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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

And I know things now...

The great Stephen Sondheim wrote:

"And I know things now, many valu'ble things that I hadn't known before.
Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood, they will not protect you the way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers, and though scary is exciting,
nice is diff'rent than good." - Little Red from Into the Woods

I've repeated those last 5 words to many groups of people -- young artists gathering for the first time, students in a rehearsal for the first time, also privately to many young singers or pianists, and at many dinner parties. Some, not all, understand the sentiment.

Nice is indeed diff'rent than Good! These words came to mind recently again when a person who I'm sure thinks of themselves as a good person was causing another person to suffer greatly. They did it nicely and that's why I think they thought they were still doing good. Nope, not good at all. So I sang the song to myself, yet again. This time though, I started to think about the words at the start of the verse...

Those other lines are as interesting to ponder as well.

So I'd like to write about faith and singing. Yes, truly!

Putting one's "faith in a cape and a hood" is a lot like putting faith in a person or a process. It's important to know if you are putting faith in the process itself, or in the person responsible for said process.

Too general and vague?  I should get more specific...

Shamar Rinpoche once described the "4 Ways of the Wise":

1) Depend on the teaching, not on the teacher.
2) Depend on the meaning and not on the words.
3) Depend on the depth and not on the surface.
4) Depend on wisdom and not concepts.

These are four ideas perfect for talking about singing and the process involved in learning to sing.

1) Depend on the teaching, not on the teacher.
So true -- how many singers head to a specific studio to study with a certain teacher only knowing their name and reputation, but nothing about their technique or pedagogical philosophy? Too many think something like "Well, so-and-so won a huge voice competition so that means their teacher MUST know what they're doing!" Yes?!

Well, sometimes yes; sometimes no. Learning to sing is about many things, it is certainly not about studying with someone famous, or someone a singer might think will be politically the better choice. Those ideas are about furthering one's career either at a school or out in the big professional world. If you are still in need of technique, then make sure you are focusing on the teaching, not the teacher. If your teacher's teaching isn't making a positive impact in your singing, or if your teacher's teaching is too long a process ("stay with me and I will get you onto the Met stage with 6 hard years of work"), or overshadowed by other issues, like personality conflicts or too much psychological mumbo-jumbo they're not qualified to give, take your money elsewhere.

The same could be said of institutions. Depend on the teaching happening within those walls, not just on the reputation of those walls.

2) Depend on the meaning and not on the words.
This one is harder to understand. You have to access your instincts here. You have to listen between the lines and watch things you can only hear. It's about digging deeper. Into yourself, your score, your voice, your imagination. It's about trusting your own curiosity to ponder intent.

What are the intentions of your coach? Your teacher? The composer? The librettist? What are they trying to say that perhaps they can't articulate with words. Or notes. Or pitches. There's meaning all around us, yet we latch on to words only, all too often. "Your vowels are too dark." "It's marked piano." "I think you're not right for Edgardo." "Your high notes will come when you're ready." "Think blue."

Don't trust those words. Look for the meaning behind them. Trust your instincts.

3) Depend on the depth and not on the surface.
This one's easy. Ponder an iceberg. It's surface is not at all what its full structure is. The superficiality of all of us is simply not what we are. Mozart is not all "I, IV, V chord progressions" as a colleague once described his music, nor is Menotti a bad composer (over-rated maybe...)

Diving deep into a score, into a libretto, into a character, into a design or concept -- this is what makes me happy to be living in this sea of opera. There's just SO MUCH DEPTH in opera! It never ceases to amaze me when someone says they "know" Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. Really? How is that possible? I've been living with that opera in my head since the 1980s and I wouldn't ever think I knew it! I'm still pondering the depths of Act 2. It'll keep my head spinning until I die, and that's just one part of one opera by one master composer. If you don't like uncertainty, if you want to know the answers, if not knowing something leaves you anxious or upset or feeling stupid, or if you think there are answers to be found by looking at those black dots on those millions of white pages, then please think about doing something else with your short life. Become a critic perhaps.

4) Depend on wisdom, not concepts.
Lots of concepts out there. Many are quite helpful. "Nice is different than good" is a concept. When I sing Little Red's aria from time to time, it reminds me to open my mind about situations not always being as they seem. Wisdom is, again, instinctual. What makes something wise as opposed to smart, witty, or a revelation? Wisdom is something you find, I think. It is all around us, but forgotten or temporarily invisible until our mind's eye ponders an idea and passes through the surface of the idea into a deeper understanding.

It's through a focused, and concerted effort to delve the depths of discovery that one can find wisdom. It is through understanding meaning and intention that one can begin to dive down below these surfaces all around us. These efforts teach us as much as any teacher could or can.

It's a palindromic effort, really. By going inward, one discovers an "undiscovered country" all around us.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Judging a Book by its Cover


A few personal stories about book covers:

Back in 2001, about a week or so after conducting Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Dallapiccola's  Il Prigioniero in Princeton, I found myself in Galesburg, Illinois working with my father-in-law who was ripping up a high school gym floor in preparation for laying a new basketball court.  It was an un-airconditioned gym and it was August. Hot and humid doesn't really even begin to describe the air.

Dressed in work boots, jeans, an "Opera Festival of New Jersey" baseball cap, and a white tee shirt now dirtied from sweat and the remnants of the floor I was sweeping up with not much success (the piles just seemed to reform every time I moved into a new section...) I was pretty miserable. I remember thinking at the time that even though I had just received some of the best reviews of my conducting career from the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, here I was getting callouses on my hands, smelling pretty rank, yet looking forward to downing at least a couple of ice cold beers once I got home.

I wasn't working for the money, I was really there to assist my father-in-law. During his work years he was one of just a few guys who knew how to "cut in" a basketball court by hand. If you know what that means, then you'll be impressed. If you don't, just know that you should be impressed.  He was also one of the hardest working people I'd ever met, the opposite of lazy.  Certainly when we talk about opera and how we "work" hard at it, there isn't really a comparison when someone like my father-in-law talks about "work".  My wife and I had left New Jersey and driven to Burlington, Iowa to spend time with family. It was her idea for me to offer to help out, so I reluctantly did thinking it'd be a good change from all that Hungarian opera swirling around my head.

