Monday, September 13, 2010

FAT is not a four letter word.

FAT is not a four letter word.I applaud anyone's determination to manage their health and well-being, physical and emotional.  However, with everyone from parents to society, and now even schools becoming the fat police, this this makes me see red! Why? Because it does not help. Instead it (paradoxically, counter-productively, ironically, cruelly) creates an environment in which eating disorders and body dysmorphia thrive.

As someone who has spent all of her adult life on the other end of the scale (pardon the pun), I am a prime example of the damaging effects of harping on the fear of fat. When I was 13, I was 5'2 and I weighed 137 lbs. My petite mother panicked and dragged me to the doctor, beginning a life-long cycle of diets and weight gain, strict regimented eating or binging, and continual self-denigration. As a result, I have "yo-yo"ed between sizes 16-24 for my entire adolescent and adult life. It has taken me 32 years from that day to overcome the damage to my spirit and I am just starting to overcome the damage to my body.

We have to combat the zeitgeist of fat phobia - the last widely permissible (even lauded) bigotry. The very word, "fat", has become overloaded with anxiety and negative values. It has taken on hugely disproportional connotations of shame and mortification, and no longer functions as noun or adjective, but rather is used almost as a swear word. With the onslaught of media messages, from reality shows and "helpful" talk shows, the fashion industry to news reports of the latest "studies" on obesity, it is very easy to be caught up in the social frenzy and buy into the myths of fat vilification. Women in particular are bombarded with the message that if we are fat, then we are (or should be) physical, emotional and/or spiritual cripples, and fair game for all sorts of derogatory comments.

Enough!  I refuse to participate in or perpetuate that mythology. We owe it to ourselves and our sisters and daughters, and yes, also our brothers and sons, to combat the tyranny of our fat phobic society and how it targets and denigrates people based on size. You are beautiful at any size.

Let's be clear: We do not have a weight problem. We have a weight. They may have a problem with that. But let's stop letting them dump their problem on us.

As a child, I remember running around and playing with abandon. I took dance classes, and rode my bike, and walked, and ran, and... However, with the onset of tween-dom and adolescence, I succumbed to the pressures of schoolyard politics and lost my love of physical activity. In high school, gym class and school dances were at best boring and at worst humiliating. I became an artistic, nerdy, smart girl-woman who could not conceive of anything like physical "exercise" being fun (I recognize the words, but the sentence as a whole does not make sense).

In adulthood I rediscovered my joy of dancing and movement as well the pure unadulterated elation that comes from celebrating your strength, flexibility and endurance. I've walked 60-kms in two days (raising $13,500 to combat cancer) and had the blisters and lost toe-nails and sunburns and a cold from walking all day in the rain (because while healthy activity supports the immune system, extreme activity has been shown to suppress it) to prove it.  I've biked all around this fantastic hilly city of mine (just take a look at a topographical map of Toronto and you'll see what that entails). I've taken Yoga and Pilates classes, found myself able to contort my body into fantastic shapes and positions, though humorously hindered by bumping up against bits of myself in the process (like the time I had my legs thrown way back behind my head and found myself with a face-full of my own bountiful bosom, unable to breathe). And, after laughing at the strength-training instructor who wanted me to do push ups (Sure, honey. Tell you what. If you can bench press ME, we are on. Otherwise, can I push YOU up?), I discovered that real weight training was a true exercise in both torture and pleasure. Who knew it could be so satisfying to bench-press or leg press or, even, those dreaded PUSH-UPS!

All that physicality finally taught me to love my body as it is. Furthermore, I get hit on regularly these days - often even when I'm out walking with my husband. Real men who are not afraid to appreciate ladies with a little extra meat on our bones are out there and I am living proof that they can tell when we feel confident at whatever size!

Full disclosure: I currently wear about a size 24 (well, the labels say everything from 14-26, but I know my measurements but let's call it 24 if we have to give it  a number). In the last couple of years I've discovered something has shifted in my marriage. My husband, who used to be enthralled by the more usual womanly erogenous zones, is finding my voluptuous belly irresistible! His hands will inevitable stray to and linger on my belly.

This paralleled my own (gradual and hard-won) acceptance of that part of my body. Our unjustly maligned and oft-reviled yet generous and forgiving bellies can be honoured as a source of sensual pleasure, as well as serving so well in all the ways mentioned by Sarah Henderson in her wonderful poem: My Belly.  I just LOVE this. It's posted here:

You know, it's a funny thing I realized on the way to size acceptance. No matter what size we are and whether it's our ribs or our rolls that are more evident, even swathed in a burka, our bodies make their unique and wonderful shapes known. It's not like we really can hide the truth of our body, so why not embrace it instead?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The parable of the cracked jar

An Indian legend tells of a man who carried water to his village every day, in two large jars tied to the ends of a wooden pole, which he balanced on his back. One of the jars was older than the other, and had some small cracks; every time the man covered the distance to his house, half of the water was lost.

