Gail Whitmore - mezzo soprano, radio presenter, & karaoke champ

04-05-2004

In today's One on One Jan's guest is Gail Whitmore a mezzo soprano from New York, whose career that has taken her around Europe and eventually brought her to the Czech Republic. Here she's moved on to other things, like co-hosting her own English language radio show and recently clinching the title of national karaoke champion.

All are discussed in the interview, although Gail begins by describing how her passion for opera began.

"In New York I wanted to study Broadway music or rock or something like that and they started us of with Italian classical art songs and I was mortified! But I loved the language and the idea that we had to learn a different language every semester, so I was completely hooked. And that was it. I began studies in high school."

Where has your career in opera taken you since then?

"Not tremendously far! Because, I'm a mezzo soprano, so it takes longer for my voice to develop and, unfortunately as is my life, takes me longer to develop, so after high school and the conservatories went to university and studied privately, with that I did a lot of summer programmes. I did a Verdi festival, sang in the chorus of every Verdi opera he ever wrote - that's 28 of them - over seven years in Central Park and it made the Guinness Book of World Records. With a lot of groups, just lots of performances all over, Lincoln Centre, Carnegie Hall, and then I went to Italy and performed there but unfortunately in the opera world when you're young it's on a pay-to-sing basis, so, you either volunteer your time or you pay them for the honour of singing with their company!"

So, it's actually backwards. I can't even begin to imagine what that must be like!

"It's very frustrating because people are impressed 'Oh you've done this da-da-da...' and then they're like uh-huh! Because meanwhile you just have to work a slew of corporate jobs to just break even, and pay for your lessons."

What brought you to Prague?

"That... I personally believe was divine intervention: I was hired - get this - I found an ad through a trade magazine to sing with a Czechoslovak-American marionette theatre - I know, right after September 11th. I was hired to sing in it and I thought 'what the hell' and I was like, you know, okay. But they needed someone to sing in lots of languages. So I love that, went, did it, the show was phenomenal, the director was a genius, and after it was finished he asked me if I would like to sit in while he taught his daughter Czech, because she's 11 now and doesn't speak Czech. So, I thought 'Why not?' free lessons, why not, got nothin' else to do and I did that and it was really fun and then I saw that a Canadian opera company was touring the Czech Republic that summer (2002) performing Le Noce de Figaro. One of the roles in that I love to sing, so I said to myself "This is the year of Czechitude", if you will, so I applied, got it and came here. First we were in Karlovy Vary and Hradec Kralove and we were on our way to Prague when the floods happened, tour ended abruptly, everybody went home and I said 'I've been here a month, haven't seen Prague', came to Prague for four days and just never went home."

But you must have heard about Prague before coming here, the whole early 90s thing coined by Alan Levy "The Left Bank of the 90s". Do you find yourself comparing Prague to representations that were put forth by the media?

"To be honest I was completely oblivious to any of that. Didn't know a thing about it. When I think 'Prague' I think of my best friend from childhood who I met in kindergarten. She and her sister were born in Prague and raised in New York - they don't speak a lick of Czech and it's so funny to hear them try {little snicker-like giggle - they're gonna kill me! And so I spent so much time at their house with their parents shouting at each other in Czech I thought 'What is this?' you know, and never understood a thing. It's just completely bizarre now that I can talk to their parents in Czech and understand and it completely makes sense now! And, um, my fiend's mortified!"

Do you have any favourite Czech phrases?

"Fakt jo! Gotta be! But everybody loves 'fakt jo' but I recently adapted it to fakticky jo which I think is great, I say that for absolutely everything."

Fakt jo of course means "really"...

"Yes. Really?!"

"I think that's just..." {laughs}

What about the city itself and its people and culture and you haven't gone back...

"Yeah, honestly, I wish I could say something unique, but I don't think I really can. The place is just so beautiful and I love that. I love that Old World charm I just don't find in New York."

Since you've been here you've had kind of a unique opportunity - you host 3 E evenings on Radio Express...

"Yeah, 3 E: Express evenings in English. I co-host. Yes."

You co-host... now did you have any radio experience before and how are you finding it?

"Um, the only experience I had before was I guest-spotted on a few shows for ABC Radio in New York, just by happenstance, just by making friends who happened to have shows there and I'd go by the station to say 'What's up?' and they'd say 'Oooh-ooh come on the show, sing something!' so I'd say okay. That was my experience in radio. But, somehow by dumb luck I ended up getting this job and it's sooo much fun."

You're on the air 'live'?

"Live, two hours every night, Monday thru Friday. And, it's just incredible because there's no FCC here, so basically we can do what we want, say what we want. And we pretty much do, although we're respectful and we don't want to get fired, so...we can't say everything, but, we can rip on the music, rip on each other, rip on anything we can. It's just smart-ass fun, good-time. (pause) One thing that I really love about the show is that it's good to keep it real. And that's what I strive to do because I know that when I'm being entertained that I don't like it when they fake it, when they're like 'Oh, hey, welcome to another sunny day at...!' I'm like, hey, gimme a break, you can't be this happy all the time! And I'm not, so that sometimes when I go in I'll tell everyone 'hey, listen sorry, lost my keys today and I'm having a crappy day but I'm here with you, we're in this together and I do think the listeners appreciate that because I'm me. Except everyone's listening to me being me, for better or for worse."

This kind of radio obviously has a long tradition in the States and Canada, although in the last ten years it really has caught on here, stations like Limonadovy Joe and that kind of thing...

"Which is what my station used to be..."

Which is what your station used to be. Um, but what I wanted to ask was how much of your listenership is made up of ex-pats, from the States, from English-speaking countries? Because it must be difficult for some English-speaking Czechs to get the full gist, all the time.

"That's absolutely what I think. But, according to the phone calls and the mail we get, it's mostly Czechs! Which really surprised me. When I first joined the how, when it was two weeks into it, I thought 'Oh great, the only people who are going to listen to this are my friends'. And my friends don't listen! They either don't have a radio or they don't like me that much! I don't know which one it is... But, our winners of the contests of which we have many every week - they're Czech. And they say they listen to learn English: God help them! {laughs}. And I know they're not getting all the nuances, I mean Dr Bob doesn't even get half of what I come up with. You know, we both come up with some pretty esoteric humour. But, I think they know that we're having fun and they enjoy that. And they can always ask people or write to us and say 'What does this mean' or 'What was that?' and even native English speakers aren't gonna catch everything. It depends on where you grew up, what you were listening to. What your experience is."

Recently you took part in what were national championships in karaoke, is that true?

"Hee hee hee! Who knew something like that existed? But I'm so glad that it does!"

And, how well did you do?

"I won."

You won?

"I won. It was so much fun because truth be told karaoke is my favourite activity on the planet to do. I know a lot of people think it's not fair 'You sing opera, ta-da-da-da-da, but they're completely mutually exclusive. The training required for opera is just a completely different world than getting up on a stage when you're drinking and hammering out 'Scorpions'. It's really, really different, one has nothing to do with the other. I'm ecstatic: I'm going to Finland at the end of July to take part in the World Karaoke Championship and I'll be competing for the Czech Republic."

04-05-2004