Florence: All Signs Point to Music

The flip side of a cruel mistress, as all artists know, is that she can also be a fertile muse.

I’m spoiled for inspiration here. Views and corners beckon me, even with my phone, to capture; amusing conversations overheard; hilarious encounters. Street perfumes of every bouquet. Colors are brighter; the city, though chaotic at times, hums outward from its core. I’ve the odd moment here and there to think and process. I’ve been writing a lot. Phrases form in my mind ready-made for use in poetry or prose.

I can’t stop singing or listening to opera.

I’ve always considered myself a singer of sorts, a writer always, a not-so-closeted thespian. My richly creative inner life has not always had appropriate outlets for the practice of expression. Maybe I watched a handful of YouTube videos that featured operatic soundtracks. Maybe I watched, or tried to watch some Merchant and Ivory movies online, then gave up since they’re all been removed from the public domain, so I just listened to soundtracks instead.

I’ve always liked opera. I can’t sing an entire libretto like Jason can (just say “Barber of Seville” to him and watch what happens. He’s like a walking Rossini production). My mom sings a lot, and always sang to us when we were small. She’s got a great voice, and is truly musical.

Years and years in choir in school. Honors choir. Show choir. Music theory. Voice lessons. Voice lessons! What could be more suburban than that?

Starting in 1987, for about a year, I took voice lessons from Marilyn in Edmond, at her house. She played an upright, and made tapes of accompaniment for me as we worked through the songbooks of folk, opera, exercises. I was a language nut even then and loved it when the lyrics were not in English. Give me the Italian, the German, the French. Marilyn was good, and patient. Her language skills were good too, because I learned how to pronounce everything properly.

The Italian really stuck though. Years later, when I was studying abroad in Spain, my first real Italian friend, the milanesa Paola Bertacchi, patiently listened to me creak through my rusty Italian repertorio for her. “Ma dai, tu sai molto italiano!” she exclaimed. It became a running joke. I would find her around our residencia and intone, with a poker face, “oh lasciatemi morir,” or some such. It always got a laugh.

I can still sing through all the lyrics for

Caro mio ben.
O cessate di piagarmi.
Se tu m’ami.

Giordani


Pergolesi
 Scarlatti

I didn’t even know what I was singing at the time. What did I know of the Italian Baroque, Scarlatti, or Pergolesi? Not much. I was busy enjoying rolling my rs and forming pure vowels.

I would warm up on some scales in Marilyn’s spare bedroom, ever after the elusive upper register. I’ve always been a mezzo. No prima donna vibrato here. My voice sounds positively Lutheran. Straight, clear, and on pitch. I sound like those sisters in Babette’s Feast. I love bridging magic intervals that make the hair on my arms bristle. I’m not so hot at hanging out on a liquid high note. I wish. If I get into a lower register, not like Cher, but maybe a higher alto, it feels good.

One time at Marilyn’s, I had rushed in flustered after an argument with a friend (ninth grade, everyone. Ninth grade.) I was trying not to cry but sang anyway. Halfway through the song, Marilyn stopped playing, looked at me, and said, “your voice sounds so different tonight – rich, and open.” It was an insight. I realized something then. My voice was much much better when I was a little out of control and uninhibited.

In all creative endeavors, it is the struggle of the artist to un-tether that inner bind and to let the muse fly freely through the range of creative tools. Singing, writing, acting – what holds the artist back? Is there a tight creative orbit, harried by an internal editor or critic, or does the muse have a long, long leash? I yearn to write without an inner editor, to sing with an open heart and lungs, without restraints. That soaring that comes when you really hit your stride, the tools are in place, and it feels so great.

I gave a few recitals here and there with Marilyn’s other students, at the Baptist church far north at the county line, or at school in productions. But I did not shine like those super-gifted musicians. I could not play “She’s Like the Wind” by ear, or sound anything like Barbra Streisand. I slowly began to believe that I was not good enough to express myself, and so literally retreated backstage in the school productions to be, insanely, working a spotlight that was literally trained on my peers who were busy ripping it up onstage.

I loved choir. I’m sad it fell out of my life as I continued through my high school, which was large, wealthy, and full of the competitive children of competitive parents, which made it hard to enjoy sport, theater, debate, or music as any kind of an authentic, adolescent amateur. I wanted to sing. But did not make the auditions. I was discouraged by the vocal music teacher at school who felt I did not take it “seriously” enough (read: not enough makeup, hair insufficiently styled, voice not high enough). I’ll never forget the face she made when I was at a voice contest in the tenth grade and was so nervous that I could not stay on pitch. I didn’t like the frowsy songs she chose for me. Lavender? Marionettes? Dolls? I was a teenager. Give me a break. I knew I was not her favorite student, or even the right type of student for her, but damn, I loved to sing. Incredible, when I think about it. I was a great sight reader there for awhile, with daily practice.

Whenever I am at church, especially at home with the Episcopalians, I do love to crack a songbook. I tried and tried without success to make it to choir practice at St. John’s in Norman, but the last three years with small children and varying transitions related to such made it all but impo
ssible.

I’m mostly mended now from my sinusitis and bronchitis. I only ran a fever last weekend, and what a misery. After I have been that sick, which is not often, I often find I can really flaunt the reed. I was walking home from the kid dropoff on Monday and started humming “O mio babbino caro,” which I have listened to about 100 times since we got here, by varying artists. What! These effortless high notes at the ready, floating upward! What is this? It felt great. The days and weeks of a hot gullet bathed in snot really seemed to have done something to that famously elusive upper register. I was singing a high C. That never happens. I was actually a soprano for two days! So I went home and practiced and recorded myself, “O mio babbino caro,” and then, “Loch Lomond” (it was Samhain, after all), and then “Molly Malone.” I posted out to a couple of places that I was looking to scrounge up a weekly voice lesson, if anyone had any leads?

Wow! I recorded more that the next day too, but by late Wednesday the fresh cords had tightened up again.

But it made me think – time to get into a choir. It’s still there. I can totally do this.

And, as it happens, I am having dinner tonight at the rectory of St. James’ Episcopal with some other new expat arrivals. Jason and I attended when we lived here in 2005, and it is a well-known and well-supported community. It won’t be a large group for cena, and the invitation is the culmination of my relentless attempts to connect since last April with the parish. This might just all work out perfectly. I am sure they have a choir that has a space for a mezzo who loves to sing, and whose latent skills can be quickly refreshed with practice.

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