College, Opera, and Vulnerability

Illustration by Katharine Li

Illustration by Katharine Li

My little brother’s name is Daniel. He is 14 months younger than I am, plays the saxophone, and has recently begun nurturing a fancy for theater (his debut role: Parent #2 in School of Rock). Next year, he will be a senior at Cheshire Academy.

A few weeks ago, we ate brunch at a corner café in New Haven. He ordered a croque monsieur that came drenched in béchamel sauce. We shared a bowl of black bean soup, substituting bread for spoons. He had just met with his college counselor that week. He asked me for advice on how to write his college essay.

“Be vulnerable,” I said. “Admission officers love that.”

This, of course, was complete improvisation on my part. I had no idea what admission officers really looked for. I had never even met one before.

“You can’t be genuine without being vulnerable first. And you’ll never convince anyone of anything without being genuine.”

I was being serious. Daniel seemed to understand, nodding with approval. He paused for a moment, licked his lips, and then bit off another chunk of saturated sourdough.

“Sure, I’ll try  that.”

***

I’ve seen what being vulnerable can do firsthand.

Being a classical singer in high school has taught me a thing or two about what it takes to be convincing. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do was try and come up with a reason for my friends to go to a choir concert on a Saturday night, especially when their love of a Bach motet paled in comparison to mine. There were many superficial reasons that I could have offered. Maybe there wasn’t anything better to do on campus that night. Maybe they wanted to come and check out that handsome drummer Ms. Kegel had hired for the performance.

In the end, I offered a reason that made my ears tingle when I said it: “Because — it’ll be beautiful. You should come and hear us sing.”

It was kind of awkward, but making myself vulnerable had worked. Those friends ended up going to the concert. They even told me that, to their pleasant surprise, they had enjoyed it. We weren’t professionals, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t impressive.

Since then, I’ve always been convinced that honesty really is the best policy. More people should experience art music — music that is not created primarily for commercial purposes, including what is known as “classical music,” African American spirituals, and indigenous folk songs — because it is something that I find profoundly beautiful and meaningful. When I think someone should go to a choir concert, or an opera, or a vocal recital, I always tell them: “You should go. It’ll be beautiful.”

Still, there are those who remain skeptical. That’s okay, too. The hardest part about letting people your age know how much you care about something that they might find foreign, irrelevant, or boring is that you risk having your feeings hurt when they reject it; that’s the definition of vulnerability. I’ve had people scoff at my obsession with choir. Some of my classmates roll their eyes when I suddenly nerd out about Peter Pears or Janet Baker or Marian Anderson. Sometimes people think I fake a love of opera to be pretentious.

Thankfully, these people are not the majority. The reality is that being vulnerable doesn’t work out all the time — people will misunderstand you and label you and discourage you — but I believe that taking a risk and being genuine will always be worth it in the end. I have faith, which comes from experience, that true passion has the power to inspire and change the heart of an attentive listener.

I take this leap of faith every time I step on stage. There is no more exposed state than that of a singer during a performance. Yet performing has been and will always will be one of my most fulfilling acts. My most transformative moment in high school was singing Benjamin Britten’s The Old Lute at a school meeting last spring. Recently, at another school meeting, I sang a portion of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Only after the audience had offered its applause did I realize, adrenaline pumping, that my hands were still trembling.

Occasionally it’s tempting for me to just give up trying to convince others of the value of art music. When audience members are few, or when it feels like art music is becoming less and less relevant in an increasingly modern and complex world, I remind myself that ultimately, I do it all for the sake of the art form. At the same time, I believe that art music is something precious and rare that must be preserved and shared; that is why I will continue to sing for others.

After all, you can’t be genuine without being vulnerable first. And you’ll never convince anyone of anything without being genuine.

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