The “Babbino” Bunch

The small and lovely Salt Marsh Opera will present Puccini’s comic one-act opera Gianni Schicchi on May 16 at the Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, CT. You should go see it! The gorgeous aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” was written for this work, which premiered in 1918.

You can buy the aria at G. Schirmer. You don't even have to show ID.

You can buy the aria at G. Schirmer. You don’t even have to show ID.

You’ve heard that song, right? Such a beautiful, simple yet elegant melody. Lush, emotional strings support the singer throughout. It’s easy to dress it up with a few tasteful portamenti, and a fermata here and there. It’s been used in commercials and in the opening credits of the movie of E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View. My favorite version is by Kiri Te Kanawa. Her voice is rich and round, just perfect for this aria. Feel free to disagree, my eight blog readers. But I’m right. Anna Netrebko’s pretty great, too. Kathleen Battle’s voice is smaller (like mine) and her mouth does weird stuff (a source of much discussion among voice teachers), but it’s a heartfelt, artistic statement.

The English translation is “Oh, My Beloved Daddy.” Gianni Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta is begging her father to let her marry Mr. Right. “O Mio Babbino Caro” was the second aria my voice teacher Prof. Hickfang ever gave me, and I loved it instantly. What soprano wouldn’t? All those octave leaps from A flat to A flat, all those delicious long notes practically sighing off the page, all those threats of suicide if Daddy won’t let her get married! I think my teacher assigned me the aria so I could work on my Italian diction, and get an introduction to grand opera style. The A flats were easy for me to sing. Of course my baby diva voice didn’t have the fullness or richness of an actual Lauretta onstage. I sighed with despair when I heard Te Kanawa’s version, figuring I’d never sound even half as good or half as loud. I never actually performed it or used it for an audition in high school or college; I was no Lauretta and it was just a study aria for me. (The first aria Prof. Hickfang assigned me was “The Black Swan” from Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, an aria I never really liked from an opera I never really understood. Feel free to agree.)

Through the glories of YouTube I found a “Babbino” by Maria Callas, using an amazing amount of chest voice, as she was wont to do. La Divina can get away with it. If the desperate maiden is pushing 50, chest voice is appropriate and adds a certain note of verismo.

Jackie Evancho: Your curfew is 8pm, 7pm Central.

Jackie Evancho: Your curfew is 8pm, 7pm Central.

It’s trickier if the maiden is 9. “O Mio Babbino Caro” is now a staple for the Infant Diva who wants to audition for talent shows, but can’t belt. (Dear Lord, it’s like all talent shows are down to two acts: “Let It Go” and “O Mio Babbino Caro”!) The attractions of the aria remain the same: High notes, easy Italian, quick song. But most of the baby divas I’ve heard sing it on YouTube try to imitate Te Kanawa and other adult women in all the wrong ways — they add chest voice to be able to hit the low notes, bunch up their tongues in the backs of their mouths, move their bent arms stiffly like mannequins, and add wobbly vibrato to try to sound more grown up. Some hear “The Voice Of An Angel” who is blooming early like an azalea; I hear a singer whose career will be over before she can drive.

Vocalists who have learned to sing without constriction and distortion will eclipse them. The only exception to this rule is Sarah Brightman, who commits all these vocal crimes and still seems to be able to put food on the table. I can’t explain Sarah. I can’t explain why the dinosaurs died, either, but as with Sarah’s approach to Puccini, it was tragic.

I believe this is the fate that awaits Jackie Evancho, who sang the song she called ‘O Mio Poppino Caro’ on TV as a fourth grader. It might come even more swiftly for Amira Willinghagen, Holland’s strangle-throated answer to Jackie, who was America’s answer to Charlotte Church, who was England’s answer to Deanna Durbin, who was singing the heroic tenor aria “Nessun Dorma” in English at age 22, on film. At least Deanna sang the hell out of it, and was wearing something larger than a training bra. She also had the good sense to retire in her mid-20s and live on as a legend until her death last year.