For two years, the man made the same journey. The younger jar was always very proud of its performance, safe in the knowledge that it was up to the mission it had been made for, while the other jar was mortified with shame at only fulfilling half of its allotted task, even though it knew that those cracks were the result of many years hard work. It was so ashamed that one day, while the man got ready to fetch water from the well, it decided to speak to him:
– I want to apologize, but because of the many years of service, you are only able to deliver half of my load, and quench half of the thirst which awaits you at your home.

The man smiled, and said – When we return, observe carefully the path.

And so it did. And the jar noticed that, on its side, many flowers and plants grew.

– See how nature is more lovely on your side? – commented the man. – I always knew you were cracked, and decided to make use of this fact. I planted flowers and vegetables, and you have always watered them. I have picked many roses to decorate my house with, I have fed my children with lettuce, cabbage and onions. If you were not as you are, how could I have done that?

I met someone recently who offered her shoulder to support me during a moment of fragility. I had a frightening and unforeseeable health scare in the midst of a very intense period in the very last days preparing a performance. One day, just before an orchestral dress rehearsal, I found myself unable to compartmentalize my feelings in order to keep it together so I could function at full steam. And I did something I have not done often. I asked for help. I asked someone to listen so I could articulate my fears in the hope that would make it easier for me to pull myself together.

At a time when she was indescribably busy, juggling the numerous balls that lead up to creating a show in the last days of rehearsal, this person took the time to sit with me and talk. And at one point in that talk, she said something that turned my ideas about my self, my identity, and my life's journey on their head and made me rethink everything I have believed to be true about myself.

As the child of a rage-a-holic, I lived in a bizarre world where I never knew from one day (or moment) to the next when the other shoe would drop. As a result of this upbringing, for most of my life I've always been waiting to flinch. I've functioned like a battle-scarred war veteran. As I learned more about such things and understood my symptoms in the context of post-traumatic stress, I started to define myself as the walking wounded, as someone who was damaged by those experiences in my early life but who seemingly functions at a high level in the world for periods of time, only to withdraw (sometimes secretly, sometimes overtly) into depression, sadness, self-pity, anger, self-judgement, and most of all regret: if only things had been different, I could be different, better, stronger.

On the other hand, I also came to realize that I have depression to thank for much of what I have come to know about myself. Had I not felt so miserable, some days barely to get out of bed, I would not have been inspired to think, to sort things out and seek the help of others to help me make sense of the chaos. But I always wished it had been different. That I had been different, normal - whatever I imagined that to be. And when I would go out into the world, I pretended to others and to myself that I was not me, I was someone else. Even (or especially) when I was not okay, I endeavoured to create the impression that I was fine. This was yet another layer of violence upon my spirit, now self-inflicted.

This colleague and new friend saw right through me. She intuitively recognized the real me as someone who had also experienced a youth where fear and anticipation of the imminent catastrophe was ever-present, and proceeded to point out that I am much stronger than I have been willing to acknowledge, that what I have believed about myself for so long is not necessarily the only true interpretation. Perhaps the real story is not that I am flawed by my wounds and scars, but rather that they are precisely what make me incredibly powerful. They made me a survivor, the hero of my own life. They made me a resilient, compassionate, empathetic, and fiercely committed person. They make me the truly compelling artist, both the creator and the creative vessel that I am.

Karl Ulrich Schnabel said: "An artist experiences emotions that are much more intense than those most people feel. On a daily basis, we handle emotions that are so intense that they would kill most people." There is a danger that we can disown the jar of our own life because we fear or disparage the cracks we bear. We feel that they are too deep, too wide, too broken. The cracked jar in the parable felt sorry for the water bearer because the jar saw its cracks as flaws and thus felt it wasn’t up to doing its job.

If we look at our own jars this way and try to deny them, reject them, put them in the corner to collect dust, pretend we have no cracks, present a normalized façade to the world for fear of having our cracks noticed and judged, we are wasting life’s most precious opportunities.

So, like the jar of the parable, that which was thought to be damaged, wounded, cracked, actually gives life. And through it gardens are watered and beautiful flowers bloom for all to enjoy. Life invites each one of us to use the cracks in our jar to water the gardens of our lives, to create new life and to inspire new growth along our path in this journey.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fairytales can come true, it can happen to you...

