July 11, 2014
The end of my operatic season is night and pretty much invariably, year after year, its when I feel most tired and in dire need of my annual summer break. Singing the last few performances culminating with my Malta yearly summer concert can be a challenge – especially when I have to tackle a total of around 19 arias/songs!
Thankfully there is stuff that works for a tired physique and voice. Here is what works for me -
1. Move! Working out, swimming and even a long brisk walk will do wonders for your circulatory system. Don’t do this on the day of the performance but definitely in between.
2. Silence. If you are singing a lot than it is imperative that you keep mum during other hours and only talk if its absolutely necessary. Limit phone conversations too as much as possible.
3. Diet – 3 main meals a day are a must. Avoid foods high in lactose and sugar and go instead for protein, veg and loads of fresh fruit. Keeping your blood sugar relatively constant is important and regular, healthy meals will lessen the likelihood of acid reflux. Its also important not to eat late in the evening. I try to avoid eating after 6pm whenever possible.
4. Steam inhalations – Get a big pot or steam inhalator, throw in some bicarbonate of soda and sea salt and just inhale the healing/relieving vapours! This is really beneficial to basically all your upper respiratory tract and will dislodge mucus and other impurities from your throat.
5. Nasal irrigation – Not the nicest “procedure” but it does remove all kinds of “junk” from your nose. Make sure you always rinse with saline water and there are prepared sachets you can get from virtually any pharmacy.
6. Sleep – Its boring but a good 8 hour sleep is unbeatable to get the voice back in shape. Acid reflux sufferers will also find relief by tilting their head upwards by using two pillows to avoid nasty acid creeping up their throat during their slumber.
7. Stress – or the lack of it. Absolutely avoid stressful situations which may include noisy places/bars. Your throat tenses up automatically even if you don’t speak apart from the fact that you can “tire” your ears out. There have been some studies that our “ears” tire out too so the avoidance of high decibel places is a must!
8. Vibrator – Yep that one. Apparently tests have shown that massaging your throat with a vibrator is beneficial to the surrounding neck muscles. Apparently there are some therapists that employ such “devices” already…
9. Humidity – A constant dry environment can spell disaster for your voice and general well being. If you are in a cold climate and the heating is at full blast, chances are that the relative humidity is low. Invest in a humidifier and let them rip! We all have slightly different comfort levels. For me what works best is around 55 to 65% – just like a good cigar!
10. Arguments – Whether of a business or personal nature do walk away from these when you are singing. Even if talking is not involved the mere thought or presence of something negative will automatically tense your neck muscles and raise the incidence of acid reflux!
If everything of the above fails than you need a vacation! Choose a high humid climate with beautiful, clear seas at hand. Swimming in the ocean/sea is truly beneficial for the voice as long as one avoids the worse hours of the sun.
May 11, 2014
Often I am asked by people where to lunch/dine out in Malta and since its basically already summer in Malta here are my favourite haunts in Malta and Gozo. Disclaimer – This is truly my opinion and yes you might see me there. There is no ranking/order in the below and I do not get any freebies/free meals either.
Baia Beach – Little Armier Beach (Mellieha)
One of the most stunning restaurant locations in Malta. Relax with a glass of crisp Sauvignon Blanc whilst nibbling on Mediterranean goodies. Arriving by boat? No problem. Drop the anchor and they will come and fetch you with their dinghy and take you back to your boat after you’re done. Bliss!
Grabiel Restaurant – Marsascala
One of the best fish restaurants in the south run by Giovanni, Mario, Paul and Karmenu. The latter are all brothers and experts in veritable fish feasts. Try the local “Rossi shrimps” and if you want fish ask for “Gurbell” or “Ciapulazz.” Portions are gargantuan and big eaters will love a plate of “pasta vongole” (pasta with clams) or “nero,” the latter done with fresh squid ink. This is a good first stop in Malta as Karmenu will give you a list of who is who in Malta together with the latest gossip and political intrigue. They also love talking about their nephew who apparently did quite well for himself…
Tarragon Restaurant – St. Paul’s Bay
Marvin has created a charming restaurant in the heart of the picturesque sea side village of St. Paul’s Bay. The décor is tasteful and it includes sizeable aquariums with lobsters intended for cooking of course. The staff is attentive, so much so that they run around with “star trek type” ear pieces to make sure that they are in constant touch with the kitchen. Whether you’re out for some “molecular food preparation” or some good old plain fish this multi award winning restaurant is also a must! Ask for the raw appetizers and for an “al sale” prepared fish.
