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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.