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Friday, April 19, 2019

Audition Evolution!


Opera auditions are dinosaurs - remnants of an out-of-touch 20th century-based business practice that worked when there were a smaller number of singers who sang a smaller amount of repertoire, especially when compared to our present day opera world.

The world in which today's singers navigate is basically unrecognizable from the previous generation's world. We've all recognized that the opera world has changed - the repertoire, the physicality, the social media demands, etc. - but few recognize that the way in which singers get jobs has changed, or that the way auditions happen should be, and could be, changed for the better.

The traditional young artist audition: A singer applies to get one audition through a series of online hoops - both bureaucratic and financial, then hopefully gets a live audition at a venue not of their choosing, often with strangers in a room sitting silently (and, hopefully, attentively) behind a table. A typical amount of time, ten minutes, is allotted per singer which gives them maybe time for a quick hello and introduction, then two medium-length arias, and a perfunctory "thank you". Weeks later (oftentimes, though, never) an email arrives with either a PFO (known in the business as a "please fuck off"), or an offer of employment. To find employment as a singer, they must apply to dozens and dozens of companies and programs, while facing almost the exact amount of rejection as their number of applications. An actual casting or job offer is a rarity for most. 

Currently, even the ten-minute slot style of auditioning seems to be falling by the wayside, being replaced with one aria only auditions. As well, the financial demands on singers trying to get a job is causing many to question the business practices and models of opera companies and young artist programs. Some of us are openly wondering on social media if the less privileged stand any chance of "making it" when singers of greater socio-economic backgrounds have it much, much easier; from application fees, to pianist fees, to high lesson costs, to travel and accommodations, to paying for audition workshops and consultation fees, etc. Many singers are dropping thousands of dollars each fall for the chance to walk into a room where it is not clear how they will be measured or judged. Most of the time, it is not clear if they will get the chance to sing more than one aria.

We should be rethinking this whole process entirely!

I'll leave the business discussion for another time, however, last week I embarked on a deliberate change in how to conduct an audition, using Opera McGill students auditioning for our fall production as an experiment, along with my co-conspirator, Stephen Hargreaves (Opera McGill's principal coach and conductor for the production.)

We called them "Working Sessions" instead of auditions. We set aside 15 minute slots. Right away, you see the first challenge: TIME. Normally, one can hear six or more singers an hour, so over the course of a 10am to 6pm day - with a lunch break and a few washroom breaks - the maximum number of singers one can hear in a seven-hour day is about 40 singers (if you give them each ten minutes.) Moving to 15 minute slots, the number becomes far less - about 24 singers. Instead of one day of auditioning, Stephen and I did two days.

But Time wasn't the only thing that had to expand. Our Listening had to expand.

Let me explain.

First an honest confession: those of us behind the table have been known, from time to time, to tune out after a singer starts in on an aria and we judge their voice, or technique, or acting, or something, to not be to our taste. It's easy - all of us who audition as part of our job know this - it's easy to jump to a judgement after a few bars. Singing and performing opera is a subjective experience. There are voices you immediately love, some you are intrigued by, some - though rarely in an audition situation - grow on you, other voices just grate on your nerves and you want them to stop singing "Monica, Monica dance the waltz..."

However, all of us have worked, rehearsed, coached, taught, and seen performances by singers with voices we might not initially "like", or think are suited to their role. This happens all the time in opera. I've just returned from a gig in Virginia where my initial thought about a cast member's voice was negative, but then during the rehearsal process, I grew to love their performance. Love takes time. Loving something happens over time. Why do we expect to love voices in five minutes? Is the traditional audition style simply looking for "love at first hearing"? When you rehearse with someone over weeks, you get to know them, hear different things in their voices, see them act, talk with them at the break. Many singers with great voices are much less interesting, and sometimes problematic, after getting to know them as artists during the rehearsal process. Treating singers like Olympic divers - judging them on their technical difficulties and subsequent splashes upon entry - during one aria, truly obscures their talent, their full artistry, and who they might be as people.