De Mondion Restaurant – Xara Palace, Mdina
In the second world war this building was apparently used as a residence for the allied ace pilots. Legend has it that the Luftwaffe pilot knew this and it wasn’t uncommon for them to strafe its beautiful, historical terrace with bullets… Nowadays Xara Palace is a 5 star boutique hotel with an amazing restaurant specializing in French/Maltese cuisine. It is not cheap but the excellent food, service and extensive wine list makes experiencing this restaurant a must. Ask for a table on the terrace so that you can enjoy the view of multiple village fireworks. The rabbit menu washed down by a bottle of St Emilion is especially delicious!
Kartell Restaurant – Marsalforn, Gozo
I have been going to this restaurant, right on the water’s edge of Gozo’s main seaside resort of Marsalforn since the age of 10. The location is literally on the water and Philip, the owner, a gracious and efficient host. Fare is predominantly Mediterranean although do ask for the Gozitan cheese and Maltese “Awwista.” Not the first time that I ended up serenading the guests impromptu at this restaurant accompanied by Pawlu Carbonaro, one of Malta’s finest post war artists. Ask for a taste of Gozitan local wine from the “Ta’ Mena” estate especially the Vermentino!
May 7, 2014
Did it ever happen to you to vocalize before a show, find that you are absolutely fine only to get tired, without cause and suddenly during a performance? If you are not sick and didn’t strain your voice then there is quite a big probability that you are suffering from acid reflux.
Basically the stomach produces acid in order to digest the foods you digest. Sometimes this acid, in liquid or gas form, can travel up your food pipe and end in your larynx wrecking your throat and voice. Indeed I rate acid reflux as the worst affliction a singer can have after tracheitis and laryngitis.
If you suspect that you suffer from the condition do contact your doctor who, if indicated, will probably put you on some “proton pump inhibitors” to lower the acid your body makes. This medication will help but its also good to rely on a good diet with foods that don’t trigger a surplus of acid. Personally I find fried foods, bread and over indulgence of alcohol to be the worst. Bananas, rice and whole wheat pasta bring some relief. The medication “Gaviscon” will become your best friend and sleeping with a “raised” pillow is also a must together with not eating after 6pm.
Remember that tight costumes and stress in general can also cause an upsurge in acid and never persist on singing with a feeble voice as this can only worsen the condition.
April 27, 2014
One thing I seldom see being discussed is the type of accommodation an opera singer really needs. Indeed I rank the place where you live, sleep and eat as one of the most imp0rtant factors to be able to perform consistently and at an acceptable level. Noise levels, cleanliness and (perhaps most important) humidity really do factor and contribute to one’s general vocal health. Lets take humidity as an example. Anything below 40% relative humidity is generally going to be problematic for most singers. Your nose will probably bleed and you will feel a sensation of a “parched throat.” Chamomile tea with honey will sooth this temporary but it is advisable that you go out and buy humidifiers immediately.
Temperature is another thing which is often overlooked. I tend to keep my room at 19 to 20 degrees Celsius. I open windows to let in fresh air as often as possible and do not mind different temperatures in different rooms of the apartment. In fact I find changes of temperature to be rather invigorating much like a cold shower after a few minutes in the Sauna…
Last but not least I cannot stress how sound insulation is a must especially in noisy cities. It is quite boring but what the voice really needs to recover is loads of sleep and the latter is difficult to get if you can hear noisy sirens and horns all night long!
