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Friday, November 5, 2010

Who Never Learned to Sing

Tonight, at a small brick-and-mortar music store (the last of a dying breed) in my neighborhood, it will be a game of "Spot the Faker" for bemused citizens sitting in folding chairs as the principals in a local production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe will sing selections from the operetta as part of a First Friday event.

(Hint: I'm the faker. The tall, skinny one with the glasses and the airplane hangar-proportioned proboscis.)

See, I never learned to sing. Strangely enough, in middle school, you could find me in the chorus. Stranger still, in high school, I was in musicals. But the weirdness didn't reach its height until two years after college ended, when I auditioned for my first Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, and audition committee heads turned to each other in stupification as I crisply and excitedly sang "When I Was a Lad," the patter song from H.M.S. Pinafore, (a song I had been singing in the shower for years) memorized, with silly little homespun choreography.

And here we are, six years later, seven operettas later. One more under the belt. They only wrote fourteen together, as all particularly proper 'peretta pedants know.

Yeomen of the Guard
H.M.S. Pinafore
Pirates of Penzance
The Sorcerer

I'm halfway home.

And I'm as scared to death as ever, because I never learned to sing.

I barely learned how to read music. When I was in first grade, our overweight and impossibly coiffed and painted music teacher did a note recognition exercise with us. If she held up a drawing of a quarter note, you got down on your knees. A rest, you sat down, Indian-Style. A whole note, you stood up with arms outstretched, and so on. As we got better at recognizing the funny symbols, my music teacher sped up the game, frantically holding up one card, then another, all of us sitting and standing like it was some sort of crystal meth-infused, gleeful church service for kids. The glee came to an abrupt halt when my ankle snapped after we were shown a rest and I sat down too quickly, and too awkwardly.

And so I became the first child to break his ankle in music class. Of course.

It's a cute story, sure, though it was embarrassing for a while, especially during the b'pimpled era, but I think it speaks rather uncomfortable volumes about my relationship with music, but specifically singing. I never quite stood up straight again, and I don't mean that literally, although I do have scoliosis, as is required by Jewish law. When I sing before an audience, there is always something being held back, there is always a reticence, something that is not quite sure it's supposed to come out, or wants to. And so I hide behind the comic G&S roles-- those funny, silly patter roles that were never written for operatic singers, real singers. They're written for a "comic actor who can sing," in the words of Sullivan himself, as opposed to the more lyric roles for the romantic leads and the heavies, people who must sing first, and act second.

And I hide pretty well, even though, at least in my own mind, I out myself every time I open my mouth. Although, to be honest, there's always a piece of me that's waiting for my other ankle to snap out from under me every time I sing and prance about a stage.

It's a shame, really, because I never get to enjoy what I do. Never. It's also a shame because I think my continued participation in these shows, the portrayal of characters traditionally inhabited by seasoned, veteran, trained performers, smacks a little bit of disrespect for the material I love so much-- the joyous and jocular, sonorous and sweet, precious and precocious material of two obstinate Victorian gentlemen who should have been sainted-- not just knighted-- just for staying together as long as they did. But I mean no disrespect, Sir William & Sir Arthur. Like an altar boy, I just want to celebrate you through the only means you handed down to me. And I've been lucky enough not to be found out yet.

Shhh-- don't tell. Anyway, no time for that now. As Gilbert said, "I have a song to sing, O."


  1. As you said this week, upon reflecting that you'll be taking a break after this show from the G&S for a while. "I hope I don't forget how to sing."

    And I replied, succintly, "Honey, you have nothing to worry about; you never learned how."

  2. Ok, dude, I've known you for what? 20 years now? First time I've ever heard the broken ankle in music class story. Thanks for the laugh. Also, I always thought you could sing. Break a leg.


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