Revelation: Our working sessions changed how I responded to every singer. Instead of jumping to a casting conclusion, instead of dismissing a singer because they weren't ready, instead of haphazardly listening in order to pass the time, instead of pouring over a resume to look for details I might already know and details that might not have any pertinence to being cast, I actually listened like I do in a coaching; I also watched like I do in a rehearsal. These working sessions were like an exercise in operatic mindfulness. I was fully attentive, even though we were going to hear more than one selection and some students were obviously not ready to be cast in an opera like La Clemenza di Tito. Instead of sitting their judging about who to cast, I was sitting there really listening.

Why the change in attention? 

Because I knew, as did Stephen, that we were going to ENGAGE with the singers, at least for a brief time, afterwards. As a coach, you are listening attentively while the singer sings - for details in diction, style, musicianship, vocal technique, etc - because you know that the minute they are done singing, it's your turn to start in and work some part of their artistry you deem should be the focus of the coaching. These auditions were a lot like that. I found myself thinking, "what can I say to help them?" and "how can we make this easier for them?".  It was exciting and exhilarating, and in no way difficult or more taxing on our energies. 

In fact, the opposite.

Sometimes, we listened to one aria and then decided to work on it from some aspect - usually musical, sometimes dramatic or physical – for the rest of the session. The singers relaxed and, almost to a fault, sang better the second time through. If we heard two selections, we would choose one of those to work on. Sometimes we stayed behind the table, often we moved to the piano. Sometimes I played, many times Stephen played (from his full score of Clemenza, as one does.) The students got 5 to 10 minutes of double-teamed coachings from the two of us. We were giving back something to each student who sang. They walked out, from all reports, feeling that they'd had a much more positive experience.

It was terrific to hear or see an issue during their audition, but then actually talk to the singer and see if they could do something about it. (Traditional auditions are like diagnostic sessions with a physician but not getting any diagnosis communicated to the patient!) Often, our singers were able to successfully change their musical ideas regarding tempi or address a physical tension issue. It was also interesting to see if we could get their musical and vocal imagination flowing better because they were feeling less judged. Often, the arena of judgment that surrounds auditioning easily kills imagination and stifles creative flow.

I ended each session with the same question: "What are your goals for next year?"

The answers were thoughtful and ran along a similar theme: To be more consistent in their performances and auditions. To learn more repertoire. To put into practice what they are learning privately in a public forum like an Opera McGill production.

More singers should be ready for that question. What are your goals for next year?

In my humble opinion, more companies should move to working session auditions, particularly Young Artist Program auditions where, as they are so proud to say, they are searching for the best talent. Can one do that in a traditional audition? Probably the answer is yes. I found remarkable talent during my years running the YAP at Glimmerglass, and I think I've had a great run in casting both here at McGill and elsewhere where I've been actively casting singers. The people running opera programs represent the best of the experts in our field, so they too find great talent. But I know, without a doubt, that we have missed great singers.

I think it's time for the professionals out there to acknowledge that times have changed, rep has changed, and the singers in front of them are different with different expectations about how they want to be treated. Work with them, if only for a few minutes, allow them to relax and sing better. Ask them a question about themselves, see them think and breathe while they answer. 

Most of us in opera love being in a room where opera is present – either the rehearsal room or the theatre. We love opera because our singers, pianists, orchestras, and production teams all collaborate, communicate, and connect in ways that are magical. Yet we still audition singers like it is 1955, expecting them to dress for business in a way that no one dresses like anymore – outside of Wall Street, banks, or high powered law firms. We make them get letters of recommendation from people saying that they are good enough to merit an audition while offering bits and pieces of information that may, or may not, be true or current or pertinent outside of the world of the writer. Theatre people laugh out loud at these letters – no actor must ask their former acting teacher for a letter saying they are a good actor in order to gain an audition with a theatre company. It is an antiquated remnant form the Victorian age where Privilege Persons kept their doors closed to those who did not have the right letter of introduction from the right person.

I could go on and on about why our current situation of auditioning is not what it should be. But I will leave you with one comment from a student as they were leaving: Thank you, I enjoyed that tremendously!

And I replied: So did I!

Imagine if all singers walked out of auditions saying the same thing, and those behind the table mirrored the sentiment!


Monday, March 18, 2019

Loud Silence


Pauses. Breaths. Internal waits. Inaudible sighs. Delays in thinking.


