Sunday, October 12, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part XII

The School of Barbie, Part Two

As my friendship/fanship with Barbara Divis grew, I inevitably began to draw comparisons with my first soprano-pal, Jennifer der Torossian. The main thing is, Barbara is much more instinctual. Not that she's some kind of "natural" who doesn't have to work at it - she works tirelessly - but she doesn't analyze things as deeply as Jennifer. Both approaches have their pluses and minuses.

Comparisons came to an uncomfortable head as I approached the book release for my opera novel, Gabriella's Voice. As a natural-born ham, I have never approved of the basic bookstore-reading format (author stands at podium, reads from book zzzzzzzz), and Gabriella cried out for some live performance. When I approached Jennifer about this, she was stumped as to how to go about this. The idea of pulling in a keyboard player was too cumbersome, and she was a little nervous about performing in such an odd space. I completely understood, but I realized that I had to think about my own career now, and so I went to Barbara. Barbara had just the thing. She had found some wonderful orchestra-only CDs of famous arias, and made plentiful use of them in the past. "All we need is a good stereo," she said. I set up a reading at Borders Books in Los Gatos (located in a lovely former theater), and did a few rehearsals with Barbara. (In addition to the arias, she proved to be excellent at the "half-acting" style of reading dialogues from the page.) The reading drew 200 people - a ridiculous number for a relatively unknown author. The evening was astounding; we performed scenes from the novel, and then Barbara sang arias - "Mi chiamano Mimi," "Un bel di" - that related to the scenes.

(I once tried out the karaoke-opera thing myself. A mezzo friend had a collection at her home, and I learned, of all things, "Stride la vampa" from Il Trovatore - an octave down, natch. When I tried it out at my local karaoke bar, my singer friends were astounded - largely by this vastly different choirboy voice I was using, a far cry from the one I use for Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra tunes.)

One would think that I had already gotten all I deserved from my friendship with Barbara, but a few years later she did something that pretty much saved my soul. In 2002, I went to New York to propose to my long-time girlfriend, Ginevra. Barbie had left Opera San Jose and moved to Long Island, mere miles from Ginevra's house, to pursue her career. Ginevra decided to arrange some readings for Gabriella's Voice, and Barbara agreed to perform them with me. The first two readings on Long Island were disastrous. The stores had done no publicity, and had recently changed their policy on in-store CD sales. Barbara had a collection - absolutely the most amazing self-published aria collection I've ever heard - and depended on their sales for both publicity and a little help with the rent money. She showed up, regardless, and one night sang her heart out for five people (three of them me, Ginevra and the store publicist). I have never seen such an act of "troupership" and generosity in my life, and this act of fulfilling one's promises, no matter what, will always color my thoughts when people ask about Barbara's character.

I managed to repay her a little bit a week later, when we appeared at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble, a mere stone's throw from The Met. We had a decent gathering there, and I took some time, as Barbara filled up the joint with "Un bel di," to wander to the window and gaze down on New York. I imprinted the moment with this thought: "You are looking down on Broadway as Barbara sings Butterfly - remember this." It was quite an evening.

The proposal was a bit of a disaster, also (and later a novel, Rhyming Pittsburgh). As for the CD, you can get that at

Since that time, Barbara has assembled a fruitful career singing at regional companies - Austin, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Hawaii - but has never quite cracked that glass ceiling into the Houstons, Seattles and New Yorks. She does, however, get glowing reviews on a regular basis (last year, a lovely review of her Butterfly in Arizona), and regular calls from me reminding her that she is making a living singing opera, which is pretty darned impressive, and that she should never do anything to deprive the world of that fabulous voice.
Photo: Barbara Divis as Nedda in Opera Santa Barbara's 2008 Pagliacci. Photo by David Bazemore.

Next: Barbara makes her debut in the world of fiction.

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