Inspirazione! : Breathing Out

The translation for inspirazione is “breathing in.” When I began this column over four years ago, I explained that I hoped the column would provide something each month that singers would want to inhale deeply. I also admit that I liked the “certain ring” to the word and its similarity to the word “inspiration.” The topic of the first column was opera singers in the California Gold Rush.

Since then, several dozen columns have discussed a wide variety of topics concerning singers, from choosing appropriate venues and teachers to environmental and spiritual concerns. I’ve shared some of my sources of inspiration including amazing performances I’ve seen in traditional opera, Chinese opera, and musical theatre. I’ve shared my favorite books about singers and a few opinions about gadgets and software that singers might appreciate. The annual holiday column has highlighted operatic moments on themes of peace, love, and gratitude.

What the variety of subjects illustrates for me is the essentially eclectic nature of being a singer. Our job description is complex and our understanding of our art and the world we live in must reflect that diversity. I suppose that given that reality, the column could go on forever, just as a singer’s learning is a lifetime’s work. But to every thing there is a season, or so the song (and the scripture) goes.

Now, it is time for the column to end. So let’s call this month’s column “Espirare” and breathe out together. I will still be writing for the magazine. (I hope you enjoyed last month’s piece on Warren Jones and will stay tuned for upcoming interviews with Emma Kirkby and Thomas Hampson.) But this will be the last issue containing “Inspirazione.”

The topic for this final column is, paradoxically, beginnings. I’ll begin by telling you why it is that I was lucky enough to write this column. It’s simple: Nobody told me I couldn’t. I had an idea for an article. I wrote it. I sent it in. Classical Singer published it. I did it again. Then, I had an idea for a regular column. I wrote up a pitch and sent it in.

When it comes to singing, I am not nearly so cavalier in my approach to getting work. I research, prepare, plan, and talk myself out of things on a daily basis. But at the time I started writing for Classical Singer, I didn’t have any career, much less an identity, built up around being a writer. In other words, I was too ignorant to be discouraged. I followed my hunches and curiosities, did my best, and left it at that.

I’m not purporting that this column has been any huge achievement, but I have enjoyed writing it and it has enriched my life. From the feedback I’ve gotten, it has been supportive to others. Some of you took the time over the years to write and let me know your thoughts about my writing and to share your own inspiring stories. I have met some wonderful singers and colleagues and have formed at least one true friendship with someone who read one of my columns and acted on an urge to write to me. Since writing for Classical Singer, I’ve gone on to write for other musical publications and, for the most part, it’s been fulfilling and enjoyable.

Contrast that beginning to my first day of acting school in New York City a few zillion years ago. The teacher looked around the room, narrowed his eyes, and said: “In 10 years, only one out of 20 of you will still be in this business.” Doesn’t that just fill you with a desire to learn?

My first day of graduate school at conservatory was depressingly similar. The conductor running the opera program walked into the room carrying the phone book-size copy of Musical America. He flipped through its pages dramatically and said: “This is your competition!”

Well intentioned as these teachers must have been, I have found that life has its own hard knocks to dish out, and the learning curve isn’t any faster thanks to gloomy folks like these. Yes, people fail. People drop out. People give up. Life is hard. Is there anyone reading this who doesn’t know that? Let’s have a show of hands. . . .

People sometimes joke that the hardest part of a job is finishing it. I tend to agree with writer John O’Donohue who quotes an old Irish proverb: Tús maith leath na h-oibre, which translates as “A good beginning is half the work.” In my experience, it is inertia, negativity, second-guessing, and just plain hopelessness that gets in the way of living life fully. I’m not only talking about discouraging teachers or life’s disappointments. I’m talking about our own internal voice that wants to dissuade us from moving ahead into something positive, probably for no other reason than that it is new territory and we really can’t know if it will work out well. (I could’ve sent in my article and been rejected, for example.) Call it the inner critic, the superego, the devil on your shoulder. It’s that other little voice that says: “Practice later.” “Who do you think you are?” Or “What’s the point?”

Recently, I witnessed an eloquent, courageous answer to that voice in a performance by the legendary Broadway star, Elaine Stritch. On this night, it was the final performance of her most recent run at the Café Carlyle. Closing night was a Tuesday and it coincided with her 85th birthday. It was an all-Sondheim program and a special night as evidenced by the presence in the audience of luminaries like Hal Prince, Nathan Lane, and Michael Feinstein.

Much has been written of these performances, including a piece in the New York Times by Charles Isherwood comparing Stritch with Plácido Domingo in Simon Boccanegra. (Isherwood mentions that James Levine attended opening night of the show at the Carlyle and was “reported to have seen her Broadway solo show Elaine Stritch at Liberty more than a dozen times.”) I wouldn’t dare to write anything that even hinted at being a review or even an appreciation of such an amazing performance, but there is one thing that happened which I would like to relate.

Stritch was in the middle of the program. A couple of minor memory lapses had done nothing to deter from the evening, but when she got to the song “Everybody Says Don’t” from the show Anyone Can Whistle, she forgot the words and she stopped completely. She then explained that she wanted us to hear the song right, and she went back and started the verse over. The same thing happened again. And again. Famous for her rendition of songs such as “Broadway Baby,” when you look in the dictionary under the word “trooper” you see a picture of Elaine Stritch.

As she stood there, failing to come up with the words for yet a third time, you could see her determination rise. She said: “I’m gonna do it again because I want you to hear this song, because I dig it!” Then, she turned deliberately back to the pianist and said slowly in her gravelly contralto: “And no one’s helping me.” The pianist sat still as a stone in profile, and it seemed as if the whole room held its breath for a moment in sympathetic obedience. At that point, there ceased to be a separation between performer and song. By refusing to go on until she felt she could do what she wanted with the song, Stritch was living the song. It was about making herself clear, saying what she needed to say—what she meant to say—as an artist. When she finally made it through the song and the words rang out: “Then I say don’t, Don’t be afraid!” the cheer that went up was enormous. We all shared her triumph.

There will always be those voices (inside and out) that strive to pull you off the path that you know you should be on. But what is it you want to do—and say—as a singer? As a person?

It is a bit of a miracle to me that I even got into the show that evening. I had been in New York for a couple of weeks and I knew I wanted to see it before it closed, but I had somehow talked myself out of going. When I found out there was only one night left, I called and was told that there were no seats and an enormous waiting list. I decided to go anyway. One thing was for sure. If I had stayed home, I certainly wouldn’t have seen the show. As the signs say near the slot machines in Las Vegas, “You Must Be Present To Win.”

As we bring this column to a close, thank you for breathing in with me. Know that I am breathing out all my best wishes for you and your singing. I hope you sing well and happily and that you follow your own deepest wisdom to begin whatever is next in your life.
I’ll refrain from quoting a shoe company’s motto, and I’ve gotten this far without saying, “Go for it!” But I hope you will allow me to offer one sports expression in conclusion. As one famous hockey player put it, “I never made a shot I didn’t take.”

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.