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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!