Nudity – not really about singing

I have problems with nudity – I think it is a cultural thing.  An overhang from our Presbyterian, prudish past? Possibly?

Although I grew up in a family where nudity was not shameful and it was not strange to see members of my family naked, I distinctly remember the first time I had to get changed for sport in high school.  12 years old, every one of us entered the change room, found a private place where we could face the wall and tried to somehow get our P.E. kit on without taking off our tunic.  13 years old, the technique changed.  Each of my classmates slid skirts and scungies (oh yes) on under their tunics, but then whipped off their tunics to reveal bras.  Bras?  I realised as I slunk to the toilet with my PE kit that I was the last in my class to graduate to a bra.  Devastated, that night I begged my mother to buy me a bra the next day, she dutifully did so, and said bra worked its way up to my neck the next lesson, but that is another story…

I also know it is not only me that has a problem with collective nudity.  In my early 20’s a group of friends from the musical theatre scene (not the most prudish of gangs) were at a New Year’s Eve party somewhere near Ulladulla on Australia’s South Coast.  The hosts suggested that at midnight we should all run naked into the pool.  At the 10 second countdown the two groups started to visibly split – one lot getting naked, the other, shocking even themselves, dashing to their cars and heading home.  I grant, that we were ashamed of our behaviour at leaving and spent many of the first hours of the New Year debating why we were not so free.

I am somehow conditioned, but clearly not alone.

Since being in Europe for the last ten years I have occasionally come up against the odd Swedish colleague (I mean odd as in occasional, not odd as in weird) who is more than happy to conduct a dressing room chat starkers.  I also floated from Buenos Aries past Antarctica around Chile, from Hong Kong to Shanghai and down the East coast of Australia, and from Bangkok, to KL, past India and Egypt with a soprano from Devon who insisted on leaving the bathroom in our cabin with her hair wrapped in a towel and nothing wrapped around her body – I blame Devon’s lay lines and her joy in seeing me uncomfortable.

Yesterday, back in Berlin, I decided to treat myself to an afternoon at the Liquidrom.  It boasts an underwater swimming pool, rooftop pool steaming in the snow, various different saunas and steam rooms and a bar with lilos.  All very relaxing.

Although my German has improved since last I was here, helpfully the management gives English speakers a card detailing the rules of the pool.  There aren’t many, but the most important is:  “Swimming costumes must be worn in the swimming pool, but no clothing is to be worn in the saunas and steam room for hygiene reasons”.

Was ist das?

But I can do this, and I have paid 20 Euros for the privilege, so in the change rooms I slip into my new red, halter-neck bikini and summoning the deportment of Jane Russell I stride out holding my white bathrobe.  I cannot bear at first to look at what the other patrons might or might not be wearing, I think: “First I shall find my bearings by doing a recce of the locations of pools and saunas and spas.  I head for the underwater pool as soon as possible as this is a place where swimming costumes are allowed, nay are compulsory.  I slide into the deliciously warm underwater grotto and float around on a few pool noodles.  While the activity level in the pool might be much calmer, quieter and the water a lot warmer than an Aussie pool in the summer heat, I am well prepared for a life spent in bathers, few clothes offend me not.

Relaxed, I wander out of the pool and head for the steam room or Dampfbad. I love a good steam room and like most singers fancy that I am not just relaxing body and mind, but my vocal chords as well.  So I go to a dark corner of the complex, where helpfully there are glass boxes for your swimming costume and steal myself to get naked.  True to 12 year old form, I take my costume off from under my robe and wrapped in a towel, I head for the Dampfbad.  It is a long room with two parallel benches covered in slate, but it’s dark and steamy and there seems to be hardly anyone in the room and so I am free to head to a dark corner and place my towel on the bench – I am no biologist, but I am not really sure how sharing a slate bench with many other naked butts is hygienic, so bring the towel to cover my arse, so to speak.

I lie down and I feel myself relax – I exhale, I can do this, I am not ashamed of the human body, I open my eyes and inhale just in time to see an unknown member swinging past my eyeline.  He’s hanging loose and free and as he and his girlfriend flop onto the slate bench opposite me and start canoodling I start to wonder whether I am still in a “Gesundheits Raum”, or whether I have come to something entirely different.

