My first few weeks at The Manhattan School of Music were very colorful; I met some of the most delightfully adventurous people I had ever encountered, and encountered many situations I hadn’t expected.
Rachel Perez was a Puerto Rican Soprano from Orange County, NY. Everything she did had soul; she spoke with soul, she walked with soul and she boy did she sing with it. I never thought I could find anyone with more outrageous energy than me. Rachel was the T.M.I. queen, and could and would quote The Vagina Monologues at the drop of a hat (I can only quote the Va-Jew Jew one). For some reason, whether it was the color of her speaking voice, her phrasing, her accent, or everything combined; I couldn’t help but laugh hysterically every time she spoke for the first week I knew her. She once said “skittles” at a movie night, and I laughed so hard I literally cried. We both ended up having a very similar orientation schedule, and were able to explore the city together.
We both procrastinated in selecting our time slots to take our piano placement exams. We were too busy socializing and meeting new people in the cafeteria to notice that the head of the keyboard division was upstairs taking signatures. We ended up garnering the privilege of having to take the final two slots available, as well as missing out on an orientation dinner in Union Square. We were both determined, however to make it in time for an 8:00 pm comedy show at Gotham Comedy Club. I was to meet Rachel at her dorm directly after my exam which took place at 6:00 pm.
I met Rachel at her room shortly after my exam to find that she wasn’t quite ready, so I used the opportunity to change into better clothing for the evening.
“Damn boy! You take longer than a chick to get ready!” said Rachel when I met her back in her room.
“Shit! I totally forgot my wallet, I’ll be right back!” I said. I went up four floors to my room, and fetched my wallet.
“OK… you ready?” asked Rachel
“Umm… my ID isn’t in here” I said “I’ll be right back”
“Wait, you’re kidding!” “You’re lucky this club is right off the 1 or I’d be pissed!” said Rachel with a mildly annoyed look on her face that read “I’m going to slap you upside the head if you make me late for this!”
So I ran up to my room again to grab my ID and then met Rachel in the lobby, when I realized I forgot my keys. I looked at Rachel with an “Oh Shit” expression.
“Aaahh! Go! Just go! I’ll be in out by the awning… Dios Mio!” screamed Rachel.
The amused look on my roommate’s face spoke volumes. He was Japanese and didn’t speak much English. In fact, he didn’t even speak enough to fill out our roommate agreement form, which later proved troublesome. When I finally got my act together, I met Rachel at the school’s main entrance on 122nd and Broadway.
“At least I know I won’t be bored with people like you around” said Rachel as we made our way to the subway at 116th Street.
“Ha, I know, it’s sort of like we’re creating our own little west side story, complete with chaotic choreography” I replied in true cheese ball form. This garnered a hearty laugh from Rachel, which turned out to be very infectious throughout the year.
We made our way into the subway car discussing the musical West Side Story. When we finally got a seat, I hummed the intro to I Feel Pretty and pretty soon the two of us earned awkward stares from people as we actually sang and acted a few bars from the piece until we decided to continue our conversation about the musical.
“I just love Chita Rivera!” said Rachel in full jazz hand “She just possessed this unique fire and spice that Oh My God I just love. I’d do anything to be like that… are you familiar with the original Broadway cast?”
“I love it!” I replied “Especially the Consuelo, she’s my favorite.”
“Hmm who is she?” asked Rachel “I don’t remember that well” Rachel
was incredibly enthusiastic about learning as much as she could from anyone about opera and classical music, and much to some of our instructors’ dismay, always had 20-plus questions on any given subject.
“The Somewhere girl! Her name is Reri Grist” I said enthusiastically “And actually, she went on to have a pretty significant opera career.” I explained that that although Reri had started out on Broadway, she had been classically trained through her late teens and beyond. She later went around Europe with friends in a VW mini-bus taking the occasional audition when she could. She was the original hippie… before they really existed.
“What did she sing!?” asked Rachel
I further provided that Reri was a light-lyric coloratura and had a special niche as a Mozart/ Strauss soprano; singing roles like Blonchen in Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, Suzanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, and told her that she just had to watch a Youtube video of her as Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. I explained how perfect her negotiation of Zerbinetta’s monologue Grossmachtige Prinzessin was and that she had been a particularly special performer.
It was around this time that we were politely interrupted by a charming Scottish man who asked “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear, but are you talking about Reri Grist?”
