Breaking Through: From Rock to Opera, the Basic Technique of Voice
Her ad listed her credentials: Her past with a NY Opera Company, and boasted past students: Axl Rose, Exene…… Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers! Yikes. Let me in on this.
And so one fine afternoon I discovered my legs walking up 2 flights of stairs to her studio off a particularly grimy section of Santa Monica Boulevard.
This was one of those old workshoppy buildings, all beige stucco turned 20 shades darker by the years of cigar smoke, probably some training mill for the studio contract gals of the 1940’s.
Give the starlet a shot with the acting and voice before she inevitably ended up behind the counter at Philippe’s or turning tricks off Fountain.
You walked those plastered hallways and heard the ancient clack of tap shoes, operatic trills, and, god help us all, the overwrought emoting of method acting.
As heartbreaking as the resigned whimper of a furry creature caught ankle deep in a toothsome trap, these are the desperate sounds of showbusiness.
I had the overwhelming urge to run, back to the street and into the darkened safety of The Firefly.
Oh, I had no illusion that I could suddenly be taught to sing. The sad truth is that you can only do so much with what your ancestors bequeathed upon you in length of throat and capacity of lungs. But as we started to ……expand our musical repertoire (sellout) it became clear that my voice was the weak link in the band. And if I could not learn to sing any better, than by God I would at least learn how to sing badly night after night on tour!
Gloria opened the door and sized me up. She must’ve been pushing 80 by this time, but still held that stylish aura of a woman who had grown up in the classy days of overcoats and pearls.
She took a look at my hair, the ripped jeans and cowboy boots, and cocked her head with a resigned sigh. I imagined she had quite enough of the scruffy rockers that filled her waiting room, so far away from the glamor of her youth in New York. She had once been a promising young star of the Opera world there, a lifetime removed from the desperate ooze of Sunset Strip. Now here she was, trying to teach us desperate hacks how to butcher her beloved art yet again.
She sat down at the piano then , and played the major scale up and down, effortlessly Mee-Mawing along in her crystalline coloratura soprano voice. She raised a contoured eyebrow and nodded, and then it was my turn.
Oh, we all know our Do-Re-Mi-etc, don’t we? Who doesn’t think of Julie Andrews in those Austrian alps, chiming the scales in perfect pitch to her audience of Nazi youth?
But now imagine those very same notes punished, finally the Doh! of High C bleated out, goat-like, my face reddened by oxygen deprivation and shame.
She closed the lid of the piano and sat there a moment, pinching at the bridge of her nose.
Then she simply said, no.
No, that was not singing, she explained to me.
What are you doing? Do you think you sing from here? pointing at my throat.
Listen, what about babies, you ever hear them cry? You don’t see them going hoarse, losing their voice, now do you?
And then she got up and went to the closet and came back with a child’s jump rope.
Here, she said, tying the braided strand around my mid section, you feel that? That’s your diaphragm.
And then she molded my body like a she was dressing a stubborn mannequin.
Knees slightly bent, hips up, support the diaphragm, she pushed her strong hands at different points of my body. When satisfied with my posture she said, now breathe! I took a deep breath and then she slapped me on the back,
Not there, not the lungs, down here–tugging at the rope.
I took another breath, this time feeling my belly fill with air, the rope straining at my mid section, and held for a moment.
She once again struck the note on the piano, and I let the air up, through my body, found the note in middle distance between us. For the first time, really, I heard this foreign sound come out of my body, effortlessly clear and easy.
And for that brief moment, for the first time, I sang.
To be continued