The Art of Singing: Opera vs. Preschool

“Pop quiz, hotshot!”

Him: “Wut?”

Sigh. Too early for 90s Keanu references, noted.

“Sing ‘Baby Bumblebee’ for me. Let’s see how far you get.”

Him: “…is this for your blog?”

“Just sing it! …yes, fine, it’s for the blog, now sing.”

Last year, after a spectacular fail at singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in his practiced, full, gorgeous tenor’s vibrato that caused my then five month old daughter to produce her very first WTF face, I taught Mike how to sing like us regular folk so as not to freak her out again. It was then, as I walked him through my litany of preschool standards, that I realized something.

My Tenor can sing in at least five different romantic languages, but fumbles almost every preschool song I know by rote. So this morning, I decided to quiz him. He gets past the first verse of Baby Bumblebee with no problem, but he skips the second verse, wherein the child violently smashes the offending insect to bits between her hands, and goes straight to wiping off the remains of the bee on his pajama pants.

“Nope. Try ‘Five Little Ducks.’”

He starts singing, I stop him, “With the choreography.”

Him: “There’s choreography?”

Right.

I admit it, in the beginning I was frustrated with him. Ridiculous as it sounds, I could not fathom why he, of ALL people, couldn’t pull it together and memorize a few simple nursery songs to sing to our daughter in order to engage, soothe, calm, and educate her. I was this close to banging my head against a wall in time to “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Speaking of, the man still fans out his fingers like a flower instead of making a sun-circle with his hands when he sings the line, “out came the sun,” and he’s been trying to sing it for a year now.

I’ve heard him try to soothe her while combing her hair with softly sung arias, and those just drive her even more batty. I can hear it in her cry, “Seriously, Dad? I want ‘Twinkle, Twinkle,’ not ‘Barber of Seville!’” 

This morning I asked him what he thinks his block is about, why he’s a whiz kid when it comes to learning his music for work, but he struggles with the preschool songs. His best guess is, he’s trained to sing bel canto: songs that feature lots of short phrases that repeat over and over again. Once he gets those short phrases, and the meaning behind them if they’re in a different language, then it’s note memorization. Those preschool songs are damned tricky with their choreography, the same tune sung with different lyrics (ABCs, Twinkle Twinkle, and Baa Baa Black Sheep are all set to the same tune, by Mozart), and… and… uh…

At this point I’m just looking at him. The Look. Really? That’s your block? Preschool songs are just much too complicated for a simple opera singer like yourself? Let me have a crack at it:

One of Mike’s favorite things to say when he’s feeling beat down by his job is, “Well, it’s not coal mining.” His work can be tedious. Practice, memorization, the rehearsal upon rehearsal, and then performances, the late hours…. However, he knows he’s lucky. He works with adults, all (or, y’know, most) geared towards a common goal. There’s very little minute to minute multi-tasking that isn’t rehearsed ad-nauseum beforehand. 

Then there’s my job.

Here is a thirty second snippet of my day at lunch time in the preschool classroom:

I just got 12 three year olds to successfully serve themselves food out of serving bowls, when Molly poops her pants. I need to change her, she wants to eat. Molly becomes a stinky, messy, screaming ball of hungry Tasmanian Devil, but I get her into the bathroom. Teacher is distracted; party!! As I’m cleaning up and changing Molly, Cain starts poking Abel with his spoon, and Abel starts yelling at the top of his lungs for Ms. Jennie to HAAAAALLLLLP! Timmy grabs the nearest serving bowl and starts gobbling up the tuna macaroni and cheese casserole with the serving spoon straight from the bowl and I’m watching helplessly from the bathroom with one eye while the other eye is watching to make sure Molly’s messy backside isn’t backing into me and my clothes or skin, and oh wonderful, here comes my director with a tour of potential new families for my classroom and I launch into “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

This is not any ordinary song, however. I sing it the regular way the first time. The second time, I sing about the “Little Baby Spider,” which is the original tune sung in a FABulous ear piercing falsetto, followed by everybody’s favorite, the “Great Big Spider,” again, same tune but sung in a monstrously low, gravelly voice. By the time I’m halfway through the second song, things have calmed down, Molly has stopped wriggling, Cain and Abel are clapping along, and my director has removed the serving bowl from Timmy’s grasp and places it on the lunch cart, and the prospective parents are smiling about how wonderful everything is.

