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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Bearding Blog

It's been a bit of a rough year, to be perfectly blunt. Even though it seems as if 2015 was filled with professional and artistic triumphs, the personal tolls that were taken during the last 12 months were more than I would have preferred.

Acknowledging this is important. I think that end of the year overviews do serve a purpose, as well as all those New Year's Resolutions that seem to proliferate our world but not necessarily change many of our worlds. It's good to reflect, sum up, and see if the path you're on is the right one for the present or your future.

On the surface (literally the surface of my face), 2015 was the Year of the Beard. Growing my beard was the over-riding day-after-day event that I wore around for 365 days starting in late 2014. Actually it was my 50th birthday that started the whole deal.

I was worried about turning 50.

The men in my family have had a hard time in their 50s. Many that I'm blood related to have had major coronaries, major traumas, cancers, and/or death happen to them in their 50s. I approached my 50th birthday with an internal trepidation that I was mostly unaware of. I was thinking I felt great, I was on top of my game, professionally speaking, and looking younger than 50 if I were to be humbly honest with myself. But I was worried.

I stopped shaving on November 21, 2014. I had a leftover extensive handlebar mustache on my face and I thought it would be kinda cool to see what a year of not shaving would do for my mustache as well as my face. (In the end, the long mustache was the hardest part to deal with!) I joined a few online beard clubs, started my Yeard selfie journey by taking a photo every day (this eventually stopped about halfway through and I cut back to once a week), and bought hundreds of dollars of beard balms and oils online (plus a couple of nifty teeshirts I picked up along the way.)

The Austrian Ball stache in a tux:

So off I went, with a great deal of optimism, to Eugene Opera to direct a L'elisir d'amore which opened New Year"s Eve. I also spent Christmas of 2014 in the emergency room thinking I was having a heart attack. That was fun.  L'elisir was a great success and I loved working at Eugene Opera. Here's me on Christmas day...

Upon returning, I started in on the first part of my "half-sabbatical" at McGill. My projects were numerous, but January was spent looking into my health. It wasn't a pretty picture.

The mind-body connection is a powerful one and to just be pithy, I was riddled with anxiety and stress about too many things. Meditation was helping, but it wasn't enough.

With a scruffy face, I headed to my old stomping grounds at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY to direct Little Women and collaborate with old colleagues there (like the amazing lighting designer Steve TenEyck) and my very dear friend, Brian DeMaris. It was strange walking around the music and theatre buildings, even stranger being on campus. Ithaca is a great little town, and the food there is simply spectacular. Walking around the halls, I was overwhelmed with so many wonderful and vivid memories of students, their triumphs in particular. I realized I was missing the musical theatre repertoire. Because of my experience in Ithaca, I have a new goal: to reintegrate musical theatre back into my life! Ithaca in a nutshell: The best Thai food anywhere, a bunch of great bars, and a downtown pedestrian zone that is superb for shopping. The student cast members were terrific, and of course super-prepared. Brian is a terrific conductor and I loved every minute being there.

I also believe I saved a life.

One late afternoon, as the sun was heading behind the foothills above my Air BNB place, I was walking to my car to get some dinner and I heard a faint "please help me". I looked around and couldn't see anyone. I heard the same faint cry a few seconds later and realized it was coming from across the street. This was not a busy street, by the way, it was way out of the way of traffic. It was also WAY below freezing outside. In a driveway I saw an old woman on the ground in a house dress - no coat, no shoes. She was reaching up to me. I ran over and discovered she had not only fallen, she had broken her ankle (basically it was faced backwards) after getting locked out of her house. She was in shock and freezing after dragging herself about twenty feet towards the road to seek help. Luckily the ambulance came in time, and I had access to my parka and lots of blankets from my place. When I left Ithaca, I was told she was recovering. I hope that is still the case.

My beard came into its own in Ithaca. The opera was a success (it was beautifully lit and performed in an intimate space) and I had finally also gotten a grip on myself by the time I returned to Montreal.

