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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Xmas Blog #10: Wishes and Resolutions for 2014

2014 is round the corner. Time for those New Year Resolutions.

It looks like there will be two outside professional gigs down in the states in 2014. That's exciting. A year from now I could very well be far, far away from both Montreal and Iowa. It looks like this summer will be a summer for an actual family vacation.

Last summer "off" from opera wasn't really off. I played a bunch of performances of La Voix Humaine for the fabulous OperaFive (go Rachel and Aria!) in the Ottawa Fringe Festival. We earned the critics choice award for best of Fringe and I received accolades in the press like "Patrick Hansen was perfect." (How does one put that in their bio?!) And, if you've been reading my blogs this year, the second half of the summer was spent recovering from a hernia repair surgery.

I'd like an ACTUAL vacation. An actual summer off.  We are thinking of spending a bunch of it in Iowa, helping my wife's parents organize their house. We'd also like to see other parts of America, which is very doable on the road between Montreal and Iowa. As Americans, we want our kids to know the great country that is the United States and one of the best ways is to slowly drive through it -- off the interstates -- and literally stop and smell the roses. Maybe a few days in Chicago as well. The best city in the U.S.!

Additionally, 2014 is the last year of my teaching at McGill full time. I'm taking two "half" sabbaticals during the winters of 2015 and 2016. Lots of projects, but mostly those sabbaticals are about the world premiere opera I'm collaborating on. I'll have to make sure everything is as planned as possible so I can depart.  Next year's Opera McGill season gets announced in a forthcoming blog, FYI.

So my New Year Resolutions:

1) Meditate more regularly and increase my sitting time
2) Be more of a presence in my boys' lives
3) Do less. Eat less. Drink less. Worry less. Less is More.
4) Turn 50 with grace and good health.
5) Beard On! (albeit, perhaps in a more trimmed fashion...........)

Monday, December 30, 2013

12 Blogs of Xmas #9: The Year of Shakespeare Videos!


Opera McGill's Year of Shakespeare is getting documented by the immensely talented videographer and editor, Anne Kostalas.

We spend one Saturday a month diving into Shakespeare from many angles. The students of Opera McGill, along with Paul Hopkins (artistic director of Repercussion Theatre and actor/director), Paul Yachnin (Tomlinson professor of Shakespeare studies and the director of IPLAI), and me have been researching, playing, acting, learning, teaching, paraphrasing, singing, blocking, studying, and defining Shakespeare - his sonnets, plays, and the operatic treatments of his text.

The students learn, the students teach. Paul and Paul elucidate eloquently and illuminate illustriously. I drop in funny one liners.

Actually, we are all learning and loving the experience. So far there have been three sessions, one each in September, October, and November. 

You can see the documentaries here: (Don't worry, each is only 8 or so minutes in length)

Look for three more and don't miss out on the Upcoming Productions!

January 29, 30, 31, and February 1, 2014 in Pollack Hall 
Schulich School of Music of McGill University
The two great English geniuses of Shakespeare and Britten for an unforgettable evening!

March 20 and 22, 2014 in Pollack Hall
This is a very special collaboration between Opera McGill and the amazing 
McGill Chamber Orchestra, Boris Brott artistic director
A bel canto masterpiece based on the Verona tale of star-crossed lovers!

Operatic Shakespeare! A Scenes Program
March 21, 2014 in Pollack Hall
The culmination of these Shakespeare Saturday Workshops!
We will be presenting the actual Shakespeare play excerpts followed by their operatic treatments. An original evening that shouldn't be missed by theatre and opera goers alike!

Xmas Blog #8: The Many, Varied Looks of Yours Truly!

I'm tackling the Beard Question. This isn't related to opera, so if you're only reading those sorts of blogs, feel free to pass by on this one!

Why did I grow the beard?
Why am I not shaving the beard?
And why, why, am I not trimming the damned thing?!

Here goes... First a facial retrospective of sorts.

2013 started with a burgeoning handlebar mustache:

And then I moved to a more formal English style stache:

And then the pomade and pompadour coupled with the handlebar mo':

And July the beard began:

And then it became an actual beard:

And finally, inspired by the great writer Ernest Hemmingway, my beard became more epic:

There are lots of opinions on this beard, mind you, and I've heard from everyone. My wife is fine with it. My boys like the mustache but not the beard. My colleagues are split -- some think it's cool (especially the techies), others are not amused, some want it gone. I accept all these opinions.

The fun comments come from total strangers. Those are almost all positive and range from "great beard, dude" to various versions of "epic" and "awesome". I've received free beers at pubs, and free lattes at Starbucks (but I think those have less to do with my beard than by the fact that I spend hundreds of dollars a month there...) A few days ago, while shopping at Kohls here in Burlington, Iowa, a native passed by me and, under her breath, said "Sir, you've got a great haircut. And the beard's amazing." Then she just kept walking as if she hadn't said anything, or was afraid I'd answer her. I wasn't even able to say thanks.

So why did I grow to my current state of hirsutedness? (Not sure if that's a word...)

It gets touchy-feely from here on.

Around March/April of this year it became clear that my anxiety and stress were reaching new levels that I might not be able to handle. Most of it was medical, some had to do with how hard I'd been pushing myself during the past decade. Meditation was helping, but not really. I was definitely looking at the possibility of medicating myself in order to sleep and not have panic attacks about possible blood poisoning scenarios involving cat scratches. My wife was worried... and annoyed.

Additionally, the handlebar mustache that I had cultivated over the first third of the year had taken over my morning ritual. It was just too much and I was feeling that it was a rather vain thing to do every morning. Waxing a mustache into swirling handlebars takes time, effort, and determination. It was too much. Yet, I really liked having facial hair, not gonna lie.

I'd never grown an actual beard. There was an attempt back in Ithaca during a Christmas break, but it got shaved off as soon as it was time to return to teaching in January.

The summer of 2013, if you've read that blog, was my first summer "off" from opera. No more Brevard, no conducting or directing gigs, just being at home away from the craziness of opera.

Confession: It drove me crazy, not working.

So I wrote a play ("Christmas in Peru"), walked the dog, and waited to get my hernia repair surgery scheduled.

July 1st came, and I decided I was through with shaving. I'm not sure what happened that morning, but I knew that that was that. I was going to let my face evolve to its natural state and see what the bearded face might look like, if given half a chance. I consulted websites and saw that what it really takes to grow a beard is patience. I do have that, in spades.

Plus I meditated more, gave up caring what I looked like, gave up caring that the beard was coming in REALLY grey, and gave up caring (or at least tried to) what others might think of me.

It was an internal transformation that had an external byproduct, my beard. Or it might have been an external transformation that began to impact my internal feelings. (Actors might understand the inside/out vs outside/in reference.)

During the summer, it also became clear that I was experiencing a bit of a spiritual transformation due to my meditating more regularly. Buddhism really suits me, and although I'm an atheist, the Buddhism I've fallen into has given me a great deal of peace. I'm not quite a real Buddhist, if you go by the traditional definition. I can't give up certain things -- like wine or bourbon -- but we will see.

Surprisingly, what happened during my recovery and during the summer, was that as my beard grew my anxiety decreased. I became happier, felt healthier, was much more pleasant to be around, and I SLEPT.

I came to believe, in a very strong way, that as my beard got bigger and transformed my face, I became a stronger person -- spiritually, physically, and emotionally. Sounds silly, but that's how I'd describe it.

My beard represents this new self.

And as I'm not interested in returning to the old "me", I just don't see myself ever going back to being non-bearded.

And yes, I know this comes from the guy who has had SO many different looks over the years. Everything from the Imeneo mohawk to the bald-by-choice to the flat top to the preppy ivy league haircut (just check out the right side of this blog and you can witness a few of those looks.)  My look changes a lot, this I know.

But as someone who has made a career of transforming himself professionally over and over again, I think the different looks make a lot of sense. After all, I've been:

A classical pianist (long flowing locks)
A dancer (hair is not really the point)
An actor (once, my 80s hair was cut down into a 30s nazi look, not popular in the early 80s)
A singer (it's called a wig, though nowadays, guys get their hair chopped any which way for a show)
A rehearsal pianist (no one cares what you look like, just how you play and that you're there on time)
A vocal coach (singers judge -- all the time -- so looks do influence how they think about you)
A music director (you need guns to MD a Broadway show, and I'm not talking weaponry)
A conductor (again, flowing locks)
A director (shaved head, or anything dramatic, is a good way to go)
An arts administrator (business cut, thank you very much)
A producer (just get people paid, they don't care what you look like)
A mentor (the beard is a bonus here)
A professor (again, beard looks good, but the mohawk was rather popular with students on campus!)

Those are just the highlights.

I've read a few places that beards make a man more sensitive to his surroundings, more in touch with his instincts, and even better baseball players. Although I'm not a ball player, I have to say that something seems different in how I "feel" the world now that I'm a bearded guy.

My favorite look, before beard, was the shaved head. In all honesty, I knew I didn't look all that great but I loved not having to do ANYTHING to my hair, not having to worry about what I looked like. It was my wife's least favorite look, I think (although she didn't like the flat top, either!)

