Have you ever seen the Lake House? The 2006 movie with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock?
No, no, it wasn't that bad. Stay with me.
The story (spoiler) revolves around two people, played by Reeves and Bullock, who occupy the same house but at two different points in time. They fall in love through a correspondence of letters left for each other in a mailbox, while maintaining their timelines. Eventually, however, happy Hollywood ending.
They are in the same place, but never at the same time, which pulls at my heart because
this is my life.
At least, most of the time it is. And then, somehow luckily, the timelines cross and I am hugging old friends tightly. Yes, even during this time of corona virus.
These next few days, I am in Berlin. Berlin has always been a city of magical coincidences. Often times, it’s been running into colleagues at auditions, running into a directing power couple in a café near the Brandenburger Tor, or as happened last night a fortuitous 19-hour overlap with the brilliant pianist/coach/conductor/overall person, Carrie Ann Matheson, and her equally brilliant husband, bass, David Soar. Carrie Ann is based in Zürich at the opera house there and was easily the best part of my time there (another story over a few bottles of wine).
I’ve become less active on Facebook over the years, but still use it to make sure that I can keep track of my friends and colleagues. I mentioned in my first post that us opera folk fleetly flee, we fly, and Carrie Ann posted that she was on her way to hear her husband make his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic. Thanks to the power of social media, less than two hours later, I too was watching David make his triumphant debut singing the bass solos in Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives). I was not familiar with this oratorio “depicting the emotional turmoil of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane prior to his crucifixion,” but clearly the Berlin audience was, as they lept to their feet at the end of the final chorus. Sir Simon Rattle brought sweetness, espeicially from the strings. The focused yet elegant power of Benjamin Bruns’ Jesus matched David’s urgent and imploring portrayal of Peter. Iwona Sobotka’s soprano stayed grounded while descending from the heavens as the Seraph.
The first half of the of the concert was also a piece I was unfamiliar with, and yet, its innate familiarity kept a broad smile on my face and tears in my eyes. Berlin Phil principal oboist, Jonathan Kelly, acted as soloist for the Richard Strauss Oboe concerto in D Major.
I had grown up mistakingly thinking that Strauss was a nazi. He actually never joined the nazi party, and was disliked by Goebbels, the close associate of Adolfo Hitler, but still managed to be appointed President of the Reichsmusikkammer. He accepted the position in the hope that his cooperation would help save his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren, as well as allow him to continue to conduct the music of the banned Gustav Mahler and Claude Debussy.
It makes me wonder what I would be capable of doing to try and save my family and my art.
I have long known that Strauss loved the soprano voice, and specific to me, the pyrotechnics of the coloratura soprano. His song, Amor, from Brentano Lieder, Op. 68, no. 5 is one of my favorite to sing, as the voice flits around like Cupid’s wings and arrows. I still hope that the entire role of Zerbinetta from Ariadne auf Naxos is still in my future.
As Jonathan Kelly began the opening theme, I couldn’t help but think of all the Strauss that I had been introduced to as a kid playing in orchestras. Till Eulenspiegel. Don Quixote. Death and Transfiguration. Luckily for me, Strauss also loved the viola. As soon as principal violist Amihai Grosz began to play his solo, initiating the playful duet between him and Kelly, I could not control my utter joy, simultaneously smiling and wiping away tears.
You see, before I was a singer, I was a violist. I actually began my degree at the University of Michigan as a voice and viola double major. I think my affinity for the viola actually grew out of the fact that it has a range much like the human voice, specifically a gifted mezzo soprano, a range I would never be blessed to have as a coloratura. I started playing at age 10. I played my first paid orchestral gig at 13. From high school until college, I worked all around Michigan subbing and playing gigs, winning competitions with my string quartets, sitting principal violist in a variety of youth and community orchestras in the greater Detroit area, and generally believing that I was going to be an orchestral violist.
At the same time, I was practicing for piano competitions, an instrument I had started on at age 3, taking dance lessons, choreographing musicals, and acting in plays.
As my Dad always pointed out, I was determined to be in all places at the same time.
