A Mezzo In Manhattan:
Everything You Always Wanted Answered About Post-Grad In New York* (*But were afraid to ask!)
As I type this in my apartment on an Apple laptop, I am feeling decidedly like asking myself rhetorical questions about relationships. However, my life couldn’t be more different than that of Carrie Bradshaw, famed sex-columnist from HBO’s Sex and the City. I have neither the time nor funds to pick out a new pair of Manolo Blahniks nor sip Cosmopolitans, as I am currently completing a Professional Studies Diploma at Mannes College. A Professional Studies Diploma or P.S.D. is an immersive opera and art song course that demands much of its participants. Note: P.S.D is not to be confused with a psychedelic drug or traumatic remnants of the past, though I think many New Yorkers with whom I commute on the A train are very familiar with both. Living in New York can be gritty and a lot more work than tapping on a laptop occasionally and drinking cocktails (though I have enjoyed a little of both *wink*). At the moment I have recital program to learn, a scene from Cendrillon to have ready for Monday (today is Thursday and the scene is ten minutes long), a Debussy song to have ready for tomorrow and some German diction homework to do. To err on the side of the dramatic (and let’s face it, it’s a diva’s prerogative) my life here is less of Bradshaw’s hedonism and is actually somewhat monastic. Despite a more spacious apartment than is typical of Manhattan (thank you to Alexander Lewis and my real estate broker, Sharon!), my daily life is very focused on singing, a bit on eating, a little on sleeping and very little on couture and creature comforts. This has been a huge life shift not only geographically but philosophically in my attitude towards my vocation and has revealed pleasure and sacrifice in equal measure.
I commenced my studies at Mannes in August, 2014 at the advice of my teacher Patricia Price and a mentor of sorts, conductor and then Artistic Director of West Australian Opera, Joseph Colaneri. Patricia was well aware of the incredible opera scene in New York as her son Alexander has had great successes performing on the Met Stage and had encouraged me to get amongst it. Joseph impressed upon me that Mannes College was an ideal fit for me, as he was the Artistic Director of the opera program there. So after an audition and not much consideration on my behalf, I decided that I would go to Mannes. I can happily say that I am very content with my decision. New York really is not just an epicentre of the operatic world but I think THE epicentre. There are so many wonderful singers, teachers and coaches here that there is a real feel of culture and community of singers here. This manages to make you feel both incredibly unremarkable (as you are probably one of about five opera-singing unicorns in Perth) but also having a sense of belonging that you have never experienced in this job before.
One of the huge highlights of New York for me has been going to the Metropolitan Opera. Whenever I feel lonely, down or uninspired, it is rare that a $30 orchestra seat at the Met will not cheer me up (thank you student discounts!) It will be a long time before I forget being 10 metres away from Lawrence Brownlee as he navigated the coloratura in Barbiere, or Isabel Leonard as she did the same. Or Marlis Petersen as she commanded the stage in Lulu, or Pretty Yende’s pianissimi in her rendition of “Ach ich fühl’s”, or Anna Netrebko’s Letter Scene from Onegin.The list of these moments is endless.
Watching these performances inspires a young singer to put in the work. For those opera hopefuls wanting to study overseas, let me inform you, it is not merely a coaching here or there in between walks in Central Park. Oh no. When I said this course was immersive, I mean IMMERSIVE. New Yorkers work HARD and they are not kidding around.
On weekdays I usually leave the house a little later than the average worker at about 9 or 10am but it is rare that I return before 9 or 10pm. My days are filled with Opera Scenes, French Opera, French Art Song, Mozart, Lieder, German Diction and Italian Diction classes in addition to rehearsals for the semester’s opera and my weekly lesson. These classes are in addition to working a weekly job either ushering or working in the Concert Office making programmes for the several concerts that happen daily at Mannes. The classes at Mannes are truly inspiring. They have people running the classes who have worked with and have been taught by the greats. Anecdotes about being on tour with Kathleen Battle, about repping for Tatiana Troyanos and about working with Birgit Nilsson or Beverley Sills. These are daily occurrences. This means, they know when you’re phoning it in and they are supportive but have little time for those who don’t put in the work.
Let me just say, you have to be a musician for these courses. And you have to learn music fast. I was in a scenes class that required me to get hold of a scene on Friday and have to sing it in class on Monday. That means notes, rhythms, pitches and diction work must all be put in before arriving in class THREE DAYS LATER. I feel like I am capitalising a lot. I have had a lot of coffee today. But that is because I have to learn a scene, my recital repertoire and class repertoire today AND ALL OF THE DAYS. This sounds like I am complaining. Actually quite the contrary. You learn to feed off of this busy-ness. It’s addicting. You also learn much more efficient ways of learning music through necessity. Also, my musicianship has actually benefitted immeasurably from this. I think of it as a positive R.S.I. : Repetitive Sight-Singing Improvement. If you do something over and over again, you’re going to get better at it. Rinse and repeat, kids. Rinse and repeat.
