In the World Again

”Backstage” at Dom zu Arlesheim, Switzerland thinking about how to make the best of things

I have been out into the world singing again and have returned home almost none the worse for wear, other than a case of laryngitis that is already on the mend. After six months of quarantining in Berlin, singing exclusively in my own apartment (I imagine how my poor neighbors would shake their heads should they ever read these words as I’m sure it has been a less than “exclusive” experience for them), it was somehow not surprising that my first three concerts back in the world would be three completely different projects in three different countries and all within a two week period.

The first concert was in Gdansk, Poland at the Mozartiana, an all-Mozart Festival in its fifteenth season. Singing the closing night of this festival had been on my calendar for a long time, but with all of the Covid-19 cancellations over the last six months and several cancellations even through 2021, I was surprised when I learned from the organizers that although the festival had to be shortened, its last three nights were still going to go ahead. My concert had been saved! From traveling mostly by foot around Berlin for six months to jumping back into international travel felt like quite a leap, though. There were no direct flights from Berlin to Gdansk…so how to get there? Although I had bought train tickets on the Polish State Railways, what with my Covid anxieties and questions on ventilation, social distancing, and mask-wearing for so many hours, I wasn’t ready to try out a new railway system quite yet. Due to my appalling sense of direction, I don’t drive (a story for another day); so that was not an option. In the end, because I have a husband who would “walk the world over to get me a blade of grass that I wanted” (this Secret Garden quote is actually true of my long-suffering husband!), and he has a boss who understood the situation and wanted to help us, my husband was able to get a day off of work, my kids were able to take a day off of school, and we were able to drive to Poland as a family. This meant that my first big adventure back to my old-performing-self would become a family adventure. I was not abandoning my kids to go off and be a singer again; I was taking them with me.

We were positively giddy after having kept ourselves cooped up for so long. We were going on the road again, just the four of us, and we would spend at least sixteen hours in the car (round trip) – enough time to listen to all the musicals we wanted! My youngest and I co-wrote a road trip song, assigned everyone their parts, and called a rehearsal. I cannot remember ever being that excited for the actual travelling part of a trip. The concert in Poland was a very emotional experience: the first time back in front of an audience and the first time making music again with colleagues who would all be in the same room, breathing in the same air. The orchestra, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, played with such feeling, and I was moved that this first concert back felt like singing with familiar old friends as we have worked together so many times in the past. The festival was live-streamed too, which, while adding to the nervous adrenaline after such a long break, was worth it in every way as it meant that I was able to invite my family and friends around the world to watch.

We returned to Berlin on August 30th (Ask me how many times we listened to “Hamilton“ in the car!), and on the morning of August 31st, I was already off again, this time by myself with Deutsche Bahn (German Railway) for a trip to Dortmund, just over three hours from Berlin. Dortmund was going to be the first concert house in Germany to perform such a major work (Haydn’s “Creation”) during these Corona times, with orchestra, choir, and soloists all making music together without any distance or masks. In order to realize this dream, many people had to risk their own necks, thinking creatively and consulting with scientists, governmental health departments, sponsors, bureaucrats, and even a football (soccer) team, who all cooperated to make the whole concert – including our Covid testing – possible.

Everyone involved in the project had to arrive in Dortmund with proof of a recent negative Covid test. As soon as I arrived, the day before the first rehearsal, I went to a lounge in the concert house, which was set up like an assembly line to give us each our second Covid test. Until we received the results from these tests the next day, we would wear masks and keep our distance. Here in Dortmund, for the first time, rather than feeling like the only person in the room still worried about unwittingly passing on or becoming infected with the Coronavirus, I just felt like a regular person doing what I had to do to make it possible to protect myself and everyone else in order to make music again. Things were so strict in Dortmund that even the hotel staff wasn’t permitted to come into the guests’ rooms at all. The morning after the test, I received a message that everyone on the entire project had tested negative. When I walked into my first rehearsal that day and removed my mask, it felt like the giant weight I had been carrying around my neck for the past six months had been lifted, albeit temporarily. I could have regular human contact again in what felt like a safe way, sitting and singing close to others in rehearsal, speaking with people and seeing their expressions. When the Intendant (head of the concert house) came to the stage to greet the musicians that first day, he received a huge, heart-felt ovation – everyone knew how he had had to work and fight, alongside our conductor and his team with the orchestra and choir, to make this concert a reality; and no one was taking it for granted.

This would also be my first time singing with Thomas Hengelbrock and his choir and orchestra, Balthasar-Neumann, and even though I have sung Haydn’s “Creation” oratorio many times, working with these extraordinary musicians at this moment enabled me to look at and sing the music in what felt like a new way. Almost everything about this Dortmund project felt like a remarkable, nearly surreal experience. I was in awe of the care taken in the planning, including the fact that the concert house employed a ventilation system that enabled them to swap out the old air for fresh air every twenty minutes. To be able to be close to so many people during the pandemic when I have been otherwise sheltered away; to be a part of making music again with such talented musicians at the highest level through the sheer will and desire of so many individuals in such bizarre circumstances (after all, a jab to the throat and a swab that felt like it reached from your nose to your brain three times are what made this possible) was something that I will never forget.

