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Thursday, December 25, 2014

2014 Year In Review!

Writing these end of year reviews is a pleasure, as it gives me a chance to look back and wonder "how did it all happen so wonderfully?" It also allows me to, yet again, discover that my memories of past events are almost entirely positive. Do we remember the bad stuff nearly as much as the good? There are only a few negative memories (feelings rather) that stand out from 2014 and most of those are about traveling, my health, or a generalized feeling that a few too many things slipped through the cracks. The rest of the memories bring a smile to my face. I hope some of these bring a smile to those who helped make my memories in 2014!

January 2014
An entire month spent on one thing, and one thing only: Opera McGill's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. To say it was beautiful would be an understatement. The design team was astounding: Ginette's costumes hitting an all-time high; Florence's jaw-dropping makeup designs that created a monkey god Puck, a blue-boy, and gorgeous fairies and humans; Serge creating hundreds of light cues, including a moving full moon; Vincent's huge set (probably our biggest ever) with a centerpiece of a magical tree that haunts my memories of so many scenes. The casts were terrific and sang Britten's music and text like it was their own. The kicker was that I got to work with two friends -- Andrew Bisantz (funny, I started 2014 out with him and I'm ending 2014 with him) who was our fantastic maestro and Nicola Bowie who came in toward the end of the rehearsal period and choreographed a number of dances that really put a cap on the production. I think it may have been our strongest production yet and certainly set the bar high for future productions!

Here's Anne Kostalas' terrific video preview showing a bunch of snippets:
Midsummer Video

The tree and my fantastic casts and team:

February and March 2014
Opera McGill was busy preparing and rehearsing Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi along with a Shakespeare Scenes program. I popped out to Washington, DC to do a bit of work with my old friend Julian Wachner and his Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center (this year was "Essential Verdi" and included a dinner at the Italian Embassy where I was one table away from three Supreme Court Justices [Ruth Bader Ginsburg!)] and got to meet the amazing Nancy Pelosi!) The year of shakespeare was coming to a close and we had some amazing last few Shakespeare Sessions. I was thrilled with Maestro Brott conducting the Bellini with Nicola Bowie back again, this time as the stage director. The Scenes Program was astonishingly performed. Co-Directed by Paul Hopkins and I, it was a scenes program where the students presented the Shakespeare version first, followed by the operatic treatment (i.e. Mercutio's monologue "Queen Mab" followed by Gounod's aria "Queen Mab"). It was extremely well-attended and it also was extremely well-received.

In DC...

April 2014
The end of a remarkable semester spent co-teaching a graduate research seminar class with the illustrious genius, my colleague Professor Paul Yachnin. Once a week we got together to discuss a Shakespeare play and the operatic treatment of the same play. Once a week my mind was blown. Once a week I wanted time to just stop so we could continue talking and discussing and questioning! The students kept up (it was a LOT of material) with reading the plays and listening/watching the operas. Among others, we tackled both versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Otello, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Romeo et Juliet, three versions of The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff, The Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me Kate, Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. I will never forget the class, the students who took an active part, or Paul who challenged us all. It's so great to allow your mind to expand and grow, even a wizened old professor has tons to still learn!

Here's one of the mini documentaries about the Shakespeare Sessions. (Check them all out on the Opera McGill Youtube channel. Just google "Opera McGill Shakespeare Youtube" and you'll find them!)

Shakespeare Video #6

May 2014
I love May in Montreal. It started out with snow still on the ground (I took a photo of melting snow drifts in downtown Montreal during the first week of the month, believe it or not) and ended in full, magnificent bloom of Spring (spring happens all of a sudden in Montreal because the winter lingers 4EVER.)  Most of this month is a blur, except towards the end when I went to the Bluedog Barbershop and had my beard... wait... come to think of it, I shaved my big beard off sometime in late March. That was a mistake, frankly. Totally missed my beard, so I started growing it, but then in mid May my burgeoning beard took a turn for what are called "friendly mutton chops". I kept them through the summer, just because.

Gosh, Sirius and I look a lot alike in this...

June and July 2014
Off to Iowa!  My family and I love Iowa, it's where I am from and it is where my wife is from. We spent a great deal of time in Burlington, IA (the southeast side of the state right next to the Mississippi River) and witnessed yet another flooding of the great river (not as bad as the two "500 year" floods that have happened during the last, um, 20 years. Climate change, anyone?!) I cooked a lot, the boys watched tons of tv, we went to the pool, took Sirius for walks, saw relatives (including a very nice visit with my sister and brother-in-law), and I got super sick to my stomach. Super sick. I was sick for about a week, not being able to keep anything in me. Thus, in my weakened state, I couldn't take looking at the chops anymore and shaved them off. Right before it was time to leave, I recovered. But just barely. Truly not a happy moment in my life!

Here's a pick from a family outing over looking the Mississippi River:

And a flooded Mississippi:

August 2014
A last minute gig offer took me to upstate NY where I discovered a remarkable young opera company called Hubbard Hall Opera Theatre (here's the link about my time there: Blog on HHOT ) I loved my hosts and the teeny town of Cambridge, NY, where HHOT is located. We did a Downton Abbey Le Nozze di Figaro. It was nice to direct it there, since I'm not directing the upcoming Le Nozze di Figaro that Opera McGill is producing this January (rehearsals start in like a week!). Nicola Bowie returns to direct it and Gordon Gerrard returns to conduct it (he was last at Opera McGill for Don Giovanni) fresh from his appointment as the associate conductor of the Vancouver Symphony. My students are very lucky indeed. Anyway, performances happened there and I returned to Montreal with barely a few days before McGill started in with its crazy schedule.

HHOT Nozze:

On a personal note: It was in August that Robin Williams died, and I wrote a blog about my own struggle with depression. I've never received as many private messages about a blog of mine as this one:   PJH Blog: Battling Depression Mindfully   
It wasn't a brave thing to do, by the way, it was something that I needed to write as much for myself as for others.


September to November ossia A Fall from Hell ossia A Crazy Semester 2014!
This semester was Krazy with a capital K. I took on just a wee bit too much. There were extra public lectures and performances (not a big deal, but probably one too many), I directed a spectacular production of John Blow's Venus and Adonis while Aria Umezawa, not to be outdone, did her own spectacular version of Rameau's Pygmalion (it was a double bill of baroque one-acts.)

A terrific video preview by Anne Kostalas on the baroque production:
Link to Youtube Preview

Just working on the baroque opera would have been fine, but we had a record number of graduate students arrive on campus this year (we accepted the same number as always, but this year practically everyone accepted our acceptances!) and so I added a few things into the season: a staged Knoxville and a presentation of At the Statue of Venus; a scenes program for the spring semester (which had to get organized this semester); more acting and repertoire classes for Opera McGill; and I took on the Schulich School Singers again this semester (they were the chorus for the baroque opera and will be the chorus for the Mozart in January) preparing them musically, and keeping their schedules organized. Added to all of this was the fact that beginning this January, I am on a half-sabattical. Gone for January thru July! But that meant trying to get the spring semester all organized way before I might normally have done so (which ultimately makes it a good thing!) I could not have done this without my two amazing Opera McGill office assistants, Michaela Dickey and Russell Wustenberg. Oh -- I also coached and played the Knoxville, and I also spent most of the end of November coaching Nozze. That's always a pleasure, but wow it takes a lot of time to get through the piece with a double cast. They are going to be wonderful and I can't wait to come back into town and see their opening nights!  Oh -- I also spent a good amount of time being a part of the design process for a production I'm directing this January and February at Ithaca College -- Adamo's Little Women. The design team is a combination of students and faculty. The BFA program at Ithaca is superb and I'm really looking forward to this production, conducted by Brian DeMaris.  Oh -- I was on the Austrian Ball committee and was in charge of making sure there'd be music for the ball. Can't have a ball without music. Stress... Oh -- I also had to spend a few brain cells on preparing for my December gig...


December 2014
As mentioned above, I'm finishing out 2014 with Andrew Bisantz. Here in Eugene, Oregon, there is a wonderful opera company, Eugene Opera, and a terrific theatre, the Hult Auditorium, and a great troupe of people who sing in the chorus, volunteer with the opera, and guest soloists who really know what they are doing! We open Donizetti's comic masterpiece L'elisir d'amore on New Year's Eve and that's why I'm not home for the holidays right now. We had time enough for me to get back to Montreal for a few days, but I don't travel well anymore and it would have taken too much a toll on me so I decided to stay put over Christmas. It's been tough, for sure (I'm typing this on Christmas night as Shrek 3 plays on the tv, trying to keep my mind from thinking about missing Christmas with my family...) but rehearsals start up in another day and I'm really looking forward to this one! Chad Johnson is Nemorino and he sounds fantastic, Angela Theis is Adina and she's terrific, Marco Nistico is just amazing as Dulcamara -- a role he's sung a few times at places like Rome Opera, and the two singers who are from Eugene, Harry Baechtel and Sarah Kim are going to be big crowd-pleasers, I'm sure.

