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Friday, June 8, 2018

A Varna Bulgaria STREET SCENE!

I've been in Varna, Bulgaria now for 20 days. Wow. It's been an amazing three weeks and time has certainly flown by, like the Black Sea waves crashing onto the fantastic beaches just minutes from my hotel room.

What brings me to Varna? Why, the Bulgarian premiere of Kurt Weill's Street Scene. Shocking to think that it's never been done in this country, given that it premiered on Broadway in 1947, but when one gets to know the piece it's understandable. It's the perfect example of a hybrid piece of theatre: neither a musical, as it takes operatic voices to handle the four major leads, nor an opera (a few too many big music theatre dance numbers). For years, I've used it as my answer to the endless question, "What's the difference between a musical and an opera?" My answer: "There's no tap dancing in opera. That's why Street Scene is more a musical."

However, after working on this piece here, I have to modify my thoughts. Street Scene, even though it won a Tony Award for Best Original Score and had a cast of primarily Broadway actors in it, is more a slightly-flawed opera than a pure piece of musical theatre.

Why the 'slightly-flawed' description? For me, the show doesn't know what it is. For sure, it was one of the great first experiments combining the opera/musical worlds that continued on through Blitzstein (Regina in 1948), Bernstein (West Side Story, Trouble in Tahiti), Menotti (The Telephone, The Medium, The Consul), and even into today with some of the recent Heggie and Guettel works.

Is Street Scene, at its core, the traumatic story of a jealous husband murdering his wife? Is it a look into post WW2 New York City, foreshadowing the Red Scare and the anti-immigrant feelings that festered there? Is it a light-hearted look at the milieu of immigrants (The Ice Cream Sextet, for instance) or is it a tragic romance between a young, smart New York Jew (Sam Kaplan) and his I-wanna-leave-NY girlfriend destroyed by her parent's dysfunctional marriage (Rose Maurrant)? In between these stories there is a tapestry of amazing Broadway songs ("Wouldn't ya like to be on Broadway?" and "Moon-faced, Starry-eyed"), massive operatic arias (an aria for Trumpsters: "Let Things Be Like They Always Was" and the poetic "Somehow I Never Could Believe"), with classic songs "Lonely House" and "What Good Would the Moon Be?" all thrown in together.

Curiously, the first act is a wee bit too long, but contains ALL of the great songs, arias, and dances. The second act, for me, is where the piece unravels a bit. The libretto forces too many people together to precede the jealous double homicide, and then can't come up with enough emotional - or logical - reasons to make sense of Rose's decision to leave the city and strike out on her own (abandoning her younger brother Willy to a life without a mother, father, or sister btw!) With that said, it all hangs together just enough to make a very moving and wonderful evening in the theatre!

People sometimes think I get too judgemental about music, opera, and composers. I think it's important to be objective about the operas I'm working on so that I can see them clearly. The minute I get into a love affair with a piece (like Nozze or Bohème), it can be dangerous for me as the stage director or conductor. There are very few perfect shows, but tons of truly excellent ones that give so much to audiences, performers, and to the history of entertainment. Street Scene is one of those amazing pieces, with an imaginative premise -- putting an entire show onto a New York City street, coupled with Weill's musical genius and theatrical chops that makes one understand why it stands the test of time.

I'm hoping that the Bulgarian audiences will enjoy it here in their delightful city situated right on the Cherno More (Black Sea).

I've had some time to myself here and have gotten to know a small part of this large city. It sits on the East Coast of Bulgaria, almost directly north of Istanbul making this the furthest East I've ever been. The people are gracious and extremely polite, except when in line for gelato. There it is the aggressive customer that gets served first! And I have to put in a word for the Varna gelato -- it is AMAZING. Best gelato I've had anywhere. A few pics of my sight-seeing around the city:

There's a lot of fish, not surprisingly, on the menus here and there are these cute little sardine-type fish that get brought in daily from the Black Sea called SKAG. They fry them up whole and are delicious - heads, spines and all! In addition, I've found excellent Turkish grills, a cool sushi place right on the beach (yes, sushi here is quite good), in addition to the Bodega where most of us eat our lunch (it's one of those Argentinian-type meat places where they bring you the cuts right on the spit).

The fish and the Bodega:

All of this food and drink comes incredibly cheap. The Bulgarian currency, the lev, is not doing well against the dollar or Euro, so even though a whole fish dinner might be priced at 15lev, that makes it like $11 U.S. Therefore, if you're looking for a cheap European getaway with beaches and TONS of hot sun, good food, low crime, and lots to see and do, head to Varna!