My reason for coming to Mannes to study has been to get not only great and immersive tutelage but also to extend my opportunities to perform and get some roles under my belt under the baton of Maestro Colaneri. In my first semester was very lucky to secure the roles of Zita in Gianni Schicchi and The Monitor in Suor Angelica. I have to say that Zita was one of the most difficult roles I have taken in my short career! Not only is Puccini’s music challenging but fine tuning staging for a farce like Schicchi is no easy feat- it’s probably more like dance than acting! There is so much trust that you need to have in your colleagues in such a short time comedy is such a delicate thing.
In addition to initial time constraints, the opera was double cast and we had about three weeks to stage. But man, did I learn things from this experience! I made a lot of mistakes, had a lot of laughs and above all learned that thorough preparation is key for a piece like this and that you don’t just have to learn your part but every single role in the opera AND everything they do on stage. You have to stay totally engaged. I also learned that this is doubly true if you are working on two projects at once. My Suor Angelica Monitor and chorus calls in addition to Zita meant that I had a week of 14 or 15 hour days during tech week and I needed to be able to sing those roles in my sleep (almost literally). But you know what? It was kind of exhilarating. Americans are very “can do” people. They are quick with a “You got this, girl!” and they make you believe anything is possible. There is an indomitable spirit about musicians in New York. Young people’s ambition here is totally intoxicating. It makes you believe there is a possibility of a career that you can take seriously. People don’t waste anytime here. This is New York. It’s friendly but it’s Darwinian.
The role that followed for me was another frightfully difficult ensemble piece. I was given the role of the Older Woman in Jonathan Dove’s Flight. I remember highlighting my score in the Student Green Room, my eyes crossing with confusion at the time signatures. Eighteen quavers in a what now, then 12, then 16??? After sobbing a little, I eventually calmed down and got to work. After receiving some help deciphering the score from my friend Brianna Han (a Korean piano-playing goddess) I found out that this piece was not only musical and somewhat tonal (thank goodness!) but hilariously funny and full of English idiosyncrasies which reminded me a little of my parents (Hi Barry and Fran!) I had an absolute ball preparing this and it was a chance to make a more elegant stab at operatic comedy. You should probably see a photo of me in my Cougar, leopard-print-wearing glory.
My current project is mature woman of a completely different quality, Alma March from Mark Adamo’s Little Women. She makes a nice trifecta for me in my “lady of a certain age” role package from my time at Mannes. Zita was the Greedy Crone, The Older Woman was the Hopeless Romantic and Alma is the Loving Matriarch. Again: a difficult score. However, this time there was no sobbing. I feel like the calm of Alma’s character guides me through boring but necessary analysis. I also feel like think New York has done this. I feel now that this music was Naturally Selected for my brain, humming along enjoyably like a subway on it’s tracks.
As a flip side to deep creative satisfaction, studying abroad is difficult for most people on a personal and emotional level. As a very family oriented and social person, I have to admit that the move to New York was not easy. Let me be clear and impress that there have been breath-holdingly incredible experiences here that I could have never had in any other city throughout this two years of study! Also new and already established friendships were allowed to continue and flourish through this move, some of which I am sure I will have for a lifetime. However, I want to be explicit with young singers about overseas studies and a career overseas: YOU ARE GOING TO BE ALONE. A LOT. AND SOMETIMES IT WILL BE HEART WRENCHING AND HORRIBLE. And sometimes it will be incredibly amazing. Just know that these extremes may eventuate and living overseas will make you question many things about yourself and your long-term goals and lifestyle. This is what’s supposed to happen. You will cry on Skype. You will not know how to do your foreign taxes. Then bit-by-bit you will figure out who you are and what your values are and what you want from your creative life.
As my studies conclude at the end of May, I will make the final (yet unfortunately familiar) 30 hour trip home from New York and I will re-evaluate what my next step is in my career. Be prepared for a post-post-grad abyss but don’t worry about it. Trust yourself that you will find your life-music balance. It’s scary and intimidating but I do know that whatever happens, I have been changed and I used this opportunity to move forward and grow. I feel that I have found creative flow and personal motives for my creative work. That’s a really important thing. And make sure you enjoy your singing. That means finding a way of working that brings you pleasure. Because you never know where it might take you when you’re not looking.
Written by Caitlin Cassidy