For twenty-three months I have been in mourning, grieving the death of my youngest child. It’s not something I share much. Only a few people know. I long ago perfected the art of the social mask, so I suppose most people would be incredulous were I to share the truth of the suffering. And there is absolutely nobody who can or is willing to take action to better the situation. For the most part, I understand why. But there is rage simmering inside that won’t abate. It will kill me one day.
What happened is hard to describe because I’ve never been told the particulars. But the reality is that my heart was torn from me in a cruel and humiliating way, and the agony is unbearable. To never have had the chance to say goodbye to someone I carried in my body and nurtured at my breast. Someone I felt so blessed to share life’s journey with, and then so unexpectedly lost has left me bitter. Abandonment by any means is still abandonment. It is devastating, and it is an all too familiar theme in my life. It’s emotional poverty.
Those stages of grief as described in the Kübler-Ross model? I’ve experienced them all, and on a continuous loop. It’s the carousel of torture that wreaks havoc in my head, and has damaged my health. But I can’t stop it, and I can’t jump off.
God and I are not speaking as of late. But I still send up prayers: keep him safe; keep him healthy; let him know love; let him remember his mother loves him; let him forgive me; let me forgive him.
Most often now, my prayer is: take away my longing; take away my love for him; let me forget him; just make it all stop.
Let me forget him. Please please please!
No funeral. No goodbyes. No closure. Just an ugly gaping wound that will never heal. This was not of my choosing. It was his agency, and the damage done was calculated and intentional. Now it seems there is no way out. It is madness, and I am not well.
“Spending a lot of time together in a new relationship is normal and fun. You are getting to know each other on a deeper level, emotionally and sometimes physically. You may get the “stars in your eyes, let’s only hang out with each other” type feeling because this person makes you feel attractive and loved and excited about life together. But what happens when “let’s only hang out with each other” becomes less of a feeling and more of a command? We call this isolation and it’s a form of control within a relationship. If you are feeling fearful, alone, or trapped in your relationship, you are probably experiencing dating abuse.
Isolation is often a gradual process – like walking down a low grade hill. You may not notice that you’re actually moving down until you look up and suddenly the place you were before is high above you.
Look for warning sign behaviors that create a barrier between you and the people and things you love. For example, when you hang out with friends, does your partner belittle your friends or you? It can start subtly: “Karen is so dumb; I don’t know why you hang out with her.” And turn into more direct threats: “Karen is so dumb and I don’t want you to be like her. If you keep hanging out with her, we’re over.” In addition to verbal threats, body language is an important marker in determining isolation tactics. When you’re out with friends or family, your partner might start to physically distance themselves in the back of the room or become very clingy and hover over you. These acts create a physical barrier between you and the group which can be very uncomfortable for everyone involved.
Another way abusive partners start the isolation process is to make it extremely difficult and uncomfortable for you to participate in activities you enjoy or be with friends and family. While you are out, your partner may call or text constantly, show up at your location just to “check in,” or insist on picking you up early even if you’re not ready to leave. These actions make continue after you have returned from your activities or being with loved ones. They will do things like picking a fight or using the silent treatment to “punish” you for being away from them. Their “punishment” may include words of blame that guilt you into not spending time with friends in the future. A phrase you may hear is, “You were out there having so much fun, while I was here bored with no one to talk to.”
Another isolation tactic is to establish an “us vs. the world” mentality in your relationship, insisting that they are the only person who TRULY loves you, and anyone who isn’t a fan of them is the enemy. They may say things like: “Why do your parents hate me? They don’t want us to be together. Let’s hang out at my house from now on.
Abusive partners use isolation as a way to cut off access to your support system in order to make you feel entirely dependent on them. This makes it harder to recognize behavior that isn’t cool, leave the situation, or get help. Having friends and family to rely on is essential for your emotional and physical health – it’s part of being a Healthy Me! In a healthy relationship, your partner will encourage you to be with people who uplift you, as well as give you the freedom and space to be in activities just like you were before the relationship began.
It’s Time To Talk
Here are a few questions that parents and caring adults can use to start conversations about isolation with the young people in their life:
What does your partner think of your friends? Do you all hang out together?
What’s something that you get from your best friendship that you can’t get from your partner?
I’ve noticed that you’ve been at your partner’s house a lot and I was hoping that we could get to know them better, just like you’ve gotten to know their parents. Do you think we could have dinner together?
What if this happens to me?
If you are feeling cut off from family, friends, and activities you love and you feel safe enough to address it with with your partner, here are a few things you can say:
I love spending time with you, but my weekly best friend outings are really important to me.
It bothers me when you don’t speak nicely about my family, because I love both of you. It would really mean a lot to me if you all got along.
I need alone time – let’s take a day to ourselves so we’ll cherish our time together even more.
