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Sunday, December 27, 2009

2009 in Review

A year end review blog -- please forgive the bullets, but I'm just not in the mood to write sentences! Our new Wii is calling me and I must get back to break my personal score in Archery...
When I look back at 2009, I think of the following moments:
  • The Rape of Lucretia at McGill in January of 2009, with a remarkable cast. Designed by Vincent and Ginette with lighting by Serge, I was quite moved by the last 10 minutes of the last performance. For this atheist, the question of "Is this it all?" has been in my mind for most of my life. As voiced by Aidan and answered by David, I must say that Britten wrote a compelling statement. The production caused me a great deal of personal anguish, as I was about to embark on a terrible few months - or as I refer to it: "my semester of misdiagnosis"! The day Lucretia opened, I was told that I might have an inner ear disease that would cause me to eventually go deaf, become bed-ridden, and make me unable to work any job. It was a tough way to end a wonderful production and rehearsal process.
  • Dialogues of the Carmelites, again at McGill AND on the same weekend that we presented La Rondine and a scenes program! Try that I.U. ! The nuns were also the set, as there was no money for anything beyond costumes (again, wonderfully done by Ginette). If I were to do the "big-budget" version of this production, I wouldn't change my idea of using the nuns as the walls, doorways, hallways, and cemetery. Since the convent represented their lives, it was a perfect metaphor for their trials. Confession time: I have to admit that I don't remember staging this opera (done almost a month in advance of the actual production.) I was in and out of doctors' offices and trying various medications to try to get the ringing in my ears to stop, as well as the nausea and dizziness. If my wonderful wife, Elizabeth, hadn't been around to help out, I would have cancelled it. In the end, this was a great performance of a great opera and I certainly had fun playing that score again!
  • Musical Theatre Workshop - another one of my "experiments" at Opera McGill. Students signed up to work on MT repertoire once a week. Lots of students made some amazing breakthroughs and also revealed their hidden talents. Highlights: JCJ singing "Giants in the Sky", Margot singing ANYTHING, Lily going for the big belt in "The miller's son", and Barbara getting Horton to notice her!
  • Schulich School of Music teaching award. It was a great way to end a trying semester -- thanks to Meg, Lara, Aidan, and Philippe for nominating me and writing such incredible letters of recommendation. It was the most moving moment in my teaching career and boy I wish my parents would have been alive to know their teaching legacy lives on.
  • The end to the ringing: Although I was losing my sanity during January, February and March because of the ringing in my ears, by the time May came, the ringing had ceased and I was able to drive again, use the Metro, and not worry that I'd end up a 45 yr. old invalid. It seems the various doctors in Montreal did NOT know what was wrong with me! Thanks to Dr. G for getting me to an ENT who got me on a simple nasal spray regimen.
  • Camelot at Ash Lawn Summer Festival. What a GREAT show! With a GREAT cast and production crew! I was really worried about directing a musical, particularly working the book scenes that were quite long, involved, and Shakespearian in conception. But the casting was fantastic and Peter, Katy, and Christopher were a dream love triangle (backed up by the wonderful Corey and Christian). I had tons of fun working with Maestro Toan, and thank the gods that Mr. Laroche was an apprentice that summer, as he ended up in practically every scene!
  • Brevard: So I showed up late and almost missed the UNCUT (not my idea!) Hoffmann. Lots of roles for lots of singers, but really not my favorite opera. Offenbach is massively overrated, in my humble opinion! But the set and costumes were rather impressive, as was the conducting by Maestro Larkin. We followed it with Hello Dolly, that was cast almost entirely with McGill students: Do I need to write about Ms. Piazza stopping the show practically every time she sang a number? Or about Nico and Margot stealing every scene they were in? Or what about DMD and his matinee idol looks and dancing? It was a TERRIFIC show with literally hundreds of costumes. Amazing that it all happened in two weeks! (Go David Gately.) Followed quickly by a scenes program that was directed by David, Dean, and me while the three of us were trying to rehearse a Puccini double-bill. Truth to tell: I agreed to conduct the double-bill the night before the first rehearsal was slated to begin. The conductor had cancelled last minute. It was fun to wave my arms again, with a wonderful cast and orchestra. Going into it, I was mostly worried about the Suor Angelica, but ended up loving conducting it much more than Gianni Schicchi. An extremely moving opera, and once again the religious ideas behind it really seemed to speak directly to me in surprising ways. My Catholic past perhaps?
  • Vacation in Iowa: The best thing about my life is that I can take my family to Burlington, Iowa and get away from everything. My wife has a bazillion cousins in town and I am blessed with two wonderful parents-in-law. They are still in love with each other after 58 years together, embrace my need to cook 24/7 while I'm in their house, and are the most accepting, patient people I know. If you want to know how to be happy and content without HBO, Twitter, new cars, etc., look them up!
  • Agrippina: a production that totally exceeded my expectations. Once again the design team put so much together and made the concept of "Dirty, Sexy, Opera" really work. The onstage dog, Colin, was the best actor I've ever worked with (had to write that!) Asking cast members to shoot up with heroin, snort cocaine, take their clothes off, drink lots of cocktails, while singing REALLY long Italian recitatives and arias by Handel, was such fun. SUCH fun! Once again, collaborating with Mo. Knox was a dream. The Nerone was sung by a coloratura mezzo named Emma Parkinson. Any artistic admins or agents reading this blog should look her up and get her signed. Her "Come nube" was the best thing I've heard sung live in 2009, aside from Aaron Tveit's performance as Gabe on Broadway in "Next to Normal". He is FIERCE, so is she.
  • Kennedy Center: Thanks to Julian Wachner, I was invited to direct his "Essential Puccini" concert at the Kennedy Center in mid-November. What an AMAZING experience, with a terrific chorus singing Act Two of Boheme and the large sections of Turandot. Jill Gardner's Musetta was the best I've seen (that includes one recent version with PR), but her rendition of "O mio babbino caro" was the best I've heard - ever. Seriously, someone hire her to sing the Trittico now. Carl Tanner and Othalie Graham were fantastic as Calaf and Turandot -- both sending thrilling high C's into the sold-out audience. There was a children's chorus of 80, yes EIGHTY CHILDREN, that I had to stage. All of it conducted with great aplomb by Mo. Wachner. He should conduct more Puccini...
  • Brevard 2010 auditions -- I'll have to blog about this sometime, but here are the stats: Over 90 sopranos, most presenting themselves in a black dress (sleeveless and above the knee), sang for us looking to be cast in about 9 roles. Wow. We had 25% more applicants this year, which is good. The singing, for the most part, would best be described as pushed and jumpy. More later!
  • Looking forward to 2010: Orfeo for Opera Memphis, a whole BUNCH of craziness the first week of March for the contemporary music festival MUSIMARS in Montreal (directing a Pierrot Lunaire, an Aperghis one-act, a new piece for bassoon, four celli, and three double-basses, and Kagel's "Finale" where the conductor has a heart-attack and dies on the podium!), then musical direction at McGill for Brook's adaptation of Carmen and staging Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti. The summer at Brevard looks fun: Fledermaus, Le Nozze di Figaro, two scenes programs, a run-out musical called Tintypes, and a Pirates of Penzance, which I'm conducting. That's a lot of opera. I'll look forward to being in Burlington in August, grilling food on my in-law's barbeque!
Best to everyone out there in this weird world of blogging. Hope everyone has a Happy New Year. Tomorrow, I get to celebrate the 18th Anniversary of being the luckiest man on Earth for having married my wife. She's actually the TALENTED member of our family!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hungry to learn

So Thanksgiving has come and gone, and I've eaten my fill. The dinner was great. The weekend over too fast, but the tree is up and we've got a fire in the fireplace and I'm onto glass #2 of a VERY nice 2004 syrah from Ojai.

During my undergrad years at Simpson College, Thanksgiving also meant a return to the campus on Friday to start preparations for the Madrigal Dinner. A huge, I mean HUGE event that happened every other year in the "Great Hall" on campus. Your regular type Madrigal dinner fare, but not your regular Madrigal dinner type of entertainment. First off, the madrigal carried hours -- HOURS of memorized literature. It wasn't just a few ditties by those English guys either, it was serious literature running the gamut from medieval chant to chants des oiseaux. Memorized -- did I mention that? We'd head back to campus, usually during the annual Thanksgiving blizzard, to put up the decorations (which took all day), and then have hours and hours and hours of rehearsals to get ready for the performances. It was the hardest thing I've ever put myself through, that first dinner...

Our madrigal was made up of the same group of singers who were cast in the operas, the same group who were the leaders in their musical fraternities and sororities (as well as the social frats and sororities), they were also the same group of students placing in the NATS and Met competitions, they were the same group who were performing hour recitals in both their junior and senior years, they were the same group who also sang in the choir and went on tour every year in the midst of taking graduate level history and theory courses (to this day I thank Larsen for his Med/Ren course!) I was in the Simpson Madrigal, but I was a piano performance major; and I wasn't the first pianist in the group, nor the first pianist to sing roles in the operas.

Okay, I'll stop now. What I'm saying here is that I learned how to make music, how to memorize music, and how to work hard and BE HUNGRY to work harder while singing in those Simpson madrigal performances. It is something I find lacking today, the hunger to learn. There is a work ethic I find lacking as well -- learning music seems to be something to get past instead of something to embrace and love. I'll know when I'm close to death -- it'll be around the same time I start hating learning music. There's so much music out there and I can't imagine not wanting to learn it ALL. Yes, ALL of it. Not just what you've been assigned or contracted for!