Good idea, Charlotte. (Alex Mills)

Good idea, Charlotte. (Alex Mills)

I’ve actually coached a nine year old who chose “O Mio Babbino Caro” for — of course — a talent show. Like Jackie, she had no idea where the song came from, who was actually singing it in the opera, or how old that character was. She had heard lots of versions of the aria on YouTube and was imitating Jackie’s bad traits, and internalizing them. So, I did some reprogramming. I insisted on natural vibrato only, and only very light chest voice on the lowest notes. I kept encouraging a light, age-appropriate head voice and an unaffected presentation. She won second place.

I’m looking forward to Salt Marsh Opera’s production, and enjoying the aria in context. I admit, there’s something about Puccini that brings out the opera singer in everyone, and sometimes they just can’t be stopped. Here, the maiden looks a lot like Chris Tucker and sings a perfectly fine amateur countertenor.

Oh gosh, that was funny. I loved the predictably fatuous pronouncements by the judges. I loved the ending. I loved that it was over.

 

 

 

 

 

The Seven, Vol. 11: Sweet Abstinence

1. I’m in dietary limbo, following a bout of gastric distress. After a nasty night of “hurl up and die” and a full day in bed where I could barely lift my head, I’m dressed and bleaching everything in sight today. I know I should try to eat something but I have almost no appetite, and don’t even want to hear anyone talk about food. I’m dehydrated and pale, but I look fabulous in my jeans! As Emily Blunt said in The Devil Wears Prada:

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2. I gave up sugar and alcohol for Lent, but I have to confess I have not been perfect in my fasting. I broke the alcohol fast when I was helping my parents pack up their house in Ohio. Was I going to turn down a little Jack Daniel’s toast with my parents in their wonderful new condo? No, I was not. I only broke the sugar fast because The Best Photographer In The World brought home an Allie’s Donut. The road to Hell is paved with Allie’s Donuts. Why not blame my husband, the way Adam blamed Eve? After I ate that donut (glazed), I noticed that it seemed sickeningly sweet. I had to eat the whole thing to prove to myself that it wasn’t that enjoyable.

3. So, it was probably the combination of leftover pizza, a glass of wine, and a hot chocolate with whipped cream that did me in on Sunday night *. My stomach was just overwhelmed. And now store-made hot chocolate is on the list of Foods I Will Never Eat Again, right next to White Russians (21st birthday at the blues bar in Cincinnati. Disgusting).

4. Have you heard about the lady whose family gave up sugar for a year? That sounds really, really appealing right now.

5. I’ve actually never been gaga for sweet stuff. I can take it or leave it. I’m a salt girl. Movies exist so I can eat popcorn with salt. I love salt n’ pepper potato chips. Smoked almonds are my crack. Where is the book about giving up salt for a year? No, I ain’t gonna write it. And besides, we need some salt to survive, don’t we? My own mother is on a high-sodium diet to raise her blood pressure. See? Craving salt is probably in my DNA.

6. I’ve also been half-successful on my third Lenten fast: No laptop in bed. Yeah, I sought out some comfort on Hulu yesterday, and I found it. I watched about ten episodes of Lark Rise To Candleford. I’ve had a few other days where I broke the fast to buy an airplane ticket, to reply to an important email. But it’s clear to me that when I end the day with a book in bed, I’m happier. So, when Lent concludes with the Glorious Solemnity Of Easter, I’m going to try very hard to maintain . . .  and abstain.

7. Right now my bedtime reading is violinist/Holocaust survivor/restaurateur George Lang’s autobiography, Nobody Knows The Truffles I’ve Seen. I bought it for the title. It’s a delightful memoir filled with reminiscences and recipes. I can’t wait to have the stomach to read it again.

*For the non fish eaters: Catholics can choose to maintain the Lenten Fast for 40 days, or pause each Sunday. I obviously chose to pause. Might rethink that one. 