My wife was happily back at her parent's home with our first son, who was barely two years old. We were trying for another, to be honest, and there is something to be said for manual labor making you feel like a potential progenitor, especially after downing an ice cold beer on a hot summer's afternoon. Perhaps that's just too much information...

This is an opera blog, I promise!

Anyway, I was busy sweeping the floor, getting dust and crap all over me, sweating in the 100+ degrees of heat when a woman walked into the gym to see how we were progressing with the job (I think she was the principal.) Before she got to speak to my father-in-law, she saw my baseball cap and a funny smile came upon her face. "You a fan?" she said to me. I had no idea what the hell she was talking about, so I think an unintelligible "huh?" escaped my lips. Looking at me with some sort of sad pity for my inability to articulate an answer, she spoke to me again - in a very slow tempo: "You. Like. The. Opera?!" And she smiled and pointed to my cap.

"Oh," the maestro confusedly said because his brain was melting in the heat and humidity, "yeah, I..." and then my father-in-law spoke up and said "he conducts opera!"

Silence and Wonder. Her smile faded as I took my baseball cap off (I was raised to take my hat off in the presence of a lady and she seemed like the type who'd appreciate the gesture) and said "Hi there, I'm the son-in-law" and held out my amazingly dirty hand, which she didn't shake because she was very confused.

"Really? Wow!" she literally exclaimed. And then she said something I'll never forget: "Judging by your appearance, I can't imagine that to be true."

Well, I was standing before her not looking like I'd looked when Martin Bernheimer of the Times (Financial, of course) wrote his thoughts about me: "He made much of Dallapiccola’s aching examination of torture by false hope, even more of Bartok’s epic essay in psychosexual angst.” (Truly, how many conductors get such a cool review using the word "psychosexual"?!) There I was the opposite of an artistic, flamboyant, tuxedoed opera maestro. In fact, I had visited the local barber upon arrival in Iowa and gotten my favorite summer haircut, a very severe high and tight flattop. This principal was looking at me with eyes that couldn't imagine me as a classical conductor. She said something about how the gym was progressing, gave me another quizzical look, and turned around. I guess the cover of my book was way too blue collar for her to imagine me in front of an orchestra and opera singers waving a baton.

I thought about this on the ride home, and I've thought about it quite often over the years -- why and how do so many people think there's a "look" to a conductor, or to an artist, or to us classical musicians in general? So often the only time they see us is when we are in gowns and tuxedos; all dressed up in 19th century finery for people who now attend the theatre in jeans, work boots, a tee shirt, and baseball caps. I've seen them. Our audiences' idea of dressing for attending a concert, recital, or opera has completely changed from even my time at The Juilliard School in the early 90s. Why haven't WE changed? Why don't we dress like our audience, for indeed that's why men wore tuxedos to play in the symphony -- because the men in the audience were dressed in tuxedos as well.  I purposefully broke from tradition by not forming a "look" that said Maestro with a capital "M". I found it all way too pretentious, and I was much more comfortable in a, for lack of a better phrase, working man's skin. Sadly, though, I wonder how many people cultivate a look or a persona that turns them into something that they can't own, or something they really can't identify with honestly. I suppose the same is true, to a lesser extent, in academia.

Just a thought.

Here's another:
The cover of the book entitled: "Sweeney Todd" says it's a musical. Yet can we just pause for a moment and think about the Sweeney productions being put on this year alone by opera companies? Here's a short list: Vancouver Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Hawaii Opera Theatre, Virginia Opera, Eugene Opera, and I'm sure I've missed a few! Yet lots of opera lovers won't call it an opera because it's not called an opera. How many of them call Die Zauberflöte an opera by mistake? Or Carmen? Or any of those wonderful operettas that people think are operas? In my book, any story told through music and singing is basically an opera, unless there's tap dancing; then it's a musical. Thinking this way makes the delineation pretty easy: Street Scene is a musical and A Little Night Music is an opera.  I tire of the ceaseless, petty discussions about what is what and which is which, to be honest. If it works in a theatre, sells tickets, and can be sung then I think it doesn't matter in the least. It's a new day kids, better get on this boat cause it's already sailed!

Here's another:
The cover of my face: Celebrating my 50th year of life, I decided to stop shaving and grow a beard from November 21, 2014 to November 21, 2015. This journey is referred to as a "yeard" by pogonophiles (beard lovers). I can not even begin to tell you how this has changed my life. It's not like I've never grown a beard or facial hair before. Just take a look at some of the pics on the right hand side of this blog and you'll see a number of different looks. I've blogged about them, actually. I think in today's world the perception of who you are is much stronger and more "real" than the reality of who you actually are.

When I'm out and about now wearing my sunglasses, jeans, and flannel shirts, I look like a hipster from Brooklyn. I know this, yet I'm in no way trying to emulate them. I actually resent the fact that I've come upon the glory that is bearding at the same time a whole bunch of skinny-jean wearing ironic hipster models have taken to marketing leather briefcases that cost thousands of dollars. I don't look like those models, though, cause I'm fat in comparison and my beard is rather white. I bring this up because strangers really assume things about me because of how I look. I've gotten so many questions about cars, about where to find a good tattoo artist (I have no ink cause I'm scared it'd get infected!), about where to buy drugs (a few have even asked me if I had any on me!), and the list goes on. I get asked if they can touch my beard (um, no), and on the flip side, I get lots and lots of compliments, free coffees, and a few free beers bought for me by total strangers telling me they "loved my stache" or some sort of compliment.

It's really cool to walk around at my age and feel completely new again. My face is very different with this beard and sometimes even I don't recognize myself in the mirror in the morning. I like this evolution to big grey-bearded guy whose age is hard to pin down now, but it's not who I am. I'm also the clean-shaven preppy frat boy, and the handlebar moustache dandy, and the bald by a razor dude who loves the shock value of a shaved head and an all black wardrobe. Come to think of it, how could I ever get a tattoo? It's permanent and that's one thing I'm not.

