This is the third time I am doing Ports of Call, a program that circumnavigates the globe using songs from eleven countries in nine languages. In every port you meet a traveler—be it a merchant, an exile, a lover, an ex-pat, or an opium addict. Since I am comfortable with all the music, it’s easy for me to forget how challenging it might be for a cast of singers. You need versatile, nimble artists who won’t balk at learning an a cappella piece in Danish, or a Brazilian tango, or a ballad in Afrikaans. It takes a young cast to embrace the challenge—the majority of established professionals are more likely to want to stay in their comfort zone.
I got around to casting this project a bit late, and I feared I might have waited too long. For once luck was on my side, and I am blessed with four extraordinary singers—truly beautiful voices and startlingly clever musicians. Each of them possesses an unusual combination of traits:
soprano Elaine Daiber: power and voluptuousness
mezzo Olivia Cosío: vulnerability and boldness
tenor Jesse Darden: stylish musicianship and killer high Bb’s
baritone Thomas West: gentle warmth and daredevil interpretive instincts
They did their first readings of their songs today, and everything went smoothly. It was almost eerily good. They were so smart and so well-prepared that I found myself getting slightly impatient when things weren’t absolutely perfect right off the bat. What does perfect mean in this context? Something utterly irrational: I want to hear various moments done with exactly the same inflection as someone else who once nailed that song years ago, in a previous iteration of the show.
I quietly reminded myself that this was in fact the first day, and that the entry level was ridiculously high. With artists like this it doesn’t take many words to bring the ship into harbor. “More kittenish,” I told Elaine, who had sung Nazareth’s “Nenê” with impressive gusto—wow, that chick has a middle register the size of Chicago—but lacking some of the teasing quality the song needs. It wasn’t “come hither” so much as “I’m coming after you.” Soon we were seeing—and hearing—an altogether different character, as if the song had come back in a different costume.
“Slyer, more suggestive,” I told Jesse. He seemed just a little too earnest for Cole Porter’s “The Kling-Kling Bird in the Divi-Divi Tree.” “Maybe your character is lying about how faithful he’s been. He’s not an operetta tenor.” I searched for words, and blurted out something appallingly lame. “It’s…Broadway.” I was momentarily ashamed of saying something so obvious, so I added, “I think he’s a guy who works on cruise ships, and he’s reassuring his boyfriend that he’s not coming back from this trip with gonorrhea like he did last time.” Who knows where this stuff comes from? But that did the trick. Jesse went from Dudley Do-Right to Man With a Load of Mischief in no time at all.
The rehearsal ended with a bit of drama. I was about to settle in for another 30 minutes of singing but I got a text from Jim saying that a storm was coming and I should get home ASAP. I took a few minutes to try one of Jesse’s songs in two keys (no surprise, the higher transposition was even better than the perfectly thrilling printed key), and then I heard the rumble of thunder. “OK, guys, I have to get out of here. Can you folks do the lock-up?”
I live about 10 minutes from the hall by wheelchair, and the sky was getting darker and darker. “It’s a twister, Auntie Em!” I muttered to myself as I motored home. I made it before the rain, and in any case the storm was short-lived. Still, the vulnerability of being outside and unprotected during a downpour gave the trip an added frisson. Now the sky is pink and blue, and the bugs seem to be having their senior prom on my porch. All’s right in the world for the next couple of hours.
In the picture: Thomas West and me outside Orient’s new eatery, Opties and Dinghies. The place is oddly named, but they serve wonderful fresh dumplings, crêpes, and gelato. We contented ourselves with iced coffee and tea today, but visions of sugarplums are dancing in our head, as you can see.