Diva, ready

I perform with the Ariosti Ensemble at 4pm, but I start preparations long before then. First, the all-important Morning Of Relaxation, accomplished by lying in bed with cats, coffee and laptop.

Boo-Boo Kitty, can't you see I'm preparing? I can't think of anything remotely important on a performance day.

Boo-Boo is an integral part of my preparation. I can’t think of anything remotely important on a performance day and neither can he.

I can’t (won’t) do anything particularly taxing on a performance day. No major chores or work unless it’s unavoidable. I take it very easy. I hum some scales in the shower and glance at my music. Then, after dropping off my son at his own high school musical performance (I already saw it), I return home to get “Diva Ready.” At 1pm, I eat some leftover steak and vegetables from last night’s meal, prepared by The Best Photographer In the World. Beverly Sills always ate a steak, salad, and baked potato before her performances, so from age 16 that’s what I’ve done, too. This balance of protein and carbs works for me. What’s great is that under this system I can justify a burger and fries . . and oh, I have.

Time to work on the hair. My hair naturally falls forward onto my face and creates a shadow, so I have to counter it when I perform, or no one would be able to see my face. For performances, my mom would always pull back the hair from the sides of my head. She’d push the crown forward into a little pouf and leave the back long, and then pin it all into place. Sometimes, Mom poufed me so much I looked like the Fourth Beloved Wife of a polygamous Mormon. Now I know what to do. After I tease some height to the crown, I add a couple of bobby pins to hold it in place. Did you know that the wavy edge of the bobby pin is the part that’s supposed to go closer to your head, and the straight part is supposed to face out? How did I miss this important life lesson? A couple of shiny clips complete the look, and I spray it into submission.

This is blogger Eden, looking a little like The Bloggess (but with less swearing)

This is blogger Eden, looking a little like The Bloggess.com (but with less swearing)

The earrings are a lovely Christmas gift from my mother-in-law, who knew I was always searching for shiny, lightweight “performance” earrings. I also have a pair beautiful Austrian crystal drops that my mom used to wear. I wore them for my headshots and they go with everything. Now I can alternate! I can only wear nickel-free earrings. When I don’t, my ears suffer immediately and people give me horrified looks (“Albert! Does that singer know her ears are bright red and bleeding?”).

The Arsenal

The Messy Arsenal Of Beauty

Cosmetics. Every time I get ready for a performance, I kick myself for not getting someone to teach me how to put on stage makeup. I have never really learned; maybe that should go on my New Year’s Resolutions for 2015. I use Cerave moisturizer and Pore Perfect face primer (my skin “eats” makeup, but primer makes me break out so I only put in on for a few hours). I follow that with under eye concealer and foundation, and high-definition blush (with a little darker blush underneath for some contour). I just bought a bunch of elf brand products and I really like them. They are lightweight and so cheap I can try out different colors, and give the rejects to my daughter for her play-makeup box. I use a Revlon eye shadow compact with some matte and slightly sparkly colors. I line my eyes with liquid black pencil that came in my monthly BirchBox, and add waterproof mascara, then I curl my lashes and add some more mascara. I brush powder over my nose. I line my lips with red pencil and fill in with whatever I have lying around. I have yet to find the perfect lipstick shade. It’s always too pink or red, but for performance that’s exactly what I want — classic and obvious.

Time to get out of my sweats and into the dress. I tried on most of my black dresses (I own six. Yes, six) earlier in the week to see what would work, and I also checked a few stores to see if there were any last-minute finds. I rejected the funereal wrap dress with white piping at the sleeve and waist, and the slinky one with spaghetti straps. I said no to the beautiful Ann Taylor with beaded bodice and handkerchief hem because it was meant to be worn without a shrug or jacket, and I knew I’d be covering my shoulders. Why on Earth does this deserve such scrutiny? Because I am singing chamber music with an ensemble at 4pm in a church, on a Sunday during Lent. The dress can’t be floor length because the other musicians won’t be in formal wear. It can’t be sleeveless or strapless because everyone else will be in 3/4 or long sleeves, and I prefer to cover my shoulders when I sing in a church. But I do want to look a little snazzy, since I don’t have a shiny flute or burnished wood violin in front of me. I have three dressy shrugs/bolero jackets, one which I just got yesterday at a consignment shop. It was size large, but shrugs and bolero jackets for formal wear are hard to find (especially on sale) so I snapped it up. Will it work? Only if I hold it together like this:

Keira Knightley selfie! Mi dispiace, but this is too big unless I yank it together like so. Can't mess with it today.

