Hello everyone. It’s been a while since I have last written a blog post. In fact, most of my latest blog posts seem to start this way which isn’t great of me, but life has been truly hectic and whatever free time I have here and there doesn’t really seem made to be spent in front of a computer screen. I’m now flying back to London from Budapest as I start this post, after a quick journey to present the production of Don Giovanni I’ve been working on for the last nearly 2 months at the MüPa Theatre. This production was rehearsed and originally staged in Ecuador at the end of June and then travelled to Hungary since it was a co-production with the Armel Music Festival in Budapest.
At this point you probably know that I very happily won the Best Performer Award for this year’s festival (more on that later), but I thought that a sort of Travel Diary for this production was in order.
This crazy adventure started one year ago when I won the Armel Opera Competition in Paris, in the baritone category. The initial prize was this engagement to sing Leporello in a series of performances in Cuenca (Ecuador) and then one final performance in Hungary.
The last two months have been such a crazy rollercoaster that I don’t quite know how to start this blog post but stay with me because it’s going to be a long haul flight of a read.
I knew from the beginning that I would be travelling to Ecuador so, as the natural worrier I am, I started planning for everything months in advance: checking the city, making sure what the situation was regarding vaccination, etc. After all, I was going to be there for 6 weeks so I wanted to make sure I was prepared for everything. Besides dealing with my own anxieties about such a long journey, of course my family was also worrying and not doing too good a job at keeping their worries to themselves. All of this is normal and you can’t really tell your parents to not worry because parents WILL worry. However, we got to the day of travelling and I boarded the plane, completely aware I was going to be stuck inside an aluminium tube for 12h and arrive at a new continent, 6 time zones behind and at a final destination of 2700m.
Or so I thought.
And here happened the first mishap. A casualty. Halfway through the flight. Yes. That thing that happens maybe once a year or twice. Well, I’ve made it to this year’s statistics (not directly, though...). 5 hours into the flight, we had a request for medical assistance for a passenger but weren’t given many details. Obviously, when you still have 7h of flight time ahead of you and a medical emergency starts, it doesn’t exactly make you feel warm fuzzy feelings. Nevertheless I went back to the in-flight entertainment, only to be interrupted a few minutes later by a request for insulin. At this point, I knew things were serious. I have some people in my family as well as some close friends who suffer from diabetes and I know what the worst case scenario of ketacidosis is... We then tried to detour to the Azores islands for some emergency assistance but it was too late as the passenger ended up passing away during the flight. I did my best to not freak out and kind of succeeded at it, but having Death 2 rows away from you really gives you pause and all sorts of thoughts start running through your head. Facing life’s fragility in the eye in such extra uncomfortable contexts, when you’re flying over the Atlantic and the only way is down.
The flight was detoured to the island of Curaçao which I didn’t know of until then. I have to say that KLM handled the situation exemplarily but that still didn’t stop me from having an anxiety flare - up when the crew started handing out Landing Cards. Again, European privilege popping up and the fact that you can travel through so many countries without worrying about this kind of thing. At that point, however, I was already 5 time zones behind and quite tired of everything that had happened so far, so I really couldn’t help but freaking out a bit. I tried to keep it cool the best I could and when we were greeted upon landing by incredibly helpful ground staff, it did help to settle me down and, in the end, I spent the evening in a 5* resort in the Caribbean and still arrived in time for a dip in the sea. The situation was, of course, lamentable and bad, but it could be worse.
The following day we continued our journey to Ecuador which was only 3h away from Curaçao, making it a manageable journey. I was, however, already feeling extremely tired and jet lagged so I didn’t get much sleep which made the journey from the Guayaquil airport where I landed, to Cuenca (where I needed to be), extremely unpleasant despite the gorgeous views (after all you’re going up a mountain pass in the Andes).
What followed (the 3 days before rehearsals started) was one of the most physically uncomfortable experiences I’ve ever suffered. My body just wouldn’t adapt to the new schedule. It being my first time going across so many time zones, I didn’t know what to expect and I can really say that for me, it was horrible and really affected me. Add the altitude and oxygen deprivation (and all its very uncomfortable symptoms of fatigue, shallow and accelerated breathing and increased heart rate) and you’ll maybe have an idea of what I was putting up with those first days. Going up a flight of stairs would have me gasping for air for a bit and although I adapted, my breathing didn’t come back to normal until I returned to sea level. Fortunately, I eventually started settling in to the new time zone and altitude, but at the time when rehearsals started, I was still feeling quite miserable. However, we were really well looked after by the team in Ecuador and everyone was incredibly lovely and made us feel very welcome. Cuenca is also a remarkably beautiful city. It was gorgeous to spend over a month surrounded by the natural beauty of the Andes mountains and eating some truly beautiful food. The fruit so fresh, all the meals had this homemade quality to it that reminded of my maternal grandmother’s cooking. It was truly wonderful.
