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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!