FROM NAKED VIRGINS TO NUNS...January 26, 2017
“Let that top open and bloom! No! That’s not it! It’s this way…….. (and the thousandth demonstration would begin.) I think to myself, when is this top voice going to open? “Hold your mouth this way, don’t use any jaw, your (a) vowel stinks! (I had a couple of private meetings with an Artistic Administration on my (a) vowel. I won’t say where. In short, singing was becoming hell for me. I always felt I could never get it right technically and I worked and worked to achieve what others wanted from me. And guess what? I was considered a very good singer and still am, but all the technical work and nit-picking wore on my singing soul. The result? That top voice just never opened up and bloomed. Why? Because it turns out I was really a mezzo-soprano disguised inside twenty years of a soprano. It was like wearing a mask in a masquerade that no one could see through, not even me. How come these top-tiered professionals could not discern this mezzo-land for this Skokian Princess? Maybe it’s because of all of those coachings of torture…this Skok was very, very good at being able to imitate or create what was being taught to me, instead of going with my own inner gut. Singing above an A made my throat feel like a piece of meat afterwards, more on the raw side, then well done and without A-1 Steak sauce. This mezzo in disguise was very good at singing into the top voice although it never felt good or right. She was very good at making it sound good.
Ahh….and after the performance she would be SO very relieved- she had made it through another event of singing into the mountaintops. Sometimes she would be hoarse and would have to wait a few days in between her singing responsibilities to feel better. The time of terror when I was First Cover of the First Naked Virgin in Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. I was singing the 2nd Naked Virgin, far from being one, since in my off-stage life I was a mother of two at the time but I donned my underwear and bra with nothing else to wear, and stood on a box night after night and then electrocuted myself on strings in front of my face with Maestro James Levine staring intently at we Virgins through the cords. Why Maestro Levine would want to hear me ever on First Naked Virgin was beyond me, but when the call came one fateful morning for me to fill in at a big rehearsal on stage for the First sweet Naked Virgin, I wondered how in the world I could get into that high extended C in the climax of the scene and sustain it for the length that good old Arnold required in the score, (I’ll be back!-) NO silly, not that Arnold! Arnold Schoenberg…..twelve tone Arnold.
I was right, it was not an easy feat, and I hoped with all my heart I would never have to do that again and thankfully I never did but hey, I got the best review in a NYC Newspaper, I would have to look it up the exact wording but it went something like this: “but the very best singing of the night came from little Heidi Skok as the Second Naked Virgin.” Imagine that! I probably could have made a career as the 2nd Naked Virgin, taking it world-wide. Recording it on Virgin Records. Really…there were SO many signs that I was not a soprano and yet I managed a successful twenty year career. Looking back into the historical archives of this Skok life, it was only by the grace of God that I was able to do this, because it was never easy and it certainly was not fun. I used to ask the Great Giver of Life to take my voice from me. I would beg in fact.
Fast forward probably six years….to a Ralph Vaughn Williams gig with a good orchestra, something called Benedicite which made me sustain a high B natural I believe it was for twelve counts at the end of the piece. That brought a cooked egg to my already raw steak throat and it was decided by my teacher that I was really a mezzo. My Skok identity was rocked to the core. What now and how could all of my esteemed teachers and coaches have let me go for so very long without discerning this lower voice that was there all along.
In fact, I started off my young life as a lower voice, even singing Aldonza to great acclaim in my high school musical production of Man of La Mancha. I think it began when I was fifteen and switched to a new voice teacher from my first one at a prestigious arts organization where I now teach today, helping young voices much as I was in my youth. This teacher discerned I had no head voice whatsoever and could only sing pop and music theater in my lower chest voice. I was overjoyed to get these cool, headier and rounder tones, and learned how to sing art songs. One move that was bad though was having assigned me Durch Zartlichkeit. Right there a huge red NASCAR flag should have come up to my face. My college experience continued in this soprano vein, and I learned very well how to “act” this part. It was after all, what everyone said I was….but in the midst of it all, people left my “basement” behind me. You can’t make great and connected sounds without a chest voice in the middle of the mix and that all went bye-bye.
Many years later, my best teacher I ever had brought that back to me, and my Aldonza years came flying back although the soprano label remained with many soprano roles coming my way. One time I was hired when I was member of the Metropolitan Opera Young Artist Development Program, to sing Adina. My personality was the furthest thing from this charming and coy belle, but I thought,” Hey, this is what everyone thinks I am supposed to be….” It was murderous. I hated Adina, and couldn’t begin to connect to her vivaciousness. I ended up being fired and I didn’t think I was THAT bad, but I learned later that the tenor’s wife needed a job and so it was the scrapping of the Skok. The production ended up being really bad, so I was rescued in a way from all of that.