We also had the chance to visit some of the neighbour towns see some of the most beautiful local handicraft products like the Makana which I absolutely fell in love with and had to get one for myself.
Rehearsals kept going ahead full steam and working with Robert Alföldi really made me grow as a performer. Robbie’s background as an actor means he comes from a completely different approach when it comes to physicality and of course, we singers do like our unnecessary hand gestures. Having someone making me aware of the unnecessary extra things I was adding really gave me pause and made me think if I wasn’t using gestures as a replacement for text inflections which weren’t there yet. In other words, it made me dig deeper in my commitment to the text and I think this was a fundamental aspect in how successful my portrayal of the role ended up being. Of course that rehearsals are always a challenging process and I think everyone who had come from Europe was going through a bit of the same: being very far from home, with 6h time difference, working in a place where Opera isn’t really the well-oiled machine in terms of production like it is in other parts of the world, etc. Obviously, that some things would be very frustrating and we all handle that frustration differently. In my case, I decided to try and focus on the positive aspects of the human experience: the fact that I had a cast of colleagues where everyone was truly lovely and supportive and the thought that my frustrations shouldn’t hinder the process.
Of course this takes an extra emotional effort when you see yourself in situations where either you’re not directly involved but still feel uncomfortable for others, or when you’re at the receiving end of someone’s frustration yet you know that adding fuel to an uncontrolled fire is only going to make things worse. I’m a firm believer that speaking up for oneself is almost always the best choice, but there are some circumstances in which the unpredictability of the result is such that you have to think about what’s best for the group and for the work environment as opposed to your own beliefs and emotions. At the end of the day, peace of mind should be the thing that you direct your work towards and sometimes you just have to let go of your assumption that you might need to do something extra in order to achieve that peace, and simply try and be as present as you can in that moment and do your work to the best of your ability. At the end of the day we all want to put on a good show and we all deal with the pressures and requirements of that in a different way.
People - and how you relate to them - play a huge part in how you navigate through these situations. In my case, I was very lucky (and I’m forever grateful) that I had the best possible gang to hang out with: my fellow Gringos Katharine and Mark. Yes, I know the term usually applies to Americans abroad but they were kind enough to make me an honorary Gringo. It’s just great to go to work and know that maybe something will happen that will make us frustrated, but also that someone has your back and hell! you know you’ve hit the bullseye when you get along well enough to watch Showgirls over piña coladas. Yeah. That. ‘It was all going so well..’ is also a phrase that came up in a group WhatsApp message after ‘something’ happened in rehearsal (I have to claim authorship of the original comment), and it became our rehearsal go-to phrase every time the proverbial ‘S’ would hit the fan during rehearsals. Of course that it was also amazing to be able to discuss the character of Donna Anna (for me, one of the most interesting characters of this opera) with the ever so fabulous Katharine who sang the hell out of this role, besides being an all-round awesome human being. It’s just really rewarding when you can have this sort of discussion with your colleagues and dig deeper into the fantastic and complex psychology that Da Ponte and Mozart have given some of these characters.
My Latin American experience wouldn’t be complete without a Ring of Fire incident. Two weeks into my stay I experienced my first earthquake. There was an 8.0 in Peru that travelled all the way up to Ecuador and was felt in Cuenca as a 5.5. So here I am, waking up at 1:30am with my bed shaking from side to side and thinking ‘What the actual hell? Is this a? Oh! It’s an earthquake’. We all started texting each other asking the same question (we were staying in different parts of town). It must have lasted for about 1 minute but I can tell you it was one of the freakiest experiences I’ve ever been through and I didn’t manage to get much sleep that night or the following nights…
In any case, rehearsals went on (and so went the weekly gringo movie nights with Clueless and Fleabag - Mark had never seen Showgirls and was so impacted by it he wanted to watch it again but Katharine and I had gone through our 5 year allowance for watching it… - until we finally got to the theatre and here things started moving a lot quicker and our colourful, zippy Don Giovanni (shoutout to Ildi Tihanyi’s brilliant colour combination for the show) was on track for opening night. It still amazes me that an opera composed in 1787 had NEVER until June 19th 2019 been performed in Ecuador and it’s absolutely crazy to think that I was the first person to sing Leporello in Ecuador. A crazy huge honour, though. The performances were received extremely well and the Ecuadorian audiences are a truly wonderful crowd to perform to. We had a total of three shows at the Teatro Casa de la Cultura and I truly hope that I helped MusartEH (the foundation that coproduced the show with the Armel festival) in their mission to make Cuenca the Ecuadorian capital of opera. In this regard, a really heartfelt mention goes out to Vanessa Freire, Vanessa Regalado, Alex Rodriguez and Xavier Rivadeneira for their work in this foundation and for their superhuman effort in bringing this amazing art form to Ecuador. The two V’s and Alex, besides being absolutely amazing colleagues, also organised so many activities for us, while at the same time dealing with the titanic amount of admin that putting on an opera requires which really makes them super-humans. I also have to write a bit about the incredible woman which is Vanessa Freire: not only is she a really brilliant singer and performer, she’s also the head of an organisation in Cuenca that provides assistance to victims of sexual assault and abuse. While we were rehearsing, there was a particularly brutal case being trialed in Cuenca and of course Vanessa was pivotal in making sure the victims’ voices were heard and the culprit trialed, which he was and also convicted. What an incredible person.