Whew! I've been out of communication for a while, haven't I? It's been a whirlwind since the new year, with my trip to New York and a Quintimacy concert and rehearsals and more rehearsals (and yet more rehearsals)...

It's my day off and I'm attending to all the domestic duties I've neglected while rehearsing for an upcoming production of Cendrillon, Massenet's sparkling rendition of the Cinderella fairy tale. I've scrubbed the kitchen sink and counters, the bathroom sink, the toilet, and hubby has filled the washing machine with hot water and vinegar to try and eliminate the residue it's leaving on the supposedly clean laundry. I'm about to head up to scour the shower tiles and tub. Am I the only one who sees the irony here?

I have been invited to return as a guest artist to my alma mater, the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music (one of the foremost musical training programs in Canada), to perform a leading role in the first opera to be presented in the new acoustically perfect and exquisitely designed Koerner Hall. If you're in the GTA, come hear this magical work performed by the bright new generation of up and coming singers with conductor Uri Mayer and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra, on Saturday, March 20 at 7:30 pm, Sunday, March 21 at 2:00 pm, Tuesday, March 23 at 11:00 am and Thursday, March 25 at 7:30 pm.

Cendrillon (Cinderella) by Jules Massenet (1842-1912) is a re-telling of the familiar story. The Cinderella theme may have originated in classical antiquity, with the story of Rhodopis by the Greek Historian Strabo. The tale was written down in China during the year 830 by Tuan Ch'eng Shih who referred to it then as an old story. Of the most commonly read versions, a somewhat barbaric one by the Brothers Grimm and a more refined one by the upper class seventeenth century French writer Charles Perrault, the composer and his librettist Henri Cain (1859-1937) chose the latter. Massenet's rendition is a wonderfully constructed piece of musical theatre, where the sublime romanticism of the forlorn lovers is juxtaposed against the ethereally magical scenes of the fairy godmother and the outrageous shenanigans of the step-mother and her daughters.

We are deep into dress rehearsals - and it’s so much FUN! I am playing the wicked step-mother, which works for me very well vocally and temperamentally. It's also the perfect balance (and antidote) to the darker material I've been working in for most of the last year and a half: several amazing V-day shows (The Vagina Monologues and Any One of Us) a brilliant but harrowing opera about the holocaust (And the Rat Laughed), and the intensity of the Wagner arias I worked up for a recent vocal competition in New York.

Side note: I'm a hybrid creature - something of a vocal chameleon, possibly a closet soprano, probably zwischen-fach: this means my voice doesn't fall neatly into a category or 'fach'. I have a fine higher register, as well as a rich lower one, and I am operatically well-suited to zwischen-fach repertoire (that is, actual soprano roles which are occasionally taken by mezzos and vice versa) as well as the Verdi and Wagner mezzo roles, which often require the same range as the soprano, but not the same tessitura. Here's an easy analogy: the elevator goes to all the same floors, but the approach to the penthouse is a little different and while we love to visit, we prefer not to live there! It seemed that everyone who heard me had their own opinion about my fach and for years I was subjected to a tug of war between those in the soprano camp and those cheering for the mezzo team. Temperamentally, though, I am definitely much better suited to the mezzo repertoire. These roles are only rarely the heroines; rather usually we play the spoilers - witches, bitches, hags and whores, with the occasional mother, good or bad, thrown in for variety. This makes for much more interesting character fodder for my taste - not to mention the inherent therapeutic cathartic potential ;)

Now, don't get me wrong. I love to sing profoundly dramatic rep (whether mezzo or soprano). I adore the great sweeping Verdi and Wagner roles for their vibrant or lush textures, as well as Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti for their fluidity and fioritura. Alas, Mozart and Puccini did not write much for the mezzo-soprano, though I had a blast in recent years singing Ciesca in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi and Marcellina in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro - both brilliant comedy shows with some very tight ensemble writing (in the Puccini, I even got to sing some fabulous High C's!). In addition, I am one of those freak singers who loves contemporary repertoire - passionately. But I have to admit that for stage work I wouldn't be bored doing comedy for the rest of my life. It’s ultimately the most gratifying for me.

Comedy is actually harder to do than the romantic or dramatic stuff. The timing and nuance of every action has to be so precise, in the exact musical place to be funny, and you have to play it all just as believably as drama. You don't get up and act funny. You have to be truly as committed to achieving your character's goal as you would be in a dramatic context. Good comedy comes out of good writing: the dialogue and the circumstances create incongruous scenarios and motivate absurd behaviour, and the less aware your character is of all that, the more hilarious the audience finds it all. Of course, there are physical expressions and actions that are funny, but they all have to come out of a genuine intention to get what your character wants in the scene.