Here's a link to an Eugene Opera fun little promo video:
Catch me saying "The Monkey" on this video!

I travel back to Montreal on New Year's Day, see up the start of Opera McGill rehearsals the next day, and then get almost two weeks off before heading to Ithaca, NY.

That's the diary of the year. Typing it left me a bit breathless. I think I should re-think my schedule and get some downtime scheduled, eh?! Luckily, next year looks a bit easier. Little Women in Jan/Feb of 2015, then a return to Fargo for my third "F" opera: Fille!!! I've directed Fidelio and Figaro there, so Fille awaits (hoping for a Falstaff or a Faust next!) I hope March and April behave themselves better this time. Two years ago we got multiple blizzards there, but the year of Fidelio I was wearing shorts during the same months. Mother nature can be fickle. Currently my summer is free but a big move is in the works so I'll be super busy keeping everything in order.

As far as big moments this past year? What really stands out? Here's a bit of a list:

  1. Colin in the tree, Brent below -- magic!
  2. Final Fairy chorus -- haunting!
  3. Diving into heteroglossic intertextuality based on Bakhtin's ideas of dialogism (is that a sentence?) during one of our many amazing seminar classes.
  4. I. Kissed. The. Wall's. Hole.
  5. A thunderstorm in Cambridge, NY that rattled my eardrums.
  6. Never wanting to eat Taco Bell ever again.
  7. Seeing the Venus and Adonis chorus create lasting images onstage, everything from David's shell-shocked amputee to Nicholas' pipe-smoking doctor to those ladies in their gas masks...
  8. Blood onstage, fake blood and fake wounds of course, which shocked some of our audience members; then the end of the opera drawing sobs and tears from women and men in the audience. I haven't had audience members come up to me with tears in their eyes since we performed La bohème. Maybe it was the poppies at the end, or the WW1 uniforms, or the timing of the performances, but the production did make an impact that surprised even me.
  9. Being in beard-friendly Eugene, Oregon makes me so happy to have kept my big mustache (there's always a danger of my shaving it off some mornings) and to be growing back my big beard again. I'm just one of thousands here. I've seen some AMAZING beards here, huge long ones. Totally adjusted my idea on what a big beard is, fyi.
  10. My wife and kids. I love them so much and miss them way too often. My life is a dream in many ways, creating opera at McGill and elsewhere, but the time it takes away from my family is taking a toll. I'm looking to rebalance a few priorities in 2015, wish me luck!
And to leave you with those haunting words from the end of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream:


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Boxing Art

Occasionally art befuddles. Often art confuses. Sometimes art is effective, sometimes even affective. Rarely, but hopefully, art moves through humanity and changes an outlook, or a current state of emotions, or gives someone a pick me up, or takes away some daily care that strips away at someone's sanity.

Many of us are as inspired by looking at a Van Gogh or listening to a Brahms piano concerto or a Beethoven string quartet, or an opera by one of those dead white guys as we are by attending a Shakespeare play or reading a Hemmingway novel or digging through James Joyce or listening to a Berg piece or tapping our toes to an Ella recording or clapping wildly at the end of a Broadway rock musical.  If one genre inspires you, I find at least, most of the rest -- I'll call it all "art" for lack of a better word -- does also.

That's why I don't get classical musicians who only know classical music,  or who only listen to classical music, or who quickly dismiss other kinds of music as less important or beneath their attention somehow. I don't get classical musicians who are snobs.

Snobbery is something I hate, especially in music.

Link: Pedants!

Now we all have our likes and dislikes. I wrote a blog about Menotti. I'm pretty open about my lack of love for epic grand operas written in French (except for Faust.) I am not a fan of large symphonic works cause I find them to be a bit, um, boring. (Do I need to hear the same motif played ad nauseam in every bank of winds, followed by a round through the strings, then culminating in the brass and call that something special? See: Dvorak or Bruckner) And my distaste for large Bach choral pieces is, I've been told, something verging on heretical. To say that I find Andrew Lloyd Webber more engaging than Bach, when it comes to dramatic vocal music, causes apoplectic fits in some of my students and colleagues.

A passion by...

But my love for the repertoire is huge and vast, as is the repertoire itself. From Adam de la Halle's Le jeu de Robin et de Marion to Kevin Puts' Silent Night, text set to music in order to tell a story gets me almost every time. So does practically anything ever written for the solo piano (aside from some icky Soviet stuff) and most of the string quartet literature out there. Then there's the 20th century -- the best on many levels because of Stravinsky and Bernstein and Copland and Puccini and Loewe and Kander/Ebb and R/H and Sondheim and Korngold and Strauss and the great one: Britten, and, and, and...

I try not to divide and slice the rep into boxes or genres or categories. Aren't we all just a bit bored and annoyed by those who describe Die Fledermaus as "light opera" or "operetta"?! Have y'all tried to sing it with the full orchestration? Or Hoffmann?!  Those are huge sings. There's nothing "light" about it. The opposite is kinda true for Carmen. I get frustrated when people hold it up as some magnificent grand opera, like it's a French Trovatore or something. It's one of the first modern musicals - complete with world music settings: Formally it's a musical (telling the story in songs, ensembles, dance, and lots of dialogue) that sounds like a grand Italian opera at times, set in Spain, sung in French, with some Cuban dance rhythms thrown in for fun! The argument against those statements come, as they should, from mezzos and tenors who sing Carmen and Don Jose. They are totally right when they say those two roles are hard to sing and are as operatic as Tosca and Cavaradossi. But why care what it is called? Audiences love it -- as do I!

Why categorize these pieces? What does calling something a "musical" or "chamber opera" or "opera" or "song cycle" do for a piece? Is Menotti's The Consul an opera because he's an opera composer? When it played on Broadway (and won the Pulitzer for Drama), there were many who thought they were seeing a new hybrid between the art forms of musical and opera. Why does Sweeney Todd now get accepted as an "opera" by opera companies and audiences? Is it because Bryn Terfel sings it with the NY Phil and at the Lyric Opera of Chicago? Emma Thompson, a singing actress who is not an opera singer, just sang the female lead with him at Lincoln Center. Does that make her part non-operatic in some way? Is it a musical when there are microphones? Then that makes Nixon in China a musical. (OH MY GOD!!! Opera Companies Use Mics?! Say it isn't so!!)

A pointed digression:
Here's a hint kids: When you're at an opera, look towards the back of the house. If you see a person standing behind a sound board mixing the show all night, then chances are they are mic'ing the opera. Some opera companies (like the dearly departed NYCO) are open about it. Others (I can't list them here because I might be killed by a squad of operatic terrorists) mic without telling their audiences -- and sometimes, without even telling their artists!

Back to Boxing Art:
Mostly I wonder if we are doing modern day audiences (and young singers) a disservice by paying more attention to the name of what we'd like them to come and see, hear, or experience rather than on creating something really exciting that gets them out of their homes and gets their faces out of their smartphones and into a theatre, recital hall, concert hall, or found space.

I think this sort of labeling boxes all art into a corner and might contribute to making our current audiences uncomfortable or confused. Why would we want to do that? Yet it happens within the business and within academia; for what reason?

I think that some of it is just generational. Using old terms to describe something that no longer has a context with the general public (like when my mother-in-law always says "www" before any website she wants me to check out.  Remember those modems and "dial up"?  Well, our audiences are changing and they pretty much are now not cognizant of the differences between a grand opera, a cabaret, a revue, a musical, an operetta, or a masque. They want to spend their entertainment dollars on something that will excite them, or move them, or inspire them. That can be Cats or Candide or Einstein on the Beach. It can be by JRB or Guettel or Kitt. It can be a staged Passion by Bach or Sondheim. It can be an HD broadcast of La Traviata or a Live from Lincoln Center documentary on the Civil War (I think Ken Burns writes visual operas, but that's probably stretching the definition of opera a bit far.)

