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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: