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Saturday, December 17, 2011

2011 in Review, ossia Operas, Subtext, Mohawks & Mustaches

Here it is, a bleak mid-December afternoon in Montreal, Quebec. I'm at home trying to recuperate after a very trying Monday from a - the word would be: horrific - experience at a Cote de Niege doctor's office. Let's just say there was a lot of blood, little hygiene, and no gloves used.

(The above sentence will be used as evidence if my wife has to sue someone due to my death from a blood infection...)

Wow - that's NOT a way to start off this blog about the Year in Review: 2011. Apologies all 'round...

Here's another go ---
Ah, 2011. What a year! Opera McGill productions reaching critical heights, Brevard's Janiec Opera Company productions expanding from 6 performances to 15 and from 3 productions to 5, students winning opera competitions and auditions all around, a McGill University strike, and Alfred Brendel on campus!

The operatic highlights at McGill really WERE highlights. The January production of Puccini's "La Boheme" was a critical, audience, and box office success! Four sold-out performances, two terrific casts, a gorgeous production by Ginette, Vincent, and Serge, wonderful conducting by Mo. Wachner, and 105 students on Pollack Hall's stage. The student casts sounded so good in their roles, a few listeners actually thought the students' voices were being amplified. I was extremely pleased with the chorus' commitment, the MGSO's playing (seated behind the singers), and Julian's dealing with our first attempt at conducting & cueing singers via television monitors. The cast learned quite a lot about versimatic style while creating wonderful, YOUNG, characters onstage. I won't forget the first rehearsal of the end of act four when everyone lost it in the room. This one was special -- thanks!

Next came a production of Handel's "Imeneo", a little-known work but packed with possibilities and PERFECT for young singers! I took a few chances, directorial-speaking, and focused on telling the subtextual stories and the emotional connections between the characters. I killed off all of the characters at the end of Act One. Why? Because they were dead on the inside and their stories needed to end. Act Two began as a domestic re-telling of the story which ended ambiguously. Act Three was a different take on the story with the characters altered, yet again, but this time the story ended as it was written. Alternate realities? Sort of. It was more like trying to elucidate the Truth of the Problem at Hand  (as in the movie "Hero".)  I loved it. For me, it was my most freeing experience as a director. The cast relished creating a production that looked period on the outside, but was very non-traditional when taken in other ways. My two heroes singing the title role got warrior faux-ish mohawks, the basses had to fight with a staff while blindfolded, and the ladies all got to handle swords, arrows, daggers and spears. My contribution, besides direction, was using my head as a mohawk trial. I must admit to really liking the look.  More on that later.

I directed a "Fille du Regiment" in Wichita. The cast was wonderful and I happen to love the chorus there. My experience wasn't as joyous this time around, which was too bad. Let's just say that pretentious people in a rehearsal space tend to hinder everyone else's creative juices; they're also boring. It must be said, however, that the conductor on this show - Martin Mazik - is the real deal.  He knows his opera and is a terrific conductor. It's really too bad that no other companies in the states hire him (he lives in Bratislava).

The month of May saw a return to the Kennedy Center for another semi-staging spectacular with Julian Wachner, the amazing Washington Chorus (now THAT'S a great organization!), and the indefatigable operatic legend Evelyn Lear. The rep was Mahler, so why was I needed? The answer: von Weber's "Die Drei Pintos". You know, the great singspiel that Mahler wrote based on a thousand some measures of von Weber. It's really Mahler's singspiel and helped launch his compositional career (who knew?!) I was asked to cut and re-write a TON of dialogue, write a narration for Ms. Lear to summarize a convoluted plot deep into act 3, and stage the half-dozen soloists. We had an afternoon, btw, to rehearse it, stage it, and make sense of it.  It was such a pleasure to work with Evelyn again. I had played masterclasses for she and Tom going way back into the early 90s and became better acquainted with them both during my time at Florida Grand Opera (they wintered north of Miami). She was hilarious and delivered all of my punch lines exactly as I had intended (I did write them with her contralto speaking voice in mind!)

Brevard started up again, summer number four for the team of Gately, Hansen, Anthony, Koch and Richardson. We had old and new members of the team for this summer: Michael Shannon (so very talented), Boram (I'm just using her one name, she's the Cher of collaborative pianists), and the extraordinary maestro, Andrew Bisantz. The singers were the best we've ever had (I know we say that every year, but every year they just keep getting better and better), we were inside at the Porter Center without mics, and I got to conduct Verdi's "La Traviata" and Handel's "Alcina" for the first time. The "Alcina" was also my first experience re-mounting a show. The Opera McGill production, from 2008, was created and re-staged (and a big thank you to Aria Umezawa!!) in a black-box venue with a small orchestra and continuo (again, Michael Shannon demonstrating how nothing daunts him...) A former tree, Mr. Tinervia, sang one of the Melisso's and my new trees were gloriously tattooed, buff and given much different staging. I re-thought the show quite a bit and loved the process of recreating the intent of the initial production while keeping it alive and pertinent to the singers in the 2011 cast. It was intense, and those who saw the production were - I think - rather surprised by the production; its power to take Handel's music and transport it to mythic China all-the-while telling Alcina's story of becoming human.  A big shout out to Tai Chi Master George! The "La Traviata" was a joyous experience and I would bet that if professional opera companies heard our Act Two, Scene Two, they would be flabbergasted to find out that these were students!  The other shows were all lovely, Elizabeth once again proved that we couldn't do a summer without her and her voice whisperer talents, and the boys grew a bit beyond Brevard.

There were so many current and former McGill and Brevard students out and about during the summer, singing at different programs around the world. Philippe Sly sang Bartolo at the Merola program, Will Liverman was singing at Santa Fe, Yoni Rose was over at Glimmerglass, it seemed as if half of Central City's program was comprised of Brevard/McGill alumni, and there were many others all enjoying the wide range of programs up here in Canada - from Banff to Avalon!

And then there were a few big winners: Philippe Sly (Mars, Collatinus, Escamillo, Nick Shadow, and Marcello here at Opera McGill) won the Met Nationals and joined two other Opera McGill alumni at the Canadian Opera Company's Ensemble program (Jacqueline Woodley, the COC poster soprano for 2011, and Rihab Chaieb, mezzo). Emma Parkinson and Aidan Ferguson sang roles with the Atelier Lyrique at L'Opera de Montreal while Tracy Cantin (Mimi, Governess, and Donna Anna with Opera McGill) and Will Liverman (Sprecher, John Brooke, and Gianni Schicchi at Brevard)  both won spots at the coveted Ryan Opera Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. They begin their contracts in April of 2012. This November, Gordon Bintner (Colline, Argenio, and Don Giovanni at Opera McGill) won the 1st Prize in Voice as well as the Grand Prize in the O.S.M.'s prestigious competition. Many, many other students and former students are making professional debuts this year and next. I'm proud of each and everyone of them and have been so glad to be of help in their respective career aspirations!

More news: former students Rachel Krehm, Aria Umezawa, and Catharin Carew started an opera company in Toronto: Opera Five. I'll get all their info and website links and put it on my blog. I have great hopes for their company and know that they'll be successful. Their "Opera Cheats" videos may just go viral...

Most of August was spent in Iowa. I was writing. We'll see if it bears fruit...  It was great to celebrate my mother and father-in-law's 60 wedding anniversary as well as my father-in-law's 80th birthday.  He is in marvelous shape, (and still repairs the house by himself and does all the lawn work).  I continue to be amazed at their love for each other and how committed they are to each other. To my knowledge, they've never said a bad word against anyone (that is a very midwestern thing, however) and they are the sweetest couple I will ever meet or know.  I love them very much and hope that Elizabeth and I can have a garden as beautiful as theirs someday.

Then the fall happened. It seemed like it lasted a whole year that went by in a few weeks. Each day was filled with challenges, most met, and filled with all of us wondering when the Strike would be over.  The strike started on the first day of classes and ended on the last day of classes.  I'll say no more.