“Yes we are!” I exclaimed “Are you a fan of hers’?” I asked enthusiastically. To today’s opera crowd, the name Reri Grist is somewhat obscure, especially in the US since she was a woman of color trying to entertain a primarily white audience in the 50’s and 60’s.
“Yes I am” replied the man “I actually know her, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talking about her plainly in public like this.” He said with a huge smile on his face.
“Oh wow” I said “If you don’t mind me asking, how do you know Ms. Grist?”
In a place like New York City, and especially in New York City, it seems like everyone knows everyone important in “the business”; that is whatever business you seem to be discussing at the moment. You could mention hotdogs at any given party in Manhattan and someone knows some girl who inherited a sausage company, and they can get you the best deal on bratwurst anywhere. Every other person that you meet is also conveniently best friends with anyone and everyone you have ever admired when you first meet them, but are seldom as interesting themselves. Upon later meetings and more events, you realize that the person you met is not in fact currently backstage at the Metropolitan Opera sipping on Evian with your favorite opera stars; they are at the same overcrowded student apartment party in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as you are comparing who they might know at Juilliard that you would too.
“Well, I know her from London… I play piano and I occasionally work with young singers. Some of them have been her students,” He replied. “But I have to ask, how old are you?”
“Twenty one” I replied
“And how do you know who Reri Grist is? I’ve never met anyone as young as you who knows and appreciates singers like that. I ask everyone when they come in the first time who they’re favorites are and I NEVER get someone like Reri Grist, in fact I seldom get a Joan Sutherland. It’s almost always Anna Netrebko or Angela Gheorghiu, you know… the hot ones.”
In reality, a friend of mine had shown me her videos on Youtube, but we weren’t speaking at the time and I was still very upset at a particular misunderstanding we had, so I sort of made up an explanation without having to really think about my friend and without really lying.
“Well, I’m from New Mexico and I’ve spent the past couple of summers ushering at the Santa Fe Opera (true) she’s on the board there (not so sure about this, but I heard it from a coach once) and because of that I’ve heard a ton of people talk about her singing (false).”
“Oh Santa Fe!” said the man “I’m going next year”
I enthusiastically started listing off places to go see and popular restaurants I adored. I even made a fool out of myself by making the man repeat the name of the café Ecco three times so he wouldn’t forget to stop by and try their whiskey cream gelato. I am usually very adamant that people try the local cuisine in New Mexico, not that espresso is a local delicacy, but some of the cafes in the region are very original and boast unique and exciting flavors.
After bombarding the poor passenger with the do’s and don’ts of New Mexico (do try the chile, don’t eat too much if you aren’t used to it, try both red and green…), I asked him if he was going to be able to attend the opera at all.
“Oh umm, well…” mumbled the man nervously as if he was unsure whether or not the activity would fit into his schedule.
“You have to go!” I interjected as he was trying to form a sentence “If you go to anything you must see La Traviata next summer. Laurent Pelly is directing and Natalie Dessay is singing her first Violetta ever. He’s my favorite director and she is one of my favorite singers!” I announced with the enthusiasm of a child at Macy’s telling Santa Claus what he wants for Christmas. Well actually, all I ever want is a good theatrical experience: great singing, good direction, interesting lighting… attractive wigs.
“Well that’s why I’m going” said the Scotsman “I’m Natalie Dessay’s coach and she’s having me go to Santa Fe to work on La Traviata there. I’ll also be teaching voice to the apprentice singers”
I tried to maintain the same level of composure as I had before, but I was truly excited by my subway discovery. We learned that the man was Gerald Martin Moore, that he also worked closely with Renee Fleming, Laurent Naouri (Natalie Dessay’s baritone husband), quite a few others and that he is a frequent fixture in opera houses all over the world. As we approached our stop, Mr. Moore kindly obliged our request for contact information and provided us with a way to connect with him again.
When we got off the subway, we found our way to the Gotham Comedy Club to find we were early… really early. Luckily, there was a David Barton Gym across the street which filtered beautiful gay and gay friendly people in and out of its doors every 3-5 seconds as well as a Tasti-D-Lite. I found the latter to be incredibly exciting; I had only seen Tasti-D-Lite on Sex in the City when Charlotte and her husband Harry would frequent the establishment on what I like to refer to as spousal outings. When people finally started to arrive, we shared our random subway news with them and took our seats to enjoy the show.