Remember, you deserve a healthy relationship where your relationships with family and friends can still flourish and grow! Having freedom and space is an essential part of a Healthy We. If your partner reacts badly when you spend time with others or if you feel like you need to “ask permission” to do so, that’s not respectful. If you notice any of these signs in your relationship and want to talk about it with a peer advocate or if you need help, text “loveis” to 22522.”
I saw you. You did not see me. The sudden awareness took my breath away. My feet would not move, and my voice would not sound. But there you were.
You were clad in black with a slouchy jacket, its hood so big that most of your face was obscured. On your shoulders was a backpack which I understood to be full of your belongings, a burden pulling down on your broad shoulders. In your hands you carried an old office phone. I understood that you had lost your cell phone.
We were in a large public space, and you were standing at a tall ticket counter. You placed the phone on the ledge, and turned away. After several steps you settled onto a bench, sliding your bag off your shoulders to the floor, beside your feet. There you hunched over and I was aware of great sadness in you.
I turned to the counter, toward the phone and considered the situation. Did you leave the phone for me? Should I risk you seeing me? I did not know the right thing to do. A hum in my head became louder. The sound frightened me as it grew stronger, obscuring all other noise around me and confusing me. It wouldn't stop. I felt the sound was so loud it would kill me.
The sound was coming from inside me. It was a great wail of grief that I could not express, and for a moment I was dying.
I knew I needed to walk to the phone. In a haze of confusion I approached the counter where you'd left the phone. I saw the unfamiliar number on a sticker pasted on the face near the dial pad. I reached for the phone and took it into my hands as a precious object, with great care.
The horrible noise in my head stopped. I turned around and you were still there on the bench, still hunched over with your head down.
I approached you and said, "Please talk to me. I need to talk to you. Please don't run away." You sat up.
"I haven't seen you in four months. I haven't heard your voice in four months. "
You lifted your head to me, and I saw pain and bitterness in your eyes. "Four months? Really? Are you still mad at me?"
"What do you mean? You've been so angry with me, but I don't know why."
And we looked at each other for a long while, our eyes filling with tears as the realization came that we both felt that the other had been responsible for the hurt. You stood up and reached out to me, taking me in with your young, strong arms."There there mother. We're okay. We're okay."
I had a life once. It was busy and fulfilling. There was purpose and direction, and my confidence was strong. I traveled to interesting places where I met interesting people. My work was something I was really good at doing.
Then came a bad decision, one that seemed good at the time, but came to fruition quickly as an unexpected, unbelievable situation. I got lost.
The lost years. It feels to me now as if that slice of my life never existed. There is nothing to show for it. There is nothing in my present life about it except for a great deal of pain. I’ve been swallowed up by grief and loneliness so profound that nothing makes sense anymore.
The future is about growing old alone, being destitute, and continued rejection from two people I love more than my own life. They will never see this post.
I’ve criticized you on many occasions, and I regret it deeply. You never deserved to be criticized. My behavior was a reflection of my own fear that you might not succeed. But you’re doing just fine, and I don’t have to criticize your choices or actions. Especially now that I realize it was never really helpful, I’m very sorry for all the times I made you feel bad about yourself. I’m committed to changing that behavior. I hope we can start over. Love, Mother
In just a few weeks, I’m reaching a milestone in my operatic career: my 50th role.
That doesn’t mean years of merely memorizing music; role preparation is a process and an essential part of life as an opera singer. Over the years, I’ve honed that process and I’ve found exactly what works for me in order to take on a new character.
It’s a meticulous and fascinating journey every time I open up a new score. No matter what role I learn, here are the steps I take along the way:
1. Buy The Right Score
First things first! This may seem obvious but it’s a step that can’t afford to be overlooked.
There are many editions of opera scores out there and what works for Puccini is not going to work for Mozart. Different musicologists and editors decide what goes into a score, and you have to choose an accurate source for your music-making.
Bärenreiter is great for Mozart, and Ricordi is good for Puccini, but do your research and ask a coach or conductor before you make that purchase—it can be quite expensive! When I was young, I made the mistake of buying a full opera score (the entire orchestra part) so be smart and order a vocal score (voice and piano reduction).
Some scores have a lot of editorial mistakes, so be sure to crosscheck with other scores, if you can get your hands on them, before making the purchase. You want a score that is reliable.
Make sure you purchase the right version and the one that’s the most stylistically accurate: it’ll show the conductor you mean business at that first rehearsal.
For buying scores, I recommend Classical Vocal Reprints. Amazon has less of the rare works, but they do deliver in two days if you need something fast.
Time-wise, even though it takes me 2-4 months to learn a role, this first step of buying the score happens 5-6 months before that first rehearsal just so I’m extra prepared.
