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Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Serenade to Shakespeare

Most of the big Shakespeare celebrations have come and gone. In case you missed it, 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Just a few years ago, we were celebrating the 450th anniversary of his birth (a date not quite as fixed as his death) in 2014. If the math fails you, that's 1564 - 1616 for good ol' Will Shakespeare.

I spent a whole year back in 2014 celebrating the 450th. Productions connected to Shakespeare's works on the stage: Giulio Cesare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I Capuleti e i Montecchi, a huge scenes program featuring excerpts of both the Shakespeare plays and their operatic treatments: scenes from The Tempest, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merry Wives of Windsor with the opera versions by Hoiby, Britten, Gounod, Nicolai, and Verdi, and a special evening of "Songs and Sonnets" focused on songs with Shakespeare texts by Tippet, Finzi, Quilter, Korngold, Thomson, and Vaughan Williams (his Serenade to Music was the finale.) We documented the whole year via the talents of videographer Anne Kostalas. The documentary, which is fascinating in all that it encompasses, is viewable here (highly recommended!): Shakespeare at Opera McGill

This year, I missed the big celebration in London, England (by just a few days) put together by The Globe. It looked amazing and I hope it was a huge success. Here's a link to that site: Shakespeare400 at the Globe

There were, are still, many more celebrations ongoing. One of them is happening toward the end of July at the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Again, another link: July 27th Shakespeare Serenade at the TSMF

This is a combination of the Shakespeare scenes program and the evening of songs and sonnets from the Opera McGill 450th celebration and I'm really looking forward to putting these two evenings together for a Toronto audience. It's such a huge program that I couldn't play the whole thing, so I invited the wondrous Michael Shannon to share the program with me at the piano. It's all happening at the University of Toronto's Walter Hall on July 27th. Check that link out for ticket info and don't miss it!

Putting this program together has been a rather huge challenge. There are 16 singers involved, most of whom live in the Greater Toronto Area and are leading very busy lives this summer. The scenes program is slightly easier because it involves a trio or a quartet of people -- that's easy to schedule. The Serenade second-half of the program, however, is staged with all 16 singers moving about as individuals. There's only one way to do this and that's to have everyone present in order to make the interactions work. We're basically doing it in one night, so wish us all luck.

Not that I'm worried because the talent of the performers is huge, as is their experience. These singers have graced Canadian stages from Vancouver Opera to the Canadian Opera Company to L'opéra de Montreal as well as performing in hundreds of opera productions at their schools (yes, the majority did go to McGill but, hey, I wanted to work with my former students again!), summer training programs throughout Canada and the United States, and Indie opera companies like Opera5, Compagnie Baroque Mont-Royal, and Stu&Jess Productions. Michael Shannon, who is also a former student, has been spending his time learning his operatic trade at places like the San Francisco Opera and the C.O.C.; not too shabby!

It's a concert inspired by the Bard, with a traditional kind of opera scenes program yet with the twist being that the audience will first watch the singers act the original Shakespeare scene and then watch and hear what it looks like when adapted for the operatic stage. Truly a unique way of presenting these scenes and one that informs both the Shakespeare and the operatic version. It's also quite challenging for the singers to act the Shakespeare!

The second half is a non-traditional approach to a song recital. Normally, a singer walks out onto the concert stage with a pianist in tow, bows to the audience and then sings through a cycle of songs by someone, with the emphasis being on the text and the music. Dramatic energy and action is typically frowned upon (god knows why…) by many who view the recital as something quite conservative and stolid for, um, serious people. The audience sits in silence and reads translations of texts while they listen. (Sometimes I think I might as well be listening to a recording at many of the recent recitals I've attended.) When taken to its extreme, a singer can take away any original perspective on the piece, giving up any sort of personal stamp on a set of songs in order to give, I don't know, some sort of justice to the purity of the composer perhaps? This drives me crazy because, of course, with the great recitalists that is the last thing they do.

Well, this second half won't be like that at all. There'll be over a dozen singers on the stage, casually drinking and listening to each other express their love, anger, betrayal, dismay, or hope via the most amazing texts by Shakespeare set to music by some of the greatest composers of the 20th century. The idea is that these people onstage have just left some sort of summer dinner party and have entered the garden to enjoy more of each other, while some are inspired to recite poetry (via a number of the Sonnets) and fall in and out of love.  It all ends with all of the singers performing the magical Vaughan Williams Serenade To Music, which if you've never heard it sung by soloists with piano accompaniment is sure to please. In fact, my favourite song - ever - is featured on the evening's program and I can't wait to perform it live!

And make sure to check out the other amazing evenings at the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Here's the link to their home site: Toronto Summer Music Festival website



Monday, July 11, 2016

A Year In The Life!

A few years ago, I had an idea about how to make young singers' lives more accessible to others, either people who were just interested, but especially to other young students who might be thinking about pursuing a career in classical music. So many people out there in the wide world have very few inklings about what goes into learning to sing -- especially opera. I thought someone should follow around a singer for a year and see what their life was like.

Why? Because there's a lot of misinformation out there about what it takes to become successful in opera and I wanted to expose a bit more of the truth. Oftentimes people are surprised to find out that one can major in opera studies. Too often I'm asked some surprising questions by audience members: Do the students do their own stagings? or, Do the students make their costumes too? No, and, no.

I wanted to answer questions that I've been asked over the decades: What kind of young person studies opera? What do they do every week? How long does it take to rehearse an opera? What goes into these operas? What makes the student experience with Opera McGill special?

What does a year in the life of an opera student look like?

A few years ago I'd met an amazing videographer, Anne Kostalas. Anne has spent hundreds of hours creating dozens of terrific video "trailers" for Opera McGill productions (here are two links to check out: Rodelinda Preview & Midsummer Preview), creating the wonderful Shakespeare Sessions documentary, (here's the link to all six parts -- please do watch it! Year of Shakespeare 6 Episodes), as well as becoming a fixture in the Montreal opera scene (her work can also be seen on the Opéra de Montreal's Atelier website: Atelier Young Artist Profile).

Anne was excited about taking on this project, but I'm not sure she or I knew just how much time and effort it would take to really get the story. We decided to follow three students: Chelsea Rus, a soprano in her 2nd year of her masters degree; Jonah Spungin, a baritone finishing up his bachelors degree, and Rose Naggar-Tremblay, a mezzo-soprano in the middle of her bachelors degree.  All three were cast in multiple shows, all three led very busy lives -- Anne captured so much more than just their operatic lives.

When I asked Anne about the finalized documentary she said, "Sure it was hard work but I'm convinced filming and editing this documentary was nothing compared to how hard these young singers work every day."

A huge thanks to Jonah, Rose, and Chelsea who, as Anne puts it, "were very generous to let me into their lives. I was shocked recently to see that over the last year we had texted each other more than 600 times." When audiences watch these episodes, they'll see many of those 'behind the scenes' staff who are instrumental in making Opera McGill happen -- from our design team, to the Schulich School voice teachers and vocal coaches, but also to the community of friends and family that surrounds these students.

