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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

Have It All, Lose It All, Part VI

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

Click for Part I.

Click for Part II.

Click for Part III.

Click for Part IV.

Click for Part V.

I returned to my cabin after rehearsal, to find a note stuck in my name plate.

How nice! Someone's finally including me!

Lately, everyone in the cast had been receiving prank notes from an anonymous fan, who clearly was involved in our department enough to reference goings-on behind the scenes of our shows. But no one could figure out who it was. Everyone was receiving notes on their name plates, written in the same handwriting that nobody could identify -- except me. I never got any notes. That placed me under suspicion, but not even I understood all the references made in the messages. I just knew I was the only one not receiving them -- until now! I eagerly unfolded it, and deciphered the penmanship to read:

"Hey Jess, where's Caroline? [heart]"

Depressing. But funny. I'd hardly gotten to know anyone beyond a superficial level, so it's not like I could've expected anything more personal. But one thing people did know was that the Artistic Associate Caroline, who'd been sent to the ship to help me get installed in the shows I'd just learned, was slipping into mental illness and attaching herself to my hip. She ceased acting like a rational boss, and had become obsessed with me.

Fussing over the shoes I wore ashore, fixing the bobby pins holding wigs to my head, wearing my costumes, asking me to join her for dinner in the formal dining room -- just the two of us, relying on me to teach her how to use her computer, calling my cabin at all hours. It was total insanity. My patience was wearing thin, and finally my colleagues noticed I didn't care for that treatment, and sympathized. That's all they knew about me, but it seemed enough to finally include me in the prank. It was nice they could tell I needed some oxygen.

So, where is Caroline? Undoubtedly riding my ass, or searching for me high and low.

I brought the note to our next rehearsal, and everyone eagerly passed it around. The group laughed heartily, until Caroline showed up and everyone muffled their voices.

The next afternoon, we had our start-of-the-cruise meeting, where we were debriefed on the schedule, and met the guest entertainers who embarked the day before. Everyone introduced themselves in turn, and we encountered a Welshman with a booming voice.

"Hello, I'm Llyn Aeron Nye, operatic bass-baritone."

Our cruise director Mike furrowed his brow. We'd already had two guest entertainers introduce themselves. We never had more than two aboard at a time. And this guy's name wasn't on the list.

"Yes, there seems to have been a miscommunication somewhere," Llyn replied. "They weren't expecting me at check-in yesterday either. But luckily I brought a copy of my contract..."

Mike looked it over and apologized profusely. "I'm going to revamp the schedule with the hotel director immediately, and squeeze you in at least once. Again, I don't know how this happened but I am so sorry."

Llyn's show was scheduled for the next night. Since our theater was so small, the ship offered two performances a night so everyone aboard had a chance to see it while comfortably seated. Their solution for our bass-baritone was to cancel the second performance of the cast's show, and replace it with Llyn's. That meant the band had to make time to rehearse with him during the day, on top of their normal duties.

Everyone felt bitter about the whole thing. Llyn had been flown to Asia from Whales to be forgotten about, but have one show squeezed in like an afterthought. The band was being cheated of their break. The theater tech staff couldn't work on the new shows but instead had to design lighting and sound for the unexpected show. And the production team for the new shows lost their rehearsal space.

I snuck into my dressing room to repair some wigs, with the intent to listen in on the rehearsal. I wanted to know how an opera singer approached creating a guest entertainer show -- because I wanted to be doing that as the next step in my career.

I managed to ditch Caroline to see Llyn's show that night, after my performance was done. He opened with a few golden-era Broadway songs, then asked the audience if anyone enjoyed the opera.

The room gave a few timid claps, and there was an awkward rustle moving through the audience.

Come on, people! A night at the opera is only the greatest thing in the world! Aren't you lavishly wealthy enough to know that??

Determined to give Llyn a good audience after everything he'd already gone through, I shrieked, "Yesssss!" which was plainly heard throughout the house. It got a laugh.

"My, that was enthusiastic," Llyn responded grandly over the mic. "Tell me, are you a soprano, madam?"

He squinted through the spotlight but couldn't determine who'd said it.

"Yessss!" I repeated.

It got another laugh, and the show continued, with the audience having loosened up.

Clint Owens turned around to give me a nod of approval, he was seated one row in front of me. I knew him from my previous cruise line -- he was an internationally known Australian jazz violinist, who was one of the scheduled guest entertainers on this voyage. He used to be gig partners with the concert pianist I was romantically involved with at the time (read about him here), and who I was planning to visit in Sydney during my first paid vacation. Clint and my pianist hadn't parted on good terms, so I was always walking on eggshells with him. On my last ship, Clint had heard I was his ex-partner's girl, and was eager to do anything sensational that would make it back to my concert pianist's ears. Clint found out I was also a fiddle player, and asked me to join him for "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" in his show -- and staged a fake kiss at the end. The audience didn't like it -- they had just seen me produce a show with my pianist that same voyage, and they knew we were an item. They didn't appreciate Clint disrespecting that, and it backfired.

