This is a work of fiction, but it is based on both personal experience and on things I have heard from colleagues. I, the author, spent many years auditioning and singing opera.
Mom was right – sort of. She told me if I became an opera singer I would never have any money; I would ruin my life; and she and Dad could not be responsible for my pathetic existence. If I would just get a real degree and a real job in some mega-corporation, marry a CEO, settle down in a luxury apartment and have a couple of over-privileged kids, I would be a lot happier. More importantly, so would she and all of our ancestors who sacrificed themselves to cross the ocean from Italy, live in crowded tenements and work in sweatshops so I wouldn’t have to spend my life herding sheep and picking grapes. I am very proud of my great-grandparents, who traveled across the Atlantic in steerage and worked hard after they got to America, building a life for themselves and their children. And I love my Mom as much as she loves me. But she also told me that if I kept crossing my eyes they would get stuck that way. I never believed everything she said.
I have thought about it, and thought hard. I have tried to figure out if there is something, anything that I would want to be other than an opera singer, and I can’t imagine myself being anything else. I would rather be poor doing the thing I love best than rich doing something I hate. Dad calls me “cucuzz’,” and he is right. But I can’t help myself.
So here I am, an opera singer. I have been trained by one of the worst and two of the best singing teachers in the business. I have been told that I have a world-class voice and that I just need a touch of glamour and some stage movement classes to make myself “marketable.” I went through six years of college to get a Master of Arts in Music. I don’t have any money. I live from paycheck to paycheck, partly because I am supporting a small army of teachers, coaches, accompanists and music publishers, besides paying off my student loans. I am now 26 years old, living in a closet-sized one-room apartment in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, near The Bronx. It is cheaper to live up there, and I was lucky to find a rent stabilized apartment when it was still reasonable.
I have been working a temp job for the last six months, as an administrative assistant for a law firm. They keep telling me they want to hire me permanently. They say they love me, even if I am a temp and not a “real person,” an annoying term I often hear used in that office to refer to permanent employees. But because of a hiring freeze they haven’t made me any offers so far. It is cheaper for them to use temps than to pay benefits. At least I am not chained to the job. I am grateful for this, because in that office everything is a big crisis. I have lost count of all the times I have been ready to go home at 5:00 only to have some lawyer chase after me in a panic, waving documents that have to be revised now, as if New York City would fall into the ocean if this were not done within the hour. There are people in that office who have been working there forever. That amazes me, because the idea of spending 40 years working for lawyers makes me want to kill myself.
To supplement my income, I sing at an Episcopal church on Sundays and in an Italian restaurant on Friday nights. The restaurant is fun because I get to eat really great food and their customers love everything I do. Some of them tip well, too, especially when they have been sampling the wine. Their pianist, Vinnie Buono, has a huge repertoire of jokes and we spend most of the evening just hanging out in between “sets.” On the other hand, the Episcopal church isn’t much fun. I am part of a paid quartet of professional “ringers” hired to make the elderly volunteer choir sound good. Although I am not Episcopalian, this church is happy to pay me to sing and I am happy to do it. The pay is reasonable and the clergy and most of the parishioners are very nice. The problem is the organist, who doubles as choir director. He is always yelling at us professionals for every mistake, including the ones we don’t make. He won’t yell at the volunteers, some of whom are on the parish vestry. They can do no wrong, no matter how tone-deaf some of them are. I have a picture of our organist on my PC, and I use him for Photoshop practice. So far I have turned him into a scaly orange demon and a frog.
I am staying home from work today. This morning I have my first audition for Little Pretentious Opera Company. They are doing Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites as a kind of convent-themed festival. There are a lot of women’s parts in these operas, so there is a better than usual chance of being cast. There is also plenty of drama in each of these works, including some great death scenes. This would be a great opportunity for me not only to sing some beautiful music but to do some real acting as well. This company triple-casts every role. They don’t pay their singers very much, but their performances have been reviewed in Backstage and even, once, in the Daily News.
When I had originally tried to get an audition for this company their schedule had been full. But apparently someone canceled at the last minute and I was on the top of the waiting list, so they called me late yesterday afternoon. The only time available is at 10:00 AM, and it will take me 30 minutes to get to the location on the subway. So I don’t have much time this morning. I rummage around the back of my closet looking for the plastic dress bag where I keep my audition dresses. I have two of these, both in solid black. One of them is a sexy spandex thing, short, tight, low-necked and sleeveless. The other one is mid-calf length, long sleeved and high-necked with an empire waist. It reminds me of a trash bag with arms. Since I will be auditioning for the role of a nun, I figure I will wear the trash bag dress in order to approximate a “nun’s habit” look.