I stagger from the steam room, thinking that etiquette is probably to somehow position my now wet towel for privacy, but as I walk out of the door there are suddenly men and women just walking around stark, bollock, naked.  I have already slipped back into my bathrobe and head for the bar area.  It is delightful, selling soup and sandwiches, surrounded by people rugged up in their bathrobes and lazing on lilos.

The lilos look out onto the rooftop pool, and then I see behind the pool, just hanging out on tiered benches as if at a sporting game, a wall of naked human bodies.  This is the sauna, and it’s full of men and women just soaking up the heat, well lit and staring straight at the be-robed patrons in the bar eating their soup.

I start to realise that in everyone else’s nakedness, I, striding around in my red bikini, am the odd one out.  While everyone else is hanging free, breasts down to their knees, skin pale, penises flaccid, it is me in my halter neck that is dressing my body as something sexual rather than something functional.

I am so lost in the etiquette of this place:

  • Now if one wants to go for another swim and needs to put their bathers on again, does one just dress and undress for a swim in the middle of the room?  I  head for the nearest WC, call it conditioning, but there is something inherently sexual for me about putting on or taking off a bra and pants in front of other naked parties.
  • When one walks into a sauna and there is only one other patron there, a naked man, does one de-robe and get comfortable in the heat?  sit for a moment, stare intently at the cracks in the ceiling, debate de-robing and then decide this sauna at 90 degrees really is too hot.
  • Additionally, does one eventually face her prudish conditioning and head for the sauna (80 degrees) that faces the bar and rooftop pool?  I  find a moment when no one else is in the sauna and manage to find a spot that is almost behind a half wall, kidding myself I am hidden, I shimmy off my robe while lying down. Stretching out, I fold my hands under my head and enjoy the glorious heat.

That is, until I hear other patrons entering, and wonder whether my pose of arms up, cunningly preventing boob droop, constitutes exhibitionism!!

Water under the Bridge – All through the Night

Since writing my last post I returned home for seven weeks over Christmas time.  As I left in late November I was not troubled by the heavy snowfall that blighted many Christmas plans in Europe.  I did, however, arrive in Australia in time to witness my beloved homeland being decimated by floods.  I grew up in an Australia characterised by only the first part of Dorothea Mackellar’s opening lines of her patriotic poem:

“I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping planes 

of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains”. 

The drought of the past 20 years in Australia means I, like most Australians, am used to showers timed for two and half minutes, watering your garden with the grey water run-off from the washing machine and never leaving the tap running while brushing your teeth.  The flash flooding took a population so used to living with the water restrictions enforced by drought by surprise.

To see the newspaper coverage of the devastation and loss of life in the country that I love was incredibly upsetting.  To be visiting with my Uncle and Aunt while they had 48 hours to move half a million dollars worth of cattle to rented paddocks out of the floodplains lest their investment and livelihood floated into the Clarence River was a complete shock.

It kind of puts the singing thing into perspective.

But singing is what I do and a singer is many parts of who I am.  It is a filter through which I view the world and it is also my way to contribute to the sometimes cruel and harsh world we live in.

And when you have no platitudes, which will suffice in salving another’s grief sometimes you can sing and through that act you can offer some relief.

This is why I am very grateful for two recent opportunities to sing for charitable concerts.

“Water Under the Bridge”, was a concert raising money for the Queensland Disaster Relief Fund organised by the Advance Network of Australians in London.  Held in the basement of the club, LUXE, in Shoreditch it was not the most likely venue for an opera singer (or 3!), and while on paper we made strange bedfellows with singer-songwriters and DJ, the end result was a celebration of Aussie graft in strange circumstance.

For my part I can’t tell you the joy of playing to a home crowd after singing some serious opera.  In preparation I wondered whether I was pandering or patronising the home crowd by singing a serious operatic arrangement of our unofficial National Anthem, Waltzing Matilda.  All doubts were put to rest when the crowd prompted the beginning of the third verse with a collective, striney “Down came a Jumbuck” and I knew I was onto a winner.

