[originally appeared on the front page of the National Post’s Arts&Life Section, January 15, 2014]
by Layla Claire
“Where do you live?” The stylist asks me with a smile, as she pumps the pedal on the salon chair.
“Uhhh,” I stumble, “well, I have boxes in Vancouver where my family is, some stuff at a friend’s in Brooklyn, most of my shoes are in Berlin at my boyfriend’s and I travel with two suitcases full of clothes for whatever season we’re in”. She stares at me in the mirror with a bewildered expression on her face.
“I’m an opera singer,” I offer, as if that’s going to clear up the confusion.
“You’re an opera singer?” she asks me puzzlingly “I thought opera singers were fat”. I laugh it off and awkwardly thank her for what I have learned to take as a compliment. I’m not exactly sure where the fat opera singer with Viking horns comes from but, boy, is it a persistent image in people’s psyches.
“In truth, we come in all shapes and sizes,” I explain. “I work at staying fit and agile so I can run around, dance, and move with ease on stage. I have worked for years to develop strength and stamina to be able to sing for hours at a time and project my unamplified voice over an orchestra. I play adventurous princesses, brave soldiers, defiant daughters and elegant countesses as believably as I can.”
She looks at me blankly for a second and then starts trimming my hair. “Is it true that milk is bad for your voice?” she asks. I’m not sure if this was passed around to school choir directors in a manual in the 80s, but it is a common myth. “Not unless you’re lactose intolerant!” I quip.
Actually, every singer learns what he or she needs to avoid to be in top form. Personally, I avoid alcohol at least a day before I have to sing, limit myself to one cup of coffee and drink plenty of water. Backstage, I like to eat pineapple and down cups of hot water and honey.
I instinctively protect my ears with my hands as the stylist turns on the hairdryer. “You sing in different languages, right?” she yells over the sound of the blowing hot air. I make big hand gestures to indicate that I’ll wait until she’s done drying my hair to answer her so that I don’t have to holler. When she’s finished, I explain that yes, I often sing Mozart operas which are in either Italian or German. But most opera theatres have surtitles above the stage so you can follow along in English.
She combs some kind of delicious smelling cream into my roots and asks me if traveling all the time is hard. I think for a minute and answer, “Of course I miss my family and friends, but I’ve got it so much easier than the singers a generation older than me. I can skype with my nephews as they open their birthday gifts from me and say goodnight to my boyfriend every night on FaceTime.” I admit that traveling itself gets tiresome but I also share with her stories about the amazing places I’ve been able to travel to, the history I have learned and the fascinating people I have met. Opera has been my ticket to seeing the world, I reveal.
With a final twirl of her round brush, she stands back and looks pleased. “I’ve never been to an opera, but I’ve always wanted to go,” she admits. I assure her she would have a good time if she did.