Want to see a good example? Come to Cendrillon and I'll be happy to provide it!

Well, I'd better go finish my own chores then practise. Got places to go, people to sing with. Rehearsals to knit through.

Monday, January 25, 2010


I just returned from a whirlwind week of singing and fun in New York, where I participated in a vocal competition. I had the pleasure to reconnect with long-lost family and friends both new and old, I got to absorb some art and culture, and I went to a Broadway show - A Little Night Music.

Now, I am a very picky theatre-goer and I tend to hold very high standards as an audience member so pardon me while I simply GUSH: If you are in NYC you must (absolutely, unequivocally MUST) go to see A Little Night Music. It is magnificent! Brilliant in the seamlessness and economical simplicity of it's staging and beautifully crafted, nuanced and wonderful performances from everybody! It's at the Walter Kerr (on 48th St). Even if the only ticket you can get is expensive - it's worth it. It is as close to a perfect production as I have ever witnessed. If I did not have to come back rehearsals and performances of my own, I would have extended my stay over the weekend to see it another two or three times!

While I was away, in response to the horrific crisis in Haiti, I pledged to match dollar-for-dollar the money I spend on myself that week with a donation to Doctors without Borders and Haitian relief efforts - and I challenged everyone on my Facebook page to do the same! I had no secure internet connection while away, so the total will be donated now, and I have to say it's a whopper!

I am also instigating further efforts to raise funds and support for this cause as well as the ONGOING crisis of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where despite the supposed formal cease of hostilities, several armed groups still use sexual violence as a weapon of war. In the DRC it is more dangerous to be woman than a combatant as women and girls remain targets for violence. Physical and economic insecurity still characterize the lives of women and girls and the threat of and the use of violence are constants, discrimination against women and girls underlies the violence perpetrated against them, and the current climate of impunity allows the many forms of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, to flourish.

Some of you may also know me as MezzoDiva the Operatic Knitaholic, as well as the designer of the Campanula for the Cure and Hibiscus for Hope sock patterns, which together with some very sore muscles, blistered feet and 60 km (twice) helped me raise some $13,500.00 for The Weekend to End Breast Cancer in 2007 & 2008.

Well, if I can scrape together some time this week, I intend to reformat and re-release those patterns as Hibiscus for HAITI and Campanula for the CONGO. It may have to wait a few days, though as I just returned from an exciting but strenuous week of vocal endeavours in NYC, I am juggling assorted family crises and medical emergencies (my 90 year-old mother-in-law is due to be released from a 3 week stay in the hospital this week) and I just dove into rehearsals for an upcoming opera and for the Quintimacy concert next weekend.

With the agreement of the artists, all proceeds from Quintimacy's upcoming salon will be donated to Médecins Sans Frontières, whose efforts in Haiti have been in demand both before the catastrophic earthquake> on January 12, 2010 and since then.

MSF's devotion to this calling, despite personal risk and losses, is truly heroic. MSF trauma centres were seriously damaged by the quake. Latest announcements confirm the quake killed 4 Haitian MSF staff; 4 others who'd recently worked with them also died; 6 are still missing. They just rolled up their sleeves and moved their treatment clinics to tents and mobile centres in the open. Their staff has a good sense of what's going to be needed in the short term as well as how much the rehabilitation of emergency and other healthcare in the country will cost in the long term. As the worldwide generosity continues, donations to their Emergency Relief Fund give MSF the maximum flexibility to respond directly where it’s most needed in Haiti, while ensuring they can still act rapidly should another disaster strike.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I'm in NYC for a week for a singing competition and to visit friends - and I hope to see a Broadway show. I've pledged to match dollar-for-dollar the money I spend on myself this WEEK with an equal donation to Doctors without Borders and to Haitian relief efforts. I'm looking forward to making one doozy of a donation on Friday (when I get home to a secure connection) - and I hereby challenge everyone who reads this to do similarly:

Pick a day or the weekend or more, and what ever you spend for yourself that day, make a matching donation. Even if it's just lunch at McDonalds, every little bit helps. Just enjoy yourself and pledge to donate an equal amount to a reliable aid organization. The go have some fun and don't hold back - it's for a good cause!

For my Canadian friends, a list of registered charities can be found here.

For US and international friends, check with your local authorities for a registered charity.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

An open letter written December 31, 2009 but not posted until today due to technical difficulties.