The success of this event was in no small part attributed to publicist and event organsier Violetta Tosic of Creative Cat (I urge you to check out her website www.creativecat.org and get yourself to any event she devises!).  Also attached is the review which describes me as: “dark and cheeky…” http://www.nznewsuk.co.uk/news/?id=17897&story=Water-Under-The-Bridge-for-Australian-fundraiser

“All through the Night” was one of the most moving concerts I have been involved in all my years of living in London.  The event was organised in response to the sudden unexplained death of thirteen day old Emma Dimitrijevic, which occurred in the community I lived in while studying in London.  Emma’s mother, the wonderfully generous spirited Sasha Pavlovich, and a beautiful service-minded singer friend of mine, Madeleine Sexton, organised a concert based on the theme of lullabys and a silent auction to support the work of UCH Hospital’s Neo-natal ward.

It was an emotional night with music ranging from Handel’s Waft her Angels, through Brahm’s Wiegenlied and a selection from Cateloube’s Songs of the Auvergne to Saint-Saens’ Mon Coeur s’ouvre a ta voix.  I sang Rusalka’s Song to the Moon and felt like I was soaring over the magnificently sensitive accompaniment of the Royal Opera House’s Richard Heatherington – who managed to make an orchestra out of the baby grand.

The sensitive music selections and committed performances of many of my dearest colleagues united in a cause greater than themselves made for a moving and emotional concert, that was a testament to the power of music to allow people to grieve, rejoice and give.  Days later, Sasha gave all of us singers the most beautiful complement which I want to share:

“Through your singing I felt my voice was heard, I felt Emma’s voice was heard”

Well if that isn’t a reason to sing, I don’t know what is!

Both events raised substantial amounts of money for wonderful causes, and the old adage that applies to acts of service, that it is only by giving that you truly receive certainly held true for me in both cases.

Mixed Metaphors – Droughts, Deserts, Riding the Waves

My mother used to call me Miss Malapropism, long before I knew what the word meant or how to use it inappropriately. With this in mind I give you my apologies in advance as this entry in my blog will undoubtedly involve a mixed metaphor or three.

Since moving back to London from Berlin in the beginning of 2010 I found the transition more difficult than I could imagine. I had spent the previous 6 months being supported in my new voice type change by my teacher, mentors and a wonderful scholarship. I also felt that Berlin – a city that is still rebuilding its visibly scared architecture and home only to 3/5ths of the population it was built for – was the perfect place for me to have the space to rebuild and renew my singing. However, after all that space I was not ready to be crammed back into the city of London.

Having been out of London from the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis I had missed the worst of the Credit Crunch, but the effects were unmistakable on the commute into the City of London. The grey drizzle of London’s weather was reflected in the faces of commuters as they faced another day in offices reeling from redundancies, not only fighting for a space on the tube, but fighting for their jobs and livelihoods.

Having never had a problem finding temp work to supplement my singing work, I was shocked that with 4 recruitment agents I could only scrounge up 5 weeks work in the first 15 weeks of the year. I have to admit I was filled with doubt about the likelihood of me being able to remain in London or even in the Northern Hemisphere. While I dreaded returning home to Australia without fulfilling the promise of the work I had done in Berlin, I did not know how I could survive as a nomad going from friend to friend and couch to couch. The circumstances concerning my time in Berlin had been so serendipitous and all flowed so easily. In comparison moving back to London had no sense of flow – the city was financially in drought and I was too.

Julia Cameron, the author of “The Artist’s Way” suggests that the artistic life involves periods of drought and with this drought comes doubt. With these doubts and droughts in mind I had enough savings to do one of two things “up stumps” and move home or take up an invitation I had received while in Berlin to travel to the desert.

So I headed to the Sahara.

My time in Berlin changing voice type had been a period of intense study that helped me to be more flexible and adaptable than I had allowed myself to be in my singing life. In exploring this change I often felt vulnerable, but I also felt free to try new things, to be courageous. This opening up has had some far reaching effects including that I decided to open myself up to the possibility of something else, something far removed from the daily discipline of singing – taking some time off and HAVING A HOLIDAY! (not to mention traveling with someone I barely knew – but that is a whole other story!)

While taking a camel ride out of the Saharan desert I was able to observe the shifting sands of the Erg Chebbi desert and notice that even in the desert, which looks like a still sea of sand, nothing stays the same, there is constant ebb and flow.  I can say that watching the sun creep over the seemingly endless waves of sand one still morning was worth it.

