Sunday, February 7, 2010

First Loves

by Libby Malin

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away--specifically, right after I graduated from college--I worked as a Spanish gypsy, a Russian courtier, a Japanese Geisha, a Parisian bohemian, a Middle Eastern slave, a French courtesan, and a Chinese peasant.

Those were the roles played by chorus members of Baltimore and Washington Operas as they put on productions of Carmen, Eugene Onegin, Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, Salome, La Traviata, and Turandot. I was one of those chorus members, happily arriving about an hour before each performance, traipsing through the stage door with makeup bag in hand, ready to be wigged and dressed.

To get ready for this backstage preparation, the women were all required to flatten their hair into pincurls and place a stocking cap over all. Then we'd head to the wig room where the loveliest hairpieces would be placed on our heads, glued to our foreheads with fine netting. Back to the dressing rooms where hired "dressers" would help us into our costumes--some of them very heavy and historically accurate with laces rather than buttons up the back. For most performances, these costumes were rented from a shop or another company's production of the same opera.

Once during my "illustrious" career, I sang in a La Traviata where the costumes were designed specifically for that production. A confection of pale pink lace and chiffon thus had a tag sewn into it with my name on it--original costumes were tagged with the names of the first persons to wear those garments. Somewhere in an opera house today, a chorus member might be wearing a gorgeous gown with the label "Elizabeth Malin" sewn in a seam.

In between all the dressing and the wigging, we'd be gluing on our false eyelashes and smearing on whatever pancake makeup was best (for some productions, like Salome, directors would specify the shade), lining and filling in our lips, placing small cutouts over our lids if we were to play Asians, and generally warming up, maybe even reviewing passages of the score that were hard to remember (chorus cues in the last act of Carmen are a bear to recall). This last task we were not required to do. As members of the American Guild of Musical Artists union, we were not expected to learn the music on our own. That's what the hours of rehearsal with the chorus master were for. Union reps were quick to pop up and remind us we had no obligation to do any work outside the paid rehearsals should a conductor tell us to "go over that on your own."

We were expected to be on time (or have our pay docked), get into our costumes, be ready to sing and act, and wait as the stage manager calmly called cues over the speaker system piped into our downstairs dressing rooms, excitement building as the moments before the first notes sounded ticked by.

"Fifteen minutes to places," "ten minutes. . ." "five. . ." "chorus to the stage, please."

The Kennedy Center stage was a world unto itself. It was large enough that the stage manager could stand in the wings calling lighting cues on his headset in a normal tone of voice, not worrying if the sound would carry into the "house."

During one production of Boheme (directed by the composer Gian Carlo Menotti), the president attended (I won't say which one or it would date me!). Secret Service staff roamed backstage and artificial snow was left out of one scene so that these dedicated personnel could more clearly see into the hall and up to the presidential seats.

Those were magical times for me. Music was my first love--I actually have two degrees from a conservatory.

But I discovered pretty quickly that I wasn't cut out for the performer's life. I didn't enjoy the traveling it would require, and I always struggled with stage fright. Writing continually called out to me.

While I didn't stay in the music field, my life has been enriched immeasurably by that "first love." My writing, too, has benefited because studying music teaches you a lot about rhythm and pacing, about audiences and characterization, about how to express passion, longing, acceptance, and even humor. I don't regret my early days in the music world at all and have recently begun singing in my church choir again.

So. . . what "first loves" inform your life and writing now? Do you ever wish you could return to them?


  1. Singing is one of my first loves too. My voice is nowhere near operatic quality, but I love to sing in chorus. I'm more envious of your opera experience than if you had said you were a principle. Singing with others is the most rewarding form of play I have ever found.

    My other first love is study of people, and more specifically, minds. Everything about the way people think and behave, singly and in groups, interests me. Psychology (behavioral, clinical, child, business--you name it) sociology, anthropology, parapsychology...One day I counted and realized I had accumulated more than sixty hours at the graduate level--without having enough hours for another degree because I hadn't taken enough courses in any ONE of the disciplines. LOL

  2. Mary Margret, I bet the study of people has really helped you with your writing, though!

  3. Wow, Libby, how utterly exciting! I've been to several of the operas in NYC when I was living in NJ, and I loved them. But to actually sing in them? I could never carry a tune, so not for me, but I LOVE listening to the performances.