My one negative has been my health. It's hot and humid here, and we rehearse in an un-airconditioned space where the wafting cigarette smoke (it seems all Bulgarians smoke) makes it into the second story windows. One morning, after working a bit of a dance number, I got dizzy and then dizzier, and then came full on vertigo. I've never experience that and never want to again. My colleagues thought it was low blood sugar or a blood pressure problem. I thought I was having a stroke or heart attack (I was white as a sheet and sweating profusely). Needless to say, I got back to the hotel and AC, they called a doctor, and I had an injection of something right there in my hotel room. I will tell the whole tale in another blog, I promise (as well as the tale of how my lighting session happened in the theatre and the fun challenges of working in a language you do not speak!)

The 5:58am Varna sunrise over the Black Sea from my window:

Needless to say, I'm feeling much better but spend most of my time off in my cool hotel room looking out the window at the Black Sea. Our premiere is two nights away, and the U.S. Ambassador is coming to the show! I've got a formal kilt ready to go, as I have maintained my 2018 "Kilt Trip" the whole time I've been in Bulgaria. Gotta admit, it's been tough to keep wearing the kilt here in the heat and humidity, as well as in a culture of machismo guys throwing lots of questioning looks.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

And I (might) know things now... A Varna blog

I'm in Varna, Bulgaria directing Weill's Street Scene (in its Bulgarian debut!) Working with a terrific team of talented singers who range from very green to some nicely seasoned artists. The show is a tricky one - neither a musical or an opera. Totally a hybrid and, therefore, dangerous: if the tone is too much one or the other it can falter. Push the musical numbers too far and the tragedy won't resonate. Push the harsh drama and the comedy might come across as glib. To be honest, I've never liked the piece, but am finding the challenge to be a terrific one, all surrounded by the AMAZING city of Varna! (I'll blog about this wonderful city soon!)

I've been thinking about an older blog I wrote, one from a few years ago. It's about teaching and learning. I thought, perhaps, it was time to publish it again. Here 'goes:

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, perhaps you should 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.

What does it mean when people in this business say things like, "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." "This is the only tempo that can work for this section." "You're just not ready."

Don't trust just the words. Look for the meaning behind them. Why are these words being said? Trust your instincts. Listen for meaning in the tone. Literally listen to the tone -- either of the person speaking, or the composer's choices of tone.

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. Rossini 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.

Operatic depth is infinite. You'll never know how far down the well goes where source material is concerned, for instance. Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream leads you, of course to Shakespeare's play of the same name, which leads you into the play within the play that ends the opera, the hysterical love story of Pyramus and Thisbe, in itself based on Ovid's "Metamorphosis" and which also is a precursor to the Romeo and Juliet star-crossed lovers story. All this leads to Shakespeare's education as a young man in the classics, and the next thing you know you're lost in Early Modernity.

Trying to figure out baroque treatises, or re-discovering Sir Charles Mackerras' landmark research on Mozart ornamentation (yes, take all the appoggiaturas), or frankly learning anything about anything connected with opera is a life-long expedition into the unknown worlds of religion, art, art history, world history, culture, biographies of kings, and the great literature of the last two thousand years.

Thinking that since you've learned your notes and texts means that you've learned your part, is truly delusional -- as delusional as thinking that the tip of the iceberg represents the true scale of its reality.

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 within, yet also all around us.

Off to get a cup of gelato (the best I've had outside of Italy), that only costs about $1.60 (USD). The food and drink in Varna is unbelievably affordable!
Довиждане !

Monday, February 12, 2018

Operatic Safe Spaces

I have a new motto for opera!

Opera: A Safe Space for Exploring Uncomfortable Ideas!

Let's define some of those words. 

Opera: stories told through singing in front of a public audience
A: an indefinite article
Safe: secure from danger
Space: any expanse where humans can congregate physically, musically, or intellectually
for: a preposition
Exploring: to examine for the purpose of discovery
Uncomfortable: a state of unease
Ideas: a conception in the mind that can be shared

Over the past few years, two phrases have percolated into the consciousness and policies of many in our western world: "Safe Space" and "I'm uncomfortable with fill in the blank".  Usually, once someone becomes uncomfortable, they now begin to feel unsafe. Being uncomfortable is seen as something almost dangerous, akin to an assault of some sort. To feel comfortable is now something seen as a positive ideal, in all things. But that's where a danger lies, at least for us artists trying to create new, innovative works of art (dance, theatre, opera, compositions, productions, paintings, etc.).

To create art, one must push past the comfortable. Nothing new ever came from a place of comfort. Even authors who work in comfortable surroundings (I'm one of those, currently sitting in front of a roaring fireplace sipping a bit of scotch) must move into areas of their intellect that are undiscovered countries, and therefore not at all comfortable, in order to write anything that's close to interesting.

All one has to do is read or watch actors talk about their process to understand that they run from the comfortable. Viola Davis and Meryl Streep are just two who jump to mind. They've gone on record to say that if they find themselves acting from a place of comfort, their work in front of the camera will be terrible. The same if you read interviews with composers, writers, sculptors - literally anyone who creates. Comfort is not sought, in fact it is seen as quite dangerous. When Armie Hammer was interviewed about taking the part of Oliver in this year's amazing film "Call Me By Your Name", he said "It scared me. It made me nervous. The reason I had to do this project was because it made me feel uncomfortable."

