I started to sing when I was twenty-five years old.
During the final years of my art education at the Design Class of the Basel Art Institute in Basel, Switzerland (then called Kunstgewerbeschule), I lived for free at Frau Dr. med. Katharina Euler Obolensky's. She was an elderly lady of very ancient Swiss-Russian noble descent, an extremely generous sponsor of the arts and a medical doctor who still had her practice.
One fine morning, Katja – as I called her – started to say: "Andrushka, you draw quite beautifully, but you sing much better!"
What was that? What did she mean? Where and when had she ever heard me sing? Did I sing? Well yes, I guess whenever I thought myself alone in our eight-and-a-half room apartment, I would put my Barbra Streisand records on full blast and it goes without saying that I screached along with the musical lines. Was that what she meant? I refrained for the moment from commenting on this qualitative comparison of these two activities of mine.
Some days later, Katja made this same remark once again.
Same story next morning at the breakfast table.
And so on, and so forth.
Until finally this really got on my nerves and I said: "Listen, I would like to know when exactly do you actually hear me sing?"
"Malinki," she chirped (another thing that royally got on my nerves: again and again, Katja found Russian diminutive names for me), "each time when you think I have left our apartment, I put my ear on the door and wait. Most of the time, it doesn't take long and you play one of the recordings of that New Yorker Jydin ..." (only a person born and raised in the pre-revolutionary Empire of the Czar Of All Russians would still dare to use such a classification; she actually was talking about Barbra) "... and you sing with her in full voice."
"Well then, this can be dealt with quite quickly. I shall call the Music Conservatory and ask if I may audition for the residing vocal coach. This fancy notion of yours will instantly be resolved and we can then forget this foolishness."
"You do that," was her laconic answer.
Which, I did.
Herr Schaller was the main singing teacher at the Conservatory. Actually, I already knew him by name, as I had played the flute during my Gymnasium years (high school and beginning of university) and took my lessons not at our school but in a room of this Basel Institution. Herr Schaller answered my phone call in an extremely friendly manner: He would take his retirement in three months and would therefore not be taking on any new students. However, he did suggest one of his own former students who was now teaching. This person's name was Pascal Borer, he was a Spielbass (the literal translation from German would be "Play Bass", meaning a singer who does basso buffo parts on stage which include a lot of acting in addition to the singing) and an excellent teacher.
I called this "Play Bass" promptly.
He asked me to come to see him the very next morning. "Bring along all the musical material you have."
Hmmm, other than some Christmas songs and a huge Fake Broadway Album, I did not have much to offer.
"Bring it all with you. It will be fine for a beginning."
So, I went for an audition.
He simply let me do it. I sang. He accompanied me on the piano with verve and gusto and prima vista, no less. I lilted, yodelled and warbled everything from "Oh, Tannenbaum" to "The Lady Is A Tramp". I sang nearly every number from the two scores for piano and voice I had brought.
Herr Borer then said: "Ok. Come next Wednesday for your first lesson."
And that was that.
For me, it was not the "Dream-Come-True" nor the – "I have worked for this my WHOLE (short) life." – as the kids nowadays aspirate tearfully into the camera of a TV talent show, no, I was simply surprised and thought to myself: "Well, why not give it a try?"
Herr Borer, who thus unceremoniously became my first singing teacher, had indeed great acting abilities and his voice had a wonderfully warm timbre. He understood instantly that my biggest problem was not the fact that I had no idea what I was doing when singing, but first and foremost was the need to conquer my cramped shyness. He arranged his lessons accordingly in a very informal, laid-back way.
He let me sing the tenor solo parts in a cantata by J. S. Bach after only three months of lessons in one of the church concerts he himself organized, conducted and in which he also sang. Fortunately, I did have some preparatory training, however, as I had already played the flute for many years which meant I was at least aware one needs to breathe when singing. Of course, I could also read musical notation which is somewhat helpful if one wishes to sing.
This first concert went well. Something did, however, happen to me when I sang in front of an audience for the first time. This "something" didn't hinder me, on the contrary, I felt as if I was somehow floating on top of my body. This state seemed to be completely normal at that moment. It was only the following morning that I realized just how much energy Bach's musical words had pumped out of my body.