If the beard goes, it'll have to be to raise money or something like that (serious offers only!) And if it gets shaved, then I think I'll just shave the whole nine yards and commit myself to a year of living like, and looking like, a Buddhist monk!

Life is short, yet very impermanent; just like ourselves, inside and out. If you're out there contemplating a change to your lifestyle, or your look. Go ahead! Open that window and look out of it to see the world anew, and to see how the world looks back on you!

Namaste dudes!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Xmas Blog #7: Operatic Creation

Creating a new opera production is exciting. It's awesome fun. It's tiring as hell but at the same time, quite invigorating.

Creating isn't what a lot of folk think it is. One doesn't sit at a desk thinking deep thoughts and wait for an inspirational "AHA" and then start creating. In my line of work, as stage director and producer, creating means moving in and out of what could be described as procrastinated, pragmatic, imaginative bursts of work.

It comes as a surprise to me that many of my colleagues (and certainly most of my friends and neighbors) don't know - or understand - that a stage director "creates" the staging they see in a production. Many have described to me what they think I do. It goes something like "so you tell people where to go onstage?".

Sure. That's what us stage directors do. Traffic cops. You go here, you go there, watch out for the pedestrians of the chorus...   Not quite.

There are a few who don't understand that when I say it takes me many, many hours to stage an opera that that means those hours are spent in PREPARATION to the staging rehearsals. Then there's the actual hours of staging with the cast members. That takes about 100 hours, depending on the schedule. That doesn't include any time spent learning the opera, translating the text, researching the period or source materials, collaborating with the designers, making any cuts, planning the schedules, etc.

Some people even think that the singers themselves decide what they'll be doing onstage. I imagine rehearsals like that:

Mimi -- So, I'll walk in the door with my unlit candle and walk over toward you and then faint...
Rodolfo -- Okay, just don't get too close.
Mimi -- Okay, then you'll help me to the bed?
Rodolfo -- Sure, fine, whatever.

Imagine the Act Two chorus of same show deciding where they should be. It'd be chaos!

So, there's planning involved. It's a big dialogue between you and the composer and the librettist that happens in your head. Usually two of the three are dead. That's actually a lot of fun, commiserating with those dead guys!

But what about those "bursts" I mentioned?

Bursts is an apt description, I think. I read somewhere that creative people are at the same time lazy and energetic. True of me. I'll rest up, not do anything, waiting, storing up my energy. And then, out of the blue I'll start in on the work and six hours later I'll notice I've not had anything to eat or drink and my bladder is making itself known to my consciousness. Time literally flies!

I procrastinate as well. I don't procrastinate on the thinking about the staging. In fact, my mind is almost always on a show when I'm in this mode. I think about it making ice cream, shopping at Target, watching Netflix, at the movie theatre, where ever I might be. Some part of my mind is contemplating either a specific scene or an image. But I wait and wait until the energy arises and then I start work -- crack open the score and put pencil to paper.

My imagination is balanced by my pragmatic nature. I let my imagination go wild, even beyond what I could possibly do. If I want Tytania to go to sleep, then she should levitate up into a tree while snow falls. That's the image. Now, how do I get that to happen on the actual stage? Sometimes it's important to not even see the actual staging, but to replace it with flights of fancy. I describe my wishes - to myself and others - sometimes as "in the Disney animated version, such and such would happen". But I don't have Disney money and opera isn't CGI animated by Peter Jackson's minions. That would be nice, though.

So I move in and out of my fantasies and season them with my pragmatic sensibilities.

Currently, while writing this blog, I'm definitely in the PROCRASTINATION mode concerning the prep and staging I need to do for the upcoming A Midsummer Night's Dream rehearsals that start in just a FEW DAYS!!  I've finished staging Act One, and am currently in the midst of Act Two. Editing this blog (which was actually written, like all the Christmas blogs about a week ago) is a big help to my work process. It's actually a break from thinking about Midsummer. Now that this one's basically good to publish, I'll get a fresh glass of water and start in again. At least, that's the plan.

If I get through Act Two, tonight will be spent seeing THE HOBBIT!!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Xmas Blog #6: Another Year, Another Review!

It's just a few days to go and 2013 will be toast.

Cue the toast...

Personally, it's been a year of ups and downs. Professionally, it's been QUITE the year.

Starting off in January of 2013, was Opera McGill's outstanding production of John Musto and Mark Campbell's VOLPONE. We did a first-ever live HD webcast on opening night (seven cameras all directed brilliantly by the legendary George Massenburg) with the composer in attendance. The cast was terrific, and Julian Wachner (in his farewell performance with Opera McGill) conducted the show superbly. I was exceptionally happy with the final production -- amazing set and costumes by the husband/wife team of Vincent Lefevre and Ginette Grenier, the Opera McGill debut of makeup designer Florence Cornet (doing terrific work to transform the characters into their animalistic roots), and most impressively the lighting design of Serge Filiatrault who was aided by a whole new set of instruments donated by a wonderful patron. The lights literally flew around the stage and helped to create a memorable evening. The revolving set worked wonders and I enjoyed the challenge of directing a show on a turntable - my first time.

In March, Opera McGill collaborated with the McGill Chamber Orchestra, led by Boris Brott, to produce two terrific evenings of Mozart's DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE. Initially I thought it would be a "semi-staged / in-concert" type of production, but it ended up fully staged and fully produced. I put the orchestra onstage, to put Mozart literally center stage, and then worked the characters to enter and exit from every conceivable place in Pollack Hall. We used the audience area as a major focal point, and it was exciting to light the audience as well as the stage. Projections by Vincent were fun and imaginative, the student casts (doubled) were exceptional, Florence's makeup really made the evening magical, but it was the concept that blew me away.

So, humbly submitted, it was my concept, but it was really only an idea -- a Steampunk Flute -- that came to me (like most of my concepts) in the shower one morning. It made sense, industrialize the followers of Sarastro, but in an H.G. Wells / Jules Verne way, and let the Queen and her ladies be a combo of the Narnian Ice Queen and Nicole Kidmann in the Golden Compass movie. Then I researched Steampunk, the sci-fi inspirations, how shows I loved (especially Sanctuary and Fringe) dipped in and out of Steampunk design, and I saw very clearly how easy it would be to move in that direction. But the real transformation of the show happened when Ginette Grenier created her designs. They were simply stunning and amazing. She and I had a lot of fun shopping in a few Montreal gothic/steampunk stores and I must say her genius was shown in spades on this show.

I would happily do this show anywhere, anytime. It looked fantastic, audiences really loved it (especially in combination with the animated projections for things like the Dragon), and it came together so effortlessly. Any takers?!

The day after FLUTE closed, I flew to Fargo for a FIGARO. I'd been to Fargo the year before for a fabulous FIDELIO and really enjoyed my time there. I was looking forward to directing FIGARO, but honestly was nervous. Rather nervous.

First off, LE NOZZE DI FIGARO is my favorite opera. I have high expectations for it - musically it is perfect and dramatically I think parts of it go beyond anything written for the stage. I had about 10 days to stage the whole show, with more days set aside for run thrus. The design was borrowed from the Fargo-Moorehead Opera's fall production of THE BARBER OF SEVILLE and we took those elements and revitalized and re-visualized them for the demands of NOZZE. Conducted by the talented Stephen Sulich, it featured a cast that was marvellous. Much of the cast (assembled by GD David Hamilton) included colleagues that not only work together on the voice faculty at Concordia College, but sing together. Their synergy and professionalism was inspirational, frankly, and I think that those students at Concordia are REALLY LUCKY to be studying in a department with these exceptional performers. The show was PSM'd by the amazing Tom Kosis. I do hope to return sometime 'cause Fargo is a great city, with really good local brews and amazing opera.

Then the spring came and went, the summer came and still I waited for my hernia repair surgery to get scheduled. Finally in late July, it happened. The five to ten days of recovery happened, followed by a month of true recovery. Luckily my wife and I had decided to stay out of opera for the summer and stay home. It wasn't a good time, but I got through it.  A few really good fun times were had on our deck with neighbors and friends. I grilled a lot. And I wrote a play.

Said play, "Christmas in Peru" is a family comedy about a young woman studying opera in NYC, her hipster boyfriend trying to be a writer, and her family who lives in Peru, NY. She brings the boyfriend home for Christmas and the fun begins. Inspired by people in my life, my wife and my experiences when we were pursuing our operatic careers, and a Christmastime breakfast brunch in Peru at a former student's family homestead, I wrote two of the three acts in a weekend. I think it's funny, not sure. I'm going to spend time this Christmas revising it, as there are way too many characters. It reads a bit too much like a movie and the ending doesn't have the impact I want. We will see.

I wrote the play simply because I'm writing an opera libretto for a planned world premiere in 2017. I needed to get text out of me, and wanted to see how difficult that might be. The world premiere is top secret, sort of, about one of the most powerful people ever to have walked the planet. It was good to write after all these years!