Interestingly, the question that neither of these three students ever asked me directly was "why was I chosen?"

Well -- these three students represent the best in all of the hundreds of students I've taught over the years. Students who are dedicated, who work hard to achieve high standards of excellence in performance, but who also live interesting lives outside of their studies while pursuing goals beyond their academic work. Most importantly, though, these students represent the POTENTIAL in every student who studies classical music.

This potential is dynamic and practically thermonuclear! It explodes everyday in the practice room, in the classroom, in the studios and rehearsal spaces, and on the stage here at the Schulich School of Music and all over the world.

Rose, Jonah, and Chelsea were quite gracious under the scrutiny of the camera, as Anne told me recently, "Opera McGill could not have wished for three finer ambassadors." I couldn't agree more!

A huge, massive THANK YOU to Anne Kostalas. I'm such a huge fan of her work -- she sees stories where so many do not -- and am thrilled at how this documentary seems like a love letter to not just Opera McGill, but to the McGill campus and all the people who study and work here.

So without further delay...

We've decided to launch the last of the three episodes here on my blog! If you haven't seen the first two episodes, please watch them too!

A Year In The Life: Episode ONE
A Year In The Life: Episode TWO

And here is the final episode, following Chelsea competing in the finals of the Wirth Voice Prize, Jonah deciding his future while performing in operetta and recital, and Rose putting together her role in Opera McGill's spring production of Rodelinda. (Plus graduation video!)

A Year In The Life: Episode THREE
ENJOY!



Monday, June 27, 2016

Community in Opera

Community:
"a unified body of individuals" 
or 
"an interacting population with common interests, goals, history, or culture"
 - Webster's online dictionary

Opera companies, summer programs, young artist training programs, and practically every guesting gig in opera share what I'd call the "idea of community". From disparate parts of the globe, varied people with different specialties come together for a brief period of time to unify, interact, and collaborate to create an opera production.  They become a community, and oftentimes a community that feels like a family. Yet these are temporary communities for the most part. They energetically come together, rehearse intensely, oftentimes sharing deep secrets, memories, or emotions, perform as one, and then disappear literally overnight. Temporarily a close-knit and vital community. (Cue Cher: "Everything is temporary!")

Some opera companies, perhaps a few too many, are dysfunctional families filled with verbally abusive parental figures, Maestro Dad and Director Mom, arguing with their more moneyed relatives, Uncle Arts Director and Aunt Exec Director, while trying to cajole their adult children to do what they want, when they want it, and exactly how they'd like it.

Okay, not the best metaphor perhaps.

But the land of opera is one filled with communities and it's such a wondrous moment when you come into contact with a real, honest-to-god community of people who are actually there for each other, return year after year (summer festival music staffs, for instance), and seem to actually want to collaborate in such a way that has nothing to do with their own agendas but everything to do with the common purpose at hand; artistic vision meets artistic excellence for the greater good.

I've experienced this just a few times in my 30+ years in the business.

The first was at Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO) in the mid 1980s. Back then it was a 1+ million dollar opera company nestled on the campus of Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa putting on eclectic seasons performed in repertory fashion. There was a synergy among the music and directing staff, many who returned year after year (brilliant people like Reed Woodhouse, Buck Ross, William Farlow, and Stewart Robertson) to coach, prepare, and assist the apprentices as well as the guest artists who were all brought together by the founders Robert Larsen and Doug Duncan. Guests returned year after year and sang multiple roles. Amazing artists like Lauren Flanigan (the greatest Curly's Wife ever, the funniest Clorinda ever, the most vivid Musetta), Evelyn de la Rosa "diva Delarosa" (so many, many coloratura roles), Carroll Freeman (great with Rossini tenor roles), Anne Larson (the "local" character mezzo who sang circles around everyone else - her Bertha and her Thisbe, not to mention her Quickly, still sit in my mind as the definitive versions of those roles), along with the spectacular Nova Thomas (the greatest "Donde lieta" I'll ever hear) returned year after year to Indianola to make memorable music in the middle of Iowa. The middle of Iowa, not even in Des Moines, (in Indianowhere as we used to call it!) Why? Was it Robert? Was it singing in that unique theatre? It certainly couldn't have been the artist fees or the high heat and humidity.

I think that there was a palpable sense of community, of family, that was created by the chemistry of the artists, the artistic staff, Stewart, Doug and Robert. It was a unique group of people, from all over the U.S. (and Glasgow in Stewart's case). This community was disassembled during the years following Doug's untimely death in 1988. I was there from the summer of 1984 thru to 1988, then returned in 1990 and again in the mid 90s. People left, things changed, the community changed and grew apart, as is natural. I had started there behind the lobby bar, moving pianos and Xerox machines, taking notes for RLL at his feet in the pit, and later moved on appearing onstage in my first professional role, Turandot's father, Emperor Altoum, being a rehearsal pianist for shows like Boris Godunov and conducting a performance of Albert Herring (my one and only time in that glorious pit!) DMMO was my first operatic family and its community was my operatic Midwestern small "home" town where I got the chance to grow up, immersed in opera.

Stewart went off to Glimmerglass and made a conscious effort during his twenty years there as Music Director to create his own unique community. I was lucky to be a part of it for many seasons. There was a core music staff that returned year after year. Unbelievably talented pianists, coaches, administrative interns, and assistant conductors and directors flourished next to Lake Otsego. I think many, especially the young artist returnees, felt a special quality to the Glimmerglass community sequestered each summer in upstate New York. A combination of rehearsing in un-air-conditioned venues, sitting in intense heat listening to recitals in Cherry Valley, freezing our arses off during late night piano dress rehearsals in the theatre, and eating Alex&Ika's duck curry all added up to creating an experience one had to embrace fully, or resent each day otherwise. Years of knowing our colleagues really helped when the goings got tough, the schedules got tougher, or the singers needed help or advice for successfully navigating a long and challenging summer. Some of my fondest memories are of the YAAP recitals played by the likes of Timothy Hoekmann (certainly one of the greatest collaborative pianists of his generation), Mark Trawka, Laurann Gilley, David Moody, or the legendary Dan Saunders.

After I left Glimmerglass, I worked many places and found myself in various other communities, some quite enriching, some challenging, some supportive, and others totally alien to my way of thinking.

The Opera McGill community has a flow in and out of it because of the students starting their studies and then, inevitably, graduating and moving on, but the core stays - the coaches, voice instructors, and especially the Opera McGill designers. Vincent Lefevre, his wife Ginette Grenier and I have designed almost 50 operas together in ten years. That's an amazing amount of opera to do together! Our community is tight and their artistic expression and mine weave in and out of each other like a beautiful tapestry.

And then last month I spent three weeks in Toronto for Opera5's immersive, unique, bizarre, deafening, manic, wondrous, crazed, yet brilliant Die Fledermaus in an, I'll be honest, ugly venue (918 Bathurst) conducting the best pick-up orchestra I've ever had the pleasure of making music with (more on that later) with a cast and chorus who gave one of the most spirited and alive performances I've ever been a part of recently.

