Thursday, December 27, 2012
I finally have some time to write about Dragon Mother. The whirlwind of the Fall semester has settled a bit over the holiday break and I can look back on the whole process of bringing this project to life. It started almost two years ago in the interval between semesters when I felt restless without enough to do. I decided to ask various composers to write pieces for me in the coming years. I approached Gilad Cohen, an Israeli grad student with an infectious energy and love of musical theatre. He had worked with some of my undergraduate students on various musical theatre productions and they all loved him. Gilad seemed excited about writing a piece for me, especially when we convinced Michael to let us use the orchestra and maybe even take the piece on tour. About a year ago Gilad and Michael and I started exploring how to use the members of the orchestra in more theatrical/ non-traditional ways. Emily joined us at Small World Coffee as we discussed details of instrumentation, length, as well as Emily’s approaching Birthright trip to Israel. Gilad said he would debrief her when she got back. I made a CD for Gilad of some of my favorite pieces – Nursery, Ugly Duckling, Knoxville, – to give him ideas of vocal and dramatic style as well as balance with orchestra. I don’t know if he listened to it, but somehow he knew exactly how to write for my voice.
As winter turned to spring, we started talking about text and subject matter. Gilad chose a lyricist in NYC whom he had worked with before. We traded emails and brainstormed about different ideas. I said I wanted something dramatic, funny, maybe sexy, or silly. I shared all my menopause voice woes and voice lesson struggles in the hope that this could be added to the mix somehow. We were working our way toward setting a fairy tale when Henry broke up with Emily and left her sobbing on a street corner late at night in a bad neighborhood. Shortly after that I sent Gilad and Sean the following email: “I particularly like the little match girl, and the nightingale and there are other ones with birds…. OR what about our own story: A benevolent queen lives in a beautiful castle in the country side. Her daughter, the lovely princess, lives in the nearby town. Whenever anyone is mean to her daughter – roommates leave dirty dishes in the sink and empty beer bottles on the porch, potential employer never calls her back after three interviews, co-worker is arrogant and condescending, former college friends don’t return text messages, boyfriend of a year-and-a-half whom she wants to marry suddenly informs her it is over and he wants to be single – the queen transforms into a ferocious dragon, swoops down on the offenders and roasts them! This is my real fairy tale life right now. Also, don’t forget about the menopause ideas.”
Sean and Gilad both loved it! Ooooops, I thought, I should really check this with Emily first before we proceed. As I feared, Emily was a bit wary about having the trials of her early 20s immortalized in a piece of music. Gilad and Sean and I got together for dinner at a wonderful Middle Eastern restaurant on 72nd street in late May. As we sat out on the upstairs terrace in the soft warm air and discussed the idea for the text, Sean assured me that it would become something general about mothers and daughters, taken from me and Emily, yes, but also from his mother and his wife and her mother and other universal themes. We talked about strophes and stanzas, and refrains and returns. It was a fascinating exchange of energy and ideas. Gilad and I were really excited as we shared the train back to Princeton.
The summer proceeded with emails back and forth from Gilad in Israel. Sean had dashed off the text and Gilad was tearing into the music, sending me periodic versions of the score and recordings of him playing and singing – ah, the magic of digital communication! I worked on the songs as they developed over the summer and loved singing them. Michael even said they sounded good through the door. Gilad was very receptive to my comments and we adjusted the keys on a few songs and discussed other small details as issues came up. Some sections were challenging rhythmically, others were tricky vocally. We didn’t settle on an ending until early October. After High Holy Days when I finally had a chance to rehearse with Gilad, everything started to fall into place. The songs were fantastic and thundered through my head most of the time.
Throughout the fall, Gilad worked on the orchestration along side many other projects including a production of Kiss me Kate staring one of my students. I was teaching MUS 214, a Baroque Cantata class, which was great fun, except for the tragic loss of my co-teacher’s mother and mother-in-law. Michael was crazy with the production of The Bourgeois Big Wig. Hugo and Hurricane Sandy added other challenges and excitement to our semester. Then everyone started getting sick. All my students had colds or flu or mono. Numerous plagues were going around the orchestra and Glee Club. I even suffered through a weekend meditation retreat with Taraniya where several people were coughing violently the whole time. Yes, this is indeed my least favorite thing. I really didn’t want to be sick or recovering for the December performances. I went into battle mode: garlic, Thieves oil, vitamin C, special herbs from my acupuncturist, obsessive hand washing, and no touching of surfaces in Woolworth. It was sort of crazy, but I had to do it. A lot of people were counting on me including Gilad, the whole orchestra…I didn’t want to disappoint them. The pressure for this concert felt more than usual – the piece was so personal and important to me, I really wanted to do a good job.
Rehearsing with the orchestra was great fun. Gilad was overjoyed. There were balance problems and amplification issues, but that was not my responsibility. Michael was incredibly supportive as always in helping me solidify the final memorization. Bob Sandberg came to a rehearsal and gave me a wonderful dramatic coaching. I really wanted to do a full body presentation with movement and gestures and acting. We had talked about adding lighting effects, but the concert logistics ended up being too complicated. The snake skin dress and shoes would have to be enough. Given that the piece ended up being 15 plus minutes long of mostly constant singing, it was quite a work out. It did end up being a little funny and silly, but also very dramatic, and moving, and quite emotional to perform. Sean had accomplished all he set out to do with the text: it included wistful looking back on a faded, impermanent youth – my new menopause voice is not what it once was – I got to almost roast Henry for hurting Emily – that felt so good – I also got to look towards the next phase of my life with a bursting mother’s pride and a quiet joy – all so true.
I managed to be healthy and in good voice and the two performance went very well, despite some problems with a crackling speaker Friday night. Emily was there Saturday and we fell into each others arms after the performance and cried and cried. I love her so much! I would turn into a dragon to protect her, but I am so proud of her that she doesn’t need me to anymore. It is also nice to know that I can still breath fire in my own quiet way…..Some day I will listen to the recording of the performances. Gilad and I will probably make a clean piano vocal recording at some point, and we may even have a recording session with the orchestra after the tour. For now I am basking in the memory of the performances and enjoying the relaxing let down after a really intense period.