Not long after this concert, Herr Borer mentioned he could imagine me becoming a professional. He suggested it would be highly beneficial for me to continue my studies with some famous opera singer in order to understand what it meant "to be famous" and, more importantly, what it did not mean.
As he had studied with Ernst Haefliger in Munich, Germany, Herr Borer wanted to send me there first, just to see what would happen.
I appplied for an audition, which was granted, and took the train to Bavaria to see the famous Swiss tenor who had recorded countless operas and concert programs with the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft right after WWII. Ouch! We had barely shaken hands before my throat felt strangled. I felt immediately that Herr Haefliger felt the same way. It seemed to me that all of Herr Haefliger's vocal tenor problems were transferred from his larynx into mine. I therefore sang Ferrando's extremely high pitched aria from Mozart's "Cosí fan tutte" accordingly.
I returned to Basel quite contritely.
That did not go well, so what now?
Some weeks later, I sang yet another Bach cantata somewhere with chorus, orchestra and three other soloists (we were the usual quartet of soprano - alto - tenor - bass/baritone). During intermission of the final rehearsal, I told Herr Nussbaumer, the conductor of this particular church concert, about my unfortunate audition in Munich and about the wish of my present teacher that I should continue my vocal studies with a famous singer.
Herr Nussbaumer mentioned almost as an aside: "Oh, what about Maria Stader then? It just so happens that I recently bought a vacation house on the Rigi mountain from her. I am certain I can at least organize an audition."
My knees started to wobble. Maria Stader was one of the only two Swiss mega stars in classical music – the other being Lisa Della Casa.
Seeing me getting excited, Herr Nussbaumer warned me: "You should know three things. First of all, an hour with Maria Stader – although I should say a lesson, as she never looks at her watch and her lessons are never ever under an hour and a half – is very, very expensive. She asks for one hundred and fifty Swiss Franks." This is still a lot by today's standards but in 1978 this was an astronomical amount.
"The second thing is, she is small, very small," Herr Nussbaumer continued.
"You might not know that Maria Stader is originally from Hungary and grew up under extremely poor conditions. As a baby, she allegedly scratched wallpaper off the walls and ate it to survive. The extreme stunting of her growth was inevitable. At some point, little Maria was sent to Switzerland for a vacation through the Red Cross. After this first visit, the hosting Stader family eventually had her brought back from Hungary and adopted her." He said: "After being adopted, Maria Stader saw her real mother only one more time in her life at a much, much later date. They could no longer communicate as, after coming to Switzerland, Maria Stader had refused to continue to speak her mother tongue. She, also, did not want to have anything more to do with this 'poor woman'. To be honest, they didn't have much left to say to each other anyway. Due to her early poverty, Maria has decided that everything in her life now has to be expensive, exclusive and top notch. It has become an obsession. Her exhorbitant first class travelling habits with Swissair are a typical example ... Because of her size, Maria Stader always appeared on concert stages with a small footstool under her arm. She placed herself on this pedestal in order to be acoustically at the same height as her colleagues. She looked ever so appetizing when she entered onto a concert stage, scurrying along in one of her custom made brocade dresses, with the footstool under one arm and her musical score under the other. And, by the way, she always sang by heart. She usually brought her score along only to be nice to her colleagues, so that they wouldn't look like fools in front of the audience. Still, most of the time, her score remained closed on the music stand. Sometimes, having a rather mischievious nature, she would amuse herself by putting her music upside down in front of her or by bringing along the music to some totally different piece."
"The third thing is her title: Professor. As she has seldom been hired for stage productions because of her size – because of her smallness, I should say – she has never worked long enough in a major opera house to receive the honorary title of a 'Kammersaengerin' (literal translation from German 'Chamber Singer'). I believe one has to sing main roles in one of the big opera houses for at least seven seasons to become eligible, like for example her German colleague Anneliese Rothenberger who has performed at the Vienna State Opera for many years. Maria Stader always felt cheated because she had never received any honorary title despite her worldwide professional activities. Finally, the Salzburg Mozarteum made her an Honorary Professor which fills her with tremendous pride to this day. Mainly because none of her colleagues – neither Lisa Della Casa nor Anneliese Rothenberger – are in possession of anything like that! What is funny though is the fact that although she barely finished High School, all of a sudden she had professorial status at university level, and this not in the Austrian or French sense where each and every High School teacher is called professor."
