Feelings of nausea immediately overcame Henry when he heard Professor Seligman, Chairman of the Music Department and Master of Ceremonies, call his name. Henry was the last of the final ten graduating students from the class’s forty exceptionally talented students to sing today. He removed a handkerchief from the pocket of his jacket, wiped the sweat from his brow and walked out to the center of the stage just as he had practiced so many times this past week.
But this was no rehearsal. Today, Henry would sing to satisfy the recital requirement, presented in partial fulfillment for the Bachelor of Music degree in Vocal Performance from the Metropolitan Music School in New York City. Today, he would perform Deh, vieni alla finestra, and Fin ch’han dal vino, arias from Don Giovanni by Mozart, Pieta, Signore by Allesandro Stradella, and two other arias by Antonio Caldara and Giovanni Paisiello that he had chosen, memorized, and practiced endlessly during his last year of study.
Although Henry was known by his classmates and the music faculty as the one with a highly tuned ear, a facility for languages, impeccable diction, and rhythm, he was also the one who could suffer paralyzing stage fright.
He stood in the center of the stage looking handsome in a navy suit and paisley bowtie and gazed out into the large room, his legs weak and unsteady. He saw rows of people looking at him and spotted his mother and sister sitting in the center section.
Within minutes, Maryanne, his accompanist, sat down at the piano, opened her
sheet music, looked over at Henry, and waited for his nod.
Henry stood still and silent. The hot stage lights shone down on him. It was happening again. Nothing. He could do nothing.
More time passed. Five minutes or an hour? He didn’t know.
Maryanne went backstage and brought him a glass of water.
The guests were shifting in their seats and talking loudly to each other, and Henry knew he had to begin. He took another sip of water, looked over at Maryanne, and nodded. Then he breathed in deeply and opened his mouth. Out flowed Don Giovanni’s serenade to the maidservant in the most beautiful musical and sonorous voice.
He could see the audience sitting forward, riveted by his performance, and when he finished, he paused ten seconds before beginning Pieta, Signore, a plea to God for mercy. With his first words, he conveyed the fear and guilt the singer felt for his sins against God, and with great facility, he maintained the stamina and tone necessary to convey the sensibility of the song.
But Henry was beginning to forget some words and was now trying to ad lib and keep up with the tempo. When he finished, Professor Seligman unexpectedly closed the curtain and announced a five-minute break.
He walked Henry backstage and pulled out a folding chair. “What’s the matter, Henry?”
“I can’t breathe,” Henry said, clutching his chest. “Feel like I’m going to pass out. My head is throbbing.”
Professor Seligman brought Henry more water. “You’re a masterful singer,” he said. “You’ve worked hard for this.”
“I just can’t,” Henry said.
“You’ve always worked through your performance anxiety,” Professor Seligman said, affectionately squeezing Henry’s shoulder. “You must finish the recital to receive your degree. You can do this.”
Within minutes, Henry returned to the stage, sang two more arias by Antonio Caldara and
Giovanni Paisello, and finished his recital with a dramatic rendition of Fin ch’han dal vino by Mozart.
The audience clapped enthusiastically, but Henry, acutely aware of his mistakes, walked quickly off stage without even taking a bow, headed to the lobby, and searched the room for his mother and sister.
When his mother saw him walking towards them, she ran up and hugged him tightly. “You were absolutely wonderful!” she said.
Henry responded with a pained smile.
Rebecca kissed him on his cheek. “I loved it.”
Henry guided them to the elevator, and they went up to the Faculty Dining Room for the
reception. As they entered the room, Henry saw a buffet on their right, a table with beer and wine on their left, a podium in the middle of the room, and folding chairs throughout. A banner exclaiming, “Congratulations Graduates,” hung against the back wall, and on the two side walls were photos of school and public vocal performances and other photos of the graduates in their classrooms and rehearsal studios.
Henry removed his bowtie, stuck it in his jacket pocket, and opened the top two buttons on his shirt. Then, he walked to the drinks, gulped down two glasses of white wine, and brought over a glass to his mother and another to Rebecca who were now looking at the photographs.