Then the fall came upon us all and lots, LOTS of activity at Opera McGill.

A record number of singers got cast in 5 opera productions (3 with orchestra), one scenes program, and one pastiche called "A Shakespeare Serenade". Additionally, with the focus of the season being on Shakespeare inspired opera, I found two amazing collaborators -- Paul Yachnin (Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare at McGill) and Paul Hopkins (artistic director of Repercussion Theatre) -- to work and research with my students once a month in what we have called "Shakespeare Sessions" to explore the connections between opera and theatre with an emphasis on Shakespeare and operatic treatments of Shakespeare plays. They've been super inspiring sessions, and you can see the 8 minute mini-documentaries here:

Shakespeare Session Mini-documentary! Click Here

The fall production of Handel's masterpiece GIULIO CESARE IN EGITTO was a success, beating our previous box office record for the annual baroque opera. Our guest stage director, Tom Diamond, and guest conductor, Jordan de Souza, did quite a good job bringing this operatic gem to life and I was super impressed by the cast, comprised by 8 mezzo-sopranos, a counter tenor, 2 sopranos, and three bass-baritones. Gotta say, I'm a lucky director of opera studies having such talented students! Here's a link to the Video Trailer for CESARE:


Less than a week later, we were performing a double-bill of THE TELEPHONE and LA VOIX HUMAINE in the Wirth Opera Studio as a fund raiser for the Montreal Women's Centre. I decided to add it to our season after the fall auditions, and not only played the performances (I love playing the Poulenc) but staged them. We did two different versions - the matinee was done in period and very conscious of the text, and the evening was updated (TELEPHONE) as well as directed in a mostly subtextual manner (VOIX). It was fun to create four different operas for just one day's performance.

While CESARE and the double-bill were being rehearsed and performed, I also was coaching the January 2014 opera: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Spending hours and hours working on the score as a vocal coach with the individual cast members was the perfect way to really get to know the opera intimately. I can't wait till stagings begin on January 3rd!

In the midst of all of this opera, we experienced a family setback that I won't blog about. However, it has become clear that while many have embraced us, some have not. When I look into the future, I just don't see how my family and I can be happy in our current situation and flourish in the way we deserve to flourish. There are lots of decisions to be made but fortunately, any and all decisions have to be postponed until after March 2014.

Looking ahead: Britten in January, a gig in DC to-be-announced soon, a Shakespeare scenes program in March, a Bellini opera with MCO in March, completing Act Two of my new opera libretto by May 1st, and a reading of "Christmas in Peru" hopefully in April, plus three more Shakespeare sessions, and super special guests arriving January thru March to work, conduct, coach, choreograph, and teach my wonderful talented Opera McGill students. Can't wait!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Xmas Blog #5: Desert Island List of Operas

Yet another list...

My List of Operas I'd want with me on that proverbial desert island are:


WTF would I need with opera?! I'd be freaking out that I'd have no food or water or that I'd never be rescued! Not to mention no antiseptics...

These sorts of hypotheticals annoy me greatly.

Now, if you'd ask me what my top ten operas are, I'd tell you.

Warning: This list varies slightly year to year. There is an ebb and flow to life, and certainly an ebb and flow to my opinion. Or, it's just that I'm getting older.

10) Albert Herring
9) Sweeney Todd (shut the fudge up, it's an opera!)
8) Alcina
7) Die Zauberflöte
6) The Turn of the Screw
5) La Traviata
4) Tosca
3) La Boheme
2) Bluebeard's Castle
1) Le Nozze di Figaro

PJH's TOP TEN ARIAS (and favorite performances):
10) "Se pietà" from Giulio Cesare by Handel (Veronique Coutu)
9) "Come scoglio" from Cosi fan tutte by Mozart (Lara Ciekiewicz)
8) "Donde lieta" from La Boheme by Puccini (Mirella Freni)
7) "Largo al factotum" from Il barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini (Robert Orth)
6) "Di quella pira" from Il Trovatore by Verdi (Franco Corelli)
5) "Kudà, kudà, kudà vi udalilis" from Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky (Clifton Forbis)
4) "Mésicku na nebi hlubokém"from Rusalka by Dvorak (Elizabeth Koch)
3) "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca by Puccini (Luciano Pavarotti)
2) "Mein sehnen, mein wehnen" from Die Tode Stadt by Korngold (Troy Cook)
1) "Deh vieni non tardar" from Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart (Mirella Freni)

Freni gives a lesson in how to sing a Recitative! (Plus the aria!!)

10) Oklahoma or The Sound of Music or South Pacific or Music Man
9) Next To Normal
8) West Side Story
7) A Funny Thing...
6) Kiss Me Kate
5) Guys and Dolls
4) Into the Woods
3) Godspell
2) Jesus Christ Superstar
1) Camelot
10) Brahms sonata in F minor
9) Marx "Hat dich die Liebe berührt"
8) Strauss "Morgen"
7) Ravel "Gaspard de la Nuit"
6) Chopin Ballades, all four
5) Prokofiev piano Concerto #3
4) Rach #2
3) Tchaikovsky piano concerto in Bflat
2) Grieg piano concerto in A minor
1) Chopin piano concerto in E minor
10) His Girl Friday (best long takes with whiplash dialogue)
9) Indiscreet (Ingrid at her most flirtatious)
8) North by Northwest (Brilliant)
7) Philadelphia Story (Hepburn coming out into the light after her night of drinking...)
6) Reds (Saw it dozens of times when it first came out in the theatres)
5) Gandhi (Saw it even more times than Reds)
4) Field of Dreams (It's the Iowa thing, coupled with the Dad thing)
3) Singin' in the Rain (Made me want to be an entertainer)
2) The Lion in Winter (Makes me want to be a writer)
1) Moonstruck (My wife's and my favorite movie to quote from and I never tire of it!)

Loretta and Johnny "Che gelida manina" scene

Someone stop me. No more lists.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Blog #4: Why I love opera!

Why do I love opera?

It's humanity onstage, telling its stories through the power of the human voice.

It's collaborating on a massive scale:
Sets, lights, costumes, wigs, makeup, special effects, stage crews, props creation, stage management, house staff, ushers, orchestra musicians, singers, actors, dancers, conductors, directors, producers, audience members, patrons, communities, composers, librettists, unions, accountants, marketing and public relations, box office staff, development teams, pianists, piano tuners, assistants for all the above...

It's extraordinary music written by extraordinary composers.

It's imagination brought to life, LIVE and onstage.

It's fragile and unforgiving sometimes, strong as the Earth and immensely generous the rest of the time.

It's encompasses the struggles and victories of gods, humanity, magical creatures, and animals.

It connects the listener directly into the mind of the composer who created it, even when that composer might have been dead hundreds of years. At that moment of connection, the composer lives yet again.

It is ethereal, ephemeral, eloquent, enigmatic, and epic; all at the same time.

It's f^#+ing hard to learn to do; it's a blast to rehearse; and it's incredibly gratifying to perform.

It defies definition and descriptions never seem to encompass What Opera Is.

It's loud and intimate, it's high and low, it's fast and slow, it's short and long; Yin and Yang baby!

As some wise man once said: Life is Short, Opera is Long!

Monday, December 23, 2013

12 Blogs of Christmas #3: Best of 2013!

I've done "Best of" lists for that past few years. Rather unpopular with some, I will continue the tradition, albeit in a bit lighter vein.

So my "Best of 2013" list:

Best Use of Costume: Geoffrey Penar's hilarious Voltore in VOLPONE donned in a longish skirt that initially caused him a bit of consternation, but when fully embraced, was used brilliantly to add comic touches to all of his staging, and in particular, to the courtroom dance of greed.

Best Problem Solving: ME! So what to do when your Queen of the Night has knee surgery and is unable to walk (in a production without the use of a fly system or any other technical assistance) or stand without aid? Give her minions! Use her crutches! Put her on a suicidal rolling bar twirled around by said minions that could have taken her out and audience members as well!

Best Vocal Moment: Rebecca Woodmass' Queen. All you opera companies out there -- hire her. Her Queen is spectacular. Vocally AND she's dramatically fearless.

Worst Vocal Moment: You know who you are.

Most Paranoid Singer: The Person who thinks they had the Worst Vocal Moment.

Best Beard: Brian Prinzen as Sarastro. His natural full beard was, obviously, an inspiration. It looked great, worked perfect for the Steampunk concept, and was simply EPIC.

Best exit: Gordon Bintner's Sprecher. After his final line in the grand recit, I had him walk slowly up and out the center aisle -- thus ending his last appearance on the Opera McGill stage. Beautifully sung and a fitting end. Plus he looked fantastic in his Ginette Grenier leather coat and steampunk top hat.

Best entrance: Volpone's three servants, sung by Igor Mostovoi, Collin Shay, and Pascale Spinney, rowing the bed on the turntable (during the final trio sung by Gordon Bintner, Kevin Delaney, and Rebecca Robinson), they looked great and it finished the show on a joyous note.