Silence in our lives is becoming increasingly impossible to find. I type that sentence at a cool cafe in Lynchburg, Virginia called the White Hart. Wonderful espresso and looks like great breakfasts as well (I'm intermittent fasting, so...) There's the ubiquitous hipster music playing - not too loud, thankfully - as I sit in a window seat feeling and hearing the traffic bounce by on Mainstreet USA. The frothing milk whining in high pitches while being steamed, the electric pulse of the espresso grinder, the high energy of a cute little SuzieQ excited to see her dad, the many sounds of glasses, forks, plates, and light discussion in that very congenial Virginian drawl...

All in all, most people would find it all pretty calming and not, in anyway, loud.

But there's no silence here.

Where do you find silence -- not just aural silence, but silence in the mind?

If there's a smartphone in your hand, or a keyboard underneath your fingers, then sorry - no mental silence happening, even if you're in bed late at night and there's silence around you.

To really understand silence, it has to be around you and in you. Bathing in silence is a rarity for any of us. Even for seasoned meditators, the internal silence of the mind comes infrequently.

And so, when one turns to music, to the billions of rests placed into scores or the millions of fermati sitting over silences, we see how much silence should be in the score. When one thinks about the silences inherent immediately preceding any downbeat or following any final climatic moment, one starts to see how profound silence is to the structure of music. Yet hardly any thought - or more importantly training in creating silence - happens during our every day music making (during rehearsals especially.)

Silence helps to define a composer's textual intentions, their architextual structures per se. Actors use silences - between sentences, between character interactions, between words and syllables sometimes.

Musicians tend to observe rests. And then move on to the important part, the music.

But ignoring silence in music destroys one of the more powerful tools at our disposal. Silence creates contrast, immediately so. It sets apart that which is in focus with the ears listening.  I wish more singers would use silence in their auditions. Giving a few seconds before beginning a piece. Allowing all of those thousands of rests and fermatis in their recitatives to really sit in space. Make those attending look up and wonder, "are they going to continue?"

Silence is a superpower, and people should wield it more often.

In life, listening is all about silence. Silence before speaking focuses a room. Silence within sentences forces the listeners to continue to listen. I think it also allows the collective minds in the room to take in what is being said, instead of only surface-listening to the tone and big words/ideas being presented. Details are getting lost, people are hardly listening, and then jumping to conclusions about people and people's ideas.

And then there's another kind of silence -- silencing others.

I might call it political silencing -- Taking the power of silence and slapping it onto people we've decided not to listen to, or allow them to continue to think their thoughts because we don't agree.  This silencing of others also silences ourselves, as it denies anyone involved the ability to think critically, examine through inquiry, or have a dialogue that runs two ways. It is the new political weapon of both the left and the right; a powerful weapon because silence is so massively powerful.

Musicians understand silence, so we should understand its power. Perhaps if more of us took silence into our everyday lives - turning off our phones, pulling out our earphones, stopping our comments on every and all subjects, driving with the windows down and the radios off, sitting in cafes listening to conversations, or asking our friends how they are and then actually listening to the answers. Perhaps that sort of training might allow us to really begin to interpret our musical silences in a different manner. Use them tactically, empower them to focus the audience upon something that has just happened, or something that is about to happen.

Really let the silence fall upon a room and feel its power to unite people.


Friday, January 25, 2019

Are we really listening to music?

People are becoming way too literal.
Certainly on social media it is no longer possible to hear the tone in anyone's verbiage.

Lately, I've noticed many musicians seem to have stopped listening to the very music they are making, or are wanting to make.  At the very least, this is something I've been slowly adjusting to, almost unknowingly, during the last five years or so but only recently has it started to become clearer to me why the "how" has overtaken so much of music making.

So many seem lost in finding the "how" in order to recreate music, while no longer searching for the "why" in the music itself. The "how" is found in the score, the "why" is found by listening to the score and pondering the billions of questions that arise from all those sound waves entering our ears.

[The two words, "how" and "why", will be used quite an awful lot in this blog. In order to stay off some people's nerves, I'll just let those two words sit in sentences from here on without the quotes or italics to push home my points.]

I see this everywhere, not just in classical music. But since opera is what I know and what I most work in, I'll focus on my wonderful experiences trying to recreate these immense scores.