“I’m going over there to talk to my friends,” Henry said, pointing to Peter, Allison, and Shannon standing by the food. As he approached the group, they clapped and cheered enthusiastically. Henry blushed and looked away. “Stop, everyone. Please stop,” he said.
Seconds later, Professor Seligman arrived and walked to the podium. He congratulated
the students, thanked their parents for supporting their children’s operatic interests and invited
the graduates to speak about their musical education and plans for their futures.
Enough stress for today, Henry thought, and seeing that his mother and Rebecca were talking to Peter’s and Allison’s parents, he bolted.
At home, he took a hot shower, changed into his pajamas, and got into bed.
My pitch was terrible. Even ran out of breath for the final phrases of Fin ch’han dal vino. How can I really sing professionally when I’m this hampered?
Henry awakened the next day at noon. His mother and sister were at work. He dressed and made himself toast with marmalade and tea. As he was eating, the doorbell rang.
When he opened the door, Peter, his best friend from music school, walked into the apartment and sat down at the kitchen table. He was stout and slightly shorter than Henry with blonde hair parted to the side and wearing jeans and a light blue tee shirt. “Saw you leave in a hurry last night” he said. “You okay?”
“No.” Henry said, pouring himself another cup of tea. “Want some?” he asked, turning to Peter.
“Yesterday was horrible for me.”
“I saw,” Peter said, spooning sugar into his tea.
“Worst case of nerves yet.”
“Professor Seligman could see you were struggling. Good he gave you those few minutes.”
“I needed them. When he invited us to speak to the guests, I freaked out, and my
whole body started to tremble. I don’t want to feel that way every time I need to perform or speak in front of people.”
“How are you going to deal with the auditions?” Peter asked.
Henry sighed and ran his fingers through his curly black hair. “It’s getting harder and harder. I might have to give up my dream.”
Peter was quiet for several seconds. Then, “I understand you have panic attacks, but you’re good. You get into the roles, too. Couldn’t you take medicine to help you relax?”
“I do, every day. Have been for years. This is as good as it gets. I’ve had bad anxiety since childhood. Still can’t find a way to manage it. It’s a curse.”
“What about the years of training and money your mother invested in your education?” Peter asked. “She’ll be so disappointed.”
“She will, but I can’t continue singing just to please my mother. I can’t live like this.”
“You’re not the only one who’s got to deal with nerves. Think about the famous singers our professors talked about who suffer just like you. They persevere and find ways to deal with their fears. In the middle of singing in Milan, the audience booed Renee Fleming off the stage, remember? Can you believe it? A woman of her caliber? She was so traumatized by the incident, that for a year, she suffered severe anxiety before each performance. Jonas Kaufmann was only a few years older than us and was singing in Richard Wagner’s Parsifal when he totally lost his voice due to nerves. He started working with a vocal coach. Helped him rebuild his vocal technique so that he felt confident on stage. Andrea Bocelli, Amanda Majeski, and so many others all struggle with performance anxiety. I get anxious, too, but I work with my anxiety and
don’t let it get the best of me. Why? Because I want to sing more than anything else in this world. There must be a way for you.”
“I don’t know,” Henry said. “I’m going to the Y now. Need to swim some laps and relax,” he said, rolling his head from side to side and cracking his neck. “Want to come?”
“No. I’m going home. I’ll call you next week about picking up our diplomas. Take care,
buddy. It’ll work out.”
When Henry returned from the Y, Rebecca was in the bathroom taking a shower, and his mother was in the kitchen preparing dinner. Henry went up to his mother and kissed her.
“Dinner will be ready shortly, honey.”
While they ate, Henry was a bit quiet.
“I know you’re upset about your recital,” his mother said. “Everyone makes mistakes. You have a gift, Henry. Many people wish they could sing like you.”
“I don’t know if I can do this, Mama.”
His mother put down her fork. “What? Give up the thing you’ve longed to do ever since you were a child? Don’t throw away all those years of study and vocal training just because you get butterflies before you go on stage. Have you considered going back into therapy?”
“No way. Seven years did nothing. They all say the same thing—I need to be kinder to myself.”
“What about increasing your medication?”
“Dr. Rubin switched my meds three times already. Increased the stuff I’m taking now. If I take any more, I’ll be a walking zombie.”