Best light cue: EVER! The end of Mosca's "Fly" aria. We used the moving, swirling, gobos that randomly flew across the set and ended as a tight, cinematic spotlight on Mosca's face for his final high B-flat -- which simply couldn't have been done without LW's lights and a LOT of programming time!

Best prop: Tamino's steampunk rifle (I like operatic weapons...)

Best prop creationist: Russell Wustenberg's LE NOZZE DI FIGARO contracts, letters, and Cherubino song. For someone who was finishing up his BMus degree, he certainly went the distance to create professional props of the highest level.

Worst melt down: Me during the drive to Iowa a few days ago. Getting stuck in the middle of Michigan during a snowstorm was really, truly, not a fun thing.

Coolest addition to Opera McGill: Our Saturday Shakespeare Workshops with Paul Yachnin and Paul Hopkins. Check out this video by Anne Kostalas:

Opera McGill Shakespeare Documentary

(And check out our other videos on Youtube as well!)

Best (non)use of Iambic Pentameter: Kevin Delaney

Best musical moment: Serenade to Music in the Shakespeare Serenade when all 16 voices sang together for the first time on "How sweet the moonlight".

Best evening spent in a theatre: That magical evening in Redpath Hall on September 21st. It was, absolutely, one of the best evenings of my career. Combining Shakespeare's Sonnets with some amazing songs sung by some amazing students made for a brilliant night.

Most controversial staging: Singers standing on a piano?! OMG! Call 911! Write a letter! Or maybe just bitch about it behind my back to everyone and let it get back to me a few days later... It was a freaking spectacular bit of staging, if I say so myself.

Best recitative: Sara Ptak as Cleo in Giulio Cesare.

Adieu, adieu, to yieu and yieu and yieu: Tinervia's departure from McGill. My journey as a director encompasses many twists and turns and Dave has been there for many, if not all, of them. Dave has been featured in some memorable moments on the Opera McGill stage. AlcinaAgrippina, Boheme, Poppea, and Flute stand out in my memory for his extraordinary contributions to those productions. His range (from shorn mystical tree-man to gay executive assistant to a classic Schaunard to a Roman husband contemplating both love & murder, to his take on that delightful half-bird / half-man) is astounding. When I think back on his journey, I'm astonished.

It goes without saying that my best students teach me the most. I've been so lucky to have such talented students who enlighten my days daily.

A real "best of" list is actually quite impossible to make when one has THE BEST OF walking the halls and populating the rehearsal studios and performing on the Opera McGill stage practically every day.

I could just go on and on, but will stop here before I start in on the Best Ornament or some such nonsense.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

12 Blogs of Christmas #2: My Favorite Things

The Sound of Music was on a couple of weeks ago, live not dubbed. It was a ratings winner and you can buy the DVD in Target right now.

Most of my FB friends hated it. They hated the singing, really hated the vampire Captain dude, and posted endlessly about it. I got in on the action too, making a snide comment about Audra's (we all just write her first name as if we know her...) two quarter rests that she took before singing the final note of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain": It went "till, you, find, your, REST REST, dream!" FYI, those two rests aren't in the score.

Audra singing "Climb Ev'ry Mountain"

How DARE she?

I mean, opera singers and classical musicians never, ever, ever, take liberties with the score.

Well, actually, all the really good ones do and the famous ones REALLY take liberties. Some change whole arias (Bartoli in the Met "Nozze"), some improvise ornaments on the spot (Dessay in the Lyric's "Alcina"), and some transpose and/or compose notes and text (it's called LIVE performance...)

I have to confess I have a soft spot for The SOM. I was in a few productions, and conducted it over a dozen times back in the early 90s at Ash Lawn Summer Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia. It's not just a simple score as Do Re Mi, and nothing gets my goat quicker than when classical musicians dismiss it.

So, in honor of The Sound of Music, I offer PatricksFavoriteThings. (Translated for my Canadian readers: So, in honour of The Sound of Music, I offer PatricksFavouriteThings).

Sung to the song, of course:

Fragrance free lotions, massages, long showers;
Sci-Fi TV shows (Star Trek beats out Star Wars)
Choc'laty brownies that melt in my mouth
These are a few of my favorite things.

J.R.R.Tolkien, Red wine and fine bourbon;
Moonstruck and pop songs and paintings by Rubens.
The Lion in Winter and Gene Kelly's moves
These are a few of my favorite things.

When my dog howls, at Beth's students,
When I'm feeling stressed,
I simply eat fromage or stage a new show,
And then I don't feel so bad!

That's all there is... I'm certainly not going to solfege for y'all...

And a great scene from a great movie:

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas

I thought that since I had the time, I'd publish 12 blogs over the Christmas Holidays.

Because I have to focus on staging Dream - which starts up on January 3rd - I thought I'd start the blogging early instead of starting it on December 25th.

Some will be very operatic, some personal, some fun (let's hope), and perhaps a few might be thought-provoking. I'll try to keep most of them brief, but no promises. I'll even tackle the whole "why'd ya grow that beard?" question I've gotten more than a few times and make a few "best of" lists.

So I'll start easy -- politics.

I'd like to wish everyone a "Happy Holiday", but I hear now that this is tres controversial. Particularly in Alaska where Sarah Palin lives (she hates it when people tweet her twitter account "Happy Holidays") and, it seems, even here in liberal Iowa.

Yes, liberal Iowa. We were one of two states to vote for Dukakis back in my college days, and we also were one of the early states to okay gay marriage. Here's a pic of the Mississippi River which runs right along Burlington. It's partially frozen...

I bring this up because while someone is back house-sitting our cat and piano back in Montreal, we are in Burlington, Iowa visiting my wife's 1000 cousins. I joke that everywhere we go, we run into a cousin and it happened yesterday at the court house -- ran into the wife of a cousin who's the son of my mother-in-law's brother. This family is big and vast and lives, primarily, right here in SW Iowa.

I love Iowa, but sometimes the people get their knickers in a twist (actually that's a British saying, so totally inappropriate) and latch onto an issue. This "Merry Christmas" vs "Happy Holidays" greeting war that has gripped the nation (really?! why?! who cares?!) is alive and well at the local Taco Bell. While making my order for a burrito supreme and two taco supremes and cinnamon twists and a super large soda, I felt compelled to make some sort of reference to "the holidays". My cash register person (who was a lovely, lovely, smiling sweet retired-aged person) suddenly looked as if they'd swallowed vinegar and at the same time smelled horse manure. They looked me in the eye and said "you mean Christmas, right?"

Then I got that serious stare for a split second, followed by a smile again. I started to worry that the cashier thought I was part of the ASSAULT ON CHRISTMAS.  If you haven't heard about this assault, turn on Fox News and check it out. Just when we thought it was safe, people -- strangers even -- are going around assaulting Christmas by wishing others "Happy Holidays". Can you imagine?!

Oh well, it'll all pass quickly enough. There was all that nonsense years ago about the "X" in Xmas - another assault on Christmas. Then people learned that actually that "X" was a Greek letter (CHI) that early Christians used to reference Christ. So "XMAS" is now mostly accepted, while I guess "HOLIDAYS" is the new cause for consternation in America.

I mean, Christmas is a holiday last time I checked. And there are OTHER holidays at this time, lest we forget. My favorite is the Winter Solstice which happened yesterday at 11:11am on 12/21/13. Great numbers, eh?!

I love the WS, not because I'm a pagan (I've officially changed my FB status to Buddhist, fyi), but because it signals the return of LIGHT. A fitting time for these Holidays that so many celebrate.

Therefore, dear Readers, in the spirit of the Winter Solstice, I'd like to send anyone reading this my very best wishes for a wonderful holiday season filled with love, the best of friends and family, some warm hearty soups, lots of baked goods, and a few moments of silence to wish Health, Happiness, and Peace to all.

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Home for the Holidays!

Lots of us are finishing up. Either audition season, singing/performing in a fall production, or an academic semester.

Lots of us will be heading "home", be that your parental homestead, your significant other's parental units' abode, or your actual home you get to live in some of the year when not performing.

I described my home yesterday, out of the blue, to a stranger. She was making my latte at Starbucks. She asked me if I was going somewhere for the holidays.

"Yes, home to Iowa."
"Is that where you're from?"
"Oh, I thought you were Canadian."
"Nope, Iowan."
"Is that where you moved from to come here?"
"I left Iowa in 1988, so I've lived lots of places."

Then I went on to scroll through the cities and states -- KC, Tulsa, Des Moines, Santa Fe, Memphis, Pittsburgh, Miami, Ithaca, etc.

"Wow." And her eyes kinda glazed over. "So you don't really have one place that's home, eh?" (Indeed, there was an "eh". No matter how it is denied, there's always an "eh" at some point."

So I tried to make her more comfortable:

"Well, actually, home is wherever my wife and I are together."

So true.
Sweet, eh?

And I guess that's how Elizabeth and I see the world we live in. Not in terms like we've moved to Montreal, or we are immigrants, or we are midwesterners, or we are this or that. We see ourselves as a HOME that travels around. Together.