2. Listen to a Recording and Highlight
Find a few solid recordings of the opera—I choose them according to the baritone or the conductor—and grab those highlighters! While listening to a recording, I use a yellow highlighter for all of my text. Next, I use a pink highlighter for any musical indications that may affect my singing (dynamics, meter and tempo changes, articulation, stage directions, etc.).
I listen to a recording right off the bat to get a sense for how the opera flows, the tempi and any traditions that aren’t written in the score. Since I don’t have the role learned yet, the danger of imitation isn’t much of a problem because it’s not in my voice yet. After listening to it once, I don’t refer to it again until the very end of the process because of that same danger.
Listening to a recording can give you some creative ideas for the role as well as an example of what not to do, so stay open-minded as you listen. Remember to make the role unique to yourself while also preserving the tradition of the piece.
Don’t forget tabs: I use these hefty tabs to indicate my entrances. This makes it easier to refer to those places in a rehearsal. I don’t use a different color for arias because it gives the aria more “weight” than it needs. It’s just part of the role. It’s crazy how organization can alter your mindset!
If the score has an English translation underneath the text, don’t pay much attention to it. It’s usually never accurate.
You need to literally translate each word into your respective language. This literal translation also needs to happen with your stage partners’ text because you have to understand what they’re telling you in order for you to form a reaction. Know the general idea of what they’re saying and underline their most important words, so you can react appropriately.
I write the literal translation directly into the score, underneath the original text, and I leave the score blank above the musical notes for anything I want to add about the music itself. This may seem obvious but it needs to be clearly written so you can understand what you wrote.
I make a choice NOT to translate any scenes I’m not in because think about it: my character wouldn’t know what’s going on in those scenes if he’s not in them. It’s good to generally know what happens but sometimes it’s good to not to know what happens because your character doesn’t know what happens. Like Marcello in La bohème. I can’t act like Mimì is sick until Rodolfo tells me that in Act 3. My reaction needs to be natural and taken aback, even though I already know that she’s been coughing up cats. The only parts that need to be translated are ones that describe your character, like if another character sings, “his mother died last year and has been grieving since”—it’s pertinent information to your character to act mournful.
I use Nico Castel for my translations because it’s reliable. It has the literal translations, the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) for diction, general translations, and directorial suggestions.
It helps to translate your own score with a dictionary when you’re first starting to sing so you can understand what that process is like. I don’t do it anymore because I’ve already gone through the process many times. Plus, I simply don’t have the time. Translating text yourself is the longer road but it’s the more fruitful one. I also keep an open mind when reading the Castel and rely on my own language skills to get me through a translation, something I didn’t have at a young age. So, whether you translate your own score or use a reference tool, the meaning is roughly the same. If you have any questions about something specific, have a conversation with your director.
Extra Credit: Another step for me in the translation process is creating my own booklet of the text. I usually copy the pages of my hand-written translations or the Castel and bind them together. I refer to that in my rehearsals more than the score, not only because there are way fewer pages but because I focus on my acting and telling the story more than my singing (which, funnily enough, helps my singing!)
4. Bang That Steinway
Now you can finally learn the music. This is an important skill to develop as soon as possible because it takes the most time. Coaches can help but they’re not always readily available and paying them by the hour is expensive.
I don’t think I need to give y’all a break down of how to learn music but take the time to solidify the notes and rhythms on your own. Repeat over and over again the odd phrases, large jumps, tricky text, etc.
I don’t separate the text out from the music and recite it as a practice method unless a passage is tricky to pronounce.
What I will do when I’m learning the music is underline the words I want to emphasize, which helps with the musical phrasing, since they go hand in hand. The emphasis might change places over time but you have to start somewhere.
and for a phrase that needs a really big breath before it (BB):
When learning a role, I practice about an hour and a half a day. Even if I’m not I’m in a focused practice session, I’m constantly running the music or text in my head.
5. Coach It
If you’re solid with the language, you probably won’t need a separate language coach but most singers rely heavily on coachings before that first day of rehearsal. A coach will play the orchestra reduction along with you so you can feel out the role as a whole.
When I was younger and couldn’t afford a coach (or wasn’t yet married to one!) for more than a few sessions, I would actually record him/her playing the orchestral reduction of my most difficult passages. I would later refer to that recording and sing along with it so I could nail it down. Even if I were a proficient pianist, their skills as a coach are invaluable for a singer and allows me to practice singing the role just as I would perform it.
The first coaching is important because you want to cover as much of the entire role as possible, to plan it out. Then you can go back and repeat the most difficult passages. After visiting with a coach, hit your voice teacher up to help you with any vocal challenges.
Repetition, repetition, repetition!
Personally, melodies stick quicker in my mind than words do. I first memorize the music and the rhythms, singing it to myself softly over and over again. I memorize 2-4 measures at a time, then add it to the next 2-4 measures until I cover an entire system. I do the same with each system then add them all together until I have a page down. I do that until the entire role is memorized.
