For the Love of Musical Theater
It was Ellen Chickering, a voice teacher at the University of Southern Maine who first suggested I consider opera. In high school I had listened to tapes of Mario Lanza and Luciano Pavarotti. I loved the sounds that that they made especially on Neapolitan songs. But my heart belonged to more modern forms of music. Musical theater and rock music were far more interesting to me.
When I was little one of the albums we had in the house was the studio recording of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Rock Opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Syracuse was fortunate to be home to a community theater called Salt City Playhouse that produced a month long run of Superstar every year. My mother took me to a performance when I was 6 and I was absolutely captivated by the music. I listened to that album over and over again. To this day I can start at the beginning and sing you almost every word of it. During my school years several blockbuster musicals came out that were very popular among my peers. My singing friends and I wanted to be the first to learn the songs from Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Into the Woods, and Miss Saigon. By my junior year of high school I was certain that I wanted to sing on Broadway. Then I went down to NYC and auditioned for a summer job performing musical theater for Disneyland which changed all that.
For that audition I prepared the song “Love Changes Everything” from Aspects of Love. The requirements for auditioning were very specific. I was asked to prepare exactly 13 measures of music. I’m not sure how they arrived at that number (why was it an odd number?). It was a challenge to figure out how to excise the best part of the song and get exactly 13 measures. Another requirement was to prepare a short monologue. All I remember about preparing the monologue was that I was scared to death to speak on stage. I was much more comfortable singing.
After I arrived at the studio and signed in the organizers herded us into a hallway to wait for our turn to audition. Like all the kids in that hall I began nervously arranging my music and my headshot, which had my resume glued to the back of it. Some girl looked over and said, “You glued your resume onto the back of your headshot? That’s totally wong!” I was supposed to have paper-clipped the resume to the headshot. I thought about trying to peel the resume off of the back but it would have been a mess.
When it was finally time for me to audition I handed my materials to the person at the stage door and walked onto the stage. They asked me to start with my monologue. I hadn’t expected that. After reciting four lines one of the judges said, “Ok that’s fine, let’s hear your song please.” When I finished singing someone else said, “Thank you,” and the door person motioned for me to leave the stage. Just before I got to the door a different judge called out and said, “Nice voice.” Did that mean I had the job?
Back in the hall, waiting for whatever was next, I heard someone muttering about a dance audition. I had a moment of panic because I thought I might be expected to do a dance audition. That would not have been good. I don’t and probably shouldn’t dance. Some kid leaned over and said, “That’s not us I don’t think.” What a relief that was.
The door person appeared in the hall and asked everyone to stand up and line up against the wall. I will never forget what happened next. Two of the judges, a man and a woman, walked down the hallway followed by the door person who had a pad of paper and a pen. The judges pointed and each kid as they went and said, “No, too short, too tall, wrong look, yes, no, no, wrong build, no, no, yes, no” etc. When they got to me they simply said, “No” and went on to the next kid. That was it. My audition was over. Standing in that line I realized that my singing hadn’t mattered at all. It didn’t matter that I had a nice voice. I had been cut based on what they saw when they looked at me. Perhaps I would be better off trying to become a rock star.
So You Wanna Be A Rock Star?
I moved to Boston because I knew a girl there and it’s a music town. I thought it would be a good place to find a band. But it wasn’t that easy. It was a struggle to get “plugged in,” to the music scene. I was spending my days working for a moving company; carrying furniture and loading tractor trailers. When I got home at night I didn’t have the energy left to go hang out at bars where the bands were. The best I could do was to keep my eye on the help-wanted ads in the paper. Finally, that paid off.
Rock Band looking for singer and songwriter for original project. Serious musicians only. Our influences are…
This seemed perfect except that they were located an hour south of Boston. Still, I called them up and made an appointment to go down and meet with them. I was excited because they told me that had written tons of material. I too had written quite a few songs. My best friend and I started writing in high school and we never stopped. By the early 90’s we had written about 150 songs between the 2 of us.
My trip to visit those guys was a giant waste of time. For starters, they didn’t have a band put together at all. One guy played a little guitar and I’m not really sure what the other guy’s contribution was. They had 4 bad “songs” which were badly recorded on a cassette tape. I
The Berklee Studio
The next ad that caught my eye was a promotion, sponsored by a studio, associated with the Berklee School of Music. For $50 the studio would listen to your demo tape and give you feedback, the best artists would win free studio time and an opportunity to record with their studio musicians. Fifty dollars seemed like a lot, but it was certainly a great opportunity. I made an appointment and the guy on the phone rattled off a whole series of instructions for how to organize my demo tape. I jotted it all down and spent hours trying to get my tape just right. I selected the three best songs I had written with my band in Syracuse.
