This whole blog sprang from a Facebook note I wrote on my feelings about fitness and singing. Since tonight I am closing this season's run of our uniquely demanding production of Don Giovanni at Deutsche Oper Berlin, I thought it was a good time to revisit the post that started this whole thing. Whether you missed it the first time, are new to following my thoughts, or are just interested in reading it again, I hope you enjoy, and please keep your eyes open for a new original post on a somewhat related topic soon.
Originally Posted on 28 October 2015:
Today is a special day. I am making my debut today as Leporello in Roland Schwab’s hyper-intense, hyper-physical production of Don Giovanni at Deutsche Oper Berlin. This is a special day for many reasons. This production was the first in which I was involved at this amazing opera company that has, over the past five years, become my home. I was the cover for Masetto and the Commendatore, and I had my first coaching the day after I arrived in a new country, new city, new opera world altogether. Over six weeks I watched a production unfold of an opera I already new and loved completely, but as an American I had never considered the philosophical and psychological possibilities available to an intelligent director unbound from the restraints of traditional operatic staging models. I watched every day as the seemingly tireless Alex Esposito ran around the rehearsal room, somehow always able to sing beautifully, no matter the demands placed on him physically by the staging. All I could think was, “I don’t know if I could do that, but I WANT to do that.” So, here I am five years later thinking roughly the same thing, “I don’t know if I can do this, but I AM doing this!”
But, humblebragging isn’t really what I’m trying to do here today. The role of Leporello has much more significance to me than just watching other people play him in this production, and waiting for my chance. The last time I sang the role was five years ago at Ash Lawn Opera. Anyone who knows me knows I am a bit of a wacko onstage, and it is incredibly important for me to be able to do whatever I need to do physically in order to make the staging work. Well, after a year of working in a steakhouse by day and massage school by night (where dinner was always Jack in the Box), I had reached a size and level of body fat that was beginning to get in my way. I’m not saying I was obese. I wasn’t, but I was starting to get winded walking up stairs, my knees were starting to hurt, and I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. Then rehearsals for Don Giovanni began, and I realized my size and sedentary lifestyle had finally reached a point that was interrupting my work. I would spend every single rehearsal soaked in sweat and out of breath. I felt that I was facing a wall. I could always do less on stage and sing well like so many other singers, and I am not criticizing anyone. Thank god for all you honey-throated people out there who make those amazing sounds that I cannot fathom. You really set the vocal standard for which the rest of us must always try to reach. But, I am a character actor, and I need to move, which at that time in my life, I couldn’t do well enough for my standards. So, there I was facing that wall. Do I climb over before it’s too late, leave my comfort zone behind, and try to make a new life for myself, or do I accept that my reality has become such that I will be forced to curtail my nature in order to sing well?
Thus began my journey into the world of fitness. I had been cast in The King & I for the following summer, and knowing that that show requires a certain amount of shirtless time on stage combined with the imminent approach of my thirtieth birthday, I had given myself a deadline. I had roughly ten months to try and transform my life. The most important first step if one wants to make these kinds of changes is research. Too many people waste their own time by trying to get in shape without guidance, and to me that is why so many people fail, whether that failure comes in the form of never making progress or making fast progress that isn’t sustainable for a long and healthy future. I did my homework. I learned what it would take to do this the right way, and I embarked. Now, if you have the means to hire a personal trainer and dietician to get you where you want to go, that’s great, but there is only one person on the planet who can convince you to change your life, and that is you yourself. If you are not ready to do it on your own, no trainer or other motivational worker will make it happen for you. For me as the stereotypical starving artist, I resorted to the vast, free resource of the internet. Through trial and error with different diets and exercise regimens, I eventually found what worked for me, and the results came very fast. I began to see changes, and those changes were the best motivation of all. I wanted more. I wanted to know how far I could take it, and I had no idea in the beginning how far that would actually be. I set goals, I achieved them, and I was hungry for more, so I continued to set new goals and blow past them as well.
Anyway, that’s enough patting myself on the back. I bring all this up because I want to talk more about the real issue of fitness in our opera world. There is too much fighting going on about the effects of fitness in our business, and I wish we could move past it and focus on what’s important about this issue: health. My journey was just that: MINE! I am in no way telling anyone else that they should do what I did. It was damned difficult, and it did bring up a new set of issues I had to deal with. Most of the overweight people make the argument that if one loses too much weight, he or she will not be able to breathe properly anymore, and the voice will suffer. This argument is true and false at the same time. It is true because I can tell you that after losing 75 pounds in ten months, I could not breathe in the same way as before. The argument is false because the way I was breathing before was not what I would call breathing properly. My singing changed, just like the argument suggests, and there I was faced with another wall. I had to relearn how to breathe with a new body, and trust me, that is damned difficult! But, when you are healthy overall and then take the time to adjust your concept of breathing, a new world is there for you. Remember when I said I would be out of breath walking up stairs and I was out of breath in rehearsals due to the physical demands of the stage? Well, that was no longer an issue, but now like so many people say, the extra fat against which I had grown accustomed to breathing, was gone. It took many frustrating hours of focus and attention to what my body was telling me, but eventually I realized that the fat that had provided support had been replaced by something stronger: muscle. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m advocating for tight muscular midsections; rather, as singers we must remain supple in our abdomen in order to provide freedom of the breathing structure. But, once I did the damned difficult work of understanding how those muscles work to my advantage as a singer, I gained a new depth of breath support that was unavailable to me before. Once again, I am not saying this path is for everyone. If you’re scared to take the risk of learning a new way of breathing, you are normal. It is a terrifying process that can feel hopeless (much like getting fit in the first place).
