The Importance of Being Yourself : Lessons from Westminster

I take my inspiration where I find it. Sometimes I find it in the theater, like watching Emily Magee in Die tote Stadt (see “Leaving ‘Die tote Stadt,’” February 2009), or hearing Karita Mattila’s letter scene in Eugene Onegin at the Met (exquisite), or seeing Jon Vickers’ Peter Grimes on DVD (a must-see). But sometimes I find the greatest oil for my performing engine in unexpected places. Such was the case on a Tuesday night in New York when 8:00 p.m. found me not at Lincoln Center, but at Madison Square Garden and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, where a 10-year-old Sussex Spaniel named Stump walked off with the hearts of the assembled crowd as well as the coveted title: Best in Show.

I hadn’t known before my short trip to New York City for auditions and coachings that my time there would coincide with the dog show. The morning of the final day of the show, I happened to be near Madison Square Garden to attend a musical theatre audition. I am an “EMC,” which stands for Equity Member Candidate as opposed to a full-fledged member. I’ve accrued a certain number of weeks working with Equity companies, but don’t yet have enough weeks to qualify for membership. At Equity auditions, this means that I can go to the audition and if there is time after all the Equity members have been heard, then I will be given a hearing.

On that particular day, this meant arriving at 6:15 in the morning to be number 22 on the list of candidates. (Welcome to New York!) After hanging around for a while, it became clear that if there was time for them to see me, it wouldn’t be until after lunch, so I stepped out onto 26th Street and considered my options. I remembered hearing on the news that the dog show was in town, so I headed north to check it out.

I don’t suppose there are many places in the world that could rival a small studio in New York crammed with pre-audition actors in excitement and energy, but the grooming and waiting area at the Garden that day more than held its own by comparison. Like canine counterparts to bassi profondi and soubrettes, dogs from Great Danes to Chihuahuas were found resting, stretching their legs, and making one last trip to the sandbox—typical backstage behavior.

The first round of judging I watched was the Vizslas. Watching 20 or so specimens of this auburn-colored, short-haired sporting dog seemed almost like a display of cloning technology. Even the experienced dog fanciers around me were commenting on how close a call it would be. Finally, a winner was chosen and they moved on to the Newfoundlands, a huge dog with very long, black (and sometimes brown) hair, known for their sweet dispositions.

While parading around the ring, one beautiful Newfoundland had second thoughts and made a getaway lunge into the audience. The crowd was so thick, he couldn’t get far, but that didn’t stop him from trying as the sympathetic fans petted him and held him as the handler tried to console him enough to get back into the ring. But a return to the group was fleeting as he once again made a break for it. (Who among us doesn’t know that feeling?) He was finally removed from the ring to a large round of applause.

I thought by going to the dog show I would be taking a break from thinking about performing, but I found myself drawing comparisons between the dogs and singers. The nearly identical Vizslas reminded me of the ingénues at the Equity audition: all exactly 5’ 6” tall with shiny, bouncing hair, china doll faces, and pretty dresses—they, too, were tough to tell apart. Maybe the big Newfoundland is like Teresa Stratas: so highly strung that some days the stage fright is just too much—but when he’s on, he’s brilliant. And the canine backstage scene might look crazy to some, but compared to the energy backstage at the opera, it seemed almost sane.

Heading back downtown to the audition, I found that so many Equity members had arrived that no EMCs would be seen that day, so I headed uptown to get a bite to eat before a scheduled coaching at the Met. The coaching ended about 7:45, so I stopped at the box office to see if I could score a cheap ticket as I had the night before. But that night Domingo was singing, and the cheapest ticket cost almost as much as my plane fare to New York from California. Besides, I still had my general admission to the dog show, and the final judging was about to begin. So it was back to the subway and the Garden.

In some ways, the whole idea of breeding dogs for show is distasteful to me. I love my beautiful 14-year-old Lab?-Hound?-Rottweiler? mix. Does a dog need a pedigree to be worthy of love? And when you think about it, isn’t the idea of judging dogs this way about as distasteful as, well, comparing singers as good, better, and best? These sorts of competitions, in some ways, do not bring out the best in people—as I experienced when I inadvertently sat in the reserved section at the final judging of the dog show and was sharply “informed” of my faux pas by a patron. In all my years at the opera, I don’t think I ever met someone that snooty. I laughed to myself, imagining that perhaps the offended patron thought my general admission status made me an interloping mutt in her purebred clique.

But in other ways, competitions are a celebration. You can really see someone rise to the occasion and show some brilliance. Of course, having no expertise about the standards required of various dog breeds, I had no expectation of being able to recognize an outstanding dog—brilliant or otherwise. I just thought I would enjoy seeing a lot of beautiful dogs.

Settling into a comfy seat in the nosebleed section, I watched as the favored Giant Schnauzer won the working dog group. And then it was time. The stage crew arranged places for the winners of seven groups and out marched seven remarkable dogs, from the long and lanky Scottish Deerhound to the tiny Brussels Griffon. And then suddenly, as if accompanied by the romantic swelling of symphonic strings, “Stump” emerged, his chestnut brown hair sweeping the AstroTurf and his square snout raised high. I fell in love, and I wasn’t alone. The crowd went wild. And every time he took a turn, the applause grew.

It’s very difficult to put into words what Stump achieved. He was just so perfectly himself. The judge of the Best in Show is kept sequestered and knows nothing of the dogs but how they appear in this final round. When I heard her interviewed on television the next day, she said that in the end, “I just couldn’t say no to him.” And I thought I could see on her face that particular moment as she was judging when he touched her heart.

There are a few things that make Stump’s victory inspiring. At 10 years, he is the oldest dog by two years ever to win Westminster. Also, he is the first in his breed ever to take the prize. And, most remarkably, he had dropped out of competition for several years after a mysterious and near-fatal illness. His handler said he had done very little to get Stump ready for competition again.

The lesson for me in Stump’s victory is to keep learning to be more and more myself. To keep asking, “What’s right for me?” “What repertoire do I feel at home with?” “What music do I love?” “Which artists do I admire?” I think that is what sports people mean when they say that “he ran his race” or “she played her game.” It sounds almost like an empty statement, because who else’s race would he run or game would she play? It’s terribly common, however, to see people trying to play someone else’s game. We all know the discomfort we feel when watching a Susanna who fancies herself an Isolde, or the pain we experience when we push ourselves too hard by comparing ourselves unfavorably with others. It just doesn’t work. You can fake it only for so long. Ultimately, you have to find the right repertoire, the right size company, the right balance between singing and personal life—for you. Not for anyone else.

My favorite basketball player this season has been a young man named Jerome Randall who plays for the Cal Bears. At 5’ 10”, he is the smallest guy on the team, but he is an enormously valuable player known for his amazing long-distance three-point shots. If he were to insist on fighting with the big guys to make inside shots at the net, he would not succeed. He plays his game.

We can look at life as acquiring layers that will make us successful. Layers of technique. Layers of experience. But maybe our greatest victories can come from peeling away layers that are false and knowing and exposing our truest selves. Stump wasn’t the best at being a show dog. He was the best at being Stump. And that’s why he was so irresistible.

Make sure you sing your song and no judge, not even your own inner critic, will be able to say no to you.

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.