Rebecca Nathanson - Conversations with Artists
What is the art of what you do?
"That question evaded me for a really long time, which is why I'm in the middle of making changes. I was an opera singer and I thought the art of what I did was singing opera. But I realize that wasn't really the art of it. When I first got into opera I was very young - too young to really understand the business element of it and how strong of a component business and politicking is in entertainment. For the longest time, it was just 'me doing my thing.' So I think that's the heart of the question: what is me doing my thing? And now that I've been doing something totally different - I'm running a restaurant and I'm meeting incredible people - building relationships with them, building connections with them, how do I remember all these people? I always get to the heart of the question that you're asking me right now. That's the art of what I do - actually figuring out the art of what other people do. That's what turns me on. I think that was disguised in the past by the opera singing because there was so much art loaded on top of it that it was hard to really see through the layers of costume. Ultimately I just wanted to make a connection."
So the art of what you do is getting to the heart of the art of what other people do.
"Making that connection. For me, that's always been super important. Maybe it's because I'm a twin that making connections with people is so important. Maybe because I feel like I have a lot to share, which sometimes comes off as a lot to say. So it's very dangerous to ask me to do an interview. If you give a mouse a cookie... but I do have something to say. That's another reason why the opera thing is in some ways maybe not good for me -- because I have something to say. My own opinion and my own thoughts. You have the ability to express that in opera singing, but there are so many other genres of doing and art-making and creativity that let you more transparently share your own thoughts. Whereas opera singing like ballet is in some ways very constrictive."
Are you abandoning singing?
"Abandoning is a very dramatic word. I would say that I am transitioning away from it. And that can be very painful. It's the loss of something that I deeply identify with. The loss of something I've devoted my life to for the last decade and have done at a level that I can only be extremely proud of. My hard work was a success - I did debuts at major opera houses across the world. I sang on stage with Placido Domingo and Renee Flemming. Once I did a production of La Traviata where I showed up to my costume fitting and they were fitting me in Anna Netrebko's costume. I have a lot to be proud of and a lot to show for what I feel is too brief a time to be in a career. But also I think that a couple years ago there was a point where I thought I needed stability and began to wonder if there could there be something else for me."
"Maybe what I'm dancing around is, yes, I'm transitioning away. You can't abandon something that's intrinsically part of you, but am I pursuing singing with the same aggressive tenure as I did before? No. Definitely not. I still have that as part of my personality, pursuing things aggressively, but there are so many other things now that have my attention. When I show up to the restaurant every day I'm giving it my all and I am always asking what else can be done? What can be better? Where can I go next? That to me is just as important and fulfilling as what I had been doing before."
Sounds as if you're peeling layers of an onion.
Isn't that funny though, because in that metaphor you're peeling away layers and when you get to the base of what's been there the whole time.
Well, we identify with certain titles and labels.... and now you're discovering a new identity.
"Or I'm peeling back that identity to see who I really am. That was a big thing for me and I would say more difficult than I anticipated, not only because it was so much a part of who I am, but also because my fiancé is an opera singer and he is doing it. He is doing it successfully. In the couple of years that I have been thinking of transitioning and have been slowly but surely looking into other outlets, he has really taken off in an exciting way. That's so exciting for me because we met singing when we were both really young. When we met, I was in college and he was in grad school. We were both at our first professional gig in St. Louis. We were the understudies in the Tales of Hoffman. He was Russian and I'm a Russophile and he's got a thing for redheads, so it was love at first sight. Our first date of sorts - whatever the 21st-century version of a date is, he said he was going to have a party at his house. I asked if he needed help setting up for the party so he gave me a ride to the house. He was hungry so on the way, we stopped at some disgusting fast food place. We knew each other for five minutes at this point. He got a hamburger and I fed him the hamburger as he was driving - this stranger. I think that's when he knew... What can I say. Food is such an integral part of who I am. And has been since before I even knew what opera was. Music is too."
Food - as in cooking?
"Yes, cooking, but that has been mostly self-taught. I wouldn't say that I am a master chef, but I do love to cook and I'm good at it. I read a lot about it and think a lot about it - and I'm a big Chopped fan. Our amazing new chef was on Chopped. I bought the episode the other day and watched it. He was awesome - his name is Tony and in the episode, he has a red mohawk. He doesn't have the mohawk anymore, but he really does cool stuff in the kitchen."
You mentioned that you're discovering that you have a head for business and that you feel a natural progression into that space.
"I always have been enterprising. I was a girl scout. They famously sell the cookies. I also famously ate a lot of girl scout cookies."
Which ones are your faves?
"Tagalongs. They have peanut butter, they're covered with chocolate, they're in shortbread -- you can't lose."
If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice that you'd actually listen to, what would you say?
