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.