Brünnhilde Can't Sleep!

After the US Presidential election on November 8, 2016, many Americans, especially women, couldn’t sleep. I was one of them. I found myself randomly crying in the street. One time, I was walking to the gym near my home in Vienna, Austria. After pulling myself together, I sat on the rowing machine and couldn’t move as tears started to stream down my face again. I decided that if someone asked me what was wrong, I would say, “I am an American.”

I discovered I wasn’t alone. In comparison to the reports I read, it seemed that my suffering was mild. Women reported attacks of uncontrollable vomiting, outbursts of crying fits, inability to concentrate and insomnia. Half the nation was grieving; the other half ecstatic, and that only made the pain for the grievers more acute.

Starting in mid-August, I was in a deep study of all the Brünnhildes from Wagner’s Ring. Of the four operas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Brünnhilde has a significant role in the last 3 operas: Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung. Studying Brünnhilde needs one’s total attention, but the American election was a distraction I couldn’t keep out of my thoughts. The madness of it all. The lies. The vulgarity. The insults. The emotionally-charged propaganda machine packed full of “falsehoods” and deception in order to hypnotize a fear-addicted population. Those who challenged the patriarchy or “the narcissistic world order,” as I started to call it, were mocked, belittled, humiliated, demonized, even destroyed by these emotionally-charged media outlets. Suddenly, the significance of studying Brünnhilde at this time hit me as loud and clear as singing “Ho jo to ho” hits my audience.

The Ring Cycle is a dramatic series of four operas in which Wagner uses the power of myth to mirror the destruction of narcissistic power. In Die Walküre, we get our first glimpse of the dynamic Brünnhilde. She is the warrior princess, ecstatically proclaiming her strength and joy through her iconic battle cry. She is euphoric, powerful and seemingly free. Her father Wotan favors Brünnhilde above all her sisters. In exchange for her high rank, Brünnhilde dutifully serves Wotan with all the devotion and passion a grateful woman can muster.

There were so many troubling images from the campaign. For me, the most disturbing were images of women ecstatic to serve Donald Trump. Their ecstasy was infused with a fervor of joy that distressed me, but one image stands out. I saw an image of a woman, glowing with pride, wearing a big smile and a white t-shirt with DIY handwritten letters printed across her chest and stomach. It said, “Donald Trump can grab my {symbol of an arrow pointing to her crotch}.” I suspect that this woman hadn’t yet worked out the fact that Donald Trump wouldn’t want her pussy. No, The Donald doesn’t have a track record of going for overweight, greasy-haired brunettes. The image of this woman gleefully offering herself up to a man who would reject her still haunts me. For a woman, there is nothing more painful than self-abandonment.

Brünnhilde allows Wotan to confide in her. She diligently listens to his complaints about his marriage to his bossy wife Fricka and his elaborate scheme for his son Siegmund to win back the gold he regretfully had to pay the two giants to build his glorious castle Valhalla. Hearing these concerns and more, she empathizes with him and chooses to carry his burdens. Clearly, she sees that her father carries burdens too heavy for his shoulders alone. She is powerful. She can help. She knows that this is why she was born. Carrying her father’s burdens and fulfilling his desires keeps her in his favor. It’s a matter not only of position but more importantly, of survival. She’s witnessed Wotan’s wrath, and she intends to stay on his good side. Being on the right side of her father gives her a sense of freedom, and she expresses these feelings of power and strength. She’s in a sort of euphoric, hypnotic state that keeps her believing that fulfilling her father’s will is fulfilling her desires. She and her father’s desires are one. There is no separation.

Trump tells the audiences at his campaign rallies of the sad state of affairs of America. He tells a story of an America that I don’t know. It’s a bleak and broken America with a forgotten and lost population. Immigrants, Muslims, Latinos, Blacks, homosexuals, the disabled, women and the “politically correct” are to blame. He tells his audience of blaming, complaining, angry White males and their supportive wives that he’s the only one who can fix their America, and he proclaims that he’s their only hope. His audience believes him. He convinces them that everyone else is corrupt. As his audience chants “Lock her up,” he explains that it is not just that nasty woman “Crooked Hillary” who is the problem. The system is the problem because it’s a “rigged system.” He’s the “outsider” who can fix it. He’s the deal-maker America needs, and all his followers need to do is to vote for him on November 8. They do.

