Snapshots of a 21st Century Opera Singer
The moment before Andrea starts singing is, in a word: tense. Directionless energy vibrates through her body and she paces backstage like a kite in a windstorm. Once onstage, there’s blankness: a quick nod to the piano player, and then one blissful moment of nothing. In this moment, she enters a neutral state in which she is neither her character nor herself. Then the music starts.
This is a photograph of Andrea Wyllie. She and I sit next to each other in identical white tunics and tinsel halos, with identical mesh wings. We’re angels in our preschool’s dramatization of the nativity story. It’s not a story I’m familiar with, but Andrea has been going to church every Sunday. She epitomizes joy: full, pink cheeks, blonde ringlets, and a toothy grin that compresses her eyes into half-moons. I am sunken and dark next to her, scowling into the camera with all the angst a four year old can muster. The source of my contention is the same as the source of Andrea’s joy: we are angels. Our job is to walk in at the end of the play, once Mary and Joseph have checked-in at the manger and been joined by the Wise Men and Shepard. No spotlight, no solo, just angels. This is the way Andrea prefers it at three.
This is a photograph of Andrea and a similarly lump-like baby, side by side. She and I are sitting together wide-eyed and clueless. Identical non-existent hairstyles.
I’ve known Andrea since 1996, when we were both newborns in our mother’s arms. I may not remember every grass stain, or every lost tooth, or even every birthday party, but I do remember the frequent interruptions to our play-dates when Andrea’s mom mandated that she practice the piano. Fifteen long minutes of continuous playing was what it took to satiate the Wyllie families’ practice requirements for the day. This was a chore on par with taking out the garbage or doing the dishes. Andrea never loved playing the piano. Recitals and examinations were her first experiences with performance, and every moment of them was spent filled with dread.
That’s not to say she has an unconditional love for vocal performance. Much of the time dedicated to performing is terrifying. Regardless of the amount of time spent preparing, singing is still self-doubt and sweaty palms. It’s fight-or-flight between Andrea and the music; no one else matters in the theatre but the two of them. It’s exhilarating, exhausting, and always unexpected.
This is an overexposed photograph of Andrea Wyllie. The lighting is bad, and everything in the background is a heinous dark pink. She’s standing in the hallway of our high school, posing for a picture for our Photograph 10 assignment. Our time in photography was spent avoiding our homework, tagging gag pictures, and playing on the playground of a neighboring elementary school.
On a particularly dull day in our photography class, I borrowed Andrea’s iPod to help me pass the time while I trudged my way though my module. I was flicking through the Artists section until I happened upon the voice memos section. What I found were a series of recordings Andrea had done using the iPod microphone of her singing and accompanying herself on the piano. The very second she realized what I was listening to the headphones were ripped out of my ears and a creeping red worked its way into her complexion. This was the first time I heard Andrea really sing. The sound quality was grainy, but I was shocked. Here was my best friend, someone I saw every day, creating the most beautiful sounds. It was the jingling of wind chimes on dry, hot day.
This is a photograph of an infant Andrea eating. She’s sitting tall and proud with a bib fastened around her neck and a plastic spoon in hand, applesauce dribbles down her chin. Her grin is that of a seasoned foodie. Andrea was raised in her kitchen— her free time was spent cooking and experimenting with different flavours, always eager to try something new. Every time I opened Andrea’s front door, the wafting aroma of cranberry muffins, crepes suzette, or herb encrusted salmon greeted me. For Andrea, when music can’t be utilized as a creative outlet, cooking is the next best thing. She finds adventure in food— I remember going on trips for ice-cream together, and watching her order the most exotic, random assortment of flavours possible, complete with every topping available. Each time, as I looked on with skepticism as she selected her flavors, I was met with the same infuriation when her bubblegum banana split with lychee and nerd candies tasted delicious.
This photograph of Andrea, age five. A mouthful of tiny teeth separated by wide gaps wink from beneath the layers of dirt smeared across her face. This is not a rare image— for as long as I can remember, going to Andrea’s house meant watching from the porch as she squatted on the lawn, elbows and knees in the dirt, and dug through the soil in search of insects. If she was lucky, she might find a worm— or better yet, a caterpillar— which she would then proceed to pull apart, a mad scientist at work in her natural environment. Camping was a staple in the Wyllie household, and hiking remains a form of release for Andrea. She is as much herself in heels with piano accompaniment as she is in hiking boots, singing Kumbaya by the fireside.
This is a photograph of Andrea. Ten years old. Her hair is pulled back in a bandana and she’s wearing her Tim Horton’s ringette jersey. Not pictured: the bruises, cuts, sore muscles, and broken bones incurred during her lifetime of playing ringette. The ice was Andrea’s first stage. Before she ever donned a gown or contoured her cheekbones for performance, she skated suicides, body-checked, and scored goals across Alberta. Even now, as she pursues her Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance, she plays ringette with UBC.