Keira Knightley selfie! Mi dispiace, but this is too big unless I yank it together like so. Can’t mess with it today.

It’s too big; I’ll deal with it later. And so I settle on a new combination: A basic black jersey dress (bought last year at Savers in Warwick for $9.99) with a shirred waist, paired with short sleeved black lace bolero with silver sequins scattered all over the front. I’ve had the bolero for years (it was from some teen store!) but I have never had luck pairing it with a dress until now. It will sparkle in the lights without blinding anyone. The dress is exactly knee length, perfect for an afternoon event. Now, for shoes. I have two pairs of black satin pumps, one slightly higher than the other, which leads to this little dance:

Which one? 1 1/2 inch or 2 inch? (I choose the 2 inch.)

Which one? 1 1/2 inch or 2 inch? I’m standing on the 1 1/2 inch. (I choose the 2 inch.)

After donning my black earlier in the week, I realized I looked like Death In A Dress so I started applying some self-tanner to my legs and arms, and now I have a nice bit of color. I decided my teeth looked too tan, so I chomped down on some whitening strips as well. I polished my toes earlier in the week. I am a terrible, lazy nail polisher. I lay it on thick, and then let the friction of my shoes rub off the excess over a few days. Since I’m not wearing nylons, I apply a little shimmer lotion to my legs.

Nivea, the shimmer lotion for sopranos of pallor

Nivea, the shimmer lotion for sopranos of pallor

One more detail: I don my silver “star” bracelet from Sister Renee. She was the principal at my first ever teaching job at St. Michael School in Annandale VA. She always reminded me that God gives us a variety of gifts and talents; she called me her “star” and gave me the bracelet, and I found that very sweet. So I usually wear it when I perform. And, it goes with everything.

The silver "star" bracelet from Sister Renee.

The silver “star” bracelet from Sister Renee.

Does this seem like a lot of effort? Well, I put a lot of effort into my singing, so why not make the frame as good as the painting? I rehearse different ways of singing phrases and make sure my score is marked. I try out new ornamentations until I find the ones that work for me and for the song. I listen to my rehearsal recordings and make improvements. I read up on the history of my composers and my repertoire. I write in the translations. Being prepared makes me a more confident performer. So when it comes to getting “Diva Ready” I pay attention to the details, because it’s not just about the music, it’s about delivering a confident performance. Music hath charms, yes, but seeing is believing.

I appreciate beautifully groomed singers who wear outfits that complement the performance space. I am frustrated by singers who — no matter how wonderful the voice — come to the stage with messy hair and distracting clothing that doesn’t respect the location or the music. Show me a singer who ignores the visuals and I’ll show you Ray Charles. For the rest of us, there’s really no excuse.

It’s now 2:35 pm and it’s time to head to the church. I have already packed my digital recorder with power cord plus three extension cords and duct tape, headphones so I can hear the sound quality before I press “record” at 3:59pm, a fruit and nut bar for quick energy, an empty water bottle to fill at the church, a makeup bag, my music in a black folder, translations of the music to announce to the audience in my best Meryl Streep impression, Static Guard spray in case the skirt begins to cling, and a pair of flat shoes to wear before and after the concert. I also pack a magazine in case I need to clear my brain for a few minutes, but I know I’m not likely to read it. I’m running the music in my head all the time. Just before departing, I open my music and sing through it one time, just to make sure it’s all “there.” It is. This diva is ready.

Tanned, rested, and ready.

Tanned, rested, and ready.