The cast and production team came from all over - Ireland, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Newfoundland, and even the U.S. - many of whom didn't know each other well. However, the core group knew each other very well. The artistic vision of Opera5 is led by Aria Umezawa. The general director is Rachel Krehm. Both went to McGill and after graduation, returned to Toronto where they, and three others, founded Opera5 (one of a dozen or so "independent opera" companies in the GTA). Opera5 put themselves on the map with the creation of their tongue-in-cheek "Opera Cheats" YouTube video series. These hilarious videos have had over 100,000 combined views and major opera companies now link to them. If you haven't seen one, I urge you to click here and check them out. Here's the link to their recent Hoffmann video: OperaCheat for Hoffmann

Come to find out, in addition to creating unique opera productions in the GTA and those Opera Cheats, what their real genius seems to be is assembling and nurturing fantastic communities of people. It's a rare gift, fyi, as the ability to put people together and get them to really feel like an "interacting population with common interests, goals, history or culture" is one of THE most important elements to running any successful opera company. Casting is important, yes, but if that cast doesn't jive with themselves or with members of the production team, there's little one can do but get through the performances while gritting your teeth.

But Opera5's community is different than any I've been seen before. It is quite youthful, almost obliviously naive as to how opera usually gets done. An energy that's very Buffy the Vampire Slayer: irreverence played up against the stolid traditions of O.P.E.R.A. It was a breath of fresh air for me, even though I felt like the odd man out - namely because I was twenty years older than anyone else in the room!

I admit that I was put off by so much right off the bat (excuse the pun). For instance, it drove me crazy that everyone congregated around the rehearsal table before, during, and after rehearsals. For those who might not know, the rehearsal table is a place for the director and their production team to gather, watch rehearsals, and work from in order to create with the cast. It's where we put our stuff and where we sit in judgment. It's certainly not a place to constantly socialize. However, Opera5's rehearsal table was a place where everyone - team, chorus members, cast - congregated (on both sides of the table!) to sit, watch, eat, and talk. It drove me crazy.

Yet it was a place that obviously helped build this Fledermaus community. People brought in shared meals, treats, and snacks. Everyone was equal there; there seemed no false hierarchy (director, then AD, then PSM, then ASMs, then others like designers and interns) at the table with lowly singers put into the corners of the room in chairs by themselves. It allowed everyone to be on equal footing and that allowed everyone to be free to create.

This Fledermaus was truly a collaborative effort, particularly because Aria left for the Merola program before the show moved to the venue. The chorus was asked to improv their way through interactions with audience members and they really were responsible for making those interactions come to life. The dialogue was initially rendered by Aria, but over the course of rehearsals everyone had a part in cutting, reworking, or rewriting the book. They were all so comfortable with each other that by the time the orchestra was added, spontaneous ideas flowed between everyone. Now I'm not saying that this does not happen other places, I've certainly witnessed fantastic collaborative efforts before, but I think this flow was different. It was much more egalitarian, much less controlled, much less judged, much more millennial, in the best sense of that word. If one can aim a criticism at Millennials it is that they think all opinions are valid (except anything that seems un-PC, which lately seems to be about everything, mind you), but for the most part ideas were tried out and allowed to fail, or to succeed, or to wither and then evolve. The orchestra and I, on a whim, even added a drunken waltz at the top of Act 3 to underscore Frank's drunken entrance. I conducted drunk and they played drunk. It was hysterical.

Here's a pic taken during that moment (yes, by an orchestra member):

The orchestra - another great example of positive community building! Amazing players (most from either Kingston Symphony or Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony) who played with terrific musicality and were remarkably together, considering the venue's acoustics and placement of the singers (mostly behind me). They played with an energy that was also very generous and giving. For instance, when the audience got too loud on our closing night, the orchestra just started to play louder so that the singers could hear the music, something that many other orchestras (especially pickup orchestras) might not have cared to do.

Not caring is a disease running rampant in our business (especially among singers, orchestral players, and administrators). I think an antidote to this problem can be found in community building.

For you see, many of the singers and players had already taken part in previous productions for Opera5 and so they had previously invested their time and energy into the company and the audiences. They understood the company's goals and artistic vision. For instance, when the orchestra was asked to dress in anything other than traditional black, they showed up in purple wigs, feather boas, tropical shirts, and tiaras. 

It goes without saying that when you are surrounded by people who are enjoying themselves while they are making music, the music that is made can be incredibly satisfying.

And that's what building a community of people gets you in opera.

So my advice to all is to surround yourself with positive and talented people who are interested in creating something together and then - here's the biggest part - invite them back again and again and again. Obviously not everyone all the time (that'd be impossible), but what's wrong with having the feeling of a "rep" company? It works for summer stock festivals. It worked for Arthur Freed making musicals at MGM in the 40s and 50s. It worked for Steve Jobs at Apple. It worked for Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, composers who loved writing many different roles for the same singers.

Why do some opera companies constantly hire different singers year after year? I think it's because they mistake novelty with marketing excitement. I'd argue there's a point to putting the same singer on the same stage year after year: audiences like to feel that they too are part of a community. Enjoying a singer's artistry in different productions from season to season is a very easy way to connect audience members with the company's sense of community. It literally builds an audience.

If there's anything we know in opera, it is that it most undoubtedly takes a village! So find a village, even if that means volunteering at first, or singing in the chorus, or being an ASM. Or take from Aria's and Rachel's handbook and build one yourself. Think not about what operas you'd put on, or who you'd cast, or where you'd perform. Instead, think about what sort of people you want at your table. Start there.

And bring roasted chicken or cookies or both.



Monday, June 13, 2016

Opera's Summer Lovin' !

There are hundreds of singers currently just starting summer programs, or getting ready to head out to one. From the west coast to the east coast, from huge cities to teeny-tiny one-stoplight towns (shout out to Cherry Valley, NY!), from large opera companies that spend millions to small companies that wish for six figure budgets; singers, pianists, assistant directors, stage managers, administrative interns, orchestral musicians -- all are arriving fresh as a daisy, with a smile on their faces, anxious for that first musical rehearsal to happen, all the while hoping no one sees their floppy sweat, or notices they've lifted all of their ornaments from the same YouTube video featuring a certain mezzo named Joyce.

Yes -- the beginning of the summer is all about optimism and energy. It's about sexual attraction developing during staging rehearsals, it's about discovering that perhaps your vocal "technique" may or may not be holding up during 9 hour days. Summer programs are unique - no summer is the same, and no program is the same from summer to summer. It's all about the chemistry of those involved. Some years, the "yaps" are a fantastic bunch, really supportive, talented, energetic, on time, prepared. Other years you get a bunch of whiners, cliques, and singers who can't imagine that they'd be asked to sing the tenor 2 line in a "Libiamo" chorus being sung that night for some patron's event ("but I'm a baritone!").

I look back so fondly on my time at Des Moines Metro Opera as an apprentice coach being mentored by the likes of Stewart Robertson and Robert Larsen while discovering the wit of a Buck Ross or Reed Woodhouse. I pine for the 9am to midnight work days at Glimmerglass where I'd get to coach amazing singers, attend mind-altering staging rehearsals, sit and puzzle out the next day's schedule, eat a gourmet meal at Alex and Ika's, and then spend the evening at a piano dress rehearsal in the theatre, freezing to death in late June.