    For me, my LOVE is teaching. When I was in sixth grade, I was in a Teachers of Tomorrow class and had to teach a younger class activity. Instead of teaching, I became an Army personnel officer, which I loved, and because of my MBA, ended up helping in an advisory way doing audits and helping soldiers with their taxes. Today, I teach online writing classes, and in-person classes also, which I thoroughly enjoy. Two of my former students have been picked up by Dorchester, so I'm thrilled for them! If I had to live my life over again, I'd probably be a college English professor. :)

  4. Music is my first love too. I wanted to be an opera singer, and studied voice in college. But I ended up with TMJ and decided maybe I'd like to be a psychologist (might have had something to do with the cute Psych 101 prof). I didn't become either!

  5. I should point out that another reason I left music was because I just wasn't that good in auditions -- stage fright sabotaged me mostly. Once I gave up singing as a career, though, that stage fright receded considerably, and I was able to enjoy singing more -- with a choir, in a recital.

    Sorry to hear about the TMJ, Shana.

  6. Wow! That is very exciting! I have no such stories to tell of my life. LOL!

    My first love has always been science and nursing. Not at all what one would associate with the arts. I am still scratching my head over that! but I guess that technical, logical, clinical field and way of thinking does help in my research and writing a detailed historical world.

    Or maybe I am just trying to make sense of the craziness!

  7. Sharon, when I decided to move away from music as a career, I actually considered nursing and took a biology course in preparation. It was refreshing to deal with science, and I surprised myself with how well I did. But then a twist of fate landed me in a public relations office, where I put my writing love to work . . . and that was that!

  8. I've been in a few plays, so I know how exciting it can be, but that kind of "stage" experience isn't the one I long to have.
    I've been a guitar picker/singer since I was ten years old, but I've never played in a band, and whenever I see a live performance, I can't take my eyes off the lead guitarist. If he's long-haired and cute, that's a plus, but I would dearly love to have that talent.

  9. I played the piano throughout junior high and high school, and it's just one of those things I miss very much... One day I'll take lessons again!

    I also played soccer for a very long time, too, but an ankle injury when I was 15 stopped that from progressing!

    GREAT post, Libby!

  10. What a fun post! I love getting glimpses into other worlds, so I really appreciate hearing your "behind the curtain" account.

    Looking forward to your next book!


  11. Thanks, Tawna. My next book is set in the world of opera. Well, soap opera. LOL!

  12. Wow Libby! Being on-stage in opera performances sounds FANTASTIC! Thanx for sharing your experiences with us.

    I'm with Terry, can't sing at all (and trust me, you do NOT want me to try!) but I did play the flute when I was in grade school and junior high. When I reached high school and discovered BOYS, my career as a flautist ended. ;-)


  13. I can't sing at all but I do love listening to music what a fun time that must have been Libby.

    I don't think there was ever a career that I really wanted other than being a mother and that I got and am now a grandmother and still loving it

    Have Fun

  14. Helen, I always wanted to be a mother, too, and having a family life is hard when you're trying to be a performer, too. I know folks who've done it quite successfully, but it wasn't for me. I have three kids and a wonderful hubby.

  15. What a great post, Libby. It's amazing how multi-talented most writers are. Not me, of course, but many of you are incredibly talented.

    My daughter danced at the Kennedy Center (American Ballet Theater's The Nutcracker) She has a tee shirt that says "I performed at the Kennedy Center" and had it signed by all the dancers. We have that, her ballet shoes (with Kennedy Center dust on them), her playbill, and a few other things all ready to be put into a shadow-box frame for her. it was definitely the highlight of her young life. She didn't have the President there to see her but I did see Teddy Kennedy standing next to his brother's statue that night, so he was probably in attendance.

  16. I never got beyond the school opera, but I remember dancing in a red dress that used to belong to my Mum, and always trying to watch what everyone was doing and where they were looking.

  17. What a fascinating first love! And thank you for the insiders look at performing, Libby. I truly enjoyed it.