfect!" one of them declared.
I went back to my dressing room and, in complete disgust, called my management to try to get to the bottom of it.
I never found out the truth of what had happened. There were stories of Reneé not liking my costume and hair. There were stories that someone on the music staff didn't like me. There was also the story that upper management didn't like the production and was looking for different ways to change it. But I never got an explanation, an apology, or even a question from the director asking me why I had changed his staging.
Being a dedicated artist is like walking a tightrope with no net and alligators chomping at you from below. Is this necessary?
All we really want to do is good work. We want to make beautiful art and work with kind, supportive people. We want to be trusted with the work at hand and we want to be respected. If our work isn't satisfactory, we want to be treated with fairness and respect and be given a chance to improve it without unnecessary drama or negativity. I'm an adult, for God's sake.
This event caused a certain amount of anxiety and self-doubt in my career for a few years to follow. But I never forgot the lesson.
Always honor your desires and instincts as a performer. Ask the question "why?" often in rehearsals. You have every right because you are a collaborator and part of the process.
Try different things, even when you aren’t asked to try them.
No one will take care of you BUT YOU in this industry. And thankfully, maybe one kind pianist and a makeup assistant.
Be nice. Do good work. But take no shit, either.