April 8, 2014
On the 3rd of April my daughter turned 10. Having a child is such a priceless gift and big responsibility and that is why any responsible parent should invest all the love, time and money in the child’s formation, with the hope, that such child will grow up into a responsible and considerate individual…
A Maltese family recently had their child stripped away from them in such an unnecessary and irresponsible fashion after she associated with someone who should have been a source of guidance for their daughter and not, as it seems, the road to her absolutely tragic demise. I therefore couldn’t believe my eyes when I found myself reading actual messages of support, on the internet and in various forums, for this teacher. A “teacher” who abused his position of trust by sleeping with his minor student, sometimes in her father’s own home, and planned their supposedly joint “suicide” over a number of days. I have the greatest sympathy and pity for his parents, especially since they are known to be a decent lot but I find it very hard to conjure a lot of kind thoughts for him I am afraid.
What is even more unbelievable are those who are stating that this is a “rich” vrs “poor” situation or a battle of “classes” of some sort. Are the latter going insane? Are they actually saying that the death of this 15 year old girl, a daughter, a cousin, a niece etc, is less serious or tragic because she hailed from a prominent and well off family and the perpetrator is poor so he should have our sympathy? I also read that this happened because she was “disturbed.” Even if she was, since when does this warrant or deserve a death sentence?
There is no denying that sometimes, some of us, lose the plot and the correct sense of perspective. Another example is www.timesofmalta.com, the web portal for Malta’s most prominent and respected newspaper. It had recently ran two stories; 1. the killing of migratory birds 2. the killing of dozens of Syrian toddlers and pre adolescent children slaughtered in the conflict. Both stories had the same, very visible, exposure on the site. As yet, the story about the bird killings had literally hundreds of comments and the one about the slaughtered children, which included pictures of the dead children, had perhaps 8 comments. Now of course I am really sorry that beautiful migratory birds where shot out of the sky but this is no way comparable to the death of innocent children who’s only crime was being born in the wrong time and country. The hundreds of comments should have been on the story about the dead Syrian children and its really sad and telling that this was not the case.
Our collective morality needs an urgent retune and to all of you out there who think your problems are insurmountable please to think again. Help is at hand and much closer than you think…
March 31, 2014
What better ways are there to highlight the ongoing tragedy of thousands of lives swallowed by the Mediterranean sea a couple of miles beyond our shores than a feature film? Well not many I can think of and Rebecca Cremona does wonderfully by linking and intertwining it with yet another tragedy; the loss of a Maltese fishing boat with all its crew save for one… I will stop here re the movie as I don’t want to give out more spoilers for those who are not familiar with the story. However I can tell you that it is well acted throughout and expect to be glued to the screen…
What I am writing about is the other thousands of “Simshars” lost at sea. In this case the lives of those who perish(ed) will not be documented in any movies and very few people on our side of the “fence” will mourn them or even give their plight and tragedy a second thought. It is shocking that we treat mass “drownings” as business as usual. The immigrants who risk life and limb to cross are not doing so as a sort of “lets see how this thing goes…” The vast majority are escaping persecution, famine, disease and (in the worst cases) annihilation from all three. There is no other way of dealing with the situation, once the boats have left the shores of Libya, other than going out at sea to offer help when and whenever necessary. Anything short of the latter would be cruel and inhumane.
But what about us Maltese; can the island take and absorb wave after wave of immigrants indefinitely? Are we getting enough help from our neighboring countries? The answer to the latter is in a constantly changing gray area. A leap forward would be more stability (or stability at all!) around the North African coast and in the countries further south but that is not going to happen anytime soon. In the meantime we have to retain and live up to our reputation of a good hearted and welcoming nation and give the best possible aid to those who need it most. Unfortunately our best is not always enough and leaps and bounds of improvements are still to be made in the conditions we keep these immigrants till they are integrated or repatriated. In this area our politicians must appeal, in the strongest way possible, for more physical and financial aid from our bigger and stronger neighbors. Malta can not face this problem alone and lets not forget that our population density is one of the highest anywhere.
Anger and frustration might lead to the temptation of displaying racist or xenophobic behavior, especially when confronted with the unknown. To those who may be inclined to entertain such thoughts I ask one question; what if it were you in that overcrowded boat clinging to its failing structure for dear life? Would you want help then? If it were your kin out there on the boats or floating aimlessly on the high seas, would you go help then?