[Later, during my advanced study years, Frau Stader was awarded the German Cross of Merits 1st Class. It was thrown at her at a point in her life when it was no longer necessary or needed as she had retired from singing ten years previously. After her retirement, she never ever sang again, neither in public nor in private. Only I had the privilege of hearing her still bell-like tones when on occasion during a lesson she would demonstrate a particularly difficult scale or interval jump. I get goose bumps still to this day when I think back at the thrill of hearing her voice live.]
In comparison to the relatively relaxed and mildly surprised feeling at my initial audition for Herr Borer, the possibility to work with Frau Stader would have been (and eventually was) MY "life-long dream-come-true". She was my classical music singing idol. My father had not only been a proof reader in a publishing house and following that a bookstore owner, he was for many years the editor-in-chief of the Swiss Theatre Magazine. He received in this function all the new recordings from the label Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft in order to review them in the magazine. All these opera recordings were in German by the way, from Verdi's "Otello" and Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" to Bizet's "Carmen". I had literally grown up listening to the voices of this legendary group of post war singers (Anneliese Rothenberger, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, Ernst Haefliger, Rita Streich, Erika Koeth, Victoria de los Angeles, etc.). Out of this group, the sound of one single voice emerged for me above all others: Maria Stader's. I could hear in each of her recordings that she had mastered all technical difficulties with what appeared to be the greatest ease. When she sang, she had a most incredible floating freedom at her disposal. It sounded as if she sang without a single care in the world. It sounded so "natural". A qualification which upset her each time it was bestowed upon her as she knew all too well the hard work and sacrifices it took to sound so "natural": only merciless incessant training over decades allowed her to achieve and to keep this apparent "naturalness".
I took all of my courage in both hands and dialled the numbers on the turning disk of our telephone.
Frau Stader: "Herr Nussbaumer has already notified me that you would be calling. I do not teach. However, come audition tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock. Be precisely on time. Bring all the music you have along. Good day." She abruptly hung up.
I organized a pianist and went to Zurich the next day. And yes, she was small – tiny really. I sang for over two hours. She wanted to hear every piece I knew, every aria, every song. I rushed through the Tenor Aria Collection from Peters, J. S. Bach's Schemelli songs and the Arie Antiche from Ricordi (which I still sing today, every day). Afterwards, she sent the pianist home.
"Sit down on the sofa here and tell me about yourself."
Which I did.
"You are highly musical. You already know your entire repertory, you know even more music than you might ever sing professionally. But you cannot sing. You have about three or four notes which are in order. If we succeed in transposing the quality of those notes onto your entire vocal range then we shall be in business. I am willing and ready to teach you. We would only work on technique."
"Very good. That is why I'm here."
"No, no, you do not understand: we shall work only and exclusively on vocal technique. No arias. No songs. Only technique: breathing exercises, pronounciation exercises, scales and intervals."
"But this is why I am here!"
I was excited and knew instantly, I had come to the right place, to the right person.
"In the beginning, singing will seem to be somewhat strange as you can't hear yourself sing. During the sound production, the noise inside your head makes you almost deaf. You can hardly hear anything at all during the moments you sing. You must train your hearing to listen during the short breathing breaks within the music in order to know if you are still with the piano or orchestra and if the pitch of your sounds still corresponds with the accompanyment." Frau Stader took up the subject of naturality: "Something only appears natural to you because you have done it the same way over and over again. This is not natural, it is simply a habit. And most of the time, it's a bad one."
"The entire area of your throat should be open while singing, just like yawning, and the soft palate should be raised."
The thing about yawning I got, sure, but whatever she meant by a raised soft palate took me quite some time to understand.
