The story so far, in Marlissa’s words:
I realized I had to be a singer. I moved from my home in St. Louis to the Washington, DC area, to work with contacts I’d made when I was a graduate student at Peabody. And I made plans to create a big splash with my second album. All of that is in my first post.
And so, continuing:
When I thought of my sophomore album project, I knew I wanted to do something vastly different than anything I’d heard or done previously. Something that would highlight my strongest attributes as an artist, and present classical music to a new, previously uninterested audience. How to go about it was the only question, and I struggled for a couple of years before I came up with the answer. Strangely enough, a conversation with one of my older brothers gave me the inspiration I needed. He’s always been really inventive, and suggested a series of albums and recitals based on the seven deadly sins. Makes total sense, given that I’m an opera singer, and that most operas are based on one or more of the classic evils.
Grateful for the idea, I opted to focus first on my favorite sin — lust. I’ve always been more sensual than most, and uninhibited in both my love of my corporeal self and my need to express passion on stage (and to experience it in some form when I’m in the audience). I kicked the idea to a few music colleagues, who all thought it would prove a very interesting project. My friends who didn’t typically enjoy classical music were instantly interested, which gave me the most important information I needed before I moved forward. I liked the idea so much that I thought doing the project wouldn’t even feel like work, which meant I’d be living a dream I’d had for quite a while.
By culling some of the most coquettish and flirtatious pieces from the classical soprano repertoire, I found myself able to present a bolder side of classical music than the public is used to, which might entice people to give it a try. My project covers a woman’s life through three stages of lust: young lust, which is innocent, naive, and often confusing, because lust is mistaken for love. Then vengeful lust, which can be desperate and dangerous (but highly stimulating). And finally mature lust, where you achieve mastery, and make the object(s) of your desire come to you. The CD is organized from young lust to mature lust, and is labeled accordingly:
YOUNG LUST: Innocent, fearless, confused.
Lori Laitman, “Wild Nights”
Rossini, “La fioraia fiorentina” (“The Florentine flower girl”)
Charpentier, “Depuis le jour” (“Since the day,” from Louiseˆ)
Rossini, “L’invito” (“The invitation”)
Liszt, “Oh, quand je dors” (“Oh, while I sleep”)
Duparc, “Extase” (“Ecstasy”)
Lee Hoiby, “Twenty-Eight Young Men”
Purcell, “What can we poor females do?”
MIDDLE STAGE OF LUST: Desperate, unpredictable, id personified.
Turina, “Cantares” (“Songs”)
Orff, ”Dulcissime” (“Sweetest boy,” from Carmina Burana)
Granados, “Descúbrase el pensamiento” (“Let the thought reveal itself”)
Undine Smith Moore, “I Am in Doubt”
MATURE LUST – Calm. Magnetic. Dangerous.
Joseph Marx, “Selige Nacht” (“Blessed Night”)
Debussy, “C’est l’extase langoureuse” (“It is the languorous ecstasy”)
André Previn, “Do you know him?” (from Honey and Rue)
Orff, “In trutina” (“In the scales,” from Carmina Burana)
Jack Heggie, “Animal Passion”
The CD is currently available on Spotify and iTunes. It will be available for purchase on my website beginning August 1 (ecommerce on your website avoids a lot of fees, FYI). Sure, the music is balanced in terms of languages and number of centuries covered, but what really makes it cool for me is that a story of experimentation, bravery, and growth can be told through sensual music.
To make the project a reality took money. Money I didn’t really have at the time. I have learned, however, that if you want something badly enough, you’ll figure out a way to make it work. I began saving madly, even skimping on getting my hair done — something considered sacrilege by many black women — so I could get enough money together to make the recording. Fortunately my performance calendar happened to be the highest-grossing to date. I had multiple performances with Vocal Essence in Minneapolis, and performances in New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington, DC of a recital Marvin Mills crafted, which we called “The Spiritual Bach: A Juxtaposition of the Works of J.S. Bach and Negro Spirituals.” I also had a fabulous new church job with All Souls Unitarian in Washington, which gave me more freedom as an artist than church jobs usually do (and required me to sing only two Sundays each month!).
The friends I have who are entrepreneurs strongly encouraged me to put everything I could afford into creating a lasting brand. The last thing I wanted was to have to scrape and scrounge from performance to performance, or from project to project. Building a brand could make me buoyant financially, by helping me increase my fees. I’d rather have fewer performances with bigger payout than many performances with little payout. I see my voice as a commodity that has a finite life, and I plan to maximize its usefulness for as long as I can.
All of this sounds great, but without a detailed plan nothing would be sustainable. It was time to create a budget. I called on the expertise of one of my best friends from Duke, who happens to be ridiculously smart, and has an MBA. She is also an entrepreneur, and explained that she made a lot of sacrifices, including maxing out credit cards, to get her own dreams off the ground.
The difference between the two of us, as I saw it, was that I didn’t have a financial safety net. She had a successful attorney for a husband, and I was a single mom with a precocious kid to raise. So I didn’t know if I could spend as much money as she could. Regardless, I once again relied on the fact that in my heart I believed I was doing the work that I was supposed to be doing.