Usually, the text latches onto this process and gets memorized without me trying. Sometimes there are a few holes, so I diligently look back and make sure my text lines up just right.
After you’ve memorized it, look back at your score to check every pick-up note, breath mark, liaison, etc, is correct. You may have changed your musical ideas and phrasing choices from that first day you highlighted your score, so add those updates in. Also, you may slip up and forget some of the small details in the score, so make sure to check yourself.
That First Day
Upon entering the rehearsal room on that very first day, you should know every music note, rhythm, line of text, and translation as if it’s a part of you. Why? To prepare yourself for the chance that some changes may need to happen, like tempi, and rhythms, as you bring your artistic ideas to the table for the first time. A balance must be struck between you, the conductor, and the director, as they already have their own ideas as well. I find that my character interpretation happens naturally within rehearsals with the director.
I have a self-made schedule of knowing the entire score 2 weeks before the first day so I’m not cramming the days leading up. Cramming is vastly different than learning a role but it happens. On those rare occasions, this may help.
Background research helps, too. The first time I sang Eugene Onegin, I read Pushkin’s novel and I remember that his butler at one point brought him his comb set. This tells me that Eugene is incredibly conscious of the way he looks, and I needed to add that to my interpretation of him.
Role preparation should not be an overwhelming thing if you give yourself ample time to learn the music, stay organized, and remain open to the natural changes that might happen over time with your character. Most importantly, figure out what works for you. Nobody taught me how to learn a role, this is just my own process I’ve found from doing it 49 times. I wish you luck as you customize your own!
“About a week ago, I got news that my childhood cat had finally passed away. Miso was just about 20 years old, and had survived a twice broken leg, so she’d seen her fair share of challenges. But she lived a long, and what I hope was a happy life with us. She was the type of cat who wasn’t quite aware that she was feline, and loved playing fetch and snuggling more than a lot of cats I’ve known. She was still the type of creature who oversaw the subjects of her domain, but she did so with benevolence and care, and was always there for you when you needed her. I’m happy that so many of my friends met her; she loved you all.
I’ve been waiting for some great breakdown to happen inside me, but the fact is we knew she was nearing the end, and she went cozy and peacefully, brought on by nothing but old age and a long life. So here are some of my favorite pictures of her, just a couple moments from throughout her life that I have to remember her by. Here’s to you, Miso. Thank you for your constant presence and affection. I love you and miss you.”
So writes my eldest about our recent loss. His brother says he doesn’t recall when Miso wasn’t with us, as he was four years old when we adopted her as a rescue recovering from a broken leg. I’ve always felt that she chose us. Miso was fetching and charming, and as she looked at us from the top of a cat tree, she rolled onto her back and invited attention. Her claws were retracted in a display of good manners as she reached out to us. We all felt it; Miso was to join our family.
For the past two years, kitty had been on the decline. Nothing wrong but the insults of old age. Her feeding routine became complicated, as she required very small frequent meals. She suffered senility, and was sometimes confused. As my son wrote, we knew the end was near.
On the morning of January 18, 2018, Miso spent a few hours dozing in a quiet corner of the parlor. She refused food and water. I sat with her there, as did my younger son, who was readying to return to his studies after a month off for the holidays. I knew what was happening. I prepared my son. So I scooped her up, and carried her into my room and gently set her on my bed in a cozy fleece blanket she liked.
I pulled out my stethoscope to listen. Her heart rate was double than normal, and her respiration was labored. I gave her drops of water from a syringe. She seemed to appreciate that, if only to wet her dry mouth. My son came in, and we both laid around her, and talked to her softly. We stroked her still-soft fur, trying to imprint a memory of touch in our hearts. We wrapped her in her warm blanket on that cold, rainy day.
Miso was a cat who lived in a home where music was a constant. Whether it was my kid’s music or me practicing, or teaching my voice students, she loved to come into the studio and stretch out in the middle of the floor. Bach or Stravinsky or the Dead. All of it was good to her. German Romantic music would induce her to crawl up onto my lap as I listened and studied. In retrospect, how cool was that? Those last few hours of her life, I played Schubert lieder.
An die Musik came on. It is a love song to music, and one which I’ve sung a hundred times. As the song played, sweet Miso stretched, and sighed. And then she was gone.
That night, in the rain, we buried her in our favorite area of the forest in the urban national park a few blocks from our big city home. The rain let up as we put her to rest. My son rolled some big logs to protect her grave, and we each offered reflections of our life with her. Expressions of gratitude for her kind and loyal nature. Of a long life, and the sorrow of saying goodbye.
The house feels empty. It will take time for our grief to ebb. Our home will never be the same, and our hearts will always be a bit tender when we think of her.
Thank you old friend. It was a blessing to share the journey with you.