Monday, November 22, 2010

Little Women, in the key of Turkey (plus one Canadian)

          I found myself looking longingly at the entrance to the Mass Pike heading west on my walk into work this morning.

          It has been very hard for me to blog this week because my brain is completely saturated with thoughts of mashed potatoes, turkey and most of all, my first weekend in months that has not been hyper-scheduled. (This past weekend was no exception of course.) Part of my life as a singer means that I sometimes have sold my weekends way in advance to various rehearsals, churchjobs, performances, auditions or as was the case a few weeks ago, 3 parties in one night. I love parties as much, and probably more than the next girl, but it is tough when one is obliged to attend 3 in the span of 6 hours at all ends of the city. Add to this the prospect of having to sing at church at 8:30 the next morning and it can be plain exhausting. After years of operatic training, trying to not sound like a Yankee while singing spirituals in church presents a particular challenge and one should be awake for it. By the time Sunday is over I feel in no way recharged. I have sometimes wanted to cry when people at work have said that all they had done all weekend was clean and go to the movies. This being said, more palpably than ever, Thanksgiving weekend seems to represent a time of much-needed relaxation.

          The nature of Thanksgiving celebrations in my home has changed quite a bit in the last few years. As a child we headed over to my grandparents with my extended family. I am not joking when I say we used to sing "Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go" on the ride to their house. (Can you imagine anything more nauseatingly Norman Rockwell?) When my grandparents were growing too old to host, we continued celebrating with my parents hosting. Now that two of my older cousins have spouses, in-laws and babies there is a lot more alternating on Thanksgiving. So, in the past few years, our Thanksgiving population has shifted to include a gaggle of "orphaned" opera singers. My friends from California, Michigan and Canada who can't make it home for the holiday come spend the long weekend at Chez Holden in Connecticut.

          We started this during our second year of grad school. My friends who have come to stay are now intimately familiar with my mother's many and varied idiosyncrasies; her 6am walk on the treadmill in her slip, her elaborate table settings including place cards, her need to have 3 cups of decaf coffee with every meal and her fast-paced energy and efficiency overall. But they are also all acutely aware of her delicious mashed potatoes, stuffing, perfectly cooked turkey and pierogies to stuff us all weekend long. My father is not without his own eccentricities. He is quite the "sauce man" and will spend most of Thanksgiving day obsessing about the making of his gravy. He will talk rue and whitewashes with heightened excitement, and every year, when my mother has produced every other food item on the table; his comments will mostly be limited to the quality of the gravy. In turn, my parents have learned to co-exist quite tolerantly with a group noted for their rather resonant singing and speaking voices alike. I would dare say, they might even look forward to the action as much as we do to the relative rest of a weekend full of gluttony and sloth.

          The first year we started this tradition, at every turn; my friend Kate (from Santa Rosa, CA) would point to everything in town and exclaim "It's so New England!" She claimed that even the trees were very Blair Witch Project. (Kate also infamously showed up to a bar one night in November wearing a pink tank top featuring gold palm trees. She forgot from the previous year that "a cute bar outfit" around these parts consists of a turtleneck and a scarf.) Even though her exclamations became comically ridiculous, it was nice to be reminded that the place in which I grew up was actually rather idyllic in some ways. Also in our first year, my mother told us; "Don't bring a thing- just your voices and your music!" Suspecting the appeal of music alone was waning, we have stepped it up in subsequent years with other offerings. There was the year we tried to help my mother make a side dish. We ended up wandering away from the stovetop to sing around the piano, and subsequently overcooked the asparagus to a flaccid inedibility. Such is the nature of having opera singers as houseguests.

          This addition to our holiday has actually been a surprisingly smooth transition for me. I would like to be able to say that it was only as a child that I was very adverse to change. Truth be told; I am not really much better as an adult. The loss of several loved ones has given me some perspective on acceptance, but changes in family tradition have never been fully embraced by me without a good bit of resistance. This coming Thursday night, however, after our post-meal hike, I will sit on the couch with my late-night piece of pumpkin pie. As we mull some wine and start a movie, I will feel quite content with, and thankful for Thanksgiving as it is; with my family and extended adopted family from Boston.