The CD would cost roughly 10k to get off the ground, for recording, mastering, a video shoot, and some initial marketing. I kept my costs down by having the repertoire solidly set, which meant fewer takes, and fewer recording sessions overall. I left several of the tracks are unedited, which also saved money, and makes the performances almost like live recordings. We also did minimal mastering, since I understood that one of the biggest costs in a recording is the mastering process. I did not have to max out my credit cards, but definitely carried more of a balance than is comfortable for me.
Part of building a brand means understanding that the album is just the beginning. I know many singers who’ve created amazing albums that received no attention because of poor marketing campaigns, and complete lack of attention to branding. So I purposely spent more on marketing than the album itself. I created an EPK (electronic press kit), which is partly a music video and partly a video biography, and I hired videographers known for their work with rappers and R&B singers to make it feel different from anything in classical music. If you’d like to check it out, here is the link.
Making this was a wild ride from start to finish, and all of us involved had such a good time that we were laughing through most of it. I loved what my collaborators put together. It was edgy, sexy, and somehow managed to capture most of my crazy personality. Because they wanted to do something vastly different from the norm, my new friends went above and beyond what my budget could pay for. I was the first classical musician with whom they worked, but I shouldn’t be the last.
If you want proof of how my collaborators extended themselves, you’ll find a supermodel named Billy Roache in my video — and I didn’t pay a dime to have him there. He was friends with the director, who told me that he loved what I was doing and wanted to provide as many extras as possible to ensure my success. Even though that was pretty high up on my list of perks for video shoot day, what absolutely topped the list was the comments from the makeup artist and stylist on set, who said things like, “I never liked classical music until today. Thank you for opening my eyes to something new.”
When I sang live along to the track, their eyes were like saucers. Both of them told me that they’d never heard an opera singer in such an intimate setting. It’s so much cooler when you get to experience it up close (instead of via CD or in a huge concert hall). That’s a large part of what I believe to be my purpose, and these comments let me know that I was heading down the correct path.
I also believed the my photos should be a big piece of the puzzle, so I flew in Raquita Henderson of Pinxit Photography, a great friend and amazing photographer, to make me look my best. She brought the heat during an all-day photo shoot, which gave me three looks, one of which included me naked (definitely not what I thought would happen to me as a classical artist, but I had too much fun!). Another look was basically dominatrix meets opera diva, and the third look was more mature, and also more demure.
First stage of Lust: youthful, naïve and carefree!
Second, or vengeful stage of lust. I’m dangerous, angry, but occasionally fun.
Third stage: Mature Lust. Calm, magnetic, but still dangerous.
After I finished the CD, I needed to make it available. This is when I put it on iTunes and Spotify.
Next I realized it was time to plan for the future. How do I make this already fun project profitable? I’m not just aiming for a little bit of pocket change. I want a sustainable career in music that doesn’t require being on the road 26 weeks out of the year. In order to make that happen, I decided to crowdfund my project using Kickstarter. That, I hoped, would give me a lot of attention, and also funding, for my first tour.
I used Facebook and Twitter quite a bit to create buzz, and have found that showing progress in my work gives people an incentive to give. People like to believe they’re investing in something that will succeed. Buzz, however, doesn’t always translate directly into financial support, and I found that frustrating at first.
What provided the greatest return, by far, was contacting people I’ve known over the years, through performances and friendships, and reminding them (seriously) to give. We’re competing for their attention, and focusing on supporting an artist does not fall into most people’s top 10 to-do list. The good news is we made — and exceeded — our funding goal of $15k! Now I’m in the process of designing the tour, and loving every minute of it. In future posts, I’ll definitely provide you with an update on the lessons I’ve learned from this. I can tell you now that I’m relying on the expertise of friends and loved ones to handle areas where I’m weakest (logistics, for example).
Which brings me to something coming up next month. With the help of my incredible team, I’ve firmed up the date for my first of two CD release parties, and if you’re in the Washington, DC area, I’d love to have you there! Details are as follows:
Saturday, August 17, 7:30-9:30 p.m. (performance), 9:30 until you can’t hang any longer (afterparty)
One Lounge, near Dupont Circle, at 1606 20th Street NW
Tickets are $25 now, and $32 after Aug. 2. Click here to buy them.
One lustful libation will be provided as part of your ticket, and the good folks at One Lounge will have a full dinner menu available for your enjoyment.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this. Please feel free to send feedback, either by commenting on the blog, or by email directly to me.
[One more word from Greg: I hope you'll feel, as I do, that Marlissa's album shows a distinctive choice of music. This isn't any kind of standard flirtatious/sexy/bad girl opera collection. In fact — something notable, since Marlissa bills herself as an opera singer — there's only one opera aria on it (and that one first of all a drop-dead perfect embodiment of yearning young lust, and, second, just perfect for Marlissa's voice, as are the two most popular pieces on the album, the two from Carmina Burana). So to me, even if Marlissa doesn't say much about this, the album shows an inquiring musical mind, which deepens the entrepreneurial flash of its promotion.]