How something is sung - the duration, the articulation, the dynamic choices, whether trilling from above or below, following tempo markings, etc. - seems to be the point of most musical discussions for so many of us. Yes, this is important. I feel it is actually quite important, yet I'd describe these notions as artisanal, or part of our craft at creating musical moments. Artisanal craft is vital to keeping opera performances at the level of expertise needed and expected so that our audiences continue to enjoy these amazing scores.

But how is not the point.

Last year, during rehearsals for Bernstein's Candide, I was struck by the subtleties of his score. From the illusionary loss of one 1/8 note during the text "proving that this is the best of all possible worlds" to Cunegonde chasing her own laughter a few beats behind the orchestra in "Glitter and be gay", Bernstein subtly gives us deep meaning via musical notation into the subtextual lives of his characters. The same, of course, holds true for other great composers - like Mozart in Così fan tutte. The sisters should be sad that their fiancés have departed for war, but the major key and cut time signature in their act one duet suggest something altogether different. One finds connections to sexual frustration simply in Mozart's employment of the key of E-flat major throughout his works: Cherubino's "Non so piu"; Countessa's "Porgi amor"; Dorabella's "Smanie implacabile"; Elvira's "Mi tradi"; even the Pamina/Papageno duet singing about wanting marital bliss is in E-flat. These are just quick examples.

What gets missed in so many rehearsals (mostly because there's so little time to talk about the why) are discussions about why the score happens in its specific way. Why did the composer choose this key? Why did the composer place fermati here and not there? Why are we all feeling profoundly sad during a C major section? Why one measure in 7/8? Why these rests in the middle of this sentence? Why? Why? Why?

We get bogged down, entirely too much, in the how questions. How long are you okay with me holding this fermata? How fast can I take this? How will you be conducting this section? How should I pronounce this bit of text? Endless, endless Hows.

What we need are more why questions that lead to the how responses: Why the shift in tonality at precisely this point and what does that do to how I sing it? Why did my character drop out of the score's vocal lines and how can I create character choices while silenced? Why does this tempo feel slow to me but not to others and how can I continue to sing through this tempo?

The why leads us into arenas of opinion, into areas of subjectivity. Both places are no longer seen as the safest places to be. We want things to be correct. We want the music making to be comfortable and understandable. Many of us are very uncomfortable making musical choices that are hard to explain or come from some non-objective or instinctual place. Music making shouldn't have to be defended if it is honest and attuned to the why. If others aren't understanding your intentions in your music making, perhaps those intentions are not clear, not honest, or - at least in the moment - not specific enough to warrant understanding from others. The why can inform us and leads us towards the artistic creators' original mindset. Or at least, it can allow us to peer into those minds, as if looking through a keyhole of a door into a vast ballroom. We can only see bits and pieces, but at least we are looking.

The Why and the How. Both integral to making music.

Listening to music, really listening to it, should help us all to start to ponder both with equal excitement and humility. And while we are listening to the music, it's important to acknowledge that it's being made by human beings. If one wants to listen to the music, one has to listen to the people making the music and not just our own sounds and ideas up in our brains.

Friday, June 8, 2018

A Varna Bulgaria STREET SCENE!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fish and the Bodega:

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 26, 2018

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

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

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

The great Stephen Sondheim wrote:

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

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

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

Those other lines are as interesting to ponder as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the intentions of your coach? Your teacher? The composer? The librettist? What are they trying to say that perhaps they can't articulate with words. Or notes. Or pitches. There's meaning all around us, yet we latch on to words only, all too often.

What does it mean when people in this business say things like, "Your vowels are too dark." "It's marked piano." "I think you're not right for Edgardo." "Your high notes will come when you're ready." "Think blue." "This is the only tempo that can work for this section." "You're just not ready."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's a palindromic effort, really. By going inward, one discovers an Undiscovered Country within, yet also all around us.

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

Monday, February 12, 2018

Operatic Safe Spaces

I have a new motto for opera!

Opera: A Safe Space for Exploring Uncomfortable Ideas!

Let's define some of those words. 

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

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

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

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

I've blogged about running towards what scares you (It's called "Fear In Opera".) I really believe this and know it to be true! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Operatic Miscommunication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, I'll give it away: PATIENCE.

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