I can pick up a new opera and learn it rather quickly. Not because I'm some genius, but because I was made to do so in Madrigal and Choir at Simpson. I'm brilliant because I was made that way by an aggressive music department in the middle of Iowa. Thanks Dr. Larsen!

Let's all sing a round of "Matona mia cara" and get to the fun part where the bull...

Happy Thanksgiving 2009!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Semi-staged at Kennedy Center

I'm in Washington DC directing a "semi-staged" concert called "The Essential Puccini" for Julian Wachner's Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center on Sunday, November 8th.  Okay, the plug is done!

Julian (with just a wee bit of help from me) has assembled a REALLY terrific cast.  It is a monster of a program as well:

Boheme, Act Two with Jill Gardner as Musetta.  Jill is simply a Rock Star -- such an amazing voice and a true stage animal (as Tito Capobianco used to say).  Jill then sings the best live version of "O mio babbino caro" that I've heard, followed by John Marcus Bindel's awesome Coat Aria; then there's the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut followed by Puccini's 20-something attempt at a Gloria (with the wildest use of sequence in a fugue I've heard).


Then comes Turandot Act One -- up to the entrance of P, P, & P; then a cut to the beginning of Act Two, scene Two and all the way through to the end of that act.  Carl Tanner rips one out of the park as Calaf and Othalie Graham is SIMPLY THE MOST REMARKABLE TURANDOT I've heard in a long, long, while.  The loudest, easiest high Cs out there folks.  Get her now, really!  

The encore is Carl singing "Nessun dorma" with a cut at the end that takes you to the choral finale of the show that is genuinely inspired (Kudos to Julian Wachner for that one!).  It should be the cut everybody takes in an opera highlights concert, if they've got a chorus to sing it.
And boy does Julian have a chorus.  They do a great job with all of the varied scores, and styles.

My job is to give the entrances and exits shape; manage the 80 kids in the children's chorus (and yes some are onstage with Parpignol, and we're doing a big ol' procession down the aisles of the Kennedy Center for their Act Two Turandot entrance -- complete with lit paper lanterns from the Montreal Botanical Garden.) Instead of Cafe Momus, we're at a Momus Martini bar -- so the waiter will serve only Martinis - which look classier in tuxes and gowns.  There's a live dog for Musetta, some play with Mo. Wachner's hair on the podium during "Quando m'en vo", a bit of a parade at the end.  Turandot is easy: Get them in, let them sing, get them out.

Along the way I've got an 8am lighting session before the dress rehearsal, will try to take in a White House tour, and have to get to the National Geographic building's Terra Cotta Chinese Warrior exhibit to get some cool souvenirs.

If you're around DC I'd say buy a ticket to this, but I'm told they are going to be SOLD OUT!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Empty Stage & a Ghost Light

The last two professional opera productions I've seen were VERY interesting. The first left me so exasperated over the terrible conducting and second rate Italian coming from seasoned professionals, that I was a bit undone to be honest.

Then a few days later, I saw Washington Opera's AMAZING production of "Falstaff". The show started with a mostly empty stage and a ghost light. I can't express how wonderful it was to see opera work the way it's supposed to! I was thoroughly entertained vocally, musically, and dramatically. Alan Opie was the Falstaff and he was simply perfect in the role. I've seen a number of Falstaffs, including Paul Plishka's debut in the role (with Freni, Horne and Susie Graham back at the Met in the early 90s), and Mr Opie was just what the doctor ordered. The Ford was simply the best I've heard live - a young baritone named Timothy Mix. Check him out. The Quickly and Meg Page were Nancy Maultsby and Betsy Bishop and both were fantastic - funny and full-voiced seasoned professionals wielding their craft easily and with aplomb. Down to Bardolph and Pistola (a great new bass, Grigory Soloviov), the cast sang a very difficult score in a completely engaging and light-hearted manner.

The concept was funny, and had a fresh take - at least to my mind - on the idea of actors who dress up to be characters who then later dress up to put on a practical joke in a forest. The set was cool and funny - including a tavern that transformed itself into the great oak. There were hysterical touches - from Bardolph eating old pizza from the floor to the male dancing fairies who practically stole the show. It all ended with Verdi's tour de force of a fugue and it was given a visual tour de force to match. Usually it's "park and bark" time, as the fugue that ends the show is tough to keep together. The director took no prisoners and marched the chorus and cast through an endless array of moves - including a pseudo-conga line. It really gave the musical components of the fugue a visual illustration unlike I'd seen before. And of course, this Falstaff worked because there was a wonderful conductor down in the pit with a wonderful orchestra. I stood up and yelled bravo.

