This week’s postcard comes from SFGC alumna Leah Fitschen Schloss, laureated in 1985 after playing the role of Aeneas in the Chorus’s production of Dido & Aeneas. She now lives in NY with her husband, cantor Randy Schloss, and two teenage daughters, and is Director of Marketing at a large law firm in Manhattan.
Hello SF Girls Chorus, from a long-lost friend!
My first real exposure to music was when I started playing the flute at 9 years old, although I dabbled at the piano before that. I was actually pretty good and I had a teacher who used to make me sing my phrases so that I knew how to phrase, and I realized as I was doing it that I was kind of enjoying the singing part more than the playing-the-flute part. And also my sister joined the SFGC first and she was really into it – I went to a few concerts and I was just amazed by the sound that the chorus made, and I wanted to be part of it!
My sophomore year in high school I sang the role of Aeneas [in SFGC’s own fully-staged production of Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas]– at first I thought it was really strange, I must admit. I didn’t know that it was a sort of tradition in opera to have treble voices singing male roles, so I was surprised that I was cast as the male lead! But we all heard the reason, which was that we were doing it as it was originally premiered – at a girls school (Josias Priest’s girls’ school in London 1689) – so that made sense to me. Once I started to sink my teeth into the role, with amazing coaching along the way, I started to really really love being a man in the opera! I was taught how to sing and comport myself in this very regal, prince-like way that I had never even pretended to be in my life, so it was really fun! It was the first time I had ever really put on a totally different foreign character and tried to embody it, both musically and physically.
Elizabeth Appling was doing most if not all of the vocal coaching but we did have some early music and theater experts come in and help us. We got really good movement training – we learned how to do period dance, and a lot of the stage movements were very formal and dramatic. We staged it in the same kind of way that the girls’ school did, and that was really fun to learn about.
Aeneas was my first opera role and the SFGC was my first exposure to opera and classical singing. I did go on to get a Bachelor of Music in Voice Performance at University of Michigan and I also have a Masters of Music in Voice. The SFGC definitely encouraged me to take music seriously – I don’t know that I would have thought that I had the voice to do it but I got a lot of positive encouragement from Elizabeth and the chorus in general, and I also learned how disciplined you have to be to be a musician. SFGC was a rigorous training that prepared me well for music school, and it was also inspiring – I really grew to love music in a way that I had never imagined.
I loved being in music school with others who were focusing on music 24/7. I found a lot of like-minded people, and it was an interesting and stimulating training. While I’m not singing professionally today, I do still sing a lot with my husband who’s a cantor – I sing in services with him, and we do concerts sometimes. I still love performing.
There are a few things that you get in a musical training that apply to anything, really. The discipline is huge – think about the amount of discipline it takes to learn an opera role: memorize all the music, learn about the character, do all the translations, rehearse and coach every line of the score. It’s very self-motivated – you have to sit down and make it happen yourself, there’s not someone necessarily checking in on you all the time to make sure you’ve learned it. I also think that learning to perform is something that’s important for more corporate jobs. You have to get up in front of people all the time, make presentations and talk about something very complex and analytical, and hopefully you can be composed and persuasive. When you perform a lot, you learn not to be scared of it. There’s a whole bunch of other things too: in opera you’re studying text, so you’re interpreting it, thinking about words – that applies to so many different fields. As a society we don’t value this enough these days. We’re so technical about everything – but it’s still very important to be able to write, read, understand and analyze.
Music is a very difficult field. It is scary when I think about what I went through – there is struggle involved, if you want to be a performer. But if you have the drive to become a musician – if it’s what you really love and really want – then you should do it. It isn’t a loss even if it doesn’t work out, because there are so many things you can do with the training and experience. I also think it’s really important, when you love something, to do it and not deprive yourself of that. Music is such a worthwhile thing to learn from and immerse yourself in, regardless of the outcome. Maintaining or growing that skill set and your love of music is something you carry with you your whole life, whether you are professional or not. You can sing in solo recitals, or chamber music – there are so many options for using it, even if it’s not to make a living. Learning about it enriches the experience so much – if you dabble in it, it’s not quite the same. I don’t regret it at all!
One other thing about musical training that is really valuable that very few people get in their university life is one-on-one study. You learn so much from your teacher about your craft but also about life, when you are that close to a teacher – especially if you have a good teacher! There’s so much to the relationship, it’s almost an apprenticeship.
I think it’s hard in our society for us to believe in having musical aspirations. Hopefully parents can open their minds to it, because it is such a rich experience for their kids – and for them! As a parent of musical girls, I have learned that watching a child grow through music is a huge pleasure, very rewarding. We all need support – the parents need support for putting so many hours in, driving them places and believing in something that they think may not result in a job someday. I remember how hard it was for my own mom, driving us to rehearsals all the time – it’s not easy! It’s a real commitment, but it’s really worth it. It’s hard in this day and age to see that. You have to keep up the fight – parents are the keepers of this flame that we need to keep lit for the next generation. It’s up to us. I truly believe that it’s good work.
Hoping to meet some of you in the months to come,
Leah Fitschen Schloss, ’85