The following Wednesday after Henry and Peter got their diplomas, they went to visit
Professor Seligman. His office was large and overlooked Riverside Park, had photographs of
famous opera singers on the walls and a locked display case filled with records and tapes. There was a long desk with a computer and office chair on one side, and on the other, a brown leather couch and two matching chairs that sat at either end. Professor Seligman was sitting behind his desk when Henry and Peter entered.
“Hello, fellas. Sit down,” he said, gesturing to the couch. “What can I do for you?”
“We were wondering if you could suggest any resources for auditions,” Peter said. “I’ve looked through the professional magazines, but I haven’t seen anything.”
“The database for auditions and performances is an excellent resource,” Professor Seligman said. “It’s online. Posts information about auditions, competitions, and special vocal and musical programs. Many of the opera houses offer apprenticeship programs for recent graduates. Both of you should apply. If you’re accepted, you’ll get further training with expert singers, and opportunities to sing small bits and serve as understudies. Great exposure.”
Peter and Henry stood up.
“Thanks for the tips, Professor,” Henry said.
“Good luck, gentlemen. Keep me informed. Don’t forget to practice. Every day.”
“We’ll be in touch,” Peter and Henry said, almost in unison.
As they walked home along Riverside Drive, Peter turned to Henry. “You seemed interested in Professor Seligman’s suggestions,” he said.
“I’m curious about the apprenticeships. May apply just for the heck of it. See what happens.”
When he got home, Henry showed his diploma to his mother and sister and told them
about his visit with Professor Seligman.
“I’m so proud of you, Henry,” his mother said, studying the white parchment affixed with the school’s gold seal and Henry Barry Gordon, Bachelor of Arts in Vocal Performance written in black Old English. “Did you tell Professor Seligman you’re considering giving up opera?”
“No. He suggested Peter and I apply to apprenticeship programs. I’m thinking about it. Don’t really want to give up singing.”
His mother returned the diploma to him. “I’m happy you haven’t closed the door.”
The following day, Henry went online and applied to the Metropolitan Opera and to two smaller houses in New York City. Then, later that afternoon, at his school, he booked time in a recording studio and practiced the aria to include with his application. When he finished, he went to the Audio-Visual Department and arranged for a technician to record his video audition.
Two weeks later, he received a letter from the Metropolitan Opera informing him that he was chosen for the second round and invited to audition for one of the twenty-four coveted apprenticeship positions.
When Henry contacted Peter to share his good news, Peter mentioned that he, too, had
received an invitation.
“We’re going to go to school every day and rehearse our arias until our auditions,” Peter said.
Henry nodded. “Yes.”
During the week before his audition, Henry awoke each morning in a panic. Negative thoughts raced through his head. He tried affirmations and guided meditation. He rode his bicycle every morning before rehearsals and swam each afternoon. He did deep breathing and stretched, when nervous. Despite all this, he couldn’t manage a single error-free rehearsal.
On the day of their auditions, Henry and Peter rode the subway to Lincoln Center. As they walked towards the majestic building towering above Lincoln Square Plaza, Henry bought a bottle of water from a street vendor and took several gulps.
“Better?” Peter asked.
“You’ll be fine, Henry. Remember, many of the competitors auditioning today are feeling just like you. It’s normal.”
Henry and Peter entered the auditorium, registered, and took seats in the middle section. There were fifteen auditioners there already, and more continued to hurry in.
After ten minutes, a middle-aged woman wearing a red knee-length dress and black pumps, walked on stage and introduced herself as Ms. Fishman, Director of Admissions. She turned to face the two long tables behind her. Four people with pens and legal pads, sat at each table.
“These men and women are the judges,” she said, turning back to the audience. “During
the next three days, we have seventy-five people scheduled to audition for twenty-four positions. You each have five minutes to deliver a portion of an aria. In about a week, you’ll receive a letter informing you of your acceptance or rejection. Good luck.”
Henry and Peter listened attentively as the singers belted out arias in Italian, French, and German.
“They’re so good,” Henry said.
“We’re better,” Peter said.
At that moment, Peter heard Ms. Fishman call his name. He walked to the front of the auditorium, nodded to the five musicians in the pit, and walked on stage. He shook Ms. Fishman’s hand and smiled at the judges. Then he moved to centerstage, announced his selection, La Donne ‵e Mobile from Verdi’s Rigoletto, and inserted his ear monitor.