Maybe I had to experience an off-the-mark opera to fully appreciate the exciting night had at Falstaff.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Slippery Career Path

I've given two talks this week, first to my students and then later in the week to the young artists in the Atelier at L'opéra de Montreal. I spoke about young artist programs, summer programs, opera company structures, career advice, etc. It was interesting to take the questions about specific programs, interesting to uncover for them the mysteries of Musical America, NFCS,, various blogs, and particularly interesting to dive into the trials of being a young Canadian singer with no paid summer apprentice programs to apply for - here in Canada that is. But that's a whole other blog!

So what about career advice? I've been thinking about this a lot for the last few years. Does climbing the young artist program ladder actually work for most singers? If it does, how is it possible that each summer the U.S. programs employ hundreds of aspiring singers, and yet the majority of those singers simply do not end up with careers? Why are there successful singers out there without any major apprentice programs on their resumes?

I do not believe there is an actual career path that leads to success in this business. I think just the opposite. In fact, I think there may be an illusion many aspiring young singers believe: that if they move from degree A to degree B to summer program C to summer program D to resident young artist program E to professional gig F they'll find "success". It looks to be a most logical and sane path to undertake, it's true. It is certainly a plan that I've heard described by many at various seminars on the subject. Success is simply more complicated - the books to read are Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" and Hugh MacLeod's "Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity." (The "Martha Stewart Rules" is quite illuminating as well...!)

My wife once asked a rather important person in the opera business which summer apprentice contract she should take, Santa Fe or Central City. She was told that "young artist programs just delay young singers from actually becoming professional singers." We didn't get it at the time, (she went to Santa Fe), but it's a point worth contemplating.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Getting Started

AGRIPPINA is a long song. Opera McGill is producing it this November for many reasons - foremost because it's a fantastic opera, we have incredible singers to sing the roles, I have a good take on it (at least I think I do!), and there are two anniversaries: 300 years since its premiere in Venice and 250 years since Handel's death. That's reason enough for me.

Getting going on it is tough. Hank Knox, our chef, and I sat down a few nights ago and worked hard to make some cuts to the score. We ended up taking out only a few arias, reducing a number of them by not taking the returns, and did figure out how to make some cuts in the recits (thanks to Hank's gifted skills with figured bass!) Tonight I spent about three hours pouring over the score with calendar in hand trying to figure out how to get it staged and to make sure there are enough reviews along the way so that the cast doesn't forget what we did way back in early October. For a variety of reasons I'm starting this the last week of September, even though we open November 20. There's a five day hiatus during Canadian Thanksgiving, plus I'm gone almost a full week in November. It's not something I've ever done before - start blocking a show, then leave it to go and stage another show (actually it's a semi-staged concert "Essential Puccini" that's being performed Nov. 8th at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.) only to return to finish the first. We'll see how the very long, yet rather casual rehearsal period either hinders or helps the students work on this fantastic piece.

So now the hard part is over - casting, organizing the staging and technical schedules, and making the cuts. The fun really begins during the next few weeks as I figure the details of how to move a baroque opera about the power struggles of Emperor Claudius' Roman court into 2009. It seems that these characters are all so power hungry and Poppea is an outsider to that power, yet she's the object of Nero's, Claudius', and Ottone's lust. Poppea has to be a celebrity of some sort and Claudio has to be some sort of super lawyer who's wondering who should take over the firm. The set and costume design team had a good suggestion: the TV series "Dirty, Sexy Money". I like the idea a lot and look forward to the cocktail parties, the paparazzi, the business suits, and having fun with that crazy kid named Nero!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Auditions - Nothing to be scared of...

Auditions week is here at McGill University's Schulich School of Music. This year I'm looking to cast roles and chorus for Handel's Agrippina, Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Bizet/Brook La Tragedie de Carmen, Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, Purcell/Britten Dido and Aeneas, and a scenes program.
That's a lot of casting to be done by this Friday!

Most of the graduate students are auditioning on Wednesday, followed by the undergrads on Thursday. I'm posting callbacks for the Friday all-day event Thursday night. This year I'm holding callbacks for the specific shows -- anyone up for a role in the Handel or Purcell will get called back on Friday morning, anyone for the Rake's Friday afternoon, and the late afternoon will be for the double-bill.

Auditions here at McGill are open to the voice faculty and they tend to pop in every now and then in the prelims. Most show up for the callbacks -- it's a good time to hear everyone without the pressure of the grading -- of course there's the pressure of wanting to get cast, more on that later.

Casting at McGill is not done by committee, it's actually done by just little ol' me (of course with huge consultations with our principal and guest conductors and directors). I have to see the overall year plan for each student cast and am looking to try to balance it as best as I can.
New this year for the Masters students in opera: C.O.R.E. or "Comprehensive Operatic Repertoire Experience". I'm going to try to make sure that each of the students in this program get not only experience singing roles, but also experience in covering, singing small roles, a bit of backstage experience, along with professional career development.