"The problem is 10-year-old Becky, 15-year-old, 20-year-old Becky was very impetuous, very headstrong. Very impervious to criticism both negative and constructive. So maybe the thing I would go back and say is: 'figure out how to be introspective a little earlier -- it can only help. Don't take the criticism so personally.' Actually no - what I would have said is: 'Never let anyone dictate who you are.' That's what I would've told myself. There was never a time when I was young that I thought I would let that happen. But you know, you grow up and you change. You start worrying about stuff that you think is important. I think a lot of my singing - I don't want to say suffered - but sort of suffered because I stopped being true to myself. I stopped being confident in my 'thing.' "
Do you feel that people expect you to keep on being a singer and that's one of the reasons it's so tough for you to transition away?
"Yes, for sure. I need to give myself the permission to say: 'what you've accomplished is tremendous. What you've accomplished is enough.' There's always more to accomplish in life. At any given moment I could tell you ten things that are running in the back of my mind that I would like to get done. Some are small tasks, some are seemingly insurmountable tasks. But I dare to challenge myself every step of the way."
What's one of the big ones that you want to accomplish?
"I want to have a baby. It's on my brain. I'm getting married to this person I love and have been with for a decade. But at the same time, I'm terrified at how scary that seems. Another one is I think I want to go to business school, but only -- and this is where I get in my own way -- only if I could go to Wharton or Harvard.
I think I would like to actually run a meaningful business. It's not about making money and it's not about being the boss - although those are also both things I'd like under my belt. But, you know in every stage of the world there's always a crisis. There's always some sort of crisis. Right now we're having a humanitarian crisis in Syria, we're having a domestic crisis in the White House. We're having a global crisis with energy and warming. Look, it was 85 degrees in the middle of April. We had a snow storm in the middle of March. There are so many important things that need to be addressed. I feel that Act 1 for me was churning through some introspective and creative stuff with the opera singing. Act 2 for me has to be figuring out how to take my skill set and make it meaningful. If I'm going do the business school thing or if I'm going to become more educated -- if I'm going to go this route it's got to be because there's an important end goal that isn't just reflecting me. I already did that part. Now I need to reflect the world. I need to figure out how to take my ability to find other people's art and heart. And figure out a way to turn that into something relevant. I'm not sure how to do that yet. But what would I really like to do? What are my hopes and dreams? Well, I'd like to change the world. It's important to start with the why of what you do and then you figure out the how."
How much has being a twin affected your world view?
That's a hard question because I don't know what it's like to not be a twin. I have a twin and I also have a sister that's two years younger than me but we're very very close. I think that closeness with my siblings has given me this openness that I go into conversations with. I do feel that I can walk up to anyone and have a conversation like I have known them for 40 years.
You have an openness abut you. You have the ability to laugh and cry all in the same sentence.
Yes. Exactly. That was there before opera. That's what brought me to the opera. Where will people accept me with all these emotions? The answer: on stage where you're pretending not to be yourself. At a certain point, I decided that Is myself. I don't need to be on stage to have all these emotions.
What is laughter to you? What is it?
Definitely, it's about letting go. If you can't let go of everything then what do you really have? You can't make room for more stuff. You can't really value what you had until you don't have it. So if you can't let go, if you don't have that ability then what do you have?
It's as if a lot of people are hoarders, not necessarily in their home and not necessarily of things, but hoarders in their own mind.
Yes, emotional hoarders. Leaving no room for the joy. I used to hold major grudges. When my parents split up I held that grudge for years. I held onto anger for years. And very recently I realized that all that anger is just hurting. me. I was very skinny when I lived in Los Angeles for that reason. Anger helps you to be very skinny. And I sang a lot of roles back then when I wasn't clad in much. I did a role when I was in Aspen - all I wore for the entire opera was a lingerie set of red and black lace, red platform pumps and a full-length red mink coat. It was based on a historical character named Poppaea. She basically clawed her way up the ladder until she was the Empress of Rome. She married Nero, and actually, he murdered her when she was pregnant with his child. He felt so bad afterward. Not that he murdered her but that she was no longer there. He took a lover, a teenage boy that reminded him or her who he then had castrated. Actual historical fact.
Rome was something. But you look at what went on then and not much has changed.
Humans are humans at the end of the day. Doesn't matter what decade or century.
What did you think when you found out our cat does tricks?
I was skeptical. Because cat's don't do tricks. And also because she looks as if she's been hitting the trough a little bit. She surprised me, and now I have very high expectations for cats, and I know that anything is possible if you're determined and there are treats at the end.
To learn about Rebecca's opera career visit her website: www.rebeccanathansonsoprano.com
Rebecca, known to the Industry City crowd as Becky, opened Filament 10 weeks ago for restaurateur Vincent Chirico after working as his Business Manager. She has worked in restaurants for exactly 10 weeks but has cultivated a deep appreciation for food and service for many years: she is a serious amateur chef who maintains a food Instagram with her own recipes (@rebeccasongs) and a food blog for fun www.kitchenalysis.com
When she isn’t running Filament or singing, she writes. Becky has written for business and real estate magazines The American Genius and The Real Daily, has worked as a technical writer and project manager for government-supported IT security firms, and is published in the Journal of American Physiology for her research in cell biology. She holds two undergraduate degrees from the University of Michigan in music and creative writing and a Master’s degree in Music from Indiana University.
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