Sue Hassel, a Creative Life

Photos and Other Happenings

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Anyone who studies ballet is inspired by the greats of the Bolshoi, ABT, Royal Ballet and aspires to wearing the white tutu.  After working in unitards exclusivly I decided to purchase a practice tutu. This is my first attempt at an attitude arabesque en pointe.  To my eye it's a good first attempt. Bear in mind I started ballet at the age of 61 to help my voice.  At 65 my ballet teacher asked me "When are you going to go en pointe?"  And I replied, "At my age with my weak ankles?"  But I did try and within 8 months I danced my first public 11 minute ballet solo.  The red tutu pic was taken on my 65th birthday on my first pair of Russian Points (when I just started en pointe) and I placed it on my refrigerator as a daily goad. An attitude arabesque en pointe "in the middle" takes a lot of strength.  When my 66th birthday came I showed my teacher the picture.  It's the last time he has made any comments about not being able to raise your leg high after the age of 40! He had no idea I was that old!  So for the record, I am the oldest in my class - and we have professional dancers in our class - and they really inspire me to work very hard. The down side of working in a practice tutu is that you have to really breakdown your internal critic or you will not improve. I keep thinking of the hippos in the pink tutus in Disney's Fantasia!

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The purple dance dress is what I wore for my latest "A Gathering of Friends" performance in NYC to two movements of a Bach Brandeburg Concerto in 7-13. I clearly love purple, and I have a real soft spot for the pre-pointe barefoot days of modern dance on the grass in Wisconsin - to two movements of Ravel's Daphnes and Chloe.

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A ballet rehearsal at 6:15 a.m.!!
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Access to 59th Street Bridge from Queens

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A quick water color with sumi ink of a sunset from Roosevelt Island.

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Thought it might be useful for you to see me WITHOUT my glasses and my hair done up.....

I wore the blue tutu for my own cut version of my Chopiniana solo in Wisconsin - to six pre-recorded Chopin Etudes.  Note the headpiece.  I made it (I also made the headpiece to the red tutu). When you have an unballetic short hair cut, you have to have something on your head or the proportion is off. I am growng my hair out again.  To build a secure and pretty headpiece takes time.

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The Liszt Transcendental Etudes went very solidly on September 26, 2010.  We had a small audience and I got a standing ovation.  After which, I risked singing since my brain was fried from all the Liszt - an unaccompanied song by Michael Head which I transposed up a step.  And to my delight my voice responded immediately and well.  Then I spent another 20 minutes talking to the audience members about why these etudes are so important musically and historically.

After the Lyric Memoir 6/2011 Recital
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Grateful for a successful new beginning with a different voice.

I survived the Lyric Memoir Recital with three encores and a great audience. Some people from my audience took me out for ice cream afterward. It was a wonderful extended evening. I finally feel as though I have something to build back on vocally.  Eventually since my voice seems to be going up into the coloratura rep I will now need an accompanist since for that repertoire I cannot sit and play as I sing.

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The 59th Street Bridge is where I have recovered most of my voice.  I now consistently work the Queen of the  Night, the Lucia Mad Scene, Sonambula, Mireille, Olympia, Lakme, Madam Herz and several Mozart concert arias - on the way to work in the morning.  I am surprised that my rather high thin voice cuts through the traffic noice, but it does.  And someone most likely on Roosevelt Island said something to the editors of the Wall Street Journal.  And a very young reporter had the task of finding me in 90 Degree plus heat.  Since I am very self-protective - the minute I see someone approaching I stop singing until they pass by.  It took Richard two weeks to find me in the heat.  The above small cut of the article is the end result.  It was on the front page of the Metro Section entitled "The Soprano on the Bridge"!  It's nice to find that most people like the voice.
 
 
 
Sue Hassel, Soprano & Piano – Why and How? Some General Background:  
 

WHY? - I started piano at age 9, and then lost the first joint of my left index finger in a horse race (yes really!?). I started to play piano two months before the accident and as soon as the splint and bandage came off I resumed playing. My mother would not let me off the hook (I am very glad she was so insistent).  Extremely painful – many tears, but the finger became  tougher.  My sister was the “pianist” in the family. I was the “singer”, and I knew if I wanted to learn any  repertoire, I had to read better at the piano. Intuitively I knew I was a coloratura soprano, since I could imitate the birds outside.  When my sister was out of the house I read at sight her Beethoven sonatas, Schumann Carnival, Brahms Opus 118, and Bach Inventions and Fugues at the piano.  I waited until my sister was out of the house, and then  I took her current repertoire and began to read at sight. Since I had heard her play the rep, I could tell pretty reasonably how it should sound, and so I persisted. In fourth grade, my classmates called out the hymn number and I played for them at sight (anyone who needs to become a solid sight-reader – reading a four part hymn and any Bach and Beethoven is a good place to start – slowly at first – then in time, up to tempo).  Over  many years I developed a ferocious sight reading capability, which has saved me money, time, aggravation and bailed me out many times in German and Austrian auditions. 

