Toronto, 1998 - 2000
I started to pick locks nine months after I moved to Toronto. If I wanted to be an opera singer I needed a space to sing. So, as often as I could, I’d break into the practice rooms at the Faculty of Music.
Previously, I’d rented a practice space at a church. The church also hosted a soup kitchen in the basement. Sometimes men would wander up to the 2nd floor where I was practicing and stare through the window at me. And sometimes they would try to get in. When I complained to a baritone friend of mine, he told me that all I needed was a barrette.
“Just wiggle it in the lock of the door,” he said, “Everybody does it.”
So, the day before the most important audition of my life for Vancouver Opera, there I was picking the lock again. I got in, sang, and got out. I thought I was going to the airport after that but instead I was slamming my phone down over and over. My mother had left a message. She was now due to arrive at the airport after midnight. I grabbed her bags to prevent myself from choking her. Needless to say. I didn’t sleep a wink. The next morning at the audition, I joked around to distract them from my clenched high notes.
Anyhoo, the first time I picked locks, as I stood at the door leading to the practice rooms at the Faculty of Music, I was worried I’d get caught. Not because I was afraid of going to jail, but my teacher taught there. What would she think? What if she kicked me out of her studio? I shoved my barrette into the lock. After an agonizing ten seconds of barrette-wiggling, I heard a click. I waited another ten seconds for the cops to show up. The coast was clear so I dashed into a room and covered the window of the door with my jacket. I stopped feeling guilty because most of the rooms were still empty when I left. Afterward, I walked to my shift at Gap Kids on Bloor Street, the place for people who didn’t look at price tags. On any given day, a celebrity staying at the five-star hotel down the street could walk through the door. On one occasion a man came in with two women dressed in silk headscarves, dripping in jewels, and a handful of kids who proceeded to destroy my carefully folded piles of t-shirts. They bought multiple sizes of almost everything in the store to make up for the mess.
I stood at the cash desk and folded each t-shirt around an eight by ten plexi-board. While my pile was perfect, my folding-instead-of-singing situation was not. I needed to meet people. But it was 1998. There was no social media. I wasn’t in school, and I was working forty hours of retail each week. One day, during a shift at Gap Kids, a customer I saw all the time asked what else I did. I told her I was training to be an opera singer, "Can’t you tell?” I laughed as I did a Vanna White whirl around the store. She dug into her purse. “I’m the chief editor of Opera Canada,” she said as she handed me her card, “Let me know when you’re performing next.” Did the artistic director of the Opera Company shop here too? Was a talent agent hiding behind the sock display?
On another shift, the phone rang and I picked it up. It was Vancouver Opera. They were looking for me. Turns out, their music director, Carol, remembered the audition that I thought I’d bombed the morning after my mother’s grand entrance. She was in Toronto and needed a few extra singers for a recording. It paid nine hundred dollars for three hours of singing. That’s a lot of money now, let alone 1999. I blurted, “Yes!” Then I asked how they found me at the store. “Carol remembered you from your last audition and your jokes about being The Girl at the Gap.”
At some point, I stopped being the Girl who Picked Locks and layered on some new identities: New Apartment Girl with a Piano, Church Soloist Girl, Tafelmusik Consort Girl, and Just Landed My First European Gig Girl. I still lived on cereal and dinners in Scarborough with my Aunt. But then, one day, I met an opera star. She was also the woman who would eventually help me choose the tattoo on my butt. And my husband. She first appeared at my cash register holding a pair of boys' overalls. I knew her. Who was she? There was a music score peeking out of her buttery leather bag. “You’re a musician,” I said. “Yes, I’m an Opera singer,” she said. I stared at her. “I want to be an opera singer. Who are you?” I asked. She told me her name. “Oh my God, I want to be you!” I apologized to my boss for screaming at a customer. A customer who also happened to be the quintessential Carmen on Opera stages around the world.
I was equal parts fearful and fearless. I wish I could go back in time and tell that Girl at The Gap everything would be okay. I want to tell her to relax and not be so hard on herself.