iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Susanne Mentzer

GET UPDATES FROM Susanne Mentzer
 

Singing for Two: Carrying More Than Just a Tune

Posted: 08/06/2012 5:29 pm

Through social media I follow former students' and colleagues' marriages, births of children, anniversaries and celebrations. I find it a great way to stay informed in the transient world of performing. I read recently of a younger colleague singing abroad who is pregnant. So many memories come to mind of my own pregnancy, especially since my son celebrated his 24th birthday last week.

It is said one can have it all but not all at once. I am not certain that is true. I really made a concerted attempt to have it all. Married in 1982, we knew we wanted to have a family and although we had tried it was not happening until I learned I was pregnant while in Milan, Italy in 1988 where I was debuting with Teatro alla Scala on the opening night of their season (always Dec. 7) as Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni.

Over five strenuous weeks of rehearsal I felt increasingly tired and woozy. One day in the mensa (the theater cafeteria) I was dining with the bass José van Dam who was one of the two singers playing Giovanni. (The other was Thomas Allen.) He looked at me and said, "You are pregnant." Why he said this, I have no idea. He could not know I was "late" to the tune of nine weeks. That weekend I bought a home pregnancy test, translating the instructions from Italian the best I could, but my test was negative.

Thinking something was terribly wrong with me I asked the opera company for the recommendation of a doctor who could speak English. My appointment was set for 5 p.m. the following day. When I arrived at his office the doctor shook my hand and said, "Good Morning." Not a great sign. As I lie there on my back holding my dictionary above my face, he took one look and proclaimed -- una gravidanza. "Gravidanza, gravidanza", I murmured as I flipped through the dictionary. Aghast, I protested due to the fact that I had failed my home test, but he said he could tell just by looking. This definitely did not sit well with me, especially after he had misidentified the time of day, so I demanded proof. He sent me for an ultrasound. Lo and behold there was my baby the size of a kidney bean. That very night we started filming the opera for television and later video distribution. I have little memory of it as I was totally stunned, happily so.

(Coincidentally, Don Giovanni had last been performed twenty some years prior with the great singers Nicolai Ghiaurov and Mirella Freni. I was told that Freni had played Zerlina and had also found out she was pregnant on that show.)

Later in the run when I was covering the second cast I asked the theater for a release to go home to my husband and my own doctor and was told, "Women have had babies here for centuries and you will be fine." As a result I was not to get home for another couple months as I had another engagement singing Adalgisa in Bellini's Norma in Monte Carlo directly on the heels of the Scala contract.

At this point in my career I was still just getting my financial footing so I opted to stay in an inexpensive pension. I arrived to find that the bed was terrible, and I could not even close the door to the room with luggage in it. This precipitated a meltdown. A nice person from the opera helped me find anther place to stay, albeit bare bones and more costly. I celebrated my 31st birthday alone in Monaco with hormones going haywire, getting sick for two of the four performances. This particularly stung because we get paid only if we sing. The wonderful soprano Shirley Verrett sang the leading role and was so kind to me. She talked about how at one time it was out of the realm of possibility for a female singer to have a family.

When I arrived back home, after a quick rendezvous with my doctor, I was booked to go back out on the road. When I was four and five months pregnant I played the role of Prince Charming to Frederica von Stade's Cinderella in Massenet's opera Cendrillon at the Washington Opera in DC. One of my specializations was what we call trouser roles or pants parts. I did not feel very masculine and I remember feeling huge. Little did I know what was ahead. They were able to creatively fit me with a longer coat and elastic waist pants.

Next was a trip to Vienna to record the Bruckner Te Deum with the Vienna Philharmonic. This piece has four soloists, choir and orchestra. I was placed by a mic next to the timpani. My baby kicked as long as the timpani played. I often wondered if he would recognize it once he was born. Traveling pregnant was great because nice gentlemen would offer to carry my bag or place it in the overhead bin. My doctor was worried I would have a low birth-weight baby so I was ordered to eat. The breakfasts in Europe were fabulous with cheese, meats and great breads. I was in heaven.

I like to say being pregnant saved my life. The Richard Tucker competition was being held in New York and I was scheduled to fly there from Chicago and back on a Thursday. Auditions were also being held on Friday. When I arrived at Midway airport the winds were so strong that they bent back the door to the Mazda RX7 when I reached for a ticket to park. After struggling to get the car door closed enough to leave the car, I saw flight attendants looking green coming off planes. I asked if I could possibly change to the next day without penalty and the airline obliged. The next day I went up and back without a hitch only to find when I returned to our apartment on the main floor near the rental office that a tenant had gone berserk with a hunting knife and murdered people in the rental office as well as our lobby. Horrific. I often think of what might have been had it not been windy that Thursday and I had been home Friday when this went down.

When I was about six months along I was asked to fly to Rotterdam to step in for an ailing colleague in a series of concerts with the Philharmonic. Unlike operas where the costume is provided I had no idea what to wear but lucked out with a black and white sequined number from a maternity shop. When I walked on stage I got a standing ovation. I am not sure it was for just showing up or for being pregnant.

At seven months I flew to London to sing the role of Jane Seymour in Donizetti's Anna Bolena at the Royal Opera with Dame Joan Sutherland. The costume designer was baffled as to what to do with my bulk -- greeting me at my first costume fitting was a corset. I had to demonstrate how my belly was not going to be pushed aside or smashed with a corset no matter how many bones and laces it had. What I ultimately wore reminded me of those crocheted toilet paper role covers we had growing up with the little doll head on top. It left room for growth since my last performance was a month before my due date.

During the rehearsal period when I had trouble getting up after curtseying -- an essential part of playing the lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour to Queen Anne Boleyn -- Dame Joan told the director to have supers come on and off to help me up. One night sitting in the armchair in my dressing room with my dress up over my belly cooling off at intermission (this was June in an non air-conditioned theater) the artistic administrator came in and asked me if I could give him some notice if I were to go into labor since they had no understudy. I looked at him incredulously as I had never had a baby and was certainly not sure what to expect. I imagined having labor for five minutes, rushing to the hospital barely arriving in time, kind of like in a TV sketch.

Following one performance, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came to meet the cast. Her words to me were, "You are rushing the story a bit, my dear." (Jane Seymour passed away from complications in childbirth, although she did give Henry VIII a son.)

Exiting the stage door with my belly of a near ten-pound child in front of me, few fans knew it was I who just sang. At a certain point my feet finally swelled to the point that all I could wear were rather unglamorous moccasins.

My colleagues were so wonderful. I stayed on the top floor of a four story walk-up and would stop half-way to rest at the apartment of the tenor John Aler who would give me tea and cookies. He also accompanied me on midnight runs to a place that had great chocolate cake and milk. I still have the little sleepers that Dame Joan and Maestro Bonynge gave me and the Pat the Bunny book and stuffed animal from Frederica von Stade.

I had to get a letter of good health before flying back home from London. I treated myself by bumping up to business class. The male flight attendant pleaded with me not to go into labor.

Once home I still had another long, hot month. I had gained nearly sixty pounds.

I was called to step in as Cinderella in Rossini's opera of the same name over in Salzburg, Austria. No, I did not go. My son was born at the end of July after 22 hours of labor and I was back at work in yet another male role by mid- September.

My next essay will address juggling motherhood, international travel and performing. These were great years and I remember them as if they were yesterday.

 

Follow Susanne Mentzer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/susannementzer

FOLLOW ARTS