The fall black box of Britten's "The Turn of the Screw" was actually more in the spirit of those original Opera McGill black box performances (performed in the basement of FACE or over at Redpath) than what our audience's have come to expect lately. No costumes or lights, no sets (there was a couch, a table, and two chairs) nor props. There was, however, excellent direction by Tom Diamond and outstanding conducting by Andrew Bisantz.  Both casts gave lovely performances of this tricky opera and I think learned that the trappings of opera aren't always needed to create a dramatic impact. Many who saw the performances remarked that they preferred the austere production, as it emphasized the musical score and the students' vocal characterizations onstage.

There were masterclasses with Tom and Andrew, as well as classes with David Lefkowich in stage combat and guest coachings in musical theatre by Beth Burrier. This fall the Opera McGill students have also had the pleasure of coaching their roles with Gordon Gerrard, who will be conducting the upcoming "Don Giovanni" production in January of 2012. I've been extremely pleased with the level of musical preparation this year, much of that is due to Gordon's hard work.

December 3rd was "Opera McGill on Broadway" and we rocked Redpath, actually tapped ourselves silly. Hundreds came to see the show, the students gave great performances of musical theatre literature that was, for the most part, relatively unknown to them and to many in the audience. Jonathan Patterson, a crazy-talented choreographer and director, added his touches to the evening. "Puttin' on the Ritz" caused jaws to drop (we really have to find a way to encore that one...) and I even sang (in public!) a song to my wife in honor of our 20th Wedding Anniversary, which officially happens Dec. 28th.

The high point of 2011, if I'm strictly talking about my personal high point, was meeting Alfred Brendel, hearing him deliver a lecture on humor in classical music, but most importantly hearing him play excerpts at the piano (he has retired from playing in public). His playing was phenomenal and inspiring! Later in the day, McGill University assembled a panel to talk about Interpretation. The panel was a daunting group - experts in religion, architecture, Shakespeare, cinema - that included Mr. Brendel. I was also asked to be on the panel.  It was just so exciting to sit on a stage with someone who I've listened to for over 30 years. Especially his Beethoven recordings (my Masters recital was highly influenced by his Op. 109 recording...) I spoke about literal, sub-textual and emotional textual interpretations of operatic libretti and how this influences everything from design to direction to performance choices. It was a very stimulating afternoon and I've never heard so many big words from one group of people in a long time!  Mr. Brendel seemed very happy and impressed with how it turned out.

Personally, the difficult fall was made much more festive by my joining in with other Canadian guys to grow a moustache to raise money for Prostate Cancer. November became "Movember" and I grew a Mo, blogged about it, posted too many photos on FB and here on this blog. In the end, I raised $500, helping to raise over 32 million dollars here in Canada for Prostate Cancer. I must admit that my 'stache looked okay. I blogged about the worry of the final product back in early Movember and am pleased to report that both the process and the product were to my satisfaction. A few students told me they were sad I shaved it off. (They seemed in earnest, at least I want to think that!) Honestly, I was a bit sad as well, and have been wondering ever since shaving it off on Dec. 1st whether I should spend the winter altering my look yet again.

Which leads me to wonder: Given that 2011 saw me presenting MOntreal with both a MOhawk and MOustache, should I be thinking of choosing one look as the "best of 2011" and committing to that look for a longer period of time? What about a MOhawk/MOstache combo look for the winter of 2012? I'll be spending the months of January, February, and March working hard on "Don Giovanni", "...Poppea", and a Verdi scenes program and won't have anytime to think about how I'm looking. Perhaps I should return to the low maintenance 2009 shaved head look, but add in a fu manchu 'stache for 2012. Hmmm....

I know the above questions consternate some of my friends, students and colleagues. I embrace the freedom my shifts in "look" bring me, yet I've gotten so many "wtf" looks and/or shaking of heads from others over the years. People want to put others in neat little boxes so that we can count on them staying consistent. It makes us comfortable. People have tried to box me in during my career as well -- into being a coach, or an administrator, or a conductor, or a director, or a professor. I'm all those things and more, thank you.

Us humans are way too stuck on our identities coming from our resumes and current successes, but especially our mirrors. The majority of the western world seems to spend a great deal of energy creating an acceptable "look" (I'm talking both career profile and the physical) as well as placing values and judgements on ourselves, and others, based on these superficialities.

My reticence in continuing to play with my identity is twofold: a) my age - yes, I'm 47 and b) my profession - which is in the business of judging singers based on appearance (aural and visual).  Am I too old to play around with my look? I certainly don't feel that is the case. Is it totally hypocritical to judge singers in their auditions while I stand on my soap box saying "don't judge me and my look"? Should I be trying to create an image that reads more professorial than artistic? And frankly, that's me putting a stereo-type onto the academic world (I don't own any sweaters with leather elbow patches, but would gladly wear one if I could find one!) What sort of judgements get placed onto all of us by our look? Why can't a singer design an opera set or a costume designer teach voice?

[Side note: The end of this blog sounds a bit like the fictional Carrie Bradshaw's voice over that seemed to happen 16 minutes into each episode.]

A final thought:
Is who we are perceived to be, stronger than the reality of who we actually are?

Perhaps I'll spend 2012 trying to explore that question.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

End of Movember

Today is the end of November, and for most guys participating in the Movember movement (raising money and awareness for Prostate Cancer) it is also the night the Mustaches disappear.

Movember Canada rasied over 32 million dollars (the U.S. raised less than half of that, fyi) and my site rasied $380.  Not too bad, but I really wanted to raise $500.

That's why I'm keeping the mustache. That's right.  I'm not shaving it off (even though I have a public performance this Saturday!)  So, come on and donate!  You'll find the link to my site on the top right of this blog.  You can also find it here:

It's been fun. I've gotten lots of private head nods (Mo nods) from other guys on the metro who are sporting the mustache.  I've received quizzical looks from colleagues and students.  My boys tell me they "don't see it" and look past it.  I have over the years made so many changes to my look, that frankly I've gotten used to it - although I do not like the pressure of shaving around it!

One wonders why this has become so popular so quickly.  Is it part of the time that we are in?  Is the social media responsible for this?  Why is growing a mustache more popular in Canada than in the U.S.? I'd never really heard of Movember until last year when a friend of mine on Facebook posted his pics and wrote about raising funds, awareness, etc.  I thought "what a great way to raise money!"

And so November became Movember this year and the month flew by.  This week has been prep for the Broadway program THIS SATURDAY, December 3rd, 2011 in Redpath Hall.  Tap Dancing. Demon Barbers. Singing Birds. Four Letter Words sung in public. Belting. Pulitzer Prize scores. Opera singers showing that they can sing Musical Theatre repertoire and dance as well!

Don Giovanni finishes its month of coachings. We start staging January 2nd, 2012.  So much happening, and that's just our little Opera McGill world here at the Schulich School of Music.

Don't miss it.  I've got to go practice...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Opera McGill's Movember Update

Wow, Movember has been a busy and FAST month!  I can't believe it's November, excuse me, Movember 22 already.

So much happening. I've posted an update of my face's stache, or as is popular nowadays my "mo" (I prefer stache, sounds rougher somehow) and posted a link to the site where you can donate money to Prostate Cancer, which is why I've been growing the thing all month.

I blogged about it earlier, pursuing a Process without worrying about the final Product.  I maintain this is a good outlook on life and on trying to become an artist of any sort!

A Movember update on goings on at Opera McGill:
The Turn of the Screw closed late in October.  It was a HUGE success and I was so very pleased with the work the student casts did with both the stage director, Tom Diamond, and the conductor, Andrew Bisantz.  I look forward to figuring a way for them both to return to Opera McGill for future productions.

The Broadway program "Opera McGill on Broadway" has been coaching this month, as has been Don Giovanni.  It's been fun to work on Spamalot "The Song that Goes Like This" with singers who are also singing Don Giovanni and Donna Anna.  Such talented students with such RANGE of talent here at McGill!!