I have, over 30 years, discovered that there are some truisms I can summarize about young artist programs:

1) The singers who arrive with their chorus music learned are the singers who have the best chance of creating a professional career. Those who arrive super prepared, even if they're not the star voice or the Met winner, are the ones who end up getting managers and making it. It's called a WORK ETHIC. Makes all the difference!

2) The pianists who bitch, gossip, and moan about singers really don't like opera that much and they'll not be very successful down the road. (Well, with the exception of a few spectacular non-talents who do okay for themselves.) Go ahead and ignore the negative pianists, especially the ones who can't play the shows they aren't assigned to. Truly, they get weeded out.

3) Some assistant director or assistant stage manager at your program will, in about three to five years or so, have their own opera company somewhere in the world. Treat these people, who are working longer hours than you, with the best of all possible gloves. Bring them treats, or if you can't afford that, bring them smiles and kind words of thanks.

4) Bitchy, gossipy singers seem to be the core of the populace of young artist programs, but they are not. They're just really the most vocal and only seem to be "in the know". Walk away from them, go practice or go on a nature walk. Don't fall into their energy. It's infectious. The people who run these programs have seen this year after year after year. Gossips are kinda fun to have around, but no one really takes them seriously. So you shouldn't either.

5) You are not your casting ossia don't assume that just because you've been given a Rossini duet you're being told by the higher ups you should consider leaving the bass-baritone repertoire and become a bel canto baritone. In the same vein, if you've always been a Ferrando and all of a sudden you find yourself getting a Don Carlos duet, or being cast as Bacchus, you shouldn't consider moving into a heavier fach. Your casting is not your fach! Casting in a summer program is all about using the singers at hand who happen to have filled the various repertoire needs of that summer. I can not stress this enough! It is a rare program that really takes into consideration the individuals' vocal needs or current abilities.

6) You'll learn the most and network the most if you GO TO REHEARSALS THAT YOU ARE NOT CALLED TO. This means that when you'd rather head back to take a nap on an afternoon off, or spend the morning learning your chorus music (see number 1...), what you truly need to be doing is going to the staging rehearsal instead. Sit in on the show you're not in -- even if it's only for 30 minutes. Go up and connect with the principal artists. Get them to know your face. Introduce yourself to the production team. Ask them if they'd like a donut cause you're going out for a bite. Talk to the conductor and director! The singers who do these sorts of things network so much easier than the other yaps. It's hard to standout in a large program. It won't be your talent alone that gets you noticed. In fact, for many, there's no real chance to get noticed (unless you're a problem child and arrived ill-prepared, or you show up late day after day to chorus rehearsals.) You can learn so much by observing. Put away your smart phone. Don't sit and get text neck. Sit, watch, listen, observe, learn.

I was thinking about the most important part of my learning process in my early career. It was during the two years I played for Donald Palumbo, then the chorus master at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I played 15 operas for two summers of intense rehearsals with the god of opera, Maestro Palumbo. His was an artistic spotlight that seared through every piece of diction, every rest, every nuance, every fucking note of every fucking page. We'd spend what seemed like weeks on the opening entrance of the guests in La Traviata in order to get it right. I was in sheer terror of the man and in total awe. In two hours I could learn more from him than a year at Juilliard. I hung around those two seasons at the Lyric, sometimes in staging rehearsals, sometimes at the back of the opera house, sometimes offstage right listening and watching. Soaking it all in like a sponge.

It got me thinking about what I heard those two seasons, who I heard, who I saw direct and who I saw conduct. The list, off the top of my head and from memory, is staggering...

92-93 Season
Bryn Terfel
James Morris
Eva Marton
Leonie Rysanek
Chris Merrit
Placido Domingo
Tatiana Troyanos
Rockwell Blake
Neil Rosenshein
Barbara Daniels
Ben Heppner
Catherine Malfitano
Faith Esham
Teresa Stratas
Victor Braun
Jerry Hadley
Harolyn Blackwell
Vladimir Chernov
Fiorenza Cossotto
Sharon Sweet
Deborah Voigt
Ildebrando d'Arcangelo

93-94 Season
June Anderson
Dimitri Hvorostovsky
Susanne Mentzer
Sam Ramey
Jean-Philippe Lafont
Emily Magee
Renee Fleming
Richard Leech
Maria Guleghina
James Morris
Carol Vaness
Delores Ziegler
Gianna Rolandi
Siegfried Jerusalem
Tina Kiberg
Eva Marton
Susan Neves
Nancy Maultsby
Paolo Gavanelli
Chris Merritt
Dolora Zajick
Graham Clark

Directors/Conductors
Robert Altman
Robert Falls
Frank Galati
Bruno Bartoletti
Richard Buckley
Zubin Mehta
Leonard Slatkin
Donald Palumb, the great

I mean, what was I doing there?!
I wish, I wish, I wish, I'd walked up to these people and talked to them. I would give anything to spend another two hours with Palumbo. Just to be in the same room with him. I learned so much watching Dimitri H breathe through Germont's lines, I began to understand about the different levels of sonic boom hearing Zajick, Marton, and Guleghina (not to mention James Morris, Sam Ramey, or Leonie Rysanek!). I heard Renee Fleming struggle to be heard at the end of Susannah (don't get me wrong, she was radiant in the role), I saw singers ignore conductors and watch prompters instead, I listened as Eric Weimer played rehearsals of Wagner and Strauss with an ease that was jaw-dropping, I witnessed arguments between singers and directors that escalated to yelling fits, and I saw clearly that I needed to leave and go out into the world to learn more about what I didn't know (which was a lot!) about opera.

Summers are a great time to write a new chapter in your operatic life.  Each day offers new opportunities. It might seem like a summer is a long time, but it is a blink in your lifetime of learning.

Keep you eyes open, sleep after the program is over, worry less about getting to the gym, and head into where opera IS -- in that holy of holies called the rehearsal space.
Enjoy!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Toronto's Opera Scene!

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Toronto Blog

I’ve been in Toronto the last two weeks rehearsing J. Strauss’ Die Fledermaus with Opera5, one of the many new, “indie” opera companies that have sprung up over the last five years in this, the 5th largest city in North America.

Yes, 5th largest city. At over 6 million, Toronto is bigger than Miami, Philly, Dallas-Ft.Worth, Boston, Houston, or Washington, D.C.

So there should be a viable operatic community here beyond the Canadian Opera Company.

And in my short time in Toronto, it is clear that it is thriving.

I arrived the weekend that Against the Grain Theatre (AGT) closed their critically acclaimed “translaptation” of Mozart’s Così fan tutte re-titled to “A Little Too Cozy”. It starred three McGill alumni: baritone Cairan Ryan (a former L’opéra de Montreal Atelier young artist), tenor Aaron Sheppard (currently a member of the Canadian Opera Company’s young artist program), and mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb (who just finished up her 1st year at the Met’s prestigious Lindemann program). It was presented in an actual TV studio (it took place in a reality show setting, fyi) and was directed by the crown prince of Indie opera here in Canada, Joel Ivany.