Ithaca's Little Women:

During my sabbatical, Opera McGill was being run by Jonathan Patterson, a theatrical factotum, and the Nozze production was lovingly directed by my colleague Nicola Bowie and conducted by the wondrous Gordon Gerrard. Later in March, the double-bill of Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica was a big hit with conducting by Boris Brott and direction by my friend David Gately. (David certainly knows how to get all the laughs out of those Donatis!) It was nice to not have to worry about my opera program for three months, gotta admit.

I headed to Fargo, North Dakota, where I went from having a beard to really being bearded. The production was Fille du Regiment and the great cast was wonderful. Eric Weimer conducted it brilliantly and I'll never forget celebrating the Passover with a bunch of the cast.

Here's a downtown Fargo beard:

Fargo is one of my favourite cities (yes, truly!) I love the opera company there as well. David Hamilton is a terrific general director and Fargo is a great city to spend three weeks rehearsing and enjoying the fantastic craft beers on tap around town. It also has the greatest barbershop! Everett's is a place I love going to get my hair cut and always try to figure out how to get in two visits during my three weeks (it's all about getting there in that first week!)

It was in Fargo that I started to get the "great beard" comments from strangers, as well as the curious looks from people passing me on the street. The surprise, for me, was how freaking white my beard came in. I was starting to look, um, older. Big white beard is not something that "youthens" you…

But I persevered. I didn't cave and shave. Nor did I let anyone trim my beard or mustache. And let me tell you, LOTS of people gave me advice on what I should do with the hair on my face.

Why? What possesses people, especially strangers, to chime in with their opinions about a man growing a beard? As my beard got longer, it became clearer that I was being judged for my appearance - mostly negatively out in public - which made no sense to me.

For you see, I believe that men are supposed to be bearded. Shaving our faces is an unnatural act. If left in the wild, men grow beards. There were no mirrors 10,000 years ago. The Vikings had big beards because they needed them way up there in the cold, plus there's no need to shave a face. I blame Alexander the Great and those Romans who came later to spread the idea that beards were barbaric. But really, my pagan roots yearn for resplendent facial hair! At some point in time, all men should grow a beard and find out what their actual FACE would look like if they were thrown back in time without razors, mirrors, and face moisturizers. This was a great lesson for me, accepting my natural, albeit very hirsute state.

The beard calmed me, that's for sure. The longer it got, the less anxious I became. I was able to clear my head quicker, I was able to meditate easier and with greater mental focus. It was strange. I was much less worried about my worries.

I left Fargo a big bearded guy.

And then we decided to leave Quebec. It was not a tough decision.

We are now in the country living outside of the small town of Alexandria, in the province of Ontario, Canada. I still work at McGill with a commute that's just a bit harsh. But we love - LOVE - living in Ontario. The people are so nice, our neighbours are SO nice. The cost of living is much cheaper, from gas to lower taxes on food and my pay check. Walking outside in my PJs onto my back deck in the mornings to watch the sunrise and breathe in the new day did wonders for my stress level, and my beard went crazy. It just grew crazy long.

In the woods of Ontario:

If I had been bold and shaved the upper lip, I would have had a true Amish beard (sorta sorry I never did it, truth be told). The country folk here took no notice, Montrealers certainly did. More difficult comments from lots of people. I found it hard to direct Opera McGill's Little Women this fall with the big beard. I couldn't express things as well, knowing that the students were seeing this big beard gesticulating and directing in and out of character - which worked fine for the father role but not so much for the other characters in the show. The last three months of my "yeard" (beard for a year = yeard, fyi) were tough. Waking up with mouthfuls of hair, having it split into a fork anytime the wind blew too hard, and when dressed up in a suit feeling like I was some sort of country-bumpkin with a big long beard; that was hard to do, psychologically speaking. I also started to think ahead into a future of conducting (2016 I'm conducting two operas) and wondered if a big long beard made sense. (It was okay for Brahms, just saying.)