The Broadway program is December 3rd at 8pm in Redpath Hall it is free and open to the public. Basically it is a class presentation of a few (okay, a lot) musical theatre numbers we've been working on this month. I think that many of my students' colleagues and professors will be astounded at their ability to sing in the musical theatre repertoire.  I'm having to practice, frankly.  This is one of the hardest programs I have ever played -- don't knock the rep until you've tried to play the rep!

Also this month, two students and I performed at the annual Viennese Ball here in Montreal. Geoffrey Penar and Hiather Darnel-Kadonaga sang some Fledermaus and some Wiener Lied for a very appreciative audience.  I played the accompaniments trying to channel my old mentor Liberace.   Lots of fun!

The semester ends with a flourish of concerts - Song Interp don't forget! - and a couple of big sing-thru's of Don Giovanni.  These are really important sing-thru's because it will be how the conductor, Gordon Gerrard, and I will decide who sings in which cast.  I'm looking forward to finally hearing the singers after casting them way back in September.

I spend December doing some auditions for Janiec Opera Company with David Gately in NYC, and then return to Montreal for the holidays to hunker down and finish the staging of Giovanni.  Rehearsals begin January 2nd!!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Braving End Results

I promise, I'll get to the Opera part in just a moment...

It's November. In my world, it's Movember.
I'm doing something really brave, for me:
Knowing exactly just how awful the End Product is going to be, I've decided to join the "Movember" movement to raise money for Prostate Cancer and grow a mustache.
I've grown a beard before and ended up looking rather frazzled and odd. I've gone for a goatee-ish thing every now and then, but always shave it off because it looks way too scraggly. There's also the gray whiskers that stare back at me in the mirror...
But now I've really committed to this for the month of November. I've joined the tens of thousands of other guys currently sporting hairy lips, and even have a site that you can donate money to:
I urge you to give, as it's for a very good cause. My father died after a five year battle with cancer a number of years a go, and this is a small way for me to honor him (and boy could he grow a GREAT mustache!) while raising money for a very worthy cause.
It's also put me in the ranks of Justin Trudeau and a whole bunch of Canadian hockey players who have all decided to do the same thing. Lots of friendly nods from guys on the metro or on the street who recognize the first furtive steps of the thing growing under my nose...
Because you see, the End Product is supposed to be a pretty fantastic MOUSTACHE (to use the alternate spelling) by the end of November after 30 days of growth.
Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure that in about another 5 days I'm going to be getting sad, head-nodding looks from people; the "what was he thinking?!"
It's worrisome -- what will I look like?

Which brings me to compare this month of growing a Mo to OPERA,(as promised.)

If one starts down the path of learning a new role, (or a new aria,) thinking mostly about the End Result -- and by that I mean anything from "This is going to fail" to "This will get me my first professional contract" to "Mozart wrote this with my voice in mind" to "There is NO way this fioratura is going to work in my voice before the decade is out" -- that path of learning will quickly either disappear into dust or lead you so far astray you'll never leave the forest (or find it, depending on which metaphor works for you...)

I am braving the physical end result of my as-yet-unknown mustache because I'm trying to embrace the PROCESS. For me that's declaring my intent, signing myself up on the site, getting my site up, Tweeting about it, posting on Facebook about it, writing this blog, shaving every morning while trying to figure out how to trim a growing mustache without making it look lopsided, etc.

Singers need to boldly brave their new music, their next audition, their next gig, their next coaching, their next operatic encounter the same way. Concentrate on the process of what's at hand and not the final product down the road. Sometimes it takes a long while for a new aria to "fit", it can take dozens and dozens of auditions before one finally gets hired, it can take numerous teachers before the right one comes along. During these processes, things can be awkward; as ungainly as a shaggy half grown in mustache. However, if you're going through your process for the right reason (stretching your limits, creating art, enjoying making music with others, expanding your repertoire, realizing your dream, or raising money for Prostate Cancer), then the End Product, your Result, will ultimately fulfill you in ways unlooked for, regardless of how successful they might be deemed by others.

Please donate at:

Friday, September 23, 2011

Process & Product

I read a quote attributed to Gandhi:
"Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory."

Full Effort = Full Victory
Satisfaction = Effort

Why then is it hard to "put an effort" into learning new music? Why is the process of learning music so filled with E F F O R T? Aren't we supposed to feel satisfaction at making an effort? What is effort? What is satisfaction?

I agree that I get the most satisfaction out of the PROCESS (i.e. EFFORT) of working on an opera. The PRODUCT (i.e. ATTAINMENT) interests me, on a personal or artistic level, very little. This is true of operas I produce with students or professionals. I do find that there is more of a pressure to "produce" during the process with professionals, as they are focused on the product and want to make sure you're not leading them down a path that might end in either bad reviews, mixed audience receptions, or losing out on being re-engaged because they were part of a bad show. But mostly, the pros LOVE rehearsing because they get to be in a room filled with like-minded people who get to "play" while creating art.

For my students (particularly those who've never been in an Opera McGill show before), there seems to be an expectation that the process will be hard, or effort-filled; both the process of learning the role as well as the rehearsal process. I'm not sure I understand why that expectation seems to occur initially. I think it has a lot to do with worrying about doing it correctly, learning the notes correctly, being taken seriously by their colleagues, etc. I also think there is a sense that opera is SERIOUS BUSINESS and so that means we should all be SERIOUS.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. As I say often, I take "Opera" VERY seriously (why else would I dedicate so much of my life and time to it?!), I just don't take myself seriously! Neither do most of the great artists I've ever had the pleasure of working with. In fact, it's usually a bad sign when an artist tries to make the others in the room understand that they are a "serious artist!" (add in big eyebrow movement and a haughty voice and you've got a few divas I know!)

With my students, I find that by day three or four, their worries and expectations are forgotten, as the sheer fun of working on an opera takes over. I'll let out a secret: 90% of the time we're having a good ol' time. I've laughed so hard my side hurts, I've been moved to tears at a student's performance during a staging, I've rolled around on the ground pretending to be a zombie, I've said ridiculous things - some bold, some stupid, some really insightful - that I have no memory of saying, yet witnesses attest...

I've played.

That's what we do in rehearsal, we play. We pretend. We create. We make music, collaborate, work, sweat, laugh, eat, cry, dance, move in slow motion, hurt ourselves on props... the list is endless, but the truth is that we are ALIVE during this process in a way that most humans on this planet never get a chance to be. That's a precious sort of effort and it does indeed give a great deal of satisfaction.

The Product does too -- knowing the show is "good" or "solid" or "amazing" and that you've made it so is terrifically fulfilling. However, the applause is fleeting and dies fast. But the moments that stay with you are rather timeless and I find I can slip into them so easily: Katy and Peter dancing in Camelot bring me joy, Christopher's miracle in the same show still gives me goose bumps, Kate and Greg kissing in Cafe Momus is still the hottest kiss I've staged, Philippe in his heels brings a smile and his singing of over Lily's body brings a tear, my (now) six trees are ever-present in my imagination, as is Lara's circling of the globe in my head, the moments I've had with students in Wirth Opera Studio live on in me and are brought alive each time I step back into that room.

Perhaps that's my satisfaction.
Those efforts give me a daily dose of Victory that fills my tank up and allows me to return for more!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Thoughts on Auditioning

This is a re-posting about my thoughts on AUDITIONS.
As Opera McGill auditions are this Wednesday and Thursday, I thought I'd post it again.

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:
Take a good breath before you walk in the room.
Enjoy making music and sharing your talent.
Sing, don't listen to yourself.
Think about your text and the meaning of the text.

I'm looking forward to hearing everyone!

Sunday, July 31, 2011


"People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can't find them, make them."
~G.B. Shaw, Mrs. Warren's Profession, 1893

Einstein also said something along the lines of "I'm not smarter, I just stay with problems longer."