"Every single tone you produce must be like a wave flipping over, with a small foam crown on top." She continued: "I have another water comparison: for a singer, the stream of air is like a stream of water coming straight upwards from a garden hose. You place a ping pong ball on the exact spot where the water turns and falls down to the ground again. The ping pong ball represents your vocal cords, the place of sound production. The stream of water is your breath whose source should be as far away as possible from the ping pong ball – your vocal cords – so as not to put any pressure whatsoever on this tiny ball, otherwise it would get smashed. Just the same, it goes without saying that you still wish to apply as much air pressure as you can, in order to produce a voluminous sound, but the source of the pressure needs to be far away from your vocal cords. To come back to the garden hose: the actual nozzle where the water first exits with the greatest possible pressure is therefore located in the area of the winglets of your lungs in the lower back, far, far away from the larynx and vocal cords."
To come to the point without further delay: We never ever sang an aria, a lied or a song during the private lessons – the only exceptions were during the yearly Master Classes in Schaffhausen, Switzerland where she taught a select group of professional singers for two weeks every summer. Otherwise: Never. What we did do were breathing excercises (in order to develop the lower back lung winglets and the width of the thorax), pronounciation excercises ("Remember Roland roaring in rural Burundi ..." with rolling "R"s) and extended notes (swelling, diminishing, from pianissimo to fortissimo, and back again), staccato sounds, scales and interval jumps (including trills of fast half or full tone changes).
I kept using the rolling "R"s in my stage and concert singing for a very long time, mainly because this gave a better understanding of the text along with the singer-friendly frontal position of the tongue. I joined the contemporary opera world only some years ago, giving up the use of the rolling "R"s, as I came to understand that one can reach the very same level of articulation without them plus the fact that one does not sound so overblown and dreadfully old-fashioned.
"I forbid you to exercise at home."
"I don't understand," I countered. "I want to work hard."
"And I don't want to waste my time when you come back to a lesson to painstakingly untrain what you have worked and trained so hard to do so wrong at home!"
I understood her argumentation, but I wasn't a happy camper about the whole idea.
"With all this in mind, I would like you to come to take lessons as regularly as possible. To come every day would be best. Think again, carefully, if you want to work with me. A singing education is not only an intensive affair, physically and emotionally speaking, but it also involves a huge financial effort."
I swallowed three times, wondering how exactly I would be able to come up with 150.00 Swiss Franks everyday for lessons plus train fare from Basel to Zurich and back.
Frau Stader then hurled a remark at me which I have thought of each and every day since: "You must sing a scale with soul. If you can do that, you will not need to 'do' anything extra. The music will come towards you all by itself."
"You must understand that a huge part of singing is purely muscular training, which simply means you have to train every day like an olympic athlete."
"Are you aware that you do not feel your vocal cords? No one can feel one's vocal cords directly, not even the most famous tenor. We are therefore forced to use images and paraphrases in teaching. This is one of the reasons why it is possible for there to be so many charlatan pedagogues. A lot of singing students sound as if one has trampled on a cat's tail," Frau Stader said with crooked smile.
"Even if music is teamwork, you never can fully depend on your colleagues, the orchestra or the conductor (despite the fact that this one has the score in front of his eyes and he does not need to know it all by heart like us poor singers): do learn your stuff a capella. You don't have – just like me – absolute pitch, nevertheless you will find practically every note without any outside help if you work regularly without accompanyment."
Later, when I myself began to teach, I became interested in the meaning of the term "talent" in singing. I realized that it represents an entire rat's tail of qualities: a beautiful timbre (which is actually the only thing one cannot change or develop and which is often mistaken for talent in general); the purity of pitch and sound; the capability of forming a melody out of individual notes; the feeling for rhythm; the memorizing and learning by heart; the ability to translate feelings into song (exteriorising real past experiences) without totally letting go of oneself because if one becomes self-indulgently emotional one can no longer produce proper sounds from the vocal cords; the understandability of the text and to convey the sense of that text to the listeners; and so on and so forth. Further outside elements also play an important role: the ability to handle and survive the constant travelling and being in different places, often on your own; the difficulty of building and keeping a balanced private life; the strength to at times endure and rise above the slings and arrows of "mad" stage directors, disrespectful conductors or the bad behavior of fellow singers; to name a few. Of course, very few singers – might they be world class or simply average – do have the entire string of required pearls at their disposal: the one sings constantly a bit too low or too high and thus off key; another one has a vibrato so wide one can throw kitchen knives between the sound waves; a third one might hardly be able to read music. Or, maybe, there are problems with the learning by heart or over coming nervousness and stage fright. It is important for any professional to have a certain number of these necessary elements. The rest is work and hard labor to overcome and deal with what one doesn't possess naturally. Of course, a certain amount of luck always plays a big part in the career of any singer, that one meets the right people at the right moment, that one happens to be in the right place at the right time – as the old saying goes. And, I agree, that tiny little unexplainable and inexplicable something should be present somewhere in all of that.