I even had a student make a case that the soundtrack for Baz Lurman's movie Romeo and Juliet was -- all by itself -- an opera. I agree with her assessment.

I also think that it can make a snob feel wonderfully smart (i.e. superior) if they can turn their noses down at a Zarzuela but hold up a Singspiel as a testament to humanity while simultaneously lecturing on the use of clarinet in Verdi's late operas. Knowing that the last chorus in Blow's Venus and Adonis "influenced" (really? prove it!) Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is nice for the pre-opera lecture but that knowledge doesn't change the impact either chorus has on an audience.

Boxes make people feel better.  Certainly I have a personal stake in this breaking of the boxes.  I'm a vocal coach, collaborative pianist, conductor, stage director, and artistic administrator whose career confounds some of my colleagues and certainly most of the artist managers I've ever spoken to about my career. I have friends in the business who only want me to be a coach, or a director of a young artist program, or a stage director. You get the point.  I find that young singers are also boxed in WAY TOO EARLY by their mentors and by programs. Yes, currently they are a lyric baritone, but who knows what a 24 year old baritone might be by the time he's in his late 20s. Let them sing outside of their boxes. Let them experiment with repertoire. There have only been a few deaths caused by operatic repertoire (most in the 1800s and those were tenors...) Let these young singers learn to be FLEXIBLE with a wide variety of repertoire. They don't have to be experts at the age of 26 in anything.

I will leave this topic with some harsh words for those who want boxes:

Confining Art into a neat little box is comforting for small minds.

It is time to move on and let go of old biases and false understandings of this great repertoire that inspires the world.  A world without boxes makes many people feel uncomfortable, uneducated, or ill-prepared to be seen as someone who knows something.  The same amount of effort, knowledge, expertise, and hard work goes into singing "Du Ring an meinem Finger" as it does preparing to perform "Where are the Simple Joys of Maidenhood?"!

Du Ring by Elly Ameling
Simple Joys of Maidenhood by Julie Andrews

It's time to leave the musicological discussions behind, time to leave the lines drawn in the sand between genres, time to stop alienating young singers from repertoire that they will need in order to reach new audiences. It's time to stop thinking like a 19th century pedant. Ravel needs us, Heggie needs us, von Flotow needs us, Bellini needs us, Porter needs us, and so does Schwartz; these great minds that put their passion to paper. Perform it with purpose and it becomes quite clear: Telling a story with music is creative genesis. We recreate a world each time, we get to live in a composer's brain and heart, we get to surf in waves of poetry and music! It's breathtaking!

The flexible tree bends in the wind. An old tree can break in a wind storm, even if it is strong and healthy. Then the tree gets mulched up, turned to cardboard, and made into a box...

I prefer to keep the tree that is me as flexible as possible so that, in the end, I can take in the many...


Friday, October 31, 2014

Movies for Opera Singers

I talk all too often about the need for young opera singers to watch movies. One of the reasons I do this is because, as a director, I reference way too many movies in my attempt at inspiring a moment onstage. Sometimes it's just easier to say "you know, it's just like that moment in Philadelphia Story when Kate Hepburn walks out onto the veranda after drinking too much the night before and retracts in the bright sun, almost like a vampire?!" instead of directing Don Giovanni to put his arm up over his face to hide himself from the light. Bad director. Or maybe not...

However, the problem sometimes occurs, while working with the younger generation especially, when the singer has no knowledge of The Philadelphia Story or who Kate is. I usually turn to another movie, and then another, then in frustration I say to the rehearsal room out loud "who here has seen Young Frankenstein?" and then maybe one hand goes up.

So I have to say up front that this blog is a bit of a "please watch some of these movies" plea to my current students, but also is a blog that may hope to inspire other young singers to look at other types of acting (and movie acting, in certain genres especially, can be quite operatic!) in order to further their own thinking about acting, about gesture, about creating internal emotional lives, about how a costume can make a moment, or about how Gene Kelly really could move in any direction and make it look simple.

So it's a list -- apologies to those of you who don't like lists. I've put next to the movie, what I think someone might glean from watching it.


Moonstruck: Cher earned an Oscar for acting while talking with her hands. Also of note, Cage's eyes and his use of over-the-top vocal tactics.  Actually, every single person in that movie gives an incredible performance.  One of the most quoted movies in opera rehearsals, at least among the people I work with out there in the professional world.

A Lion in Winter: Kate Hepburn is incandescent and manipulative and vulnerable. She earned another Oscar for this role. Peter O'Toole is also fascinating. A great period piece. Movie debuts of Anthony Hopkins as a gay Richard the Lion-Hearted and his ex-lover played by a great actor who went on to play 007.

Babette’s Feast: First of all, there's an opera singer in this movie, the great Jean-Philippe Lafont. Secondly, Babette's utterance at the end of this movie about what it means to be an artist is something that everyone who is an artist needs to hear. A home run of a movie. I watch it every year.

The Godfather Trilogy: Great acting from great actors. Operatically edited episodes. Even a love story. Number three even ends on the steps of the Palermo opera house!

The 1st original Star Wars movie: I think that this movie is an opera and many of the actors chose to act in a terrific old-school Shakespearean manner. Not Luke or Leia or Han Solo, but certainly Chewbacca is an opera singer... At least he sounds like some I know...

Any Alfred Hitchcock film (particularly Rear Window and North by Northwest)
If you haven't watched at least a half dozen Alfred Hitchcock films, you really shouldn't be trying to create a character having a bad day (as in what happens to so many opera characters). Hie thee to the master of bad days, watch and learn.

Indiscreet: Romance with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. It's a great movie and she's spectacular in it. He's also rather good.

La divina ossia Meryl Streep Movies:
Kramer vs Kramer or Sophie’s Choice -- start with them. Watch her listen while others talk.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Shining: Because of Jack, baby. Go where he goes next time you need to raise your stakes in an aria. He's a whole opera all by himself. A one man show. 

Three Period Pieces that are informative:
Dangerous Liasons - Again, the performances I'd describe as operatic. John Malkovich's particularly
Valmont - Better getting the period, and it shows how the same story can be done with a bit more subtlety
Amadeus - Great opera scenes, and wonderful performances from everyone on that screen.

Great operas for finding humanity in violence:
Pulp Fiction -- one of the great films 
Kill Bill volumes 1 & 2 -- each one of these fights is an aria
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- again, each one of the fights was created to be an operatic duet of sorts

Any MGM musical (particularly Singin in the Rain and American in Paris)
Okay, I'm a Gene Kelly nut. But he could teach every single singer I've ever worked with something about how to express love through just the use of his arms held out.  He's an amazing mover and he tells stories with his body. This is something that all opera singers need to be able to do.  Plus, those old musicals are very much like today's operatic style. Many of those singer/actor/dancers came from the theatre where they acted BIG. We still need to make sure that what happens on the operatic stage can be seen from far away. Enough with this close-up, in-the-rehearsal-room-it-is-vivid-but-in-the-big-theatre-it-looks-really-boring, style of production. Make sure your audiences know what you are feeling by both your voice AND your body.  They can't see eye contact in row double UU up in the balcony...

Much Ado About Nothing (Branaugh’s version)
Emma Thompson - her performance is radiant, funny, smart, and physically beautiful

Young Frankenstein
Surely one of the most quoted movies ever. Frau Blücher (cue the horses)...
Surely there's no need to say why this movie should be memorized, yes?!

Classic Screwball Comedies: These are terrific to watch when you're working on a Nozze, or a Pasquale, or an Albert Herring
His Girl Friday
Bringing Up Baby
Philadelphia Story

Romantic Comedies (old school): I mention these because of the holidays. Watch them to see what a leading man looks like while being strong AND sensitive. A great combo, but hard to replicate...
The Bishop’s Wife
It’s A Wonderful Life

There are a myriad of others, but those are the ones that have come to mind these last few years.  Please just watch and enjoy them, then watch them again more carefully and see if you might learn a thing or two; or see if there's something in them that can be translated into your own craft.  I bet there will be!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I Am Not My Talent

"Oh, you're so talented!"
"It must be such a great thing to be so talented!"
"I would've loved to have played the piano, but I didn't have the talent."
"Talent is overrated. It's all about hard work."
"Talent Schmalent."

And there are endless others...

These sentiments about that immeasurable and ineffable thing called talent are easy to hear, hard to digest and often times difficult to understand.

What is talent? Why do some have talent? Why do others seem to lack a talent specifically in something that they either have a passion for, or pursue at great lengths to increase?  How is talent identified? Where does it reside?