March 8, 2014
Most of you who follow me on facebook or on this site must have seen the new Airmalta advert from a few days ago. It was such a pleasure to drive around Malta and visit my “usual haunts” with a fantastic (and funny!) crew that Airmalta contracted for the filming of this advert…
I am sure that some of you out there will question the authenticity of the advert and whether it really represents what I think of Malta. The answer is both yes and absolutely. Almost all of the sites we visited are some of my favourite spots in Malta. Starting from the North we visited Little Armier bay. This is a spectacular small beach facing Comino. Ray’s Lido offer efficient sun bed/umbrella service and they have very decent food served al fresco. A little to the left you have the Baia beach Lido which is beautifully designed and offers excellent food in an idyllic environment. If visiting by boat they will even send a dinghy out to get you.
A stone throw away (and also featured on the ad) you can find the “red watchtower” ore more accurately “St Agatha’s tower” built in 1649 with impressive views which spans from the North West Coast all to Gozo and Comino. A walk to the edge of the cliffs is spectacular offering amazing views enhanced by the permeating smell of wild thyme which grow in abundance in the area…we ended the day of filming in my hometown Mellieha where, in a bar with the most spectacular view on the island, we had some Maltese Ftira washed down with our local softdrink and beer.
The above is only a small fraction of what Malta and Gozo have to offer. Indeed, one can get lost and drunk in the poetry, mystery and transcending beauty that our rugged coast and crystalline sea have to offer.
To sum it up yes I am truly in love with the Maltese Islands and its people…well at least most of them…in fact I sometimes I wished that more of my countrymen loved our island more…
St Agatha’s Tower-
Little Armier Bay -
January 14, 2014
How to deal with pressure is one thing that any budding opera singer needs to come to terms with pretty quickly. Years of study in a small studio, conservatory or a young artists program suddenly fizzle into oblivion when you go on stage, the orchestra starts playing and the spotlight is shining on you, literally. Strangely enough I was pretty much immune to pressure during the early part of my career. I had my professional debut at the age of 19 in a leading role. I won a couple of competitions, aced a couple of auditions and my calendar was steadily filling up in spite of my young age and relative inexperience. Still I faced the stage with artistic hunger and a hunger for success and I didn’t really even think of pressure or chance of failure. But then again most teenagers think they are bullet proof and I didn’t have anything to lose…
Then the game changer happened and the latter came into the form of a word called “reputation.” Audiences are the best form of publicity a singer can have and audiences TALK! Slowly but surely I was becoming “a name” and people came to the opera house with “expectation(s)” My recording contract with Decca a the tender age of 23 further catapulted me into the public foray and the much dreaded “pressure” came knocking at the door with a vengeance.
I didn’t know what to do hence I did what I always did in these instances and I called my teacher Paul Asciak. He first teased me and told me the proverbial “I told you it will catch up with you” (he always loved “I told you so” scenarios!) and then proceeded to give me some of the best advice I have ever received. He told me to live the operatic life like a vocation. No talking, socializing, drinking or even eating badly the days before a performance. That way, if something did go wrong on stage, I couldn’t possibly blame myself given that I took every single precaution possible. I didn’t mention hard study and preparation because that’s a given but many artists, especially young ones, think they can do without the mostly “monastic” lifestyle that an opera career requires. That is why an opera singers way of life is as much a vocation as it is a career. A long conversation in a noisy pub (even one without smoke) is a no go even two days prior to a performance. Even a seemingly harmless bottle of wine can dehydrate your cords and give you enough acid reflux to make a difference in your sound. Even a night of passion the night before is a no go, especially for tenors, although the latter is controversial with some artsits claiming that sex actually helps their performance. Boring? Yes! But still a must. I know of no major artist with a reasonably long career who didn’t exercise this discipline. Of course I hastily add that singing the right repertoire and not singing too often are also musts unless you are the Great Placido Domingo. The latter, with vocal cords forged out of Wolverine’s Adamamtium. is simply unbreakable and unstoppable…
Last but not least is to never underestimate sickness. My rule of thumb is to never sing when the vocal cords are at all compromised or when there is a lot of mucus in the nasal passages that will get dislodged from the nose right down to the actual cords by the actual vibrations caused by singing. You only have one pair of vocal cords and they are very hard to repair if compromised. Take care of them!