So Clint was keeping his distance and focusing his perverted attention elsewhere. Yet he'd been working on this cruise line for years and knew everyone well -- he could tell there was some tension involving me, and to his credit, he was being respectful and supportive. He even came up to me at the end of the Broadway show, during the cast's meet and greet with the audience, to congratulate me and only me, after I'd had a difficult rehearsal day at the hands of the production team.

"Nice," he whispered between Llyn's fronting. He understood the gesture I made on Llyn's behalf, to prime the audience, more than anyone.

Behavioral improvements aside, I very much didn't want to get stuck chatting with Clint at the end of Llyn's show, lest I divulge something personal about my concert pianist's life, and I bolted to shake Llyn's hand in the lobby.

I let the guests make their congratulations first, then introduced myself. (He likely didn't recognize me from the meeting, since I now had stage makeup on.)

"Ah, so it was you who was the soprano..." he surmised.

He was a huge barreling man, extroverted and verbose -- and relieved to be able to have a conversation deeper than superficial about his career. He was so upset that his agent hadn't notified him his contract had been cancelled. He'd planned on performing two shows, but instead was granted only one. At least he'd still get paid in full, his agent should see to that, but now he'd be on the ship for five more days with nothing to do.

"I have an idea..." I began. "What if we put something together and perform it in the lobby? The acoustics are decent and the piano is nice, and I know Sean, the pianist, would be thrilled to do it."

"How could we get approval?"

"You would have to ask the cruise director. Given how you've been treated, it may be a way for them to get what they paid for, and for you to not be bored."

"Alright, I'll give it a try," he said.

The next day I got a phone call saying the performance in the lobby had been approved!

"What shall we sing together?" asked Llyn.

"How about 'La ci darem', Don Giovanni?"

"That's higher than my usual repertoire but I'm sure I can manage."

News of me sitting in with a guest entertainer seemed to distress Caroline -- it would take away from the time for which she'd try to schedule one-on-one rehearsals, and it was a performance she didn't have any jurisdiction over. Rehearsal and showtime with Llyn didn't subtract from any previously scheduled rehearsals for anything else, so I refused to feel guilty about it.

"Oh, and Jessika," she added as the conversation was concluding. "I've been meaning to ask you: did you know anyone named Samantha Futtle from your last cruise company?"

"I've never heard of her, why?"

"She just submitted materials, applying for the position of Female Vocalist. I wondered if she was any good?"

"I couldn't say either way."

Huh, I thought. I knew audition submissions for this company were done only through snail mail -- no electronic submissions accepted. So if Caroline had been sent someone's audition package, it must've been because the shoreside production team was considering new talent, and needed to get everyone's opinion on the demos. But why? All four Female Vocalist positions were filled. Who's job was in danger, and why? Would Caroline have accidentally let it slip if it meant my job were in danger? Probably not, unless she was losing her mind more than I thought...

The day of the performance with Llyn arrived. I cleaned up after rehearsal and put on a shimmery, slinky cocktail dress. I'd sung that duet dozens of times, with many Giovanni's, so I was used to modifying my acting to suit each new baritone.

It was a home run! The cruise director called me into his office the next day.

"Jessika, that was sensational!" Mike gushed. "You looked beautiful and sounded divine, and the audience raved about it! What a wonderful idea!"

"Thank you! I used to do stuff like that on my last ship all the time, it was so much fun."

"I know you've not had the best contract with us, and the company should accept full responsibility for that, but you completely came out of your shell and blossomed. Would you like to do your own performance in the lobby next cruise? Maybe 30 minutes long?"

"Absolutely, I'd love that!"

"Why don't we call it 'Classics in the Cove: An Afternoon with Jessika Brust'?"

"However you'd like to sell it."

I informed our resident pianist, Sean. He was delighted too -- he'd just graduated with a master's in collaborative piano and confessed that he missed playing classical.

We met in the empty lounge after shows to rehearse for our mini-recital, sometimes putting on costumes to pretend to be in dress code so we didn't get reprimanded -- most pianos were in guest areas so we had to don appropriate attire.

It was some of the most fun I had that contract, to work on an art form my castmates couldn't begin to appreciate. Not that I wanted to exclude them -- art should always be inclusive -- but I was feeling inferior from their words and actions. I wasn't a flawless dancer, they believed singing to be easy and didn't understand why they couldn't hear me, I needed to lose weight, it would do wonders to prove my devotion to the job if I attended yoga with them...