Then a few nights ago I went to see the world premiere production of Tapestry Opera’s Rocking Horse Winner, based on the short story of D.H. Lawrence. The creative libretto, which included the character of the “House” (sung by a quartet) was perfectly set by the amazing Scottish composer Gareth Williams. In fact, I sat there thinking that this was the 21st century’s version of The Turn of the Screw. Orchestrated for string quartet, piano (and toy piano at the end), the voices of the “house” were perfectly blended into the tense, lyrical strings which provided both an harmonic tapestry as well as becoming a character themselves during the horse racing scenes; Britten would have been proud to have written this score.  I urge everyone to check out this composer in more detail. Mr. Williams website:  Gareth Williams, composer 
Tapestry Opera's website is located here: Tapestry Opera Website

The cast was terrific! The "House" was sung by Sean Clark, Aaron Durand, Erica Iris, and Elaina Moreau; the Mother, Ava was given a sensitive portrayal by Carla Huhtanen, Uncle Oscar was Keith Klassen (who looked and sounded like a Broadway star), Bassett was Peter McGillivray, and the most amazing performance I’ve seen in quite some time was by the young tenor Asitha Tennekoon who sang the lead role of young Paul. This young singing actor gave an exceptional performance, artistic administrators should get this guy’s number and contract him now before others find out about him.  I was also most impressed with Michael Mori’s restrained but spooky direction, and the whole wondrous production design (particularly the set by Camellia Koo). The opera was conducted by the young and preternaturally talented Maestro, Jordan de Souza. He’s off to Europe to take a position with the Komische Oper in Berlin and at the Bregenz Festival in Austria.  I expect Mo. de Souza will take over the operatic world any day now. If you've never heard of him, check out this site: Mo. JdS website

The reason for my stay in Toronto is to conduct Opera5’s very broad and unique take on Fledermaus. It is an “immersive” production, meaning that the audience and the actors will be in the same space, literally dancing and interacting with each other. The 1st act is being designed and given in a “2D” set, then for the 2nd act the idea is that the opera jumps off of the stage and into full “3D”. Added into the mix is the Toronto-based drag queen Pearl Harbor as an MC of sorts, plus cabaret acts including a Burlesque dancer and an aerialist doing her moves literally within and above the audience! Although I wonder if all of the ideas inherent in Fledermaus work easily into this concept as the piece is still about a philandering married couple who blame the evening’s transgressions on the “champagne” – although in this production’s case there is a beer sponsor, so free Steam Whistle beer is being served on opening night throughout (yes, throughout!) the opera. We’ve changed all champagne references to “Steam Whistle”, in a blatant advertisement for this Toronto based beer.

If I can generalize what makes these sorts of Indie opera ventures different, I’d say that Against the Grain sets to manipulate conventional opera into new pieces entirely, tossing out the da Ponte libretti to Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Così fan tutte and replacing them with all new characters and plots while keeping Mozart’s musical score. Eventually, they may run out of things to adapt and retranslate, so it’ll be interesting to see where the company goes. They are certainly venue-based and have exceptional PR here in Canada, plus have good taste in singers. The production of A Little Too Cozy was accompanied by string quartet and piano, which was also the orchestration for Tapestry’s recent world premiere. Yet Tapestry’s opera was actually scored for string quartet and piano, Mozart’s operas are for much more than that, usually. Tapestry seems to be much more of a “real” opera company (sorry to even suggest that moniker) in that they have a budget that can produce opera in a very polished and professional manner. Rocking Horse Winner looked like a Glimmerglass production, and could easily hold its own against many productions I've seen at much larger opera companies. The production values didn’t seem in any way “indie”, and so I wonder what Tapestry Opera might be able to do if they had even a portion of the COC's annual budget.

Opera5 is the upstart company, at least that’s the feeling I get from talking with many young singers here in Toronto. They are the plucky, “let’s-put-on-an-opera-in-my-barn” artists who are faced with the challenge of how to put on professional opera (with many artists who are Equity) with virtually no infrastructure most opera companies have: a paid staff, for instance, an office from which to sell tickets, a development director to raise funds, or regular rehearsal spaces. Opera5 is headed by the artistic vision of stage director, Aria Umezawa and Rachel Krehm (Opera5’s “general director” but really she’s a one-woman opera administration team.) Both are former students of mine. Frankly so many of the people involved in the Toronto Indie Opera scene are former students that there really is a mini-McGill community working inside these companies and on their stages! Check out Opera5's website: Opera5

[Make sure to read to the bottom to see a bunch of bonus links to HILARIOUS videos produced by Opera5!!]

Aria’s vision for this Fledermaus has been taken on by our co-director Jessica Derventzis while Aria moves to San Francisco for the summer to take part in the prestigious Merola Opera young artist program. Aria was my assistant director for over a dozen shows at McGill during my early years there and I couldn’t have built the program without her. She has a unique artistic vision, quite her own. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens after the wider world gets to know her. Jessica herself has produced numerous operas in Montreal under the team name of "Jess&Stu Productions", so she represents yet another indie opera company involved in creating found space, or venue-based,opera productions. 

Here's an interview with Aria: Interview on schmopera.com
Here's Jessica's site: Stu&Jess 

One of the things that does seem to make Opera5 different than the rest is their commitment to presenting operas with fuller orchestrations. Granted for this show there isn’t room in the space for a full orchestra. I think the dozen musicians we have in this reduced orchestration actually make a lovely sound that combines quite nicely with the voices in the room. For all of act 2 and 3 the singers are behind me, which is a challenge in a musical score that has multiple fermati (moments when the music is held in suspension from a time perspective) that normally are controlled by everyone watching the conductor. It reminds me of a number of musicals I’ve conducted where the orchestra is behind or, in some cases, in completely different rooms, than the singers. It can totally be done, and quite easily. It just takes rehearsal and planning (and flexibility from everyone involved!) Needless to say, it takes exceptional players to play a reduction and make it sound spectacular. These players are some of the best I’ve ever conducted, so it makes my job so much easier!

If there is a future for opera beyond the endless Boheme remounts, it is in the smaller opera companies and venue-based operatic productions springing up in New York City, Toronto, San Francisco, and Montreal. In fact, Michael Mori, the artistic director of Tapestry Opera has founded a group representing a dozen independent opera companies in the Toronto are: Indie Opera T. O.  I wonder if Opera America and/or opera.ca (the Canadian wing of professional opera companies) are thinking about how to include these smaller opera companies in the wider discussions happening about the future of the art form?

If any of my readers are interested in supporting these companies, or finding out more about them, I urge you to check out their websites that I’ve provided along the way. Opera5 could really use your support, so if you are in the Toronto area on June 8, 9, 10, or 11 buy a ticket and come to the show. It certainly will NOT be your grandma’s Fledermaus, and you might find yourself enjoying the sonic boom of hearing an Adele sing her famous Laughing Song 4 feet away from you while a chorister sings backup literally standing next to you! Here's the link to buy tickets: Tickets for Fledermaus!