“Is this song the best song on the demo?” the studio producer asked me. I nodded and he said, “Ok, because I really don’t need to listen to the whole tape.” He handed me back my tape and put my check in his pocket. “Ok so for starters, your band is terrible. You have a good voice but you would definitely have to ditch the band and get some good players. This song is catchy, it has potential.” I responded defensively, “I am not here to get your thoughts on my old band. I am here as a solo artist.
“With a voice like yours, if I were managing you, I would have you sing country, not rock or pop. You have vibrato in your voice…better for country.” That’s not what I wanted to hear. I did not want to be a “Country Star.” The guy then launched into his big pitch. For three hundred dollars I could get a couple hours recording time and he would try and set me up with some players who were, “at my level of experience.” I don’t think was a compliment. I had just spent $50 for a guy to tell me I sound like a country singer…
I Really Don’t Like to Listen To Opera
Shortly after my Berklee Studio experience I moved to New Hampshire and there it was even harder to find a band. It was a depressing time. The only job I could find was as a kitchen manager of a Boston Chicken fast food restaurant. My starting pay was $6.10 an hour. I couldn’t even find a church choir to sing with. Fortunately, my girlfriend had an idea. “Why don’t you go and take some voice lessons? I have a friend at work who takes lessons with a lady up in Portland, Maine.” I connected with the teacher and headed north with a couple musical theater pieces and a church song.
After singing some vocal exercises and one of my musical theater pieces, Ellen Chickering leaned back from the piano and looked at me and said, “I think you should consider singing opera. I really think you have the voice for it and not everybody does.” I wasn’t really sure how to respond. In some ways I was flattered but this also reminded me of being told I should sing country by the Berklee guy. “I appreciate Pavarotti and Mario Lanza and tenor voices, but I really don’t like to listen to opera.”
Mrs. Chickering sent me home with a tape and sheet music of a few arias, including Rodolfo’s Aria from La Boheme, “Che Gelida Manina.” She also gave me a book called, “Opera: Grand and Not so Grand,” by Mary Jane Matz. “You go home and read this book. Learn a couple of these arias and come back in two weeks and sing them for me. After that I will understand if you would rather sing other styles of music.”
It’s the Back Story That Hooked Me
I decided I might as well put in the effort and do what Mrs. Chickering said. She was a very nice person and I certainly didn’t want to offend her. Learning the melodies to the arias wasn’t too hard. It was fun trying to mimic Pavarotti’s voice and style. Singing in Italian was difficult. I just did the best could with that.
I started reading the book. It was written in the 1950’s and was a bit dated. Still, after one chapter I couldn’t put it down. The book was full of anecdotal stories. It talked about how some opera singers had been treated like royalty in some Italian towns. One story was about a tenor who had been booed of the stage and forced to escape the riotous townspeople by hiding in a cart full of hay. Another story was that of a famous soprano whose ritual was to have “relations” with a man before every performance. She was convinced it improved her singing voice. She would grab any passing male out in the hall and pull them into her dressing room. Outrageous! It was in the pages of that book that I began to appreciate opera. The back story was so compelling. This opened up a window into an art form that I knew nothing about, and I wanted to see more.
Two weeks later I returned to Portland for my voice lesson. I still have the tape of that lesson. It is hysterically funny listening to my first attempts as singing the Rodolfo Aria. But, for having no technique at all it is pretty impressive, especially the high notes. The butchering of the language and style is the best part though. It’s very funny to listen to. All the while Mrs. Chickering gently corrects the mispronunciations. At the conclusion of that lesson she said, “You absolutely have the voice for opera. I think you need to learn these arias and go audition at the University of North Texas where I know a good teacher for you. And I did just that.
Ellen Chickering is still on the voice faculty at the University of Southern Maine. Her students are lucky to have her as a teacher. I lost touch with her after I went off to Texas. I owe her a lot. She started me along my opera journey. She also taught me that the more you learn about a subject, including its back story, the more you come to appreciate it and find it interesting. Too often we let surface judgments dictate our likes and dislikes. We do ourselves a great disservice by not digging a little deeper.