Opera McGill's Litte Women:

But I am, if anything, quite a stubborn guy. And I powered through knowing that on November 21, 2015 I would make the full yeard. Completely untrimmed, mind you (this is a big thing in the bearding world.) Plus, I had entered into a gentlemen's agreement with a friend living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We both decided to grow a beard for a year and if one of us caved and shaved, or trimmed, we would have to take the other guy and his wife out to an expensive dinner. I'm part Scottish and therefore, cheap. No way was I going to lose!  I'm happy to report that neither of us "lost", we both gained a great beard and both of our wives were very supportive. (Actually, his is a monster beard and I was quite jealous once he reached the six month mark…)

November 21 to November 21:
November 21 came and it was the Austrian Ball. I decided to trim down my Yeard and leave the long stache. After keeping it for about a month, I buzzed down the beard to stubble and left my handlebar mustache. It's weird. It's like the last year didn't happen, like it's 2014 again. Looking in the mirror I am definitely younger. But I am missing my beard. Really missing it. I've no idea what 2016 will bring, other than starting it off back sporting the curls of my handlebar "mo" while starting a baby "mo-hawk" on my head. At least that where I'll begin 2016; we shall see where it all ends.

Trimmed for the masked ball:

My three outside gigs had commonalities: Eugene, Ithaca, and Fargo are all eclectic small cities. All have vital university communities, all are liberal enclaves surrounded by rural conservatives, each are somewhat geographically isolated, each is difficult to get to, each has unique yet thriving cultural non-profit arts organizations, all three opera experiences were generous and collaborative for me as a stage director, all three operas were led by superb musician conductors who also are incredible vocal coaches who love singers and this art form, all three cities had fantastic food. Eugene: food trucks and pinot noir ON TAP!; Ithaca: Thai food and Ithaca Bakery!; Fargo: microbrews on tap: hundreds plus the best homemade potato chips and beer dip!

So this was basically just a long blog about a beard, with a nod to what I did these past 12 months. Apologies, no deep thoughts about opera. I'll write something operatic next time.

However, my bearding a yeard wasn't just about not shaving. It was about patience and perseverance. Waking up every morning and looking into the mirror to see a man I didn't quite recognize was mostly fun, sometimes depressing, sometimes scary. As the yeard progressed, it took more and more time to get ready in the morning. Too much oil, balm and other shit to work through the beard, plus the long mustache needed a lot of attention. Next time, I think it might be interesting to trim and shape the beard as it grows. At least that would be my advice to others -- let it grow for at least 100 days before making any decisions.

And if any of you out there are guys, drop the razor into the bin and try bearding for three months. You deserve to see what you'd look like without any intervention from the various fake societies that surround us nowadays. Trust me, you will literally discover a new you, you'll find wisdom in patience, and you will discover an internal strength to swim against the current trends of societal norms.

Here's my video of my yeard journey in pictures: Time Lapse Beard 2014 to 2015

Plus, bearded guys are the best sort of guys out there -- they're gun-loving rednecks, axe-loving gay lumberjacks, hipsters who actually do brew their own beer, tattooed grandpas, veterans suffering from PTSD, and bankers, lawyers, baristas, writers, and chefs.

Beards unite men in a way that nothing else does. It puts us all on a common ground.

After typing that thought, I've decided to beard again. 2016 here I come!!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Knowing Now… PART TWO (Dorothy, Green Women, and Galadriel)

Things I wish young singers knew now, that they don’t know now…


Preparation means score study, not highlighting your part:
            Young singers who make it as professional singers are either naturally adept at learning opera roles easily or they have a much more evolved work ethic than their peers. It’s that simple. If one doesn’t like learning music for the rest of one’s life, then you should find something else to do with your life and not muddle up the young artist market with your fantastic kissed-by-god voice. Step aside and make room for those who truly want to work in the operatic field.
            Lara Ciekiewicz recently posted the great Maureen Forrester’s 3 Rules:
1)   Be Prepared
2)   Be Punctual
3)   Be Nice
            Pretty simple, eh?!

