3 Life Lessons From Brünnehilde
I vacillated for all of about two seconds when my graduate-school friend and executive director of the Minnesota Concert Opera, Stan Felix, wrote and asked me for a favor.
You see, Stan and his wife Antonia are amazing people doing very cool stuff. Stan has a doctorate in voice performance, is an established pedagogue, composer, published author, and has taken his vision for concert opera to the twin cities and made it a successful reality. Antonia is a New York Times best selling author 15 times over, a singer, and contributes greatly to important causes world-wide. Can you see why I dropped everything and practically ran to Minnesota?…but wait! – It gets better….
Stan asked me to come and photograph rehearsals of their upcoming production of the Mini-Ring – a four hour reduced version of the five day full Ring Cycle. Who would I be photographing, you ask? If only you could see my smile…right now…none other than international and national opera stars, several of whom have performed at the Metropolitan Opera House. Jay Hunter Morris, Lori Phillips, Richard Paul Fink, Sarah Heltzel, Phillip Skinner, Kevin Langen, Sally Wolf, and Joseph Hu. I was so excited to be with all of these wonderful people…and my expectations were exceeded. I went with a heart to learn, and here’s what this handful of Wagnerian Gods and Goddesses taught me…
Choose a Mind-Set of Strength
From the “sitzprobe” to the dress rehearsal, never have I experienced such dynamic singing. The vocal placement, driving melodic line, and consonant execution was perfection. The vibrations coming off these fine ladies and gentlemen was electric. Coupled with their ginormous sound, it was a no excuses mind-set. No wining, complaining, or tentativeness. No scarves around the neck or special drinks to nurture the voice. Each had a no-fear approach, an incredible work ethic, and pure confidence in their technique and professional abilities. They were there to get the job done and the surroundings were simply superfluous. Their strength was contagious, and I had a mind-set shift, “Why have I been babying myself for so long? I am not fragile. Acting as if I am weak or susceptible does not make me more sensitive – it is an excuse I don’t’ want to indulge any longer.” While I may not have a Wagnerian voice, I can have a Brünnhilde attitude.
Create a Supportive Environment
The beautiful dichotomy of this cast was the incredible bigger-than-life presence they embodied on stage and the sweet gentleness of their personalities off stage. Behind every triumphant high note ran a current of serenity and groundedness. There was not a diva among them. They were moms, dads, grandpas, wives, or husbands. They talked about little league, school, and swimming with grandkids. One even picked up wood whittles as a hobby. They brought me into the fold and over dinner shared stories of family and career, and finding balance between the two. It was beautiful to hear the older members of the group encourage and compliment the younger singers, with never a hint of competition or resentment. In a world where opera companies are cutting budgets, closing doors and adding musicals to their season line-ups, these masterful singers choose to live in the moment, cherishing present opportunity, and placing value on relationships above success. A lesson we can all apply.
Sustaining a professional career is not a matter of luck, fortune, or chance. Attaining a level of mastery is strategic and highly focused. Watching this cast perform, it is obvious that they are highly skilled at what they do. But I think it is so very important for onlookers and admirers to not minimize their expertise as a culmination of just a great talent. Each one of these performers has struggled. They have put in many hours playing secondary roles, covering, and not getting the job they desperately wanted or needed. There was loss, angst, and frustration. But they leveraged their talent and took an insane amount of action, made huge sacrifices, and to meet their goal they took risks that others would never take. Thus they arrive in the spotlight with joy, appreciation, and confidence. With strategy and focus in place, they truly “play” their roles with passion and mastery, reveling in their experience and bringing a new level of happiness to others. Their dedication is truly inspiring.
During the three days in Minnesota, I took hundreds of photos – and through the zoom lens of my camera I fell in love with these singers, the passion they represent, and the music they serve. And as I head into learning the role of Humperdinck’s Gretel for Flatirons Opera Company, I will apply what I gleaned from Brünnhilde, Siegfried, and Wonton; I am strong, connected, and dedicated to mastery …that evil witch won’t know what hit her!