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Fucking Wagner

The other day I randomly came across this interview with my former voice teacher, Blanche Thebom. It was so strange to hear the voice of someone who had such an impact on my life all these years later. I would have recognized her voice anywhere. A lot of the stuff she mentions in the interview are things she told me when I was in her studio, ableit the nicer, more diplomatic version.

I remember her mentioning the excellent musicians who came to the US after the war, but she also blamed the newcomers for ruining voice technique in the country. They brought over the German technique, while Blanche sang with a classic bel canto technique. In the bel canto technique, with breath control, you project your voice completely out of your body, almost like ventriloquism. But with the German technique, you harness and ride the breath, pushing your voice out of your body. This technique, which is more or less all that’s taught today, is the reason why opera singers sometimes sound like they’re yelling, particularly tenors. It also ruins voices, especially big, dramatic voices. Blanche’s theory on this was that the German technique claims singing can be approached “scientifically.” Voice teachers can learn to teach singers without necessarily mastering the art of singing themselves. But bel canto, according to her, could only be taught by someone who has perfected and fully embodied their own technique, which they then pass on to apprentices. Studying with Blanche was like studying with a zen master in many ways. She even had “mantras” (ok, wrong religion, but still…) that she continually repeated and made me write down in a little book I still have:

“Singing requires perfect husbandry.” (One of several farm terms that would crop up in her speech, no pun intended. Her parents were Swedish immigrant farmers from Pennsylvania.)

“It’s Superman 100% of the time.”

“The notes may go down, but we don’t go down.”

I sang this aria so many times in her studio on Potrero Hill, singing out at least as far as the Bank of America building in downtown San Francisco. “You can go further than that,” Blanche told me. “You can go all the way to outerspace.”

Blanche told me how things were going to be, and she believed in her ability to control me. When I told her I had a German boyfriend, she asked me if he was in the business. When I said no, she told me to dump him right away. Later, when I ran into my old voice teacher who was also studying with Thebom, she said she’d heard I broke up with my boyfriend (she’d met him before.)

“Umm, no,” I said.

“Blanche told me she told you to do so, and you did.”

The rest of my life was also planned out: I was not to have children, because having a family and an international opera career is not compatible. I was to date and/or marry only other opera singers or musicians in the field. The roles I would take on later were Fricka, Bragäne, Amneris, Dorabella, the third lady in the Magic Flute, the blind girl in La Gioconda, but not Carmen. In other words, I was to relive Blanche’s life and career.

And she put the pressure on:

“You’re a dramatic mezzo soprano who is nearly a dramatic contralto. Do you know how rare that is? That’s as rare as hen’s teeth.” (another farming reference)

“You owe it to God to be a singer. If you don’t try, you will want to kill yourself in fifteen years.”

“If you can’t make it, I know nothing about the business.”

Controlling and cruel she might have been at times, but if I had really wanted to be an opera singer, she would have supported me every step of the way. But the problem is, I didn’t want to be one.

Opera wasn’t really something I ever chose, it was more like something that happened to me. The whole things feels incredibly karmic, like an old debt of some kind, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t get things right this time around.

After I graduated from Mills, Blanche had a plan: I was to join the opera chorus of San Francisco Opera, watch and learn and keep out of the petty drama, then launch my career in Europe a couple of years later. But I was to hide my opera chorus years, because it would make me seem as though I wasn’t ambitious enough to embark on a solo career. I completed the application form and was getting some arias together to sing for my audition. One of them was this aria from Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

But I didn’t work hard enough. I never worked hard enough. I fucked up the rhythm of this aria in her studio, and that was the last straw for her. She sent the pianist downstairs and asked me what the hell was wrong with me.

“I think I want to write,” I told her.

“I don’t believe you,” she said.

She told me I was only making excuses. She told me she didn’t respect me. She told me I could never ever use her name. She said these things in a tone that was meant to shred my soul, and believe me it did. I went home and didn’t get out of bed for several days.

She also said, “If you ever get your act together, I’ll take you back.”

But, of course, I never did.

Four months later, I moved to Berlin where I still live almost twenty years later. I tell myself I left because I couldn’t handle life in the Bay Area anymore. I tell myself I came to write and stayed because I built a life I could never have in the US, not in any major city, and I knew it. And I suppose these things are true.

But the older I get, the more I think I also ran away. I ran away from my colorful but emotionally exhausting family. I ran away from a country that’s always had a tinge of madness which has recently flipped over into batshit crazy. I ran away from the hurt around Blanche and this whole opera business.

Was running away the right thing to do?

If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have the life I have today, and it’s mostly a good life (“mostly” because I still haven’t been published and don’t know if I ever will be).

I wouldn’t have my family, and my family is wonderful.

But I still feel like there’s some unfinished business, something I still have to face and process, although I don’t know why or how. Something karmic, if you will.

Or maybe I should just blame it all on Wagner. Blanche made her debut as a Wagnerian Mezzo Soprano at 24 which, as she mentions in the interview, is completely unheard of (Wagner is definitely later-in-your career kind of stuff). She kicked me out of her studio for screwing up a Wagner aria, and guess how old I was?

Yep. 24.

Fucking Wagner. I still can’t stand his music.

To finally get this shit out of my system, I’m probably going to have to write about it. We’ll see how it goes.

 

One Comment

  1. […] had recently been kicked out of my voice teacher’s studio (I write about that experience here) and decided I was going to move to Berlin for a while. Although I wanted to go to Berlin more than […]

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