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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Operatic Playground

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

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

Let me give you three examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A big SECRET.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 25, 2014

2014 Year In Review!

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

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

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

The tree and my fantastic casts and team:


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

In DC...

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

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

Shakespeare Video #6

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

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



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

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


And a flooded Mississippi:



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

HHOT Nozze:


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

Onwards...

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


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


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

AND I TURNED 50!



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Boxing Art

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

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

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

Snobbery is something I hate, especially in music.

Link: Pedants!

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

A passion by...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seasons!



Friday, October 31, 2014

Movies for Opera Singers

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

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

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

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

MOVIES TO WATCH AND LEARN FROM:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I Am Not My Talent

"Oh, you're so talented!"
"It must be such a great thing to be so talented!"
"I would've loved to have played the piano, but I didn't have the talent."
"Talent is overrated. It's all about hard work."
"Talent Schmalent."

And there are endless others...

These sentiments about that immeasurable and ineffable thing called talent are easy to hear, hard to digest and often times difficult to understand.

What is talent? Why do some have talent? Why do others seem to lack a talent specifically in something that they either have a passion for, or pursue at great lengths to increase?  How is talent identified? Where does it reside?

Ultimately, I'm not going to even try to answer those questions. I have another question:

Am I My Talent?

What I mean is whether or not my identity is tied up with, or connected to, my "talent". The old "you are what you do" discussion.

Not identifying your SELF with what you do is a very important step in self awareness. You are not just a dad, or a teacher, or a pianist, or a musician, or a director, or a writer, or a husband, or the dog-walker. You are many things, but you are not JUST something. When things go wrong (especially when things go wrong!) it is important not to confuse yourSELF with what you did wrong.

This is a pretty easy thing to understand -- although many do not truly realize it.  When I miss a note - or more likely noteS - in some tricky passage by Sam Barber, I can feel bad, but I don't think I am actually a bad person. Confusing yourself with your thoughts or feelings is also something that one tends to give up along the path of life.

But as a musician, it's hard not to feel inadequate. "I should have practiced more." "If my technique were better, I wouldn't have missed those notes." "If my talent were less fixed on making music and more fixed on striking the right notes, that wouldn't happen."  These thoughts are hard to contend with - but truly WE ARE NOT OUR MISSED NOTES.

So, flip that notion on its head and what do you get?  What's the opposite of Missed Notes or Flat High C's or metallic timbres? Our Talent, perhaps. If one is to agree that Talent = the GOOD THINGS that make us Talented.  So, flipping the notion that we are not our missed notes, you get: WE ARE NOT OUR TALENT.

Meaning, we are not just the good parts, just the parts that make people ooh and aah, or win competitions, or gain another gig, or make us the money, or enchant strangers at donor dinners, or any of those other great things we have abilities for that go unnoticed most of the time. Some of these abilities we take for granted: learning music quickly, having a curiosity for any and all genres of music, appreciating others' talents, memorizing scores accurately, making music naturally and with little thought, knowing lots of music, etc.

It's a startling thing to do, to release the hold we have on our self-worth to include not just the bad stuff, but the good stuff as well.  It's all stuff, in the end. So letting go of it all, the good and the bad, has some interesting effects. At least, in my limited experience.

These are:

1) The inner voice dies down; sometimes it gets silenced even during performances or high stress times.

2) The present flow of the moment opens up, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes grandly, and the music making just seems to come more naturally.

3) The feeling that one has accomplished climbing a mountain for every challenging aspect of a score steadies and also dies down. Along the way, these accomplishments feel natural and inevitable.

4) Happiness returns, unlooked for, during rehearsals and performances. Happiness makes its self known to you in crazy ways - time flying by, smiles on yours and others faces, difficult passages passing by with almost childlike ease.

5) The missed opportunities to be perfect fly by unnoticed, as do many (not all) of the missed notes, or wrong words, or botched character choices, or whatever. These things seem much less important.