This playing around with my outward appearance goes hand-in-hand with my ever changing operatic career. Most of you will change careers, I certainly have. From pianist to coach to conductor to administrator to director, my career path makes total sense to me. I hate it when people box me in, or define me as just one or two of those bits. I'm all of those bits, and so are so many of us in the arts! Yet why is it important to define a young singer as this or that type of voice? Why is it important to tell a young musician to specialize in this or that type of music? Who are we to tell others what they are? Simply because you see me now with a big white beard doesn't mean that's who I am. Simply because I direct more operas than conduct them doesn't mean I'm one or the other, or that I should do one over the other.

A final example:
A wise old singer once told a master class gathering to remember that the singing heard that day was "just a snapshot" of the present moment. No matter how they might sing, it was just a snapshot, a representation of who they were right at that moment. If they were incredible, they might not be again, if they cracked on a high note it might not ever happen again. Their future was unwritten and they should take the comments given as something for the present. It was terrific advice! I give the same advice as often as I can when a singer is frustrated or feeling like they are lacking something technically. Imagine if you just decided however you were performing right now was your book? Would you print it and make copies? What would the cover read? I think it's not only important to NOT judge a book by its cover, but not print out our books as if they are fixed in ink on paper. Our lives, our artistry, our craft and technique are always evolving, always moving dynamically in so many directions. Try not to limit yourself by trying to define yourself so that you can fix your "self" in time and space (so that then you can judge yourself!)  The path to happiness and success is in another direction, in my humble opinion.

So this has turned into a longish blog, and a bit personal. I guess what's going through my brain right now is more about the future than the past. Where to go now? What new challenges might be ahead? How will opera's present trends move forward and create a future that my students and colleagues can be celebrated in and be successful in as well?

Too many great books out there, try not to just pick up the ones with covers that make you feel comfortable, or make you feel smart. Pick up the ones that make you crazy, confused, and especially the ones that challenge you to rethink the world you live or work in.

That'll keep you young, and that'll keep you from boxing yourself into a box of your own creation!


Friday, April 10, 2015

Singing in the Darkness

From time to time I think about how I started out in the opera business. I was very naive, very young, but certainly in love with the human voice, the art form, and all of the collaborative elements that poured into creating that operatic sonic thrill.

This happened in Indianola, Iowa. The home of Dr. Robert Larsen and his department of music at Simpson College and Des Moines Metro Opera, for which he was the founding artistic director. Dr. Larsen was an incredibly gifted pianist, an amazing director, an inspiring conductor, and a profoundly tireless professor, mentor, and leader.  We created opera in a very small department that was primarily populated by midwestern kids who'd never seen an opera, let alone knew how it was supposed to sound.  Because of this, we were free to sing it our way, free to make noises we thought were operatic, free to create art and characters (via texts in our own language - all of the opera was performed in English translations, or English operas by Britten and Menotti), free to express ourselves without the world looking on.  In a way, we were singing in a wonderful kind of darkness.

We didn't have a hyperawareness of the world's operatic landscape, unlike today where the light of opera can shine into every crevice of the internet. Working on Puccini's La bohème? There are hundreds of videos and recording to choose from just on Youtube. At Simpson, we had the Freni/Pavarotti LP recording. I loved listening to it when I was preparing to play Bohème for the first time (I was a Sophomore and had only played Hansel and Gretel plus a few scenes before heading into the listening library to take a listen to the whole opera.) I imitated what I heard and listened to my friends in the cast do their best with the challenging music (headed by remarkable singers - the Rodolfo, Mimi, and Musetta ended up working on the Lyric Opera of Chicago stage, as did a few of the younger choristers and myself years later!) It was a great weekend of Puccini; maybe a few hundred people saw it.

I do wish that young singers today had a chance to sing in the same sort of darkness; to be able to experiment, make sounds that don't work, fail sometimes - even in performances, but give it the ol' college try.  Nowadays so much importance is placed on each and every moment that I worry it straightjackets the artist part of the next generation of young singers' talent way too early. They get so worried about doing everything correctly, making no one upset at any of their choices (that thought never occurred to me, since I didn't know there were any "incorrect" choices except making Dr. Larsen unhappy by not knowing my music!), but especially, many are in a constant state of "fixing" something about their talent.

News Flash: Y'all ain't broken. There's nothing to "fix". You need chances to sing, to perform, to work out the wrinkles in your sound, or in your craft, or whatever combination of artisanal/artistic ingredients you need in order to move forward in your career paths.  Perhaps finding a place to work on these things, out of the way, or in non-traditional places/venues might be a better use of time and money? I'm not sure, but I do know that my time in the Indianola "darkness" was exceedingly enlightening, invigorating, and massively educational. I'm fond of saying that my years at Simpson gave me my 10,000 hours of opera, prepared me for doing what I do now professionally, and taught me more than most undergrad, graduate, and post-graduate programs combined.

Dr. Larsen is still living in Indianola, mostly retired I hear. I wonder if he really knows just how special his aesthetic was, how unique he and his students were?  I hope he does. He certainly was a shining operatic light for many. On a personal level, I think of Dr. Larsen as a kind of lighthouse sitting out on the shore of some operatic ocean. Whenever I'm a bit lost at sea, I remember back to those care free days when making music was just something that happened naturally and without very much effort. It reminds me that I can do anything - if I just relax, open the score, and begin.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Operatic Playground

Over the years I've come to realize two things:
1) I love rehearsing much more than watching performances.
2) I find that I know much less than I once thought. In fact, the longer I direct opera, coach singers, or teach, I find that the ratio of what I thought I knew to what I don't know opens up exponentially.

But recently (perhaps the last ten years or so), I've been working with, and running up against, all sorts who behave as if they actually know it all. Or at least they behave like they know quite a lot more than they actually do. (Just to be clear, I'm thinking about both professionals and students.)

Let me give you three examples:

Example Number 1: The pianist who believes they should be conducting opera even though they've played only a handful of operas and/or attended just a few professional opera productions in whatever city they're living in currently.