But then the realities of college life hit hard. After a full year in both majors, I knew for my sanity's sake I had to make decision. I always like to say that I was too much of a show off to sit in the viola section. So instead, I chose to be a coloratura, but with the heart of a violist. And, to all the classical musicians who happen to be reading this, consider this fodder for any hybrid soprano-viola jokes you want to throw at me.
I can take ‘em.
As a string player, however, I had had very little exposure to wind concerti. Violas have struggled for centuries for repertoire, as we were never considered a ‘solo instrument.’ Although my amazing colleague, violist, Michael Hall, is now single handedly taking care of that for the entire viola race.
We ‘borrow’ repertoire from clarinets a lot. So, I knew some clarinet repertoire. But no oboe.
But, when Jonathan Kelly began to sing on his instrument, I was overwhelmed.
So many colors. So much grace. If only I could learn to circular breathe like a wind player, I’d be a millionaire.
Listening to his phrasing reminded me that there is still room, a houseful of room in fact, to improve my own. I should aspire to sing more like an oboe: the evenness through the range, the focus of sound, the musicality.
I noticed when the orchestra tuned that it was the concert master who gave the tuning A. No oboe in the orchestra for the oboe concerto. I wonder how many composers did that in their oboe concerti, as if to say, ‘there’s only one star here tonight.’
It was the Marschellin’s voice singing the first half of the concerto, but my beloved Zerbinetta who showed up to finish it off in a blaze of glory. She even brought along her signature half-step ascending trill pattern in the cadenza.
It was then that it occurred to me that what Strauss really had written in Zerbinetta’s showpiece, and what I should aspire to, was actually an oboe concerto for voice.
There are many ways that listeners can learn to identify a composer. For me, in Mozart and Rossini, I recognize the structure and patterns. But for composers like Strauss and Poulenc, it is the harmonies. Strauss’ harmonies twist and turn like a train weaving through the Alps, sometimes barely staying on the tracks; yet somehow I still know where they are going.
When Kelly was done weaving his magic spell, he was curtain called thrice, finally rewarding the audience with something acapella: Britten’s 6 Metamorphoses after Ovid: Pan. When he was done with that, we all collectively let out a sigh, as none of us had realized we’d been holding our breath for two minutes. I could listen to Jonathan Kelly sing all night.
Today, I was rewarded yet again, this time with a crisp March day and an unusually blue sky. I guess Berlin was happy to see me, too. I had a lovely day walking (and eating) my way around the city with my friend Anja, a German linguist whom I met studying in Shanghai in 2014. How that became 6 years ago, I cannot tell you.
We caught up at a delicious, bright and airy vegetarian Chinese restaurant, Tianfuzi. I had a giant, fresh bowl of rice noodle soup with mixed vegetable and tofu, as well as a 'small' portion of deep fried tofu and fermented black beans. The portions were so large that I had them pack it up, as I barely made a dent. As a result, I enjoyed them for dinner, as well. We spoke some Chinese with our waiter. He was from Suzhou, a beautiful lake city outside of Shanghai that I know very well. He said that he hadn’t been home in eight years.
Singing in Hamburg, I have a number of colleagues who are vegetarian, a few more who are vegan. Whenever we go out, I always feel like I should follow suit, not from pressure from them, but more of the feeling that I actually do like eating vegetarian and do it often by choice. Why not now? I also would feel a little rude devouring a medium-rare ribeye in front them. Besides, I have plenty of meat-eating colleagues who are happy to join me for a steak. I already eat pretty much dairy free after food allergy testing proved my issue. Needing to also eat gluten-free to stay healthy, I always thought that going vegan might be difficult. And the truth is, it is difficult: a lot of plant-based meat substitutes have wheat flour as their primary ingredient. But, I recently found that Germany has some amazing vegetarian and gluten free products, and I am happily trying them out. As a result of this experiment, I’d also been choosing to eat more vegetarian while out to eat.
In 2012, I had a total of nine sinus infections in a seven month span. On the third day of the infection, I would lose my voice. It would then take me about a week and a half for my voice to come back. I could never predict when I would start to get sick. We tried everything beginning with surgeon-style hand washing, rounds and rounds of antibiotics that wreaked havoc on my gut and the other flora and fauna in my body and all sorts of supplements. At my wits end, and at the risk of not being able to sing anymore, I finally went to a homeopath, as Western medicine was failing me.
