Steel, Spunk, and Grit – Why I’m Not a Soprano

IngenueApparently, I am not a soprano.

(That sound you just heard was my voice teachers of yore choking on their collective arpeggios.)

The news was a shock to me, too.  I’ve spent the last almost ten years training to be a lyrical ingenue soprano, equally comfortable in both the classical and contemporary genres.  I have spent countless hours preparing to pitch myself to the theatre world as a Galinda in Wicked, a Laurie in Oklahoma, and even a Maria in West Side Story, (if I could ever tan enough to pass for Hispanic, which, admittedly, is an unlikely possibility).

But the truth is that I am none of these.  And it wasn’t until yesterday that all the puzzle pieces of my “brand” locked into place.

Most of you know that I didn’t start singing and acting until college (in my opinion, elementary school forays in the class musical don’t really count).  And I started with a bang: I auditioned for Maria in West Side Story and landed the role, mostly because I had a clear, if very raw, high A-flat in the audition, and a high C when they vocalized me later.

Let’s make a long story very short and jump to the end: after almost six months of work, I finished my first show with a hollow feeling of elation.  On the one hand, I had done a huge role and done it rather well, given the resources available to me and the amount of time I had been training.  On the other hand, I had never felt comfortable in the role.  And wasn’t it supposed to be my perfect role?

Here’s what I’ve been trained to see myself as over the years:  the young, dewy-eyed soprano girl in love.

Here are the roles I’ve actually enjoyed playing in my life:  crotchety old “prospector” Nathaniel in Taming of the Shrew (it was a bit part), sardonic 50-year-old woman-of-the-world Maggie in 42nd Street, angry embittered sister Joyce in Top Girls.  A bit different from your standard ingenue, huh?

A year and a half ago, I took a fabulous branding-for-the-actor workshop by image guru Sam Christiansen.  He’s great at helping you identify how you come across to other people – and how you can harness that knowledge to keep a clear brand in mind whenever you enter the room. (It’s a little hard to explain, but it was worth every single penny.)  Some of the major “essences” of my brand that I came away with were:

  • “21st Century Shirley Temple with an MBA”
  • “I can do it all by myself, but I’d love it if you wanted to come along.”
  • “Don’t let my dimples fool you – I will take your job.”
  • “Producer and star of backyard extravaganzas”
  • “Pint-sized powerhouse”
  • “I’ve had my world takeover planned since age nine – wanna see the notebooks?”
  • And of course, “Gingham and steel”…didn’t you wonder where the blog’s title came from?

I loved the work we did in that class.  Every single statement we identified (and the many others that I loved but am not actively using) hit home for me – they matched my experiences, my feelings, and what other people have told me about myself.

There was only one problem: I couldn’t quite figure out how any of them fit with my soprano voice and what I supposedly was, professionally.  For example, I could sing most of the role of Christine in Phantom of the Opera, but why was that role so completely out-of-sync with my brand?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked myself if I just needed to get specially coached on how to be an ingenue.  While I love watching them, the truth is, I hate playing them!  There’s so little about their needs, their attitudes, and their actions that I relate to.  I wrack my brain trying to connect to them, and even at my best, it feels a little forced.

This was driven home the other night when I was in acting class, watching another girl sing a lovely soprano song and knowing that she’d just finished the recent West Side Story tour as Maria.  It struck me, like a gong reverberating through my head, that she was so naturally graceful and romantic and sweet and soprano-y – and that I had so little in common with her. What was wrong with me? I kept wondering.

Furthermore, just from a technical standpoint, I’ve struggled for years with singing the soprano part in choirs and large groups.  I have those high notes – but sung repeatedly in a choral setting, or over long rehearsal periods, I end up losing my voice.  I’ve spent years searching for better breath support, convincing myself that I just wasn’t practicing enough or was just singing too loudly, and endlessly beating myself up mentally when my instrument shut down on me. Not gonna lie – it often kept me awake at night, wondering How on earth can I be considering this for a career if I can’t even keep my voice through a show?

And then my voice teacher yesterday tossed off a sentence that completely changed my life:

“You’re not a soprano – you’re a mezzo.”

I had no words.

He looked at me and continued, as if it were totally obvious, “I mean, just look at your speaking voice!  That’s your normal range.  You just happen to have high notes.”

That’s when it clicked.  In five seconds, all of my struggles with my brand, my voice, my past, and my future suddenly fit, like puzzle pieces.  I understood why things weren’t working in my “ingenue” career path.  I understood that (the need for better breath support for all singers notwithstanding) my losing my voice in those choral settings wasn’t my fault.  I understood why I couldn’t relate to the boring characters I was supposed to be playing.

I’m not a soprano.  I’m a mezzo.

It’s only been a day, so I’m still not used to saying that.  And I don’t have a clue what it will mean for me, figuratively, intangibly, or even daily.  But I’m excited, after ten long years, to start walking down the right road to my career as a performer.

It’s going to be spunky.  It’s going to be gritty.  And it’s going to be fun.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/chicks57/1357270691/”>chicks57</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a>

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