The first thing a student learns when they get a young artist contract is that they will NOT be singing the leads -- they'll be singing in the chorus, covering roles, and maybe even singing a smaller role onstage. The most valuable thing I tell any young singer heading into a summer program is "learn your chorus music and be offbook for all assignments". My theory at Glimmerglass was that the young artists who showed up with their chorus music memorized were the ones who ended up snatching management and/or moving forward with their careers. The lazy ones were just that. The book to read is "Outliers"...

Wrapping up this week's blog -- what do I look and listen for at an audition? I'll first tell you what I DON'T look/listen for:
1) Being correct: couldn't care less if you miss a note or drop pieces of text.
2) Coordination with your pianist: I'm much more interested in the music YOU are making!
3) Singing in tune (I know that's a surprising statement, but frankly most singers sing out of tune in some way, shape or form -- why does everyone get so freaking obsessive about this?!)
4) Ornaments: what ever I hear I'm going to want to change anyway, so why worry about it?
5) What you're wearing (many of my students will tell you this is not so, but I only comment on it to them later because I know SO many in the business pay attention to this really unimportant factor).

What I DO look/listen for:
1) A human being making music with their voice
2) Singing sentences that have meaning both textually, dramatically, and vocally
3) Did I mention the making music thing?
4) Character choices - both physical and vocal
5) Good shoes (I know, I shouldn't but I notice) This means no super high heels and no sandals.
6) A singer's physicality
7) Size of Voice
8) Repertoire -- is the singer singing rep that is appropriate for their technique/age/fach etc.
9) Range -- as in high and low and at what extremes the singer is comfortable
10) Range -- stylistically speaking how comfortable/adept with Baroque/Classical/19th/20th/Musical Theatre rep and how many arias are being presented.

That's it, not much! I do tend to judge the aural before the first page gets turned and then take in the visual as the audition progresses.

With all of that said, one of the things singers forget is that the panel wants you to be incredible so that we can cast you! It's not a jury or an examination. There are no grades and there are few hard and stead-fast rules, frankly. Move around, don't move around; gesture, don't gesture; wear a suit, don't wear a suit. All of that doesn't matter with me. I want to hear someone trying to make CHOICES and loving their moment commiserating with the great composers.

If any of the McGill students are reading this -- remember to take a good breath before you walk in the room. I'm looking forward to hearing everyone!

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Chalk Board

Well it's the end of the summer.  For my boys, it's the tragic end of their great, wonderful, summer adventure in Brevard and at Grandma and Grandpa's house in Iowa.  They've both grown over an inch, our youngest has had to get new shoes, and our oldest seems oddly mature yet still a little boy.

My summer has certainly been a wonderful adventure as well: it seems so long ago that I landed in Charlottesville to direct Camelot.  Those rehearsals were terrific, my cast was a treat and certainly a gift, and our final product was entertaining, moving, and historic -- Ash Lawn Opera finally performed in a real theatre!  

The weeks in Brevard were packed, my wife loving every minute of teaching there, terrific performances in an a seemingly un-cut Hoffmann (not my idea!), standing O's for Hello Dolly (starring many McGill students), two scenes programs, and then my surprise conducting gig for the Angelica/Schicchi with my son singing a small role.  How did we do all of that in seven weeks?!

This vacation in Iowa has been refreshing and enlightening -- I realize I want more!  Recharging the batteries is good for my bags (as in under my eyes), and it seems also good for my artistic soul. I feel as if I've had more interesting ideas pop into my head while relaxing on my in-law's back porch the last few days than I've had in the last few years.

But now it's back to my chalk board at McGill.  Hopefully my students will understand the need to erase their chalkboards so that something new can be written!  I'm looking forward to exploring Agrippina, The Rake's Progress, Trouble in Tahiti, Carmen, and Dido and Aeneas with my McGill students as well as taking on the Orpheus project for Opera Memphis (I'm staging the Gluck with a mezzo, counter-tenor, and tenor triple-cast in the title role!) as well as making my Kennedy Center debut as a stage director in November.  

But before all that hits, my family and I have two more days filled with family visits, more sweet corn, a bit more grilling, and packing the car for the two day trip home to Montreal.   