I like those two quotes, particularly during times where I'm being tested - like the past few months. It's been a glorious summer on one front: Brevard's Janiec Opera Company. We've done great shows, the students have learned a ton -- through successes and also from minor failures (which teach more than the successes...), I've enjoyed my colleagues and certainly enjoyed conducting Traviata and Alcina (I'm typing this on the morning after our three performance run.) I enjoyed directing Alcina quite an awful lot. It was nice to revisit a production from four years ago with a new cast, remember the terrific performances from McGill (Lara and Taylor were ever in my mind's eye this summer!), and collaborate on it with my amazing assistant director Aria Umezawa (who really added her own touches to the show via some lovely Tai Chi inspired movement for Oberto, Bradamante, Oronte, and the Trees!)

However, I'm exhausted. Physically mostly, but also mentally. I've been trying to work on my tenure dossier this summer and plan for the coming Opera McGill season but it's not really worked out. Any free time I might have had was spent with my family (today's day off is a trip to Triple Falls!) I can tell our boys are missing time with their parents. It's a balance of time and energy that, for this summer at least, hasn't happened.

I look back on the last four years and I see this: 16 Opera McGill productions, 7 guest productions as director, and 15 Janiec Opera productions I've either coached, conducted, or directed (not to mention all the extra scenes programs and recitals and community outreach performances and audition tours, etc.) That's 38 operas/musicals in 4 years. I think that's too many.

Yet the schedule continues -- This fall at McGill is Britten's The Turn of the Screw and a musical theatre scenes program "Opera McGill on Broadway", plus the requisite extra performances in Montreal and on campus. 2012 brings a Don Giovanni and a L'incoronazione di Poppea at McGill, and two possible other gigs (contracts not yet signed!) down in the U.S.; and of course, a return to Brevard (productions not yet determined...)

So why continue? Why do so much opera? Even slowing down next year means doing 6 productions between October and May. Is that too many?

Opera is a huge endeavor. It's not a simple way to make art, by any stretch of the imagination. Particularly when you're the one in charge it means supervising every single person's input and involvement (from the length of quarter notes in the strings, to the color of a prop, to the hem of a costume, to being a psycho-therapist to the singers, to scheduling pianists for staging rehearsals, to making sure your tux is cleaned in time for the premiere...) I sometimes wonder if most people think that creating opera is akin to what Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney did in those "I've got a barn, let's put on a show" movie musicals from a by-gone era. You know, those scenes at the end of day after they've "rehearsed" where the singers and dancers are sitting around drinking coffee, yet become inspired to sing and dance some more - just to entertain themselves again by putting on a big routine complete with tap dancing on tables...

Okay, I'll stop now.

I continue because it's what I do. Period. I love working in and with OPERA; it's my medium - either visually as a director or aurally as a conductor. I persevere because solving operatic puzzles, (creating operas, coaching singers, and mentoring the next generation) brings me personal and artistic fulfillment.

However, if anyone out there wants to find me four tickets to the Universal Studios' Harry Potter theme park I'll be happy to take some time off for a vacation with the family...

Friday, July 22, 2011

Who's reading me in France?

My blog - courtesy of - gives me statistics on how many times my blog is read and from what part of the world. I didn't know about this function till recently and it's been V-E-R-Y interesting to see these results!

First off, my blog has been read over 13,000 times now. That's cool. The most viewed blog is the one titled "Imeneo and Subtext". It was a nice blog, but not the best one (but I guess authors seldom know what's best about their writing, yes?) I would think that my blogs on auditioning, or fear, would be the most read.

But it also seems that I'm being read by people all over the world. When I started this blog, I thought the audience would be strictly North American (silly me!) and young singers looking for information about an operatic career. According to the stats, I've been read almost 5,000 times by viewers in the United States (my #1 audience), over 3,700 times in France, over 3,000 times in Canada, then (in order) Russia, Germany, Netherlands, Slovenia, United Kingdom, Ukraine, Iran, South Korea, Italy, Israel, Sudan, Nigeria, Brazil, Portugal, Thailand, and Australia.

Really cool... BUT:

Who's reading me in France? Who's reading me on the other side of the globe? Why? What's the interest? Please comment below and tell me why you have read this blog. I'd really appreciate it!

Now for a brief Brevard update:
Hansel und Gretel has opened. It's a terrific show! The last show, Elixir of Love, is getting staged -- it opens in less than two weeks. Alcina (a production that I'm directing AND conducting, mostly because I'm insane I think) is having its "final room run" tomorrow at 9:30am. It's the rehearsal where the designers come and watch the show and also where the cast has its final rehearsal before moving into the theatre. I can't WAIT to get into the theatre because the weather here has been HOT and HUMID. To rehearse HANDEL in HOT, HUMID weather is tough!! The theatre has air-conditioning and I simply can't wait to have a clear head. My pianist has been the massively-talented Michael Shannon (who's moving back to Montreal in 2012!). He and I are both playing in the show, with a small orchestral group as well. The cast is really, really amazing and I think that Brevard won't know what hit them when it opens this Thursday.

It's time to turn in -- goodnight world!

Monday, July 11, 2011


Brevard 2011 is quickly coming to an end. Okay -- so we have 4 shows and a concert still to perform between now (July 11) and the last day (August 6), but we're already half-way through the 8 week program.

Time is FLYING!

La Traviata was a massive success -- audiences raved, patrons were thrilled, the faculty and students who came to see it loved it (a bunch of them leaving in tears), the cast, chorus, orchestra, and crew who performed it did an exemplary job, and David and I were proud. We (David and I) also did a great job -- He directed, I conducted. From time to time, it's important to give yourself some credit and a pat on the back. Outside of needing more rehearsal time (and where is there a place that's not true?), it was one of the best opera productions I've been a part of anywhere -- YES, anywhere!

A number of our colleagues who work in professional opera companies couldn't believe the quality was so high - as in the quality of singing, of music-making, of the chorus, of the costumes, of the set design, etc. We even had two Violettas, who had to split all of the rehearsal time between them. The standard is now set VERY high!

3 Penny Opera is in tech right now (Anthony/Burrier), H&G is almost staged (Gately/Lam), Elixir started coaching today (with Andrew Bisantz, who's on campus now and all of us are SO pleased!), and Alcina had 4 hours of staging in the 95 degree heat. I melted today trying to stage Alcina.

Alcina at Brevard: it's a remounting of the Opera McGill production that I did four years ago during my first year up in Montreal. The set design, by Vincent Lefevre, is being re-produced here in Brevard, and the costumes are being shipped down from Quebec. I'm having to go through my old score and re-create the staging -- in a differently shaped theatre space. Aria Umezawa, who has been my assistant director at McGill for the past three years, has watched the archival dvd of the McGill production to get the blocking (and wow has she done a great job!), but the show will be different.

I'm a different director now -- particularly with Handel (Alcina was my first Handel opera that I directed). Plus our space here is shaped differently and I'm going to have to accommodate that. Finally, I want to make sure that my ideas still hold and work with a different casts' bodies and voices. That's really important to me, as otherwise the show will only echo something instead of being it's own universe.

If I (and the cast) can handle the heat this week, we'll be in good shape. Tomorrow we start Tai Chi lessons with a local master here in Brevard. Should be fun!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Brevard Week 4

Well, week 3 has flown by! Still one more day left to go in the week, but wow is time flying here!

Traviata is staged and we've already had one room run thru -- today is the final room run. For those of you not familiar with the term, it's the rehearsal where we start at the beginning and go to the end of the opera in front of the designers so that they can see the show. It can also be, for students and young singers, the first time they see a complete opera -- or sing the role completely from beginning to end. For this production, we have two stellar Violetta's and they each need a run thru before we move to the theatre. The rehearsal process has been lovely on this show, the entire cast is terrific and the chorus sounds like one you'd hear at Glimmerglass. They sing with vitality and are creating individualized characters, plus there is a refreshing youthful energy to them onstage.

