This was not the first time I have heard Natalie Dessay. Her voice is luminous and agile, with the ability to deliver coloratura virtuosity without breaking a sweat, sometimes, as in today’s performance, while lying on her back or curled in a fetal position. She is simply one of the finest sopranos around, perhaps the best singer/actor. But here’s the interesting part: she has been sick for over a week, missed the opening night of “La Traviata” and, though she sang with believability and pathos, one might not have known she was ill except that her voice cracked slightly 2-3 times and her high C at the end of “Sempre Libera” was not her usual shimmering incandescence. As I sat there watching, I was imagining how she felt.
As a singer, I think I know. Please understand that I am in no way comparing myself to Natalie Dessay. But the voice is such a delicate instrument that it is appallingly easy to have a bad day. Not that she gave a bad performance. Indeed, it was achingly beautiful. (I was seated between two men who were wiping their eyes at the end!) But at the Act I intermission, she was interviewed backstage and walked up with a slight grimace on her face. She clearly was not happy with her performance and laughingly said “OK, so I missed a high note!” She was charming and self-effacing but I hoped she was not being too hard on herself.
My point is this (I’ll bet you were wondering): whatever our chosen passion is, be it our profession, a hobby, or nurturing a relationship, we are quick to berate ourselves for a single mistake, lapse in judgment or bad decision – all the while in the midst of doing everything else exceptionally well. Natalie sang three hours of the most demanding music, and led the audience through an emotional wringer that provided a divine opera experience. While sick! I hope that, at home tonight, she doesn’t dwell on the few less-than-perfect seconds! And I hope no sanctimonious music critic takes a pot shot at her.
I know I am prone to forget this lesson, despite having had ample opportunities to learn. I made a vow to treat myself more generously, to not obsess over occasional descents into thoughtless behavior, and to give myself credit for just doing the best I can. I can’t sing a high C anymore anyway, and none of my mistakes are going to be broadcast to the entire world in HD.
Put your feet up, Natalie, have a glass of wine and get well soon. Thanks for an extraordinary afternoon.