As soon as I arrived back in London everything changed again. A part-time job in a law firm run by opera loving employers enabled me to consolidate my new soprano repertoire and eat!  With the basics of food and shelter covered again I was able to start to audition and perform again.

My first audition as a soprano was for master classes with Sir John Tomlinson at the Royal Academy of Music and ended in tears of relief as the panel, which included Sir John Tomlinson, agreed that I was indeed a soprano. As a member of the masterclasses, it was inspiring to absorb the attention to detail that Sir John Tomlinson gives to every vowel in each language he sings and the support and “nourishment” he gives every note. He was clearly passionate about process of his life’s work of singing. My acceptance into the masterclasses was a turning point for me in accepting that I am a soprano. This acceptance and ownership of where I have come from and what I have achieved has seemed to be as important to the process of a vocal transition as the actual technical work!

While participating in the London Master Classes we were also able to sit in on the conducting classes run by Benjamin Zander, an incredibly charismatic conductor who as well as being the chief conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and teaching conducting, also travels the world giving lectures about “The Art of Possibility” – using his experiences as a musician and conductor to inspire leadership in many other sections of the community. When talking about the intense week and a half we were all having at the Master Classes, Ben reflected that we were all surfing an immense wave and that once the masterclasses were over there would be a period of waiting for the next wave to come along – a period of sitting on a (metaphorical) surfboard waiting.

As you can imagine for an Aussie like me the surfboard metaphor resonated deeply. Doing the audition and working on the master classes was a little like catching a beautiful, wild, salty wave and riding it to shore on my new surfboard, fashioned during my time in Berlin (I told you there would be metaphors!). I had no idea whether my surfboard would hold up under pressure or whether I might end up falling off and being rolled around in the surf or God forbid whether I had chosen a “dumper”!

For the record, surfboard rides pretty well – like all good boards it needs regular applications of wax (o stop me now, before I go on to remember the teenage boys in the camping ground who would spend disciplined hours on their boards), but I am definitely enjoying the ride. Additionally, rather than being stuck in the middle of a drought I much prefer the idea that I am waiting for the next wave while enjoying the calm ebb and flow from atop my surfboard.

Regardless, one thing I have learnt over the last 6 months, whether I am in desert or on the ocean, if you just stop and look around both have exceptional views.

Working Girl

Moments of great transition need support – and I was so lucky to have had the support of The Finzi Trust to live and learn in Berlin while transitioning from Mezzo to Soprano.  The time spent in Berlin has afforded me one of the most important stepping stones in my career.

I am now back in London and determined to capitalise on the changes I have made as a singer.  While I am excited about reintroducing myself to my contacts in the industry, there are a few basic needs to satisfy before I can get onto these more lofty creative goals.  The most important of these being food and shelter and of course both these needs, require income.

Now, Dear Reader, do not fear I have not, gone all Belle de Jour on you – although doing so might up the hits on my blog significantly.  Instead I have resorted to that stalwart of the jobbing singer’s repertoire: Temping.  My dear mother always said I would be grateful to have completed my law degree and I am (certainly temping is preferable to packing bags in Safeways or other employment requiring limited qualifications!!!!!).  However, I am not sure she envisaged me spending an entire day looking busy, but trying to resist the lure of all internet sites not protected by the firewall.

It is, however, interesting to see how the other half lives and to imagine what my life might have been like had I not pursued my passion.  The particular firm I am at supports its workers with all kind of perks virtually unheard of by the struggling artiste.  The state of the art offices in the centre of London’s business district have more in common with a luxury cruise liner than a place of work.  It sports 2 roof terraces, a restaurant, coffee house, an onsite gym, dance studio and music rooms (something I am taking advantage of for several hours a day).  When you add to this salaries only Bryn Terfel can dream of and bonuses beyond the imagination of all but the most fortunate of performers, there is a lot to recommend this vocation and it’s lifestyle.

Ah except the laborious, attention-to-detail-work regarding capital markets and real estate finance which have seen the bottom fall out of them and their clients lose their jobs in the last year or so!  Oh a missing out on the feeling of complete release and joy when you find that magical spot for a note that allows it to spin and vibrate with minimal effort.  Not to mention when all that work in the practice room allows you to actually convey the emotion of a song or a role.  When all that work allows you to live a little bit of Mimi’s frisson upon meeting Rodolfo, Tatyana’s excitement of pouring her passion for Onegin into a letter, or Micaela’s triumph over her fear of finding Don José amongst Carmen’s band of smugglers.