Fine. Release my hold on my talent you say. Now how do I go about doing that sort of mumbo-jumbo Buddhist zen shit without flying off to India to eat lots of pasta?

There are many ways. I might start with meditation (yes, I know -- SURPRISED?!), as it is a disciplined way into this sort of thinking. Musicians love discipline, at least we say we love it. Practicing, rehearsing, learning scores; all are disciplines that take our lifetimes to master. Sitting and breathing is rather helpful, particularly in the mindful way.

There are lots and lots of books to read. I'd recommend Dan Harris' "10% Happier". You know him from the TV news. He had an on-air panic attack about ten years ago brought on by casual cocaine usage and a history of mindlessness (sleepwalking through life while pursuing his stressful career). After many journeys, he found mindfulness and many "Jew-Bu" friends (as he calls them), some of whom are the leaders in their fields: Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein. They are two of the coolest writers he acknowledges, among many others. Sharon and Joseph also changed my life too, but in other ways and through other means. They've written lots of books. I'd recommend ANY OF THEM. Each one I've picked up has altered the path of my day.

Dan Harris TV link

Sharon Salzberg Site

Joseph Goldstein Info

Finally, I think this last bit of advice is crucial: Stop hanging with negative people in your field. You know them: the disgruntled, the complainers, the gossips, the worriers, the needy pianist, the boastful singer, the know-it-alls.  Walk away from them now. A secret to success is to be just a wee bit aloof. My students who are the most successful are the ones who spend enough time away from other music students in order to create a life that does not ride on getting cast, or getting an audition, or hob-knobbing on FB with the semi-famous backstage. This really is crucial.

Instead, give yourself the present of the present moment. Then release all that shit you're holding onto about your last lesson, or rehearsal, or performance. "My scene really went super well." "I hope my scene goes as well as so-and-so's scene." "Why did my throat close down on that high E-flat?" "God, I am freaking awesome at Fiordiligi!" "Should I be pursuing this when I can't even get through one Donizetti aria?!"

I think Sondheim said it well in Into the Woods: "Best to take the moment present; As a present, for the moment."

Into The Woods video (just for fun!)



Monday, September 8, 2014

The Next Generation (TNG)


Opera: TNG

TNG, for those of you who are not Trekkies, is short for The Next Generation (Star Trek: The Next Generation.)  TNG was the first re-boot of the original Star Trek series from the 60s. It aired back in the 80s when I was getting my undergraduate degree in piano performance at Simpson College. That was a long time ago. Of course, now there’s a new re-boot of the Star Trek universe courtesy of J.J. Abrams.

Ah, the 80s! Such a long time ago for young singers who were born in the 90s… We’ve got a new generation of opera singers now, who if they are working hard and becoming slightly successful, are learning and growing in a wonderful world of opera so unlike opera back in the 80s!

Not surprisingly, much of the advice and mentoring being offered to this New Generation is coming from people in and out of the business who have been out of circulation – audition-wise – since the 1980s.  And let me tell you, so much has changed since then, so it’s a good idea to think about what kind of advice you might be getting from someone who’s last audition was back in 1988…  Over 25 years ago!

The business was so very different back then. Singers needed just a handful of arias, it was possible to get an audition by sending your paper materials through the mail, and there were far fewer singers in the market. There was no YapTracker to announce auditions, no Youtube to listen to arias one hadn’t heard, no sites to download sheet music for arias one couldn’t find in the library.  (Legend has it that at one point in time, like in 1986, only one Xerox copy existed for Anne Trulove’s aria and it was re-xeroxed so many times, the details of the accompaniment could no longer be discerned by pianists, thereby giving rise to the notion that one could simply “fake it” since no one knew what the exact notes actually were!) Yet, the professionals who are out there teaching, coaching, and advising young singers are sometimes a bit out of touch with the new demands being placed on this new generation.

