'I can recall it quite vividly," said Gail Dubinbaum, a wide smile appearing on her face. "The first time I sang Bach's 'St. John' Passion was in 1981 at All Saints' Church in Beverly Hills." It was also the last evening her life would bear any semblance of normalcy.
"The next morning, after getting no sleep to speak of, I won the Metropolitan Opera Western Regional Auditions." The New York-born mezzo went on to capture the national auditions in New York that year, an award she readily acknowledges proved the turning point in her career.
So when Dubinbaum sings her two arias at the Orange County Master Chorale's performance of "St. John" Sunday afternoon at Orange Coast College--the concert begins at 3--don't be surprised to see a slight sparkle of nostalgia in her eyes. Since capturing the Met auditions, Dubinbaum has appeared in several productions at the fabled opera house: "Barbiere," "Cosi," "Traviata," among others. Now in her third and final year in the Met's Young Artists Development Program, she is negotiating a contract as an independent artist. "They're contracting me three years ahead," she says.
Dressed in a casual flaming red dress that smartly complements her jet black hair, the 28-year-old singer is a portrait of easy self-confidence as she unwinds at the Bel-Air home of her voice teacher, Herta Glaz, following a mid-week "St. John" rehearsal with conductor Maurice Allard. Yes, she agrees, opera is becoming her life. Yet the concert hall continues to beckon.
"Both (opera and concert performances) have attractions and problems," she said. "In a concert situation you can convey the emotions more directly."
There is one drawback to singing this particular Bach work, Dubinbaum noted. "I sing my first aria ("From the tangle of my transgressions") right at the start. Then, I sit and wait." Her second and final aria, "It is fulfilled," happens long after intermission.
"Sitting and waiting is not my favorite part of being onstage," she said. So what does she do all that time? "I'll hum along with the chorus quite a bit. But mostly, I'll wonder if the voice will still be there for the second aria."
Such a dilemma, of course, rarely occurs in opera, where there is usually plenty of time and space to warm up before an entrance. "That reminds me of the time I sang for the President," Dubinbaum said with a laugh, referring to her televised concert appearance before the Reagans at the White House two years ago.
"There was no place to warm up without being heard out front. So, I snuck out onto the lawn and did some quick vocalizing."
Whether for the President, for those discerning Met operagoers, or for a crowd gathered to observe the Bach Tercentennary in Costa Mesa, Dubinbaum is happy to be the object of attention. "Something happens when I get in front of an audience," she said.
Dubinbaum traces her self-confidence back to 1981 and those life-altering Met auditions. "It was an important experience just competing," she recalled. "You find out what you're made of, how you do under pressure.
"You go out there and lay it on the line every time, whether in a performance or a competition."