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Vacations, Books and Boeuf

So here I am in Burlington, Iowa figuring out how to take a vacation.  It's a bit hard for me to relax and do nothing.  My mind is always on the next project or two down the road and that means emailing and designing and researching and thinking.  Elizabeth asked me to refrain from FB surfing and stop checking my regular sites (those being, musicalamerica, playbill and for at least a week.
I made it four days, which I think is a TOTAL triumph!
Our boys are loving grandma and grandpa's house -- it sits a few blocks away from the Mississippi River (up on a bluff) and is a great house, complete with screened in back porch and a sun room great for playing cribbage.
I've already made a lemon ice box pie (using no recipe, thank you), grilled peaches (can't grill without peaches!), and a batch of rice krispie treats that made it almost to the end of the day.  Cooking is great therapy and it certainly stops me from wanting to download free episodes of "Dirty, Sexy, Money" for my inspiration to start blocking "Agrippina".  
While standing outside grilling some chicken I thought through some ideas for "Agrippina" and really do think that Emperor Claudius should be in a wheelchair on oxygen, however having him look like Donald Sutherland is also a cool idea.  We'll see.  I'll definitely have cocktails ever-present in this Handel opera!
Tonight Elizabeth and I went to see "Julie & Julia" (I think that's the title).  It was hilarious, inspirational actually, and made me want to get Elizabeth onto writing her book on teaching young singers, as well as made me want to start in again on my book "The Tao of Opera".  I've only done one chapter and that was back in May.
Julia Childs, as portrayed by the simply amazing Meryl Streep, must have been a great person to eat with!  And who knew she had such a great sex life?!
Elizabeth and I are going to go in search of her Mastering the Art of French Cooking tomorrow -- we'll see if it's here in Burlington.  I think either coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon will be on the menu for tomorrow night's dinner!
Bon appetite!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Conducting vs Directing

This past Friday I agreed to conduct the final production here at Brevard: Puccini's Suor Angelica & Gianni Schicchi.  I'm replacing a conductor who had to cancel at the last minute.  The students in the casts gave me a rather sweet ovation when David Gately announced it (no audible groans, thank the gods!) We open in less than a week and while I'm excited, it has posed a bit of an identity crisis the last few days.  
Brevard is a busy place, and we've just closed a great production of Hello Dolly on Saturday.  At the same time, we've been trying to get up a 2nd scenes program that is going to be performed THIS Wednesday at the Porter Center in Brevard, NC.  A paying public is coming and we're doing scenes from the following operas: Partenope, Don Giovanni, Cenerentola, Falstaff, Boheme, Little Women, Strawberry Fields, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Peter Grimes, The King and I, Turandot, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Walküre, and the Merry Widow.  IT IS A HUGE PROGRAM.  I'm directing (as in stage directing) the first half (Partenope thru Strawberry Fields) and playing some of the scenes in the second half.  So for the past few days I've been directing scenes, coaching scenes, and conducting musical rehearsals for the Puccini double-bill.

Some obvious thoughts on all of this: It keeps me busy.  I've lost some weight already (conducting is a great work out!) I've not had time to block any of the remaining scenes because my mind is already on the upcoming orchestra rehearsals for the Puccini so it's forced me to think on my feet.  I've rediscovered how great it is to conduct Puccini. I'm ticked off at the singers who aren't as excited as I am to be working on these masterpieces and I'm thrilled with the singers who are MORE excited than I am to be working on these masterpieces!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Technology and Rehearsals

Danger, danger Will Robinson...
Technology, in the form of laptops, blackberries, and iphones have taken over the minds of rehearsing singers everywhere. Gone are the days when singers and coaches would sit in a theatre and FOCUS on what was going on onstage.  Nowadays, everyone is sitting in the theatre commenting on FB, or texting a friend who's at a restaurant in Albany, or checking email from another singer who's "bored" in another rehearsal in Tel Aviv.
It is ruining not only the training process, but absolutely ruining a young singer's chance of watching and learning from colleagues strengths and weaknesses.
Now it's not everyone who is doing this, but it's seems as if it's ALMOST everyone.  Certainly a few are still watching and learning, and I've noticed they are also the ones who seem to know their music the best!
Crazy times call for crazy solutions.
I'll be implementing a "non laptop/cellphone in rehearsal" policy starting in the fall of 2009 at McGill.  I think it'll be the only way to take back the rehearsal process and get everyone to focus on the task at hand: CREATING.  
Creation is a tricky thing, very touch and go - particularly when a production moves into a theatre.  Lots of things change and everyone, no matter how big or small the role, needs to be focused on ONLY the show.
If any young ones are reading this, take the following seriously: I learned more WATCHING and LISTENING to others (right, wrong, and otherwise) than actually doing it myself.  I'll never forget observing rehearsals at DMMO while Nova Thomas and Lauren Flanigan sang through act three of Boheme, or watching Dimitri H's first Germont at L.O.C. and him dealing with Ms. Anderson's demands, or listening to the sitz of Partenope with David Daniels, Lisa Saffer, David Walker, and others with the incredible Harry Bickett in the pit at Glimmerglass, or seeing the final floor run of The Mother of Us All at Glimmerglass and finally GETTING THE PIECE, as directed by Chris Alden.
Rehearsals are times to focus and learn and think and BE.  Save the fabulous new status update for afterwards.  It'll keep!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Being Prepared: a pseudo-lecture

