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Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012: Annus Horribilis / Annus Mirabilis

I'm here in my Montreal Ouest living room, snowed in a few days after Christmas, thinking about what to write today. The mind is a bit vacant, frankly, because I think 2012 took its toll on me physically and mentally!

It started out so brilliantly, too, "mirabilis" in fact, but the last 9 months were nothing close to mirabilis.

Here's what happened, and along the way I'll try to wrap up 2012 giving you my impressions of the big events!

January 2012 ended on a triumphant note, as Opera McGill's production of "Don Giovanni" closed, complete with vampires, the walking dead, fantastic costumes by Ginette, a cool lightsaber prop, and a production featuring the orchestra onstage while the singers sang downstage, upstage, and overstage all around them. There was also a feast of blood to close the last scene. Gordon Gerrard was our wonderful maestro, the casts sang brilliantly, and I really enjoyed working on a Mozart opera I'd known since the '80s.

Next came Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea", and a terrrrrrrrrific production collaboration with the Early Music program at McGill. I added slow-moving statues of goddesses and gods throughout the 4 hours of music. Inspired by "Rome", I killed off a few characters that normally make it (Lucano and Nutrice), and Poppea got to have an onstage pool that she descended into fully clothed and emerged fully drenched! Lucano got killed in said pool, and his water-logged body was dragged offstage by my former Imeneo's -- one who now holds the Opera McGill record for most onstage slaps in the face (various productions, but always the same soprano... hmmmm....)  It was a really beautiful production and featured over two dozen super talented students I have the pleasure of working with here at McGill.

The season ended few weeks later with the last act of Traviata and Otello, plus the Rigoletto quartet and the fugue from Falstaff.  (That's what I call a scenes program!) Tracy Cantin sang her goodbye to Montreal as Desdemona and Violetta before heading off to the Ryan Opera Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago where she debuted later in the fall in their "Elektra" production.  Many students headed off for terrific summer program experiences - everything from Brevard to Ash Lawn to Tanglewood to Merola!

But before the awful months began, I had one exquisite month staging Beethoven's "Fidelio" for Fargo-Moorhead Opera. I wasn't exactly looking forward to it -- Beethoven's opera is not one of my favorite pieces. I left the day after the Verdi program and found myself in the windswept border between North Dakota and Minnesota. I had amazing hosts (Rob and Weyburn - the BEST!), and lovely colleagues (two of whom shared the house with me - I was down in the Victorian basement, they were two flights above me). I simply loved being there! The people, the bars (great potato chips and beer), the chorus (one of THE best choruses I've ever worked with, anywhere), the coffee shops, and the company itself -- run by the indefatigable David Hamilton. I was really impressed by one and all and I'm looking forward to returning to direct their "Le Nozze di Figaro" this coming March and April. I will miss Carla and John. Weyburn's bananas foster won't be the same.

Oh -- then I got tenure at McGill: MIRABILIS!

Then the summer hit, our final one in Brevard. Aside from the wonderful students, the terrific productions (I remounted my minimalist "Carmelites"), coachings, and classes, the summer for me began a slow deterioration of my health and all-around well-being. I don't know if "Dialogues of the Carmelites" jinxed me, but the same thing happened the last time I directed/played the show: my ears started ringing. And they wouldn't stop. At all. For weeks, and then for months. I tried coaching with ear plugs -- no use. This time around pain was added - particularly when someone was singing in a coaching room (and the coaching rooms Brevard gives the opera company are way too loud and resonant!) I lost a lot of sleep, but continued to teach and direct. I started taking meds and supplements, but to no avail. I started to lose hope.

And then we left Brevard. It was bittersweet. A lovely "Barber of Seville" with a terrific cast, including David Weigel as Basilio giving one of the best all-around performances of an operatic role that I've heard from any young singer on any stage. That's saying something. He heads to a rather huge program this summer and I'm sure the world will know about him very soon. He also sang Colline in a "Boheme" conducted brilliantly by Andrew Bisantz; both productions staged by the remarkable David Gately. His act finale of "Barber" is the best version of that finale I've ever seen. It's still not funnier than his "Pirates of Penzance", which I think was probably the best production at Brevard during our time there.

Other memories of our time at Brevard: Joe Hager and Melinda Whittingdon stopping time in my remount of "Alcina", Lara Ciekiewicz's Pamina, Jonathan Patterson knocking Dame Dottie's schtick out of the park in "Mikado", conducting "Make Our Garden Grow" with full orchestra while our students filled the mountains with their passion, Sara Ptak's PERFECT recitative in "Nozze" (Susannah Act 4 aria), the chorus of "Traviata" singing the music so wonderfully that Donald Palumbo himself would have been happy (really, it was extraordinary), the end of "Carmelites" where a lady in the audience became overwhelmed and couldn't stop sobbing, Will Liverman's Brooke in "Little Women", Geoff Penar and Nico Allen and Liliana Piazza and Mary Martin and everybody else (that was the summer almost one third of the program was from McGill) giving their all in "Hello Dolly!", and that beautiful cabaret put on by Beth Burrier... really so very many wonderful memories and performances! 

Driving to Iowa to visit Elizabeth's family, we stopped in and saw my brother and his wife outside of Cincinnati and I started to relax. Then in Burlington, I saw a chiropractor while at the same time removing milk, wheat, and red wine from my diet. I don't know what ultimately caused it (probably relaxing in Iowa!), but the ringing stopped one day.  YAY!  Then a bat appeared in the house, I caught it in the boys' room, and we headed back to Montreal.

The day we were back, we headed to the hospital and all got rabies vaccines. Long story. I don't recommend that experience to anyone. I am glad we don't have to worry, but a month of shots just as school was starting really got me, and my whole family, off to a horrible start.

Then I got really sick, coughed myself into a hernia (probably getting surgery this summer), and then one day: Shingles. I guess my immune system finally had enough. 

All the while, I kept teaching and coaching and planning and administrating and sitting on committees and producing opera (Opera McGill's fall production was Handel's "Rinaldo" and I was really happy I had decided not to direct it, 'cause I wouldn't have been able to do so.)

That all sounds like a big ol' whine, but let me tell you, it's a humbling thing to have your body let you down. The shingles I caught early; the anti-virals made the symptoms disappear quickly. Those are hard drugs to take and those ten days are not ten days I want to relive. 

I continued to teach, and one of the things that kept me going was my class on the bel canto operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. We tackled two operas every week (everything from "Cenerentola" to "Norma" to "Lucia" to "Traviata" and 20 other operas!) and I really enjoyed the students. Teaching it on anti-viral meds, though, is not to be recommended...

Also this fall there were two tremendous performances given by my students -- "Death By Aria" and a recital comprised of Musto and Heggie songs. Dave Tinervia gave a riveting performance of Heggie's "A Question of Light", I really enjoyed playing this cycle. I hope he and I can find another time and place to present those songs! "Death" was almost the death of me, for sure. I thought it'd be fun to present each Opera McGill student (there are 36 in the program currently) singing an aria with me at the piano. But with a twist: each student prepared three arias, those three arias were listed in the program, and then we had audience members spin a casino-type standing Wheel to randomly pick which aria should be sung. We also had them randomly pick the performers' order of appearance. It was a three hour evening, lots of fun, but I needed to be ready to play over 100+ arias. Death indeed! However, we had a packed audience and they stayed through till the end!

On a personal note, this fall I began a new journey that I guess could be described as spiritual: I started meditating in the mindfulness tradition. I'm finding it rather helpful for keeping my mind focused on the present. I have to confess, anxiety has crept into my life in more than a few surprising ways. Worrying would seem to be something that a tenured professor shouldn't do, but this fall has been filled with worry!

The best part of the fall was really the preparation for the January 2013 production of Musto's & Campbell's hilarious opera "Volpone" based on the Ben Jonson comic masterpiece written back in Shakespeare's time. It's got a wonderful, wonderful cast headed by the immensely talented (and Barihunk's top 25 list of 2012) Gordon Bintner, the superb Kevin Delaney, and so many other talented students. Julian Wachner conducts his farewell performance here, as he resigned from McGill this August. He got a Grammy nomination and I think will do just fine! I'm directing it and really looking forward to working on a comedy after this horrible annus (I keep hearing Queen Elizabeth say "annus" as it brings a smile to my face!) It's January 30, February 1 & 3, 2013. Don't miss it!!

Into 2013?  A "Die Zauberflöte" in March with Boris Brott's McGill Chamber Orchestra and my students and then off to Fargo for my favorite opera "Le Nozze di Figaro". The summer is OFF. I'm doing nothing but letting my garden (and my moustache) grow, and visit family and friends in Iowa.

For those of you who've patiently read this very long-winded whiny blog hoping to read something interesting, I apologize. I'll try to wrap up.

So what have I learned during these 2012 struggles?

1) Strength
I'm stronger than I think. So is the world. So are you.

2) The Power of One
Multitasking isn't what it's cracked up to be. I'm learning that I do better to just focus on one thing and one thing only. I know that sounds simplistic, but really for those of us musicians out there, isn't that how we practice? Isn't that how we create art? Isn't that how music really gets made and/or experienced? Yet, I don't live the rest of my life that way. I try to do everything all at once all the time.

It is not possible to learn a new Brahms concerto at the piano while facebooking, answering email, and watching a documentary about Hinduism on netflix. Yet many of us do just that at home while trying to "catch up on work".  It is not possible to tackle a difficult operatic score while tweeting, creating instagram pics of the score, and skyping with your old undergrad roommate to catch up on the intrigues of another school's master's program. Yet we do that in practice rooms all across North America. Get it?

I got it. My resolution for 2013 is to fixate on the present, enjoy it, experience it and let it RESONATE within me!

3) Compassion
The last thing I discovered concerns self-compassion. It's okay to be weak. It's okay to fail every now and then. It's okay to give yourself a break. Frankly, if you want to be more compassionate, start with yourself. If you want others to be more compassionate, start with yourself as well!

My wish for all is that 2013 be a year without protests, a year where political parties interested in removing rights (PQ) or keeping rights (GOP) from others lose power, a year without a mass shooting, a year without losing a non-profit arts organization, a year with more gasps of awe, more baby photos on FB, more walks with dogs, more friends smiling back at you, and more music being made, shared and loved.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Talents of Christmas Past ossia Audition advice

I know, odd title for October.
Okay, so maybe not Christmas Past. I'm writing about talent I've come across in the past. Once you get through that, there's a few thoughts on auditioning (for those out there getting ready for the Fall Audition Season!)

Talent - hard to define. For me, it's certainly not "God Given", as my sainted mother used to say. She'd yell from the kitchen, "Pat, are you going to practice today or waste your GOD GIVEN TALENT?"! I've been around enough to have heard that phrase used by way too many.

Frankly, we all have talent. Some find the ability to access it easier than others. Many simply allow their talent to unfold, unfurl, or become present with little to no effort. Others strive, work, seek, follow, build, force, or pray their talent into existence with a great deal of blood, sweat and tears. The majority of those I think of as "talented" singers seemed to have opened their mouths one day and tone was released with very little thought or effort. They might disagree with me.

During my time running the young artist program at Glimmerglass, a very talented singer once asked me (through copious tears) why they were "still a young artist" while a peer of theirs (and a good friend, which made it even harder) was a "guest artist" complete with a leading role, guest housing, a new agent, and invites to the exclusive parties. I sat in silence for a minute because, actually I thought the young artist quite talented (the American use of that word...), perhaps more "talented" than their peer. Obviously I didn't want to give a flippant answer because the emotions were running high, plus I'd never considered the question so specifically.

My answer? I think I said something like "they aren't trying to fix themselves, they release." My meaning? The singer with the leading role "released" their voice, not caring what others thought. More importantly, not trying to FIX their voice while singing. The young artist still thought something was wrong with their voice and kept it close to themselves in order to be able to FIX it somehow - through the right teacher, the right role, the right repertoire, the right coach, etc.  In other words, one was bent on being Effective, the other one on being Correct.

Too many programs, I'm thinking both academic and professional ones, focus on Correctness with an impossibly huge capital C. I tend to focus on Effectiveness because, after my many years working with young singers, it's the most empowering way to go about being successful. We want CPAs to be correct, we want the "best before" labels on our food to be correct, we want our tax forms to be correct. However, I don't want ART to be CORRECT.

All of the great art out there is imperfect on some level, and usually on many levels. All of the great performances I've witnessed were imperfect in some way as well. The great "perfect" building, the Parthenon in Athens, was made to look perfect by building in some major imperfections into its design.  Singing is the same. Being a singing artist requires a great deal of flexibility and creativity - two things that can be suffocated in an attempt to be CORRECT.

Recently, a former student I worked with at Ithaca College was nominated for a Tony Award as a Lead Actor in a Musical (Newsies). He was an extremely talented young man when he arrived at IC to start his studies in musical theatre. I remember his first audition; being taken aback by the sheer force of his presence onstage. Other students had the same effect on me, from the very first moment they opened their mouths to sing; some have had some huge recent successes on Broadway and I often wonder if it's because they allowed themselves some kind of freedom where letting their talent "release" was concerned. I know they all worked really hard on their vocal technique, their acting, their dancing, etc., but I, at least, never questioned their ability to be sensational from the get go.

Some of the talent I came into contact with at Glimmerglass around the turn of this century was beyond extraordinary. Often times when I think of those I considered to be the most talented singers, I have to go and google them to find out what's happened. For you see, more often than not, those uber-talents never ended up being the biggest stars - and oftentimes they ended up not singing professionally at all.

Now I am all about finding alternative careers to singing opera! I have been so pleased that many former students and young artists of mine are no longer either pursuing a singing career or are happily and gainfully employed doing something they love and are fulfilled by doing. Don't get me wrong here - this blog is not about why people stop singing.

The Glimmerglass young artists that I worked with who are now out and about singing all over the world - from Strasbourg to Covent Garden to the Met to San Fran to Fort Worth to Virginia Opera to Lyric Opera of Chicago - all do have something in common: they were open to working with others, on all sorts of music, and with little to no judgement - beyond looking for their version of truth.

Truth -- that's an interesting word. It can get caught in the net of correctness for sure. The word "Correct" is often defined as the removal of errors, or punishing so as to improve; certainly something that is correct can be thought of as free from mistakes. Well, the human voice - and especially the talented ones I've known - is certainly full of errors. Those with perfect pitch can attest that most of our great singers from the last 100 years sang out of tune. If you simply listen to the "greats" (Sutherland, Callas, Sills, Domingo, Pavarotti, Freni, Fleming, Ramey, Horne, can I stop now?!) you hear their foibles, their vocal problems and imperfections. Yet, each had/has something special and unique to offer - their artistry and humanity blended and conveyed through those fragile vocal folds.

So -- for those young singers out there entering into the operatic audition season: A word or two of advice:

1) You can't fix your voice in an audition, so don't try. Let it out and who gives a damn?!
2) Those panelists are human beings you have no control over. They're not there to punish your imperfections, they are sitting there because they love opera and opera singers AND they are hoping you are the solution to their problem: i.e. they need to cast singers!
3) Stop judging yourself like you are a problem. Try, TRY to allow yourself to be as wonderful as you possibly can be given your current process.
4) Breathe before, during and after your audition (I know, this one gets said often but really -- BREATHE!
5) Give yourself another goal for the day beyond your audition. Perhaps it'll be nabbing a TKTS discount price on a Broadway show, or meeting up with friends for a dinner or movie. The day can't JUST be about your audition.

That's what I've got for now. Sorry it's been awhile since I last wrote. The past 6 weeks have been from Hell and I'm hoping the rest of the Fall gets a bit better SOON!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Goodbye Brevard!

This is my farewell letter to Brevard, it's wonderful Music Center and the Janiec Opera Company that resides among the symphony concerts, chamber recitals, and myriads of other fantastic musical experiences that await young musicians from all over North America!

I leave with a heavy heart. I'd rather return, but feel that it is time for me to take a vacation next summer from OPERA. I've worked every single summer in the world of opera since 1984 (that's 29 summers and that's a lot kids!) and would like to have a summer vacation as an adult.

*Note: the following paragraph sums up my summers from 1984 to the present; feel free to skip...

I first started working in opera at Des Moines Metro Opera in 1984 as a "house staff". Doug Duncan, then the managing director, asked me during a lesson I was playing for Bev Thiele if I wanted to work for the opera 'cause - in his words - "you dress nicely and aren't stupid."  Really important advice in opera: dress nicely and don't be stupid! 1984-1988 I spent at DMMO, then in 1989 I went to Santa Fe with my then girlfriend and got hired as an usher. I saw every performance that summer - which featured Tatiana Troyanos, Flicka, Susan Graham (wow what a mezzo roster that summer!) as well as productions of Traviata (with Sheri Grennawald), Rosenkav, A Night at the Chinese Opera, Cosi fan tutte, and Cherubin. I learned quite an awful lot about the business, about opera, and about how to get Crosby a good gin&tonic from the South Bar. 1990 was back at DMMO, then came 1991 when I went to work at Hal Leonard pubishing - finishing the G. Schirmer Anthologies, recording for the first time, and learning first hand about ugliness. 1992 and 1993 were BLISS: playing 15 shows for Donald Palumbo at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I've never learned so much from one person. I wish I could still be there in a room listening to him work with his chorus! 1994 & 1995 started my conducting years at Ash Lawn, then back to DMMO in 1996 to conduct a cover performance of Albert Herring and say goodbye to working in Iowa, it seems. 1997: hmmmm... what happened that summer? Oh yes, conducting an Elixir outdoors for Pittsburgh Opera and starting my job as the music administrator and head coach for Pittsburgh's young artist program. Then off it was to Tulsa Opera! 1998, 1999 and then again from 2002-2005 I ran the YAP at Glimmerglass during its absolute zenith. Fantastic performances by David Daniels, Lisa Saffer, and tons of great young artists too numerous to mention (standout performance of all time: Josh Hopkin's "Kennst du das Land" in LITTLE WOMEN. Freaking AMAAAAZING!). I had two summers as music director of Opera Festival of New Jersey, where I got to conduct a terrible opera: Frank Lewin's "Burning Bright" and masterpieces like "Magic Flute" (with Joe Kaiser as Papageno!), Il Prigioniero (with my wife onstage) and one of my all-time favourite operas: Bluebeard's Castle. Two summers I'll never forget! 2006 was down in Miami getting ready to open up the 500 million dollar performing arts center and closing down the Miami Dade Auditorium. There were two summers back at Ash Lawn (a fun Boheme and a terrific Camelot) before starting my five year run here at Brevard in 2008. PHEW!

Back to Brevard --

Five years in Brevard -- what does that mean? It means productions of Magic Flute, The Mikado, Little Women, Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi, The Tales of Hoffmann, Hello Dolly!, The Pirates of Penzance, TinTypes, Le Nozze di Figaro, Fledermaus, Alcina, La Traviata, The Elixir of Love, Hansel und Gretel, Three Penny Opera, The Barber of Seville, La Boheme, HMS Pinafore, and Dialogues of the Carmelites (that's 20 operas!) PLUS 6 scenes programs and countless aria concerts and run outs to donor parties. Oh, and Opera Auditions Class at 9am during the week with our amazing students!

Over the 5 summers, we've had close to 40 students each season, that's close to 200 students. Many have gone on to sing at Santa Fe, Central City, the Merola program at San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago's young artist program, Juilliard School, DMMO, etc., etc., etc. Of these 200 students, close to 20% of them have been McGill University students. I think that's significant.

I don't know if BMC has realized it or not, but McGill students have accounted for about 40 students during the past five years, and that translates into six figures of tuition bucks. With my leaving BMC, I do worry about the opera company's connection to the academic world. Previous to David Gately (who is also resigning), David Effron recruited extensively from Indiana University (in fact, many considered Brevard a mini-IU during some summers). Who will be the academic connection to the opera program once I'm gone?

But back to the memories: Such wonderful performances! Ultimately, one looks back and remembers all the good stuff and none of the battles lost. Certainly there were many terrific performances. Too many to choose, but the highlights, for me, were Lara Ciekiewicz stopping time during "Ach ich fühls", Liliana Piazza stopping the show as Katisha while Jonathan Patterson kept me in stitches as Ko Ko, the wonderful orchestral playing in Suor Angelica's interlude, my viola section dressing as Pirates and David Gately's ABSOLUTELY hysterical staging of Pirates, Veronique Coutu and Von Stade singing a Cosi duet together with Maestro Lockhart, Reggie's Germont last summer, the Alcina trees with Melinda bringing tears to audience's eyes, and that wonderful Brigadoon-like evening in the mansion up in the forest where Beth Burrier and tons of students created a fantastic evening cabaret of musical theatre numbers - ending in everyone crying; plus countless others!

This summer has been filled with wonderful performances as well. Our Barber of Seville production barely made it to the theatre on time (paint was probably still drying on the set during the opening night), but David Gately's legendary staging along with the students terrific singing brought the house to its feet. Dialogues of the Carmelites was a re-staging of a production I did a few years back at McGill (like Alcina last year) and it really created an emotional reaction in our audiences. It's had the most performances of any Brevard opera ever - 5 - and playing each of these shows really fulfilled me artistically in ways unexpected. It was also nice to work so closely with my wife as she did her Voice Whisperer thing and helped transform many of the students' voices and performances. HMS Pinafore opened and closed to huge applause. Dean Anthony gave  the show -- and I have to admit I think it's one of the dumbest things in the rep -- life and a comic soul that I'm sure most productions fail to achieve. La Boheme closed out this season with moving performances from the entire cast. I think the students have learned a lot, made some new, and maybe, life-long friends, and experienced opera-making at a professional level.

The program that David, Dean, Elizabeth, and I created over the years was unique and, sadly, unnoticed by some of the higher ups at Brevard. Yes, they see some of the shows (BMC's artistic director has been seen at only a few and the artistic administrators tend not to see any, or perhaps only see the beginning of a rehearsal or performance and then try to sneak out unnoticed...), but what they totally missed out on is the transformations that happened during just two months due to the one-on-one coachings (musical, vocal, and dramatic coachings happen here through out the summers) the students experience.  But one of the most important aspects of our program was that it was ABOUT THE STUDENTS, NOT ABOUT US. This is what the program will lose when David, Elizabeth, and I leave. It makes me sad, but it also makes me realize how fleeting these sorts of programs are and how much they depend upon the PEOPLE who create, teach, and nurture from within the program. I worry the focus for BMC is now on selling tickets to pretty productions of, sadly, inappropriate repertoire for young voices. I hear rumor of a Falstaff for next season and that is, to put it bluntly, quite a stupid idea.

Back to the good memories: In addition to the many memorable performances, we had hundreds of hours of staging in severe heat and humidity as well as hundreds of hours spent coaching amazing students in - the word would be: terrible - acoustical circumstances (two coaching spaces are massive echo chambers where the decibels hit 100+ regularly). We've also experienced sickness, last minute crazy scheduling, dodging wasps, smelly clothes, rain, hail, lightning storms, cold foggy mornings, and bats & bugs during late night techs in the WPA.

And what have I learned? I've grown as a coach, that's for sure. I've learned to let things go that were out of my control. I reconnected to myself artistically as a stage director. I've seen the genius of my wife's teaching create fundamental changes in young voices. I've developed a theory about FEAR, OPERA, and AMERICAN MUSICAL THEATRE which I'll be blogging about extensively this fall. Finally, I've realized that I'm human and I need to feed myself some silence in order to reinvest in my artistry.

It's time to move on, take a summer off, and think about the future -- a future that lives in Montreal and a future that I'm really excited about!

Best of luck to BMC and the JOC next year! A parting word of advice: An Artistic Administrator should not be an artist who administrates, but rather an administrator who focuses on the artistic vision of others. I'll say no more...

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Giving not Taking!

A few years ago, I heard his holiness, the Dalai Lama, speak at the Bell Centre in Montreal.  I was a guest of Sanford Sylvan's and was also in the presence of my rather spiritual, yet firmly agnostic oldest son.  We were there mostly because of my son's interest in Buddhism - an interest he's had since our days in Ithaca (when he was barely 6). To say the least, it was an inspirational afternoon spent in a hockey arena with 15,000 other human beings.

The Dalai Lama talked about educating the heart to be more compassionate.  He also talked about how important it was to bring happiness and joy to others.  That's certainly something opera strives to do - bring joy to others, happiness to those experiencing it live or on recording, as well as bringing joy to those creating opera in the rehearsal room, coaching studios, or on the operatic stage. He also discussed the importance of human beings communicating with others as equals. Hmmm... Operatic equality...

It got me thinking about what makes a good coaching.  For me, a good coaching happens when the singer in the room shares with me their ideas/art and I share mine. I give, they give; a non-competitive tennis game perhaps. Recently, however, I have started to worry that singers are wanting to "take" something away from their coachings.  It's a phrase I've heard a lot lately: "I really took something from that coaching we had last week" or "I really got a lot from the program - really feel I got my money's worth". Stuff like that.  It's worrisome.

I was remembering what it was like to work with singers who gave, and thought about a "Camelot" production I directed a few summers ago at Ash Lawn.  My cast of leads was a remarkable trio: Peter Clarke, Katherine Pracht and Christopher Burchett.  They GAVE so much in rehearsal and allowed me to GIVE BACK. We spent our days and nights rehearsing by giving to each other and we received back in spades - and that resulted in the audience enjoying really remarkable performances in that "Camelot".

I also distinctly remember one of my best coachings I ever "gave". It was with Matt Worth one summer at Glimmerglass. He walked in to his first coaching with me (and of course we were both wanting to make good impressions), and said he wanted to coach some Weill songs. Now, I just don't do much Weill and I didn't know these specific songs he was programming for his upcoming recital. So I asked him who he'd last coached these songs with, and when he mentioned it was one of NYC's greatest coaches, I about lost my lunch! What could I possibly have to say that SuperCoach hadn't already covered? But off we went and got right down to making music (and boy can Matt sing!) Matt GAVE so much while singing these Weill songs, that I was able to respond and GIVE back some of the best I had to offer. By the time we were done, I felt like I really knew the piece in a new way, knew Matt as an artist, and felt that Matt had explored the song even further than before. As I remember it, we both were a bit giddy afterwards.

I love that sort of collaboration - and think that most of the time the idea of collaboration is missing; certainly the collaborative spirit has begun to disappear.  Too many singers wait to write in their blocking dictated to them by their stage director, or worse, judge the direction before giving it a try.  Too many singers judge their coachings based on what they "got" or what they "took from" their hour working on whatever they've chosen to try to make better. Imagine walking into a coaching or rehearsal and deciding that everyone in the room was going to become part of the process of creating music by GIVING -- starting with yourself.

It's time to step back and remember we're all human beings and start giving our talent, time, and focus to each other.

Stop taking from people, it's not what our art form was based on and it's taking a toll on the music and art that can be made.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Operatic Beethoven

I'm working on Fidelio right now. That's Beethoven's only opera. Actually it's not officially an opera if you go by those old definitions of opera. It's a Singspiel 'cause it's got dialogue (think Zauberflöte). However, it's not a comic opera by any stretch of the imagination, even though three of the main characters are straight from central "comic opera" casting, one other is a stock villain, and the main character is in drag the whole opera.

That's one way of looking at this opera...

Thankfully, there's always multiple ways of looking at anything. I choose to focus on the underlying themes of the piece: Hope, Freedom, and the Power of Love. Leonore's aria "Abscheulicher... Komm, Hoffnung..." is the heart of the opera. It's about never despairing and keeping Hope close to your heart so that Love can give you the strength to conquer any obstacles. It's a fantastic aria, terribly difficult to sing, and challenging on an emotional level. I get all emotional when it comes to holding onto Hope and pushing Despair away -- ever since reading Tolkien's LOTR and discovering the same theme in Sam's character. It's so easy to despair. I find it takes great strength - and usually great faith in something or someone - to actively NOT despair.

Hope is slightly less active. One can "hope" in a passive way, which is usually not all that dramatic to witness as an audience member. One of the challenges in Fidelio is to creat an URGENT sense of Hope. Part of that challenge comes from Beethoven and his inconsistent way of treating the characters' text. I'm speaking about clarity of text and subtext, something Mozart was so adept with and something that Beethoven seemed not to have learned from, and then evolved into perfection (like he did with his sonatas, symphonies, and string quartets).

Showing the oppression onstage is easy and, frankly, fun. I'm adding in two thugs who beat up a prisoner onstage during Pizzaro's aria, and I'm adding in an execution of a prisoner at the very end of Act One (just as Rocco and Leonore head down into the dark, deep reaches of the dungeons.) I'm doing this not to be gratuitous, but to SHOW in more vivid, physical means, what Leonore is up against: an oppressive, sadistic regime that has unjustly imprisoned her husband in solitary confinement for two years while slowly starving him to death. Hopefully this will help everyone understand the difficulty Leonore has in keeping Hope alive within her while she looks for her husband in order to somehow save him.

In the midst of this great opera, a magical musical moment occurs which I think is heartbreakingly beautiful: the Prisoner's chorus that starts the first act finale ("O welche Lust"). Leonore convinces Rocco to allow the prisoners a brief moment of freedom to breathe the fresh air and feel the sun on their faces. He agrees and they come out of their darkened cells (to chords that sound a bit like Bernstein's West Side Story...) to sing about freedom. It's riveting.

The chorus that sings this is comprised almost entirely from the students at Concordia College. I have been so impressed with these young men - their voices blend brilliantly, and their attention to Beethoven's musical demands is beyond most professional choruses I've worked with. People should come to the show JUST for these five minutes!

The cast is also REALLY terrific. I'm looking forward to getting this into the theatre next week and seeing how it will all come together once the orchestra is added to the mix.

A perfect opera for this season of Christian Hope.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Monteverdi + Verdi = A creative process

It's almost over. The 2011-2012 Opera McGill season that is.

Less than a week ago I was sitting watching our performances of Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea" and now I'm headed into this Saturday's final Opera McGill performance: "Verdi's Last Acts" in Redpath Hall on the McGill campus in Montreal. We are performing the last act of "La Traviata", the "Rigoletto" quartet, the last act of "Otello", and the final fugue from "Falstaff". It's going to be a tremendously exciting evening!

"Poppea" ended up being quite successful with the critics and with our audiences -- which was terrific after the cast's hard work learning a 3+ hour opera from 1642 Venice. Our HBO "Rome" inspired production was beautiful to look at thanks to the brilliance of Ginette Grenier's costumes, Vincent Lefevre's set design, and Serge Filiatrault's lights. My private homage to the 1968 Star Trek "Wink of an Eye" episode went over especially well with the audience, even though most never knew from whence the inspiration for the slo-mo movement came. I enjoyed our week of twenty-four hours of "Poppea" immensely. It was nice to see the students so proud of accomplishing such a challenging piece.

This year has been challenging -- starting with last fall's strike at McGill and now ending with this spring's student protests in downtown. With all of the unrest and craziness, Opera McGill has managed to put on extremely high quality productions of notoriously difficult repertoire: Britten's "The Turn of the Screw", Mozart's "Don Giovanni", and this past weekend's "Poppea". The Giovanni played to four nearly sold-out performances and was also critically acclaimed. We've experienced guests artists like Tom Diamond, Andrew Bisantz, David Lefkowich, and Beth Burrier all working one-on-one with the students in everything from musical theatre repertoire to stage combat to the artistic challenges of a Britten chamber opera.

Finally, there's been an interesting report circulating on many of my friends Twitter and FB updates regarding Creativity. I read it with great interest:

Personally, I've never figured out where my ideas come from, but it was interesting to read about the "flash" of insight as well as how hot showers or alcohol help the "creative" process by shutting down a part of the brain that deals with focusing attention. I've known for years that I have a VERY focused way about working on a piece that comes from my ability to totally disassociate myself from ANY focused thought.

Almost all of my "concepts" for my operatic directorial projects happen in a short burst which is followed by a longer process of what I call "puzzling it out". These bursts, or flashes, almost always happen while not thinking about the particular opera at all, but while reading a book, watching a film or tv show, discussing art with friends or colleagues, or when I am listening to Chopin, Lady Gaga, Sting, or the Gypsy Kings while on a bus/metro or walking home late at night. Sometimes it'll happen at dinner when I've had a beer, or on a lazy weekend with a glass of wine. An example of one of my "bursts" would be: Goddesses are aliens in the human world and should act like those aliens in "Wink of an Eye" (Star Trek, originally broadcast in 1968) or seeing "Hero" and wondering about Truth, Hidden Truth, and Reality and how that connected to the story of Handel's "Imeneo" or frankly just seeing a big ball of light in an IKEA store and imagining a soprano walking around it (that's where "Alcina" came from.)

I must confess that my "puzzling it out" happens almost exclusively during long hot showers. My skin dries out severely, but it's worth the price because as great as a cool idea might be, you have to figure out how to apply it throughout very long and involved operatic libretti and scores. I've seen too many shows that start out great, with a great idea in place, and then falter in the 2nd act because the director and their team didn't think it through. That takes work, sweat, revisions and alterations of the original idea/concept, and a lot of detailed analysis of text to make sure that where you're headed makes sense.

It helps to have a sense of play as well. It especially helps to not take the process too seriously. Once I start worrying about "what to do" with any given opera, I falter. In order to move forward, I have to walk away and think about some other piece or problem I'm having. Showering attention on another puzzle allows the other part of my brain to work it out - sometimes mysteriously so.  I can understand why the ancients thought there were Muses! My muse sits somewhere in my brain and is totally ADHD, that's for sure!

My muse in life, though, is and will always be my wife, Elizabeth. She's been the one to suffer the cold showers after I've used up all the hot water!

Happy Spring everyone!!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Poppea Pre-Production!

This week Opera McGill began staging rehearsals for our March production of Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea", which represents the 20th opera produced during my five years here at McGill as well as the fifth collaboration with Schulich's Early Music Program and its director, Hank Knox.

As I've been reflecting on my years here at McGill, I've realized how much I've come to look forward to the baroque opera productions. The first was a magical re-creation of Handel's "Alcina" which was set in mythic China with added Tai Chi half-man/half-tree characters that gave the show an extra emotional punch (I remounted the production this past summer at Janiec Opera Company and loved revisiting it!) We followed the next year with Lully's "Thésée", creating a high French baroque opera set in the Sun King's garden at Versailles - a production that I am am the most proud of simply because we figured a way to present a very long Lully opera that kept the audience's imagination and interest throughout the almost four hours of music. The other two Handel operas we've presented here have been "Agrippina" (a sort of prequel to the story of Poppea), complete with a Poppea inspired by Lady Gaga and a cast doing the Conga to Handel's rhthyms, and the mostly unknown "Imeneo", a production that changed the way I directed operatic text.

Although the wonderful student casts, orchestra, and harpsichordists have changed and graduated, one thing has remained the same: Hank Knox. For those of you who may not know Hank, he is an unassuming man with brilliant harpsichord skills and a knowledge of all things Early Music. He directs the Early Music program at Schulich, one of the best in the world, teaches privately, conducts the Baroque Orchestra, and once a year conducts the operatic collaboration between his area and Opera McGill (along with keeping up his own demanding concert schedule.)

For this production, I was inspired (yet again) by the HBO series "Rome". The designers and I are presenting a full-blown Roman show, complete with togas, Roman soldiers in regalia, and Emperors reclining while eating grapes. Traditionalists should love this production, particularly if they'd like to hear the Venice version in its UNCUT form. That's right, we are not taking any cuts! We did the same for last month's "Don Giovanni". It's one of the things that sets Opera McGill apart from almost every other academic institution and most professional opera companies in North America.

You see, Opera McGill almost always presents the operas in an uncut state; that way, the audience can hear the original intent of the composer and librettist AND our students get to fully study, learn, and perform their roles. Most opera companies have to cut their operas, sometimes severely, in order to get the curtain down in under three hours. In most union houses, going over three hours causes very large overtime expenses for both the orchestra and the stage hands.

So for the Monteverdi, we are all joking that the opera will be a good five hours long. That's simply not the case! I am taking the three acts and combining them into two acts, taking one intermission to help cut down the total time. I'm not sure how long the show will be (I've never seen an uncut Poppea), and much of that depends on choices made by Hank Knox and the students singing the roles.

I promise that there will be MUCH to look at while Monteverdi's masterpiece unfolds. Watch for a very AlcinaTree-like usage of the gods and goddesses, as well as a layered approach to telling the major characters' stories. I'd recommend reading a quick plot summary as well. You'll need to know who's who (Littore, Lucano, or Liberto; Damigella vs Drusilla; Arnalta or Nutrice; not to mention the half dozen gods and the actual major characters, most of whom are historic).

Don't miss it: Pollack Hall, March 15, 16, 17, and 18 (matinee), 2012

Saturday, January 28, 2012

More Don Giovanni!

I write this blog in the midst of Opera McGill's performances of Don Giovanni -- which opened January 26, 2012 in Pollack Hall and closes tomorrow, January 29.
Some stats:

2 casts, each performing the opera twice to nearly sold-out houses, made up of 34 McGill students. They were supported by a student team of 2 assistant directors and 2 assistant stage managers, the McGill Symphony Orchestra (38 musicians for this opera), plus a myriad of sound recording students and backstage crew. It takes over 80 people (almost all of them students) arriving in the theatre hours before performances begin to create this Giovanni production.

In the end, there were multiple set designs and many costume designs; the first done in May of 2011, the next revised sometime in October, 2011, the penultimate finished sometime in late November, the final design completed only in mid-January, 2012 during staging rehearsals of the last scene of the opera.

Every piece of text and every note written of the Prague version (Mozart's original version) was performed. That means NO CUTS. Even with a 20 minute intermission the opera came in under 3 hours (which begs the question: why cut Giovanni?)

A little under 100 hours was spent in various staging rehearsals. With the private coaching hours, the musical rehearsals, the staging rehearsals, the tech rehearsals and dress rehearsals, plus the performances, I estimate that the production took over 250 hours to prepare. That does not include any individual amounts of time any of the students spent learning their parts in a practice room, the time the designers spent creating costumes or sets or lights, or time I spent creating the blocking for the production. It would be interesting to add it all up sometime. I bet we'd be well over 1000 hours!

I filed 180 email messages in the month of January alone regarding this Giovanni production. (I hate email...)

After opening night, this blog had over 100 reads in less than 24 hours. Currently, someone in the UAE is reading my previous blog on Giovanni. Amazing.

On opening night we had over 100 high school students attend from Overton. They were a great addition to our regular audiences. They seemed very entertained by the show, which includes a kind of sword which most are describing as a lightsaber, a lot of kissing and making out by Zerlina and Masetto, and a couple of audacious touches (like the female vampire carrying in Donna Anna's maid over her shoulder and dropping her on Giovanni's table for him to feast on!)

Oh, did I mention that it takes 8 pomegranates, 8 blood oranges, bottles of club soda, orange, and cranberry juice, dozens of batteries, and 12 blood pellets in order to perform this production over this weekend?

And there are 7 vampire attacks each show and a number of attempted attacks as well?

But only 1 vampire sings...

So, what did I learn from working on this Don Giovanni?

1) The Prague version is superior to either the Vienna or the traditional hybrid version normally done
2) Gordon Gerrard is a wonderful colleague and a terrific conductor
3) My Opera McGill students constantly surprise me with their ability to imagine a new world of opera
4) Audiences want to be entertained
5) Cutting out recits cuts out parts of character's hearts. It was nice to have these amazing characters played intact
6) E flat is one of Mozart's most interesting keys
7) It's fun to design a show with such talented colleagues like Ginette, Vincent and Serge
8) Mozart challenges young singers and orchestral players to be at their best -- and it's apparent when they achieve a high standard just as it's apparent when the mark is missed; however they hit it much more than missed it!
9) Mozart's genius is a comforting blanket to wrap yourself in while working during long hours
10) I don't want to do another Giovanni for a long while.

On to Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea" which opens March 15, 2012 in Pollack Hall.  It's a LONG opera, but one of the greatest ever composed!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Don Giovanni at Opera McGill

January finds the Opera McGill students spending most of their time in staging rehearsals, preparing for the "mainstage" production which typically opens the last weekend of January.

The fall prep for the students involves learning their music, understanding the meaning of their texts, thinking about character choices, and putting their individual parts together with the other roles during musical rehearsals. My fall prep varies depending on the opera production. For instance last year, La Boheme was being produced and I'd directed it before so there was less to think about where the details of the staging were concerned. This year, Don Giovanni is the opera - an opera I've known and worked on since the mid '80s. Normally that would mean very little "prep", but this production is SO different from any other I've ever done that the prep time has been enormous!

First off, the designers and I had come to an initial idea about the production way back in May of 2011 (that's typically when we design the January production). However, those plans were put on hold due to the McGill strike -- since it was impossible to produce the planned production without stage management. When it looked like the strike would continue through January and perhaps even longer, we re-designed the production top to bottom and came up with the idea of doing a staged concert version; i.e. the orchestra onstage with the cast acting their roles in costume but without theatrical lighting. For a "set" we thought of the idea of creating artistic "installations" that would frame the orchestra and provide an interesting look for the show.

THEN, the strike was suddenly over -- however not until December rolled around -- and by then it was way too late to design a full set and get it built (these things don't happen in a week!) So, the designers and I once again got together and re-designed the re-design trying to keep to the initial idea/inspiration from the original design.  I found it interesting that many people I spoke with in mid-December thought that we'd simply just have a full production. It showed me just how few understand that in order to get a production fully realized and designed and then built, takes an enormous amount of time, planning, and frankly, thought.

So in my role as producer, that was a lot of work to focus on when generally I'm out and about on my Brevard audition trips down in the states with David Gately (and of course, during the holiday break one isn't normally putting in 60+ hours of work unless you are in retail.)  However, in my role as the stage director for Don Giovanni this meant I really couldn't "block" the opera until I had an actual ground plan and set design.  That happened a few days before Christmas.

Blocking an opera happens in many ways. Sometimes the director lets the cast create their blocking with very little intervention or guidance. Ask most people in the business and they'll tell you that this sort of process - an "organic" process - is interesting for the first few days but quickly becomes infuriating because no one is minding the store and many become frustrated with the "lack of plan". With students, this sort of process is not helpful. Many, if not most, are creating these characters for the first time. All are inexperienced, and very few have had acting training that might allow them to be self-motivated -- or better put, self-directed.  With a new production (and all of the productions presented by Opera McGill are brand new productions!), it is vital for the director to know a show inside and out, have very clear ideas about where the singers are going to be in space, and be able to tell the casts (and most of our operas have TWO casts) quickly and efficiently how to move about in space.

Additionally, I'm there training young singers how to balance the many challenges that come with singing an operatic role: collaborating with the other cast members, remembering blocking, creating physical characterizations that work in the context of the production and period, learning how to focus on a conductor, helping to synthesize all the various production elements (handling props, walking in heels with a long dress on, stage combative elements like slapping someone onstage, moving set pieces while in character, keeping the Italian text's meaning clear both from a vocal standpoint and a visual standpoint, acting the meaning of the text, acting the meaning of the subtext, etc. -- the list goes on and on.)  Because of this, I tend to block in GREAT detail how everyone is going to move onstage, most of the time down to specific measure numbers, words, or rests in the vocal score. This really helps give the singers something concrete to hold onto. I call it the structure of the show.

Structure is something that Opera needs in order to work. First off, the score is structured, as is the libretto. Obviously there are structures onstage, structures of light and dark, and physical structures on the singers' bodies called costumes. It is really necessary for the singers' physical and kinesthetic choices onstage to also have structure. From within this structure, artistic choices can be made and from those choices, actual art can come into being for an audience to witness.

I blocked Don Giovanni during the period between Christmas and New Year's Eve, something that was challenging because of ill health as well. But with that said, I'm very pleased with the results thus far. Creating a show in your head is something akin to composing a symphony, or choreographing a ballet in your head. You have to write stuff down in order to create it, but then it really doesn't live until you get live human beings in a room to rehearse what was once in your head.  For me, the process of writing down the "stuff" that's in my head is "blocking".

Of course, it isn't always what I want and when I get to the process of staging in the rehearsal room I often times find myself changing the blocking that's written down in my score.  That's when the real process of staging happens - when better ideas happen either on the spur of the moment, or because someone else in the room (from the pianist to the conductor to the stage manager to any of the singers) has a different idea. I've always thought the best directors were the ones that could totally dump their initial plan when a better one showed up, or at least try out someone else's ideas to see if they worked better.

Right now (moving into the 2nd week of January), the cast and I are still in the process of building the structure of staging, creating characters through physical, vocal, and musical choices (these are made in collaboration with the singer, the director, and the conductor), and getting to know the "show" -- what works and what the challenges are. The set is also being built as we speak (it's due to be delivered next week), and the costumes are getting finished (these were started back in early December and are INCREDIBLE!)

The process for the next week is to finish staging the opera in Wirth Opera Studio (we're half-way through), start running the opera in larger sections so that the students can get experience singing their roles from beginning to end, hold initial orchestra rehearsals with the MGSO, and get the program to printing as well as the poster.

Lots to do, gotta go!