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How Leonard Bernstein got me to sing High E flats…sort of

This is a story about the time I allowed my voice teacher to convince me to sing something I had no business singing by invoking the name of Leonard Bernstein.

My fabulously wonderful voice teacher in graduate school, Julian Patrick, was a famous opera singer, even though you’d wouldn’t have known it since he NEVER talked about his illustrious career or his famous collaborators.

  • A quick gloss of Julian’s resumé: he started his career in the original Broadway productions of Fiorello, The Golden Apple, and Bells are Ringing, followed by supporting and leading roles in opera companies around the globe, including the Metropolitan Opera. He originated the role of George in Carlyle Floyd’s opera, Of Mice and Men, and as pertains to this story, played Sam in the 1973 filmed version of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, conducted by the composer.

So, back to me, in the mid-90s, when Julian sent me to an audition. He did not tell me what I was auditioning for; he just told me what to sing: “I Want To Be A Prima Donna,” my go-to ham it up operetta piece that I had been singing for years. When Julian Patrick told you what to do, you did it. And I got the job. But I didn’t know what the job was. When they told me it was excerpts from Candide and I would be playing the role of Cunegonde and singing “Glitter and Be Gay,” I was thrilled! I loved Bernstein’s music.

Until I looked at the song.

Then I almost had a heart attack.

The highest I had ever sung to that point was a high D. “Glitter and Be Gay,” for the uninitiated, has multiple high E flats.

Let me say that again: MULTIPLE HIGH E flats!!!

I immediately went to Julian and told him that I would have to drop out of the concert as I could not sing the song. It was way too high.

Nonsense, he roared, in his distinctive deep baritone voice. And then he told me the following anecdote that was told to HIM by Lenny (that’s Mr. Leonard Bernstein to you and me), himself:

“When Barbara Cook was cast as the original Cunegonde, she told Lenny that it was too high and that she couldn’t sing it. He said, nonsense, I’ll personally make you able to sing it.”

And of course, she did.

“If Lenny can do it for Barbara Cook, I can do it for YOU,“ said Julian.

How could I say no to THAT?

And so he did, and I did. Except I only ever sang it perfectly (correctly), hitting ALL the Eb’s ONCE, IN THE PERFORMANCE. I was so nervous about singing it that I think it took at least a year off of my life expectancy. And when Julian came backstage after the performance, he said, “See? Told you.”

Ugh.

It was sheer force of will and my extreme fear of failing in public that got me through it. And maybe divine inspiration… or the ghost of Lenny? And certainly a healthy dose of Julian’s teaching.

I was never so foolish as to attempt that devilishly hard but totally fabulous song ever again; too bad too, since it is a totally “me” song. If only it was a whole step lower… I personally think Bernstein wrote it to torture sopranos.

So that’s the story of how name-dropping famous people I admire and desire to emulate, got me to do an absolutely insane thing and sing something I had no business singing in public, for money.

Ah, the folly of youth.

 



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