I've blogged about running towards what scares you (Here's that link: Fear In Opera!). I really believe this and know it to be true! 

It is a truism that during the learning process there will be many moments of discomfort. Just the physicality of singing is not normal. No one sustains screams on organized pitches set to poetry in order to communicate ideas in real life. That's opera! In order to do so, one has to work hard to learn the music itself (this is seldom easy), work to pronounce the text correctly (not comfortable), work to memorize the music and text (not comfortable), and then once staging rehearsals begin even more discomfort comes into play: learning the blocking, stage combat (not comfortable and initially can be physically dangerous), simulating emotions from love to rage to grief (any emotion that might be 100% comfortable is certainly not very interesting on the operatic stage), or simulating physical love onstage (truly not comfortable -- put your hand here, embrace sideways while still singing loud high notes into each other's faces, practicing kissing, slapping, or formalized bowing, oftentimes timed to a musical score's tempo controlled by another uncomfortable entity, the conductor!) Most of the parts of creating an opera are the opposite of comfortable. 

Now over the course of rehearsals, many of these things become incredibly comfortable, or at least manageable. That's what rehearsal is for and that's why we rehearse. Yet, I find some young singers don't understand that notion. If something is asked of them - for instance, cross to stage left and throw a handkerchief at someone - and if it might feel uncomfortable, then a judgement sometimes gets made that it should not be attempted because it makes them (themselves, usually not their character) feel uncomfortable. Instead of trying it (i.e. rehearsing it), the idea is dismissed and another more comfortable idea is explored instead, oftentimes without giving the initial idea a try.  (Even writing that paragraph and knowing someone will read it with the intention to prove that those ideas are wrong is really uncomfortable for me!) I'm not talking about rehearsing in an arena of non-consent. Consent is a totally different subject and extremely important in order to make everyone in the room comfortable and at ease. If people are currently rehearsing in a space without a dialogue about consent, then everything should stop and that conversation should happen. Why? It's 2018, that's why.

And that's one of the paradoxes about comfort and learning. In order to really act, one needs to feel at ease. The environment of the rehearsal space creates this feeling of, for lack of a better word, comfort. But once everyone moves into this safe space of comfort, we have to be able to start exploring the uncomfortable. This is an important detail. It's why actors love working with certain directors, why singers love working with certain conductors. There is a state of ease at play, a sense that everyone will be taken care of somehow, so that all can do their best work possible. And often that best work is found in uncomfortable places.

Why would someone ask someone else to feel uncomfortable? Being asked to be uncomfortable is now seen by some as akin to assault. Part of the problem is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to have conversations about polarizing ideas, as well as understanding the difference between the person in the rehearsal and the character being rehearsed. (The latter half of that sentence is the important part.)

There is a difference here. In opera we explore ideas that are meant to entertain a public audience. Opera is, as I love to say, "never about the day nothing happened." Opera is never about singing emotions that are boring, pleasant, or comfortable. These characters being sung by operatic performers are oftentimes terrible people, or victims, or assholes, or abusers. or family, or gods and goddesses, or queens, or supernatural beings, or regular people caught up in an irregular moment or event. But singing Tosca does not require the soprano to be at one with murdering a potential rapist and become a suicidal diva who sings one of the great final lines in all of opera before leaping to her death. There is a separation between subject and player, character and singer.

One of the failures of education today is showing up more and more whenever I work with young singers: an inability to understand the rational and irrational ideas present in all the elements of their art form.  Teaching critical thinking and problem solving (the rational) as well as allowing students to explore their imagination and emotional inner lives (the irrational) seems to be lacking in many backgrounds of singers I now work with -- mind you, not just in the academic world, but with the professional young artists and artists that I've worked with recently. It is becoming more and more a challenge to get singers to see beyond the score, to imagine worlds not present, to sing horizontal phrases that aren't tied to vertical beats, to act on the edge of emotions, to make audacious choices, to explore dangerous ideas and ideals that are, I clear my throat, uncomfortable.

If one wants to be a success, to innovate, to put themselves ahead of the pack, to make themselves heard and seen above the rest, to be known as a creative artist or exciting performer, one has to run towards what scares you. One has to runaway from the comfortable and easy choices, the things that make everyone else stay happily in their safe arenas. 

Because, you see, if one deems a space "safe", it actually deems all other spaces "unsafe". How about a crazy idea? All spaces should be "safe"? Is that possible? I believe it should be, at least in the artistic arena of the rehearsal space and the operatic stage. Safe from comfort. Safe from easy choices that make no one think beyond themselves. Safe from accepting the status quo. Safe from emotional restrictions and physical repressions. But especially, safe from censorship.