The rest of Brevard Music Center is now in full gear. Lots of rehearsals happening all around us and the symphonic concerts are underway at the WPA. Keith Lockhart, our artistic director, just conducted a great concert last night with the student orchestra (a rousing performance that ended with Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel) and tonight he conducts a great program: Appalachian Spring, the Vaughn Williams Oboe Concerto, and the ever-exciting Rite of Spring! I'm guessing Keith has to fly out tomorrow after the concert to get to his July 4th extravaganza that's televised across the nation -- I think he might be the only American conductor to be regularly featured on a national telecast. The Three Penny Opera is heavy into staging (they open in two weeks, followed by Hansel and Gretel the week after). Busy Busy Busy!

On a personal note, I haven't conducted this much since last year's Pirates rehearsals -- and those were a lot easier because of the dialogue. Verdi's universe is wondrous, particularly act two of Traviata (not to mention the last 5 minutes of the opera!) I find that the flexibility needed for the bel canto demands of the score challenge both the cast and myself. Tomorrow is our first orchestra rehearsal in the new space over at the Porter Center. All of us are INTENSELY interested in how the acoustics will turn out. I can't wait to see how the reduced orchestration sounds (there's not a reduced full score, so It'll be good to finally hear it for the first time tomorrow.)

Two orchestra readings, a piano tech, a piano dress, a Sitzprobe, and then a final dress are all that's left before La Traviata opens Thursday night, July 7th, 2011 at the Porter Center. If you're in the Asheville/Brevard area, get your tickets. This production promises to be one that you won't forget!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Brevard Week 2 & 3

We're actually into our third week here at Brevard Music Center. Time is flying. Act One and Act Two are staged for La Traviata - we've run both acts twice already. Three Penny Opera is getting staged and their music director, Beth Burrier is on campus holding musical rehearsals. Run-outs to country clubs (tonight's was at "Lake Toxaway") begin with about a dozen students, David Richardson and Dean Anthony all putting on a great preview of our season. Elizabeth has seen everyone at least once and is starting to really make her impact felt here as well.

All in all, we're feeling good and a bit "ahead of schedule". I hope it holds.

Tomorrow we dig into Act "3" - which of course, is Act 2, scene 2. I've never known it as anything else but Act 3, though. You know, Flora's party... The plan is to have it all staged by Thursday and then run the show Friday and Saturday. Orchestra readings start Sunday.

Opera classes have been focused (at least for me) on getting to know the students' abilities - all very talented, but also all at very different levels and stages. I'm getting the feeling right now they're competing with each other for some grand compliment or praise from David, Dean or I. Not sure, but it's just something I'm sensing.

Of course, it would all be better if everyone just focused on themselves and their own work and abilities instead of comparing themselves to their colleagues. I mean, really, why compare? It's frankly a false "control" group to compare yourself too. The makeup of the Janiec Opera Company has more to do with the opera repertoire for the summer and the roles offered, than anything else. If we had decided to do Don Giovanni instead of Traviata, there would be different singers here - and then that would make the comparisons for the others completely different. That's the thing - you'll always have others to compare yourself with and it's almost always a false comparison because it's ALL based on your locality.

I say don't compare. Focus on yourself, enjoy and learn from the others, and flow with the process of coachings and rehearsals.

Performances start up next week and don't stop until we're outa here. It'll be a fun ride, I'm sure!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Brevard Week One!

It's Friday, and I'm done for the day. The week has been filled with new faces, returning faces, and lots of music making. My days have been filled with our daily Opera Classes (David Gately, Dean Anthony and I are the Brevard versions of Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Simon Cowell -- it's a bit of a debate who's who!), coaching Traviata (two tremendous young ladies are going to sing the title role here in July), coaching Alcina arias, and rehearsing the chorus for Traviata.

The chorus rehearsals have been very intense, but I hope fun and a learning experience. I've been concentrating on getting a nice rounded "cupo" sound, getting some play in the text, getting punctuation into the vocal phrases, making the men sound like MEN and having the ladies put out a bit more sound than they might think they should. Once I talked about singing with their own individual voices - as opposed to "blending" - things really changed! Chorus masters who "blend" an opera chorus, particularly an Opera chorus by Verdi, sometimes end up making the sound BLAND and uninteresting (yet BLENDED!)

I'm very proud of my Traviata chorus experience, having played for THE great American chorus master, Donald Palumbo, back in 1992 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. There is still a part of me in Act One, rehearsal #1. He was so picky -- no, make that he was the most intense musician I'd ever worked with up to that point, and still is 20 years later. He's at the Met and you can tell already the difference he's made there. The chorus is beginning to sing with dynamics and seems to be creating phrases that shift colors and textures, at least in my humble opinion.

His secret? He would rehearse a phrase over and over and over and over and over and over again. Seriously, I'm still shocked that he moved past "Dell'invito trascorsa è già l'ora" after rehearsing those 2 seconds of music for about 30 minutes one night. ("No, No, that isn't it!" and "It's simply NOT possible" were muttered under his breath many nights.) What I learned from him was, MAKE IT RIGHT and then move on. Don't just rehearse something and allow it to not be what you want.

Maestro Palumbo had the best ears as well - he could pick out an errant open "e" vowel from a crowd and he also had unbelievable rhythm -- detailing dotted 16th notes and keeping them away from becoming triplets was a specialty. I have thought of him SO much during the last week. I was so lucky to play 15 shows with him in the room - everything from Cosi to Wozzeck.

I was very lucky to have worked with some amazing people - Palumbo, Christopher Keene, Hal, Stewart, Robert, Buck, Bill - and am thrilled to be back working with two other amazing people: David Gately and Dean Anthony. David is just terrific - he cares AND he's talented! Dean is a master of helping a young singer out physically to create a character or shape an aria. We have a great time together here.

My wife, "Liz" (I simply just don't call her that, but that's how she's known here and in Montreal) is also at Brevard. She's the Voice Whisperer here.

Blogging out from gorgeous Brevard,

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Time & Space & Music

This blog's gonna ramble a bit...

Time's been on my mind today. Not enough time to get everything done before we leave for Brevard. Not enough time to completely prepare for recreating the Tai Chi Trees in Alcina. Oh - and there's still bits of Act 2 of Traviata I don't quite know (I guess I'm confessing the same thing as Maestro Slatkin, except he was in the midst of Met performances...)

Not enough time to take some time off; so many of us feel this way nowadays.

So I thought I'd take the time to blog about TIME.

Time expands, slows down, and speeds up when music is present - either being made or being listened to. We've all experienced this phenomenon, some more than others. I've known for quite some time (pardon that one), that my sense of time was a bit, um, different. At first I was made to feel that my sense of time was extraordinary (my mom wouldn't set the oven timer for cookies, I could just call them done at 9 or 10 or 11 minutes - whatever the recipe called for.) I had a crazy sense of time, almost Vulcan.

Later while I was in college, I was made to feel that my sense of time was deficient. You see, I couldn't keep a steady beat. At all. Really!

I had terrible experiences with others - particularly other students - who made it a point to point this out. I started to feel a bit incompetent, and then I started to think something was wrong. I realized that other musicians noticed if music was moving forward - they called this "rushing". They also noticed if the beat wasn't steady - I called it "being expressive." Sometimes they made faces when this happened, as if it was either hurting them, or something was smelling kinda bad. I usually perked up because something was happening of interest...

The metronome - an instrument that has nothing to do with music making - clicks inhumanly at regular intervals to make audible the illusion that there is a beat somewhere in time. For years I tried to practice with it, tried to understand how it simply wasn't representing the time that I felt inherent in the phrases of music I was playing. I swore the metronome was dragging or rushing through piece after piece. It didn't matter if it was Bach or Ravel or Mozart or Copland. Time clicked differently in me and in my music.

Now of course, with my 47 yrs of life giving me a bit more insight, it's clear as day that frankly my sense of time is vastly superior to those others out there making music who try to follow the illusion of time, ictus, and especially tempo. Okay, superior sounds a bit - well - superior. Sorry.