And as an added bonus, please check out Opera5's famous "OperaCheat" videos. They have over 100,000 views on YouTube and really shouldn't be missed. I've linked the latest OperaCheat video here: OperaCheats!

Monday, May 30, 2016

Fear In Opera!

I’m going to write about fear today. I feel fear and hear fear way too often nowadays in young singers, I see it in young pianists while they enter a room to play for singers, and I read about it on social media all the time now.

Fear is permeating our world!

It must stop.

So – first a few quotes, then a personal story, and then my thoughts on Operatic Fear!

A few of my favorite quotes on Fear:

We have nothing to fear, but fear itself – FDR 
            (Yes, everyone knows this one, but it is TRUE!)

Fear keeps us focused on the past and worried about the future – Thich Nhat Hanh

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when man is afraid of the light – Plato
            (This is so true in today’s political climate)

I say I am stronger than fear – Malala Yousafzai
            (Really, knowing her story, how can ANY of us be afraid?!)

Always do what you are afraid to do – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I must not fear. 
Fear is the mind killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
-       Frank Herbert

I remember reading Dune in Jr. High School and re-reading the above Litany that appears often in the first section of Frank Herbert’s classis sci-fi book. I memorized it.

I had much to fear and this Litany became my friend; my weapon against my fear. It sat in my brain and was turned over and over, both consciously and unconsciously, until it became something second nature in me.

My fear? Fear of death, specifically my death. I was brilliantly misdiagnosed when I was a wee lad of eight; being told, while I was in the room, that I would most likely go blind, or blind and deaf, and that the skin disease would move inward into my neck and perhaps my brain resulting in death by the time I was 18 years old.

That takes a toll on a young child, as one might imagine. 

My mother took my hand, said something amazingly rude, and walked out of the office with me in tow saying – very loudly – “we will find another doctor who knows what he’s doing!”

I remember being taken to a Dairy Queen afterwards. I ate a large hot fudge sundae while my mother cried hysterically in front of me in the car, cigarette smoke swirling all around us.

Even though we found another doctor (a much younger, fresh-from-the-Mayo-clinic doctor), and my skin disease was treated successfully (obviously I’ve made it past 18), being told you might die before you reach college does something to you. I was formed by this event.

At exactly the same time, I started playing the piano. 

I was fearless at the piano. My amazing piano teacher, Berneil Hanson (still teaching in Council Bluffs, Iowa!) was also fearless. She tossed Bach, Beethoven sonatas, Ravel and Chopin onto the piano and we conquered difficult, college-level pieces when I was in Jr. High. I had no fear of them. I didn’t blink walking into a concerto contest in Omaha with the Beethoven #2 barely learned that morning. I made up the ends of Bach fugues, improvising my way out of them, during state piano contests. I never practiced, because I had no motivation to do so. That motivating fear in most of us – to prepare so we won’t fail – was lacking in me, profoundly so.

I failed. All the time! And I triumphed as well! But failing did not alter my lack of fear.  Fear had no place in my mind, and therefore had no place in my music making. Those pieces I learned in the late 70s and early 80s are still mostly in my hands. When I play them, I youthen as a musician. Time turns backwards and I’m once again 14 years old. 

But all that changed in college.

I initially studied with a piano teacher who thought the reason I missed notes was because I had a memory problem. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth, which was somewhere between my secret of never practicing and that I had little respect for the notes on the page (still do – I respect the composer’s intentions, but I don’t think the notes are the point). So in just one semester I was pretty miserable, I was having nerves – for the first time – playing publicly, I doubted myself and my talent, I was discombobulated in one semester by a well-meaning piano teacher. 

This happens to many, as we all know.

My dropping out of college was a two-fold event: I turned 18 and hadn’t died, but had subconsciously expected to, and my love for playing the piano had died. So I dropped out, had what I’d now describe as a nervous breakdown, and listened to a lot of Tears For Fears, Sting, U2, and Billy Joel.

Dropping out of college was the second most important formational event of my life. It is one of the huge motivations in my teaching:
            Allow for failure. 
            Don’t jump to conclusions about a student. 
            Think about the big picture
            Today is just a snapshot of the student, not a symptom of something wrong.
            It’s totally okay to fail, to drop out even.

Too often, we bearers of the classical music tradition who teach in Universities unmake our students in order to “build their technique” or “create a new musician from their raw materials”. Too often coaches and voice teachers “fix” singers. Like they’re broken or need some sort of hole filled. 

Musicians aren’t doughnuts. They don’t have a hole in the middle of them that needs to be covered up somehow by sweetened frosting in order to make them more palatable to the outside world. No one is a doughnut.

Too often, young singers and young pianists who enter the world of opera around their late teen years, become overwhelmed by the pretentiousness of the art form, or the sheer amount of repertoire built up over the centuries that they are expected to dive into, or the mystery of what communicating in other languages while embodying a character from ancient Greece means to their emotional makeup as a human being, or they get caught between the entertainment factor and the artistic factor inherent in opera. But most often, they simply stifle themselves as performers because they fear being wrong.

Being incorrect.

Making some stylistic, linguistic, musical, dramatic, or vocal mistake that someone – usually behind a table – will notice and take off points, put into their jury comments, or not hire them because they choose to place an appoggiatura in a Mozart recitative, or some other egregious what-the-fuck-do-you-think-you’re-doing choice that fills the panelist with profound loathing because they are way too pretentious.

More importantly, fear also affects the sounds singers and pianists make.

Pianists slam on the soft pedal while playing for singers. All the time now. Why do this? What are they afraid of? That they’ll overwhelm the singer? That someone will hear them play a wrong note, or leave out (rightly so) many of the notes in the piano reduction? They are playing an orchestral reduction. Most often opera orchestras have between 30 and 50 players in the pit. Twenty string players all playing pianissimo is LOUDER than one pianist playing softly with the soft pedal on.  Stop this immediately! You’re not playing a Debussy song (and one should only use the soft pedal where he specifies una corda!) The meek pianist is a sonic bore, and your musicality can’t be heard if it is way too subtle.

As we say in musical theatre land: Sing Out Louise!

Looking to the singer side of the aisle, I think fear really permeates decisions about what to add onto a score – for instance, ornaments. Nowadays, it is the rare singer who presents their own ornaments in an aria. I’m talking about Handel, Mozart, and Rossini in particular. It’s as if their whole education as a singer has missed one of the big important lessons: ornamentation is a part of being a singer. Finding ornamentation that works for each unique voice is something that singers, their teachers, and coaches should all be working on during their time in school.

The way to becoming an artist is to clarify for yourself what your voice can do that is unique and special, as well as what you can do as a musician that is unique and special. One of those things is ornamentation.

It’s not brain surgery, either. There’s no mystery here. Too often I hear young singers give the excuse that they’ve “never been taught” how to ornament. Or they’ll say they didn’t want to add any ornaments because “they don’t know how to do it” or that they are “afraid of doing it themselves.” Or worse yet, that some important coach told them that if they ornamented, say a Mozart aria, that “they would kill me”.