On inauguration day, he behaved like a good Master of Ceremonies, congratulating the 17-year-old singer Jackie Evancho for her rendition of the National Anthem. Then, he assumed the role of speaker, painting the same sad story of America in ruins. In front of the federal government’s elected officials, he assures the Americans who supported him that the years of incompetence in government is about to change.

Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s unwavering voice of alliance, serves to steam-roll Trump’s agenda forward. For those citizens who don’t blindly align themselves with the Trump-led patriarchy, Kellyanne is sure to reprimand, humiliate and emotionally abuse them into submission. She constantly spews forth lies which she insists are true. Dissent is not an option in Kellyanne’s alternative world, and apparently, neither is discussion or disagreement. There is no room in her world for freedom of thought. She doesn’t seem to understand that America is not North Korea, at least, not yet. In America, 2+2 (still) = 4, and on April 22, 2017, there was a March for Science around the world to vociferously support that non-alternative fact and others like it. It is interesting that Kellyanne was abandoned by her father and raised solely by women. In her role as Trump’s right hand (wo)man, she, like Brünnhilde, gets to play the role of daddy’s favorite little girl, and she plays it spectacularly. She can reprimand and silence the voices of nasty women, pesky scientists and other ‘elites,’ like those haughty intellectuals who contradict her alternative facts.

Brünnhilde feels the pangs of confusion when Wotan commands her to go against his true desires, asking his daughter to leave Siegmund unprotected in the battle with Hunding. Brünnhilde doesn’t understand Wotan’s order because she knows Wotan truly desires that Siegmund prevail victorious. Although resigned to Wotan’s strict demand, when Brünnhilde goes to the battlefield to warn Siegmund, she cannot help but feel deep compassion for him. Her unexpected compassion compels her to vow to protect Siegmund, putting her in a position of clear disobedience to her father’s command.

The majority of Americans are not succumbing to Trump’s alternative world. They don’t see Trump’s broken-down America and aren’t getting sucked into his emotionally-charged claims of insecurity, lack and helplessness. Instead, citizens are forming a resistance. On January 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration, millions of American women, men and children took to the streets to march in seven continents, even in Antarctica. Citizens donned their handmade pink pussy hats and signs in Washington D.C. and in every major city in the world, including thousands of Alaskans who braved harsh winter snowstorms, to protest Trump’s presidency. Citizens are motivated. They have united in protest against the Muslim Ban in airports around the country. They call their legislators to voice their concern for Trump’s unqualified cabinet choices. They organize letter-writing campaigns and more protest marches. Fortunately, the majority of citizens are not handing their power over to narcissistic leadership.

Wotan rages at Brünnhilde and announces the heavy price that she will pay for her disobedience. Wotan uses his authority to remove her from her Walküre status, taking her warrior powers away from her. No longer will she fetch heroes from the battlefields and bring them to Valhalla. No longer will she give Wotan his drinking horn, nor will he kiss his favorite daughter’s hand. In fact, she will be banished from his sight. He will banish her to a mountaintop where he will lock her in a defenseless sleep so that the first man who comes upon her and awakens her will be free to ravage and possess her. Her sisters hear this brutal sentence with horror. The thought that their warrior sister, a symbol of a holy temple, would be forced to bend to the will of a mere mortal man is incomprehensible to them, so they plead for Brünnhilde. Wotan silences their pleas with a threat. They must flee from their beloved sister immediately or share in her fate. And so, they disappear.

Alone with Wotan, Brünnhilde begs his forgiveness, pointing out to him that she merely wanted to protect his favored son Siegmund. Brünnhilde had loved what Wotan had loved. She did what she knew in her heart Wotan truly felt and desired, and she then acted on them. Indeed, she even went so far as to feel compassion, a human expression of empathy and understanding. Her feelings of compassion for both Siegmund and Wotan led her to believe in the power of love, and this, in the eyes of Wotan, was her transgression.

Wotan’s favored daughter mirrored back to him his own suppressed feelings, feelings Wotan was unwilling to explore. In order to silence an unwelcome uprising of his feelings within himself, Wotan had to banish her. By banishing Brünnhilde, he effectively banished his emotions, wiping out any possibility to feel compassion, empathy or sympathy for another being. So, Wotan bids farewell to his most beloved child, and in doing so, loses his joyful, radiant, hopeful companion. He kisses the goddess for the last time and lights a circle of flames around her. With that fateful kiss, Wotan turns his warrior princess into a mere mortal, a sleeping beauty asleep to her power.

