The Thin Lady Sings

The Thin Lady Sings

— From the pages of FLL Issue #31 • Photos by Will Marks

Real job is a term that we in show business use for people who, you know, have more legitimate careers,” Nora Graham-Smith says jokingly while discussing the trials and tribulations of her life as a professional opera singer over a cup of coffee at the Prince Street Cafe. She has been singing for her entire life, and has considered performing her calling from a young age. When reflecting on her formative years as a singer, she speaks fondly of experiences in her adolescence that guided her toward a life in the music industry. “Being a performer has been an inherent thing for me; It’s just been in my blood,” Graham- Smith says, “I knew I wanted to be an opera singer when I spent a magical summer in Lennox, Massachusetts, at the Tanglewood Music Festival. Lennox is an unbelievable, bucolic little Victorian town, and they have this amazing center for performance. I really found my people, the other performing types, there when I was 15 or 16, so finding my niche at a young age when I knew I had the talent and I knew I had the passion for performance, and finding that community was really what solidified this for me.”

NoraGrahamSmith2Though Graham-Smith recognized her passion for music early in life, she didn’t always focus on her skills as a career option. “I was a highend retail salesperson at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan at the flagship store, and I was very successful at that,” she says of her work experience outside of the arts, “but that was really a full-time job. That was a real job, and it took me completely out of the artistic world, and while I loved interacting with celebrities, socialites, royalty, and all of that, there was something within me that was calling for a deeper connection and commitment artistically.” Though her work as an opera singer may not be as consistent as that of a Saks Fifth Avenue salesperson – Graham-Smith rarely works with the same opera company on consecutive productions, and travels frequently to practice her art – she finds this type of work to be much more fulfilling. “It’s a juggling and balancing act,” she says, “and you’re always reevaluating what you can do to make one area of your life work better.”

Opera isn’t always considered a mainstream art form in this day and age, but there are still glimpses of it on the forefront of popular culture. As is the case with any art form, the popularization of something as highly specialized as operatic singing can have both positive and negative aspects, a fact that Graham-Smith is well aware of. “This is sort of a huge sticking point for those of us who are in the business,” she explains, “some of these shows like The Voice, American idol, or America’s Got Talent feature sort of circus act versions of people who are singing operatic literature. They’re not opera singers, they haven’t been trained or have had very minimal training, and a lot of them are children. They can’t pronounce the words, they don’t understand the meaning behind or the context of the song that they’re singing, they don’t have the emotional depth or maturity in order to be singing it, and they just don’t have the physical maturity in order to be singing some of this repertoire.”

Graham-Smith’s issue with untrained singers attempting to perform operatic pieces isn’t born from snobbish purism (the woman doesn’t have a snobby bone in her body), but rather from a respect both for the operatic pieces and the human voice itself: “The voice is I think the last thing in the body that ends up maturing, so having an 8, 10, 16-year-old person trying to sing opera is wildly inappropriate, and it’s not healthy physically,” Graham-Smith points out. “It’s a double edged sword because, yes, it exposes people to an art form that they think might be inaccessible or stuffy, but at the same time it’s not an accurate representation.”

NoraGrahamSmith3While Graham-Smith doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the downside of pop-culture’s adoption of a watered-down version of opera, she is much more eager to discuss the ways in which opera is being reinvented to appeal to a more modern audience. “It’s very cool what the Metropolitan Opera is doing with their live HD movie broadcasts,” Graham-Smith exclaims. “They live broadcast a production, actually a number of productions, and stream them to movie theatres around the country. The camera angles that they get show the level of detail, not only in the singing, but in the costumes, the sets, the props, and, honestly, I think the sound that they’re able to capture is pretty remarkable.” What Graham-Smith says next might sound unsettling to the most staunch of opera buffs, but will seem completely reasonable to fans of film or television: “I almost prefer it to actually going to the Metropolitan Opera because it’s shot like a movie. It’s a live production, but you’re getting shots and angles that you would never see from a fixed place in the audience. It’s really exciting.”

She also notes that the industry is changing not only in the way in which a production is delivered to an audience, but in the way in which the production itself is crafted. “The fact that there are a lot of theatre and Broadway directors that are now being asked to take over and direct standard opera productions and give them their own contemporary twist,” is an exciting prospect to Graham- Smith. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t—but that’s art, and it speaks to people in very different ways. Most people who are opera purists want to see you in 18th or 17th century costume, standing on a stage, and singing very sedentary, but that doesn’t excite people these days. Nobody wants to go and see the same recycled production with the same sets and the same costumes that they had seen three, four, five years ago.”

While Graham-Smith jokes that singing opera isn’t a real job, she certainly approaches it in a very serious way. What seems to separate her job from a real job, is that many people rarely get to approach their occupations with the amount of passion and vulnerability with which Nora Graham-Smith approaches her career as an opera singer. Graham- Smith clarifies how she views her profession by saying, “As a performer you don’t really consider what you’re doing to be a real job. That’s not to knock it at all; it’s very serious business, and you train for decades, you actually never stop training, really, but you never get to a place in your life where you say, ‘Oh, God, I know everything, and I’m just done. I’m a master of it.’ I think it’s like any sort of artistic endeavor—you are always growing, changing, and evolving; therefore, hopefully your art is as well.”

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