Learning Music Is Not Work, It Is A Privilege:           
            Studying is not working. When you get paid for doing something, that is working. Opera singers are paid to perform, not rehearse or learn their music (there are a few exceptions here, and this is one of the great differences between Opera and Musical Theatre. You get paid to rehearse in musical theatre and that’s usually when you are taught the score too – sounds like a better deal, no?) Please stop thinking that learning music is work.
            Back to the Privilege part… I feel so strongly about this. There are billions of people in the world striving to find water, food, and shelter. They work till their hands bleed. They work miles from home and never see their families. Children are making shoes and t-shirts somewhere in the world, working for practically nothing, right now as I type these words. Learning is a fu#*ing privilege. Get your heads out of your arses and dance into a practice room! Do it with joy and remember just how special you are for possessing enough talent to be in that practice room, or in a rehearsal room, or onstage working on some masterpiece. You are a re-animator of a composer’s intentions, their minds and artistic souls. It’s just such a precious gift!
            But it is not WORK!

The current operatic choices for Career Paths can, and should, be followed (as in, “If I get my degrees, do summer gigs, get into a paid apprentice program, get into a resident young artist program, and then get management, I will find my career like Dorothy following the Yellow Brick Road to find the Wizard”):
            No, No, No.
            Dorothy had to murder a very misunderstood and emotionally disturbed green woman in order to get what she wanted. That horrid Glenda could have told her back with the Munchkins to click her freaking heels, but no… Bitch. Glenda was a Bitch. She wanted the green woman killed but wouldn’t do it herself. Manipulative Bitch, really.
            The idea of following the 20th century young artist path to a career is simply so last century.  And it didn’t work for most people who tried it. It only worked for the very lucky few. It probably worked for your teachers and for the singers that your coaches know in the field. Wait for it… That’s because they were the lucky few, so of course they’ll think their path was a pretty good one.  
            It is 2015 and things have changed, Jo.
            What’s changed the most? The Market? Certainly.  The Demand? Probably. The Supply? Absolutely!
            Career Paths open up because one creates the environment in which to find and follow your OWN Path(s). You are responsible for stepping into the operatic forest and for creating your paths. And the kicker is that these Paths are only apparent once you turn around and look at where you’ve been, realize how you got there, and understand the people who helped connect the breadcrumbs along the way.
            What to do then? Open your field. Imagine. Have Plan B, Plan H, and Plan Q. Work on as many fronts as possible. Network, Network, Network. Stop putting other’s paths and successes in front of your own. Listen to yourself. Listen to Oprah. (There is something to what she says about success in life.) Regardless, one cannot passively pursue any kind of career, let alone an operatic one. So step up to the plate and start swinging. Or if baseball metaphors are too last century…
            Don’t follow that yellow brick road; you might have to murder a green woman. Click your heels together and use your imagination to get you where you want to be.