Back to the practice room then!

Here and Now

The week between Christmas and New Year often feels like a kind of limbo to me. The year is not yet over, but the excitement that has geared up during the preceding weeks has well and truly been expended in the excitement of feasting and good cheer.

After the guests have left and the loads of washing are done and drying on the airer, after the Boxing Day Nana naps have been taken (one must make use of the sky getting dark at 4.30 in the afternoon somehow) and an entire book read and finally after the Christmas leftovers have been eaten leaving only bananas and chocolate fudge in the fridge,  I find myself in a state of reflection.  It still feels a little too early to write a list of New Year’s Resolutions, but with the threat that I will be back in the United Kingdom in only two weeks my mind is happy to wander and wonder over the past year and particularly over the three months I have spent in Germany.

In short I have loved it.  The opportunities granted to me by the Finzi Trust have provided me with the most freeing experience of my life and given me the space to regenerate and reinvigorate my artistic practice.  

Often as I have ridden home along the bike paths in the middle of the night I have reflected upon how strange it is to feel so free in Germany, particularly in Berlin, a place that just over 20 years ago with stories of the Stasi and the Berlin Wall was viewed as the antithesis of freedom.  This is a town that wears its scars:From Checkpoint Charlie to Potsdamer Platz to the Brandenburg Gate you can follow the line of the Berlin Wall as bricks cemented into the street, en route you pass the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe designed by Peter Eisenmann.  Berlin is a town built for 5 million but now only inhabited by 3 – leaving it with less a feeling of emptiness and more a feeling of space.  From my short experience the people left in this space seem to have an energy to create a new city that is diverse and tolerant, that is keen to move on while acknowledging the past.  

Berlin seems to be full of metaphors for regeneration, it is attempting to rebuild itself to recreate some of its former glory but many of the rebuilt buildings combine modern styles of architecture with remnants of the original, sometimes partially destroyed, building.  The best example of this for me is the bombed out church on Kufurstendamm – at first glance you wonder when they might rebuild the structure, but upon closer inspection the Church and Bell Tower have been rebuilt around the half destroyed original – incorporating the scars of the past into the function of today.

What better city could I have come to in order to regenerate my singing.  The time and space I have had here has enabled me to challenge my old ideas regarding my technique and repertoire away from the pressures of London.  Like the church on Kufurstendamm I have a new structure for how I sing that looks and sounds different. In stretching the metaphor I like to think it is more solid than the old one and will be standing strong for some time to come.  On a personal level this freedom to shake off old habits and accept and integrate something new has given me a flexibility I did not think I had and with that has come a sense of possibility that I know will sustain me through my next transition and beyond.  

Speaking in (foreign) tongues

Learning a new language in the country of where that language is spoken quickly makes one very humble, after all the 3 year old children speak more fluently than you do. Traveling in France one doesn’t easily forget the sound of children pointing and expressing their delight in something or other with a musical: “Ooh la la Maman”.

Still, like a child learning to walk and getting great pleasure out of every step, I have begun to see progress.  For instance we are currently in class doing a chapter on cars – sadly for me I don’t know most of these words in English, let alone German.  

However, my local bike shop were very congratulatory when I was able to explain (for the 2nd time in two weeks) that “Der Reifen am mein Fahrrad ist Kaputt“.  This provoked lots of laughter, and a bit of head shaking (translation “weren’t you here last week?”).   I remained strong and with the help of lots of pointing said: “Lezte Woche der Reifen, hinter, ist Kaputt, diese Woche es ist der andere“. Smiles and nods all round!

In German class we also had a free discussion on cars which touched on das Benzin (petrol) and specifically whether Benzin in Deutschland was mit Blei oder Bleifrei (lead or lead-free).  This segued into another discussion: Ist das Wasser in Deutschland Bleifrei? (this is of course a side issue, but as I am drinking it stright from the tap I was quite interested…?).

The result of all this discussion was that on my way home I could understand the ad for a new Krimi (Crime drama) on die Fernsehen (TV).  It’s the little things:

 

 

Not Lead Free, but Super!

