A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Sweet Sounds

It's 6:30 a.m. The alarm clock won't ring for another hour and a half, but 27-year-old mezzo-soprano Jennifer Panara is already awake, thinking about all the things she has to do that day.
At 9 a.m. she's at The Musical Offering, a delightful café/music store in Berkeley where she works as assistant manager. (Hint: Don't miss the Caesar salad. Best in town.)
But that's just her day job. By mid-afternoon she's rushing down to Mountain View, where she'll rehearse with pianist Elena Lavina for a recital of songs by Faure, Debussy, Barber and Schumann that they'll present this Sunday in Palo Alto.
Then it's over to San Francisco for a round of auditions that last until 10 p.m., when her husband, Sascha Gerhards, a PhD student at UC-Davis who shares her love of heavy metal - He took her to a Metallica concert on their first date - picks her up at BART.
The next day she works the 8-to-4 shift at the café, then she races to Livermore for a rehearsal of Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette," which she'll perform with the Livermore Valley Opera next September.
And the days after that are just as hectic. Such is the life of a rising young singer who the music critics say someday will be on a par with her heroes Fredericka Von Stade, Marilyn Horne and Anne Sofie von Otter.
After a recent performance of Mahler's Symphonies No. 3 and 4 with the Philharmonischer Chor Bonn in Germany, one critic called her "a mezzo-soprano of immense brilliance and versatility," while another praised her "virtually ideal tone, flawless interpretation and tender voice."
But what the audience never suspects is that each time she performs, she has to conquer a terrible case of stage fright that has tormented her ever since she was a little girl.
"I'd get anxiety attacks and red in the face," she says. "I was always so nervous that people would ridicule me."
So what gets her over it? The music itself.
Before singing a new piece, she studies obsessively to find out everything she can about it, including watching videos of other singers performing it, looking up the historical context of the plot, and filling notebook after notebook with notes.
Then, when she finally steps out on stage, she tries her best to forget it all.
"You do your best with the musical skills you've honed, and what the composer has given you, and what you've learned working with your colleagues. But when it comes down to it, my best moments have been when I really let go and become a slave to the music," she says.
"I'm not the kind of person who throws caution to the winds in other areas of my life, but doing so when I'm performing has given me confidence and abated my stage freight. But it's necessary to perform organically in the moment. And that's easier said than done."
Some singers just walk on stage, ignore the other musicians and belt out their aria - known in the trade as "park and bark" - but Jennifer thinks they're missing half the fun.
"Music is most enjoyable when it's a collaboration, and that brings me to our recital. Elena is a great collaborator. She doesn't just play, she listens. And that's easier said than done, too."
The recital will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way in Palo Alto.