What makes this the #1 egregious example for me is that I believe it is a big part of the cause of the evaporation of the operatic landscape of North America (that's another blog...) It used to be that conductors learned the repertoire through years - YEARS - of experience playing staging rehearsals, playing voice lessons, coaching inexperienced singers, leading opera chorus rehearsals, playing dozens (if not hundreds) of scenes programs, and listening to live opera performances as often as possible. Nowadays, young pianists seem to feel entitled to not only large quantities of money (I did most of the above list for free during my years as a student, and then for peanuts in my twenties) but also think that their limited skill sets give them the right to talk their way into conducting opera at small, medium, or even large opera companies. I'm astounded by this trend, which I believe is connected to the youth obsessed symphonies hiring music directors who are so inexperienced they haven't conducted even a small percentage of the repertoire.

Example Number 2: The assistant director or stage manager who believes they should be directing opera after a few years of assisting one or two semi-famous directors.

This is a toss up with the pianist. Similar problems exist, except that a director actually needs no skill set to call themselves a director. They literally just say they are a stage director and, poof, they are a stage director. The problems an inexperienced director can cause are huge in number: insisting singers sing to each other (sideways) causing acoustic problems in big theatres when an orchestra starts to play; solely focusing on the text while ignoring the composer's music and musical intentions; not understanding the physical connection a singer needs in order to communicate with a conductor (and vice-versa); being disorganized and/or not knowing the repertoire well enough to project a staging schedule in order to keep people's time from being abused; I literally could just blog about this for days...

Example Number 3: The young singer who thinks they are pretty savvy having spent the last few years focused on opera so why should they be expected to sit around at a rehearsal and watch others' work? What could they possibly learn from a colleague's staging rehearsal? What would be the reason to sit in and listen to a colleague's coaching? Why should they spend the time sitting around during a part of the opera they are not even in? (God forbid someone might actually learn the entire opera as opposed to just their role!)

Here we go ---- There was a time, not too far back in the past, when us opera folk would actually go to rehearsals we were not called to in order to learn something.

That "something" is a -- SSHH -- it's a secret!

A big SECRET.

Us old timers seldom actually let others in on this secret, or what the secret actually is because, truth be told, we can't really articulate it in any way that won't sound like some old grey-bearded geezer going on: "In my day, we walked uphill both ways through a blizzard in order to learn our Mozart recitatives!"

But I will try to articulate why attending rehearsals, for young singers, young pianists, and young wanna-be directors/conductors is so very vitally important: Learning happens through Observation, Reflection, and Insight.

Observation: Most young people (and I'm not talking about just students, I'm talking about professional opera singers I've been working with recently) attending rehearsals no longer observe the rehearsal they are in. They arrive at their appointed time, take a seat, and open up their smart phone. Then when it's getting close, they start to pay attention to where the rehearsal process is in the opera, and then they pop up and take part. Once done, they usually go back to their seats and check to see what's trending. What these non-observers miss is, in a nutshell, THE POINT OF IT ALL. Opera is about collaboration, it's a totally collaborative process (not usually a democratic process, please don't confuse these two notions...) and one that is built on interpersonal relationships. Sometimes it's based on a look, a glance, a raised eyebrow, a lost cue from a conductor, a missed breath, a flubbed passage from the rehearsal pianist. It's a very elusive and hard-to-see process. One must be truly engaged in the room to really get what's going on. One has to put down their phones, their laptops, their books, and especially their opera scores (look at your scores in a practice room please) and observe: listen with your eyes and watch with your ears. Yes, I wrote that correctly.

Reflection: Why did the rehearsal work the way it did? What makes that baritone so damn good at taking staging? Why isn't the conductor hearing the soprano's vibrato and adjusting their tempi? Why does the director ignore the mezzo and berate the tenor? What makes the composer's harmonic choices work so well at certain dramatic moments but not others? What would I be doing if I were the singer/conductor/director? You can not reflect without first observing your present moments in front of you. Being ignorant of the present moments causes people to gossip and make rather ridiculous leaps of faith in our business.

Insight: This is the great result of spending time in a rehearsal observing and reflecting about the work, the process, and the people trying to collaborate in the room. It can lead you to achieve at a much higher level, can lead to greater understanding of a composer's other works, and will make you a better human being. Down the road, it will allow you to feel ownership of whatever you choose to do, be that teaching, performing, directing, or producing.

Every time I get myself into a rehearsal room I learn something new. Lots of somethings, actually. If I could impart any kind of wisdom onto the next generation, it would be to run to rehearsals with a renewed energy akin to a young child running onto a playground or jumping into a pool on a hot summer's day. This is our play time, this is our moment to connect with people who love what we love. It's our time to dive into the consciousness of the great composers and swim around in their amazing brains. It's a way of playing with eternity, really. What could possibly be more interesting on Facebook? What could possibly cause one to think that their time was being wasted by having to sit and watch an hour's worth of rehearsal? Our opera, the one we have chosen to live in, is never performed for anyone. It's an operatic, collaborative life that we are uniquely pursuing despite today's cultural, economic and social changes. Don't turn away from that life. Realize that the rehearsal process is an eternal, ongoing, never-ending "opera" that will always give back.

If you're wanting to conduct, that's great. Go for it. Start small and start humble. Make sure you spend the thousands of hours necessary to begin to understand the repertoire, singers, singing, orchestras, languages, style, and how to manage time and people. If you're wanting to direct, get to the opera houses and watch. Get into rehearsals and observe. Start directing scenes programs, create your own opportunities to work with singers and start collaborating with them. Avoid dictating your thoughts or thinking about the "piece". Think about the people involved in the creation of the piece: first and foremost the composer! If you're wanting to sing and perform opera, fabulous. Hie thee to a rehearsal, one that you are not even involved in at all. Ask to be a stage manager. Ask to be an assistant director. Play rehearsals. Listen to live singing in opera houses. Get to rehearsals early and put down your phone upon entering the room.

Oh -- and a few final thoughts: There's no way to know it all. It'll never happen. You'll never be ready either. So work hard in the practice room by yourself. Be prepared. Then rush into that wondrous operatic playground that is the rehearsal room and ENJOY!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

2014 Year In Review!

Writing these end of year reviews is a pleasure, as it gives me a chance to look back and wonder "how did it all happen so wonderfully?" It also allows me to, yet again, discover that my memories of past events are almost entirely positive. Do we remember the bad stuff nearly as much as the good? There are only a few negative memories (feelings rather) that stand out from 2014 and most of those are about traveling, my health, or a generalized feeling that a few too many things slipped through the cracks. The rest of the memories bring a smile to my face. I hope some of these bring a smile to those who helped make my memories in 2014!