Being together is tough. It certainly was at the start of our relationship. She was, um, a bit older, and a LOT more established in her career aspirations when we first started dating 30 years ago this May. We dated for about a year, then she graduated and went to MSM in NYC while I stayed behind, dropped out, came back and eventually graduated. The plan was for me to get to the East Coast. Instead, I went to the University of Missour at Kansas City for three years. That's basically 7 years dating long distance. It was also thousands of dollars we didn't have in long distance bills. It was getting engaged and then breaking off the engagement and then getting engaged again.

Once we were married, it was even tougher to be in the same place. She lived in Chicago, singing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, I lived in NYC doing my fellowship at The Juilliard School. We were married for two years, only living together for 6 months of those first two years.

Then we eventually settled down.

So -- Home.  It actually is where the heart is.

I hope all of you get a chance to get to where your heart is ----- sometime soon!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell has written another good book.

Not a great book, like "Blink" or "Outliers", but a very solid and compelling book that looks at "underdog" stories (i.e. the biblical David of the title) and gives an extremely concise and well-argued thesis that our ideas about disadvantages (physical size, education, disabilities like dyslexia, or family traumas) can be wrong. To choose, for instance, the best school (say Harvard) can, for some, be a smart idea. Yet for those not at the top of Harvard's classes, it may lead to less success in a chosen field than someone who might choose a second-tier university.

Gladwell writes of the Big Fish in a Small Pond vs the Small Fish in a Big Pond syndrome (Smart kid in a small Midwestern liberal arts college vs same kid at Brown University, for instance.) Some think the Big Pond creates the best environment for competition and for honing the best minds. He tries to debunk that at length, sometimes poignantly.

It got me thinking.

I read this book last week on my trip to and from Virginia Opera where I was a guest "Master Teacher" for their remarkably talented Emerging Artists. These artists were all very adept singers -- many from either the Merola program in San Francisco, Santa Fe or Glimmerglass apprentice programs, or other exceptional programs. A dozen of them had their Masters degrees and were well on their way to starting their careers. I was treated to coaching them one-on-one, and then we had two group classes. It all finished with a public performance in Richmond. Terrific four days, that's for sure!

What makes me worthy of being called a "master teacher"? It is, of course, a combination of factors: training, initial curiosity about music, talent, and experience. I think about my great teachers and the mountain of a teacher who gave me so much:
Dr. Robert L. Larsen.

The "L" stands for Leroy, btw.

It really should stand for Le Roy, 'cause that's what he was for me, and for many others.

Dr. Larsen was my piano teacher, my conducting teacher, my choir director, my madrigal director, the professor for Med/Ren and Romanticism classes, our stage director for all of our operas (and we did at least two a year), and our conductor. He was also the vocal coach, the faculty's accompanist when they presented in recital (and he played my wife's Senior recital after I dropped out of college), and ran the Simpson College music department. He was the Artistic Director of Des Moines Metro Opera and was the editor of G. Schirmer's Opera Anthology series for which I was one of the assistant editors. A true Renaissance man.

For five years (actually just 4.5 but that's getting picky) Dr. Larsen was the sun around which I orbited. During the summers I worked at DMMO on the house staff. Picking up artists at the airport (one of the first people I met was Steward Robertson who used to run the DMMO apprentice program before moving onto Glimmerglass and FGO), moving pianos and xerox machines, handing out brochures in costume in downtown Des Moines in 100 degree heat, making coffee at 8am, closing down the theatre after rehearsals and shows around midnight, making development calls asking for donations, and tending bar during intermissions. I didn't actually work at DMMO as an artist until after I graduated from Simpson. By that time, I had done everything imaginable in opera. I was given a very complete education.

But even more so, my actual education at Simpson College was extraordinary. I was allowed to do everything. Sing in operas - roles and chorus. Sing in the madrigal, in the choir. Accompany dozens and dozens of hour-long song recitals. I performed ALL THE TIME. I even danced the dream ballet in Carousel -- which is why I was asked to a dance by my future wife.

My actual degree was in piano performance, so there were those requisite recitals and competitions as well.

If I had gone to my number one school choice, Northwestern University, I would not be typing these words because I would not be able to do what I do today. Maybe I might be out and about concertizing, but I highly doubt it. My parents both wanted me to go to Evanston and study there. I didn't. There was something that just didn't connect with me. Plus, in my interview with Dr. Larsen, we discussed the play "Cyrano" and I was in 7th heaven. Who knew the head of a music department could elucidate about Cyrano's character choices?!

But more to the point, I don't think I'd be where I am now because I actually did drop out of college in my sophomore year. I think if I'd been at Northwestern I might have jumped in the Chicago River instead of dropping out, packing my things, and driving home to Council Bluffs, Iowa to my parent's house.

Why did I drop out? Mostly 'cause I thought I'd wasted my talent and I was 19 and a failure -- as a pianist. There were other factors; a misdiagnosis of a skin disease when I was very young leading me to think I might die by the time I was 18, not having any other pianists of my caliber around to push me to be better, thinking I should just toss in my musical towel and move onto something much more exciting: Marine Biologist!

But the small pond ended up saving me in so many ways. First off, I had a job at DMMO to return that summer and I loved opera by then. I also had a girlfriend who was an exceptional singer. I also had tons of singer friends who I liked playing lessons for. The list goes on. I also joined the madrigal the next year and started singing more seriously. A larger school might have just swallowed me up, leaving me with just a few outlets for artistic expression. Instead, I got it ALL and was able to pursue a Renaissance-style education: apprenticing yourself to a master and learn as much as possible.

I also suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia (which was more aural than visual) and from probably what would now be a diagnosis of ADHD (on good days) or mild depression (on bad days). Luckily for me, there were no drugs for either of those things readily prescribed like they are now. I worked through my ups and downs, figured out how to embrace my inability to pick ONE thing and focus on it (the secret to my success is that I've never focused on one thing - ever - except the one thing literally at hand), and sat up late at night reading my college texts.

Gladwell goes on about dyslexics; giving examples of just how many successful people are dyslexic. (The list is amazing: Spielberg, Schwab, Patton, Warhol just to name a few.) That the disorder actually may have caused them to work on other skills to compensate - namely listening and, um, breaking rules. 

That's me.

My listening skills, I humbly submit, are extraordinary. I hear what people are saying, the emotion behind their expressions and verbiage. I hear lies. I'm a bit of a truthsayer. I watch people's eyes when they speak, I watch their body language. I can recall many important conversations pretty much verbatim. (Of course, that's only when I'm actually paying attention.)

I also think my talent for playing the piano lies in my dyslexic brain. Instead of reading lots (really, I didn't. I only really read the Hobbit, LOTR, Dune, the life of Buddha, and Dracula before I entered high school), I read music. Music was my language.

I don't remember even learning to read music. I went from those early three note songs to playing Bach. Then I leaped into Beethoven sonatas (Op. 2 No. 2 when I was 12 I think).  When I was sent to a summer music camp (the spectacular Rocky Ridge Music Center in Estes Park) when I was still in Jr. High, I picked up the 2nd Chopin Ballade and the Ravel Sonatine. I also learned everything I would need for theory classes through my bachelors degree. That camp lasted 10 days. When I went back for the full 7 weeks, I was in a camp populated mostly by college students. That's when I realized I was a bit different from others my age.

And yet, all that initial energy and talent discombobulated itself during my sophomore year. I played harpsichord in a student production of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, shaved my head and drove home to the folks. To say they were kind of shocked was putting it mildly. Their golden son with all that talent; dropping out of college?

We never really talked about it much afterwards. They tried to get me to see a psychologist, and I did one session. He was crazy, I thought. What helped more was listening to Sweet98 radio station in Omaha, Nebraska, and getting to know the popular music of 1985: Tears for Fears was big then, so was Sting and U2. That music helped a lot. Got my groove back.

I returned to my little pond with a renewed sense of what mattered to me. I wanted to make music with others, whatever and however that would happen.

I also wanted to be with my girlfriend, Elizabeth. I'm still with her these 30 years.

If I'd gone to that big pond, I wouldn't have met her for sure. My sons wouldn't be here. I might not either. 

So here I am, teaching at one of THE biggest ponds (actually one might say a big lake) in Canada. What's my advice for students thinking they should come to a big pond to study music? Come! We have lots and lots of programs here, tons of music (over 600 concerts in our school alone), and an exceptional faculty. But I think the success stories at these big ponds happen because the students break the rules of what is expected of them, and what their programs offer. They go out of their way to push the barriers. They aren't passive receivers of a proscribed curriculum.

So -- Big Ponds: they can be an exceptional place to learn, but make sure you have a great support system and make sure you take advantage of all the "advantages". However, if you're not at a big pond, THAT'S OKAY TOO!

According to Gladwell, the disadvantages that life brings you - including not getting into Harvard and then deciding that U of X is the school for you - may be one of the keys to success.

So those of you who might feel disadvantaged, for whatever reason, need to rethink the ramifications of said disadvantage.