Just recently, a young singer was advised not to sing a certain aria in their audition because it was “fringe” repertoire. The aria in question was one that I heard every day during the Glimmerglass young artists’ auditions (over fifteen years ago!). It’s a great starter aria but this person giving this advice was from a different generation, an older generation, of singers. Yes, back then it was fringy, now it’s a regular aria that gets sung everyday somewhere in NYC during the fall audition season.

I’ve decided to make a list of other outdated advice I hear given to young singers with great frequency, followed by my thoughts in italics. Here it is, in no real order:

1)   Ladies, wear your hair up to make yourself look older, more mature, and more like an opera singer. Bad idea, particularly if that’s not your regular look. We want you to look young and fresh and in touch with current trends.
2)   Gentlemen, wear a suit and tie.  No need to be so formal anymore. In fact, unless you know how to wear a suit and a tie, I’d say go with a more casual look. One of the reasons for this is because it’s hard to find a suit that’s not black, brown, blue or grey. A baritone in a grey suit is like a soprano singing “In uomini”…
3)   Only have 5 arias in your repertoire. Any more than that and you won’t be able to show yourself off at your best. Poppycock! Any singer who’s serious about getting a career better have more than 5 arias at their disposal at any given time. You seriously can’t handle holding 10 or so arias in your memory? You seriously can’t get 10 arias prepared, coached, staged, and perfected given a few months hard work? Then my advice is to get out of singing, get out now. Your musical theatre colleagues are running around with hundreds, HUNDREDS of songs in their heads. Lots of it by that guy named Sondheim – tricky text, tricky music. Don’t tell me that a couple of Mozart arias, one baroque aria, two bel canto arias, one versimatic aria, two 20th century arias, and a few pieces of musical theatre or operetta are going to kill your technique, or confuse someone about your fach, or “send the wrong message” or worse, cause you to not be able to perform them because it’s too much to handle.  Get a life. Singing opera is super, super hard. Work at it!
4)   Don’t move around too much in your audition. This one unnerves me so much. Yes, there was a time where one could stand and sing and just be at one with the text and music. Not as much anymore. Those people on the other side of the table are trying to cast singers who will net great reviews and sell tickets. They need people who can move around onstage naturally, and who can gesture and “act” (god only knows what anyone means by that anymore…) If you just stand there and gesticulate subconsciously with your arms in midair, you’re simply not going to find success easily. Of course we don’t want tap dancing during “Piangero”, I’m not saying you have to move constantly, but have some arias where you actually move your feet and your hands.
5)   Sing to show your potential. Nope. Sing who you are right now. That usually means lighter literature. Stop showing that you might be the next Verdi soprano someday. Be the great soubrette you are today. Sing “Batti, batti” better than anyone else, don’t shove your voice into “Come scoglio” because your teacher believes in your potential or because you’ve got the biggest voice at your school. 
6)   Introduce yourself, your aria, and your pianist, as if you were some famous collaborative duo. We don’t need to know that Mozart wrote Pamina’s aria and that your pianist, Helmutina Orlofsky, and you will be performing it together.
7)    Don’t sing literature that is unknown. Yes and no. What does “unknown” mean? Or “fringe” mean? That one is hard. If you are singing for a well-established opera program run by a seasoned professional, they will know the “Fire aria”, they’ll know “Things Change, Jo”, and they’ll know arias from “Giulio Cesare”.  They may not know other arias by Handel, excepting the famous ones, they may not know Janacek arias, or Walton, or lesser works by Britten. Keep to standard repertoire, but have some surprises in your list of arias too, particularly if you sing them really well.
8)    Start with an aria that will warm you up, put you in a centered place, or that you’re really comfortable with. Warm up and get centered before you walk in the door. Do not start with the long, slow, middle-voice-only arias that are 4 minutes long but seem like 6 minutes. You need to come in and knock their socks off.  You can do this with Musetta, with Figaro, with Cherubino, with Carmen, with the Duke. You can’t do it with an unknown bel canto aria from an unknown bel canto opera from Donizetti’s boring period (and I love Donizetti…) What does “comfortable” mean? To be honest, I think singing opera is not necessarily comfortable. You should sing an aria that excites you, inspires you, and makes you joyous inside. Comfortable is an old couch in the winter, a screened-in porch in the summer, and walking hand-in-hand along a beach in the fall with your love.
9)    Don’t waste your time working on or singing musical theatre. Shocking, isn’t it? That someone in 2014 might be telling young singers not to sing musical theatre? If one looks at the companies in the U.S., Germany, France, and now some in Canada, one sees clearly what’s happened to the repertoire. There’s Central City and Lyric Opera of Chicago presenting “The Sound of Music”, or Vancouver Opera planning “Sweeney Todd”, or those smaller organizations like San Fran Opera or the NYPhilharmonic presenting musicals like “Show Boat” or “Camelot”. Then there are the summer programs -- now regularly producing musicals with young artists cast: Glimmerglass Opera, Chautauqua Opera, Ash Lawn Opera.  “West Side Story” is very popular across the Atlantic, sung in German or in English. And it’s not, thank you very much, a NEW idea. Opera Memphis produced “Kiss Me Kate” way back in the early 1990s, cast with opera singers.  What’s “Porgy and Bess” for goodness sake? Don’t give me the whole opera thing. It’s as much an opera as “Trouble in Tahiti” or “Street Scene”.  Or those melodramatic Menotti operas that were first produced on Broadway: “The Telephone”, “The Medium” and “The Consul”. Musicals have been a part of the operatic repertoire ever since “Die Zauberflöte”, “Die Fledermaus”, and “Carmen” were first put together to form a, let it be said, magnificent opera season somewhere in the world. Now that I think of it, those three shows would make a very balanced OPERA season (even though the first is a German musical – a Singspiel, the second is an operetta, and the last is now presented in its original format: a French musical with dialogue in between the numbers.)  I dislike Carmen when those terrible recitatives are used. Another piece of advice: Sing Micaela’s aria without that terrible recit beforehand.
10) Do not try to engage the panel. Terrible advice. Engage the panel upon entering, while introducing yourself, while singing your first aria, while waiting for the 2nd, and especially before leaving the room!  Really show your personality as often as possible. And if you don’t have a personality, find one. Look for one, ask people for help.