Lost opportunities seldom, if ever, return:
            When I’m out and about down in the United States directing, I spend oodles and oodles of hours in coffee shops with members of the local chorus, with cast members, or with production staff; they talk about their career aspirations and ask to hear my thoughts. It’s not brain surgery, nor is it life changing I’m sure, but it can get you thinking about yourself in another’s light. I wish more young singers would ask for one-on-one time from guest artists, ask them for a coffee, let alone a beer or a perhaps even a dollar taco night. Massive lost opportunities.
            David Daniels recently posted on Facebook how upset he was that at his guest recital at some university because so few students showed up. Just last month, Michael Ching was here for three days in rehearsals for our latest opera production (a double-bill of his Buoso’s Ghost and Speed Dating Tonight!). My cast was there to listen to him talk about his music, his music making, and his thoughts on the current state of operatic composition. It was a great talk that also culminated in his singing one of his songs at the piano (a song about a veteran, sung by the Michael on November 11th – quite moving and quite an insight into Michael as an artist). Were other students there? Outside of my most exceptional students, no. Were they invited? Yes. Were they free to come? Absolutely – it was during our regularly scheduled class time.
            So why didn’t they come?
            I think it has something to do with how young people think they’re supposed to learn – Directly. Information comes direct via Google and Wikipedia now. No more skulking about the library stacks digging through card catalogues looking for unlooked for connections or happening upon a book that was next to the book you were looking for. Information seems to be treated as only something needed to answer specific questions or situations. But we all know that connecting dots happens INDIRECTLY as well as directly. Sitting and listening and watching connect huge dots!
            But maybe it is just another example of the disease that has hit so many of us (including me!) in this Information Age. Perhaps the loss of attendance at special events also has to do with the sense that everyone is a bit “overbooked” or “overscheduled”. Everyone has “too much to do”.  This is a viable argument when looked at from certain standpoints.
            Yet – look at the successful people in this field. We all have the same amount of time in our days as they do. We all have the same number of hours in our days as Lin-Manuel Miranda. He wrote a hit rap musical, is currently starring in it, and also scored some of the new Star Wars movie (the Cantina scene). He gets things done.  He shows up, I’m sure.

And the last thing I wished young singers knew now…
            Opera is such a joyous field. The people in it are filled with the best kinds of noise and knowledge, filled with good times and expansive hearts. Most people who make music for a living are filled with a very special kind of light. I think it’s like Galadriel’s phial that she gives to Frodo in Lothlorien. Sam uses it to fend off Shelob. It’s filled with a blinding light that sends evil running for cover. Filling yourself with opera can be like carrying around a magical cordial. It keeps the bad times at bay, it emboldens your imagination, it whips at the wild beasts that surround you. It spreads the light of creation to others.

            And that is our work really. Spreading our special kind of light into this very dark world.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Knowing Now, Instead of Then (PART ONE)

Things I wish young singers knew now, that they may not realize now…

Where you end up is usually where you should start:
            I’m always amazed by the progress my students make during our rehearsal process. Truly remarkable and outstanding progress! Yet, I can’t help but wonder about those who start out struggling a bit too much with the music, or how they’re singing it, their character, their physicality, or their lack of choices. Yet on closing night, I see students giving spectacular performances that they could have given on Day One.

            Yes, I know, the rehearsal process is in place for a reason. I am a great believer in the power of rehearsal, and my rehearsal process is massively organized around allowing the students to have time to absorb, create, question, and experience. However, the students who really make it out there after graduating, are the students who arrive on Day One at least 90% prepared. They’ve conquered their scores, they’ve thought about the source material and how it corresponds to and permeates the composer’s choices, they’ve got ideas about how their character moves, and they make lots of choices – from musical ones to physical ones.

            If I could give one piece of advice, it would be for a student to imagine how they want their last performance to be – musically and vocally secure, fearless, confident, connected to text, and collaborative with their colleagues and their artistic team – and then arrive at the first rehearsal as close to those thoughts as possible. Then, and trust me on this, the rehearsal process will be magical and dynamic. I see it happen every production I direct, but usually only with a few singers. Would it be most singers!

You are ultimately your own teacher:
            Teachers and Coaches are not wizards or voodoo priestesses. There’s no magic in a voice studio. Too often students think the answer is outside of themselves. In truth, it is both outside and inside. Research on your own how vocal technique is thought of, taught, and worked on out there in the big wide world. It’s easily found. For instance, attend other studio classes; talk to your teachers and coaches about specifics. Read up on the great 19th century bel canto teachers, their vocalizes, and their treatises. Watch Joyce teach how to do a trill on Youtube. Listen to as many singers as you can. Talk to other students about what they think technique is. Coach with more than one vocal coach. Get information, internalize it, and try it out. Record yourself. Listen to those recordings. Are you making sounds you like? Do these sounds feel good and feel easy? Don’t be passive about your learning process.