Citizens are not going to sleep. Fortunately, the crisis with narcissism that America is now facing comes at a time where women and men are willing to stand together in defiance of the narcissist’s threats. The Republican Administration threatens to abolish access to healthcare, scientific evidence, even the public educational system. The administration threatens to sew division with bigger, taller and grander walls dividing our neighboring country. The President signs orders of exclusion and deports America’s many immigrants. Citizens in the USA and in other countries are waking up, galvanizing their resources and energy to effect change for good. Individuals are making choices as to how they can make a positive impact in their own way. Political candidates are emerging at the grassroots level and taking the banner of healthy political leadership, as demonstrated by Bernie Sanders, John Lewis and others. Europe is making sure that the “Alt-Right” political candidates are defeated in elections. As the Republican Administration in America is marginalizing scientists, the new French President Macron is inviting scientists, who are committed to solving climate change issues and finding renewable energy sources, to find a home in France. Innovators seeking to make positive changes in the world are starting new non-profit organizations which can lead to major shifts, especially over time, and people are willing to fund these organizations. Many people around the world are seeing that thecountries of our world need to provide a democratic education for their citizens. A democratic education is an education steeped in the Arts and Humanities, free of insipid and confusing multiple choice questions and richly encouraging critical thinking.

It is my belief that for a democracy to function, all citizens of all races, genders, sexual preference, religions, immigration and citizenship status and socio-economic backgrounds must have a democratic education so that they have the means to participate in the democratic process. I desire to live in a world of peace; however, being peaceful is not the same as being passive. At this time, I found a new battle cry. My battle cry is to call for a democratic education for all citizens so that our world societies foster a democratic citizenry. The Arts and Humanities are vital to life-long learning and more valuable than we can even imagine.

For further reading:

Cellist Lynn Harrell's open letter to the Los Angeles Unified School District:

THE RING OF POWER by Jean Shinoda Bolen



Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson

In the middle of October, I got some amazing news: I had been nominated for the Marian Anderson Awards 2016! To be nominated for an award named after the great and courageous American contralto who broke barriers and changed the world with her singing was a heartening surprise. I was, and still am, thoroughly moved and deeply honored. About a week before this news appeared in my inbox, I had been feeling that I wanted and needed some formal acknowledgement for my work, so I resumed my practice of forgiveness. At some point, I finally learned that whenever I feel stuck, going deeper with forgiveness opens a new path for me. So, I started with that. Then, within days, this nomination came literally OUT OF THE BLUE! And, this recognition was so perfect. 

For some reason, I have always felt deeply connected to Marian Anderson. I imagine that Marian Anderson means the world to all singers (and all people for that matter), but she certainly means the world to me for so many reasons. She busted barriers not through violence but rather with her extraordinary inner and outer beauty and God-given, God-blessed extraordinary gift of singing for which she persevered with grace and glory through so much ignorance. Her example always gives me inspiration. But where did she find the inner and outer resources to stay so clear and focused to continue nurturing her talent and give so deeply of herself? 

Roland Hayes

Roland Hayes

Years ago, I found out about Roland Hayes. I was fascinated, so I bought a CD of his singing. I felt surprised and fortunate to have found it. Here was a singer, born in 1887 to freed slaves, who had found artistic and financial success, as well as prestige, at a time when people from the African race could not make a career in opera. Certainly, no African-American classical singer had been signed with any kind of artistic management nor offered any recording contract. However, Roland Hayes was such an ingenious and resourceful man that, by 1924, he became one of the highest paid singers in the world. In 1932, he was one of the wealthiest concert singers in the United States. That first time I listened to the CD of Roland Hayes, I heard a tenor with enormous sincerity and purpose who expressed a depth of emotion conveyed through his power of communication. 

But, I’m writing today about Marian Anderson, so I need to get back to the question of where she found that deep well within her that could keep her going in a world that appeared so deeply antagonistic toward her because of the color of her skin. I remember, years ago, finding a wonderful documentary on Marian Anderson’s life which I love. In that documentary, she describes herself as a very young singer getting to sing in a recital at her church with the very famous Roland Hayes. She was so excited she couldn’t sleep. She describes how he carried himself with so much dignity and explains what his example meant to her. So, there is a clue. In the face of all the racism of the 20th century, she learned from Roland Hayes’ example that if she could focus on doing something worthwhile and share it with the world, perhaps she could make a difference. And, so she did!