January 2014
An entire month spent on one thing, and one thing only: Opera McGill's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. To say it was beautiful would be an understatement. The design team was astounding: Ginette's costumes hitting an all-time high; Florence's jaw-dropping makeup designs that created a monkey god Puck, a blue-boy, and gorgeous fairies and humans; Serge creating hundreds of light cues, including a moving full moon; Vincent's huge set (probably our biggest ever) with a centerpiece of a magical tree that haunts my memories of so many scenes. The casts were terrific and sang Britten's music and text like it was their own. The kicker was that I got to work with two friends -- Andrew Bisantz (funny, I started 2014 out with him and I'm ending 2014 with him) who was our fantastic maestro and Nicola Bowie who came in toward the end of the rehearsal period and choreographed a number of dances that really put a cap on the production. I think it may have been our strongest production yet and certainly set the bar high for future productions!

Here's Anne Kostalas' terrific video preview showing a bunch of snippets:
Midsummer Video

The tree and my fantastic casts and team:


February and March 2014
Opera McGill was busy preparing and rehearsing Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi along with a Shakespeare Scenes program. I popped out to Washington, DC to do a bit of work with my old friend Julian Wachner and his Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center (this year was "Essential Verdi" and included a dinner at the Italian Embassy where I was one table away from three Supreme Court Justices [Ruth Bader Ginsburg!)] and got to meet the amazing Nancy Pelosi!) The year of shakespeare was coming to a close and we had some amazing last few Shakespeare Sessions. I was thrilled with Maestro Brott conducting the Bellini with Nicola Bowie back again, this time as the stage director. The Scenes Program was astonishingly performed. Co-Directed by Paul Hopkins and I, it was a scenes program where the students presented the Shakespeare version first, followed by the operatic treatment (i.e. Mercutio's monologue "Queen Mab" followed by Gounod's aria "Queen Mab"). It was extremely well-attended and it also was extremely well-received.

In DC...

April 2014
The end of a remarkable semester spent co-teaching a graduate research seminar class with the illustrious genius, my colleague Professor Paul Yachnin. Once a week we got together to discuss a Shakespeare play and the operatic treatment of the same play. Once a week my mind was blown. Once a week I wanted time to just stop so we could continue talking and discussing and questioning! The students kept up (it was a LOT of material) with reading the plays and listening/watching the operas. Among others, we tackled both versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Otello, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Romeo et Juliet, three versions of The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff, The Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me Kate, Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. I will never forget the class, the students who took an active part, or Paul who challenged us all. It's so great to allow your mind to expand and grow, even a wizened old professor has tons to still learn!

Here's one of the mini documentaries about the Shakespeare Sessions. (Check them all out on the Opera McGill Youtube channel. Just google "Opera McGill Shakespeare Youtube" and you'll find them!)

Shakespeare Video #6

May 2014
I love May in Montreal. It started out with snow still on the ground (I took a photo of melting snow drifts in downtown Montreal during the first week of the month, believe it or not) and ended in full, magnificent bloom of Spring (spring happens all of a sudden in Montreal because the winter lingers 4EVER.)  Most of this month is a blur, except towards the end when I went to the Bluedog Barbershop and had my beard... wait... come to think of it, I shaved my big beard off sometime in late March. That was a mistake, frankly. Totally missed my beard, so I started growing it, but then in mid May my burgeoning beard took a turn for what are called "friendly mutton chops". I kept them through the summer, just because.

Gosh, Sirius and I look a lot alike in this...



June and July 2014
Off to Iowa!  My family and I love Iowa, it's where I am from and it is where my wife is from. We spent a great deal of time in Burlington, IA (the southeast side of the state right next to the Mississippi River) and witnessed yet another flooding of the great river (not as bad as the two "500 year" floods that have happened during the last, um, 20 years. Climate change, anyone?!) I cooked a lot, the boys watched tons of tv, we went to the pool, took Sirius for walks, saw relatives (including a very nice visit with my sister and brother-in-law), and I got super sick to my stomach. Super sick. I was sick for about a week, not being able to keep anything in me. Thus, in my weakened state, I couldn't take looking at the chops anymore and shaved them off. Right before it was time to leave, I recovered. But just barely. Truly not a happy moment in my life!

Here's a pick from a family outing over looking the Mississippi River:


And a flooded Mississippi:



August 2014
A last minute gig offer took me to upstate NY where I discovered a remarkable young opera company called Hubbard Hall Opera Theatre (here's the link about my time there: Blog on HHOT ) I loved my hosts and the teeny town of Cambridge, NY, where HHOT is located. We did a Downton Abbey Le Nozze di Figaro. It was nice to direct it there, since I'm not directing the upcoming Le Nozze di Figaro that Opera McGill is producing this January (rehearsals start in like a week!). Nicola Bowie returns to direct it and Gordon Gerrard returns to conduct it (he was last at Opera McGill for Don Giovanni) fresh from his appointment as the associate conductor of the Vancouver Symphony. My students are very lucky indeed. Anyway, performances happened there and I returned to Montreal with barely a few days before McGill started in with its crazy schedule.

HHOT Nozze:


On a personal note: It was in August that Robin Williams died, and I wrote a blog about my own struggle with depression. I've never received as many private messages about a blog of mine as this one:   PJH Blog: Battling Depression Mindfully   
It wasn't a brave thing to do, by the way, it was something that I needed to write as much for myself as for others.

Onwards...

September to November ossia A Fall from Hell ossia A Crazy Semester 2014!
This semester was Krazy with a capital K. I took on just a wee bit too much. There were extra public lectures and performances (not a big deal, but probably one too many), I directed a spectacular production of John Blow's Venus and Adonis while Aria Umezawa, not to be outdone, did her own spectacular version of Rameau's Pygmalion (it was a double bill of baroque one-acts.)