"You need to have a singer's intelligence, you don't need to be a rocket scientist," Frau Stader remarked from time to time.
She meant that besides musicality and the necessary singing qualities, one needs an excessively precise mixture of cleverness, hard headedness, intuition, physical and mental stability, working will, chutzpah, controled stage fright, openness and at the same time the ability to defend oneself. Later in life, I witnessed ever so often and with great sadness that certain colleagues, even though they were in possesion of a dream-like quality vocal timbre, had to abandon the profession because they were either missing one of these elements or they simply stood in the way of their own singing.
Speaking of a singer's intelligence, here is a typical Frau Stader episode:
The first Geneva International Music Competition took place in 1939. The competition was and still is for piano and voice plus one additional instrument. The candidates sing/play behind a folding screen which means that the judging jury can not see the participants. Only the music counts.
Maria Stader sang numerous arias and lieder in several musical categories. For the "contemporary music" category, she had prepared the role of Zerbinetta from Richard Strauss' opera "Ariadne on Naxos" (libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal). Specifically, she sang the recitative "Great-Minded Princess ..." and the aria following, "As A God Each One Approached …". Oops, she skipped a passage during her rendition, which can easily happen in this devilishly difficult coloratura number! She was asked by the jurors afterwards if she always made this "cut" in the music – as the technical opera term would be for such a jump in the musical score. At lightning speed she retorted cheekily: "But of course, always!" Which wasn't true at all.
The pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, the flutist Andre Jaunet and the singer Fritz Ollendorf were the other winners of the competition besides Frau Stader.
[By the way, Richard Strauss was a "contemporary" composer then, as he was still alive.]
As part of their prize, the winners were invited to give a series of concerts in Berlin. Frau Stader who had an off the record reputation for being "thick as a brick but sings like an angel", told me: "I arrived in Berlin and was chauffeured with major gaudiness directly to the concert hall, where all was ready for the start of rehearsals. The atmosphere in the concert hall was undescribably insufferable: there were these strange humongous flags hanging from every balcony railing and smart-looking strutting military officers were everywhere. It gave me a truly unbearable feeling – even though I couldn't properly formulate in my own mind just exactly what was so unbearable about it all. At any rate, I instantly decided I would immediately and secretly return home after the rehearsal was over. I simply had this overwhelming feeling that I must get out of there as soon as possible. I sang through my arias, accompanied by the orchestra, and was then driven to a luxury hotel afterwards. As soon as I was certain that my escorts had vanished into thin air, I took my still unopened suitcase, smuggled it and myself past the lobby counter and jumped into one of the taxis waiting in front of the posh hotel entrance. 'To the train station, please.' I took the first possible train that would take me home to Switzerland. Once war actually broke out, I did not leave our country until it was over."
Well, the good woman could not have been that thick really.
"You know, I did sing uninterruptedly during the war years: every Sunday, a cantata or passion by Bach or a mass by Mozart or Haydn was being given somewhere. I sang the soprano part. It was practically impossible for singers to enter or leave the country during this time, therefore we were a very small group of professionals monopolizing the concert life. This intensive series of public appearances gave me a solid basis for my later career. And, trust me, I do know each and every church and chapel in Switzerland, inside and out!"
Her first performance outside of Switzerland after the war, as far as I know, was as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's "Magic Flute" at La Scala in Milan, Italy. Imagine that!