Finally, my last (and as it turns out, trickiest) project was a Handel and Vivaldi concert in a beautiful dome in Arlesheim, Switzerland rescheduled for September 13th, after having been cancelled to Covid in May. Other than one of my favorite Handel arias, “Lascia la spina,” this would be an all-new program for me, and I could not wait to sing this music for the very first time. No singer that I know, myself included, likes to think of, let alone speak of illness; but without going into all of the particulars, when I arrived at the first rehearsal in Switzerland, I realized that my voice did not want to do what I wanted it to do – it was tired and not quite itself. Although the notes were there and the rest of me felt good as ever, something was off, and I did not have the power to sing easily over the orchestra. After rehearsal, I went straight back to the hotel, gargled with salt water, and rested. At dress rehearsal that evening, I sang even more lightly and carefully, marking where I could, and hoping that a good night’s sleep would see me through. The next morning, though, concert day, I woke up to what felt like full-blown laryngitis. As the day went on, the voice came back very slowly, bit by bit, but I had no idea what would happen once I stepped onto the stage for the concert that evening. I felt in my gut that it would somehow be alright… part of the job of a singer is to learn to cajole the voice, making the best of what we wake up to on any given day. Slowly, I was able to warm up. When I opened my mouth on the stage for the first piece, Handel’s “Salve regina,” I was shocked at what came out of my mouth, though. The low notes did not want to sound at all, and I unintentionally yodeled a long “g” on the staff as if I were Maria singing “Lonely Goatherd“ in The Sound of Music. I wanted to disappear through the floor, but I had to keep it together and figure out how to get my voice to sound for the rest of this long and difficult program. After some trial and error, I learned that if I used my chest voice on all of the notes up through the “g” on the staff, they would sound, and I could make it through.

I ran from the Dome after the “Salve regina” into another building where I could warm up some more, praying, gargling salt water, and thinking about what vocal adjustments I could make for my next turn onstage. I could use more chest voice, remember my very best technique (thank you, Ira, for the millions of quarantine voice lessons), simplify some of my ornaments, and focus…
When I returned to the Dome, I turned on the recorder on my phone and hid it away in the Sacristy, knowing that I would need some perspective after the concert on whether my voice had sounded as bad as it felt. (Thank goodness it truly did not, but then again, my recorder was in a bag in another room, and I had not recorded the first piece with the long yodel.) I threw myself into the beauty and sorrow of the two Handel arias, both pieces transforming in my mind from arias into the prayers of my heart. In the intermission, I spoke with the conductor, a very warm and compassionate Fritz Krämer, and told him that I wasn’t sure if my voice would actually make it through the entire last piece (Vivaldi’s twenty-seven minute long “Laudate pueri,” full of low notes and coloratura), but that I would try my very best. I have never sung chest voice so high in coloratura passages before (and I hope never to have to do it again!), but I was very lucky that it worked and that my voice managed to hold on until the end of the concert. I was extremely lucky that I was working with such a kind and sympathetic conductor and with musicians who played as beautifully, softly, and sensitively for me as humanly possible. And I am still thanking my lucky stars that once back in Berlin, my ENT said that I did not damage my vocal cords in any way and that after a short period of rest (and salt water in all its healing forms) I will be back to singing and to life’s next adventures in no time.

8 thoughts on “In the World Again

  1. Robin, once again I have deeply moved by the wonderful warmth and humanity in your writing. I know a number of singers but no one that can convey what it is to be singer in the way you do. We must try to get that interview organised! Things here go from bad to worse, sadly, and there is no enlightened attitude of the kind you found.

    With warmest regards Brian

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Your writing conveyed in a warm and factual way your experience and long awaited return to singing on a stage in front of an audience.

  3. Robin, your writing is so beautiful. We were both grateful and thrilled to be able to watch your fist concert back while it was live-streamed! Your beautiful voice sounds more lovely because we know about all of the hours and hours of work you put into each and every note. Although some days maybe more of a struggle than others, your gift brings so much happiness to anyone that has had the pleasure of listening to you perform.

  4. Robin, your accounts of your concerts and travels in these hard times are so both inspirational and enlightening, especially to this amateur listener who has no experience of the creative processes but only appreciates the final outcomes. In addition to all the uncertainties of travelling to and staying in unfamiliar surroundings, it must be hard enough for a player when their instrument goes wrong, but how much harder still for the singer when the voice, invisible to your audience, threatens not to behave as it should! Your account of the concert in Arlesheim was both alarming and inspiring, and I’m so glad to know that things turned out well thanks both to sympathetic colleagues and to your own talent and determination. So well done for that, and I look forward to more acounts and stories in the future. (Sorry, but my screen won’t let me check the start of what I’ve written above, so I hope it’s not too full of typos or other nonsense!)

    1. Dear Stephen,
      Thank you so much for reading this and for your very kind comments! I hope that our paths will cross again (maybe at the opera?) one day in the not-too-distant future (ah, hope!) when times are better…

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