Friday, November 12, 2010

MGM Movie Musical Marathon (or why my friends are awesome)

          I decided recently that I wanted cable. I just woke up one morning and decided that I am an adult and that I was tired of basic cable with its 14 Spanish channels and 15 evangelist networks. When making phone inquiries about possible cable packages, one salesman started his speech about their new NFL package. I had to interrupt him so as not to waste his time:

          "You can skip the spiel," I said, "I don't really care about the NFL".
          "Well, we also have our baseball package special starting--"

          "I don't give a shit about sports. What I really want to know is whether or not you offer TCM."


          "Yes, Turner Classic Movies".

          My friends got me a set of DVD's featuring four of TCM's favorite MGM musicals for my birthday. Now that I am done with the Czech opera, I had a musical marathon last weekend. I am saving Meet me in St. Louis for Christmas so when I had watched Singin' in the Rain and couldn't get through The Band Wagon, (there's a reason you've probably never heard of it), I could not stop myself from watching Easter Parade even though I normally only allow myself a viewing in the spring. Some rules are worth breaking. You may remember this scene from the Hoover vacuum commercials from years ago:

          The use of a blue screen here must have been very novel then and I must admit that I find it no less awesome today, but then I have the soul of an octogenarian. Now I grew up watching Easter Parade and playing the music on my grandmother's player piano, but after hearing the lackluster tunes in The Bandwagon my roommate agreed that all of the numbers in Easter Parade, written by Irving Berlin, are completely riveting. The orchestration is also pretty great here although Berlin couldn't have been the arranger. Irving Berlin could only play the piano in one key. True story. He had a special transposing piano that he donated to the Smithsonian upon his death. And yes, that is Judy Garland at the opening of the scene. I often forget until the next time I hear her sing a ballad, how she could get that amazing sound that is just like she is crying through the melody. Oh yeah, Fred Astaire is pretty amazing too. I have managed to muddle my way through years of musical theatre and opera movement class, but I generally watch professional dancers with the same kind of awe that tone-deaf people must have for singers. I love the look on his face at the end of this number: He seems to be saying: "That's right. I ripped that one up."
          I agree with what I have read about Irving Berlin's simple, straightforward style. There is very little else that is so in tune with the American vernacular. While his contemporaries were concerned with incorporating jazz, European and other ethnic elements in their work, Irving Berlin on the other hand, didn't really care about any of that. He grew up in a Russian Jewish ghetto in New York and wasn't particularly concerned with the great composers, but rather, I picture him as having been someone like my grandfather. He just wanted to see an uplifting show with some good tunes in it. In my own work I often get so bogged down with weighty Germanic symbolism and grappling with the cosmos that I sometimes forget how just plain old entertaining something like this can be. But then I have always been a sucker for tap shoes, blaring trumpets, and belting out show tunes.

Another great number from the movie:

Friday, November 5, 2010

          With many of my friends currently performing in a production of Adamo's Little Women this fall, it fell to me to condense a Halloween party and an early acknowledgement of my birthday into one epic celebration. This was my 6th birthday party in this apartment and my first Halloween celebration but not the first time that costumes were involved. Since we got a little overzealous with wine and dancing, I never held the contest for best costume as promised. It's a tradition we like to carry on no matter who hosts our annual Halloween party.

          So I tallied a vote with a few impartial judges, (Emma over gchat and my co-worker Erin). So here they are! This year's winners:
Best female: Frida Kahlo

Best Male: The Jester

Best Couple: "The Internet Phenomenom Couple" (credit to Emma for the name)

          It was a very difficult decision. There were so many wonderful costumes! I must give shout-outs to Miss Piggy, the White Queen, the Tooth Fairy, "Bag Lady", Garden Gnome, Tinkerbell, Purple-People-Eater and Kathleen for being a Black and White Photograph and letting us use her frame for subsequent pictures: