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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.