I had my first evening out with Sing for Hope, a jewel of a project that sends singers to hospitals to serenade patients at their bedsides. You feel a little awkward, a nicely made-up diva among the medical equipment (it’s so not Grey’s Anatomy in an actual ward), but patients light up for even a minute of music.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most wanted to hear happy songs. This stretches the resources of any classically trained singer. What, no Pamina’s suicide aria? No Winterreise? I thought William Bolcom’s Waitin’ made the most sense for the setting (I mean, isn’t that what you do in a hospital?), but I followed the lead of the three other singers with me and brought out the pep.
So that meant an up-tempo Somewhere Over the Rainbow, a couple of rounds of I Feel Pretty, and some jazzy, romantic standards. We sang in unison for the songs we all knew, sometimes getting creative with the harmonies, or leaning on each other to learn the words as we went along.
Usually one or two of us picked a solo. One girl, a proud Iowan with operatic ambitions, sang Rusalka and O mio babbino, filling each dim patient’s room with the unnamable sensation that a song will give you. She sang as I imagine she was trained to, gazing off to a spot at the back of the room, focusing on what she was doing, and inviting the audience to imagine that we were at the bottom of Rusalka’s sea or in a Florentine palace. It transported us all out of the hospital.
Still, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what I learned from tenor Jerry Hadley once: beware the singers’ stare. In a master class (shortly before he died) he stopped singers when he would see it, usually just before their entrance, when they had stopped listening to the music, stopped being the character, and gave in to their self consciousness.
Two patients in one of the rooms on the ortho ward were willing to hear anything at all. After another rendition of O mio, it was my turn to pick a solo, and I found myself singing, of all things, Fanciulla by Luigi Rossi, which I imagine had not been heard in that hospital much before.
I explained the song, that I was singing as a girl afraid of her suitor, with lots of interjected “Ahi!” when she gets stressed out. I made lots of eye contact, as if the patients were my suitors. I made shy and ‘dumb-blonde’ gestures. I clasped my bosom on the appropriate ‘Ahi’s. The men laughed. They seemed to get it. I hadn’t transported them out of the room, but I let them play act with me, and the set-up let them be more than recuperating patients, just for a moment.
I’m not saying one performance was better than the other. Maybe it’s the difference between chamber music and opera, or just a style choice.
But putting all of us to shame was the owl-eyed man on the neuro ward who, longing for a “good Passover song,” broke into a boisterous “If I were a rich man” from Fiddler on the Roof. With his beard and cane-thumping enthusiasm, he gave the most honest, energetic performance of the night. When we walked out of the room, he tried to follow us, wishing for more of the special space made from just the tiniest bit of music.
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My brief contact with Jerry Hadley stays in my mind. I haven’t found too much out there about his work as a teacher, but if the masterclasses I saw indicate what he could give to singers, I hope that many more had a chance to learn from him. A fan remembrance is here and below is a quote from him that I wrote down and come back to again and again:
Music is a gift from god, and you are worthy of that gift, do you hear me? You are worthy of that gift. And because it’s a gift from god, no one can take it away from you. Therefore, you are invincible.