The operatic process could become a tool to reteach the world how to free themselves. To teach the world that it is okay to be both rational and irrational. Maybe that might make the world a safer place for ideas, thoughts, and differences of opinions. 

Opera could help teach the world to become a safe place to explore uncomfortable ideas.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Operatic Miscommunication

Recently, a colleague of mine experienced a difficulty working with others at a non-profit arts organization. Basically some miscommunication followed by a surprisingly sharp over-reaction by various people -- people both involved and peripheral to the issue. There was a breach of confidence in a private email and many anxious moments from the top level on down. After a day, things returned to normal but the angst involved was more than exhausting for all involved. My colleague called me to ask for advice and I tried my best, but basically all I wanted to say was "welcome to non-profit opera!"

So I thought I might write about what I think might be behind some of the communication problems that can happen at non-profit arts companies (and certainly I've seen and experienced my fair share.)

Communication happens between people and I'd like to put forth that the people who work in opera are rather a special lot. This involves trying to understand over-reactive, often dramatically so, people. (By "people", I'm referring to artists both on and off the stage and those working behind the scenes.)

Let's not forget that, aside from the bigwigs at the big companies, almost everyone working in non-profit organizations are underpaid and overworked. Most are highly educated and quite skilled at multi-tasking, as well as often being multi-talented: the horn player who's also the orchestra manager or librarian, the rehearsal pianist who's also the company manager, the receptionist who also sings in the chorus, etc. They are the backbone of our world and no company could really exist without them, so please do not get me wrong -- I'm not attacking the people who work at opera companies.

I actually want to talk about why so many of us who work in opera seem to be over-reactive to stimuli. We hear a great singer, or a great idea, we see a fantastic show, or find out that said show is sold-out, we experience performing at the top of our game, and we REACT; really react sometimes: we let out whoops, feel fabulous, walk around with huge smiles, feel as if we've conquered a mountain. We are decidedly manic when opera goes well, whether that means casting decisions, social media notices, patron donations, a good audition, or reviews hitting the day after in time to sell tickets.

And obviously, the reverse is true. When things go wrong, it can be as if the sky is falling. Low sales, will the company fold? Bad review, does that mean the artistic team sucks? A singer gets a bit moody in rehearsal, will their diva attitude rub off on everyone and ruin the process? The pianist can't play Albert's drunk scena, does that mean the training at their program has utterly failed them? Patrons upset with the color of tablecloths at the reception, OMFG -- panic ensues!

I see panic more and more nowadays. Real panic. It manifests itself in snap decisions to fix a problem before anyone finds out it exists (rather than sitting down to fix the problem long-term). It causes hurt feelings all the time because everyone involved in every aspect of a production now gets cc'd on every email. For example, some singer doesn't like her costume and the next thing you know, a wardrobe coordinator is all discombobulated and sends off an email (cc'd to the world) to the GD to complain. Or a young conductor might not know how to deal with time in rehearsals and starts to run over their allotment, instead of sitting down and talking to them, secret meetings get held behind their back via email (which is never, ever secret) wondering how to fix the problem. People aren't communicating, they are emailing and texting things. In this day of instant knowledge, people want instant solutions to complex problems. Last time I checked, opera was complicated.

As well, everything seems to be an "issue", or is a "major headache", and many personal confrontations get blown out of proportion because people see things now as US against THEM, and often seem to take everything - and I do mean everything - so personally. I see this as a growing problem, and wonder if it is because things are getting worse for these companies, and therefore for the people working for them, or it's just a sign o' the times.

Since starting to work in the opera business back in 1984, I can attest that the number of times I was yelled at - in front of many people, thank you - by conductors, directors, bosses, patrons, and divas (strangely, never been yelled at by a tenor, baritone, or bass...) was a lot. QUITE A LOT. Recently I've noticed that no one yells anymore, they just write pointed emails, or make phone calls, or head to the nearest ear in order to bend it their way.

Of course this type of stuff happens throughout all business. But I do believe operatic non-profits draw the dramatically over-reactive types to their doors. Certainly being passionate draws us to opera, makes us strive to be great artists, literally helping to make the art passionately exciting. But as one whose mantra is "In my operas, we don't panic; everything will be okay and we have a plan", I see all too often the opposite: no plan in place, no way to make new plans to solve problems, and way too much panic followed by hurt feelings.

Why? Because over-reactive people react to their circumstances. Reacting is the essence of acting onstage. However, constantly reacting to issues is simply exhausting in an arts organization. To always be on the defence, to not see problems in advance, to not know how to solve problems creatively, or to be overly subjective in responding to issues, creates an environment that is not conducive to creating opera, performing it, or selling it to anyone.