It really was Anderson’s own perseverance and fame that helped pave the way for herself and other Black artists. She quietly and purposefully insisted on changing the racist seating rules in concert halls, and because so many people of all races wanted to hear her, by 1950, she would refuse to sing in segregated halls. Herein lies the lesson for us all. Many singers face enormous challenges in ‘getting in.’ So often, the business of singing seems to be full of manipulation, dysfunction, arbitrary decision-making and closed doors. Doors were tightly shut for Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson and other Black artists at that time, but somehow, they found a way, an opening into a much richer singing world with a deeper purpose. When Anderson was barred from singing at Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt opened the door to an audience of thousands who could hear the great Marian Anderson perform in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939. Even after such a momentous occasion, it took the Metropolitan Opera another 16 years before they welcomed her into the fold. Finally, on January 7, 1955, she broke the ‘color barrier’ and made history as the first African-American artist to sing on the Metropolitan Opera stage, singing Ulrica in Verdi’s UN BALLO IN MASCHERA. 

Certainly, it is a pity for the Met that they kept such splendid artists as Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson and Todd Duncan from making rich contributions to their productions. Their audiences missed out, and these artists missed the opportunity to create their operatic characters and express their glorious artistry on the stage of their country’s most treasured opera theater. Their frustration and disappointment must have been severe, but through forgiveness and faith, they brought us something so much more.

Kosti Vehanen and Marian Anderson

Kosti Vehanen and Marian Anderson

Blanche Thebom

Blanche Thebom

When I was still a student at Eastman School of Music, I went to Washington, D.C. to sing to Todd Duncan. I was connected to him through a former student of his, and I was hoping he could teach me the following year. I remember going into his studio, singing to him and feeling a sense of safety and peace. He was a gentle giant with huge hands and a very kind and warm heart. He said he would teach me, but in the end, I decided not to go. About 2 years after I made the decision not to go to Washington, D.C. to study with Todd Duncan, I moved across the country in my packed 6 year old Nissan Sentra to study with the great mezzo soprano Blanche Thebom in San Francisco. When I was studying with her, I found out how her career started. As a teenager, she was on a boat traveling to Sweden with her parents where she was heard singing in the ship’s lounge by the Finnish composer and pianist Kosti Vehanen, who often accompanied Marian Anderson. Impressed with Thebom’s talent, Vehanen arranged for Thebom to study singing in NYC and eventually got her signed with the great impressario Sol Hurok who also managed Anderson’s career. What I learned only recently is that the teacher Vehanen arranged for Thebom to study with was Giuseppe Boghetti, who also had a strong connection to Marian Anderson, as he taught Anderson from 1919 until his early death in 1941.

Todd Duncan

Todd Duncan

Interestingly enough, over the years, I have worked with several singers who had strong connections with Todd Duncan. In fact, at the time that Duncan passed away, I was working with a dramatic coach who had been a student of Duncan and gave a eulogy to him in class. I have often thought about how it must have felt for Todd Duncan to have been ignored by the opera world. It must have been extremely difficult to watch others get opportunities that could have and should have belonged to him. Yet, Todd Duncan got something more profound than any conventional operatic career could have brought him. He got to work with George Gershwin while gaining world-renown and a place in history as the original Porgy in Gershwin’s PORGY and BESS. And so, we remember him.

I often hear that the greater the struggle, the greater the reward. Indeed, these singular artists were uniquely rewarded, and all of us reap the benefits from the legacy they left behind. They paved the way for the incomparable Leontyne Price to make her mark, as well as William Warfield, Shirley Verrett, George Shirley, a beloved teacher of mine Seth McCoy, and many others. I love how Leontyne Price responds to a question about how it felt to make her Metropolitan Opera debut. She says, “I felt so totally American! That’s the only way I can describe it. So richly American! My country gave me this opportunity and this space, and I was thrilled beyond belief. . . . My country gave me that space, and I claimed it. And I will never, ever, ever forget it!” 

Alan Rickman, the great actor who died last week, said, “Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theater, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.” If you are a classical singer, how are you focused on making a difference in the world? Where is your focus? If you are focused on ‘being famous’ or ‘singing at the Met,’ I invite you to go deeper and ask yourself different questions. How are you serving your art form which in turn serves humanity? How does your life and work inspire others to become an agent of change? We are all links in a chain to make the world a more lovely place to be, and only you can do your part. With clarity of purpose lighting your way, you, too, can navigate through uncharted territory and find the path that only you can take.

A beautiful and enriching 1 hour documentary on the life and career of Marian Anderson.