It has some wrinkles on the bottom from being stuffed in the dress bag, but they don’t show too much and I don’t have time to iron it. So I put it on. The dress is a polyester blend, so the wrinkles should pretty much straighten themselves out by the time I get to the audition.
I have been advised never to wear the other dress, anyway. As Jim, my Best Gay Male Friend, puts it, “It hugs every bulge. You look like a potato with legs.”
Okay. So now it is 8:45 and time to call in sick. Since I only got the call from the opera company late yesterday afternoon, there was not enough time to officially ask for the day off without seriously annoying my supervisors and co-workers. So I have to do it this way. I call the office and get the boss’ secretary on the phone.
“Hello, Mary? This is Emilia Bianchi.” I have never sounded so bad, even when I really was sick. I am not very good at telling lies because I always blush and look guilty, but Mary can’t see my face over the phone.
“Yeah? What’s up?” Mary is always cheerful. She would have been cheerful on the Titanic.
“I’m really feeling awful this morning. I think I have that bug that George had. I should stay home today. I don’t want to infect everyone.”
“Aw! I’m sorry to hear that. You stay home and get better.”
“Thanks, Mary. You’re a doll.” *cough cough* This part is true. She really is a doll.
“You know what? I’ll bet my massage therapist could help you. He can cure all kinds of things. You want his phone number?”
“Uh … no thanks. I think I’ll just stay home, drink lots of liquids, that kind of thing. I should be better by tomorrow.”
“Well, okay. Feel better.”
That task over, I now have to finish getting ready. Makeup is tricky. My makeup mirror won’t light because the battery is dead. So I have to prop it up on a windowsill to get enough light, and bend over it. I have been doing this for months now. I am so used to this that I find it hard to do my makeup any other way. I am almost convinced by now that my head grows out of my neck sideways.
I decide to skip the bright turquoise eye shadow this time and go for a more muted color. This is another suggestion from Jim. I forget what he said, but it was something about how it makes me look like a transvestite in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
A pair of black patent leather dress flats and a string of fake pearls later, and I am ready. Oops! I almost forgot my music. I stuffed it all into my black tote bag last night. It’s heavy, because I am carrying two aria books, two full hardbound scores and one faded photocopy. A coach suggested that I make clear photocopies of my five audition arias and put them all in one binder, but I haven’t gotten around to doing that. It’s a little awkward to walk into an audition carrying all that stuff, but I have never had a problem with it.
Well, there was the time I tripped on a rug while making an entrance and accidentally pitched two scores onto the auditor’s table, knocking a large container of Starbucks latte onto his lap. But I try not to think about that. It’s all a blur, anyway. I blanked out after he shouted the “s” word twice and asked me if I had been born without a brain.
My tote bag also contains a copy of my resume and my 8 ½ x 11 publicity photo. I should schedule a session with a professional photographer to have a publicity photo made, but that is really expensive. My ex-boyfriend took a good picture of me with a disposable camera one day, so I had it enlarged and printed as a black and white glossy. I was staring directly into the sun and smiling when the picture was taken, so my eyes are closed, and the picture has a somewhat hazy look from being enlarged so much. Jim (the dress and eye makeup critic) thinks it makes me look stoned. But it will have to do until I can afford to get a better one made.
I manage to get out of the house and onto the subway. Rush hour is tapering off, so at least I get a seat for the 30 minute ride, even though I have to squeeze into it. There is a big, mean-looking guy sitting next to me, wearing a black tee shirt with what looks like a silver devil on the front of it. He is playing his iPod at top volume. I can hear every note and every word of My Apocalypse, and can’t help thinking that he will probably be deaf by the time he is 40. There is a thin, youngish guy wearing a backpack who is trying to read the subway map on the wall behind me. A woman sitting across from me has an open stroller in the aisle, with a loudly crying toddler in it. This is one of the most pleasant rides that I have had on this train in a long time.