Those are my thoughts. They come from someone who is 49 years old. What’s my experience you might ask? I used to hear professional auditions all the time. Tens of thousands probably, especially during the 1997 to 2007 decade when I was listening to singers for Glimmerglass, Opera Festival of New Jersey, and Florida Grand Opera.

Way back in the early 1990s I used to play auditions in NYC, mostly with the singers at the Juilliard Opera Center. My experiences playing for them while they auditioned for the Met or NYCO, for big and small opera companies, or for singer managers, certainly gave me a different insight from the piano bench. I remember playing hundreds of auditions just in that first year I was in NYC.  In my short life as a NYC pianist, I probably played more auditions than any singer will ever sing in their career.  It made me see that the singers who were the most flexible in the repertoire, in their daily routines, and who had the easiest way in projecting a fun personality to the panel, were the ones who seemed to get contracts and agents quicker.

But most importantly, the singers who had a DEEP BELIEF IN THEIR OWN TALENT were the ones who walked into an audition with an air of success about them.  Their hair might be frizzy, their shoes might be dull, their audition books unorganized, their repertoire not quite right, their high notes not perfect, their dress too short, their skirt too long, their sleeves rolled up or not, but they believed in themselves! They BELIEVED they had something special, and had something special to share. 

It was a powerful thing.

Also – few, if none of them, had special “mentors” or frankly anyone really shepherding their burgeoning careers. No one was filling their heads with advice. They certainly weren’t reading a blog about auditioning advice. It was, back then, about summoning your talent, courage, and sense of others and then walking into an audition to share yourself. The information age has made things a bit more difficult, at least a bit more daunting somehow.