Ultimately, I'm not going to even try to answer those questions. I have another question:

Am I My Talent?

What I mean is whether or not my identity is tied up with, or connected to, my "talent". The old "you are what you do" discussion.

Not identifying your SELF with what you do is a very important step in self awareness. You are not just a dad, or a teacher, or a pianist, or a musician, or a director, or a writer, or a husband, or the dog-walker. You are many things, but you are not JUST something. When things go wrong (especially when things go wrong!) it is important not to confuse yourSELF with what you did wrong.

This is a pretty easy thing to understand -- although many do not truly realize it.  When I miss a note - or more likely noteS - in some tricky passage by Sam Barber, I can feel bad, but I don't think I am actually a bad person. Confusing yourself with your thoughts or feelings is also something that one tends to give up along the path of life.

But as a musician, it's hard not to feel inadequate. "I should have practiced more." "If my technique were better, I wouldn't have missed those notes." "If my talent were less fixed on making music and more fixed on striking the right notes, that wouldn't happen."  These thoughts are hard to contend with - but truly WE ARE NOT OUR MISSED NOTES.

So, flip that notion on its head and what do you get?  What's the opposite of Missed Notes or Flat High C's or metallic timbres? Our Talent, perhaps. If one is to agree that Talent = the GOOD THINGS that make us Talented.  So, flipping the notion that we are not our missed notes, you get: WE ARE NOT OUR TALENT.

Meaning, we are not just the good parts, just the parts that make people ooh and aah, or win competitions, or gain another gig, or make us the money, or enchant strangers at donor dinners, or any of those other great things we have abilities for that go unnoticed most of the time. Some of these abilities we take for granted: learning music quickly, having a curiosity for any and all genres of music, appreciating others' talents, memorizing scores accurately, making music naturally and with little thought, knowing lots of music, etc.

It's a startling thing to do, to release the hold we have on our self-worth to include not just the bad stuff, but the good stuff as well.  It's all stuff, in the end. So letting go of it all, the good and the bad, has some interesting effects. At least, in my limited experience.

These are:

1) The inner voice dies down; sometimes it gets silenced even during performances or high stress times.

2) The present flow of the moment opens up, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes grandly, and the music making just seems to come more naturally.

3) The feeling that one has accomplished climbing a mountain for every challenging aspect of a score steadies and also dies down. Along the way, these accomplishments feel natural and inevitable.

4) Happiness returns, unlooked for, during rehearsals and performances. Happiness makes its self known to you in crazy ways - time flying by, smiles on yours and others faces, difficult passages passing by with almost childlike ease.

5) The missed opportunities to be perfect fly by unnoticed, as do many (not all) of the missed notes, or wrong words, or botched character choices, or whatever. These things seem much less important.

Fine. Release my hold on my talent you say. Now how do I go about doing that sort of mumbo-jumbo Buddhist zen shit without flying off to India to eat lots of pasta?

There are many ways. I might start with meditation (yes, I know -- SURPRISED?!), as it is a disciplined way into this sort of thinking. Musicians love discipline, at least we say we love it. Practicing, rehearsing, learning scores; all are disciplines that take our lifetimes to master. Sitting and breathing is rather helpful, particularly in the mindful way.

There are lots and lots of books to read. I'd recommend Dan Harris' "10% Happier". You know him from the TV news. He had an on-air panic attack about ten years ago brought on by casual cocaine usage and a history of mindlessness (sleepwalking through life while pursuing his stressful career). After many journeys, he found mindfulness and many "Jew-Bu" friends (as he calls them), some of whom are the leaders in their fields: Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein. They are two of the coolest writers he acknowledges, among many others. Sharon and Joseph also changed my life too, but in other ways and through other means. They've written lots of books. I'd recommend ANY OF THEM. Each one I've picked up has altered the path of my day.

Dan Harris TV link

Sharon Salzberg Site

Joseph Goldstein Info

Finally, I think this last bit of advice is crucial: Stop hanging with negative people in your field. You know them: the disgruntled, the complainers, the gossips, the worriers, the needy pianist, the boastful singer, the know-it-alls.  Walk away from them now. A secret to success is to be just a wee bit aloof. My students who are the most successful are the ones who spend enough time away from other music students in order to create a life that does not ride on getting cast, or getting an audition, or hob-knobbing on FB with the semi-famous backstage. This really is crucial.

Instead, give yourself the present of the present moment. Then release all that shit you're holding onto about your last lesson, or rehearsal, or performance. "My scene really went super well." "I hope my scene goes as well as so-and-so's scene." "Why did my throat close down on that high E-flat?" "God, I am freaking awesome at Fiordiligi!" "Should I be pursuing this when I can't even get through one Donizetti aria?!"

I think Sondheim said it well in Into the Woods: "Best to take the moment present; As a present, for the moment."

Into The Woods video (just for fun!)

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Next Generation (TNG)

Opera: TNG

TNG, for those of you who are not Trekkies, is short for The Next Generation (Star Trek: The Next Generation.)  TNG was the first re-boot of the original Star Trek series from the 60s. It aired back in the 80s when I was getting my undergraduate degree in piano performance at Simpson College. That was a long time ago. Of course, now there’s a new re-boot of the Star Trek universe courtesy of J.J. Abrams.

Ah, the 80s! Such a long time ago for young singers who were born in the 90s… We’ve got a new generation of opera singers now, who if they are working hard and becoming slightly successful, are learning and growing in a wonderful world of opera so unlike opera back in the 80s!

Not surprisingly, much of the advice and mentoring being offered to this New Generation is coming from people in and out of the business who have been out of circulation – audition-wise – since the 1980s.  And let me tell you, so much has changed since then, so it’s a good idea to think about what kind of advice you might be getting from someone who’s last audition was back in 1988…  Over 25 years ago!

The business was so very different back then. Singers needed just a handful of arias, it was possible to get an audition by sending your paper materials through the mail, and there were far fewer singers in the market. There was no YapTracker to announce auditions, no Youtube to listen to arias one hadn’t heard, no sites to download sheet music for arias one couldn’t find in the library.  (Legend has it that at one point in time, like in 1986, only one Xerox copy existed for Anne Trulove’s aria and it was re-xeroxed so many times, the details of the accompaniment could no longer be discerned by pianists, thereby giving rise to the notion that one could simply “fake it” since no one knew what the exact notes actually were!) Yet, the professionals who are out there teaching, coaching, and advising young singers are sometimes a bit out of touch with the new demands being placed on this new generation.

Just recently, a young singer was advised not to sing a certain aria in their audition because it was “fringe” repertoire. The aria in question was one that I heard every day during the Glimmerglass young artists’ auditions (over fifteen years ago!). It’s a great starter aria but this person giving this advice was from a different generation, an older generation, of singers. Yes, back then it was fringy, now it’s a regular aria that gets sung everyday somewhere in NYC during the fall audition season.

I’ve decided to make a list of other outdated advice I hear given to young singers with great frequency, followed by my thoughts in italics. Here it is, in no real order:

1)   Ladies, wear your hair up to make yourself look older, more mature, and more like an opera singer. Bad idea, particularly if that’s not your regular look. We want you to look young and fresh and in touch with current trends.
2)   Gentlemen, wear a suit and tie.  No need to be so formal anymore. In fact, unless you know how to wear a suit and a tie, I’d say go with a more casual look. One of the reasons for this is because it’s hard to find a suit that’s not black, brown, blue or grey. A baritone in a grey suit is like a soprano singing “In uomini”…
3)   Only have 5 arias in your repertoire. Any more than that and you won’t be able to show yourself off at your best. Poppycock! Any singer who’s serious about getting a career better have more than 5 arias at their disposal at any given time. You seriously can’t handle holding 10 or so arias in your memory? You seriously can’t get 10 arias prepared, coached, staged, and perfected given a few months hard work? Then my advice is to get out of singing, get out now. Your musical theatre colleagues are running around with hundreds, HUNDREDS of songs in their heads. Lots of it by that guy named Sondheim – tricky text, tricky music. Don’t tell me that a couple of Mozart arias, one baroque aria, two bel canto arias, one versimatic aria, two 20th century arias, and a few pieces of musical theatre or operetta are going to kill your technique, or confuse someone about your fach, or “send the wrong message” or worse, cause you to not be able to perform them because it’s too much to handle.  Get a life. Singing opera is super, super hard. Work at it!
4)   Don’t move around too much in your audition. This one unnerves me so much. Yes, there was a time where one could stand and sing and just be at one with the text and music. Not as much anymore. Those people on the other side of the table are trying to cast singers who will net great reviews and sell tickets. They need people who can move around onstage naturally, and who can gesture and “act” (god only knows what anyone means by that anymore…) If you just stand there and gesticulate subconsciously with your arms in midair, you’re simply not going to find success easily. Of course we don’t want tap dancing during “Piangero”, I’m not saying you have to move constantly, but have some arias where you actually move your feet and your hands.
5)   Sing to show your potential. Nope. Sing who you are right now. That usually means lighter literature. Stop showing that you might be the next Verdi soprano someday. Be the great soubrette you are today. Sing “Batti, batti” better than anyone else, don’t shove your voice into “Come scoglio” because your teacher believes in your potential or because you’ve got the biggest voice at your school. 
6)   Introduce yourself, your aria, and your pianist, as if you were some famous collaborative duo. We don’t need to know that Mozart wrote Pamina’s aria and that your pianist, Helmutina Orlofsky, and you will be performing it together.
7)    Don’t sing literature that is unknown. Yes and no. What does “unknown” mean? Or “fringe” mean? That one is hard. If you are singing for a well-established opera program run by a seasoned professional, they will know the “Fire aria”, they’ll know “Things Change, Jo”, and they’ll know arias from “Giulio Cesare”.  They may not know other arias by Handel, excepting the famous ones, they may not know Janacek arias, or Walton, or lesser works by Britten. Keep to standard repertoire, but have some surprises in your list of arias too, particularly if you sing them really well.
8)    Start with an aria that will warm you up, put you in a centered place, or that you’re really comfortable with. Warm up and get centered before you walk in the door. Do not start with the long, slow, middle-voice-only arias that are 4 minutes long but seem like 6 minutes. You need to come in and knock their socks off.  You can do this with Musetta, with Figaro, with Cherubino, with Carmen, with the Duke. You can’t do it with an unknown bel canto aria from an unknown bel canto opera from Donizetti’s boring period (and I love Donizetti…) What does “comfortable” mean? To be honest, I think singing opera is not necessarily comfortable. You should sing an aria that excites you, inspires you, and makes you joyous inside. Comfortable is an old couch in the winter, a screened-in porch in the summer, and walking hand-in-hand along a beach in the fall with your love.
9)    Don’t waste your time working on or singing musical theatre. Shocking, isn’t it? That someone in 2014 might be telling young singers not to sing musical theatre? If one looks at the companies in the U.S., Germany, France, and now some in Canada, one sees clearly what’s happened to the repertoire. There’s Central City and Lyric Opera of Chicago presenting “The Sound of Music”, or Vancouver Opera planning “Sweeney Todd”, or those smaller organizations like San Fran Opera or the NYPhilharmonic presenting musicals like “Show Boat” or “Camelot”. Then there are the summer programs -- now regularly producing musicals with young artists cast: Glimmerglass Opera, Chautauqua Opera, Ash Lawn Opera.  “West Side Story” is very popular across the Atlantic, sung in German or in English. And it’s not, thank you very much, a NEW idea. Opera Memphis produced “Kiss Me Kate” way back in the early 1990s, cast with opera singers.  What’s “Porgy and Bess” for goodness sake? Don’t give me the whole opera thing. It’s as much an opera as “Trouble in Tahiti” or “Street Scene”.  Or those melodramatic Menotti operas that were first produced on Broadway: “The Telephone”, “The Medium” and “The Consul”. Musicals have been a part of the operatic repertoire ever since “Die Zauberflöte”, “Die Fledermaus”, and “Carmen” were first put together to form a, let it be said, magnificent opera season somewhere in the world. Now that I think of it, those three shows would make a very balanced OPERA season (even though the first is a German musical – a Singspiel, the second is an operetta, and the last is now presented in its original format: a French musical with dialogue in between the numbers.)  I dislike Carmen when those terrible recitatives are used. Another piece of advice: Sing Micaela’s aria without that terrible recit beforehand.
10) Do not try to engage the panel. Terrible advice. Engage the panel upon entering, while introducing yourself, while singing your first aria, while waiting for the 2nd, and especially before leaving the room!  Really show your personality as often as possible. And if you don’t have a personality, find one. Look for one, ask people for help.

Those are my thoughts. They come from someone who is 49 years old. What’s my experience you might ask? I used to hear professional auditions all the time. Tens of thousands probably, especially during the 1997 to 2007 decade when I was listening to singers for Glimmerglass, Opera Festival of New Jersey, and Florida Grand Opera.

Way back in the early 1990s I used to play auditions in NYC, mostly with the singers at the Juilliard Opera Center. My experiences playing for them while they auditioned for the Met or NYCO, for big and small opera companies, or for singer managers, certainly gave me a different insight from the piano bench. I remember playing hundreds of auditions just in that first year I was in NYC.  In my short life as a NYC pianist, I probably played more auditions than any singer will ever sing in their career.  It made me see that the singers who were the most flexible in the repertoire, in their daily routines, and who had the easiest way in projecting a fun personality to the panel, were the ones who seemed to get contracts and agents quicker.

But most importantly, the singers who had a DEEP BELIEF IN THEIR OWN TALENT were the ones who walked into an audition with an air of success about them.  Their hair might be frizzy, their shoes might be dull, their audition books unorganized, their repertoire not quite right, their high notes not perfect, their dress too short, their skirt too long, their sleeves rolled up or not, but they believed in themselves! They BELIEVED they had something special, and had something special to share. 

It was a powerful thing.

Also – few, if none of them, had special “mentors” or frankly anyone really shepherding their burgeoning careers. No one was filling their heads with advice. They certainly weren’t reading a blog about auditioning advice. It was, back then, about summoning your talent, courage, and sense of others and then walking into an audition to share yourself. The information age has made things a bit more difficult, at least a bit more daunting somehow.

During the last seven years, I’ve listened to thousands of young singers audition for McGill as well as for the Janiec Opera Company and other smaller regional opera companies around the U.S. Times have changed. What singers sing, how they look, how they present themselves, and how they actually get an audition have all changed drastically. Things have changed because the business has changed, and the business model for opera companies has changed. Make sure that when you are seeking advice, you are getting it from someone who is OUT THERE listening to the current field of young opera singers.  The older the advisee, the more likely it will be that they will be advising you based on their experiences ten, twenty, thirty, and even forty years ago. 

So am I writing a blog about “don’t listen to the older generation?”
Certainly not! Their advice is vital!

With your coaches and teachers, focus on singing. Don’t get into whether or not you should be auditioning for Santa Fe, particularly if you’ve just started lessons with a new teacher. That’s a conversation to have with someone who knows your voice really well, and might also know exactly who has been singing at Santa Fe during the last few years. Has your coach headed out to hear the young artists at Des Moines? Have they attended the last gala sung by the ensemble members of the COC? Have they listened to the Met finalists? Do they know who is currently in the HGO studio? Are they coaching or teaching singers who get into the paid summer programs? If not, then perhaps their advice isn’t necessarily current, or based on the current trends in the business.

Of course there’s great advice out there.  There are great teachers and coaches. They don’t need to travel to know how “Deh vieni” goes or if a coloratura should be singing “Un bel di”. Then there’s the old guard (please forgive the use of the word “old”, it’s just to delineate those that have been around enough to know the business) who are known by their first named monikers.  I won’t say specifically, but some of them have initials that everyone knows (an example might be “WKD”) or first names only (an example might be “Joyletha”); many run opera companies, or run prestigious summer programs. Many have been singers themselves, and so they truly understand the past and the present demands placed on singers, and so they can give excellent advice.  They also know the pulse of the business and can see trends before most others.  When one of these sorts of knowledgeable people speaks, writes, or does a masterclass, one should listen closely and take notes!

More than anything else, listen to your instincts. Present yourself in your own unique way, make musical decisions based on deep explorations, create characters that live and breathe, and show those panels that YOU are opera’s future. You are the Next Generation!

Live long and musically prosper…

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Art of Listening, Watching, Breathing

I recently posted a status on Facebook:

"Listen with your eyes, watch with your ears, and breathe with your heart."

A friend (aren't we all friends on FB?!) wrote a quick comment, which was later taken down just as quickly --- but I saw it, thank you very much --- that was obviously a knee jerk reaction to my status. It went: "I find it better to listen with my ears and breathe with my lungs."