"You must have a tear drop in your voice! Don't ever forget that laughing and crying (as Schubert's famous song goes) are located very, very close together and they are situated on the same level. And while we're at it: Do not ever sing something sad sadly or something funny funnily. You must always treat sad things lightly and funny things with the greatest of seriousness. It is not you who is supposed to cry or laugh but the listener. These two fundamental emotions must not only be present at all times, just like oil droplets on the surface of water, they must be retrievable on command at any moment."
"You must be able to tap into the emotions from the deepest treasures of your own experiences, just like any good actor who is worth his salt is able to do. These emotions must be true, but you cannot let yourself be swept away by them. You are doing this for the audience, not for yourself. Never allow yourself to loose control completely. You must have a little red security light ready to flicker in your peripheral vision next to your cheek in case you start to step over the line. It is impossible to cry for real and sing at the same time, you would be hoarse within a very few measures of singing. This emotional level must be at your ready disposal: you must sing your aria at 8:19 p.m. for example and not three minutes earlier nor half an hour later. It must come on command. You tell your body what it has to do and when. It is a big help that you are inbeddeded in the text, the music, the contents of the piece, your singing colleagues, the staging, the orchestra, the conductor ..."
I only realized many years later what Frau Stader meant by that: I had been in several productions with the English Bach Festival (under the direction of Lina Lalandi OBE, a colorful personality), including the Parisian version of Chr. W. Gluck's "Orphee and Eurydice" (the composer had rewritten this later so-called Parisian version for a high tenor as the Paris Opera didn't want any castrati on stage at that time – in opposition to Vienna). After performances in the palace of Charles V at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain and at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London, Great Brittain, we then performed this opera at the Herod Atticus Theatre at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. This open air amphitheatre is carved into the Acropolis hill and if you're standing on stage you sing directly to the magnificient temples above, to the ancient hovering Greek gods as it were. One afternoon we were done rehearsing and at the end of the working session all participants other than myself dissappeared with lightning speed. Not only were they scurrying off to "do High Tea", which was always and everywhere generously offered by this British organisation, they were more importantly fleeing from the Greek summer heat of over 40° C (over 105° F) which reigned over this stone "desert" (the temple complex is located right in the middle of the city) and which made the stage a literal towering inferno in the late afternoons. So, there I stood, all by myself alone on stage looking upwards at the temple ruins. Strangely enough, there was not one single tourist in sight at this particular moment. There I was, surrounded by absolute sheer beauty and perfection. I started to shake like a dried leaf in a late autumn wind.
All of a sudden, a soft voice within me said: "No. Stop."
It wasn't I who was supposed to be overwhelmed, neither by this three-dimensional masterpiece nor by the dream-like music of our opera performance, but the audience. I had come here to do a job. Frau Stader's sage advice came trickling forward out of the recesses of my brain. Even if it was tempting to be taken in by this storm of blissfulness, no, I knew I had to create a tiny bit of distance between myself and all this beauty and perfection as well as the enormity of this situation and endeavor in order to fulfill my duties.
"Scales!" Frau Stader raised her pointer finger warningly up in the air once again: "Especially when you descend, you have to pay attention to the purity of the intermediate tones. These are easily sung too low, as the descending is accompanied by a 'natural' relaxation. Your aim is to sing any scale with soul. I cannot emphasize this enough! If you succeed in doing so, every musical line and phrasing comes towards you and you do not need to do anything actively any more."
I mentioned these remarks to my former teacher, Herr Borer, during a concert we did together some time later. He responded grinning: "But of course, she didn't need to do anything extra, she simply thought of her outrageous fees which put the famous diamond sparkle in her voice every time!"
During my study years with Frau Stader, I travelled to New York City several times, participating in the numerous tours of the contemporary musical ensemble "Compagnie Alain Germain" from Paris. I had already worked with this theatrical company for quite some time: before the beginning of my vocal training as a costume and set designer, later as a singer/performer on stage because in these so-called "free ensembles" every working force is put to use. In connection with these and other performances, there existed one quite surprising aspect in Frau Stader's teaching philosophy: she counseled me to participate as often as possible in any kind of opera production, concert and birthday party. By doing so, I would collect valuable and important experiences. But she did not want to know about it, which meant that we never worked on any special program I would present in public nor did she ever work with me to perfect any particularly difficult passage. She also never dreamed of attending any of my public appearances at that time.