So what's the solution then? The experts have a few ideas. They are:

1) Prepare
2) Smile
3) Listen
4) Validate
5) Be succinct
6) Be unifying

1) Prepare as much as possible. Think through as many different "what could go wrong" scenarios as possible. Hoping for the best - at an opera company - is probably the worst thing one could ever do. Something always goes wrong. Preparation is key to try to anticipate problems. When laziness takes over and prevents preparation from happening, people get angry. I always think pessimistically when preparing, imaging the worst case scenarios; basically I set the bar really low. Trust me, it helps to not think that some magical opera creature will show up to solve your (or their) problems.

2) Smiling during a confrontation, or reading a problematic email, is extremely helpful. It reduces the reaction. Try it and see how powerful this can be. Smile right now. Feel better?

3) Listen more than Talk. That way you can try to better define the problem and what the underlying other issues might be that have caused the problem. In meetings, be the last - the very last - person to talk.

4) Validate regardless if the outcome is going to be something that will make others happy or upset. Try to make them see that their viewpoint has been taken into consideration. Thank them for their input and their concerns. Validation is a huge secret key to unlocking the Door of Frustration that many walk through during problems that can arise in opera.

5) Be Succinct. Don't mince words or try to write the perfect email that will wrap everything up in a nice neat package. When the time comes, just be direct and clear. This will help those who feel the need to respond with an "but you said this, so now I retort with another new thought or issue" email sure to make things more difficult and perhaps even worse.

6) Be Unifying. Leaders - whether they be administrators, executive directors, chorus masters, rehearsal pianists, maestros, or lead singers - must unify the forces. Discussions and emails can go on and on and on, and move towards circular logic if you're not careful. Unifying others by calming them down through smiling, listening and validating, will allow the solution to better present itself to all involved.

There are a lot of overdramatic people who work in opera, absolutely. But we can also be very empathic, introverted, and judgemental; not the best combination of traits. But when our reactions are tempered, clearer thoughts present themselves and our creative juices actually can be used to create creative solutions. Empathy is a super power, lest we forget.

The last needed bit is something that Captain America talks about at the end (the very, very end) of the most recent Marvel Universe movie "Spiderman: Homecoming". I won't give it a way, but it is rather funny, (something else that is needed in solving problems creatively: a sense of humour.)

Okay, I'll give it away: PATIENCE.

We all need to exercise a wee bit more patience with others. There's a lot of miscommunication that happens when people become impatient and want answers right away, or want solutions in place too early. Take a step back and view things from a place of perspective. See if that helps. And smile.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Credo: My He(art) Is Not A Clock

Sense8 blog #2
There's a lovely moment in Season One of Netflix's "Sense8". It takes place in the Anahuacalli Museum south of Mexico City. The museum was the brain child of Diego Rivera, the amazing artist who also happened to be Frida Kahlo's husband.

In the episode, Lito - a closeted Mexican gay action-hero celebrity - is mourning the breakup with his boyfriend, Hernando.  During multiple flashbacks, we overhear the two men talking about love and art:
Hernando reminds Lito of a line from one of his movies: "My heart is not a clock." Lito remembers that his character was always late prompting Hernando to say how much he loved that line because it was both "an apology that is also an anthem."

Later, Hernando (speaking in front of a Diego mural) says to Lito, "Love is not something we wind up, something we set or control. Love is just like art. A force that comes into our lives without any rules, expectations or limitations, and every time I hear that line, I am reminded that love, like art, must always be free."

At the heart of art, there is no mechanism. Love and Art share this. To create an algorithm for love would be impossible - although many are currently trying. To create the same for art would totally screw it up. Deep down, we know that our hearts are not clocks. Often, love comes to us at the wrong time in our lives. My wife and I fell in love when we were in college, but we were not ready to marry. That happened seven years later after much angst and passion. Love finds people who aren't ready for it. People go looking for love and can't find it. Love is a mystery.

I find that Love, actually, just happens.

Talk to any musician or actor and they'll try to articulate this idea of "happening". Being "musical" is something that can't be taught, it just happens. Being "in the moment" is something that acting teachers try to work on with their students, oftentimes through various methods - which are just other forms of clocks and mechanisms really - in order to let things happen organically. Musicians recreate scores written in black dots on white pages, interpreting tempo markings and other notions (like "Allegro" or "Very slow" or "half-note = 76") which are also simply different ways of saying "time moves like this". Again, another clock.

But Music is not a clock. It is not something one winds up, or something that can be set to control its elemental pieces. Music is a force that enters into our lives without any rules, limitations, or expectations. Music, like love, must always be free.

Of our many anxieties, Musicians truly fear the notion of dragging or rushing. It is a deeply ingrained idea that music has a "tempo" and that that "tempo" must be decided upon and kept. This comes from the silly - and terribly amateurish idea - that music moves through its bars in equal time. So equal, one can set a clock to it. We call this clock a METRONOME. It was, perhaps, the worst thing ever invented where music's concerned.