It's difficult nowadays to prepare for a first coaching. 
I guess I'm being facetious by writing that.
Let's explore the modern day singer's approach:   
You get your xeroxed score/aria/scene given to you instead of setting out to Patelson's to find the piano vocal among the stacks.  You dutifully highlight your text and write - by hand - the Nico Castel IPA underneath (not to mention his word for word), instead of looking up the words in your Italian/French/Czech dictionary - struggling to understand the 18th century language changed by time.
Now you are ready to prepare: you turn on your computer and google "Boheme Act Three" (or some such work) to get the Wikipedia article with the background on the particular masterpiece you're getting ready to tackle.  Then the real preparation begins: it's called YOUTUBE.
After viewing the dozen or so videos of this famous music, YOU ARE READY.  You've sung along, made fun of the artists' vibrato, posted some comment good or bad, and thought lots about how you'd sing it.

Oops, maybe not.  There's more to it than that.  It's ALOT more interesting and fun than that.  I'd recommend pouring over the text to find its meaning first.  Then I'd hie thee to a piano and slowly get to know your vocal part -- no singing needed.  Try speaking the text in rhythm first. Then plunk out the notes - humming along.  Once the intervals and/or tune seems clear, add in your voice - on your favorite vowel.  Once that becomes easy, take a big breath and slowly add the text to the vocal line. REPEAT REPEAT REPEAT.
After much time spent communing with a great composer, you're probably getting ready for your first coaching.  You've just spent time inside the mind of an artist, how incredible is that?!

Alright, I admit it -- I use Wikipedia every now and then.  Also Youtube -- it's such a vast treasure trove of art that just wasn't accessible to my generation on up.  However, none of these new tools can substitute for solitary practice - particularly Nico's ingenious IPA bibles. It's not enough to know what Nico tells you is correct, or to take an alternate high note because So and So did.  You have to understand what the piece is about from the inside.  That takes time and thought.

Unfortunately, I think too many young singers are spending their time reading blogs, posting on FB, following The Met on Twitter, and checking their email incessantly.  I also think that just when it might seem like the time to spend alone in a practice room, it is easier to go see the latest Harry Potter movie or head off to the bars to laugh with newly made friends.  The learning process gets short shrift and that's really too bad.

Enjoy the learning process -- it's not work, it's a rare pleasure that we artists have!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Days Off

Days off in the summer are always the most busy days, particularly when you're at a summer program that goes all day and all night for six days straight.  The Day Off is the day to get the laundry done, pay bills, clean up the cabin, run to the grocery store, get the car washed and cleaned out and - most importantly - practice for the coming week ahead as there is NO time to practice otherwise!
For my wife and I, the Day Off means FAMILY DAY as well.  We've tried to make the Brevard day off a big day with our boys - going hiking, or a movie, or seeing some tourist site like the Biltmore.  
Today we're all up early and deciding what to do - I need to practice, we have no clean clothes or milk in the cabin, and our boys want to do "something fun".
We'll see how the Day Off ends -- tonight Keith Lockhart, Mary Phillips, and Michael Hendrick perform Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde -- something that would be nice to see on a Day Off, but somehow I bet I'm in a car driving back from Bat Cave, North Carolina with two exhausted boys in the back seat and a wife who just wants to get back in time for a good night's sleep before teaching 12 lessons on Monday!
Hope your days this summer are as fun-filled as ours!
I promise to post more regularly!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Camelot Final Dress

Just home from tonight's Final Dress Rehearsal for Camelot at Ash Lawn Opera (in the Paramount Theatre in downtown Charlottesville.)
It's an interesting moment for a director - when to choose to enjoy the show and when to continue noting the show (i.e. light cues, props notes, etc.).
I've spent the last few years not enjoying my final dresses as much as I'd like to.  As a conductor, you try to move into that final dress in performance mode -- getting into the moment, enjoying the sweep of the evening, preparing for the rush of opening night.  As a director, it seems like the last chance at making an impact on the show -- or for lack of a better word, controlling the show.
Control is hard - particularly in the last rehearsal in a theatre.  
After tonight's dress rehearsal, which went VERY well thank you mum, it seemed as if I had lost a chance at enjoying the performances being given by my very gifted cast. Made me sorry to be leaving the city after the opening...
So Friday night we open and I will try to sit back and enjoy the show!  Favorite parts of the show so far, in no particular order: Katy's portrayal of Jenny when she meets Lance for the first time, Chris' first scene with Peter (Lance and Arthur meeting for the first time), Peter's monologue that ends the first act -- riveting, Corey's Mordred (come see the show for his 7 Deadly Virtues number), and our South African Pellinore as played by Christian.  I must say that it's been QUITE a pleasure to work on this show with everyone.
Oh - and thank the lords above that Erin is calling the show; AMAZING psm!!
Tomorrow is a day off and I'm heading to Monticello to commune with Jefferson.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Dialogue of the Camelots