No -- they got me wrong. I'm a highly specialized trained professional. The muscle I rely on to earn income is smaller than the nail on your pinkie finger, yet if used properly, could last my whole life. Like my dancer colleagues, I'd focused my entire lifestyle around practicing my craft for a living, and by doing a classical set they could no longer doubt it -- even though they didn't understand it and certainly didn't enjoy it.

Rehearsals carried on for the new shows, and lately began with the cast trading notes from our anonymous admirer.

"Nancy, when are you planning to marry Dylan?"

"Heather, when are you going to stop sucking at being Lavra's swing?"

"So which is it, David? Boys or girls? [wink emoji]"

"Jess, could you stop removing your tracking device so Caroline can find you at all times?"

"OK everyone," our choreographer reined us in. "After reviewing the group numbers, I only need to keep the people who are in the tango number. And that's Orynko, Marynia, the swings, and Jessika."

It was the first time I was rehearsing this outside of my cabin -- I'd been given no staging while the dancers' part was being developed. I was excited to be the one singing the tango, since Argentine tango was (and is) my religion, but I was apprehensive -- I had a feeling it was going to be more international ballroom tango and less Argentine tango, despite the fact that it was referred to as "Argentine". Not all tango is from Buenos Aires.

I was placed on a platform with my mic stand, upstage left. Orynko and Marynia were moving around the entirety of the stage and I needed to be out of the way.

The rehearsal recording began -- Shirley Bassey's "Big Spender". I'd wondered how they were going to create an authentic tango to that, but had been keeping an open mind.

It wasn't authentic -- not even slightly.

The dancers stomped around the stage like Russian Siamese twins. Where was the connection? Why were their feet losing contact with the floor with every step? Why were their knees bent? Where was their turnout? Why were their faces turned to their left and not facing the axis of connection? Because it was the European white-washed version of tango, as danced in the ballroom world -- that's why. It wasn't the sensual, intimate, authentic tango from the brothels of Buenos Aires. And it was their perception of tango, not the tango grown from years of devoted study and customized technique.

Orynko and Marynia were a magnificent adage couple, and this number wasn't doing their skill any favors either.

It made me physically ill. They all knew I went to milongas (traditional Argentine tango dances) every time the ship had an overnight in port -- yet I did not dare make any suggestions. I was a singer who still made errors in her own choreography -- what did I know?

How to dance an improvised, close-embraced authentic tango through an almost psychic connection with my lead -- that's what I know. They didn't even know what a milonga was.

"Jessika, could you sing this with more...desire?" the choreographer interrupted my mental fuming.

"Sure," I responded. There was no possible way I could explain to her what I was struggling with. It would be perceived as disrespectful and aggressive.

Desire my ass, I thought. Desire to teach you people how to not bastardize my religion.

After another run, where we practiced making our entrances and exits at the bookends of the number, the choreographer said, "Could you sing it like you're into it?"

"Certainly," I replied. When I'm not lip-synching to Shirley Bassey's recording, I thought. I always perform everything full out, why don't you trust me to do my job? You hired me because you saw me do just that. I'm not going to sing all-out while competing with a recording and don't have a microphone -- I have more rehearsal after this and two shows to sing tonight.

But if this company didn't see it at rehearsal, they were blind to it if it did happen during a live show. Unless it was an error.

I averted my eyes from the butchered tango and did my best to focus on creating motivated movement during my park-n-bark blocking.

The afternoon of "Classics in the Cove" finally arrived! My colleagues sent their unenthusiastic well-wishes and made excuses as to why they couldn't make it. I didn't care. I wasn't doing it for them -- I was doing it to feel like myself again, and to prove that I could deliver entertainment that wasn't canned.

I dressed in my self-designed, custom-made, orange satin gown with a train, and hid near the shore concierge office. When Sean played the intro to "Quando m'en vo", I made my appearance.

The lobby was packed like sardines, with at least half a dozen officers mixed among the passengers. Every seat was taken, and there were about as many people standing as seated. The audience was responsive, attentive, flirtatious, and eager. They hung onto every note, and generously showed appreciation for Sean.

Caroline sat front and center, and watched in genuine awe. She often sung along with my parts in the production shows , but singing along with opera is not something you can fake, even if you know the melody. She leaned forward, jaw on her chest, projecting an aura of supportive, appreciative energy, like she had while we were rehearsing back in LA -- before she lost her mind on the ship. Caroline and I had been so close on land -- why did things have to fall apart? She had once said she'd proudly claim me as her daughter, when a stranger had asked if we were related. But now, I couldn't do anything right, yet she couldn't live without me.

Why didn't you let us help you adjust to ship life? I wondered sadly as I made eye contact with her during my aria.

