Post by Megan Gillis: City Lyric Opera co-Founder and co-Executive Director
In early October, I had the pleasure of traveling to Iceland with Brooklyn based collaborative group, Apartment Sessions. It was a journey of many amazing sights and sounds, emotion and, self reflection. This is that story.
I first became affiliated with Apartment Sessions in May of 2017 when my college friend, Evan, asked if I was available to sing in a choir for one of their videos. I had seen other friends and colleagues in previous videos - twenty or thirty musicians crammed into a tiny Brooklyn apartment playing and singing original arrangements - and I was curious. At the promise of $10 and beer, I hopped on the G train and headed to Brooklyn. What I soon discovered was that I wasn’t just singing in the choir, I was entering a family. Here was an environment saturated with talent and innovation and so much heart. The energy in the room was infectious. Lead by a team of talented and driven humans, Evan Tyor, Luke McGinnis, Drew Krasner, and Liz Maney, there was no instrumentation too large or dream too crazy. Apartment Sessions gathered musicians of all backgrounds and experiences, from classical to jazz and bluegrass to Broadway, to create new music in all sorts of crazy places. When I was asked if I wanted to come to Iceland for 10 days to sing, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
On September 27th, as a group of 40 with an agenda of over 20 songs to rehearse and record all over the country, we went. Words cannot begin to describe the wild beauty that is Iceland. As a country roughly the size of the state of Pennsylvania and a population of only about 350,000, it is one free from the daily hustle and bustle of New York City. Our house, a hostel we rented for the 40 of us and our gear, sat peacefully on a horse farm outside the small town of Geysir about an hour and a half outside of Reykjavik. Almost overnight, our house became a home. Couches and tables were moved aside to accommodate a drum kit and upright bass. Every day became a concert as we cooked a meal or lounged about the house. Someone would inevitably start singing a song or pick up a guitar and one by one friends would join in. There was never a time when the air wasn’t filled with some sort of music. Our days were filled with travelling to different shoot sites, rehearsing, and recording. Music and collaboration permeated our idyllic Icelandic existence.
The word which I will use most often to describe my experience in Iceland is “humbling.” I often found myself feeling like an outsider in this environment of spontaneity. As a opera singer, I have trained to specialize. Our bodies become vessels for music written hundreds of years ago. We learn very specific style and languages to master this music. We train our bodies and our voices for years to learn to sing without the need for amplification over an orchestra. We are told over and over again that opera is the pinnacle of vocal mastery. We are Olympians of the voice. Many of us are also told from an early age that learning sing any other way is bad or worse, unhealthy. We are discouraged from experiencing other genres of music; to excel in opera, you must be inundated with opera. I remember early into my study being discouraged from singing along with the radio for fear that a more “contemporary” sound would seep into my classical technique. Suddenly, in a house of 39 other musicians, most of whom played multiple instruments and could switch easily from classical to jazz to bluegrass and back again, my musical education felt immensely inadequate. My very identity as a musician felt questioned. I often sat watching friends and colleagues playing and creating with each other heartbroken that I didn’t have the ability (or perhaps even more so, the confidence) to join in. What was the pursuit of the ever ellusive high C to musicians who could shout out a key and play for hours for the simple joy of collaborating and making music together? When had my journey with opera become so confined that I stopped allowing myself to make music for the enjoyment of it, rather than the study of it?
I don’t yet know what the answer is for me. I do know that opera is an art-form in desperate need of reflection and diversification. I know that a solid technical foundation can be translated to any genre if one is open to exploration and experimentation. Too often we are encouraged to sound like people of past generations, Callas, Freni, Scotto, rather than encouraged to find our authentic voice. We are taught to look down on other genres of music and styles of singing from our operatic pedestals. We are told that we are better, yet we cannot join others in song. I do know that my post-Icelandic future is one ripe with musical exploration. It is my hope that opera does the same and it is me dream for the future of City Lyric Opera. It is my dream that we as a community and as musicians can welcome alternative sounds and styles; that we as artists realize that out art is informed by the colorful and diverse world around us. If opera is ever to truly to be for “everyone,” we should be encouraging the musical journey of everyone - opera to gospel to jazz to musical theater - not placing blame or judgement. Perfection may be achieved within the four blank walls of a practice room, but art is far from perfect. Through our own exploration we are better equipped to make choices about the sounds we produce and the kind of authentic and genuine music we create. It is my personal hope that through this exploration I can learn to make musical choices that are wholly and authentically mine; That I can strive for knowledge and fulfillment rather than perfection.
One night of our last nights in Iceland we were dispersed about the house: some cleaning up the kitchen from dinner, some in their rooms reading or talking, others with an instrument in hand. We heard an excited call from the front door and all scrambled for boots and jackets and ran into the gravel driveway. Outside the electric green of the Northern Lights shone above us. We stood first in silence and then as if of one mind and one body, began to sing together, prompted only by the natural splendor around us and the closeness we felt in that moment. Voices from all different genres and backgrounds rose into the night sky…and it was perfect.