Maybe "more evolved" would be a better way of saying it? Except that I think what's gone on in music lately is a devolution of time -- into a non-human, robotic sense of time clicking in even beats that neither speed up or slow down. Perhaps it's the GarageBand software, or the clicktracks on Broadway, or the computerization of music making via Sibelius or Finale. Once a composer puts something on the computer, and it's 4 minutes and 31 seconds long, it ALWAYS is 4 minutes and 31 seconds long (until a human plays it live and messes it up!)

However, Music is Art; and time flows in Art differently than in life. Isn't that part of what draws us to Art? The ebb and flow of time is unique to each great piece of art I've ever worked on - from Chopin's 2nd ballade to Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle.

Art certainly needs its Apollonian construct and structure to exist. It’s the vessel that art lives in – like Time sitting in Space. Art exists at the intersection where things vibrate – the vibration of creativity, the vibration of the string or the voice, the vibration of the emotional energy of an actor, the vibration of light & color on the stage, etc. Vibrations are key to understanding Time and Space and I think this connection to music and music making is vital and needs to be explored.

Time opens up whenever Music happens. Another way to open time (or better yet, allow it to flow freely), one needs to allow for divergent thinking to create possibilities (i.e. works of art) to explore all those great questions posed by composers, scores, libretti, collaborations, singers, pianists, conductors, etc.

Exploration takes time, but leads to Discovery and New Lands and New Horizons. Yet, it is such a vast missing component in today's world of google-the-answer-now and tell-me-how-it's-supposed-to-go.

Take the time to simply explore, next time you've got the chance to make some music or learn some music or listen to music or look at a sculpture.

And throw that metronome away!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fear of Failing

Fear of Failing
Fear of Being Wrong
Fear of Not Being Good Enough
Fear of Getting Hurt

William Shakespeare put it well: "Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt."

Another interesting way of looking at Failure: "We learn wisdom from failure much more than success. We often discover what we will do, by finding out what we will not do." -- Samuel Smiles

And a whole bunch more:
"Never let the fear of striking out get in your way." -- George Herman "Babe" Ruth

"Failure teaches success." -- Japanese Saying

"He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat." -- Napoleon Bonaparte

"One who fears failure limits his activities. Failure is only the opportunity to more intelligently begin again." -- Henry Ford

And my favorite:
"What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?" -- Vincent van Gogh

I know that I would not be HERE if I had listened to my inner doubting Thomas. I certainly would not be HERE if I had listened to a number of false gods along the way. By false gods, I mean people who should have been real mentors or real teachers and instead were people who tried to project their own worries and doubts and fears onto me (and others). However, at the time they seemed "godly". I always had those inner bells that would go off whenever someone tried to make me feel small or fearful. Others should listen to these bells more often.

By HERE I mean where I am NOW:
1) an associate professor at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University in Montreal Quebec running one of the best opera training programs in the world.
2) the associate director of Janiec Opera Company of Brevard Music Center in North Carolina
3) a stage director who has produced or directed over 24 operas in the last four years
4) a conductor who has waved his hands in operas as diverse as Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero, Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, and Britten's Albert Herring.
5) a respected coach of both opera and musical theatre repertoire who loves both equally!
6) someone who's worked in the business for over half his life and is blessed by friends all over the world.
7) a man married to the most amazingly beautiful woman (who I think is a "Voice Whisperer"), who's also the mother of my amazing sons.
8) a student of religion and philosophy who has the opportunity to try to connect the dots.
9) a pianist who still has a couple of concertos in his fingers, and can still play certain songs from Godspell from memory (yes, it's an accomplishment to hold onto rep from 1982!)
10) someone who recognizes that young people nowadays seem to be FILLED WITH FEAR.

Why am I sensing this fear now more than ever?
Is this just another manifestation of the post 9/11 syndrome that seems to have beset much of the younger generation?
Is it a manifestation of the new generation of mentors and teachers who have decided to teach fear of failure over encouraging their singers to achieve success by allowing failure to happen as a natural part of the process of learning?

How should I try to help?
Do I push an "attempt" onto an obviously fearful student knowing that it'll be a great thing for them to either accomplish or fail?
Do I acquiesce and hope that they'll gain some confidence a little later on - even though I know that opportunities are fleeting and happen so rarely because there are simply too many singers running around who'll take those opportunities away from the fearful?

I'm not sure of the answers - or even if those are the right questions to ponder.

However, I am sure of the fact that those quotes above are TRUE.

I'll end this odd blog of questions and quotes with the following:
Question: Why is it that some see opera as Dangerous?"
Quote: "Opera is Long. Life is Short." -- L.A. Opera tee-shirt

Friday, May 6, 2011

Givers and Takers

This past Friday to Sunday was a huge weekend.
Just the facts first, then the good stuff:
Friday 3:45am - I awoke and got the the Wichita airport to fly to DC
Friday later that morning - The Royal Wedding was watched by billions
Friday later that afternoon - Staging Die Drei Pintos in a private home with a concert hall
Friday 7pm - Wichita Grand Opera's production of my "La Fille du Regiment" opens
Saturday - The Washington Chorus' Dress Rehearsal of "Mostly Mahler" at the Kennedy Center
Saturday night - Correspondent's Dinner where Trump got roasted by Pres. Obama and Seth Meyers!
Sunday morning - PJH walks all around DC and ends at Smithsonian gift shop buying gifts
Sunday afternoon - "Regiment" matinee in Wichita & "Mostly Mahler" in DC
Sunday evening - party and after dinner w/ Wachner, Meara Conway, and VERY interesting patrons
Sunday 11ish - Obama gets Osama
Sunday after midnight (okay, that's Monday) - I head six blocks from my hotel to catch the tens of thousands gathering at the White House to celebrate (yes, I use that word on purpose and agree with the sentiment for any occasion marking a mass murderer's death.)

BIG Weekend, anyway you look at it!
However, why title this blog "Givers and Takers"?

Mostly because I spent the last weekend in DC with an organization that I would describe as being run by Givers, after leaving an organization in Kansas run by Takers. I wanted to write about the difference between the two.

I've worked in this "business" for over 25 years now. There are many ways to look at people. One is that there are two kinds of people and then compare and contrast. One such configuration might be "Correct" and "Effective". That's another blog...
Today's blog is on two other kinds of people: GIVERS and TAKERS.

A listing of the outstanding GIVERS in my live:
Berniel Hanson, my piano teacher who gave me Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Chopin & Ravel
Robert Larsen, my musical father who gave me my musical education
R. H. Fanders, the man who gave me Humanism
Joanne Baker, a sweetheart of a piano teacher, who gave me confidence and my memory
Marlena Malas, a great voice teacher and woman, who gave me open doors
Hal France, a conductor, who walked me through an open door
Christopher Keene, who gave me a great compliment during the longest rehearsal of my life
Donald Palumbo, who gave me opera, a work ethic, and Verdi
Michael Ching, who gave me my professional conducting debut
Norma and Alistar Paton, who gave my wife and I a home and amazing food in Tulsa
Allan Naplan, who helped give me Ithaca and subsequently my first son
Stewart Robertson, who gave me Glimmerglass
Karen Tiller, who gave me a Bluebeard's Castle and subsequently my second son
Nicholas Russell, who gave me (and continues to give others) loyalty
My Ithaca students, who gave me the joy of teaching and reinvigorated my joy of musical theatre
Andrew Bisantz, who gave me friendship during dark times
David Gately, who gave my family the joyous mountains of North Carolina
Meg, Lara, Aidan, and Philippe who awarded me Excellence in Teaching - my proudest achievement
My McGill students, who continue to give me challenges and allow my artistic freedom to blossom
My McGill colleagues who enthusiastically embrace my craziness: Julian, Hank, and Abe, et al
And of course, my family, who give me constant love

A short and abstract listing of TAKERS I've met:
The bitchy NYC coaches at DMMO in the mid 1980s, who tried to take my pride in my mentor
A fat, yet small-minded assistant conductor of a Boris, who told me I played without rhythm
A crazed pianist at The Juilliard School who tried to make me feel small and unimportant
A certain famous stage director who tried to take my confidence, but took others' instead
A general director who took from everyone and blamed everyone for his 1 million dollar deficit
Small minded folks who hold what they know close to themselves and forget to share it
Bureaucrats who take people's precious time in order to fill out forms in order to get forms

That frenzied couple in tornado alley, who I've seen fill young singers' heads with promises of things to come in order to use their time and talents; who point out everyone's short comings and blame everyone around them for any and all problems, instead of working to solve said problems.

But especially, there was that very special Urantian Taker who seemed to be such a Giver until, almost too late, I realized he was the opposite of Good (as Sondheim put it "Nice is different than Good!)

As a good friend once said: "Some people never realize that the reason they seem so ugly on the outside is because they are so ugly on the inside."

I've developed a "Taker Radar" over the years, and feel that I'm usually correct 9 times out of 10. It's something about a person's inability to smile beyond the first smile they put on; coupled with the second sentence out of their mouth usually being something along the lines of "You know, so and so doesn't know what they're doing, but I do".

Nice is SO different than Good. I know that now. It's a valuable thing to know, fyi.

Friday, April 15, 2011

End of Opera McGill 2010-2011 Wrap-Up

So -- I feel bad.

I'm not in Montreal right now and many of my students are leaving town early, way before graduation (which is at the end of May... no comment...) and when we'd usually be doing a year-end party I'm not there and neither are many of my students once I get back to Montreal.
So I thought I'd do a public wrap-up on my blog.

It goes without saying that this year was simply EXCELLENT. A student said it was a "hat trick" (which is a hockey reference I don't understand) or as they actually put it "Patrick's HatTrick". I guess it has something to do with all THREE productions being huge successes, artistically, pedagogically, and critically.

We produced Hänsel und Gretel in November, 2010. It was an extremely cute production and in case you hadn't heard, the sets were projections of Montreal elementary students' artwork of the house, the forest, the angels, the gingerbread house, etc.

In January came our production of Puccini's La Bohème, a massive undertaking with a double cast, 40 member chorus, 12 member children's chorus, and the full orchestration ONSTAGE behind the singers. All was coordinated by Julian Wachner, the conductor, via video screens. It was also recorded by Grammy award winning sound engineers and captured on High Definition video by 6 cameras in the audience and behind the scenes. There's even a documentary that's being put together on "The Making Of La Boheme". All of the footage is currently being edited and the sound is being mixed (they dropped 30 some mics into the space and in the set). We're expecting all to be completed by the start of the school year in August. I can't even begin to express how proud I was of the whole show. As one of our patrons put it "This is the best thing I've seen in Montreal in a LONG while and I'm talking ANYWHERE in Montreal"!

This March we collaborated yet again with Hank Knox and his Early Music program at McGill (his orchestra plays on period instruments - gut strings even - and period tuning) to produce Handel's little-known Imeneo. To say that it was beautiful is an understatement, and to say that it was elegant and emotionally riveting is also an understatement. Frankly, it was an artistic release that I've been waiting to have happen both from me as a director but also from a student cast - all of whom really went down the rabbit hole with their director and created a really special production that could have been a success at a Glimmerglass or C.O.T. or frankly anywhere. Special Bonus: I got to wear a mohawk for about three weeks and scare the locals, befuddle some of my colleagues, and be the "cool" professor on campus. It might come back... Just Sayin'!

SO -- Some Thank Yous:
A huge massive thank you to my assistants in the Opera McGill office: Veronique Coutu, Garry McLinn, and Lucas van Lierop. There is just no way for anyone to know the myriad of tasks that they are responsible for - from programs to supertitles, from communication with students and faculty to dealing with ticket requests from audience members - they are indefatigable! I certainly couldn't have done it without them. Veronique graduates with her Masters degree this year and I'm going to miss her at McGill. She was an amazing Nancy in the first production I directed at McGill, she gave a beautiful performance of Knoxville Summer on a recital a few years back that I played, was wonderful as Anne Trulove last year, sang brilliantly with Frederica von Stade down at Brevard in June, and brought audience members to tears during her death scene in Boheme. She received her bachelors and masters degrees from McGill and if I had more students who sang with her musicality, vulnerability, and passion, I'd be a lucky professor! Thanks Vero for everything!!

Also a special thank you to the team who worked on and are continuing to work on the Boheme DVD: Shelley Stein-Sacks, Michelle Hugill, George Messenberg, Richard King, Martha DeFrancisco, and their team of cracker-jack students in sound recording! Thanks to Liz Wirth for her tireless support of Opera McGill, Schulich School of Music, and McGill University. Thanks to Ewa and Harold Scheer who run the Austrian Ball for continuing their support as well. A big thank you to my comrades in arms: Julian Wachner and Hank Knox. They are the BEST colleagues a guy could have, both are terrific conductors and both are great GUYS to hang around!

There's no way to thank my team of designers - Serge Filiatrault on lights, Vincent Lefevre on sets, and Ginette Grenier on costumes. I am a very, VERY lucky director and each of them has taught me sooooooooooo much about being a better person. They are REALLY talented and Ginette is simply a genius!

Finally, Thank You to ARIA UMEZAWA! She's been my assistant director for half a dozen plus shows at McGill, plus she spent last summer at Brevard doing the same AND creating the daily schedule. She'll someday be famous I'm sure and I'll be applauding her productions. Aria is smart, has an aesthetic all of her own that I admire, and is deeply committed to making ART. I'm really going to miss her!!

Speaking of missing, I'm going to miss Jana and Philippe A LOT! Together, they've been in almost every show I've done at McGill - that's 15 shows, fyi. I've been really lucky to have such talented students over these past four years and Jana and Philippe really represent the best of my McGill students. Good luck to both of you!

And now... for a few End of Year Opera McGill awards (or the "OM"s as we call them):
For Best use of a Prop:
Jordan de Souza throwing the broom in H&G from the pit
Gordon Bintner eating the chicken with his mouth open in Boheme
Myriam Leblanc breaking the sword in Imeneo
Garry McLinn and Kevin Myers dealing with the bow and arrow in Imeneo

For Best use of Hair:
Lawrence Shirkie as Schubert in H&G
Rebecca Woodmass and Estelì Gomez getting dragged by their hair in Imeneo
Patrick Hansen's mohawk before and after Imeneo performances
The Imeneo faux hawks
Philippe Sly's fake facial hair in La Boheme

Best Onstage Moment:
The Water Cistern breaking and spilling a bathtub of water all over Pollack's floor in Imeneo
The opening of Act Two in Boheme
The end of Act One in Imeneo
The Mosh Pit during the kids matinee in Hansel und Gretel

Feel free to leave your own nominations in the comments!
I'm off to finish staging act one of Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment for Wichita Grand Opera.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rockin' Imeneo

Opera McGill's production of Imeneo closed Sunday March 27th. It was a terrific production, one that I'm extremely proud to have directed. The student casts were remarkable, Hank Knox and his orchestra gave inspired performances from the pit, Ginette's costumes were oh-so lovely, Vincent's sets (taken from Alcina and Lucretia productions) were just exactly perfect, and Serge's lighting connected it all together, even Gingras loved the show:

We had terrific ticket sales for Friday and Saturday nights - lots of patrons, new audience members, and students. Our matinee on Sunday didn't sell as well as I'd hoped. I was also disappointed in the student turnout - which seems to always be less than what one might expect for many Schulich concerts and events. I don't get that.

At all.

I would think that if someone was spending money on an education in music that they would not be content to just see one performance, they would want to see them all. I certainly did when I was in school. I went to every recital (that was required at Simpson) and every concert given by the ensembles and faculty. I was a piano major who gave two one hour recitals (both would've been considered masters level literature here), played over two dozen other senior voice recitals for fellow voice students, sang in the madrigal and choir (and did the requisite tours), plus played in, sang in, worked set crew, and occassionally danced in 10 productions during my undergrad years. When I was done, I was REALLY educated in music. I had played all the major song cycles by Schumann, Britten and Barber in recitals, had competed in piano concerto competitions, placed third in NATS as a baritone, worked 4 summers at Des Moines Metro Opera, and ended my years at Simpson making my professional operatic singing debut as the Emperor Altoum in DMMO's 1988 production of Turandot.

