The music world is full of fascinating people — but in more than three decades of writing about music, I've never met anyone quite...
The music world is full of fascinating people — but in more than three decades of writing about music, I’ve never met anyone quite like Hope Wechkin.
What makes her unique? This weekend, she will premiere her one-woman show “Charisma,” in which she composed the music, and will act, sing and play the violin simultaneously. Along the way she also plays the mandolin and several percussion instruments. Her show is about a seriously ill woman whose hospital visitors all bear different kinds of advice (much of it comic) for her recovery.
Wechkin knows this scenario well; she also is Dr. Hope Wechkin — a full-time physician who is medical director of Evergreen Hospice and Palliative Care and who also teaches fourth-year medical students at the UW.
Ask most violinists, and they’ll tell you it’s hard to imagine singing and playing at once. Ask most singers, and they’ll say it’s hard enough singing without simultaneously trying to hold a violin under your chin and a bow in your hand. Everyone wonders how the 39-year-old Wechkin (pronounced “wetch-kin”) does it, but after hearing one of her rehearsals, I no longer wonder.
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She does it full-bore, all-out, utterly unselfconsciously, with a strong, soaring soprano and substantial violin-performance skills. This is the woman who started out as a Suzuki violin kid at age 4 in upstate New York and grew up in music. She graduated from Yale University, where — among other wide-ranging studies — she ended up conducting the Yale Slavic Chorus.
“After I graduated, I got on a Greyhound bus. It was $66 to go anywhere in the country, and I have a brother living here, so I decided to visit. I didn’t yet know what I’d do when I grew up,” Wechkin says.
She worked as an environmental analyst, started taking voice lessons with Thomasa Eckert and began getting interested in medicine — particularly the mind-body connection.
“I thought there was a need for physicians who had a different perspective from those who had been on the pre-med path since early childhood,” explains Wechkin, who had taken pre-med classes at Bellevue Community College and the University of Washington.
After med school at the UW and a residency at Providence, she continued studying voice, which Wechkin calls “my window into understanding how the mind affects the body.” She also competed in the Metropolitan Opera auditions, and after working in a community health clinic, established her own medical practice in what Wechkin describes as “a one-room schoolhouse approach” as a family doctor.
It was about three years ago that Wechkin met Peggy Shafer, who is the writer of the upcoming one-woman show. Shafer, another multitalent (she’s a psychotherapist and a published poet), shared Wechkin’s tastes in music and literature.
“We started kicking around ideas for a show,” Wechkin remembers. “I wondered what it would be like to do something very simple and pared down. What can one person do without a lot of overhead, without bells and whistles, and take it around to different places? The themes started to come together.”
At the same time, Wechkin was getting more involved in end-of-life care and palliative medicine, a specialty that she describes as “jumping off the medical train, in terminal cases such as end-stage dementia, cardiac disease and cancer. We evaluate on an individual basis what makes sense for each patient. Instead of telling the body what to do, in terms of routinely ordering tests and procedures and treatment, we let the body tell us.”
Isn’t it depressing, working with terminal patients? Wechkin leans forward on her desk with a real sparkle in her eyes: “I think I have stumbled on a gem in health care. The end of life puts everything in focus, and the important things rise to the surface.
“It’s inspiring, not depressing. I work with an incredible band of nurses, social workers and other providers. People hear the phrase ‘end of life,’ and they think ‘end.’ But I think ‘life.’ “
Wechkin’s experiences have shaped “Charisma,” whose main character and narrator is a woman Wechkin’s age who is seriously ill with the autoimmune disease of lupus — Wechkin explains this as the body in conflict with itself. The nameless patient spends the duration of the play in or near her hospital bed and has a host of visitors, all full of ideas about what she should do next.
Wechkin was influenced by Lily Tomlin’s shows, in which Tomlin transforms herself into one character after another onstage. For “Charisma,” Wechkin assumes the personae of a dozen characters by slipping into a different pair of shoes arrayed beneath the set’s hospital bed. A pair of men’s oxfords and a stethoscope, and she is the egotistical doctor (“Nearing forty/ Nothing wrong with my aorty”); a pair of high-heeled pumps, and she’s the patient’s diet-obsessed aunt, who wonders if the patient is thin enough. A pair of fuzzy pink slippers and a mandolin, and she’s the demented lady, who wanders into the room in a sea of endearingly confused anecdotes.
Wearing a hospital gown (done up securely in the back), Wechkin sings and plays the violin, and you’re struck by how similar the timbres are: This is a duet on two equal instruments. When she plays double-stops, it’s a trio of equals, interrupted by vocal flights back and forth from low to high register, or by sudden flights of fancy on the violin. The music isn’t easy; Wechkin’s voice travels over nearly three octaves in singing of all-out abandon.
“Charisma” lasts about an hour and 45 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission, and it’s about half music, half spoken voice; there are 12 songs throughout, each representing the characters.
“Cathy Madden, my director, came up with incredibly creative ways to help suspend disbelief in this show,” Wechkin says. “And I’ve been a voice student of Nancy Zylstra for the past three years; she has a very refined and sophisticated understanding of how the voice works.”
A great believer in the power of music, Wechkin says it can “reach beyond words and beyond medicine.” She sometimes brings her violin into the hospice (Evergreen, in Kirkland, is the only inpatient hospice in the region) and plays for patients, watching the effect of music on the body’s different systems and seeing the pleasure the patients feel in what they hear.
“I want musicians to know about this,” she says. “You can get so battered down by the music profession. But I feel the real work is playing not where it is a competition or a job, but where it is transformative, and you can see how it transforms lives.”
Melinda Bargreen: firstname.lastname@example.org