I once tagged along to watch a ringette practice. Andrea waved to me in the stands and attempted to perform a modest spin on the ice for me. It was a tight 180 before she fell hard, stick skittering away from her. With her dignity bruised as deeply as her tailbone, she continued to fall two times as she attempted to right herself.
This is a photograph of Andrea in the eighth grade. She’s wearing a camouflage sweat pants and a sweatshirt that bears a faded logo from some ringette tournament. Her hair is slicked up into a tight ponytail and a face is untouched by makeup. This is her daily ensemble, except for one day out of every week when her mother requests she wear a “nice outfit.” A nice outfit is comprised of any combination of cardigans, jeans, ballet flats, and blouses. This was what spurred Andrea’s eventual ascent into the world of fashion, not out of desire, but because it was easier to just dress nice everyday. Her love of high-waisted pants, scarves, blazers, leather shoes, and crop tops all started with her laziness.
This is a photograph of Andrea in high school, with a nervous smile stretched thin across her face. She has a touch of mascara on and her name is edited in across the bottom: Andrea Wyllie: Makeup. Although people who know her now may find it hard to believe, Andrea got her start in theatre behind the scenes. She did lights, props, and makeup before eventually taking her first tentative steps onstage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This headshot was the only glimpse of Andrea the audience would receive. She lived backstage, amongst the brushes and costumes. Her artistic abilities and perfectionism could run wild as she painted ballerinas, clowns, old men, dead women, and built beards for boys who could only dream of peach fuzz.
Her premiere performance as a monkey in The Jungle Book was a stark contrast to the quiet technician the theatre was accustomed to. She sported a full monkey face and tail and bounded on and off stage with screeches and shrieks. The monkeys each got a pair of ears made using a 3D printer, but Andrea’s were misprinted, resulting in two left ears. Never the diva, and fully aware of the hard work that was vital to the crafting of each prop, Andrea simply sported on of her ears upside down.
This is a photograph of Andrea with the UBC choir in her first year as a music student, singing at Carnegie Hall in New York City. No one was surprised to learn that Andrea was already singing onstage in New York. Though she told me she was placed in the “bad choir,” I knew this was because she’s unable to blend. Whenever we sang together, her voice would carry farther and higher than anyone else in the ensemble. Even in conversation her voice is louder than any other. When she visits me I’m in constant fear of a complaint from the people in the neighboring apartments due to the sheer volume of Andrea’s cackles and guffaws.
Her volume not only in speech, but also in movement exacerbates this fear as well. She treads with the grace of a dockworker; her heel pounding the ground first, followed shortly by the rest of her flat foot.
This is a photograph of Andrea after the local music festival. It’s her grade twelve year, and the last music festival she’ll compete in before embarking for university. She’s wearing a black chiffon dress and pantyhose and a pair of pink heels. Only the tension in her hands as they fidget with the hemline of her skirt reveal her nerves.
After that performance, the adjudicator told Andrea that her voice was, “too good for musical theatre.” This advice, combined with the lack of bachelor programs available for music theatre, led Andrea to her devotion to opera and art song. Obtaining an understanding of this style of music requires hard work and technique. Similar to the way that the writers must rely on themselves to find the words, the singer needs to trust that when they open their mouths, music will come out.
“I wonder how something so lovely could be man-made,” Andrea once said to me. For her, being a musician and an artist is a spiritual experience. It requires devotion and faith as deep as any religion and offers so much to anyone willing to take a moment and listen. Classical music presents a paradox, as pieces that were composed hundreds of years ago are still being performed and appreciated, and yet each time a piece is performed it is distinct and unique in its moment of existence. Modern technology may allow us to record music, but there is nothing comparable to feeling the music course through you as it is created. “I love that it allows me to share a part of myself which I otherwise wouldn’t be able to express in words. Singing has a way of creating common ground between people and creating a space for giving and expanding and creating and discovering,” Andrea said at the close of her second year of post-secondary vocal training.
This is a photograph of Andrea standing onstage at eighteen. She is wearing a floor-length black gown with lace sleeves and a sweetheart neckline. She’s alone onstage, except for a shining black grand piano. In a moment, she will take her first breath and sing. Her shoulders are rolled back, and one pale hand rests on the piano. One look at her eyes reveals that nothing exists but Andrea and the music. This is the moment before the 12,000-foot operatic free fall. This is a photograph of Andrea perched on the edge of the cliff.
There is no way to photograph what occurs when Andrea is onstage. When Andrea sings, the air is molten glass. Every exhale brings with it the force and delicacy to sculpt that glass into intricate shapes and patterns. She sings spiraling ribbons and opalescent orbs and hummingbirds that could perch on an eyelash, if only for a moment.