A terrific video preview by Anne Kostalas on the baroque production:
Link to Youtube Preview


Just working on the baroque opera would have been fine, but we had a record number of graduate students arrive on campus this year (we accepted the same number as always, but this year practically everyone accepted our acceptances!) and so I added a few things into the season: a staged Knoxville and a presentation of At the Statue of Venus; a scenes program for the spring semester (which had to get organized this semester); more acting and repertoire classes for Opera McGill; and I took on the Schulich School Singers again this semester (they were the chorus for the baroque opera and will be the chorus for the Mozart in January) preparing them musically, and keeping their schedules organized. Added to all of this was the fact that beginning this January, I am on a half-sabattical. Gone for January thru July! But that meant trying to get the spring semester all organized way before I might normally have done so (which ultimately makes it a good thing!) I could not have done this without my two amazing Opera McGill office assistants, Michaela Dickey and Russell Wustenberg. Oh -- I also coached and played the Knoxville, and I also spent most of the end of November coaching Nozze. That's always a pleasure, but wow it takes a lot of time to get through the piece with a double cast. They are going to be wonderful and I can't wait to come back into town and see their opening nights!  Oh -- I also spent a good amount of time being a part of the design process for a production I'm directing this January and February at Ithaca College -- Adamo's Little Women. The design team is a combination of students and faculty. The BFA program at Ithaca is superb and I'm really looking forward to this production, conducted by Brian DeMaris.  Oh -- I was on the Austrian Ball committee and was in charge of making sure there'd be music for the ball. Can't have a ball without music. Stress... Oh -- I also had to spend a few brain cells on preparing for my December gig...

AND I TURNED 50!



December 2014
As mentioned above, I'm finishing out 2014 with Andrew Bisantz. Here in Eugene, Oregon, there is a wonderful opera company, Eugene Opera, and a terrific theatre, the Hult Auditorium, and a great troupe of people who sing in the chorus, volunteer with the opera, and guest soloists who really know what they are doing! We open Donizetti's comic masterpiece L'elisir d'amore on New Year's Eve and that's why I'm not home for the holidays right now. We had time enough for me to get back to Montreal for a few days, but I don't travel well anymore and it would have taken too much a toll on me so I decided to stay put over Christmas. It's been tough, for sure (I'm typing this on Christmas night as Shrek 3 plays on the tv, trying to keep my mind from thinking about missing Christmas with my family...) but rehearsals start up in another day and I'm really looking forward to this one! Chad Johnson is Nemorino and he sounds fantastic, Angela Theis is Adina and she's terrific, Marco Nistico is just amazing as Dulcamara -- a role he's sung a few times at places like Rome Opera, and the two singers who are from Eugene, Harry Baechtel and Sarah Kim are going to be big crowd-pleasers, I'm sure.

Here's a link to an Eugene Opera fun little promo video:
Catch me saying "The Monkey" on this video!

I travel back to Montreal on New Year's Day, see up the start of Opera McGill rehearsals the next day, and then get almost two weeks off before heading to Ithaca, NY.

That's the diary of the year. Typing it left me a bit breathless. I think I should re-think my schedule and get some downtime scheduled, eh?! Luckily, next year looks a bit easier. Little Women in Jan/Feb of 2015, then a return to Fargo for my third "F" opera: Fille!!! I've directed Fidelio and Figaro there, so Fille awaits (hoping for a Falstaff or a Faust next!) I hope March and April behave themselves better this time. Two years ago we got multiple blizzards there, but the year of Fidelio I was wearing shorts during the same months. Mother nature can be fickle. Currently my summer is free but a big move is in the works so I'll be super busy keeping everything in order.

As far as big moments this past year? What really stands out? Here's a bit of a list:

  1. Colin in the tree, Brent below -- magic!
  2. Final Fairy chorus -- haunting!
  3. Diving into heteroglossic intertextuality based on Bakhtin's ideas of dialogism (is that a sentence?) during one of our many amazing seminar classes.
  4. I. Kissed. The. Wall's. Hole.
  5. A thunderstorm in Cambridge, NY that rattled my eardrums.
  6. Never wanting to eat Taco Bell ever again.
  7. Seeing the Venus and Adonis chorus create lasting images onstage, everything from David's shell-shocked amputee to Nicholas' pipe-smoking doctor to those ladies in their gas masks...
  8. Blood onstage, fake blood and fake wounds of course, which shocked some of our audience members; then the end of the opera drawing sobs and tears from women and men in the audience. I haven't had audience members come up to me with tears in their eyes since we performed La bohème. Maybe it was the poppies at the end, or the WW1 uniforms, or the timing of the performances, but the production did make an impact that surprised even me.
  9. Being in beard-friendly Eugene, Oregon makes me so happy to have kept my big mustache (there's always a danger of my shaving it off some mornings) and to be growing back my big beard again. I'm just one of thousands here. I've seen some AMAZING beards here, huge long ones. Totally adjusted my idea on what a big beard is, fyi.
  10. My wife and kids. I love them so much and miss them way too often. My life is a dream in many ways, creating opera at McGill and elsewhere, but the time it takes away from my family is taking a toll. I'm looking to rebalance a few priorities in 2015, wish me luck!
And to leave you with those haunting words from the end of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream:

TRIP AWAY
MAKE NO STAY
MEET ME ALL BY BREAK OF DAY

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Boxing Art

Occasionally art befuddles. Often art confuses. Sometimes art is effective, sometimes even affective. Rarely, but hopefully, art moves through humanity and changes an outlook, or a current state of emotions, or gives someone a pick me up, or takes away some daily care that strips away at someone's sanity.

Many of us are as inspired by looking at a Van Gogh or listening to a Brahms piano concerto or a Beethoven string quartet, or an opera by one of those dead white guys as we are by attending a Shakespeare play or reading a Hemmingway novel or digging through James Joyce or listening to a Berg piece or tapping our toes to an Ella recording or clapping wildly at the end of a Broadway rock musical.  If one genre inspires you, I find at least, most of the rest -- I'll call it all "art" for lack of a better word -- does also.

That's why I don't get classical musicians who only know classical music,  or who only listen to classical music, or who quickly dismiss other kinds of music as less important or beneath their attention somehow. I don't get classical musicians who are snobs.

Snobbery is something I hate, especially in music.

Link: Pedants!