You see, all music flows forward at various speeds. Listen to any great pianist and you will find that you can't find a metronomic marking that holds past a few bars or so, even though there's no "marking" from the composer that says "speed up a bit here" or "drag a bit here." Music is not metronomic. Humans are not metronomes. Our heart rates move up and down all the time. See a person you're angry with and what happens? See your cat getting ready to jump into your aunt-who-hates-cats lap and what happens? Voices are human things and so each one will vibrate differently, causing the shifts in vibrato and breath that should change how fast or slow one aria gets sung by various singers.

Debussy said it best: "You know what I think about metronome marks? They're right for a single bar, like 'roses with a morning life'. Only there are those who don't hear music and who take these marks as authority to hear it still less!"

Debussy got it, I think. But most musicians are simply scared of tempi. Why? They get yelled at for dragging, or rushing by conductors or their teachers. "Don't Rush!" is something we've all heard more than a few times in our life. Another example of why: during the weeks it takes to put on operas, singers rehearse with a pianist, and then in the last few days they sing with an orchestra. Inevitably they notice that things feel differently and chalk it up to "the tempi are different", or "this conductor changes tempi once he's in front of an orchestra". While this might be true, something else is causing the perception that time is moving differently when one changes from piano to orchestral accompaniment: Pianos are percussive instruments, and many times the rehearsal pianists - if they are young - rush the conductors. Orchestras seldom rush, and most of the instruments playing create sound in a non-percussive manner, changing the time it takes for their sounds to reach the ears of the singers. So parts of an aria or duet might feel too slow, other parts too fast.

We train young conductors and pianists to "keep a tempo". We talk to singers about time like it is fixed somehow. They work to find "their tempo" for this or that aria. Instead, I think singers and pianists should go listen to recordings of great singers and conductors. Quickly one discovers a more organic flow of time, a flexibility, that also appears to change phrase by phrase. The sense of time was more horizontal and less fixed before our current age of anxiety. We fear TIME in music so much that the solution seems to be to set a clock into it's heart in order to control it.

This clock sits at the centre of all mediocre music-making.

That's what happens when we fear something. We set out to control it. (Here's a link to my blog on fear: Fear In Opera)

We created metronomes long ago, but we continue to create invisible ones today. Too many put these clocks into the heart of their art.

My credo? I believe that My Art's Heart Is Not a Clock. I believe it is another kind of force more akin to Love, that lives without limitations and expectations.

Those who want to know what to expect before the Art is created, those who want to put limits on Art, or those who want Art and Artists to have adequately comfortable lives that are safe, shouldn't be leading our world, or our musical worlds. Many are, and that is the really frightening thing.

So toss out your art's clock. Allow love back in. Love that has no bounds, no rules, no walls. You'll find a release and a freedom that is truly exhilarating and, perhaps, transformative.

And spend some time checking out Frida and Diego. They were cool.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Eye of the Beholder: Art is Love Made Public

“Art is love made public” is one of my favourite episodes from Season Two of Netflix's "Sense8" series (created by the amazing Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who brought us The Matrix). There are many characters and the plots are too vast to go into. For the purposes of this blog, this scene focuses on two male lovers living in Mexico who, up to this point, thought their affair was private: Lito, is a machismo action movie star, his lover Hernando is an Art History professor.

While discussing a piece of art in his class, Hernando Feuntes (Lito’s lover) finishes his lecture with: “It (art) is the language of seeing and being seen.”

Then the class starts to giggle as their phones all light up. When Hernando asks what’s going on, one of the men in the class shares what they're all looking at by putting a viral photo up on the lecture room view screen, for all to see. The picture that has gone viral is a photo of Hernando and Lito having sex (and it is quite explicit.) Everyone laughs. The guy who put it onto the screen then wryly asks “Is this art, Mr. Feuntes?”

After taking a moment, Hernando decides to continue the lecture using the picture as the subject...

“Is it art, Mr. Valles? Why don’t you tell us what you see?”

The student says “Looks like shit-packer porn.”

Nervous giggles emanate from the other students.

Hernando retorts: “Shit-packer porn, that is very interesting. ‘Cause this is where the relationship between subject and object reverses. The proverbial shoe shifting to the other foot. And what was seen, now reveals the seer. Because the eyes of the beholder find not just beauty where they want, but also shallowness, ugliness, confusion, and prejudice. Which is to say the beholder will always see what they want to see, suggesting that what you want to see, Mr. Valles, is in fact, shit-packer porn.”

More chuckles from the students, while Mr. Valles looks on uncomfortably.

Hernando finishes, “Whereas someone else, someone with a set of eyes capable of seeing beyond societal conventions, beyond their defining biases, such a beholder might see an image of two men caught in an act of pleasure. Erotic to be sure, but also... vulnerable. Neither aware of the camera. Both of them connected to the moment of each other. To love. And as I have suggested before in this class, art is love made public.