In the end no two performances will ever be the same no matter of the precautions taken. That is one of the beauties of performing live opera – its unpredictable!
December 18, 2013
Kathy Bates, Justice Ginsberg, Scalia, Sotomayor, Roberts, Glenn Close, Alan Alda, President Obama, Arroyo, Santana and Snoop Dog etc. etc. What an amazing month December was! I don’t want to enter the merits of the existence of an “afterlife” but if the latter exists it is a sure thing that my father, born in the village of Qormi in Malta, is surely smiling…
But what does one learn from global legends? Well I guess humility and the long road that starts from nowhere, seemingly going to nowhere that instead ends up changing people’s lives and indeed history. I mean all the eulogies, especially to Billy Joel, delivered by the amazing Garth Brooks, was so heartfelt and intense without that annoying prosopopeia that so often accompany such events that yes, I did feel privileged to be assisting at the American “knighting” equivalent of Joel, Arroyo, Hancock, Santana and Maclaine. Something to tell the grand children for sure…
November 29, 2013
Yes one does have to learn to be comfortable with oneself but lets not kid ourselves, homo sapiens are social creatures and there is no doubt that one of the hardest things for an opera singer* at a certain career stage is, plain and simple, loneliness. It is a bit better for singers who are under contract in one theatre, as this means they stay mainly in one city. However, if a singer is freelance he or she is invariably hopping from one city to another sometimes forgetting in which city they are in (think concert tours) and often mistake closets for toilets. Yes, before you ask, the latter did happen to me and it had my girlfriend in stitches at the ungodly hour of 4am. I didn’t even know that chicks could laugh at that hour…
For jet setting singers it is very hard to maintain close connections with friends and colleagues. Indeed the minute you start building a friendship it is time to leave again to the next city probably on a different continent . Of course there are the advantages of constant changes of scenery, exciting new cities, people and challenges but the fun stuff can be easily forgotten when you don’t really have someone to share the joys (and occasional pains) with. In normal circumstances, leaving out the terrible tragedies that life sometimes throw at us, there is simply nothing sadder than going back to an empty hotel room or apartment after a successful performance. No one to dissipate the adrenalin on and no one to share the Ben and Jerry’s chocolate fudge ice cream with…
It is of course good to have a good laptop and a tablet to keep you company with your e-books, music and videos after your legs get tired from exploring the city. And talking about the latter; discovering a city on foot is one of the best ways to discover a new city. I have so many great memories of running around Munich in minus 15 degrees Celsius, jogging on the soft snow and don’t let them scare you about the voice. As long as you’re healthy and appropriately dressed, running in the cold actually builds your stamina and resistance. Just don’t sing on the same day of jogging as you might find your nasal passages a bit dried out. Zimmerman’s dark knight music is particularly invigorating and meditation inducing during such jogs.
When loneliness becomes overwhelming there is always Skype and Facetime and you will be surprised by how many hours one can actually “burn” on these endless chats and how many times you will find yourself kissing and hugging the screen. Sometimes it almost seems that your loved ones are in the same room with you which makes it all the more difficult when you hang up and realize that actually, they are thousands of kilometers away. Then again you will “hug” your loved one silly when you next see him or her and if you have children you will just learn to give them every minute when you are actually with them. Distance does make the heart grow fonder sometimes and this is apparently scientific now!**
Then there are those who are lucky enough to find a better half that doesn’t mind all the travelling and city hopping. When this happens, loneliness becomes a thing of the past and almost all the disadvantages disappear being replaced instead by a sort of “honeymoon after honeymoon” experience as long, of course, as the relationship works is healthy. If you are an opera singer and you find that person don’t ever let go as they are a special kind. In fact I just can’t resist but take this opportunity to thank my beautiful girlfriend Victoria for putting up with this crazy life!
*singers are generally homosapiens although it is still open for debate whether tenors do indeed form part of this category..