After these three shows, we flew back to Europe and I just kept hoping that this flight would go without hiccups (well, maybe calling someone’s death a hiccup is a bit of an understatement…) and fortunately, everything ran on time and I arrived in Europe when and where I was supposed to, expecting the worst in terms of jet lag. Oddly enough, despite everyone saying that jet lag is much worst when you’re traveling east, I did not have it AT ALL coming back to London. I think my sleep patterns might have never left Europe and I was probably taking what my brain saw as extended naps in Ecuadorian schedules.
I cannot being to tell you how amazing the next week at home felt - or so I thought. It was great to be back home in a familiar environment after so much time away in a completely unfamiliar environment. But of course that the stress of the previous weeks caught up with me and I got ill with a really terrible sinus infection. However, I didn’t worry too much about the live broadcast just 2 weeks away. Maybe because I knew that rest would be an important part of my recovery and because I was again in a country where I knew the healthcare system well, so I just made it my priority that little time that I had off to really not worry and enjoy being home. It still meant travelling to Budapest for the final performance struggling a lot with the infection but fortunately I was already medicated and recovered enough to do well in the show.
We had a completely insane schedule for the Budapest show: we arrived on a Wednesday, hopped on a bus for three hours to Pécs where the wonderful Pannon Philharmonic rehearsed. Yes. This Budapest leg of the project had this ‘tiny peculiarity’ of a new orchestra and a new conductor. Luckily we couldn’t be in better hands. The orchestra was absolutely wonderful, playing with amazing energy and clarity and our conductor, Tibór was an absolute dream to work with. We rehearsed with the new musical team for two days (Thursday and Friday) and then headed off back to Budapest on Friday afternoon ready for what was going to be a marathon of a Saturday: stage and orchestra in the morning and performance in the evening.
All in all, we did 2 performances of Don Giovanni within 4h of each other.
Nevertheless the dream circumstances continued: not only we had a wonderful orchestra and conductor, we also have a beautiful improved set and a gorgeous theatre at the MüPa in Budapest. I think that all of these extremely positive elements combined meant that the entire cast felt safe and ready to bring a show we already knew well to the next level.
In any case it was my first broadcast and it really is a test to one’s nerves not only to see that wall of cameras in front of you, but also to know that you’re being broadcast live to the whole world and that this performance will basically live forever on the internet... Add the sinus infection to all of this. It was a truly nerve racking weekend but through a lot of meditation and also practicing the art of ‘letting go’, AND a big help from modern medicine, I managed to do a good job on stage and to create a performance that went down really well with the audience. (You can watch it here, if you haven’t already.)
I’m still beyond thrilled of having been the winner of the Festival’s Best Performer Award and of reading so many lovely reviews to my work. Of course that the biggest joy in this was to perform this glorious music and one of my favourite operas of all time with a wonderful group of colleagues and an amazing orchestra, but it also feels great to receive some external validation for your work, particularly performing a role like this. I wrote on a previous blog post about performing roles which - for several reasons - you never thought you would sing, so it really takes extra significance to not only have done it but to be so nicely recognised for it. It was again one of those roles that during the entire rehearsal process triggered a lot of second guessing: objectively, it felt great and I was having fun discovering it. However, people love boxes and people in charge love to put other people in sorting boxes. What I mean with this is that Leporello is one of those roles that tradition or whatever has deemed a ‘bass’ role. Nevertheless, it was written for the same singer that premiered Guglielmo in Così fan tutte which, on the other hand, no one even blinks an eye about it being sung by a lyric baritone. When you branch out from your box, so to speak, there’s always the underlying insecurity of doing something that you know people will be thinking ‘Oh but isn’t that a *insert label* role?’ and while I like to think that what other people think of me is none of my goddamned business (thank you, RuPaul), you carry this mental load with you and try and deal with it the best you can. As I think I’ve said before, my role for choosing roles is wether or not I can physically sing the notes and make myself heard over an orchestra without harming myself. The rest has to do with voice colour and the impact that my timbre has in those who listen, and there’s nothing I can do to influence that. Of course these are the rational musings of someone who’s comfortably sitting at their desk writing already half in holiday mode. Within the context of rehearsing and performing, ‘The Noise’ becomes a little more difficult to manage…
Speaking of holidays, it’s time to log off. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about these adventures across the ocean. Next season already has some really interesting things in the pipeline, namely MY FIRST ALBUM!!! (I’m waaaaaaay too excited about this), but I will write about it in a different post!