Us "trickster" dyslexics became adept at using other skills, manipulating others for example, in order to survive an academic environment toxic to our eyes. David was assured of beating Goliath (read the book and see why), it wasn't a miracle -- far from it. The miracle would've been if Goliath had beaten David. And people who've had some terrible childhood trauma (like losing a parent) can also survive, and end up helping cure childhood leukaemia (a very moving chapter in Gladwell's book.)

I'm so thankful to my teachers - Berniel Hanson and Robert L. Larson, plus Joanne Baker (who is no longer living) from whom I learned to really listen to myself. I'm also very thankful for the opportunities that teaching in my big pond presents - namely talented and eager students.

I guess this makes this blog post a THANKSGIVING blog.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends and family, and to all of my readers around the globe!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Why Menotti Operas Are Flawed

I'm coaching The Telephone right now. It's an awful piece, for so many reasons.
But not as awful as, say The Medium or Saint of Bleeker Street.

Yeah, you read that right. I'm stating my opinion about something.

Opinions are hard to come by nowadays. So many people try to bend over backwards to see both sides of an argument, or an issue, that they become literally mediocre in their opinions. What happened to old-fashioned opinionated people?

My opinion on Menotti does not stem from ignorance. I've done lots of his operas, lots of times. My undergraduate studies were filled with full productions of Amahl, The Telephone, The Medium, and The Consul as well as scenes from everything from Help! Help! the Globolinks! to The Old Maid and The Thief. We loved Menotti, we also loved Mozart and Britten. Those were the three operatic temples there. I grew out of loving Menotti and so should you.

Menotti really didn't write for opera houses. He wrote for outside of the opera house. Television operas: Amahl (okay, I do LOVE Amahl. It's, in many ways, a perfect opera) and Labyrinth (which does have a cool aria in it); Radio opera: The Old Maid and the Thief; and Broadway stages: The Consul, The Medium, The Telephone. The few he did write for the opera house are rather dull: Amelia, Bleeker, Goya. I give him credit for trying to push the limits of Broadway. Sadly his influence wasn't staying. I think Broadway didn't want his over-sentimentalized stories or his oddly-colored harmonic world. I'm sure many Broadway audiences were confused by his music after hearing years of Noel and Cole.

It's not really his music that bothers me. Although musically the scores are pretty dismal and certainly written at the piano (they fit my hands really well, so I do like playing them), the incessant play of tonality with dissonances overlaid like spice in a generic pasta dish that would do better with actual tasty ingredients in it, just becomes tiring after a few decades. What really gets under my skin are the two-dimensional characters (some are even one-dimensional) spitting out text that is maudlin at best and disconnected from humanity at worst.

The young love Menotti. That's for certain. Young directors especially. I think the melodramatic leanings of Menotti's libretti are certainly one of the reasons why the young think that Menotti is "theatrical", "intense", and "moving".

Examples to back up such awful thoughts about a cherished composers' works?

Here goes:

1) The "Horizons" ensemble that ends The Consul. Sheer and total rubbish. Can you believe they gave the Pulitzer to a piece that ends so horribly?

2) The Telephone's terrible, slightly misogynistic look at a woman obsessed with her telephone back in the 1950s. It's not an uncanny pre-cursor op-ed on why social media is disconnecting all of us from each other. It's an un-funny look at a woman who lies, chatters about without any thoughts in her head, and then is asked for her hand in marriage by a loser named Ben.

3) The Medium's Toby. I just can't even begin... The best thing about The Medium is the chord that gets played when Baba turns out the light over the table. Love that chord. But "Black Swan" or "Monica's Waltz" are two of the most hated audition arias for a reason folks.

4) The libretto to Old Maid and the Thief. "Steal my lips, steal my heart, steal my cheeks, steal, oh steal my breath." And then there's the liquor store scene...

5) The Consul's dead baby moment.

6) Magda sticking her head in the oven moment.

7) Endless use of same harmonies. If you've heard one Menotti opera, you've heard them all. Same should be said for Poulenc, but it isn't. Why is Poulenc so revered? Killing a bunch of nuns to the best music written for the operatic stage should not mean that he is untouchable. Poulenc should be taken to task for simply copying himself in his operas La Voix, Carmelites, and Mamelles. It's fantastic music that he copies, for sure. And it's in French, so it somehow seems more cultured...

8) Menotti's music was written at the piano, it just had to be. Someone tell me otherwise. Good composers don't do that. It's called a table, and the music's supposed to be in your head, not discovered via a keyboard.

9) He wrote his own libretti, and I think some of them have good parts. His best libretto was Vanessa, which was Sam's great opera. Perhaps Sam should have offered a bit more advice from time to time?

10) While most of Menotti's music is really simplistic, he'll put in a measure or two of ridiculousness that comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere. It happens throughout The Medium. Just random awkwardness, musically speaking.

Now, what I haven't said are good things about Menotti. Here goes:

1) His operas are nicely written for the voice. Most young singers can sing them.

2) Amahl has some incredibly emotionally satisfying moments -- from the Mother's aria to the "Oh woman you may keep the gold" to Amahl's miracle. It's a great opera, especially cause it is so short!

3) The Consul has a couple of great moments - the trio in act one, the Magician's scene, and of course "Papers, papers, papers". The role of the Secretary is one of the best roles written in the 20th century and then Menotti doesn't even really give her an aria...

4) Saint of Bleeker Street has some intensely dramatic moments for solo voice that pack a good punch if you have good singers.

5) Domingo sang some of Goya really well.

6) The Old Maid and the Thief is the first time a barihunk role was created. Sadly, it was on radio so no one could see the "beautiful torso" that Bob, the baritone, revealed. Nowadays one needs a beautiful torso to not just sing Bob, but any baritone role it seems from Giovanni to Marcello (and boy it's cold in that garrett...)

7) Most of his operas are short, so you suffer little. But I'd swear Monica's waltz is longer than the actual opera it is in.

8) His one acts come in handy when you're trying to pair that masterpiece Gianni Schicchi with something other than Suor Angelica.

9) His operas are cheap to produce, again this is handy for young companies and young directors.

10) It's fun to change the texts to his operas. There is a whole opera re-written to "Amahl and the Night Visitors" that I can sing for you.

Next up: Bach?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Coaches Who Teach... Teachers Who Coach...

I've been meaning to write this blog for a few years now. There have been many drafts, all unpublished. For reasons escaping me, I've decided to go ahead and publish this one.

First, though, please understand that I am not writing about any specific person or persons, nor am I really talking about diction or dramatic coaches when I use the term "coach", nor am I writing about any current or former colleagues. I'm writing about a collective group. I've been in this business for 30 years now, so that covers Montreal, Brevard, Charlottesville, NYC, Cooperstown, Philly, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Tulsa, Des Moines, Kansas City, Wichita, Fargo, Chicago, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Santa Fe, Ithaca, the land of Elvis, and tons of other places in between! This isn't a rant, it is hopefully a thoughtful rumination on what it means to GUIDE a singer.

I just used the word "guide" purposefully.

Here goes!

An Operatic Proclamation (Made By Some Operatic King/Queen):
Be It Known!
In the year 2013, it has come to be established by the powers-that-be that anyone employed by a singer who is a current or former singer is referred to as a VOICE TEACHER and anyone employed  by a singer who is not a current or former singer is referred to as a COACH.

Or put another way, the powers-that-be have established that someone who TEACHES voice is a called a voice teacher, someone who COACHES is a vocal coach. Or put yet another way, singers can teach other singers, pianists not so much.

Or in certain dark corners of the biz: coaches don't (or can't, or shouldn't) teach voice, but voice teaches are free to coach.


Not really. 

Many people I know might define a coach as: a pianistic guru with experience in and out of an opera house who knows (and can play) the repertoire, discuss roles, fach, cuts, conductors, character, breathing and support, and correct diction all the while giving advice on career, auditioning, and life. And I might add that some would say a coach is also a mentor and sometimes a therapist.

Many people might define a voice teacher as: a singing guru with experience performing as a singer in public who focuses on the technical matters related to singing by giving their students vocalises to either create a technique, help out a burgeoning technique, or "fix" a singer's errant technique, as well as discuss roles, fach, cuts, conductors, character, breathing and support, how to keep a tongue in check, and all matters related to the physical apparatus needed to produce a beautiful tone. And I might add that some would say a voice teacher is also a mentor and sometimes a therapist.

Then there are also "répétiteurs", who I'd probably define as pianists who either play rehearsals or teach notes to pianistically disabled or musically at-risk singers.

But like any definition, each of the above statements is way too simple, and certainly doesn't reflect the reality of what truly goes on in a studio. Lots of répétiteurs coach, lots of coaches teach, and lots of teachers coach. Lots of pianists can't play, (or don't know), the rep. Lots of former singers aren't comfortable "teaching" so they "coach", and lots of others - both coaches and teachers - simply think of themselves as gods here on earth. 

I digress.

I like to think that when one is TEACHING voice, one is working on the craft of singing (warm-up & vocal exercises, legato tone, breathing and support concepts, diction, etc.)  OUTSIDE of the repertoire. As in: not while a singer is in the middle of "Come scoglio".