The auditions are being held in Famous Church Basement. Half my auditions so far have been in there. If Famous Church had half as many people in their congregation as they have using their spaces for auditions and performances, they would be the biggest church in the United States. Many of my other auditions have been in Sleazy Broadway Studios. I wouldn’t mind Sleazy Broadway so much if they would paint the walls now and then and clean the ladies’ room. It is also a little bit distracting to have to step over rows and rows of singers, dancers and actors who are there to audition for musical theater. They are all small and trim and they always stare at me and wrinkle their noses when I walk through them. I feel like a Domino’s pizza at a caviar reception.
From past experience, I know that warm-up space in Famous Church Basement will be difficult or impossible to find. So I start doing semi-silent warm-ups on the train, including a few diaphragmatic breathing exercises, tongue trills, humming and half-voiced scales. The guy with the iPod doesn’t move, but the map searcher quickly jerks away from me and the woman with the stroller grabs it to protect her child from me and my crazy noises. An elderly man sitting next to her nudges the equally elderly woman on the other side of him, points to me and says, “Hey, get a load of the canary bird!” I take this as a compliment, and smile at them. They just look at me.
The train doesn’t stall this morning, which I take as a good omen. I get to Famous Church in plenty of time. I walk through the side door of Famous Church and down a long corridor, turn left and take the elevator down to the basement level. There is an elderly lady with a face like Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest, sitting at a table in front of the door leading to the hall where the auditions are already taking place. Our conversation goes something like this:
“Are you auditioning?”
“Yes. My name is Emilia Bianchi.”
“Bianchi … Bianchi … Oh yes! I see your name here. Did you bring a picture and resume and fifteen dollars for the pianist?”
“Yes.” I hand her my packet. She gives a little involuntary twitch when she sees the picture, so I feel that some explanation is necessary.
“I apologize for the photograph. It was taken with a disposable camera, but it turned out pretty good so I have been using it as my publicity photo. I plan to have a new picture made soon.”
“Fine. Just stay out here and you will be called. There are five people ahead of you, and we are running late.”
“Five people? But it’s only 9:40 in the morning!”
“We had three people come in without appointments, but they decided to hear them anyway. Just wait. Someone will call you.”
I look around to see if there are any chairs available, but everything that can be sat upon is occupied. I figure it will be at least an hour before I get to do my thing, so I decide to try to find a place to warm up. I head into the ladies’ room. Nobody else is there, so I start to sing some scales. After about five minutes of this, just as I am on a roll, Table Lady opens the door, sticks her head in and barks in a stage whisper, “Could you please not vocalize in here. We can hear you very clearly out there.” I can see by the look on her face that resistance is futile, so I give up and go back out to where everyone else is waiting.
While I was in the bathroom warbling three more people showed up and they are sitting, leaning and standing wherever they can find anything to sit, lean or stand on. Satisfied that everybody is completely uncomfortable, Table Lady goes back to her folding chair behind the table and glares at the elevator.
Through the doors of the audition room, I can hear a soprano singing the same aria from Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment that I plan to offer as my first choice. She splatters the high note at the end, making everyone, including Table Lady, flinch. I feel really sorry for her when she comes out a minute later looking like a victim walking through a gauntlet.
Four people later, my turn is about to come up. I am told to go into the audition room and wait in the back next to the door, behind a partition, out of sight of the auditors and a guy who is singing the Tenor National Anthem, Che gelida manina from Puccini’s La Boh è me. It is a stunning aria, and I have to admit he has a great voice. I can’t help but wonder, though, if he is going to hit that famous high C or blow it all over the room. I hope he makes it.
Of course, there is no chair here, either. By this time my feet are swollen like two water balloons. I don’t dare take my shoes off because if I do that I might not be able to get them back on again. And the part of my psyche that isn’t feeling pain is beginning to be devoured by stage fright.
Unfortunately for my feet, Tenor Guy nails the high C and the auditors are impressed. So am I. He almost made the walls shake with that one. They want to hear him sing something else. It takes him about two years to find his music and give it to the pianist, after which he launches into Una furtiva lagrima from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. He sings both verses. Nobody stops him, either because he is very good (which he is) or they are really desperate for tenors. I can’t tell, because the only things I can sense clearly by this time are my screaming feet and my screaming nerves.
What if I forget my words? What if I blow a high note? What if I sing something they don’t like? What if they don’t like my dress? My heart is pounding like a judge’s gavel. I can feel myself beginning to sweat. And I have to go to the bathroom.