Not Lead Free, but Super!

 

And it seems I am almost trilingual.  Last night, when leaving my  local Backerai to head to the practice room, I was engaged in conversation by a man who noticed my bike falling over.  When I excused myself by saying “Pardon” he (quite naturally) assumed I was French.  We had a bit of a conversation in French till he noticed me faltering (not on the language, mind you, I just did not want to answer whether “Chez moi est-elle près d’ici ?”). He then asked the question in English, which I (falteringly) answered in German.

Looking for escape I took a step back which caused me to loudly exclaim, first in my Mutter Sprache and then, when he asked what was wrong, in both German and French.  It seems there are a couple of words I can say in 3 languages, and I unfortunately stepped in it!

 

Crows

Three weeks into my Berlin adventure: the golden leaves of Goethe poems have all but fallen off the trees making my bike rides slippery and perilous and the excitement of seeing jugglers and fire-eaters on my approach to the Sigerssäule has been replaced by the sadness of seeing 3 or 4 prostitutes that line the same road on my return journey.  The golden light that bathed the beginning of this journey has been replaced by a perpetual grey and I have it on good authority that this colour is with us till March (long after my scholarship has run out and returned me to London – which also sports a fetching grey coat till Easter).  

Of course this was to be expected.  Having moved to London from Australia in mid-2002 I have already lived through many a claustrophobic winter while longing for the high heat filled skies of my home.  The excitement of a white Christmas has long since warn off and while I don’t want the Christmas of my childhood where it was too hot to bake a turkey (but the attempt was made regardless) I do dream of being under a high wide sky, near a salty rough ocean sharing bowls of stonefruit and shelling buckets of prawns with the people I love.  I know very well the feeling of not quite being homesick, but being sick for the people I’m missing (this little turn of phrase is I think lifted from the Finn Brothers song “Homesick” or from a song by the front man from Men at Work – I can only find the Finn Brothers track…but maybe someone out there can help me out with the other one):

Yet I am still here in Europe still following my dream of being a singer and not ready yet to leave and trade all the culture and learning I am experiencing here for a high wide sky.  The people I love are in almost daily contact via email and skype keeping me up to date with news from home and reminding me that I am in their thoughts and giving me the strength to keep struggling and striving to find my voice as a singer and as a person – letting me know that although I must do the work of finding my voice alone they are supporting me on this journey.

And of course I am not really alone.  I have a wonderful and supportive mentor in Liane Keegan, who knows too well the compromise of wanting to achieve in opera and realising this is not possible if you stay in Australia.  I also keep meeting other artists who are not from Germany and who are here for the same reasons I am, to find their voices in the art forms they love.

These meetings with other artists almost always fell serendipitous and remind me why I am here.

Last weekend I had an email from a singer-friend in New Zealand who encouraged me to see a cabaret in Berlin being performed by an Australian she had studied with in Queensland (really how did we survive before the internet?). Like so many things connected with this adventure I have been having in Berlin, this turned out to be another serendipitous event.  

 

Basil - potentially part of one's family in Berlin

 

Montmorensy and the Montmorensy Orchestra sang songs that had tears of recognition running down my face and into my glass of Weißweine, particularly when he sang about moving to Berlin and living by himself for the first time in his life and realising that his Basil plant was the only living thing in his apartment aside from himself and as this was now his only family he would have to look after it well (I sighed as I realised I did not even have a basil plant).

I laughed in recognition as he sang of the difficulties of being in a new country and knowing no one, but going religiously to sit in an internet cafe with a dozen other people in the same situation who connected not with each other, but with a myriad of friends through the internet.  

My favourite moment was when he compared the songs of the German crow and the Australian crow.  Both birds have distinctive, but very different cries, the Australian crow sounds like he is crying out “Art, Art, Art”.  

 

Such an evil looking bird, but he might just have a message...

 

It took the sound of an Australian crow and an Australian boy from Grafton (my mother’s home town) to remind me why I am here in Germany far away from the high wide skies and the noise of the birds that fly in them.  I am here for Art, Art, Art – and for the moment that is enough.

Please head to Montmorensy’s myspace page to hear “Crow” and other songs that somehow mix an Australian sense of humour with a German sensibility:

http://www.myspace.com/montmorensy