I just don't think that that's enough. And I don't think this friend was really listening to what I was trying to say on that oft-misunderstood medium known as Facebook. This isn't a blog to defend my status, it is a blog that will take my original sentiment and try to expand upon it, as well as try to explain why I posted that status in the first place.

Listening is a difficult thing to do sometimes, just on a person-to-person basis let alone on a more general day-to-day level. But listening is what I do in my profession. As a stage director, I'm listening to lots of people sing opera, listening to the singers describe their needs, their ideas, their questions. I'm also listening to designers discuss themes at play in the opera, color schemes, fabrics that inspire, makeup ideas, and offering solutions to a myriad of problems. The listening continues when the orchestra players get into their "pit" -- I don't have enough room, we can't hear the horns, all we can hear are the horns, the conductor is too high or too low or too dimly lit, or too vague in their motions.  It's endless listening!

I watch people as they talk. I watch their body language, their eye focus, their facial muscles, their gestures. These tell me many things. I also listen to their tone and volume levels. Low and breathy means something different than high and nasal when the person's tone is normally much more average or bland. There are high breaths, deep breaths, sighs, tensed jaws, teeth clenched, tight intercostal breaths, collarbones exploding with tension breaths. Everyone expresses themselves differently. When you hear the phrase "it is written all over your face", understand that often it truly is written on your face.

These expressions send messages of subtext. The face can be saying "this situation is making me extremely unhappy and I'm about to lose it" but the chosen words might be "I'm fine, I'm happy, everything is alright."  It's an acting technique - playing the opposite. It's also in a director's bag of tricks - playing the subtext.  Everyday human beings do it all the time when they're walking down the hall and a coworker asks "How ya doin'?" and the response is "great" (said in a flat, un-great tone because you've just been handed divorce papers.)

I wish more singers understood their faces. Their thoughts are written all OVER their faces! Many times it's because they are so expressive already in their regular, everyday lives because it's a holdover from their more dramatic or comic characters they embody onstage. Sometimes, it's just part of being a singer. If you didn't know, singers usually employ more facial muscles than most other Americans because singing in other languages demands using more of your lips and tongue than normal citizens of the U.S of A.; let alone the act of operatic singing and how one learns to increase breath control and decibels of sound over large spaces. Get a group of singers together in a cafe, and the others in the room will notice them immediately. They are gregarious conversationalists, even when tired and on a break!

So one can listen with their eyes. Years spent coaching singers has taught me this.  One can see a bad tone being created before it gets sent out into the theatre. One can see a legato phrase happening a bit before it starts to materialize in sound. It's connected, on many occasions, by how the breath is taken, or not taken, from the heart.

Yes, that sounds all touchy-feely, but I mean it.

Breathing is something that happens all by itself for most of our lives. We do not need to breathe from the heart while we are sleeping, or sitting on a bus, or waiting for a number at the DMV, or while reading this blog. However, singers do need to focus on breath in a much more immediate and intimate way. Sadly, breathing is something that doesn't get focused on all that much lately in the teaching studios. That's a different blog perhaps...

When we express something important, or something particularly true to a close friend, a lover, a child, a spouse, or a parent, we breathe differently. There is a connection to our feelings -- for lack of a better place in us: our heart connects to the breath. Because singing is something quite extraordinary, and singing opera libretti text is something very extraordinary, one can't take an ordinary breath and intone "I've loved you since before time began" over an 80 piece orchestra while bathed in soft blue lights costumed in a Grecian toga. All the text leading up to that point and afterwards also demands a special connection to every breath taken.

In fact, I think all breath in opera is special and should come from the heart. Otherwise, why sing the text? If it's not important enough to connect the thought with real feelings and emotions, then why is it sung?  I've said over and over that "Opera is never about the day nothing happened."  It's true. Opera is always about the day something happens! And that something is so special and exciting that people are expressing themselves in poetry, in song, through an orchestration, with dance and gestures, and -- most importantly -- through the fragile human vocal folds.  Connecting their breath with their thoughts leads a singer to express text on pitches in a much more satisfying and intense manner. Try it out. Every phrase being led by a breath from the heart!

What about that part of watching with the ears?  That's the fun part!

If you close your eyes and listen to Mirella Freni sing practically anything (my favorite is her rendition of the recitative before Susannah's act 4 aria), or Corelli, or Domingo, or Pavarotti, or just-name-a-great-singer-from-before-2000, and you'll "see" their character come alive through the sheer power of their vocal artistry. I hate hearing that in today's world, opera singers have to be able to "act" as well as sing. I hate that.


What were they doing before the 21st century? Just singing?  Well, they were acting THROUGH their text via their voices. It's what bel canto was really predicated on. It doesn't really mean "beautiful singing", it actually was a style of singing which carried the meaning of the text and the emotion primarily through the voice. One didn't need Method Acting Techniques; one didn't need to make eye contact constantly and sing sideways into the faces of their partners. What a singer did was imbue the meaning of the text, and its emotions, in their singing. You have to really listen to see this acting technique happening. You can hear it in Sutherland's singing, in Callas', in Scotto's, in Hadley's, in Sill's, in Milne's, shall I stop...?

This art seems lost, or at least it is hard to find. It's there at the top, in singers like Fleming, Hvorostovsky, Kaufmann and in the younger lesser known generation like Matt Worth, John Osborn, Alyn Perez, and Sandra Eddy. But many people I've worked with lately seem to not be able to hear this kind of intention in singing or in singers. I'm talking primarily directors and conductors, but young singers included.

If you look close enough and listen intently enough, one can hear the truth coming out of mouths. One can also hear lies.

The lying is what comes out mostly. It's because the truth is harder to find. You have to dig down for it and look for it and listen for it. You have to struggle to understand. You have to juggle many choices and ideas - of others - before you can even begin to find the cave that must be explored.

That cave is deep and dark and scary and unexplored. Even when the cave has a sign that says La bohème over it, it is still an unexplored country.

I'm just in the midst of bringing a Le Nozze di Figaro into dress rehearsals. I've loved this opera for thirty years now. I first heard it in 1984 at Des Moines Metro Opera. I was thunderstruck by it! I'll never forget hearing "Deh vieni" for the first time or hearing the Count ask for forgiveness in Act 4. I cried.

Later, when I discovered what a perfect opera it was, I was in awe of it. I stayed away from doing it. I turned down one when I was in my 20s cause I thought "how in the world could I have anything to say about such a perfect opera?"  Since then, I've coached it tons, I've conducted it, I've performed in it, and directed it (not enough times to even begin to scratch the surface of it.) I'm getting ready to produce it at Opera McGill this January (Nicola Bowie directs, Gordon Gerrard conducts). It is a masterpiece of such depth that I'll never explore its cave.

Here's just one example of a great cast and a great conductor. There are many, many others out there:

The Met 1999 Excerpt of Act 2 Finale

But I have listened to it, I've watched it, and I've breathed in its phrases.  My heart sings just to be swimming in its waters. I hope that everyone involved listens, watches, and breathes it all in, understanding that they are just at the beginning of a long journey into a vast, mysterious cave carved out centuries ago by that great master of all, Herr Mozart.

It is something difficult to convey, this wish.

Breathe with the heart.

Watch with the eyes and ears.

Listen with the ears and eyes.

Then repeat, often, and humbly.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hubbard Hall Opera Theater's Le Nozze di Figaro!

I'm in eastern upstate New York currently directing a production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro for a relatively young opera company. Hubbard Hall Opera Theater is part of a Cambridge community based center for the arts: Hubbard Hall Arts Center. Started decades ago with a focus on producing theatre works, Hubbard Hall expanded about seven years ago to include an opera company. In years past they have presented Cosi fan tutte, Carmen, La bohéme, Hansel and Gretel, The Barber of Seville, Abduction from the Serglio, Don Pasquale, and a few others; some with piano accompaniment, but most with orchestral forces. This year's season is the aforementioned Nozze as well as Puccini's comic operatic masterpiece Gianni Schicchi.

I must admit to not knowing anything about the opera company until its artistic director called me up a few months ago to ask if I might be interested in directing the Mozart. As often happens, there was a different director associated with the production and then other factors came into play so the company was looking for a stage director. As also happens (more often than you might think), I was recommended by a student who had just left my McGill program after spending three years with me. Geoffrey Penar (who performed in productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflöte, and Volpone) is singing the Count in the HHOT production and I have him to thank for this gig!

