Let’s face it: there’s only one Mary Poppins. She’s practically perfect in every way, but I’m far from it. As a performer, I boast a litany of weaknesses large and small. Coaches, teachers, critics, conductors, and colleagues have regularly pointed out the areas where I come up short (often it’s exactly what they’re paid to do, so I don’t take offense).
Voices are a little bit like video games. In Super Mario Kart, the first step is to pick your vehicle. A motorcycle has much greater speed, but the steering is significantly more difficult. A larger car can tackle the sharpest curves with the greatest of ease, but the acceleration is lacking. Just like the X-Men, each of us wields a unique power. The trick is to work around or minimize our trouble spots and capitalize on what we do best.
There are several things I don’t do extremely well, and that’s OK. This is not a celebration of mediocrity; it’s an acceptance of reality. While I’m continually striving to be a more skilled and well rounded artist, I’ve decided to put my strengths on the front burner and minimize my pitfalls.
As an adolescent, I kept waiting for my voice to change (callers would always say, “Hello, Mrs. Blalock!” whenever I’d answer the family phone), but then I finally realized that I was just going to remain a high tenor. It took a long time to develop a strong chest voice, so I picked repertoire that sat in a higher register, like “Ah! mes amis.” Experience taught me that I would often be too wound up to sing slow arias with long legato lines for my first audition piece, so in recent years I’ve started auditions with an upbeat Rossini aria that allows me to move around and focus all of that nervous energy on the character I was playing and the story I was telling.
Once or twice I’ve been criticized for not pumping out enough volume over an orchestra. For years I tried to overcompensate by squeezing and pushing my voice in an attempt to sound louder. Of course those efforts weren’t productive at all. Finally I stopped trying to be something I wasn’t. I embraced the lightness of my voice and set out to be the best soft singer in the world. I started singing Nadir’s aria from The Pearlfishers, and my goal was to produce the most beautiful floated pianissimo anyone had ever heard. Audition panelists didn’t pay much attention when I tried to wow them with volume, but I noticed that they would lean forward in their chairs when I would spin out a pretty diminuendo above the staff.
A consistent challenge for me has been my tendency to overthink things in coachings and rehearsals. I tied my throat in knots as I tried to perfect each 16th note, but I would’ve been much better off if I could simply let go and sing. On the other hand, that same attention to detail is a huge asset in 21st-century operas with tricky new productions. Instead of standard “park and bark” operas, I pursued premieres that required a meticulous approach to details on the stage and in the score. Conductors, composers, and directors appreciated my thoughtfulness and precision—and suddenly my weakness became my greatest strength.
Take a look at your talent toolbox. Do you struggle with singing coloratura? Then blow them away with your luscious legato phrasing. Do you hate singing in French? Become the best Italian aria specialist. Do you have a hard time getting into character for romantic roles? Focus on comedic operas. Just like the X-Men, you have your unique superpower. Find that gift, hone it, and unapologetically share it with the world.