So tonight we finished staging Camelot, a book scene between Mordred and Arthur. Done!  Well, sort of... we've got two full run thrus between now and Friday night (the 1st night of tech) and it is readily apparent that we need to run lines, run lines, run lines, run lines.
Don't get me wrong -- the cast is TERRIFIC, but these Camelot book scenes have a lot going on in them.  Giving clarity to Arthur's dream of civil law and civility, focusing the delicate balance of love between Arthur, Gwen, and Lance while moving plot along is the big challenge.
One of the delights of tonight's rehearsal was seeing Corey Trahan rehearse as Mordred.  He's wickedly funny, as is our Pellinore, Christian Bester.
I'm really looking forward to running the show tomorrow and seeing how it all fits, blends and moves forward.
On another note, Brevard rehearsals for Hoffmann (one of my least favorite shows!) have started with Dorothy Danner directing and Mo. Larkin conducting.  I hear the cast sounds exciting, and I look forward to seeing them in THEIR tech week in a less than ten days.  We did end up casting the scenes programs this past Monday night - after hearing 43 arias that day - and I hope the singers are excited: 20 duets in the first program and I think it's 17 or 18 scenes in the second program, including scenes by Torke, Britten, Kern, of course Mozart, and WAGNER; more on that later!
Fun fun fun

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Camelot onto 2nd week...

This past week has simply flown by! 
Working with a very talented cast I've managed to get over 50% of the musical numbers staged. During the next two days, the goal is to finish the rest of act one.  The Arthur arrived into town today and is exceptional - as are all of the principals. That makes life much easier...
Tonight I worked dialogue with some of the cast and had a really interesting time talking about the piece.  In order to shorten the musical (it's rather long), I had made some pretty significant cuts.  However upon hearing the lines spoken by the players tonight, I decided to open up a number of those cuts.  It'll really help the show, and certainly makes me feel good as I love so much of the dialogue - being a fan of the Arthur legends since I was a young boy.

It's getting late, so I'll cut to the chase: I think that musicals AND operas should be treated much more as living entities that need to be reborn each time they are presented. We're currently in a present, operatically speaking, where directors and production designers re-think the operas, but where the music directors strive for note perfect renditions based on critical editions.  It presents problems when one is trying to create a whole piece in a genre that is based on sung text.

Just a thought on this late night out in the country in Virginia...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Thursday I get on a plane and fly to Charlottesville, VA to start rehearsals for Camelot, which I'm directing at the Paramount Theatre for Ash Lawn Festival.  It's their VERY first production inside a theatre (and not outside in the backyard of James Monroe's estate), so the pressure to have a fantastic production is intense - sets, costumes, props, sound, everything...

The first day on the job I'm expected to show up at a Guild cocktail party - directly from the airport. Then the first week of rehearsals will focus on staging any and all scenes withOUT Arthur (who is coming in a week later).  Staging a show out of order has its challenges - most of all continuity of exits/entrances - but also it presents a focus challenge for both the director and the cast.  We'll see how it goes.

Looking ahead, it'll be an interesting few weeks. Rehearsals running from 9:30am to 4pm at a local high school, and then moving to a different rehearsal venue for evening rehearsals 6:30 to 9:30pm.  I'm hoping to get in a ton of work preparing for design meetings for another show I'm directing in January of 2010 during the two and a half hour break, but usually that means I'll go out for dinner and chat away and not get anything done.

Charlottesville, for those who don't know the town, is a TERRIFIC city.  The mecca for DMB, it was voted "Best City in USA To Live" about 5 years ago.  It has an amazing downtown pedestrian zone (the Paramount Theatre is right on the mall there), with tons of great restaurants and coffee shops.  I like the city alot.  It's about a 1 and 1/2 hour drive to DC and sits below Monticello.  If you get a chance to visit, you should.

I'm hoping the cast is prepared on their dialogue - I've cut pages and pages, but it's still WAY too long I think.  I'm hoping to tweak scenes in the evening rehearsals once I hear how everyone does.  That's most of my worry - that and figuring how to make the "Jousts" number interesting.

Must pack for my three weeks in Charlottesville AND then my five weeks at Brevard.  More on Brevard later!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Premier Blog

So this is my first real blog!  Ending my second year as director of opera studies for Opera McGill up in Montreal and heading into a really busy season: directing Camelot at Ash Lawn, along with David Gately running Janiec Opera Company at Brevard, then back to McGill to direct Agrippina, off to the Kennedy Center to direct an Evening of Puccini (semi-staged scenes with huge chorus and orchestra!), 2010 begins at Opera Memphis directing every version of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (!!), then some crazy 20th and 21st century operas for MusiMars, and ending in March by playing La tragedie de Carmen and directing Trouble in Tahiti.
That's 12 operas in the next 10 months!
It's going to be busy, and I hope to blog about the trials and tribulations of creating opera both in academia and in the professional world.