That sort of nonsense infantilizes a singer and moves the responsibility from creating their own artistry onto others, sometimes onto people who have had only a few hours of contact with them in some Masterclass, summer program, or production.

Look at your own fears and walk towards them. 

Are you afraid to learn a new piece on your own and make it your own without any outside help for fear you might be doing something wrong, or it might cause some sort of harm? Run towards that fear and learn a new aria this week!

Are you afraid to play Verdi because you’ve never been taught or coached or had any experiences with Verdi outside of playing a few arias? Well run to the library and pull out Aida or Ballo or Otello and play through the score!

Are you afraid to study with another teacher during the summer for fear that your teacher might find out? Who is the employer here? You employ your teachers and coaches, they do not employ – or control – your freedom to learn from whomever you deem important. Take control of your life. Take responsibility for your own learning, your own process. It is literally your business to do so!

Finally, there is nothing to fear from opera. Opera lives and breathes humanity. You’re creating sounds that only a few hundred thousand people, out of billions, can make. How cool is that?

Celebrate your courage. Celebrate your unique gifts. 

One way to step away from fear is to step towards something else. I recommend yoga, or mediation, or walking in the woods, or strolling through a museum once a month, or reading a piece of literature that you can’t find displayed in the front half of the local bookstore. Get to a play, go see “Deadpool” and relish the breaking of the 4th wall, binge on Netflix. Then return to your piano, your scores, your practice room and SANG!!

And then, after drawing courage from your art, empower others to do so in creative, positive ways to help them acknowledges in themselves that when someone takes a chance,  when someone turns their back on being correct, exciting things can, and do, happen! 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The 12 Laws of Operatic Karma

I saw a Facebook posting of the "12 Laws of Karma" and it resonated immediately with me.

Many of us might have heard about operatic Karma. It's along the lines of "say something bad about a colleague's high notes and your next high note will crack", or at least that's one way of looking at it. For many years I joked about "Carma": the wonderful moment when, in a totally packed parking lot, you find a space near the entrance of the store. Carma!

Seriously though, Karma is actually quite a different thing. It is defined various ways...

Merriam-Webster (online): 1) The force created by a person's actions that is believed in Hinduism and Buddhism to determine what that person's next life will be like; 2) The force created by a person's actions that some people believe causes good or bad things to happen to that person.

Your Dictionary (online): A force or law of nature which causes one to reap what one sows.

Wikipedia (our source for everything nowadays): What is Karma?

I boil it down to a force found throughout our world and in our lives based on Cause and Effect which makes each of our futures flexible, i.e. changeable.

A last disclaimer -- The 12 Laws of Karma are found in many different forms and verbiage throughout the world wide web. I've tried not to plagiarize, but many of these laws are listed in the exact same wording, so I think many of the translations out there are pretty standard. There's only so many ways you can write "The Law of Change". So here follows the 12 Laws of Karma with my take on their operatic permutations.

1) The Great Law: The Law of Cause and Effect
Whatever we sow we reap. What we put into the universe will come back to us. This must be understood at a very deep level. No one becomes successful in opera, whether as a singer, conductor, or administrator, without a huge amount of effort. Those that become the most successful are ones who tend to understand this notion of acting accordingly in order to get the most positive results, from themselves and from others. The asshole may, it is true, become vastly successful, but the cost is huge - not just to those around him/her but to themselves as well. Looking for supportive colleagues? Be supportive. Looking for serious students? Be a serious teacher. Looking for inspiration in your creative ideas? Be inspirational to others, be inspired in making your lunch, or in personal notes to others, or in your everyday life on as many levels as possible; let inspiration percolate around you. Send "it", whatever that "it" might be, out into the universe as much as possible. Not all of "it" returns, but you'd be surprised what does!

2) The Law of Creation: Life does not happen by itself, one must make life happen
Careers don't happen. No agent is going to call you up and say they want to represent you, sight unseen. Your voice isn't going to get higher, louder, or more flexible by magic. You must make your life happen. Creating is about being open to life and life, my friends, is about creation.

3) The Law of Humility: One must accept something in order to change it
Humility is an important factor in our operatic lives. The humility one finds in any music library -- all those scores, all those notes, all those geniuses. How can any of us be worthy when reflecting on just one composer's life struggles (like Shostakovich)? But are we humble, in a healthy way, about our shortcomings? Your work ethic, for instance, might be something that you need to accept the truth about in order to change it. Are you procrastinating or being lazy? Your vocal technique, as the most obvious example, might not be fully at the top of the form you need in order to be successful.  Are you being honest with yourself? Is your teacher? Do you like the sound of your own voice? Accept your voice, with all of its wonders and wondrous frailties as humbly as possible and then you'll be able to begin to really make change happen.

4) The Law of Growth: Change yourself, change your life
Looking to change fachs? Looking to change your self-esteem? Wanting a more beautiful or louder voice? Interested in becoming a more adept improvisor? Stop looking for answers outside of yourself, particularly where vocal technique might be concerned. Start by taking a clear look at yourself (see Law #3) and begin to recognize that answers might be found within that brain of yours already. As Gandhi said "be the change you want to see in the world", however realize that the "world" he was talking about also includes you. Some might say that the world is you.

5) The Law of Responsibility: We must take responsibility for our actions, thoughts, and efforts
A pet peeve -- people in opera blaming others for their shortcomings. Examples: The singer who didn't get enough coachings -- that's why they are ill-prepared (poor things.) Or the pianist who's never played an opera by so-and-so and therefore shouldn't be expected to know the style. Or a singer who still, after numerous years of study, can't sing that high Q or sing in tune or sing fioratura cleanly because, well, we know why: their teacher's teaching was to blame. Poppycock! Take responsibility please! Learn your own music by yourself. Learn style by listening to recordings or live singers or by sitting in rehearsals. Demand your teacher teach you what you need to know in order to affect whatever change you feel is needed (see Law #3). If that doesn't work, teach yourself to sing high notes. The basics are pretty basic here. It's not brain surgery. Stop putting the responsibility on others. Don't be a passive receiver of knowledge. Go out there and get it.

6) The Law of Connection: Everything in the Universe is connected, including the past, present, and future
Oh opera! Opera is just one of a few magical inventions that connects living human beings to the minds of long-dead geniuses like Handel. When you work, sing, direct, conduct, play, or even listen to any opera you get to swim in a living pool of music and text created by the sweat and tears of another human. You become connected to them. They live, literally, while the opera lives - from the practice room to the theatre. We live in all three time dimensions. How wonderful is that?! The past sits on our shelves, or in our brains, in the form of our opera scores, the present exists as we open those scores and recreate them, and the future exists in every rehearsal room because we are preparing for the next performance, which informs all of our next performances. Creators of new opera understand this connection. Singers understand this connection; the oral traditions of our art form truly connect us to artists from earlier centuries (like the high E-flat at the end of Violetta's act one aria). It's how we develop style, how we uncover the truth of critical editions, how we make decisions about tempi. It's an operatic superpower, this connection to the past and future. Feel it and be empowered by it!