HOW - How to organize playing as one sings.  Let’s take the Immolation Scene in Goetterdaemmerung. First I straight jacket the entire piece.  I sit and sing as I play blocking in the first chord of every measure (I don’t have perfect pitch so this means I play my tune with a minimal cord accompaniment below). In this way I have reduced Wagner’s structure to a simple hymn.  However every interlude gets played completely  - no matter how awful the first reading, the harmonic structure is  first, then the main tune.  Once I have the span of the piece, where it moves in surges, where it is calm, where the big vocal climaxes are, where to save and build the voice to surmount those big climaxes. Since I have a merely competent theory background, my ears have to understand the rest of it, and I have to have quick hands and speedy eye-to-hand coordination to hold it together on a first reading.  My eyes are always scanning  up and down and then left to right.  Over a number of years working this way, you realize each composer has his own formula  for composing as his personality.  This HOW distillation on sight over years becomes automatic, and the quick coordination becomes automatic, so the most difficult Liszt, Busoni, Richard Strauss, Alban Berg (although with Berg you are dealing with a fixed tone row – forward , inverted and retrograde) and Rachmaninov can be learned rapidly. The standard operatic and song repertoire is child’s play by comparison to the more complicated late 19th century to 20th century idioms. I am not diminishing the profundity of the Romantic era composers (this rep across the board is where I live emotionally), but this is how I develop my personal skill set with a very modest musical background.

MY FIRST EXPERIENCE AS SUE HASSEL, SOPRANO & PIANO – As a singer I have auditioned a lot, and even with the standard  19th Century opera rep, I frequently run into pianists who are undertrained, and like me at the age of 9, are thrown into playing for an afternoon of singing auditions. Most usually play Mozart adequately, but they can run into trouble with Verdi and Bel Canto (it’s own thing).  Rarely are they asked to play Richard Wagner or Richard Strauss.  If the singer persists with Wagner or Strauss, the audition can quickly fall apart. This happened to me ALL THE TIME in Europe.  I got used to playing for myself the opening Turandot monolog, Invocation from Elektra, Battle Cry, Walkuere (untrained pianists ALWAYS miss the rhythmic return to the A section the second time around!). It takes a determined soprano with huge  physical strength and airways of a horse to survive that glitch. And generally they will miss the tempo variations in the Norma Casta Diva Scene (easy to read – BUT treacherous in pacing). In Bulgaria once very early in my European  forays  I had two different conductors – one Russian (who spoke German and knew his business) and a South American (who had never looked at the Strauss Elektra first monolog).  The rehearsal was to get a recording of my operatic excerpts (included Elektra, Turandot, Ring & Norma Casta Diva Scene).  I offered to work with the conductor the night before to show him my way with the arias at the piano , but he refused and was offended.  Next day, we began with the Elektra in front of his full German speaking orchestra.  Three hours later (the conductor did NOT speak German, only  Spanish) we got through the first half of the monologue!  Every time tempos were wrong, I stopped him by clapping my hands (my agent was freaking out – as was another American conductor in the audience) and then explaining  what had to happen in German and demonstrating vocally while conducting myself as to how the tempo should be.  The orchestra got it immediately and ignored the conductor and played what I had demonstrated. This is a memory  emblazoned on my mind!  So whenever I auditioned in Europe I MADE SURE I COULD PLAY anything I sang.  You never know what you can run into.  I always remember that orchestral concerts are collaborations and no matter how stressful, the conductor has to be respected, and with one badly timed down beat, the singer can have a complete fiasco which could prevent him or her from ever  singing in Europe or elsewhere professionally!  For the record, after the last take of the Elektra, the German orchestra applauded.

END Sum Total and Takeaway -  Over the years, I have presented composite shows (singing a recital group playing for myself, playing a solo piano group & dancing enpointe to my pre-recorded music  – show runs an hour roughly. I bring a few of my  paintings as the backdrop for scenery – one-time runout).  And I also perform in straight recitals as Sue Hassel Soprano & Piano and as a solo pianist, presenting master classes, and listening to many many singers and helping them all (something I really enjoy). I also collaborate with other pianists ad hoc.  My finest voice teacher (of all of them) was Bettina Bjorksten – a coloratura soprano.  She told me that before the Nazi’s came to power there was a German baritone who toured singing AND playing for himself in Germany the important song cycles.  Even as an undergraduate she recommended that I perform as Sue Hassel, Soprano & Piano (my catch phrase for it) since I had the pianistic chops and wherewithal. Her words rang true for me since then to now.  And so, a lifelong habit, necessity and simplicity of performance has kept me going artistically.

For the Record  - I was always a simple coloratura soprano.  I have sung professionally as a Hoch Dramatischer Sopran (Bruenhilde, Elektra, Isolde), Hoher  Dramatisch Sopran (Kaiserin, Helene), Verdi Soprano and  Dramatic Coloratura Soprano.  And because I kept rebalancing my voice with piano, ballet, and much self-recording  (Thank you Edirol) as a singer, my voice is still holding. This year I have learned it will only hold as a simple coloratura soprano – and for that I am grateful.  That’s after two complete cardiac arrests.  I am like Secretariat, the race horse, who died suddenly. The necropsy revealed a heart 35% bigger than any other race horse.  When they put him out to pasture, he died.  So I keep busy and active because my doctor told me that could happen to me. I am a realist, and music is my life. And I thank the audience at Christ & St. Stephens in June 2015 for keeping me alive so I know how to handle my health to keep going. I have a defibrillator in my chest. If my heart stops the machine will restart it – a few times if necessary.  I have no blockages, no arrhythmias and I commute by bicycle.

SJH

 

 

 

 

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