Dear friends and colleagues,

Tonight we take a soul-cleansing breath, release what is past, appreciate what remains, and look forward with new wisdom to what comes next. As this interesting year draws to a close, I'm both grateful for all the life-lessons of 2009 and very glad they are past. Most of all, I am very excited about embarking upon a brand new year. The coming weeks and months are burgeoning with so much goodness, both new beginnings and seeds sewn coming to fruition - my only complaint is that there are still only 7 days in a week and 24 hours in each of them, and I do need to sleep and attend to the mundane necessities of life (and laundry) sometimes. Here are just a few highlights:

I have been invited to return to my alma mater as a guest artist, the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music (one of the foremost musical training programs in Canada), to perform a leading role in the first opera to be presented in the new acoustically perfect and exquisitely designed Koerner Hall. I look forward to start rehearsals for Le Cendrillon (Cinderella) by Massenet in the New Year, performances coming up in March 2010 with conductor Uri Mayer and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra.

I’m taking a brief hiatus from these rehearsals in mid-January for a trip to New York City to compete in the Liederkranz Foundation’s vocal competition (Wagner Division). Strange, but true: I have never been to New York (other than briefly crossing the tarmac at La Guardia while changing planes), so I am very excited about this trip and look forward to spending a few days after the competition seeing the sights and visiting with friends and family.

In the meantime, I am also preparing for a very special concert with Quintimacy on January 31st. Quintimacy, a Toronto-based group I co-founded in 2008 with musicologist Eleanor Johnston, composer Chad Martin and pianists Joseph Ferretti and Elaine Lau, has become very dear to me. We are dedicated to rebuilding a close working relationship between performers, composers and personal engagement with the audience through intimate salon-style performance of new, rare and beautiful piano, vocal and chamber works in settings which foster a sense of immediacy and connection. You can hear highlights from Quintimacy’s first season online at Instant Encore.

Titled "Expressionists in the Melting Pot," the first concert of our second season will trace the impact of historical events on music from the early 20th century in Vienna to the strange realities of the new world, after the escape or expulsion of many composers from the Nazi regime, in a program which includes music by Berg, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Korngold, Weill. As always with Quintimacy, our concert includes entertaining informative anecdotes mixed with the music and will be followed by a reception with the artists. After our almost excessively intimate event of last season had our guests rubbing shoulders, with many at our very knees sharing cushions on the floor, we are delighted to announce that we’re moving into the more spacious yet still intimate Gallery 345, a beautiful space of over 2,000 square feet with 12 foot wood ceilings and plaster and brick walls, designed and lit for the display of art.

I’m also preparing for other engagements later in the year, including a tour with my alter-ego, Emily. Canadian composer Jana Skarecky’s one-woman opera about Emily Carr, EMILY, THE WAY YOU ARE, with libretto by renowned Canadian poet Di Brandt, premiered on April 20, 2008. I had the profoundly gratifying experience of giving voice to this boldly visionary and nonconformist Canadian artist and writer, as well as to several key figures in her life - her sisters, a spurned suitor, art critics and the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris. (This performance, with pianist Joseph Ferretti and members of The Talisker Players chamber ensemble under conductor Gary Kulesha, was presented at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario, through the New Music in New Places program of the Canadian Music Centre, and may be heard online at the CMC archives.)

On top of all this, in response to continual requests by audiences at various concerts for a recording (and I am truly honoured and not a little surprised every time this occurs), I will be entering the studio this year to fulfill my promises and record a CD. To that end, I am preparing a sublime selection of vocal works by contemporary Canadian composers, including oeuvres by Chad Martin and Maria Case, as well as Alex Eddington, and Catherine Magowan and Ian McAndrew (Note to composers who may still be working on or dreaming about their compositions for this project - and you know who you are – start your engines!)

I also have several interesting teaching engagements later in the year in assorted eclectic places, including a personal project about which I am very passionate: developing an inter-disciplinary creativity workshop by applying the performance-related techniques I use with singing students in group master-classes and cross-pollinating from there, using the true inner voice to facilitate free authentic expression for artists in other media, such as painting/sculpture/fibre-arts/writing, and more.

I send you all blessings for this New Year and ever beyond: Don't wait for someone else to elevate you to your potential. Make your own magic in the Universe. Captain your journey. Risk something. Trust your power, and most importantly ... believe!

Wishing you and all your loved ones a wonderful holiday and a life filled with love and laughter, health and happiness, peace and prosperity, and many happy returns!

XO – Ramona