On December 28th, 2013, I made my debut at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York City singing the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute.
Christmas morning 2013 looked very similar to many from the past. Christmas breakfast casserole was in the oven, hot coffee in our mugs, my family gathered in front of a crackling fire by the Balsam Fir tree we had each had a say in picking out at the tree farm a few weeks before. As Dave Brubeck’s Christmas album played softly in the background, we all tried to pretend that this was the relaxing beautiful holiday that it was supposed to be.
Except… 3 days.
And I had ALL of the emotions.
Since I was a little girl, my most wild and fantastical goal was to sing on the Met stage. Everyone needs to have a dream, and the Metropolitan Opera was mine. Maybe that’s why for months I’d felt a tingling sensation all over my body when I thought about the Met, and I had several heart stopping moments per day when I envisioned singing my first note on that stage. I’ve dedicated my entire life to this art form, with the words “Met debut” tattooed on my conscious as the ultimate moment I was designed for. Now I had a specific date and time — I could practically predict to the minute, WHEN I would sing that first note — and all my energy was focused on that moment, like I was peering at it through a microscope, but at the same time it felt gigantic and I could only see it through a telescope, and I felt very small.
See? ALL of the emotions…
The evening went by in anything but a blur – more like a calculated inventory of feelings and moments. I was present and enjoying every second, but at the same time it was as if I was watching it all happen from outside of my body. Now, a year later, I still feel like I can replay every moment of that entire day as if it I could see it on a heart monitor screen- and the tallest spikes are my strongest memories. Here are some of them:
1) My family.
I told them all weeks beforehand that I could not and would not see them before I left for the theater on the evening of. I didn’t want to be distracted and emotional. But minutes before I left, I changed my mind. They were killing time a few blocks away, waiting for me to leave so they could come up to my short-term rental to change their clothes for the big night. I had Tom call them to tell them to come early. Almost all the lights in the apartment were off, except the Christmas tree (yes, we got a second tree for our NYC apartment because I love Christmas.)
There was a soft knock on the door, almost like they were trying not to wake a sleeping dragon (not far off…) My mom (and best girlfriend in the world whom I have shared everything with since the moment I was separated from her body at my birth) was unsure if she should make eye contact and desperately tried to show no emotion whatsoever on her face, and instead plastered a sort of horrifying pleasant wide-eyed close-mouthed half-smile on her face that hid a mountain of vicarious excitement and nerves. My dad couldn’t stop grinning, and the twinkle in his eyes rivaled Santa Claus. If no one else was going to enjoy the moment, by golly, he was GONNA. And my big brother, who had flown overnight from Honolulu, having found out only a week or so before that he would be able to make the trip to see my debut performance (he’s an officer in the military… it’s complicated… and when he called me and asked “if someone were to be trying to buy a last minute ticket to a sold out performance at the Met, how would one do so?”… I burst into tears…) He had that big brother look on his face that made me feel the same sort of awesome that Kevin felt in Home Alone when his big brother says “Hey Kev, it’s pretty cool that you didn’t burn the place down.” All is right with the world.
And my partner of life, Tom. He has been here and there and everywhere since the day we met. Quietly, yet boldly supporting me at all times. He knew just what to do. Hug my mom. Shake hands with my brother and father, take their suitcases, and act normal.
I’m so grateful they were all there together to distract me and remind me that it all means more with an amazing family surrounding you with love and support.
2) I found my nail.
The sets that amaze audiences night after night are elaborate pieces of a whole and take a lot of backstage man-power to construct and deconstruct. There are always many operas in circulation during any season at the Met, and so therefore there are always a lot of sets being sewn together with large nails and then quickly being torn apart to prepare for the next set to take the stage. Because of this, backstage at the Met is almost always littered with bent nails that have been yanked violently out of the set pieces before they go into temporary storage on the left and right stage wagons (deep side stages) or into the storage underneath the stage via giganta-elevator. It’s the debut tradition to go backstage on your night and pick out a nail that speaks to you. Mine looks like a beach chair.
3) Smelling the roses.
I have never received so many beautiful bouquets of flowers in my life. I think there were literally more flowers in my dressing room on the night of my Met Opera debut than at my wedding. Everyone who entered was bombarded with the scent of fresh flowers and I even was accused of trying to open a sideline day-job floral business out of my dressing room (just in case my night job of opera-singing didn’t pan out…) It was wonderful. Seriously, seriously, wonderful.
4) O Zittre Nicht… Yeah, right.
I remember very clearly walking from my dressing room to the stage and being preset up on set to sing my first aria. I thought I was going to pass out up on that platform in the dark as Tamino sang the last lines of the portrait aria. I concentrated on breathing and trying to calm myself but my heart was pounding and I was sweating, and also very cold. I’ve always found ways of dealing with my stage nerves, but this was like nothing I had ever felt before. I knew I had to pull myself together, but how? I was getting even more nervous thinking about how nervous I was!
And then Mozart rescued me. The mellow and powerful sounds of the infamous Met orchestra playing the intro to my aria surrounded me in the blue-tinged darkness backstage as the platform began to rotate outward to the audience’s view. Just before exposure I realized that a gigantic grin had covered my face – this was happening and I was ready for it and I was about to have the time of my life. But the smile had to go… not in character!
Just before going onstage to sing the famous “Der Hölle Rache”, I put my giant fingernail right through the delicate mesh fabric of my blood red sleeve! I panicked – but luckily Annie, my dresser, did not. I’m pretty sure she flew to the costume room and before I even had the time to whisper some sort of obscenity, she had snapped a reserve sleeve on my left arm. Ah, the amazing world of live theater.
6) The aftermath.
Curtain call was a thrill! Then my friends and family poured into my dressing room in a steady stream with huge hugs and special heartfelt messages whispered into my ear. I scrubbed the stage makeup off my face until I resembled a human again, donned a sparkly cocktail dress and floated across the street to Bar Boulud where close to a hundred family, friends and colleagues gathered to celebrate with a big glass of wine (but not too big… I still had three performances to sing in the coming week!)
A picture paints a thousand words, and this one- shot right before I entered the room of my debut party, is no exception!
Now, a year later, it is completely odd to say that not only is my debut season at the Metropolitan Opera completed – but I have just a few short weeks ago, finished my second season there! This season was less like a dream and more like the most amazing reality that I could imagine into happening. Another year of singing Queen under my belt and I felt more confident and ready to enjoy the experience fully (and with a little more oxygen in my veins!)
A few more photos to peruse!
Annie took this funny photo of me backstage in my dressing room on Halloween Night 2014 (second season)
I’ll let you decide which is the before and which is the after.
And a little family history to sum it all up…
Mimi’s name was Joyce Sparrow, and she was blessed with a gorgeous rich true contralto voice and studied first with the legendary Louise Homer at Lake George (with a little Samual Barber running around, Louise’s nephew!) and then with Paul Althouse in NYC. She and the (also legendary) Richard Tucker had back-to-back lessons with Mr. Althouse and were great friends before and during WWII, and my Mimi used to sub for him at his synagogue gig all the time! She herself was the alto soloist at the Riverside Cathedral on the upper west side for many years and sang many oratorio and opera roles with the abundant regional opera companies in the New York and New Jersey areas.
She made her New York City Hall debut when she was just about my age and even auditioned at the Met (the old Met!)- but shortly after, my grandfather came home from the war, they started a family, and her professional ambitions we put on hold (permanently). Such were the times…
I always told my mother that I would one day take up the reigns of Mimi’s dream to sing on the Metropolitan Opera stage. Her dream became my dream. She remains my most treasured and powerful inspiration and is never far from my thoughts and my heart… Especially when that curtain goes up!