The artistic director of HHOT is an operatic factotum of a young woman. Alix Jones is, from what I've seen over the past week, a tireless AD/GD/ED/FD/HD/TD/EtcD (Artistic Director/General Director/Executive Director/Financial Director/Housing Director/Technical Director/Etc Director); basically a one-woman show. Responsible for getting the shows chosen, casting made, artistic team put together, contracting singers and orchestra, coordinating set designs, finding props, building and painting sets, and then putting on a nice dress in order to serve as MC during a young artist community outreach event.  I've been very impressed with her, and her company's, ability to juggle quite a lot of needs while maintaining a rather fun and casual environment in which to rehearse opera. That's rather tricky, speaking from experience. She also has been creating opportunities for young talented conductors, this year the orchestra and singers are being led by Lidiya Yankovskaya (click on her name to check out her website.)

Speaking of experience, my experience has made me feel, on this gig especially, like an old man o' the theatre. It's now been 30+ years in the business and though I've done quite an awful diverse number of jobs in opera all over America, I'm very much feeling my age. Staying in patron housing can be fun when you're younger but when you're set in your own ways, you realize just how inflexible you start to get. It's one thing to be a houseguest for a weekend, imagine four weeks. I'm making a concerted effort to find my flexibility here, both out of and in rehearsals.

The space that HHOT performs in is truly unique. Hubbard Hall is a remarkable 19th century "opera house" built in 1878 that was neglected for much of the 20th century and then had a renaissance due to the determination of one man, Benjie White, and the community of Cambridge. Here's a link to the history of the hall:

And here are some photos I took on a morning off strolling around Cambridge. I came upon a great farmers market right next to the old train depot.

And here's a terrific short video on the arts community that has found a home in Hubbard Hall. They are currently looking for donors to help them buy risers for the theatre and it's a micro-donation project via indiegogo, so if any of my readers from any part of this globe think they might like to donate $25, $50, or a $100 check out this video and see how terrific - and unique - this arts community is. They have Irish dance classes, yoga, Tai Chi, theatre improv, art classes, and much much more:

These are what the current risers look like:

As long as we're on links, here's a link to information about the opera performances:

And a cast list, where you can check out the bios of the young singers performing both operas:

I've been very impressed with the level of talent, both in the leads and in the smaller roles and cover casts. Mozart's perfect opera, Le Nozze di Figaro, is a daunting task to take on for the first time. The role of Susannah, for instance, is said to be the longest soprano role ever written. It certainly is a role that takes a great deal of stamina both vocally and dramatically. She's such a great, smart, liberated female character, written back in the 18th century by the great Beaumarchais in his banned play La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro (The Mad Day or The Marriage of Figaro) and then a bit later turned into THE comic operatic masterpiece of all time by Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte.

Here's a pic of my cast:

I mean to use all caps when I write "THE comic masterpiece of all time". I believe this is the perfect opera. Perfect in form, certainly. No one really could argue against that one. Just looking at the 2nd act it's clear that Mozart was a formal genius of structure. Just the key signatures alone give one a clue to his architectural genius. Each piece moves from E-flat (Countess' aria) to B-flat (Cherubino's aria) to G (Susannah's aria) to C (the duet where Cherubino leaps out of the window) and then when the big "finale" begins (the best one written, truly) Mozart writes in a tonal palindrome moving quickly from E-flat to B-flat to G to C and then back to F (a palindromic relationship, trust me) back to B-flat and ending in E-flat. That's just one part of one act, mind you. The other characteristics of this opera that make it perfect lie in how the characters' emotional lives develop through not just the plot devices and wonderfully comic and sexually-spiced text, but through the brilliant and transcendent musical score that Mozart gave us.

If you're in the area and have the chance to see the performances (we open on August 13th and it runs that weekend and the next), please come.  The venue is truly an intimate one -- perfect for experiencing opera live and up close. The singers will be just feet from the front row, the orchestra will be behind the singers so you will literally see tonsils, tongues, quick eye glances that you'd miss in a big theatre, and you will experience the power of acoustic, sonically-charged opera right in your face!  It's almost rock-n-roll, from a decibel perspective, once all of the characters get onto that stage and start singing!

Here's the link for tickets:;jsessionid=EF00FA83FEC0103ED70641FAED417AC9?event=1202

And if you can't come, find a recording in your house, or find one online, or check out youtube for full-length performances of this fantastic opera by Herr Mozart. And look for Opera McGill's own production of Le Nozze di Figaro this coming January at McGill University. It'll be directed by Nicola Bowie and conducted by Gordon Gerrard with a terrific student cast!

One more link for Opera McGill:

See you at the opera!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Operatic Judgment

Operatic Judgement is really loud, much like opera. It can be loudest in our own heads, it can be seen by thousands in print, and it can bring careers to a halt if left unchecked or unbalanced.

In opera, judgement is everywhere. It pervades the art - and the people who create it, buy it, and sell it - like nothing else.

Young singers are barraged by judgements, both from within (silent yet deadly judgements!) and without (both from private and public sources).

First the Outer Judgements...

These come from both public and private sources. The private ones can sometimes hurt the deepest and stay with you the longest. The examples that might spring to mind are: a vocal coach saying off-handedly that your "coloratura really sucks today" or a voice teacher telling you your timbre "isn't right for German music" or, as happened to me, a middle-aged assistant conductor strolling up to me after I'd just played my way through a hugely difficult Russian opera piano technical rehearsal to drop the bomb "you know, you're a great player and all, but you play without rhythm, just thought you should know."

That jab took me three years of a masters degree to get over. Once I was at Julliard I didn't really worry about playing with rhythm cause I was, well, at THE JULLIARD SCHOOL ASSHOLE!

I digress.

Often times these private sources of judgement are very private, as in you never actually hear the judgement. You don't hear what the audition panel is whispering to each other while you sweat your way through an Adams' aria from Nixon in China (but you imagine what they're whispering, that's for sure!), you don't hear the discussion had between the Met district judges about your performance, you don't know why you didn't get into that great $45,000 per year grad school but you think maybe it had something to do with the fact that your audition panel was staring blankly off into their computer screens while you and a never-met-you-before-sad-excuse-for-a-collaborative-pianist fought your way through a difficult Strauss set.

I think that these private sourced judgements make up the bulk of the pronouncements faced by all artists -- outside of the inner demon voice. Some young artists take a cavalier approach to these pieces of judgement, sometimes casually known as "feedback" in the biz, in order to ward off feeling being overwhelmed. This approach can lead to not seeing yourself or your progress with objective eyes. It's a state of denial that can feel comforting and protective, even self-empowering. But it's not good to ignore anything and everything you don't like said about you or your talent. Particularly from people you've decided to learn from and/or study with at a school or summer program. Other young artists I've known take everything, and I mean everything to heart. They end up demented, to put it mildly. Their talent becomes discombobulated, their egos get crushed, and they wander through the halls (practice halls, school halls, audition halls) with a deep-seeded desperation that one can almost smell.

Balance is needed, as in everything. Think chiaroscuro. 

Instinctively you should know if these judgements are coming from a place of creative, positive intentions or if they are coming from a place of coldness or insensitivity. Allow the myriad of feedback that comes your way to have a place in your mind to sit and spin for awhile, in order to take a better look at it later and decide if it's something to be considered or something that might better be left in the trash bin.

The public sources are primarily those faced at "public" masterclasses (that's a whole other blog: "The Irrelevance of Masters giving Classes in Public") and in print: the dreaded opera critic.

Masterclass "feedback" is easily misunderstood and thankfully, easily forgotten. Many times, when something actually positive may happen and a learning experience is taking place, the young artist isn't in the mental space to really grasp hold of what's either being said, or what is taking place to make such positive changes in their music making or their technique. They are onstage performing in public, not in a private space focused on learning and process. Learning is easy while sitting during a masterclass, it is much more difficult while performing in one. These are different mindsets and I don't get why so many people seem to think that masterclasses are a great place for "students to learn." Yes, students learn while watching them, it's usually a much different thing for those being the guinea pigs. Yet these public judgements stick with young artists if something dramatic is pronounced like "you don't know how to sing, my dear!" (Actual quote from an actual diva giving a public masterclass a few years back.) These judgement stickies sit on people's lapels in both the minds of the young artist and the audience (comprised of both amateur enthusiasts and colleagues-and-comrades-in-operatic-arms). They can devastate. They can also give absolutely the wrong message and, at worse really, false hope. My mother went on, until her death, about how "Dr. Fake Name from Drake University said you were the most talented 12 year old he'd ever heard play the piano and that you could be the next Van Cliburn". Well, I might have been but that didn't play out that way, did it Mom?

