The following is a transcript of a conversation I had with Joyce DiDonato after her beautiful performance in Great Scott.
(Joyce D): Is it true? Is this going to happen?
JB (me): Yes, I think it’s a reality.
JD: How do you feel?
JB: I’m very excited, but honestly I’m pretty nervous.
JD: Just tell the story… Are you ready?
JB: Yes, I’m prepared.
JD: That’s all you need to succeed!
The official announcement hadn’t yet emerged, but Ms. DiDonato heard the rumors. Dallas Opera originally hired me to cover the title role in Mark Adamo’s world premiere, and now I found out that I would be singing the full run of the show, including a live simulcast to Lincoln Center during our second performance. I've always loved hearing stories about my friends and colleagues who earned their big breaks by stepping into a role they were covering, but now that the opportunity presented itself to me, my happiness was occasionally eclipsed by anxiety. Did I have what it takes to lead a cast of extremely talented and seasoned artists? Our brilliant composer had spent two years writing this role for someone else; could I offer an adequate performance with a different voice than he had in mind?
Of course I had no idea events would unfold so late in the process, but my job was to learn the complex score in case I might need to sing it. While I was in rehearsals and performances for other shows leading up to my time in Dallas, I continued to study my music each morning as I burned calories on the elliptical machine. Mr. Adamo was always accessible, and he was happy to answer any of my questions as I memorized the role.
As we rehearsed Becoming Santa Claus, I was feeling loads of pressure from various directions. The stage director, the composer, the maestro, the assistant conductor, the pianist and even a couple of my singing colleagues gave me copious notes each day. The staging was complicated, and so was the music. My mind was constantly running in 50 directions as I tried to digest all of the information and apply it to my singing and acting. What I desperately needed was a new tool for focusing. Joyce DiDonato provided me with that effective weapon to fight distraction and anxiety in three words: TELL THE STORY. When I remembered that statement, suddenly everything became simpler and more purposeful.
Prince Claus is a high-flying role, and his bratty “mad scene” presented several high C’s I needed to conquer in quick succession. Obsessing over the multitude of high notes clearly wasn’t helpful, so I needed a positive way to channel my energy. My friend Edwin is a wonderful life coach, and he suggested that I try to remember a time when I felt totally stress-free, alive and happy; my goal should be to conjure up that memory each time I might be tempted to worry or tense up my throat. For some reason the event that popped into my head was the last time I enjoyed a pillow fight with my sweet nieces. Each time we ran that tricky scene, I thought of those silly times with the girls. It helped me tremendously. When I got out of the way and trusted that my voice would work properly, everything fell into place.
Tech week surreptitiously approached, and suddenly I found myself onstage in the final dress rehearsal. In my rush to make a quick change, I fell and badly sprained my foot in the first scene. The injury provided one more source of worry, but why should I allow it to hinder me? The hard work was finished after all. I was thoroughly prepared, and I only needed to remember three simple words: Tell The Story. We went on to give four performances of Adamo’s beautiful opera, and we effectively conveyed the charming new tale to our audience. The humanity of the characters resonated with people who heard our opera, and they were moved to tears during our finale.
This unforgettable experience reminds me that a singing career can be a bit like dating. One could fret and complain because he hasn’t yet met the right person, but what would happen if he spent that wasted energy on becoming the kind of person a wonderful person would meet and love? I can’t control whether or not I’m allowed to sing a role I’m covering. However, I can work my hardest to make sure I’m prepared if and when that big break comes. And when all else fails, all I have to do is TELL THE STORY.