There are many moments like this in Sense8. Turning societal conventions on their heads and asking questions of the viewers themselves. Trying to take a public art form - a tv series - and move it back into a person's private life, to get them to think about their own biases and ideas.

A colleague of mine, Paul Yachnin (Tomlinson Shakespeare Professor at McGill University) once said during a public talk that “theatre (he was not just meaning Shakespeare’s theatre, but all theatre) is the private made public.” He went on to say that one of the terrible things about incarcerating another human being is that you remove their ability to have a private life.

Social media is certainly making most people’s private lives, their thoughts, their meals, their dates, their holidays, their everything super public. For some, the public might mean a closed group of friends, for others, a much larger group of friends of friends, and for some a total public presence (like our dear President Trump). All their thoughts sent out into the world. Their PRIVATE MADE PUBLIC.

Social Media is, in its essence, THEATRE.

If we return to Hernando’s point, that Art is Love Made Public, and if private-made-public Social Media posts are theatre, then Art and Love can also be thought of as a form of Theatre. And as all social media seems to be self-focused, many people are finding that their lives, their literal faces, can be made into a type of public theatre. It’s yet another reason why opinions are being transformed into facts, why people are being duped by fake news – it’s hard to discern real from fake in a world where everything is theatre.

For theatre isn’t real. It is fake.

Yet, social justice warriors on the left, and Trump supporters on the right, are having problems recognizing the difference. They see productions and think that images and words created in the theatre are real, or are offensive, or... dangerous. The uproar this summer with the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar is a perfect example of people not figuring out what’s theatre and what’s real. Trump supporters stood up in the theatre to protest the show’s JC looking a lot like Trump (after JC gets assassinated), then real security show up to remove the protestors. But, and this is the meta-gone-crazy moment, later in the play fake protestors stand up in the audience (as part of the play) and protest the assassination and are escorted from the venue by fake security guards. But then the meta goes beyond the horizon: real security guards were needed to escort the fake ones to ensure their safety from the real protestors, or I guess others in the audience upset about the protesting itself. Many in the audience were left perplexed.

But this isn’t only a problem with people who are blinded by their support of Trump, or who haven’t read the play to know what it is actually about. (These protestors are often derided by us liberals for being ignorant, fyi.) Ignorance lives on both sides of the political coin. However, the left sees itself as not just holding the upper hand, but holding the correct hand. Productions of operas, movies, paintings, and books are being singled out for being politically incorrect, oftentimes without realizing the subtleties of the history of the pieces, or the lives of the authors/artists. They are doing the exact same thing as the JC protestors – trying to shut down the private made public. They are trying to control art.

Often the people being silenced are being singled out because of their outward appearance, i.e. their race or their visible cultural identity (often, this is put upon them by those criticizing their works.) Someone might see me and make the obvious - but incorrect - conclusion that I'm a straight, white, male. But my personal identity is much more fluid (and complex) than that and for some of my ancestors, they were far from being considered "white". I'm mostly a European mix (Scottish/Danish), but my Catholic Irish immigrants and "Bohemian" immigrant ancestors on my mother's side would argue their point: they were not allowed into WASP establishments, institutions, or public groups, so how "white" were they? My mom was called Cat-licker by the same protestant kids who would wave their hands over their noses when she passed because she smelled like fish (Catholics ate lots of fish I gather.) Would anyone say her struggles as a young Catholic child in an all Lutheran small town were not caused by her perceived identity?

But the defining aspect of my identity is my atheism. According to the recent polls, being an atheist makes me the most hated type of person in America; the most "immoral". My privilege is great, but I could never run for President. A guy with a middle name "Hussein" has a better chance of being President than any atheist would have (at least currently.) Times might change, we shall see. I make no travel plans to certain countries because my atheism is grounds for my execution.

Should Art or Artists be seen solely through the lens of their identity? And if so, what is that identity? For example, is my art atheistic or should it be distilled down to that of a white married guy, negating my actual and more complex identity? If names and identities were hidden from the public, would art be seen and heard differently? On the operatic stage we can see people and make opinions about their identity, but I don't think we can hear identity. We can't hear race, for instance. Sometimes we can hear an accent (Americans singing in French, the French singing in English, the English singing in 'Merican), but usually the training of a professional opera singer overrides their cultural background. In an art form that is predominantly about hearing, shouldn't that be the dominant element when discussing an opera singer's performance?

Time does move forward and no issue lives beyond its time without mutation. Issues typically evolve. Times change, people change. The Eyes of the Beholders change. But the ART stays the same. It is who is seeing the art that changes. The seers think the art has changed, but it hasn’t. If you understand that, then you're more enlightened than most. The Art is just revealing the seer's current biases, their current issues, their current hearts and minds.