Finally, Tenor Guy is finished. He floats past me like a triumphant general in a ticker tape parade. In a moment, it will be my turn.
I am wondering if I might have time to make a quick trip to the ladies’ room. Too late. I hear one of the auditors shout, “Ms. Bianchi!” I put on my best fake smile and start to breeze into the room. About halfway to the piano, my foot catches in a hole in the rug and the resulting stumble destroys the whole breezing into the room effect that I had so carefully built up. It also sends a sharp burst of pain into my feet, which were already hurting from the shoes. But I am a professional. I go right on as if nothing had happened, cursing silently to myself.
I stride past the auditors’ table, aiming a smile and a bright “Good morning!” at them. There are three of them sitting there – two men and one woman. At my “Good morning!” they all look at me as if I am an alien life form, and the man on the left growls a reluctant “Good morning” in return.
I gracefully glide to the piano, place my open score in front of the pianist and neatly stow my tote bag with the extra music where I can find space. I look at the auditors’ table. They are in a three-way conversation, probably about Tenor Guy. They are passing a lot of papers around and whispering to each other, paying no attention to me. I am standing at the piano feeling stupid. And I still have to go to the bathroom.
I decide that the best way to look intelligent is to go over and have a conference with the pianist while the auditors are having a conference with themselves. So I do this. The pianist has played my chosen aria before and she needs no instructions, but she knows what I am doing and plays along.
Eventually, the man on the left, looks up, stares at me for a moment looking confused, and asks me, “What are you going to sing for us?” He is a slender guy with thinning black hair, wearing a white turtleneck and a brown leather jacket. He is holding a pen a little too close to the collar of his turtleneck, and he jerks it away, looks at it and checks to make sure he has not gotten ink on his shirt.
I answer, “I would like to sing Salut a la France from Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment,” and they all flinch, probably because of the excruciating rendition they heard earlier. The man in the white turtleneck asks me if I have anything else to offer. I go through my whole list of five prepared arias, but he makes a face at every one. So he reluctantly tells me to go ahead with Salut a la France, starting from the aria itself, cutting out any recitative in the beginning. This will only cut a few seconds off the time it takes to sing this piece, which is kind of silly, but if that’s what they want, that is what I will do.
I launch into the aria. The man in the turtleneck sits back in his chair and looks sleepy and supremely bored. The other two are leaning on the table, seemingly half-asleep.
They all come awake about a quarter of the way through the aria and start to pass papers around again. I think they are my papers this time. Meanwhile, I am putting everything I have into this very upbeat, lively piece, including some smart military-type salutes and a few marching steps. All three of them look up and down in turn at the papers and at me. They all begin smiling, then covering their mouths and giggling. The man in the turtleneck puts his head on the table and I can see his shoulders bobbing up and down. The tiny, middle-aged woman in the middle looks like a kid trying to stifle a laugh in church. The other man, a chubby guy with thick black hair who is wearing a green polo shirt, is wiping tears from his eyes and cleaning his glasses. Obviously, something about my lively interpretation has impressed them. All of those “How to Audition” seminars have paid off. I have become memorable.
I finish the aria with a long, very well sung high note, ecstatic in the knowledge that I am no longer just another lyric soprano among a legion of lyric sopranos. I am rapidly accelerating to a level of greatness.
There is silence in the room for a moment. Finally, the man in the white turtleneck raises his head from the table and says, “Thank you, Ms. Bianchi. That was a very lively performance. By the way, I am curious. Who took your publicity photograph?”
I tell him the whole story of my ex-boyfriend and the disposable camera. He then says, “Thank you, Ms. Bianchi. You have really made our morning. We don’t need to hear anything else right now. I think we have a very good idea of what you are capable of.” My singing must have affected him deeply, because he is really choked up. I hope he is feeling alright.
I float out of the audition room as if on a cloud. On the way to the ladies’ room, I triumphantly announce to Table Lady and the assembled singers that I just sang the greatest audition of my life. I extol the humanity, sensitivity and dedication of the auditors. Table Lady is speechless, and the other singers know that they have a hard act to follow. I quietly vow to myself that when I am singing at the world’s greatest opera houses I will come back every year to sing for this company just because I love them so much.
And my feet don’t hurt anymore.