I urge all to take with a grain of salt any pronouncements made at a public masterclass, especially if it concerns switching vocal ranges or major fach changes. One song or aria can not, no matter who the genius might be listening to you, tell them whether you're really a baritone or not. The flip side of this masterclass stuff is when it goes really well, when major changes take place that cause everyone to nod their heads when the artist turns to the audience with that "come on, everyone nod their heads so that Miss Mezzo can understand she's fabulous now" look. If such change were truly possible in masterclasses, then more singers would be better with more frequency, yes? Why are these changes temporary? Why can't they be recreated by the singer?  Mostly because they aren't really in the room. They are in their heads trying desperately to either impress, not suck, or learn from their idol. It is not conducive for true experiential learning, in my humble opinion.

Operatic Critics, here I go...

Actual Operatic Critics (AOCs), an endangered species in modern journalism, can really make an impact on a production's ticket sales, on a young singer's burgeoning career, and on most fragile egos if something negative is written for all to see. In print, on their blogs (usually the later nowadays), and occasionally in opera magazines that, sadly, few people even read, these professionals sit and pontificate from on-high on matters of utmost importance. Well, not really. They do like to go on about how a singer is the next coming of Christ, or the representation of mediocrity onstage, or simply should stop singing before somebody throws a tomato at them. Most of the reviews I've read over the last ten years (except from the fine critics at the NY Times and a few others at the Washington Post, Financial Times and the Philly Inquirer) are just terribly written either by those who know way too little about music, let alone opera, or by those who listen way, WAY too much to classical music recordings. My knickers get in a twist particularly about operatic conductor reviews. They are either "serviceable" or perhaps "uninspired", but usually, they are just not really mentioned. Imagine! How did the opera happen, mind you?

Point of interest, perhaps: My conducting reviews, outside of one or two given me by a certain New Jersey critic, were uniformly lovely, even complimentary (just wanted to say that so no one reading this thinks I have a bone to pick about how I'd been reviewed in my career, I don't.)

Basically, the problem is that AOCs really have little to no knowledge of what goes into creating just one, or any for that matter, specific operatic moment in the performance they are witnessing in a theatre. They are really writing in the dark, so to speak. For example, decisions made by producers and designers impact a set's colour palette that then can impact a costumer's decision on fabric choice that then shows up on a singer's body and either makes them look glamorous or dumpy. While said singer recreates blocking given to them by a director (who perhaps hasn't thought everything through) and at the same time struggles to make a long musical phrase but finds they are restricted in their waist by said fabric that matches the color of the door behind them, which was chosen specifically to show the subtextual need for their character to escape their operatic situation. So what happens? The last bit of fioratura gets messy and the critically-eared critic jots down in their program "messy coloratura from diva #2"!

Got it?!

These decisions I've just detailed all can have huge impacts on musical phrases going this way or that way, on singers being able to breathe correctly and efficiently, literally on the music being recreated onstage and down in the pit. There's no way to fully comprehend all of the collaborative decisions that go into each and every moment in an opera, and these decisions end up in reviews - unbeknownst to anyone really - that can have terrible psychological consequences; on a young singer especially.

I tell all my students and young artists I work with the same thing: If you believe the good reviews, you have to believe the bad ones. So don't read them, don't believe them - regardless of what's said.

Got that?!

The Inner Judge. The Inner Voice. The Demon. The Cheerleader. The Friend.

Ah, this is the hard one. Everyone has them. Their inner demons, that little voice sitting up in your head. That sports commentator that won't shut up and just allow you to enjoy the moment cause they have to give a blow by blow critique of how you're doing moment to moment. I don't really need to explain this one, or what it's about. There are lots of blogs and quotes and masterclasses about how to help deal with, mute, or permanently silence (sorry, not possible) the Inner Judge.

So I'll talk about my inner judge. He's really mostly a pissy asshole who obviously has a blood sugar problem. He doesn't like the way I play recitative (Patrick! too flashy, too much, make it simple, you should have studied recit with someone important); doesn't like the fact I miss notes (wow you played that aria with no wrong notes, oops there you go missing the same passage, you should have practiced, what will so-and-so think about all your wrong notes); doesn't like how I direct the first scene in any opera (well you got it done but it's not what you wanted, this makes no sense, they don't get you at all here); doesn't like Massenet (why don't you know how this Cendrillon goes?). He has quite a range of dislikes and disappointments and never ceases to show up and work hard on my behalf.

During performances at the piano, I've learned to silence him with the "I don't care what they think" mental game. There's just too much going on playing for a singer in a performance to spend time thinking about what people might be thinking about my playing. I typically, if I'm allowing myself to think about the audience, try to imagine that they are being blown away by my awesomeness. It really actually makes me play better. Truly, being awesome in your own mind is vital to making art in public!

As a director, it's important to stay open in the rehearsal room to everyone. This can lead to staying too open to everyone's judgements. You see it on faces, you hear it right to your face as well. Getting others in the room to quell their inner judges, to calm their anxieties about being good or correct or "what the conductor/director wants" is a very integral part of my job as a stage director. Death to opera happens with the phrase "that won't work because..." I've seen whole shows just die because someone won't try an idea given to them since they've judged, before even doing it once, that it won't work, or worse, know it won't work "for them".  Inner judges on public display in rehearsal rooms are seldom helpful.

Recently, however, I've found a more powerful ally in my quest to put my inner judge on hiatus: Mindful Meditation.

The Buddhist tradition of Vipassana meditation, or as it's translated "Insight" or "Mindfulness"meditation, has become a big trend recently. The U.S. Armed Forces are using it with soldiers now in basic training to prepare them for the rigors and stress of combat and deployment. They find it reduces the incidence of PTSD on soldiers returning from the field, and those soldiers suffering from PTSD report that Mindfulness Meditation really does help with the symptoms, stress, and anxiety.

Not that a public comment to a singer is like PTSD, but we all have teeny moments of post traumatic critique disorder, or PTCD that sit in our heads and can, with little notice, disrupt or derail a coaching, lesson, rehearsal, or performance.

"Your recits are too loud and too sung" can turn into singing way off your voice and paranoia about learning recitatives. Going into a staging of a Mozart opera can bring out floppy sweats in a young singer thinking they sing too loudly or too much, but when they try to NOT do that, they get comments about lacking intention in their music or connection to the text. What are they to do? PTCD is a real problem in opera.  Yes, it's truly a minor thing when compared to real stress from the battlefield or from personal tragedies or from real phobias, but our unconscious brains may not be able to see a difference. If they did, why would the stress of negating some past comment cause the mental anguish it sometimes does?

Mindfulness Meditation is an answer and it's easy to do! Twenty minutes a day, sitting and breathing and taking in each moment. Not focusing on the past (it's gone) or the future (it doesn't exist). Mindfulness has taught me that everything is impermanent. Each production I direct is over a month later. Each note I play resounds for only its planned duration. Every laugh, joke, or missed step in rehearsals is fleeting and should be cherished.

What we should not cherish or hold onto, however, are all these judgements that come into our world. Let them exist, acknowledge their existence, but only in the present. Don't let them live beyond their moment. Take a breath, take a walk. Look at the trees - they don't judge their twisted trunks or their brilliant green leaves or their lack of growth in any given year. We don't judge trees like we judge people: "she's so fragile", "his voice is so brittle", "she's just not getting it, why doesn't she change teachers?" Imagine the tree version: "that tree is so fragile, can you believe it, what was it thinking?", "that tree is so brittle, it really should become more flexible!", or "that tree just doesn't understand its purpose as a tree, it should seek a new mentor tree."

Confession: I'm into trees now, sorry for that metaphor. I think it works, but my inner editor is saying I should go back and delete out that paragraph...

Meditation has changed my life. I'm going on two years now, and am just beginning to see the impact it is having on my inner emotional health, my family life, my inner struggles, and my work in opera. I may falter here and there, but it's just a moment. It's all I'm doing at that moment. I get up, move on, the storm passes, another show gets directed, I meet new students, my children grow up, my facial hair changes. It's all fleeting.

Impermanence is a powerful thing to understand. Once embraced, it can really act in an empowering way through your mind and into your life!

Don't hang out with the past. Don't hang onto it either. Letting go of self-judgment, from time to time, is a very healthy and important way to keep creating, to nourish your inner artist, and to make music flow easier in this world of ours!