Fifty years ago last weekend I sprained my neck. I was a hyper seven-year old sitting on the floor in front of our black and white console television throwing my head in circles, tossing my long hair around to the beat of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." There was discussion of the boy's long hair. I was in the living room with crew cut-headed men -- my father and brother. We often gathered around our television to watch Mitch Miller and to follow the bouncing ball. We always watched Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights and knew the returning characters very well. This was altogether new. These handsome guys in the Beatles wore pointy-toed shows attached to the end of long skinny legs. Moreover, the added "yea yea yea" to their lyrics. They where a totally new sound. (Memories from a seven year-old's mind.)
In no time, Cookie McDonald (across the street) formed a Beatles fan club. I was not allowed to join much to my chagrin because I was in her words, "too young." That did not deter my enthusiasm, however. We lived on Gibbons Road, Springfield, Delaware County -- a suburban cul-de-sac on a steep hill, with matching small brick homes populated by many families with many kids. My friends and I spent endless hours discussing who was the best, most handsomest member of the Beatles. Without a doubt for me it was Paul. Donna Beyer, two doors down, adored George, which I just did not get. I spent many an hour curled in my father's armchair, gazing up the hill imagining that Paul was coming to take me away. This image was not a small one.
As an adult I was so envious of the late tenor Jerry Hadley who not only met Sir Paul but sang his "Liverpool Oratorio." Knowing Jerry was the closest I would ever get to Paul. I remember the radical White Album that my brother snapped up. Even the Green Apple logo was groundbreaking. But it was the music that was so amazing and continued to be so. Who could have predicted the incredible success and journey of these Fab Four. Their music, like much classical music of old, will always be with us, rediscovered by each new generation.
I just watched the first episode of Mozart in the Jungle on Amazon.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story based on the memoir Mozart in the Jungle: Sex Drugs and Classical Music by oboist by Blair Tindall. The show follows a twenty-something oboist who teaches private lessons, and makes her living playing many pickup jobs, ie. Broadway shows, etc. The first episode ends with her chance to audition for the N.Y. Symphony. (The names and places have been changed to protect the innocent?) There is a side story of young vs the old: two conductors -- one who retires and one who is young and exciting; references to older players, and new ideas. There is also much partying, drinking and smoking and sex. No doubt the project is trying to appeal to a younger audience and perhaps it will click with them. There are the stereotypes, as well -- statements about the sexual practices according to what instrument one plays, a young preteen oboe student who is a bit of a geek -- which is odd because the musicians just a few years older are incredibly trendy. I don't want to be too judgmental because classical music needs as much exposure as possible.
This brings me to my world -- the opera world. Perhaps I have led a sheltered existence but I have not witnessed any excessive drug use. At worst there are sad cases of alcoholism, but these may be people that would have the problem no matter what the field. Most singers know that drugs and alcohol can affect the voice so they avoid them when they are in the midst of rehearsals or performances. That said, there are some great stories of past singers who hid beverages of choice in the scenery and in Germany, of course, beer is served in the opera house canteens so you have both stage hands and singers who imbibe. Late-night performances mean late-night celebrations.
As for sex, I found that there were more relationships, albeit short lived, spawned in smaller more regional opera companies. Not that affairs do not happen in the "big league" but it is rarer most likely because by the time a singer gets to that level they are in a committed relationship or a little more secure in themselves as people. At all levels there is plenty of sexual innuendo and even borderline harassment, all difficult to prove (I know of this first hand): the conductor who woos someone and if spurned then the conductor will not hire them again; the male singers who are known for an entourage of beautiful women and the occasional male and female singer who is ultra promiscuous. I am sure much has to do with ego stroking. However, sleeping with colleagues can be tricky, as one might have to work with them for years to come, so it is best to maintain a civil relationship once the romantic one ends. It is nobody's business anyway unless it affects the work. Opera companies no doubt have to adjust casting decisions if a dynamic duo splits.
For singers, dancers and actors our colleagues are our "teams." The recent "coming out" of football player Michael Sam brings to mind my "team" -- the opera. On my team, there is no big deal about one's sexual preference. It never even enters the equation. There are many gay and lesbian opera singers. There are many straight ones. We do sometimes share dressing rooms. We work in close quarters. It is never an issue. Never. The field, like all fields, should be based on one's talent. Plain and simple. I believe performing artists understand this better than ever. Our world is ever inclusive in that way. Where we might do better is with people of color.
Watching the Olympics always reminds me of the classical music world and the emotional roller coaster one goes through when we perform. I was watching one of the speed skiers visualizing the run before she ever started the race. How many times have I seen that in an artist's eyes before they enter the stage. The amount of focus it takes to sing a major operatic role or to play an incredibly hard concerto is not unlike the focus I see in these Olympians. We look at an upcoming dramatic high note as a mountainous feat. The incredibly fast vocal runs (coloratura) are as challenging to us as the triple Lutz. Like the athletes, if we get off by a millisecond, if one note is out of line, we can screw up the rest of what we are doing. Just like ice skating, we make it look easy. I doubt many people are aware of our challenges. One of the biggest challenges is to not focus on what we just did not to keep going. We can splat a note but have to move on, just as these athletes who fall and get right back up. It is the mind set and the focus that amazes me in both fields. It is also the relief and at times, joy, when we achieve what we have practiced years for, when we nail it. Every time we walk on stage we are hoping to do this. It does not always work but we go for it. Sometimes we get the Gold and other times the Bronze. We all have a back story, like these athletes.
It should be remembered that in all of the stories, the athletes, the performers -- Paul, Ringo (John and George), Michael Sam, Renee Fleming, Philip Seymour Hoffman -- they (we) are only human.