She determined two things: a systemic yeast overgrowth (not just for ladies, gentlemen) and a variety of food allergies. We successfully identified an aggressive treatment for the overgrowth. Then, she started me on an elimination diet, which if you’ve ever had to participate in one, is really an elimination of your will to live. Bread: gone. Dairy: gone. Sugar: gone. Everything I had loved to eat growing up in an Italian-Slovak household in the Midwest: gone. And then I went to China for my second summer. Beijing for five weeks and no sinus infections.
“Well, what did you eat while you were there?” she questioned when I came back.
Only trace amounts of wheat. Rice-based, vegetable heavy. Virtually no dairy.
“Then, this is where we start,” she concluded.
It’s where I’ve been ever since.
I always thought that I was good at listening to my body in terms of food, but the truth is I was ignoring giant red flags: constant acid reflux (which many singers experience because of the way our bodies engage when we sing), chronic sinus infections, exhaustion, and chronic inflammation.
Here is what I have concluded about the things I consume: there are things that I eat out of habit and out of convenience. There are things that I eat because they taste really, really good and I find comfort in them. Luckily, in my case, not all of the items that fall into those categories are actually bad for my body. But the ones that are, I’m not willing to give them up. I just need to find the right balance of them so that my body is happy.
When I eat less sugar, I crave less sugar. When I eat less meat, I crave less meat,
In my case, my inflammation goes down. My chronic pain goes away and I feel so much better. And once I can get those things under control, if my body says “steak time!” I say, “sure!”
After our clean-eating lunch, Anja and I walked around Berlin catching up since the last time we had seen each other, a shocking two years ago in Zurich. At lunch, she had declared that she knew of “the best milk tea outside of China.” So, of course we ended up there.
The line at Comebuy was snaked around the room. We both knew that we were committing to about a 30-40 minute wait. But, we both concluded that it was worth it. We both missed China a lot, as we had concluded at lunch, and there would not be a more Chinese experience than waiting in line for milk tea. My Ultimate QQ Milk Tea with Tapioca and Hantian did not disappoint.
As we left the shop, Anja remarked “We’ve had a very Chinese day here in Berlin.”
We both agreed that since we couldn’t go to China, we did our best to bring China to us.
Finally, we walked a bit more, and suddenly I felt like I was in a place I had been before. I was correct. We were suddenly standing in front of Rosenthaler Strasse 39.
Back in fall 2016, right after we had moved to Zurich, my Dad came for a visit and we all came to Berlin. He had never been to Berlin, and I knew he would appreciate the incredible history of the city. We took a few walking tours, the second one being about the street art of Berlin. This led us to alley of Rosenthaler Strasse 39.
My son was six years old at the time and was riveted by both the history and the street art tours we took. He especially liked looking for the “Banksy” tags as we walked, although the validity of those tags have actually since been questioned. Still, I remembered my son running ahead of the whole group looking for these tags on heavily grafittied Rosenthaler Strasse.
I was at the Lake House.
I’ve had people ask me before how I manage to be away from my family so much.
I’ve also had people ask me why I am away, but that’s a different blog entirely.
First of all, I have an amazing partner who is supportive of everything that I do. That also goes for my family. Second, I have ‘stacked the deck’ when it comes to friends…and then proceeded to spread the deck out all over the table. My closest friends don’t live anywhere near me, but like me they live everywhere, in every city, in every time.
I needed to walk down Rosenthaler Strasse today, because I missed my family. In my own harmonious, Strauss-like twisting and turning around Berlin with Anja, I ended up there by chance. But, being there even for a few minutes set my soul at ease and reminded me that, even when I’m not in my own city, I can find places that feel like home.
So, thank you, Berlin, for showing me my love letter. In another time, we were all in the same house.
My heart understands that.
***I dedicate this blog to my childhood friend, Christopher McVittee, who died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 40 on 21 February, 2020. I was privileged to grow up with his sister, Erika, and him in both Michigan and Ohio. My body was not able to be there with his beloved family and friends to celebrate his life, but my spirit certainly was. Please take a moment to read his obituary and appreciate the goodness his life brought to others.***