Laura:  A Reflection

A few months ago, a singer friend named Laura was diagnosed with a vocal pathology. More specifically, this soprano received a scary photograph of what she was told was laryngeal swelling.  Such a moment of crisis forced me to reexamine my feelings of singing and singers.

As a budding thinker and writer on musical issues, I spend much time pondering such questions as whose "Enrico, mi fai ribrezzo" is more cathartic and whose "O patria mia" has the finest sense of line (Not to stray too far from my point, those singers would of course be Olivero and Price, respectively).  Walking, eating, bathing, an unbelievable portion of my thoughts is devoted to Rysanek, Mozart, the Met, squillo.  I was even busted for humming "Depuis le jour" a little too loudly in a sexual situation...

As Laura and I have worked through the realities of her diagnosis, so much of me has changed.  I listen more deeply.  I wonder what on earth Callas' vocal cords could have looked like.  Vickers'?  Caballé's?  More importantly, I think I'm starting to get to the heart of what singing means.

One doesn't sing because it's an easy, fun road to riches.  One doesn't sing to have her picture emblazoned on the sides of busses and lunchboxes.  Accuse certain actors and pop musicians of possessing these intentions, but don't bring them into the realm of opera.

The meaning of singing is present in the horrifying reality of Olivero's "No, non voglio morir".  Singing is Rysanek's aching realization of Elektra's monologue, the spectrum from Callas' broken Gilda to her fiery Tosca.  Singing is the tears in Laura's eyes as she can barely get through "Vaga luna che in argenti" without strain.

I'll tell you what singing isn't.  Late one night, a senior voice student knocked on my door, asking me to help him with a twenty page duet from Don Pasquale.  It is fortunate that I was seated at the piano when I heard this young man's singing, as the blatant disrespect for Donizetti, the poor Italian, and the utter lack of love for music would have floored me.  The night before a coaching session with an important voice faculty member, this charlatan simply didn't know his music.  Further, he didn't seem apologetic--to me, to Donizetti, to himself--for his poor preparation.  I fear that America's conservatories are overrun with decently-talented singers with no real drive to delve deeply into the true meaning of music.

In the daily matters of music criticism, what singing really means is barely reflected.  Even in the duration of this piece, which intends to explore this very topic, I've drifted into the traditional tossing-around of names and roles which is so easy and nonconfrontational.

It's scary to explore our real feelings about music.  Music lovers tend to be private people.  They feel, they love, they think--these actions are inherent to the appreciation of music.   But when they come together, their conversations avoid the big questions.   They talk about vocal placement, who sang what better than whom, what X singer looked like in Y's gown, and so forth.   I've rarely sat in a room with fellow opera fans and heard a statement like "The caress in Corelli's 'O dolce mani' reminds me at once of my first lover and my mother's embrace" or "If I could have one wish, it would be to sing."

It is obvious that those two comments are mine.  I readily relate the most sensitive, veristic moments in opera to my daily life.  I'll admit that when the world is just too much, I cry to Price in "O patria mia", recover to Jones and Auger in "Pur ti mirò," and laugh it all off to Sills in Manon's Gavotte.  While I'm only 18 and I know there's so much for me to learn, I can sympathize with Nilsson's transcendence in the Liebestod and Scotto's horrid cry of "Son miei figli!"  Opera--and the interpreters bringing it to me--has given me a preview of the range of human emotions.  Those singers who know that opera is about transmitting real emotion through brilliant music have taught me what it means to be a human.

Sitting in the middle of the night on my favorite Lake Michigan rocks, I admitted to Laura that if I could have any wish in the world, I would be a singer.  Not just any singer--no Richard Margison or Ruth Ann Swenson, I--but one of the greats.  My sheer determination and easy access to my emotions would break audiences' hearts the world over as Manon Lescaut, Margherita, Isolde, Rigoletto, Wozzeck.   My "Non più mesta" would cause laughter and weeping all at once.  I lipsynch with the best of them, but it hurts so deeply that I do not possess the physical equipment to channel the ideas that daily flood my thoughts.  All my world-shattering notions of decrescendo, rubato, and character portrayal will forever remain just that--notions.  This deficiency is my greatest wound.  It is my goal that sharing this pain with others will help me realize that writing about and loving music is just as valid and fruitful as being music.  I write "being" rather than "performing" or "singing," as I cannot call Scotto's Butterfly a performance. It is a reality.  Cio-Cio-San's voice emerges from my stereo, not Scotto's.  That's what singing is about.

I have no doubt Laura's cords will heal.  In the three months since the original diagnosis, the texture of these tiny muscles has greatly improved.  I know that the road to complete recovery will be a long, interminably frustrating one, but the destination will be reached.   Someday, Laura will sing with all the brilliance, beauty, and truth I only wish I could.

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