During the last seven years, I’ve listened to thousands of young singers audition for McGill as well as for the Janiec Opera Company and other smaller regional opera companies around the U.S. Times have changed. What singers sing, how they look, how they present themselves, and how they actually get an audition have all changed drastically. Things have changed because the business has changed, and the business model for opera companies has changed. Make sure that when you are seeking advice, you are getting it from someone who is OUT THERE listening to the current field of young opera singers.  The older the advisee, the more likely it will be that they will be advising you based on their experiences ten, twenty, thirty, and even forty years ago. 

So am I writing a blog about “don’t listen to the older generation?”
Certainly not! Their advice is vital!

With your coaches and teachers, focus on singing. Don’t get into whether or not you should be auditioning for Santa Fe, particularly if you’ve just started lessons with a new teacher. That’s a conversation to have with someone who knows your voice really well, and might also know exactly who has been singing at Santa Fe during the last few years. Has your coach headed out to hear the young artists at Des Moines? Have they attended the last gala sung by the ensemble members of the COC? Have they listened to the Met finalists? Do they know who is currently in the HGO studio? Are they coaching or teaching singers who get into the paid summer programs? If not, then perhaps their advice isn’t necessarily current, or based on the current trends in the business.

Of course there’s great advice out there.  There are great teachers and coaches. They don’t need to travel to know how “Deh vieni” goes or if a coloratura should be singing “Un bel di”. Then there’s the old guard (please forgive the use of the word “old”, it’s just to delineate those that have been around enough to know the business) who are known by their first named monikers.  I won’t say specifically, but some of them have initials that everyone knows (an example might be “WKD”) or first names only (an example might be “Joyletha”); many run opera companies, or run prestigious summer programs. Many have been singers themselves, and so they truly understand the past and the present demands placed on singers, and so they can give excellent advice.  They also know the pulse of the business and can see trends before most others.  When one of these sorts of knowledgeable people speaks, writes, or does a masterclass, one should listen closely and take notes!

More than anything else, listen to your instincts. Present yourself in your own unique way, make musical decisions based on deep explorations, create characters that live and breathe, and show those panels that YOU are opera’s future. You are the Next Generation!

Live long and musically prosper…
Patrick

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Battling Depression Mindfully


I wrote this specific blog months ago and have been wrestling about whether to publish it or not for weeks and weeks.  Then Robin Williams died yesterday. According to news reports, he took his own life after a long struggle with depression.

[Deep breath...]

Suffering from depression happens too often in silence. Please keep in mind that, from what I can gather, each story of depression is unique -- this is my journey.

[Another deep breath...]

Depression is a silent storm raging deep inside millions. I've kept silent for decades, from the fear that if others knew my problem they'd think less of me or think I was weak. It's simply embarrassing and, I hate to say it, depressing to admit you're depressed, let alone a long-time sufferer.

But I've discussed a number of personal things on this blog, from my beard to my dyslexia. This one's the biggie. Much more epic than any beard could possibly be.

And so I type.

What do I mean by depression?

For me, once depression sets in, it triggers terrible thoughts and emotions - like marbles spilled from a box on a table, scattering into uncontrollable areas, falling off into corners, hiding under furniture, while others sit spinning in the light. Some you never find again, some you scoop up easily, others sit hidden and, years later, make their presence known by a barefoot walk through a darkened room.

But I bet that might seem an unlikely, perhaps too quicksilver a metaphor, for depression; especially for many who might be lucky enough to not have suffered regular bouts. Often I read accounts of depression that make it seem like it's a slow motion event. Maybe it is for others or for scientists studying it. For me, though, it happens in the blink of an eye; an exceptionally fast setting-in period (this latest state felt like it happened over lunch), and that's a scary thing still to this day. It's much different than my anxiety - which rears its ugly head with noticeable warning bells. Anxiety leaves me just as quickly as my depression seems to arrive but it arrives a bit more slowly, unlike my depression. Once my anxiety decides to leave, though, it races away (after burying me alive in fear and shivering sweat.) Just writing about anxiety gets me jittery... 