My firing was embarrassing so much so that for the first few weeks, one night I even fell out of bed. I think I was feeling like I was falling into the depths. Some MET colleague asked me what happened, and I thought to myself,” It’s none of your damn business” and I said nothing, I suffered in silence. What a misfit toy I was. How could I let myself sing that role? Believe it or not it took another eleven years before my mask was torn off. As for the Impresario that fired me? I couldn’t stand him or so I thought but many years later I knew I needed to forgive him and I came across his starry path on Facebook. This Impresario didn’t realize what a role he had in this diva of sorts finally coming to the mezzo conclusion. His firing of me was one step and one stone closer to my real identity in that lower-land of notes. I thanked him for firing me and he apologized. We became friends and today I have much respect for him. NEVER throw people away no matter what they do to you. Everyone that crosses into your hemisphere is meant to be there…they have a role on the stage with you. They are part of your shining stars-they complete you whether you like them or not.
I made my switch to the lower realms of my voice with the help of a very esteemed colleague in the opera world. I was on a top voice faculty in a conservatory that was considered top (no comment) and he was very gracious to meet me first thing in the morning about 8:30 or so before he went to teach his beloved voices. I would leave my home at 4:30 in the morning to get to that destination of a mezzo starting line and then afterwards I would teach all day in the conservatory. The Letter Aria from Massenet’s Werther felt like butter and Va! Laisse couler mes larmes became a staple as did the very boring Must the Winter come so soon! When one makes a switch like this, please do give it a year and a half to settle. I have learned many things on my own- I have been my own teacher. Everything that has worked for me has come from me. I wish I had been told to wait this length after a switch, because I sang too soon for some auditions and people that still had a vision of me as soprano did not readily accept this new lower- lying land of a fach, as they say.
But this Skokian voice persisted, because I knew it was right and it was my throat not theirs. I had had enough of listening to the opinions of others where this was concerned because for some reason no one seemed to have my answers. And why would they? Why did I rely on others? Why do you rely on other? You shouldn’t. The people who have the careers DON”T listen to others. They have their own plan, their own landscape and I was too afraid to claim my own landscape, but not anymore. Folks, it is NEVER too late to do the right thing. You are NEVER too old, you are NEVER out of place you are NEVER worn out or washed up. Infinite possibilities await you, I have proven this. Long story short, because my fairytale could go on and on, but this part of this blog will come to an end now, my voice is now readily accepted ten years after my switch and I sang my first Madame de Croissy to great acceptance this past summer. I reprised it again this past Fall with another opera company and I will sing it again next year. I am Croissy. No one needs to tell me I am her. You can discern your own characters. Do it. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you.
And before I close this blog on a voice that was hell to a switch that is a heavenly, pearl - gated paradise (ha) I will say that all of this experience has brought me to the pinnacle of my career, to my real function in this fun world of opera and probably to my best function: I am building an opera company. Yes, you heard that right and not just any old opera company. This opera company which will begin as a summer opera company is going to be seated in Northeast Ohio’s top arts organization, The Fine Arts Association, the very school in which I began my voice. How cool is that? Resonanz Opera will function dually as an opera company with an Artist Program that is creating a new acronym with a new meaning for voices. No longer utilizing the YAP acronym, Resonanz will sport the acronym SAP (Singing Artist Program) How could that be? It is a truer description of what the program will be, a three week SINGING Artist Program loaded with study and performance of a high caliber and not a YOUNG Artist Program. The word young is not appropriate. I have too much experience and I have seen that so many singers who have been employed in a YOUNG artist program do not scale the pinnacles of their voice and technical ability until MUCH LATER than the so-called YAP, and these “young” artists are being written off in the business because at 26, 27, they are being called too old, especially when one gets into their thirties. I would know, I was one of these “young” artists and heck! They had me in the wrong fach! I am here to say that some voices don’t get going until they are in their 40’s.
I specialize a lot in big sounds, and I have yet over twenty years seen a big voice be ready to go in the YAP label until they were in their mid- thirties to early forties. Quite frankly, I am sick to death of seeing singers having to lie about their age and for what? Are we creating a bunch of liars? They weren’t able to be ready and set and racing with the gunshot when they were under the label of “Young Artist” Whoa!! What a crime! It’s ridiculous and Resonanz will set that aside. It will lead the way out of the age label and into the talent only, allowing the singer to live their talent that they now have at any stage, free from any restrictions or roadblocks and without fear of any age. Resonanz will continue with Mindfulness, Feldenkreis and Yoga beginning the day for all. Have fun singers, with what you have. You have what you have, for a reason and you will configure what you are to be doing with your voice. My own journey opened the door to help others. I would not know how to work with voices as I do, if I had not made this switch myself and been through such a depth of a voyage. It was worth feeling like Christopher Columbus for myself each day. I was an explorer, and that’s OK! It’s a fun journey. Don’t ever quit, and if you think you are going to quit, give me a call. This Virgin to a Nun understands, and I have your back. Oh yes, the Resonanz Opera website will be up in the next few weeks, keep your eye out for it: www.resonanzopera.org.
-Heidi Skok, mezzo-soprano