Mike has trouble remembering the original, no frills “Itsy Bitsy Spider” when changing his daughter in the privacy of our own bathroom. His level of multitasking is different from mine, in that he doesn’t have this skill set, yet. It will come with time, patience, and practice. Honestly, I feel he will have a full book of preschool songs memorized and ready for use…

When he’s diapering his grandchildren.

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My Husband Wears More Make-up than I do

I used to be a make-up fiend. In college I was Gen X Goth, all black kohl eyes, blood red lips, and hair dyed every color of the rainbow. When I entered the work force as a preschool teacher, I toned it down until it was foundation, brown liner, and a funky lip color. Then I met my future husband, and I stopped trying. Not in that way where guys believe once we hook The One, women feel the need to take a permanent vacation from presentation. I was out-matched, out-gunned, and out-kohled, and I knew it. I threw in the towel, and went along for the ride of my life.

Just the other night, he asked me if I’d seen his tights.

Let’s back up nine or so years ago. I met my Tenor, Mike, at a mutual friend’s party. He walked in late, shaking rainwater off his pleather trench coat, and my inner Goth girl heart went pitter-pat. He was bald, well dressed, and I planted my wall-flower self in range of watching him hold court in a circle of his friends as he regaled them with tales of…. Oh, damn. Musical theater. He had a role as one of the Harlem Gang in a production of Ragtime the Musical, and was waxing poetic about the set pieces, the costuming, the choreography, and dammit, just my luck, he’s gay.

Stop, right there. Don’t even say it; they call it a stereotype for a reason.

As I have a background in theater and singing solo and in a chorus, our mutual friends tossed us at each other and I thought, what the hell, it’s safe enough considering he’s so obviously—

Alright, not so much. He’s straight, very straight, and we’ll leave that night at that, shall we? Even his cast mates joked that he was probably the only straight man in Harlem. Now fast forward five years.

The big, dramatic, blowout wedding my Tenor and I had? His idea. His first marriage was in front of a Justice of the Peace, and he wanted big and flashy. I was ready to book a flight to Vegas, but gave in. He got his big wedding; I chose A Nightmare Before Christmas theme. I had the DJ play,“A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd, during the dinner presentation. Really, it was a win-win.

Three days later, we moved my life out to San Francisco to chase his dream of being an opera singer. And he nailed it. From local productions of musicals to tenured tenor in the Men’s Chorus of the San Francisco Opera in just nine years? That’s “discovered by a talent agent at the mall and having a public breakdown on TMZ after fighting with Kimye” fast.

As I got used to being a New England transplant in the Bay Area (still not very successful, and oh my god, is my Boston accent so glaringly obvious out here), I went back to school to earn class units to qualify as a teacher in Cali, and am now celebrating my 14th year being a preschool teacher. I also get to be a part of my husband’s world. It’s living in that world which makes it crystal clear that our daughter, a 19month old toddler, is going to grow up in a fairly flipped gender role household.

She will get to know the theater, the world of opera, and while it’s true that there are tights, and codpieces, and horns, and “Kill the Wabbit”, she will get to meet people from all walks of the theater life: singers and dancers, writers and directors, conductors and instrumentalists, men and women reflecting our lives back at us through an unparalleled art form. Plus, how cool will it be for her on “Bring your daughter to work day”? Or when she gets to bring to school a picture of Dad at his job, in which he’s wearing blue eyeshadow, kohled eyes, and gold lame MC Hammer pants (seriously, check out the SFO picture archives, under Aida)?

What a wonderful, wacky, completely non-normalized, non-judgemental upbringing my daughter will have, due in part to the fact that my husband wears more makeup than I do.