I like to think that when one is COACHING a singer, one is working on the craft of singing (legato tone, breathing and support concepts, diction, etc.) INSIDE of the repertoire. As in: while a singer is in the middle of "Come scoglio".

Following this logic, if one is working from within repertoire, one is coaching. If one is working outside of the repertoire, one is teaching. Neither is more important than the other, I believe they should go hand in hand. That's my hypothesis.

But the crux of the matter is that thing I refer to as "the craft of singing."

I'm careful not to use the word technique. That's too broad a term. Plus it's rather difficult to nail down exactly what "vocal technique" is.

But before one can even discuss what technique is or is not, it is interesting to think about how one studies technique. 

So -- a word on Vocal Pedagogy by the academically astute Wikipedia: "Vocal pedagogy is the study of the art and science of voice instruction." (I like that "art and science" part!)

Wiki continues to create a list of areas of study, that I think pretty much outlines what a singer should study:

Human anatomy and physiology
Breathing and air support for singing
Vocal projection
Diction, vowels and articulation
Vocal registration
Sostenuto and legato 
Other elements such as range extension, tone quality, vibrato, coloratura
Vocal health and voice disorders (I lump speech therapy in here)
Vocal styles (Wiki lists "opera, belt, or art song" !)
Voice classification

Now, all of the above are certainly topics in how to acquire a vocal technique. (It is by no means a complete list.) Yet, how many teachers or coaches are capable of handling each and every one of these specialities?

Try to sit down at a table with anyone in this business and discuss which parts belong solely to the teacher, which ones solely to the coach. Just try. It's impossible.

Yet people use the word technique constantly, almost casually, to describe something they might not be able to actually articulate in any concrete way.

For instance, when you ask a singer about their technique,they'll tell you they work on it with their voice teacher. When you ask a singer to describe said technique, it becomes more difficult to articulate. Then if one continues the interrogation, and asks about where the study of the non-technical aspects of singing happen, then the waters muddy quickly. Teachers and Coaches should talk about both the Science (Craft, technique, whatever you want to call it) and the Art (phrasing, textual meaning, compositional structures, emotional content, dramatic elements, etc.) Most of the great ones try to focus on both sides of this vocal coin.

Still not clear what I'm saying?

Another example --
When a singer puts their entire tongue onto the roof of their mouth to creat a double "l" in a word such as "bella", I have to talk about their tongue, how it moves and why they need to rethink their "l".  That's technical. When a voice teacher asks their student singing "Deh vieni non tardar" where Figaro is in the scene because it's obvious the singer is singing to no one in particular, that's coaching. 

Is coaching, then, more of the artistic portion? No, just as teaching voice is not just the technical portion.

Now... The big question:

Why can voice teachers "coach" their way through a lesson and it's called teaching? Yet when a coach "teaches" their way through a lesson it can be seen, like the Rowling's Forbidden Forest, as "out of bounds"? I've never heard a singer complain about their teacher coaching them, but I've certainly heard singers complain about coaches who "try to teach". It immediately feels a bit contentious when one tries to either discuss this or write about it.

Nowadays, a newly minted voice teacher with maybe a decade of experience singing and a few hundred lessons under their belt, is respected as a voice teacher simply because they are, or were, a singer. They may not know the first thing about how to teach or how they actually sing. Yet the middle-aged coach with eons of experience working with voices is not thought of as having any technical knowledge because they aren't, or weren't, a singer. Since when did being able to sing define what makes a voice teacher qualified to teach technique? 

What is meant by technique? I guess anyone's answer might depend on your own individual definition of what important elements should encompass vocal technique. It also might depend on your own path as a singer or pianist. I studied voice longer than many singers who are out there getting paid to sing. That doesn't make me a singer. I sang an actual role on the professional stage -- Emperor Altoum -- at the age of 24. That doesn't make me a singer (I had a large, yet ugly voice). However, from 1983 to 1993 I played for hundreds, maybe thousands, of voice lessons with dozens and dozens of teachers -- some good, some bad, a few great, and I've coached thousands of singers who've studied with close to a hundred different teachers. 

That's a lot of diversified knowledge and THAT'S what makes me able to talk about and teach the craft of singing. There are tons of coaches out there with even more experience and knowledge than me. Some humbly say they don't know "anything" about "technique", but I bet if one defined vocal technique with the above Wiki list, they might admit that, yes, they actually do know quite an awful lot. 

Tossing the word technique around casually is not helpful either. But perhaps if another concept were introduced to define technique? How about: Everything is technique! Whatever you might say to a singer about ANYTHING they are doing, from how they're standing, to how they're pronouncing a word, to how they are trilling from below, to how breathy their tone might be, to how a note is too sharp or flat, to what their subtext might be, a singer chooses to respond by altering HOW they're producing tone. How one produces tone is rather a big part of technique. So it's all technique. How 'bout them apples?!

If I, or any coach, were to sit at the piano and warm up a singer with a set of vocalises (by the way, that's something all Choral Directors do with their choirs, but that's not seen as "out of bounds") and then spend the entire coaching not having the singer sing any repertoire but just work on building their voice through exercises, that'd be a VOICE LESSON.

Conversely, if a teacher were to spend the lesson listening to a singer sing through a role, or an aria or song, and then point out better places to breathe, offer alternate traditional cuts or ornaments, discuss diction points, and talk about the character's objectives, that'd be a VOCAL COACHING.

So the truth is that all good voice teachers coach and all good coaches teach.

The people who were instrumental in my development as a coach: Robert Larsen, Nico Castel, Debra Birnbaum, Marlena Malas, Donald Palumbo, Reed Woodhouse, Michael Ching, Tim Hoekman, Dan Saunders, Rachel Lampert, and a few of my musical theatre students at Ithaca College (yep, you can learn a lot about coaching Rodolfo from coaching Superstar) were fantastic humans, amazing coaches, wonderful performers, and superb teachers. They blended diction with breath with pop tunes with acting choices with stories of golden ages with energy and emotion with actual technical craft that inspired me to create, perform, grow and learn.

Ah, inspiration. To become inspired "as if arising from some external creative impulse" or "(of air, or another substance) that is breathed in." (That's a google definition.)

To be inspirational is really the goal, eh?

Call it what you will: a coaching, a lesson, a great hour with my teacher, a $225 expense, a revelation, a good rehearsal, a run through, a cry session.

But in the end, a singer is employing their coach and/or teacher. Money is exchanging hands. Singers are not there in our room for us, we are there for them. We are there to ignite a spark in them, to guide them, to pass on our knowledge - whether that be craft or artistry or hopefully a little bit of both, to breathe inspiration into the air.

At least that's what all those who taught me did and it's what I try to do every time I'm lucky enough to be in a room with a singer!

I'm a coach who teaches and a teacher who coaches.

I believe everyone who guides a singer is, or should be.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Auditions PostScript

A post script to my earlier blog about auditions (it came out in late August, my time flies...)

Auditions: PS!

A few other thoughts for those of you flying hither and yon to take auditions this fall.

Try not to set yourself up to meet too many friends while in the big city (Toronto, NYC, or Chicago). It'll just cause you to talk more, and you need to rest. Take in a movie, head to a museum, see a concert instead of meeting up with someone at a cool bar or cafe.

Try to pack lightly and try to keep your agenda light as well. I'm talking about the "I'll memorize act one of Violetta on the bus cause I have a staging when I get back." You should have memorized it earlier...

Try to keep your mind fixed on your own priorities. This is hard. Auditions create a whole subset of priorities that may or may not be helpful to you or your mindset.

Make the audition day be just like ANY OTHER DAY. Don't alter your diet, don't change how you'll warmup. Frankly, auditions are already NOT like any other day, so why make yourself crazy by altering the day any further? If you normally have a coffee, have a coffee. If you normally go for a run, go for a run. Try to be as normal as possible. Let the audition just be a PORTION of your day, not the whole reason for the day's existence.

Yoga or Meditation or Working Out or Going For A Walk or ANY activity is a good thing, especially on audition days. The challenge is doing them either in a strange hotel, or in a friend's living room.

Arrive early. Arrive early. Arrive early. If you want to know why, check my other blogs.

And remember: the world keeps turning, the sun will rise, even if your high Q at the end of your aria wasn't what you wanted it to be! An audition is your time to share yourself and your artistry. GIVE.

So, that last word was GIVE.

Give that panel a gift:  You!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Auditions, Auditions, Auditions

It's that time of year, a time that ramps up the anxiety and stress levels for many young singers:

Audition application season coupled with beginning of school year auditions!

All around North America, singers in undergraduate and graduate programs are gearing up to audition for their schools' opera programs, hoping to get cast in a production or scenes program or training program. In addition, those singers who want to move beyond the pay-to-sing programs are feeling the avalanche of deadlines fast approaching for Glimmerglass, Merola, Chautauqua, Central City, etc. with their requisite YAP tracker accounts spouting reminders and checklists. As for the singers fresh out of school, the desperation factor starts to creep into place -- will this be my last audition season? What happens if I don't get any auditions? How am I going to pay for all the application fees, travel and hotel expenses?

