By Camille Sherman
This advice was first shared in a Master Class-style opera workshop where my classmates and I would sing for each other, beginning the long process of working out the kinks in our presentation. The purpose of the vice was to help organize the inner monologue: the running mental news banner that presses into every young performance or audition.
Here’s how it goes: standing in front of a dozen peers, preparing to perform the aria you’ve been overthinking all morning, the mind runs wild. Sound good, remember the words, give a compelling performance, impress everyone or face clumsy embarrassment. The music starts and as you stare at a point on the back wall just above the heads of your classmates, your mental tornado flurrying, a thought freezes you into place: what do I do with my hands? Do I move or gesture? You realize as you sing the first lines thaThis advice t you are just standing there, petrified, giving the most uncomfortable and boring performance of your life, and the best thing you can think of to fix it is to take an awkward shuffle forward and maybe raise your arms in some generic, meaningless “singer” gesture, and try to play it off as if everything you’re doing is intentional. Polite applause follows, and then the professor, a veteran opera director, will graciously take you back to the beginning of the piece for a second shot.
I remember standing there in the crook of the piano, the surreal scene as my professor approached to begin the work. My mind was still racing: the high note was ok. I had some tension in the passaggio, though, and my base of tongue keeps clamping down on my E vowel. The performance was not a catastrophe but I’m glad there weren’t that many people in the room. All of the criticism and comments flowed forth from my own brain before my professor could open his mouth.
Then the advice came: be more, do less. Try it again, he encouraged me, but don’t worry about what your body or face are doing and don’t worry about how it sounds. Be more, do less.
This advice came back around throughout my training. Don’t be a singer doing a performance. Be an artist performing. Do less “delivering” of the art through busy gesturing and instead choose to be something that we don’t just see and hear, but we feel. Try to focus on allowing what is in your heart and body to shine out of your face and voice. Over time and experience, the other aspects of performing strengthen and grow under this authenticity.
Years after that course, after that degree, I sit here in Portland on top of my wealth of elite training. I consider how curious my life is: no gainful employment, an uncertain future in an uncertain industry, a highly flexible day to day with little structure and no guarantees. Why am I not panicking? Why do I not fret, morning to night, on what to do. What do I do with my time? What do I do with my talent? What do I do with my brain, body, skills? These questions brought me back to my 19-year-old self, worrying every moment about what to do, on stage and off. I sit back now as a professional artist and I answer my own questions: I am being.
Camille Sherman is a professional opera singer from the Bay Area. She trained at The Boston Conservatory and the San Francisco Conservatory of music, and served as an Artist in Residence at Pensacola Opera and Portland Opera. She currently lives in Portland, where she continues to sing and develop artistic projects with local artists.