Category Archives: Out of the Box

Singing Backup

Elise LaBarge and Walter Parks

I have, on more than one occasion, admitted to my childhood dream of singing backup for Van Morrison. I think I just really liked the sound of those ladies mixed into some really beautiful songs. And, of course, Van Morrison. Who wouldn’t harmonize with that voice?

I get to sing some harmonies with Walter Parks on this concert. He has just as distinctive a sound, but wears a way cooler beard.


Human Interaction

I was talking to a doctor friend the other day, telling him a story that involved a guitar player I met at Starbucks.  The doctor, a man who spends his time fixing children in hospitals, asked me how that works.  How do people with books and computers and cell phones actually meet each other in coffee shops?

It’s a good question, and not one that I would have been able to answer before moving to Chicago, which will eventually be the key to my response.

Granville Island, Vancouver

I don’t regularly make friends in the coffee shop or on the street or in the park…except when I’m traveling.
When I travel, I am 100% open to anything and anyone.  If the Ecuadorian taxi driver wants to take my boyfriend and me to the Casa del Arbol on top of our hotel’s volcano, we go.  If the local Spaniard wants to tell me every single detail about his town’s bullring, I ask more questions, just to keep him talking.  If the sweet man listening to a busker on Granville Island’s wharf wants to share the occasional glance and short observation with me, I sit patiently until he does it again.  It’s the traveler’s mentality.  Nothing is trivial and every person is an opportunity for human interaction.
I love it.

When I moved to Chicago, local friends shook their heads at me when I said, “everyone is so nice here!”  I felt silly for a moment because maybe I was missing something and Chicagoans weren’t really very nice.  All the evidence I had collected supported my case, though.

Here’s the reason, as best I can tell: I was acting like a tourist.  I was 100% open, and people responded kindly.

So, that’s my answer.  When you approach life as though you are merely a traveler, you meet nice folks in coffee shops.

Casa del Arbol on the occasionally erupting Tungurahua

Christmas in my head

I sang a wedding last weekend.  While we were waiting for the ceremony to begin, the trumpet player confessed to me that the Little Drummer Boy always makes her teary…especially the bit about having nothing to offer, but here you go, little baby, take my drum.

I then made my own confession:  I cry when the bride comes down the aisle.  The bride and groom might be complete strangers, and I might not ever see them again, but still: little puddles of salt water in my eyes.  I used to sing Kurt Weill’s Saga of Jenny in my head when that unmistakable, sneaky burn of pre-tears kicked in.  It’s a good, upbeat number with funny lyrics, and it immediately takes me to a happy place in my head.  The problem is, I start thinking about dancing too, and I don’t trust myself.  I might accidentally get up and let the spirit move me, which would be decidedly bad.

But my sensitive trumpet player had brilliant advice: Think About Santa Claus.  You know, fat, jolly man with whiskers and a happy Ho Ho Ho.

It worked.  Bride in sight.  Burny tear feeling.  Fat, jolly man with whiskers.  Little smile.  Flood averted.

Thanks, Santa.

And Santa, in case you need to keep from laughing sometime, try thinking about a bride walking down the aisle.  It helps if you throw the sounds of a trumpet and some strings in the background.

sticking with the theme

I almost felt like it was a professional development workshop when I arrived at the base of the Washington Monument this past Saturday.  I huffed and puffed and looked in front of me and behind me at My Nation’s Capital and thought, “Wow, I feel patriotic right about now.”  And then I remembered that I get to sing the National Anthem again, and soon.

The thought accompanied me as I ran the 5k back to my friends’ house in Capital Hill.

As I inch towards the mic this Saturday morning before a bunch of people who are Pedaling the Cause, I’ll surely hold that view and feeling in my mind…and then I’ll sing about it.  Not a bad hour of professional development, eh?

My National Anthem

Not surprisingly, participating in a production of Man of La Mancha can make a person spend some time both on and off stage in serious consideration.  Yes, consideration of intention, body language, facial expressions, lines, lyrics, and other actorly things, but also consideration of things like freedom of speech and religion and dreaming big, big dreams.  Don Quixote may call them Impossible Dreams.  Others might venture to label them American Dreams.