Life was simpler ten to fifteen years ago. Really.

Time was when deadlines for summer programs were mid to late October (imagine!), not end of August. There's a huge difference between the two, especially for singers just starting a new grad program and/or starting in studying with a new teacher in a new city.

And yet, every year I get requests for recommendation letters as well as requests for "what should I put for my 5" from students I hardly know.

I've often thought that first year masters students shouldn't try to do summer program auditions during their initial semester at a new school with new coaches and teachers. Maybe a better idea would be to FOCUS ON THAT FIRST SEMESTER. Work on technical issues, get the hard courses out of the way, get to know the city in a casual fashion, make friends, hear symphony concerts, etc.  These are things one can't really do while preparing an audition packet (especially if there are new arias in it) and flying in and out to take summer program auditions in November.  I know everyone feels rushed to be a success, but there are lots and lots of singers who make it without pushing themselves onto such a fast track.

Perhaps an even better idea might be to either take the summer "off" from singing, get a job or an internship, or focus on reading literature, visiting museums, taking in plays, visiting the Glimmerglasses of North America to see what the level actually is out there. Travel and explore.

But I don't think anyone will listen to my sage advice, so I'll put down my thoughts on AUDITIONS that I post most every fall, albeit with some modifications for 2015.


1) A successful audition is a complicated thing. It has more to do with the day, who/what the panel is looking for and why, the needs of a given season, if the panel's blood sugar is normal, if their attention span is fixed or waning, their personal taste in practically everything; in short: little to do with the singer's talent. The sooner one accepts this, the better. It helps to remove the JUDGEMENT happening constantly in those little heads of ours.

2) Attitude counts for a lot. How a singer walks in the door, how they communicate with the panel and the pianist, the body language signals before singing, between arias, and at the close of the audition. It is vital that a singer present themselves in a heightened (I don't want to say exaggerated) version of whoever they want to "be" at an audition. You can't just quietly enter a room, whisper your aria to the panel, sing like Tebaldi, exit like a mouse and expect that your Tebaldi tones will win the day.  Most auditions nowadays take into account personalities and how a singer might fit in to a group of other singers. If there is a worry about confidence in how a singer presents themselves (and I mean their "self" as opposed to presenting a character from an opera), then there can easily be a worry about how that singer might function in a group of extroverted, aggressive, opera singers all living and eating together for 6 to 12 weeks.

3) The panel has no imagination. Okay, maybe they have a little. But mostly, not much. This means the singer's imagination needs to come into play in a big, big way. You need to know who you are singing to, or about. You need to know if it's day or night, inside or outside, in a furnished room or a courtyard. Are there other people in the scene that the aria takes place in? You simply can not just stand there and make pretty tones. Not any more, my friends. There must be a strong connection to the text, a huge musical mind at work making decisions and taking stands in multiple areas (ornamentation is just one example.) And if someone is telling you that it's the voice, and only the voice, that'll get you into a young artist program, then they are telling you what we all want to believe is true, but actually isn't true. An opera singer has always been, and will always be, a human being who acts with their voice. So work on the human being part, the acting part, as well as the singing part. Work on it before the audition. You can't think for a moment that your gestures will just appear and make sense, or that fixating on the wall behind the panel, staring at it incessantly, will make anyone in the room think you're an operatic Meryl Streep or Russell Crowe. They work on their characters before the camera shoots, and so should you. They live in a broad, imaginative world, and so should you.

4) What you wear is less important nowadays. Pants on a woman? Fine. Jeans on a man? Fine. Black dresses with pearls? Think that one over... Think about how you'll define yourself as a human being to a trio of strangers not really looking at you carefully. Define yourself boldly in order to make an impression -- do everything you can to not look like all those other people in the lobby waiting to sing. Color is important, absolutely. So is bling. Remember, the panel is made up of human beings who have been looking at hundreds of singers. It's impossible to remember everyone, particularly if twelve men all singing Malatesta's aria show up in a dark navy suit, with polished shoes, a blue shirt and variable ties to match. If your repertoire doesn't separate you from the pack, then your acting and singing skills need to come into play along with the rest of your "package" - which includes what you look like when you walk in the door.

5) This is YOUR time slot. Use it, invest in the moment and enjoy sharing your talents. A ten-minute audition slot is not the time to fix your technique, make dramatic discoveries, or improvise some ornaments for your Rameau aria. The audition is about YOU. Share yourself, how you are at the PRESENT moment - not how you might be five years from now. If you have someone telling you you'll be the next great Tosca, well how lovely, but don't go taking "Vissi d'arte" around to auditions if you're some young 20ish soprano who really should be singing "V'adoro pupile". Sing the lightest literature possible. Take a step back, fach-wise; especially if you're being cast in school productions in heavier, or even, dramatic roles. This happens a lot -- getting confused over "what" you are because at your school you have the biggest voice, so you get cast as the Countess or Fiordiligi, but you really are a Susanna or Despina out there in the real world. For mezzo's, it's even worse. Of course you're not a character mezzo, you're a high lyric soprano who just hasn't figured out her top, but you get cast as Miss Pinkerton instead of Laetitia... And then there are the tenors masquerading around as lyric baritones... Just be who you are. Every audition is only a snapshot of the singer you are at that moment, and this changes so quickly and dramatically. Be flexible in your early 20s. You don't have to present your future-illustrious-international career's best five arias during the fall of your senior year at college to an AGMA apprenticeship program. But you do have to present some version of YOURSELF, and be confident about it regardless of the fact that the arias might just be stepping stones to other arias in later years.

6) Prepare 5 to 15 arias for the audition season. Come on. Learn more than 5 arias. People who are pursuing other careers in the arts (just think about the hundreds of songs your musical theatre singer counter-parts have in their current rep!) make it a vital part of their training to learn AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE about their chosen fields. Walk into an audition and present 10 arias. Have "the 5" listed and then add more below as "Additional Arias". It is a terrible, terrible thing that young singers - and the people who teach, train, and hire them - think that learning an aria should take months and months OR that having more than five arias running around your head is somehow difficult or confusing to both singer and panel. My thoughts on these arias? 1) Two contrasting baroque arias (one fast, one slow) 2) Two contrasting Mozart arias (either tempo or dramatic situation) 3) One aria by Rossini, Bellini, or Donizetti (or a composer like them) 3) A German aria of some sort 4) A Slavic aria of some sort 5) An aria from a verismo opera 6) An aria in French 7) Two contrasting 20th century arias 8) Two contrasting musical theatre arias 9) An aria from G&S or Offenbach 10) An aria from an opera written since 2000.  For those who were counting, that's 15 musical pieces. If most are about 3 minutes long, then we're talking 45 minutes of literature. Pianists carry more than that with just two concertos. Make a commitment to learn literature. The above 15 categories can easily fill the needed "5" for any young artist program and then you'll have another 10 arias to have wiggle room with if you need to vary one or two, or offer a piece of musical theatre, or add a couple extra arias in that represent a coming season. But if you walk around with barely 5, you are limiting your opportunities. I know singers who can learn an aria in a day, and rather well. How long does it really take to learn an aria? If you don't learn quickly, figure out how to. Then use every coaching, every masterclass opportunity, every studio class opportunity (heck, sing for friends!) to role out these pieces and get feedback.

7) Don't wear an all black anything to an audition.

8) Keep an audition journal. Go crazy -- keep a journal everyday.

9) Figure out how to breathe in stressful situations. One of the first things that seems to go in an audition is the BREATH. Getting it past your collarbone, for instance, can sometimes be a challenge during an important audition. Work on breathing outside of an audition. Ask your voice teacher about the breath. Their answers might surprise you. Seek out places to practice breathing: swimming pools, yoga, mediation, hiking up steep inclines, walking... Before your audition, have a breathing plan. Get centered outside of the room with your breath. Breathe in the audition room, too! Breathe between arias. Consciously, really, breathe!

10) Try, as best as you can, to not place too much importance on any audition. Even at the Met finals, if you listen to what the winners say, they talk about how they tried to make it "just" another opportunity to sing. If you walk into a room thinking that your whole future career (and therefore life) depends on the outcome, you are setting yourself up for failure. How about a "I don't care what you think" attitude? If you're walking into an audition feeling that what the panel thinks of you is more important than what you think of yourself, then you should turn around and walk away.

A bonus thought: Remember that what you do -- singing opera -- is something quite special. It's something that billions of other human beings on this planet can not do. It's a crazy, joyous thing to put yourself into the head-space of an 18th century peasant or a Greek God or a gypsy or a famous character from Shakepeare. Who gets to do that and try to make a living at it? It's a transcendental experience to channel the genius of a Mozart or a Rossini or a Stravinsky. While you sing their music, they live again. Their genius comes alive once more from beyond the grave through your vocal chords, face, body, and mind. Most people can't even imagine what that must be like!  So live it! Do it!

And learn an aria or two...

Best of luck to all of you out there!