Peter’s vocal performance was flawless, and his dramatic interpretation, entertaining.
Henry was next. When he heard his name, he walked so quickly to the front of the auditorium that he tripped on the stairs leading up to the stage. He forgot to acknowledge the musicians, Ms. Fishman, and the judges. He walked to the center of the stage and announced his selection, Largo al factotum from Rossini’s comic opera, Il Barbiere di Siviglia. He removed a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wiped his face, looked out at his fellow auditioners. Nerves, go away. I’m not going to let you win, he repeated several times silently to himself.
“Young man, we’re waiting. Are you ready?” Ms. Fishman asked.
Henry nodded and opened his mouth. He sang beautifully for the first two minutes. Then, nothing. Calm down. Focus. Push yourself. You’ve got to get one of the twenty-four positions. He took some deep breaths and tried again. Still nothing. He removed the ear monitor, stepped away from centerstage, and lowered his head. Who am I kidding? I can’t do this. Then he left the stage and walked quickly out of the auditorium, through the building’s front doors, and onto the street.
Peter followed. “I’m sorry,” he said, when he caught up with Henry.
“You were fantastic,” Henry said.
“Let’s go for a beer.”
Henry shook his head. “I just want to go home.”
When he walked into his apartment, Rebecca was setting the table, and his mother was in the living room, reading.
“I blew it,” Henry said. “I couldn’t get the words out. It’s over, Mama. Sorry. I’m going to bed.”
During the next month, Henry and Peter saw less of each other. Peter had received an apprenticeship with the Met, was busy taking classes, practicing, and watching his mentors rehearse, and spent his little free time socializing with the other apprentices.
Henry concentrated on what was next. Rebecca suggested he become a music teacher with the New York City Department of Education, but Henry quickly dismissed it. He wanted nothing to do with music, he told her. He couldn’t take the disappointment.
“If I can’t sing, I certainly don’t want to teach others,” he said.
Soon after, one morning, while he was having his tea and reading the civil service newspaper, Henry noticed an advertisement for letter carriers and began to think. I like to walk. I know the city streets. No one watching everything I do while I’m working. Might not be so bad. He read: Good benefits. Steady pay. Flexible hours. Opportunities for promotion.
After breakfast, he filled out the on-line application and took the first part of the exam, questions designed to assess how he’d act in different social situations. Then, he scheduled an appointment at a testing site to take the other parts.
In two weeks, he received a letter from the US Postal Service inviting him to appear for
On the morning of the interview, Henry awakened nervous again. Oh no, he thought. This
can’t be happening. I can’t sabotage this, too.
When he entered the employment office building on West 48th Street, he went to the reception area and waited to be called.
Within minutes, Ms. Walker, a woman in a gray-blue pantsuit with the US Postal Service logo patch above the jacket’s left dress pocket, greeted him and walked him to her office.
“On your application, Mr. Gordon, you state you’re a recent music school graduate,” Ms. Walker said. “What did you study?”
“Vocal performance. Opera.”
“That’s impressive. I’m surprised you’re not looking for a singing job.”
“I love opera,” Henry said, “but I recently discovered that I’m not made to perform.”
“I see,” Ms. Walker said, contemplating his response, but not asking anything further. Then, “Why do you want to work for the US Postal Service?”
Henry looked Ms. Walker in her eyes. “First, postal workers provide invaluable service to the public. Everyone relies on letter carriers to deliver cards and letters, bills, medications, magazines, products ordered online, and more. I know I can provide this important service.
Also, I enjoy dealing with people, and I like walking. I’ve got a good sense of direction, so I won’t get lost or waste the post office’s valuable time,” Henry said, with a chuckle.
Ms. Walker smiled. “You’ve got a good sense of humor, too. Frankly, you’re the first person I’ve interviewed in a long time who recognizes the service we provide and the importance of the work we do. Most applicants mention the union, opportunities for advancement, flexible hours, and a regular paycheck, when I ask why they want to work for us. Right now, the 7:00am-4pm shift at the location up the street is what’s available. How does that sound?”