7) The Law of Focus: One cannot think of two different things at the same time
People will strongly disagree with this statement, but I have finally accepted the truth of the matter. People think that conductors eyes see every note on a page in the full score. We don't. People might think that a conductor is hearing all 50+ orchestral players and singers at any given moment. We don't. We can't. Our attention wanders, in a very ADHD way I think, from split-second to split-second focusing on a cymbal entrance to a singer's breath to a tempo adjustment, etc. In the same way, a singer focuses on many things at one time, but their actual attention moves, like mercury, fluidly from one thing to another. From picking up that wine glass to taking an extra big breath before a long phrase, to feeling an emotional connection to the text that follows to moving their torso towards the audience before taking three steps, to their eyes picking up the conductor's upbeat via their peripheral vision to remembering to relax their tongue so that their voiced rolled r's can stay out of the way for the high note at the end of the phrase. All this can, and does, happen within a second or two. There are millions of notes played in just one opera, there are thousands of movements onstage, there are hundreds of cues given to singers by a conductor's left hand. So much goes on during an opera that it is easy for us to think that we are doing it all at the same time. But truly, we are not, it just seems that way.  So try to give yourself a break here. Understand that perhaps if there is a problem at hand, maybe a solution might be to really focus just on that one issue, instead of doing it all. This is also a good idea during rehearsals when everyone is expecting everyone to be focused on so many different things at the same time. It's okay to take a step back and say to a conductor in rehearsal "let me just focus on dealing with popping this champagne cork while standing on a table and then I'll get those dynamics you want the next time."

8) The Law of Giving and Hospitality: Our behaviour demonstrates our true thoughts and intentions
I blogged about this… Here's the link: Giving Not Taking
Give, don't take. Give in your coachings, don't take a coaching. Give to your colleagues in rehearsal. Be a host to guest artists from out of town. Make some cookies and take them to rehearsal, or bring a banana bread loaf to your voice lesson. Be a musical host as well; why not invite the composer and librettist to a soiree in your head? Talk to them, make a dialogue happen. Especially to the dead ones. You'll love it. You'll feel closer to them, and maybe you might understand their ideas more. Most importantly, watch your tongue and speech. Is gossip that fulfilling? Is disparaging a colleague, stage manager, or wardrobe mistress that important? Consider thank you notes before opening/closing night, consider compliments to singers in the chorus, thank the ASMs (actually, thank everyone all the time!). This is a wonderful and fruitful habit, not just from a karmic perspective, but from a human one.

9) The Law of Here and Now: All we have is Now
One cannot be present if they are looking backward! So true. So easy to understand, actually. The moment any of us musicians look backward we totally lose the present. Easy to understand but oh so hard to put into practice while in rehearsals or performances. How many times do we kick ourselves because we forgot to alter the phrase as planned, or forgot to move stage left one sentence earlier, or forgot to enjoy ourselves at the opera? Forgiveness, self-forgiveness, is an important element in being able to focus on your "present".

10) The Law of Change: History repeats itself unless changed
If we learn from history, the future can be changed. The opera business was in danger of losing its audience. Like symphonic and ballet arts organizations, opera was catering to an established audience and, up until recently, languishing in producing the same handful of operas over and over again, as the audiences aged. But that's not happening now. Just this past month we've seen dozens of world premieres all over North America. Opera Company of Philadelphia released news that the majority of their audiences are now under the age of 35. Wow! Let's keep this Law ever present in our minds.
Now from an artistic, musical, or vocal standpoint, this Law is very important. Simply repeating an aria and thinking that that means your'e practicing it, is basically just repeating history without thought for establishing new parameters, new goals. We repeat a lot in opera rehearsal, repetition is basic to how opera gets done. Just make sure your process is not just history repeating itself without any learning connection. Cognitive dissonance is about doing one thing while believing another. Repeating a phrase or a staging without believing in it, 100%, disconnects your process.

11) The Law of Patience and Reward: Everything of value requires persistence
This is hard. When to give up pursuing a singing career if it's not happening? When does success happen in this business? Those are hard questions with difficult answers.
My answer is connected to persistence. Persistence is both a long-term and a short-term focus of energy. Every morning one must wake up and persistently focus on the daily routine, the day's needs, which are normally all short-term in nature. The long-term part of persistence is much more difficult to achieve on a daily basis. It helps to have clear goals, to write them down, and to articulate them to others. Have goals for the semester, for the next audition season, for the next year, for the next five years. Look at them once a week and think about how to patiently work towards these goals.

12) The Law of Significance and Inspiration: Rewards are a direct result of the energy and effort we put into it
Successful people seem to have a few things in common. The biggest commonality is persistence. They just kept at it, with a determination to succeed. They took crappy jobs, sang for peanuts, learned music all on their own cause they couldn't afford coachings, stayed up late at night staging their audition arias in front of a bathroom mirror, pushed their way into auditions, read up on opera companies, knew who was who in the business, networked with colleagues, etc. They just worked hard, perhaps harder, than others every single day. In many cases of singers I personally know or worked with, they were not the most talented, or gifted with the greatest set of pipes, or had the best physical packaged. However, they made up for it in an uncompromising work ethic striving for excellence. Very few won big competitions, and many didn't even get into the prestigious young artist programs. Yet they are out there, making money by singing. Those of us who've been around awhile can spot them in casts at the first sing through, some can even spot it onstage in performances. Persistence requires patience. It seems that everyone, though, has a story of the super-talented yet lazy singer getting the big contract or winning the big competition. These stories make us think that there are many people out there who don't work as hard as others, yet seem more successful than most. But the reality is different. The rewards of success come from hard work. Patience requires hard work, it's not about sitting around waiting for something to come your way. I'd venture to guess that the majority of professionals in the opera business are people who've made it by being scrappy, being able to toss off rejection, and who were open to change.

More about Significance and Inspiration:
Putting in a significant amount of effort and energy into pursuing a career is extremely important. If you find your energy is generally more focused on something else, from personal relationships to social media to working out at the gym, than you should think about what - and why - you might be pursuing your career goals.

There's lots of talk about the importance of inspiration in our daily lives. Oprah has made millions on this subject. Inspiring yourself to significantly focus your energy to pursue your dreams can not be stressed enough.

And if inspiration doesn't come, it's okay. Turn to something else. Find inspiration in your life. It may not be found in singing or in opera or in music. It might be found in baking bread, designing tables, painting houses, gardening. But the order of things is Inspiration, Persistence, Patience, Flexibility, Giving, Focus, Connecting, and Being Present, Humble, and Responsible in your life. You may find then that Creation and Growth happen much more often, and/or easily. For the karmic reality is, is that what you put into your life is ultimately not what you "get" back, but what you'll be giving to yourself and to others.

Finally, one of the points about the 12 Karmic Laws is that the best Reward is one that contributes to the Whole. The end result is meaningless if it leaves little to nothing behind.

As they say: Namaste