Once I had gotten to a point where I was fit and that was my new normal, I realized I could do more. I’m now at a place where I’m always looking for new ways to improve this physical vessel I have been given, and now that includes regular weight lifting as well, but this brings up another side of the ‘fitness for singers’ argument that has become contentious, and it is an argument on which I find myself on the side of the non-fitness camp. It might sound strange and hypocritical since I just talked about my regular weight lifting, but I am seeing dangerous trends in our business, predominantly with the men, of over-sculpted bodies. Boys, having a perfect body might get you hired a couple of times, but success in this business is about being rehired as much as possible, and having a pretty body and a couple good audition arias will only get you so far. If you can’t sustain the freedom needed in your body to rehearse a show for weeks and sing well until the final beat of a 3-5 hour evening of opera, you are not doing it right, plain and simple. I have heard colleagues in our current opera climate saying things like, “I spend more time in the gym than I do in the practice room because that’s just the nature of our business now.” WRONG!!! Getting your foot in the door is great, but if you don’t have the goods, that door will slam shut, and you just lost a perfectly good foot. Yet again I know I sound like a hypocrite, but I have faced the harsh reality of this business over and over, and I can tell you no matter how beautiful your body is, no matter how good you are on stage, no matter how good of a colleague you are, no matter how much ass you kiss, the act of being rehired will not happen if the people at the top of the opera companies are unsatisfied with your voice. The opera world has changed so much in the past thirty years, definitely for the better for an opera mutant like me, but the fact still remains that singing well is priority number one. I couldn’t be happier with the fact that operas are becoming more theatrical and the days of park and bark are dwindling because that means that someone like me, who doesn’t have a superhuman voice can still achieve a high level of success, based on the total package that I bring to the table. But, my lack of a superhuman voice does NOT mean I can get away without striving for a superhuman technique. My favorite singers in the world are almost always the ones who do not have perfect voices but who have perfect technique. What does that mean? For me having a perfect technique means you can do whatever is called for physically and vocally by the score AND the staging all while singing in a healthy way that is evenly produced and always audible in the hall, from the heaviest fortissimo to the most sensitive whisper and everything in between. And as we all know, achieving this level of vocal mastery is damned difficult!
So, what am I rambling about? Fitness is my heroin now. I cannot live without it, and throughout this journey, I have learned that it makes me a better singer, full stop. I urge everyone out there to try and discover how your health is affecting your singing. Don’t do what I did. That was for me personally. I didn’t start exercising to look good in pictures. I did it so I could function in the way that was important to me personally, and that’s the most important thing to remember: fitness must be personal. If you are overweight and unhappy, just find a friend and start moving together. You’re beautiful no matter who you are, and I’m not saying you need to lose weight, but if you feel you need to change your life, just do it for yourself, not anyone else. If you are spending four hours a day in the gym pushing your body past its natural limits and then sending naked pictures of yourself to bloggers and taking your shirt off in auditions (it has happened, I promise) on the hopes that that will earn you an international opera career, sit down for a minute and think about what it is that you really want. The most important step to reaching your goals of success in this business is to have an honest, painful self discovery of what it is you want to say as an artist, and then you must do the work to enable yourself to say those things to as many people as possible. After all, we are not just artists, we are also artisans. Do the work, whatever that might be for you personally.
So, back to today. Here I am five years after my professional debut as Leporello, when I couldn’t breathe or sing as well as I needed, and tonight I go on in the same role in a production that puts Herculean, athletic demands on the singer. I can say with total assurance that the singer I was five years ago couldn’t have even gotten through one rehearsal in this production, and after two weeks of feeling like I might never get there, I am so proud and terrified to take on the challenge tonight. There are many very complex emotions swirling around my head leading up to tonight’s opening: due to the role, the production, the journey of my life changes over the last five years, but that is the beauty of this gorgeous, ephemeral thing called theater. Tomorrow I will wake up and today will be over. I will have another rehearsal for another show, and the memories of tonight as a cap to the last five years will linger. But, over the coming days those memories will fade, and I will proudly keep doing the work, knowing that I have searched for who I am and what I want to say, letting every step of this journey inform the next. When I walk onstage tonight, that familiar voice in my head will be there, “I think I can. I think I can.” But thanks to what I have learned, and thanks to the inspiration I take from all the people who jump in there with me every night, I know that voice will gradually change to, “I KNOW I CAN! I KNOW I CAN!”