So – what are The Eyes of the Beholders, i.e. the public, revealing what’s in their own hearts and minds now? Currently, I think they reveal a lot of hatred, bias, close-mindedness, anxiety, worry, anger, offensiveness, defensiveness, shallowness, ugliness, confusion, prejudice, but mostly: fear. Otherwise, I think we’d see more discussions about how Art – whether it’s public art, theatre, music, poetry, murals, or even facebook posts – is empathetic, enlightening, open-minded, positive, educational, beautiful, spiritual, or culturally broadening.

As Hernando stated, Art is the language of seeing and being seen. Art is love made public.

What do you see when your Eye beholds art? What does that say about you?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Department of Practice

Many of us study or work in schools of music, or departments of music. At McGill, I work in the Department of Performance which is just one department of the larger Schulich School of Music of McGill University.

We call ourselves that, I guess, because we are performing professors who teach about performing to future performers.

Or do we? Is it all performing all the time? Certainly it looks that way with over 600 public performances given each year in our various venues on and off campus. (That's a lot, mind you.) Each of those performances represents hundreds of hours of preparation, score research, listening, active learning, studying with mentors, and - especially this - practice.

"Practice makes perfect" or my favourite (NOT): "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice."

Both of those famous quotes are truly not true. Far from it. Research has shown that too much practice focused on achieving perfection oftentimes does not give one perfection. And really, what's perfection? Totally unattainable outside of a few Olympic gymnasts or divers, (or Julia Child's recipe for boeuf bourguignon.) As well, getting to Carnegie Hall is pretty easy nowadays. Put together some money, gather your forces, and rent the hall. I know lots of people who've performed at Carnegie, but I can tell you honestly that very few got there just by practicing.

But practicing is a huge part of a students' world. When I was a piano major, I never practiced (I've blogged about this probably too much. It sounds like a boast, but it actually is my only regret in life.) There's a famous memoir "I really should be practicing" by the great pianist Gary Graffman. The title speaks deeply to many instrumentalists during their student years, and it really spoke to me as it was my mantra at Simpson. I'd say it late at night while painting a set, or I'd say it later the same night over shared Dominoes Pizza with others who should've been practicing too.

Nowadays, just like in yesteryears passed, students stress out about practicing - either they're risking injury by practicing too much or ignoring the pile of music on their desk. It's stressful just typing about practicing!

I think what might be adding to this stress is that, through social media, we are now teaching young people that learning itself is stressful. Because, you see, stress sits very close to the feeling of being uncomfortable. Stress is now being seen as entirely negative, which is too bad because stress is not always a negative force. Uncomfortable, yes. But not always a negative thing.

"Stress kills!" read the headlines. Then there are all the medical sites, with their "stress and high cholesterol", "stress and depression", "stress and binge eating", etc., etc., etc.

Depending on what motivates a musician to practice, the stress is magnified or lessened. Deadline to memorize a movement of a sonata looming? Good stress. Accepting a gig at the last minute that causes you to have to learn gobs of music overnight? Good stress. Taking on too many gigs while starting a new program of study and a new job bartending at night? Not the best kind of stress. Forgetting to translate your texts until the day before stagings begin? Shame on you!

Practice is not solely a sole activity. Collaborating with others is what most musicians do as the next step beyond their own practice. And collaboration can be difficult. Everyone in the room seems to have done more research than you, prepared more dutifully than you, had more coachings and lessons on their role than you. And they're all skinnier it seems and wearing cooler outfits in order to impress their new colleagues (why did I choose to wear the tight jeans today?) The stress of collaborating, especially with new colleagues, is like the stress of a blind date. You know the name of the restaurant (La Boheme), and the name of your date (Marcello), but you know little else and have to wing it, even though you've prepared for your date simply by living your life. Preparing for the first rehearsal of an opera takes a lot of practicing, a lot of preparation. Everyone is nervous and trying to impress, so everyone is stressed (and don't you hate the person who knows everyone else and is running around kissing everybody on the cheek?!) Why have sweaty palms too?

Collaborating is the big step towards being able to perform in public. It is a courageous act. It is also a joyous and wondrous communal act as well.  Collaborating is the reward for practicing. A lot of times, I think young singers misunderstand that rehearsing is practicing. We even use those two words for the same activity (particularly in high school when your parents would say "how was practice tonight?") But practicing is really something that happens before collaboration and rehearsal, and those two things are continuations of actual practice, to be sure. For most of us who do this long enough, collaboration is usually pure joy.

If one doesn't feel some sort of joy in the activity of practice or feel mostly joy while learning something new, collaborating on it, and then performing it, perhaps one shouldn't be encouraged to study music.  Music schools think they teach performers, but it is a misnomer really. We teach "practicers", because that's what we all do 'till our own song ends.

Practicers are who we are, really, because it's what we spend 98% of our time doing.

Practice doesn't make perfect, but it does make performers.