Back to my old friend depression. 

My latest struggle arrived during lunch, right after I'd ordered some Indian curry at the food court in the underground mall in downtown Montreal. Unbeknownst to me as I looked around at the others sitting and eating, I went from normal to sad. Thoughts flickered into my mind like gnats around my head walking through a park in the summer months. And there I was, sitting alone in a court full of hundreds of people wondering if anybody else felt as awful as I did. Walking away, without finishing my curry, I meandered back to my studio and sat, unable to work or think because what was present in my mind was a clenching fist squeezing hope out of my soul. Finally, recognition: this was a deeper than normal depression.

Depression scatters my mind. It's as if my mind is getting cut up into pieces by some hooded character lurking in the shadows leaving me unable to think clearly. In a day or so, my mind is no longer recognizable to me, which leaves my heart really, really empty and folded in a dark, dark gravity sinkhole in the middle of nowhere. 

I can sometimes see it coming, though. Just like in some horror picture, the sound track of my mind changes, the lighting shifts angles, my voice quivers, coloring itself with trepidation, the temperature of my body drops, and there is a filter that creeps over my lens when looking out into the world, especially looking into the mirror of other people's faces as they gaze my way. I look at others wondering: Do they know?

Knowing that my depression eventually leaves keeps me steady, keeps me going. I've had years getting to understand this state.  But I've not really embraced it until recently.  Depression is completely unlike anxiety. The panic, the shakes, the racing mind that knows it's the end come for sure. Anxiety washing through you is like facing an uncaged tiger, hungry from the hunt, smelling the fear, seeing the darting eyes. It knows I'm here - naked and defenceless. Then it attacks and I hope I'm somewhere private, so that no one sees me in hell.

Hell. Depression can sometimes feel like a slow walk into hell. It's a road I've been on and explored for many years. One that I have walked, to my undying gratitude, with my wife who takes my hand and loves me and smiles and shines a light back on Earth for me to head towards. How terrible it must be to live with depression without someone standing with you, being your lighthouse. I know I am a lucky man, but it is a hard thing to acknowledge weakness with your partner in life. Luckily I'm strong in many other ways and during other times. I know that we are there for each other, no matter what. Knowing that, in the deepest way possible, is an extremely comforting thing.

But I am alone during the first few moments when depression settles in, before it's recognized. It has become less scary for me in the last five years or so. I know the pattern: massive levels of activity, 24/7 events scheduled in the ical, unending to-do lists that grow even while being dealt with systematically and successfully. All culminating into yet another big weekend of performances (I'm in opera, so these weekends are literally operatic in proportion.) There's always a "let down" afterward. That's normal, right? Everybody feels those, for sure... right?

My letdown comes and goes pretty quickly though. It is almost always replaced by the Full Monty Depressive State. Sometimes it's even entertaining at first -- it can certainly hit as a strong feeling; the opposite of numbness, at least for awhile. The numbness comes later when the life and vitality get sucked out of you. There's the tightness that arises in my chest and throat as I hold back, day after day, the internal sobs that sit just underneath each breath. Some days the clouds settle in and rain softly, some times all light disappears, other nights my mind is so numb it can't even sleep to get rest. The fatigue can feel monumental.

A few years ago, I realized I'd been like this since my childhood. I wrote a poem about my depression in high school that I remember to this day over 30 years later. (One wonders why my teacher didn't take me aside and ask if I was alright.) Instead, I got an "A+" and was praised in class as it was read, to my horror, out loud. Here's an excerpt:

I am alone. 
The clover in the fields within me I have not found.
Droplets of dew are my moonlit worlds
Swirling through mists of my own creation.
Frightened of evaporation, I hide my soul;
The sun knows my mind 
But can not pierce the fog.

Sad, eh?

Yet, all is not lost this time! I have found that clover (after years of looking, I might add.) I've walked those fields mindfully for almost two years now, breathing in and breathing out; experiencing the present moment as vividly as possible. 