Now we all have our likes and dislikes. I wrote a blog about Menotti. I'm pretty open about my lack of love for epic grand operas written in French (except for Faust.) I am not a fan of large symphonic works cause I find them to be a bit, um, boring. (Do I need to hear the same motif played ad nauseam in every bank of winds, followed by a round through the strings, then culminating in the brass and call that something special? See: Dvorak or Bruckner) And my distaste for large Bach choral pieces is, I've been told, something verging on heretical. To say that I find Andrew Lloyd Webber more engaging than Bach, when it comes to dramatic vocal music, causes apoplectic fits in some of my students and colleagues.

A passion by...

But my love for the repertoire is huge and vast, as is the repertoire itself. From Adam de la Halle's Le jeu de Robin et de Marion to Kevin Puts' Silent Night, text set to music in order to tell a story gets me almost every time. So does practically anything ever written for the solo piano (aside from some icky Soviet stuff) and most of the string quartet literature out there. Then there's the 20th century -- the best on many levels because of Stravinsky and Bernstein and Copland and Puccini and Loewe and Kander/Ebb and R/H and Sondheim and Korngold and Strauss and the great one: Britten, and, and, and...

I try not to divide and slice the rep into boxes or genres or categories. Aren't we all just a bit bored and annoyed by those who describe Die Fledermaus as "light opera" or "operetta"?! Have y'all tried to sing it with the full orchestration? Or Hoffmann?!  Those are huge sings. There's nothing "light" about it. The opposite is kinda true for Carmen. I get frustrated when people hold it up as some magnificent grand opera, like it's a French Trovatore or something. It's one of the first modern musicals - complete with world music settings: Formally it's a musical (telling the story in songs, ensembles, dance, and lots of dialogue) that sounds like a grand Italian opera at times, set in Spain, sung in French, with some Cuban dance rhythms thrown in for fun! The argument against those statements come, as they should, from mezzos and tenors who sing Carmen and Don Jose. They are totally right when they say those two roles are hard to sing and are as operatic as Tosca and Cavaradossi. But why care what it is called? Audiences love it -- as do I!

Why categorize these pieces? What does calling something a "musical" or "chamber opera" or "opera" or "song cycle" do for a piece? Is Menotti's The Consul an opera because he's an opera composer? When it played on Broadway (and won the Pulitzer for Drama), there were many who thought they were seeing a new hybrid between the art forms of musical and opera. Why does Sweeney Todd now get accepted as an "opera" by opera companies and audiences? Is it because Bryn Terfel sings it with the NY Phil and at the Lyric Opera of Chicago? Emma Thompson, a singing actress who is not an opera singer, just sang the female lead with him at Lincoln Center. Does that make her part non-operatic in some way? Is it a musical when there are microphones? Then that makes Nixon in China a musical. (OH MY GOD!!! Opera Companies Use Mics?! Say it isn't so!!)

A pointed digression:
Here's a hint kids: When you're at an opera, look towards the back of the house. If you see a person standing behind a sound board mixing the show all night, then chances are they are mic'ing the opera. Some opera companies (like the dearly departed NYCO) are open about it. Others (I can't list them here because I might be killed by a squad of operatic terrorists) mic without telling their audiences -- and sometimes, without even telling their artists!

Back to Boxing Art:
Mostly I wonder if we are doing modern day audiences (and young singers) a disservice by paying more attention to the name of what we'd like them to come and see, hear, or experience rather than on creating something really exciting that gets them out of their homes and gets their faces out of their smartphones and into a theatre, recital hall, concert hall, or found space.

I think this sort of labeling boxes all art into a corner and might contribute to making our current audiences uncomfortable or confused. Why would we want to do that? Yet it happens within the business and within academia; for what reason?

I think that some of it is just generational. Using old terms to describe something that no longer has a context with the general public (like when my mother-in-law always says "www" before any website she wants me to check out.  Remember those modems and "dial up"?  Well, our audiences are changing and they pretty much are now not cognizant of the differences between a grand opera, a cabaret, a revue, a musical, an operetta, or a masque. They want to spend their entertainment dollars on something that will excite them, or move them, or inspire them. That can be Cats or Candide or Einstein on the Beach. It can be by JRB or Guettel or Kitt. It can be a staged Passion by Bach or Sondheim. It can be an HD broadcast of La Traviata or a Live from Lincoln Center documentary on the Civil War (I think Ken Burns writes visual operas, but that's probably stretching the definition of opera a bit far.)

I even had a student make a case that the soundtrack for Baz Lurman's movie Romeo and Juliet was -- all by itself -- an opera. I agree with her assessment.

I also think that it can make a snob feel wonderfully smart (i.e. superior) if they can turn their noses down at a Zarzuela but hold up a Singspiel as a testament to humanity while simultaneously lecturing on the use of clarinet in Verdi's late operas. Knowing that the last chorus in Blow's Venus and Adonis "influenced" (really? prove it!) Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is nice for the pre-opera lecture but that knowledge doesn't change the impact either chorus has on an audience.

Boxes make people feel better.  Certainly I have a personal stake in this breaking of the boxes.  I'm a vocal coach, collaborative pianist, conductor, stage director, and artistic administrator whose career confounds some of my colleagues and certainly most of the artist managers I've ever spoken to about my career. I have friends in the business who only want me to be a coach, or a director of a young artist program, or a stage director. You get the point.  I find that young singers are also boxed in WAY TOO EARLY by their mentors and by programs. Yes, currently they are a lyric baritone, but who knows what a 24 year old baritone might be by the time he's in his late 20s. Let them sing outside of their boxes. Let them experiment with repertoire. There have only been a few deaths caused by operatic repertoire (most in the 1800s and those were tenors...) Let these young singers learn to be FLEXIBLE with a wide variety of repertoire. They don't have to be experts at the age of 26 in anything.

I will leave this topic with some harsh words for those who want boxes:

Confining Art into a neat little box is comforting for small minds.

It is time to move on and let go of old biases and false understandings of this great repertoire that inspires the world.  A world without boxes makes many people feel uncomfortable, uneducated, or ill-prepared to be seen as someone who knows something.  The same amount of effort, knowledge, expertise, and hard work goes into singing "Du Ring an meinem Finger" as it does preparing to perform "Where are the Simple Joys of Maidenhood?"!