“We’ll need to do a background check,” Ms. Walker said. “Provided you’re cleared, you can start in a month.”
One afternoon, when Henry went to check his mail, he met Ms. Murphy, a neighbor, in the mailroom.
“Hello, honey. Your mother told me about your recital, how wonderful it was.”
“I’m not sure. Going to take some time to relax.”
“Yes, yes. After that. You’re going to apply to the big leagues, right? The Met and—
“The European opera houses.”
Henry shrugged. “We’ll see what happens.”
Three weeks after his interview, Ms. Walker called Henry.
“You passed the background check.”
“Wonderful,” Henry said.
“Welcome to the U.S. Postal Service, Mr. Gordon.”
“Thank you, Ms. Walker.”
Later that afternoon, Henry went to Human Resources and completed the required
paperwork, then picked up his uniforms at the uniform office. The man behind the counter asked his size and placed five shirts, five pairs of pants, two sweaters, and two hats in a bag and handed
it to Henry.
“You need to wear white or navy socks,” he said. “We don’t provide them. And good black shoes. Don’t skimp on the shoes. When you’re on your feet for so many hours, you need well-made, comfortable shoes,” the man said.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Good luck to you, young man.”
After dinner, Henry told his mother and sister about his new job.
“After years of musical education, it’s hard to believe you’ve chosen to become a letter carrier, Henry,” his mother said. “If that’s what you want, I’m happy for you. It’s important that you like whatever you do.”
“Thanks, Mama. I appreciate your support.”
By the end of his second week at work, Henry had learned his route. He enjoyed talking to the residents he met in the apartment buildings and to the people in the stores he delivered to, and they appreciated Henry’s outgoing and upbeat personality. While he pushed his cart on the streets, Henry listened to opera on his headphones and sang along softly.
One afternoon, at the end of his shift, he was returning to the post office, listening to Largo al factotum and burst into accompanying the soloist. His rapid, patter singing and excellent enunciation of alliterative words and tongue twisting lines, drew the attention of passersby who stopped to listen and to cheer this very entertaining, singing letter carrier.
Shortly thereafter, the neighborhood newspaper ran a human-interest story about him, and when the Director of the Mid-Manhattan Theater Company read that Henry had studied opera, he contacted Henry to volunteer with his chorus.
Henry was excited about singing professionally and accepted the offer. He thought being part of the chorus would be manageable because he wouldn’t be singing solo. When he learned that the theater company was going to perform Puccini’s La Boh‵eme and that a singer from the Metropolitan Opera would make a guest appearance in the title role of Rodolfo, he was delighted. He enthusiastically practiced his roles as a street vendor in Act II and a tavern drinker in Act III with the other members of the chorus four nights a week until the evening of the performance.
He invited his mother and Rebecca to attend, and on the night of the opera, when the curtain opened and Henry saw that Peter was singing the part of Rodolfo, he beamed.
Peter’s singing was extraordinary, and when the performance ended, Henry and his family waited to congratulate him.
As soon as they saw him, Henry’s mother and Rebecca rushed up to Peter and kissed him.
“Bravo, Peter,” Henry’s mother said. “We really enjoyed it.”
“You were fantastic,” Henry said.
“I got lucky. The lead is sick. I knew the part and had watched many of his rehearsals, so the Met sent me.”
“You’re happy with the apprenticeship?” Henry asked.
“Absolutely. I’m learning so much. Couldn’t have asked for a better experience. Good to see you found a way to keep singing, Henry.”
“I’m a volunteer. Tonight, was my first performance. Surprisingly, I didn’t get nervous. Maybe it’s that I’m not singing alone.”
“Looked like you were enjoying yourself,” Henry’s mother said.
“I was, Mama. It felt good to sing on the stage again.”
“Are you working?” Peter asked.
“I’m a letter carrier,” Henry said.
“Wow. That’s about as far from opera singing as you can get.”
“You’d be surprised. While walking on my route, I listen to opera on my headphones and
join the soloist. The passersby call me the singing letter carrier.”
“I’ll have to keep an eye on your career,” Peter said, smiling.
Henry laughed. Can you believe it? I’m singing solo in front of an audience. And guess what? I never choke, and I even like it!”