How? I've been meditating in the mindful (Vipassana) tradition since a desperate, anxious moment a few years ago led me to try it out. Luckily, I found a weekly sitting group with an amazingly patient and earthy teacher (Daryl Lynn Ross of True North Insight), and knew within a few weeks that I had struck gold. At least, I knew there was a possibility that I could learn something about myself by sitting with myself without judgement.

I have even moved toward understanding my latent Buddhist beliefs that I believe have sat in my heart and mind ever since writing an 8th grade term paper on Siddhartha's life (I don't know why I chose that topic, but it took more than 30 years for me to return to studying Buddha's teachings.)



Sitting and breathing, allowing my mind to become calm and quiet down, has allowed me to see clearly the rising and falling away of my crazed, scattered, reactive, and depressed mind. I've also gotten to breathe through and investigate the emotions connected to many of those thoughts and the feelings connected to them. 

And so when the old pattern of depression shows itself, I have begun to recognize it even before it has begun to really manifest itself. And even though it resides in me (now, as I type these words), I know that it will - always - fall away. Impermanent just as the feet of snow that sat on my front lawn in Montreal during the first week of April; one week later and flowers burst forth from the soil, just waiting to join the world.  The sun will rise, it will shine down, and it will melt the snow, evaporate the fog, and warm my face as I lift it upwards to take in yet another Spring. The clover in the fields within me can smile remembering previous sunny Spring days and look forward to ones that will come soon. As they always do and always will, since everything flows from one state to the next. I can be content and happy, then I can be sad, and then smiling again. I know this now because of meditation.

For even though I may sometimes, all alone, beweep my outcast, depressed state, mindfulness meditation practice allows me to know that I don't need to change my state with kings. (I'm paraphrasing/quoting a Shakespeare sonnet here, bear with me!) Kings and I have no commonality except our humanity. I have no need to change my state, at all. It changes moment to moment without me.

Our state changes constantly, with every breath. Though my body may occasionally betray me with panic, though my mind fogs in and all I want to do is lay in bed unthinking my way through the day, I have a way through. A path lies open for me to trod. A path is there for all to walk upon, actually. 

A path that opens with each breath.

For even though meditation can't "cure" me, even though meditation isn't going to prevent these storms from hitting my mind and heart, meditation practice has illuminated for me a number of insights into my experience thus far:

1) Thoughts and Emotions can be like storms. All storms pass. Some are big ones, some are brief, some are just wind, others are wonderful and needed. But they pass. Daryl taught me this, and the more I read about Buddha's teachings, the more I understand this.

2) I can see the storms on the horizon now, almost smell them. And knowing they're coming I can breathe and calm my mind, which calms my body, and then I can continue to enjoy the present moment. Some storms do dissipate before arriving, this I know as well.

3) The breath is always there. It never leaves.

4) I have courage, a deep deep courage. I've always had this strength. Courage lies in all of us.

5) Being depressed isn't who I am. Being brilliant isn't who I am. Being talented isn't who I am.  Missing notes isn't who I am. Disappointing others isn't my purpose. Inspiring others isn't my purpose. My purpose is a mystery to me, but I'm happy to continue to investigate what it might be.

And I am just me - and that's okay.




If any of you reading this also suffer from depression, I urge you to talk about it - with loved ones, with friends, or with medical professionals. 

I'd also suggest trying meditation. Meditation is simple, there are so many online resources about it, so many guided talks. I like to browse a website on dharmaseed: http://www.dharmaseed.org they have hundreds of talks, and offer many links and resources. There are apps for your phone. Even the U.S. military is teaching mindfulness meditation - and it's really helping soldiers both on and off the field of battle.

I have never medicated myself for my depression, but have considered it. I hope that those out there suffering with more severe mental health problems than me get the help they might need. 

It is suffering in silence, thinking you're the only one like this, that really can get to you. It takes courage to seek help, to admit it's time to talk to someone. Courage is in us all. Please trust in that and know that you are not alone.

- Patrick