I'm only thinking of him

Laura Ernst, Conor Dagenfield, Elise LaBarge
Insight Theatre
photo by John Lamb

After Thursday night’s performance, when provoked, I explained that I couldn’t be out late because my next day’s activities included singing at a Naturalization Ceremony.  A friend of a friend’s ears perked up.  He had been to Naturalization Ceremonies before.  He understood how powerful they can be.  He even repeated something he overheard after one.  “My favorite part,” this new citizen said, “was when they got to the National Anthem.  I’ve heard it plenty of times, but for the first time, it was mine.”

Armed with that story, my Man of La Mancha considerations, and my collection of America’s Favorite Songs book, I walked into the Federal Courthouse on Friday morning.  I’d already been to several Ceremonies, and knew the joy of singing the Star Spangled Banner to 50-something new Americans.  The audience is like no other.  They seem to listen with a distinct kind of open heart.

This Friday, though, I started to sing, and very few people were listening.  No, not listening, but singing.  They had considered seriously, made an oath, and now they were singing.  The man who announced to the court minutes before, “I am from Ukraine.  I start new life now,” and the Bosnian housewife, and the Indian engineer and the Moldovan couple…they and all their fellow citizens were giving it a go.  They were making it their own.  They were singing the National Anthem with me.  And they should, oh, they should have been singing.  Starting that very moment, it was, after all, theirs.

Reading, writing and art

This morning, I took a break from contemplating the ups and downs of the operatic rehearsal process, and popped on-line.  I quickly found myself reading the New York Times Magazine article about David Mitchell.  How I ended up there, I’m not sure.  My book club read his “Cloud Atlas” many, many months ago, and it sparked a good conversation.  This morning, the author’s name caught my eye.

I love that reading inspires writing.  Mitchell suggests that all the reading he did as a kid made him a writer.  Reading about him made me want to finally finish a post that I started writing a couple of weeks ago.  It’s akin to wanting to hit a practice room after attending a great performance, I figure.

The bit that suddenly jumped off my computer screen (and made me happy to have read the entire article instead of the first couple of pages) was Mitchell’s quote,

“I’m interested in human mud because, as you age, your life gets muddier. As an artist I think you realize that’s where art is art. I can only say it in very simple terms because it’s a very simple thing: art is about people, it’s not about experimentation.”

I admit that I had been dragging my feet on posting a post-Italy trip post because I couldn’t quite find my way into it.  I had all of these ideas about art reflecting life, and life reflecting art, and art reflecting art, but then David Mitchell had to announce that I was making things too complicated.  Art is about people.

The Caravaggio exhibit at the Pitti Palace in Florence then, is that about people?

A couple of weeks ago, I was standing in that exhibit, in the Medici’s old house, listening to a lot of strangers commenting to each other in various languages, all looking at the same 17th century artwork.  Yes, art is about bringing people together.

This particular exhibit highlights the aptly labeled “caravaggeschi,” the artists who were greatly influenced by the one great artist (who was, I can’t help but emphasize, influenced by other great artists).  Yes, art is also about the people who create it.

The paintings themselves are clearly of people: Biblical scenes, political figures, pretty faces…I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw Caravaggio’s Tooth Puller.  Definitely about people.

My favorite part about that painting appeared the next day in the Santa Maria Novella train station.  I was guarding backpacks and suitcases while my travel buddy grabbed some provisions.  Guarding backpacks and suitcases in a busy train station affords ample time for people watching (art!), which is half the fun of traveling.  A little girl walked back and forth with her mom, panino in hand, then mouth, then hand, then mouth.  Suddenly, she yelped something of an Italian barbaric yelp, and before a second had passed, her mother’s hand, armed with a napkin, took the place of that panino and pulled out a tooth.  The girl was jumping at that point.  No grimace of Caravaggio’s Tooth Pull-ed, but a holey smile of straight up happiness.

Art reflecting life?  Life reflecting art?

Sunday night, some friends hosted a fundraiser for Union Avenue Opera on a rooftop downtown.  Yes, there was some singing in English, Italian and French.  There were flimsy swords, impromptu dance moves, scary pirates, sirens blaring, winds a-blowing, dogs barking, and napkins flying.  Most importantly though, the roof was filled with a lot of people having a good time.  How artistic.

Pirates on Deck!

Scary pirates in collared shirts. Frightened damsels in dresses.
Photo by Dana Stone, UAO administrator extraordinaire.