What I would choose to do with my career (were lack of money not an obstacle) was far more technical than anything this ship gig would ever require -- why had she and the rest of the company stopped trusting that I would put in the necessary work? I'll be an over-achiever until it kills me, and there has never been a scrap of evidence to suggest otherwise. While rehearsing more than anyone else in the company, I was simultaneously producing a custom recital for the ship. How else could I prove myself?

Classics in the Cove was another home run. Mike suggested that after I returned from vacation, so long as he was also not on vacation, that I should repeat the performance every voyage. He also said he would suggest to the ship's other cruise director that he could schedule it in Mike's absence.

At our pre-show rehearsal the next day, there was another batch of secret admirer notes to compare. The prank was beginning to wear on some nerves.

"WHO is DOING this?" wailed our male vocalist.

"The jokes are more and more personal every time," our ballerina said. "Talking about my new boyfriend?!"

Everyone searched the faces of everyone else for a trace of guilt.

Heather, our Aussie swing singer/dancer, let out a giggle.

"All RIGHT! It was me. Me and James," she exclaimed. "Everyone's been so miserable and we just wanted to make people smile!"

The cast let out a uniform groan, and I caught Heather's eye. They generally didn't respond to her type of humor. We exchanged a glance and a knowing smirk.

Like me, Heather was also having a difficult time working for this company. She was a magnificent power-house performer, and she knew every dancer and singer/dancer track for women on this ship. On stage, she was alert, engaging, and always expressive. She sang well and was an absolute boss of an actress. All eyes in the audience, by default, were drawn to her because she was mesmerizing.

So why did she get flak? Because according to the shoreside production team, she had a "chubby belly". Which was entirely untrue. Her torso was shaped differently because she had a rib cage proportionately large for her petite frame. There was no fat on her body.

This feedback sent her obsessively to the gym, and kept her aggressively from eating. I have no idea how she had enough energy to sleep, let alone memorize everyone's tracks and be ready for when someone came back from vacation to jump into a new role -- and do this for the two new shows we were learning as well.

"Bryce wanted to start scheduling weigh-ins," Amy, everyone's favorite Artistic Associate, stated over dinner one night. We had snuck out to eat, just me, her, the costumer, and one of the new dancers. "But I put my foot down and told him NO. We cannot promote eating disorders in our cast, that is fatal! To the dancers and to the company."

"Every body type is different," the new dancer shook her head at what she was hearing. "Bones are not the same density in everyone, someone may be more muscular...and the majority of our guests have no right to critique or complain about anybody's figure --" we all snickered "--and neither does Bryce!"

We all nodded. Overweight middle-aged men deciding how a young professional, working athlete should look and how much they should weigh, based off guest complaints? Absurd.

This mentality trickled down from the top and dominated the entertainment department, and landed squarely on Heather's shoulders. My weight was tolerated because I was a vocalist, and with relentless rehearsals, I was visibly becoming more tone. Progress was being made so that was acceptable. But Heather had to wear Vegas showgirl costumes and a spandex cat suit, and was talked about mercilessly, unjustly. It crushed her spirit and isolated her from the rest of the cast. Progress wasn't visible on her, but she really had no weight to lose. She barely weighed 100 pounds.

In that one glance Heather and I shared, after she'd confessed to being the mastermind behind the secret admirer prank, we realized for the first time that we had our isolation in common. Later that night, she had that particular performance off, and instead watched from the audience.

When the show was done, she came backstage and approached me at my dressing station.

"You did so well," she said.

It caught me off guard and I stared blankly, blinking my false eyelashes in confusion, under my hair tightly glued to my scalp. I never got positive feedback from anyone in the cast.

"It's not at all fair the way they treat you," Heather continued. "You move just fine, and you sound fantastic. I really don't know what all the fuss is about. You belong here. And I look forward to working with you more next contract."

"Thank you," I stammered.

"You come alive on stage, you look beautiful."

"Yeah, I have to pace myself during rehearsals because they never end. I have to have something left for the shows," I answered.

"Yeah -- that doesn't fly in this company," she snorted.

"For the record, you're my favorite dancer to watch," I said. "You're the only female performer who remains engaged with the show, who stays in character. The rest wear blank expressions, and forget to lip-synch to the backup vocals half the time. You're always catering to the audience, and interactive with the people you're on stage with."

"Thank you," she said. Now she seemed confused.

"And you look gorgeous in those costumes," I added. "You have legs for DAYS."

She looked down and repeated "thank you" in disbelief. "It's nice to know there's someone on this ship who's grounded in reality," she said.

"Yeah. Same."

You ready for more yet? Click for Part VII. #thankyouLinManuelMiranda

Click for Part VIII.

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