Du Ring by Elly Ameling
Simple Joys of Maidenhood by Julie Andrews

It's time to leave the musicological discussions behind, time to leave the lines drawn in the sand between genres, time to stop alienating young singers from repertoire that they will need in order to reach new audiences. It's time to stop thinking like a 19th century pedant. Ravel needs us, Heggie needs us, von Flotow needs us, Bellini needs us, Porter needs us, and so does Schwartz; these great minds that put their passion to paper. Perform it with purpose and it becomes quite clear: Telling a story with music is creative genesis. We recreate a world each time, we get to live in a composer's brain and heart, we get to surf in waves of poetry and music! It's breathtaking!

The flexible tree bends in the wind. An old tree can break in a wind storm, even if it is strong and healthy. Then the tree gets mulched up, turned to cardboard, and made into a box...

I prefer to keep the tree that is me as flexible as possible so that, in the end, I can take in the many...

Seasons!



Friday, October 31, 2014

Movies for Opera Singers

I talk all too often about the need for young opera singers to watch movies. One of the reasons I do this is because, as a director, I reference way too many movies in my attempt at inspiring a moment onstage. Sometimes it's just easier to say "you know, it's just like that moment in Philadelphia Story when Kate Hepburn walks out onto the veranda after drinking too much the night before and retracts in the bright sun, almost like a vampire?!" instead of directing Don Giovanni to put his arm up over his face to hide himself from the light. Bad director. Or maybe not...

However, the problem sometimes occurs, while working with the younger generation especially, when the singer has no knowledge of The Philadelphia Story or who Kate is. I usually turn to another movie, and then another, then in frustration I say to the rehearsal room out loud "who here has seen Young Frankenstein?" and then maybe one hand goes up.

So I have to say up front that this blog is a bit of a "please watch some of these movies" plea to my current students, but also is a blog that may hope to inspire other young singers to look at other types of acting (and movie acting, in certain genres especially, can be quite operatic!) in order to further their own thinking about acting, about gesture, about creating internal emotional lives, about how a costume can make a moment, or about how Gene Kelly really could move in any direction and make it look simple.

So it's a list -- apologies to those of you who don't like lists. I've put next to the movie, what I think someone might glean from watching it.

MOVIES TO WATCH AND LEARN FROM:

Moonstruck: Cher earned an Oscar for acting while talking with her hands. Also of note, Cage's eyes and his use of over-the-top vocal tactics.  Actually, every single person in that movie gives an incredible performance.  One of the most quoted movies in opera rehearsals, at least among the people I work with out there in the professional world.

A Lion in Winter: Kate Hepburn is incandescent and manipulative and vulnerable. She earned another Oscar for this role. Peter O'Toole is also fascinating. A great period piece. Movie debuts of Anthony Hopkins as a gay Richard the Lion-Hearted and his ex-lover played by a great actor who went on to play 007.


Babette’s Feast: First of all, there's an opera singer in this movie, the great Jean-Philippe Lafont. Secondly, Babette's utterance at the end of this movie about what it means to be an artist is something that everyone who is an artist needs to hear. A home run of a movie. I watch it every year.

The Godfather Trilogy: Great acting from great actors. Operatically edited episodes. Even a love story. Number three even ends on the steps of the Palermo opera house!

The 1st original Star Wars movie: I think that this movie is an opera and many of the actors chose to act in a terrific old-school Shakespearean manner. Not Luke or Leia or Han Solo, but certainly Chewbacca is an opera singer... At least he sounds like some I know...

Any Alfred Hitchcock film (particularly Rear Window and North by Northwest)
If you haven't watched at least a half dozen Alfred Hitchcock films, you really shouldn't be trying to create a character having a bad day (as in what happens to so many opera characters). Hie thee to the master of bad days, watch and learn.

Indiscreet: Romance with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. It's a great movie and she's spectacular in it. He's also rather good.

La divina ossia Meryl Streep Movies:
Kramer vs Kramer or Sophie’s Choice -- start with them. Watch her listen while others talk.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Shining: Because of Jack, baby. Go where he goes next time you need to raise your stakes in an aria. He's a whole opera all by himself. A one man show. 

Three Period Pieces that are informative:
Dangerous Liasons - Again, the performances I'd describe as operatic. John Malkovich's particularly
Valmont - Better getting the period, and it shows how the same story can be done with a bit more subtlety
Amadeus - Great opera scenes, and wonderful performances from everyone on that screen.

Great operas for finding humanity in violence:
Pulp Fiction -- one of the great films 
Kill Bill volumes 1 & 2 -- each one of these fights is an aria
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- again, each one of the fights was created to be an operatic duet of sorts

Any MGM musical (particularly Singin in the Rain and American in Paris)
Okay, I'm a Gene Kelly nut. But he could teach every single singer I've ever worked with something about how to express love through just the use of his arms held out.  He's an amazing mover and he tells stories with his body. This is something that all opera singers need to be able to do.  Plus, those old musicals are very much like today's operatic style. Many of those singer/actor/dancers came from the theatre where they acted BIG. We still need to make sure that what happens on the operatic stage can be seen from far away. Enough with this close-up, in-the-rehearsal-room-it-is-vivid-but-in-the-big-theatre-it-looks-really-boring, style of production. Make sure your audiences know what you are feeling by both your voice AND your body.  They can't see eye contact in row double UU up in the balcony...

Much Ado About Nothing (Branaugh’s version)
Emma Thompson - her performance is radiant, funny, smart, and physically beautiful

Young Frankenstein
Surely one of the most quoted movies ever. Frau Blücher (cue the horses)...
Surely there's no need to say why this movie should be memorized, yes?!

Classic Screwball Comedies: These are terrific to watch when you're working on a Nozze, or a Pasquale, or an Albert Herring
His Girl Friday
Bringing Up Baby
Philadelphia Story

Romantic Comedies (old school): I mention these because of the holidays. Watch them to see what a leading man looks like while being strong AND sensitive. A great combo, but hard to replicate...
The Bishop’s Wife
It’s A Wonderful Life

There are a myriad of others, but those are the ones that have come to mind these last few years.  Please just watch and enjoy them, then watch them again more carefully and see if you might learn a thing or two; or see if there's something in them that can be translated into your own craft.  I bet there will be!