"You come to me to learn how to sing. This is what we do here together. Nothing else."
Back to my New York trips: Frau Stader asked me every time I went to bring something back to her from the United States. It was always something very precise (which had nothing to do with singing), it was often something very expensive (which I had to pay for) and it was usually something impossible to transport. The climax was when she begged me to bring her a king sized eiderdown bed spread. This particular size was not available in Switzerland then. It was the time before online shopping. It was also before 9/11: especially with Swissair, every shopping item could somehow be stuffed in the overhead compartments or in the kitchen area. The bigger the shopping bags, the bigger the laughter of the ground staff, and the "bigger" was the cooperativeness of the stewardesses. I did bring her this duvet but after this incident I started to decline her suggestions politely and almost unfalteringly. Enough was enough.
One time, she gave me a parcel of chocolates from Zurich's Paradeplatz Spruengli Confectioners which I was to deliver to one of her former singing colleagues. This old friend of hers was a teacher now, but mainly, she was a socialite with many useful Manhattan contacts. It goes without saying that Frau Stader did not want this lady to give me any lessons, she simply hoped that she would connect me with people who could help my career (which did not happen). This New Yorkee gracefully received me in her town house, half laying on a slightly greasy chintz sofa. She immediately began nibbling on the chocolate bits, and she talked, and talked and talked. What impressed me the most during this visit was the fact that she belonged to the original generation of European immigrants who so influenced and shaped the cultural life of this city, before the Big Apple's own energy and momentum took over, propelling the city forward. This woman lived in a place which could have been part of Orson Welles' black and white movie "Citizen Kane": she resided in a villa of four floors, sandwiched between two skyscrapers. Sensational was the chateau-like wood paneling of all the inner rooms, and especially spectacular was the entrance area with two rounded staircases, an arrangement called in French "a double revolution" (like in front of the castle of Fontainebleau).
"Sing the text," Frau Stader reminded me repeadedly. "Don't just listen narcissistically to the sound of your own voice. How often did I whisper to my colleagues: 'Text in the printed program at the box office!', which they didn't want to hear. With quite a number of singers – including some world famous stars – one literally cannot even make out in which language their singing is supposed to be. Not only the well-pronounced consonants make the difference, no, already the various colorings of the vowels create an interesting sound development. The consonants interrupt and structure the vowels, but they don't strangle the vowel's openness. It makes me yawn if a singer produces just one single vocal sound. It would be just like that French painter who made everything blue, I'm sure you know who I mean ..."
"Probably. Whatever, always in his work, all is nicely blue. Who cares."
And then there was her dog. A sausage dog with swirly long hair, named Saemi. One morning, Frau Stader called and told me in a tear-choked voice that her beloved little dog, her Saemeli, had died. Although I was not an expert, I couldn't help but wonder if the dogs diet just might have had something to do with its death: she had fed the poor animal a special daily diet consisting exclusively of steamed carrots, veal filet and white rice. I could not imagine this being appropriate alimentation for any animal. I therefore was not completely surprised she had fed her dear little dachshund to death.
I had a lesson with her in Zurich that same afternoon. On my way from the railway station to her gorgeous apartment with the thick soft wall-to-wall carpeting, I reflected if I shouldn't bring her some kind of condolence flower bouquet in order to cheer her up, but my budget was already so overdrawn that I quickly dismissed the thought. On top of it, the way to her home led along the world famous luxury shopping street, the Bahnhofstrasse. Everything there was way too expensive to even remotely consider.
I arrived at her place – as always exactly on time, neither a little bit early nor a little bit late, God Forbid – and climbed up the stairs, which were also carpeted in velvet-like softness, to her apartment.
And what did I see? Frau Stader greeted me totally normally, with doggie at her side. I didn't understand a thing, as the lady was anything but gaga.
"Ah, I see, you look at my Saemeli! Isn't he cute? You must know, he is Saemeli Number Seven. Really, I cannot be without my dog!"
So, she had puchased that very same morning an exact same identical dachshound, with the exact same identical swirly long hair.
It took me some moments until I could properly project the first notes of my scales.
"You must have a tear drop in your voice! Do not ever forget that."