I also partied as a frat boy (Kappa Theta Psi - oldest local fraternity west of the Mississippi), met and dated my future wife, spent endless days hanging with friends, read the complete works of Shakespeare for a class I took for fun, reveled in a history of the culinary arts mini-course, played hundreds of voice lessons for three great voice teachers (for FREE), and graduated with honors.

Occasionally I get the "you're so talented" or "you're just brilliant" remark, or worse yet the "you're an overachiever". Actually not, I was educated in music during my undergrad years to be a total musician, not a specialist. Yes, my languages sucked (and still do) and some of those recitals were not the best, but I performed music that I loved, listened to music that I did not know, and grew a thousand fold as a singer, pianist, conductor, coach, and person.

I got my 10,000 hours in during my bachelors degree. That's why I'm a success today. Get out there and EXPERIENCE and LEARN and WORK HARD 'cause before you know it, the time is gone.

Oh, and I also learned to pour great drinks while tending bar at faculty receptions! It's an important skill that comes in handy to this day!

I'll get off my soap box now... It's time to stage some Donizetti for Wichita Grand Opera!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Imeneo and Subtext

Continuing in my year of working on 12 operas in 12 months (yikes!), next up is Handel's IMENEO.

Not iDOmeneo -- that's by Mozart. The sad joke I've repeated too many times now is that we actually are doing Idomeneo, just with all the parts in the key of C being cut out... get it? key of C? Yeah -- funny the first time, barely.

Imeneo first came to my attention the year before Glimmerglass was set to produce it. Of course I said, "you mean Idomeneo, right?" and got the look from Nicholas Russell that I now give others... It was a lovely cast - John Tessier, Amanda Pabyan, Michael Maniaci - but I have to admit to not liking the production all that much. With the exception of the brilliant choice to have a bunch of an act set at a dinner table, Alden's other choices were a bit stark.

The score is simply beautiful and the story is, well, simply simple: Clomiri loves Imeneo, Imeneo wants to marry Rosmene, Rosmene is engaged to Tirinto. Got it? Rosmene, after faking a nervous breakdown, decides to bow to the will of Argenio (Clomiri's father) and do the honorable thing by marrying Imeneo - the hero who saved Rosmene and a bunch of other ladies from pirates. Yes, PIRATES! To Be Ungrateful or Unfaithful? That is her question. It ends with Rosmene, Tirinto, and Clomiri all quite Unhappy.

The production design had a caveat attached to it: use as little money as possible. After the expense of La Boheme (the most expensive Opera McGill production to date), we had to explore ways to create Imeneo with less than we might normally spend. What to do now that our audiences have come to expect a certain level of production values?

We decided to go with the adage "what's old is new again". McGill University is trying to begin to think Green, and I've been storing up bits and pieces of sets from other productions over the past four years - so why not use them? Boston Lyric Opera did this last season by using a Conklin set designed for one opera at Glimmerglass and re-thinking it for another opera at BLO. We're going to do something slightly different. The plan is to use the rice paper drops from Alcina to define the space, the sculpted head of Lucretia hung as a "moon", and costumes/props from both Thésée and The Rape of Lucretia to create the period.

My stage direction for this production will be focusing on character subtext and how those ideas motivate the da capo ornaments. Easier said than done... An abstract I wrote for a conference on design was titled "Subtextual Leitmotifs in Operatic Design". Although the paper got sidelined because I was in the midst of doing ten operas during 2010, the ideas in the paper are ever-present in my mind when working with opera singers. (I first explored these a few years back during Opera McGill's Alcina production).

How does a director and the cast discover the subtext? What IS subtext? Lots of people think it's about sex, like when Mozart orchestrates horns to play during Fiordiligi's "Per pieta" aria in the 2nd act of Cosi fan tutte. It's more than that, a lot more.

It's a process of really digging into the actual TEXT, an archeological dig into the character's Environment, their Relationships with the others onstage, their Objectives and Obstacles in each scene, aria, and the overall picture, their Tactics (usually given by the composer - i.e. tempo, key, dynamics, vocal registers), and what's at Stake for each character at any given moment. Those are all very rational ideas to explore. Subtext connects those ideas in two ways: directed internally, they mix in with the emotions and magnify them in so many ways; directed externally, they can hit others onstage and those in the audience with a vivid picture of a character's inner thoughts and emotions. All of us Think one thing, Say another, and Do something else when dealing with our loved ones, our friends, our co-workers, and the strangers on the subway. How do we know what Othello is thinking? He either has to tell us in his text, or we see into his thoughts because of the difference in what he says and what he does onstage. How he says it is also important...

Just a few thoughts about what we'll be concentrating on during March. Of course, we'll also be concentrating on the music, the ornaments, and the voices! Each year Opera McGill presents a baroque opera in collaboration with the Early Music Program at McGill - in period tuning and with period instrumentation. EACH year -- the only academic program in North America to do so, at least to my knowledge. Don't miss it: March 25, 26, & 27 (matinee), 2011 in Pollack Hall in downtown Montreal.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Boheme Reflections

Opera McGill's production of La Boheme is now history. History is the right word for the four performances - as in all four of our performances were sold out!

It was a beautiful production - from the sets and costumes and lights to the wonderful performances by the both casts, the chorus and the orchestra. Julian Wachner gave beautifully crafted and moving musical direction and in all humility, I did a good job with this one from a staging perspective.

I loved the 2nd act - it was certainly a challenge to do it without a curtain to raise and have the entire chorus onstage ready to go for the first choral "AH!" It was also a joy to stage the 1st and 3rd acts back in November and December and then see them evolve a month later - what a GREAT idea!

I loved my bookends that ran throughout the show - Rodolfo starting the 1st and 4th acts with his feet on the table facing upstage; the parade down the center aisle at the top of the 2nd act which ended with a parade up the center aisle as the act ended; the first image of the show being a lit candle and then the last image being Colline blowing out the candle; Mimi's death taking place spatially on the spot where she and Rodolfo had first sat and expressed their private thoughts during their 1st act arias; plus there was the whole Vincent/Ginette set/costume color palette of Mimi in Pink and Musetta in Green being reflected on the walls of the garrett. The lighting cues were all timed beautifully and boy did the strings sound amazing!

I am very proud of this production and will hold it in my heart and memory for a long while! It's hard to let go. For some of the cast members, this was their last Opera McGill production. Some of these students started out with me during my first year here at McGill: singing in Albert Herring, some singing in the chorus of Cosi fan tutte or playing trees in Alcina and now there they were on the stage singing principal roles!

Boheme was the 14th opera I've produced, directed, or played in my 3 and 1/2 years here. That's a lot. I'm doing 12 operas in 2011 alone. I'm thinking that's too much and wonder how long I can keep going like this. It's worrisome to me, and to my family. Finding balance is now my focus - which leads me to Imeneo.

My production of Imeneo will try to answer a question that I think is at the heart of the piece:
What happens when people are thrown out of balance?
A hero becomes the villain, a rational woman becomes crazed, a poet loses his muse, a man loses his vision, and the unloved get desperate...

Imeneo opens March 25, 2011

Sunday, January 16, 2011

La Boheme rehearsals

I'm just going to put a link in this blog to some terrific photos taken by Adam Scotti during our last room rehearsal of La Boheme in the Wirth Opera Studio for McGill Opera:

It's going to be a really, really good production. We've got two exceptional casts -- everyone should come twice!! The performances are January 26, 28, 29, and 30 (matinee) in Pollack Hall on Sherbrooke West in Montreal.

If you haven't found our Facebook page, it's here:

Check out some of our casts' auditions back in the fall of 2010 - interviews and snippets of their singing. We're following the process of creating opera here at Opera McGill during this entire year.

No philosophical musings on this blog -- just to say how lucky I am to be working with such talented students and SO lucky to have an amazing support team: Aria, Jocelyn, Matt, and Philippe!!