Listen to Yoda: Don't Try, DO!
            Why wait to be good? Why wait to be ready? Why wait to perfect a song? Why wait to learn a few more arias? Just go out there and do it!

Opera is operatic. Song literature is not opera. Opera is not Song literature.
             Singing dynamics, as normally understood for a Brahms song, or a Poulenc piece, is much different in opera. Opera is "operatic". It is bigger. It is there to fill a huge house, not a recital hall. It is accompanied by 40 to 100 orchestral players. This means that singing piano or forte is much more about communicating the idea of these dynamics. It is about COLOR. Too often young singers mistake singing softly with singing an under supported vowel/tone that has no consonants attached to it that are audible. Too often loud singing is pushing. Neither of these ideas is helpful.
              Remember: "Subtlety begins when one can both be heard and understood!" - PJH

Courage takes conviction:
            Singing is one of the most remarkable human activities! Like other remarkable endeavours - diving, speed skating, flying an airplane, being an astronaut, one must have both courage, and an intention to try. To attempt, endeavor, strive, aim, struggle, to take a crack at something… This intention takes courage, make no mistake; sometimes a great deal of courage. Young singers are too often told to be careful, lest they might fail. Poppycock! Fail. Fail brilliantly! This takes a conviction of mind, it takes a kind of fervor and passion to boldly go where you’ve never gone before. Take yourself out of your comfort zone and see where you land.

Speaking of Comfort Zones:
            Art isn’t easy, as our dear patron saint of musical theatre brilliantly wrote. Art is not always a luscious blanket under which we cuddle with a glass of red wine in front of a roaring fire. Art is sometimes quite cold. Art sometimes seems like it wants to stab at the living essence that is our humanity. Art is a struggle. Art is difficult. Over the last few years, I've noticed an interesting trend: young singers saying "I don't think that will work because…" or "I don't think that can work because…" or my favourite “I’m just not comfortable…” before ever trying whatever has been asked (or only trying it once and after failing, deciding that it won't work.) I used to never hear those phrases. Nowadays, when I ask a young singer to try something outrageous like stand up while singing, I get questionable looks or even the “Seriously?!” comments. Of course, there are dozens and dozens of exceptions here! Again, the young singers who seem to have the most success post-graduation are the ones who’ll kneel while taking a high A-flat held on a fermata, or the students who’ll flip over on their backs and sing to the rafters without being able to see their conductor, or the students who’ll allow themselves to utterly fail in front of their colleagues while attempting something new.
            There’s safety in numbers, but there’s little room for artistic safety in opera.

Opera is more than what they think; ossia Opera’s Changed, Jo…
            Opera has changed. New operas by Heggie don’t sound like the operas of the last century (Barber, Ward, Floyd, Moore, Menotti, etc.) they sound a bit more like JRB or Sondheim. Certainly Ching’s Speed Dating Tonight! sounds an awful lot like a musical. Does that make it a musical? Is it an opera because it’s called an opera? What about Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd? Lately, it’s being produced more in opera houses than by musical theatre producers, so does that make it an opera? Opera singers are singing these roles as often as musical theatre singers. The genre is changing. The demands on young singers is changing. Now, in addition to having baroque opera arias, Mozart and bel canto arias, Verismo arias, and 20th century arias, young singers also need musical theatre arias.
            Our audiences no longer discern the difference between operetta, light opera, opera comique, Singspiel, G&S, or musical theatre. If they like live singing, live theatre, often they’ll go see what intrigues them, or what they’ve heard was exciting. Audiences attend opera based on many factors. No longer do we have the subscribed patrons of the ballet, opera, and symphony. It’s all about single ticket buyers, and they buy irregularly.  If one does not acknowledge this, then one is sticking their head in the sand and the career – if one happens at all – will be extremely limited.
It’s a brave new world! Don’t confine yourself into what opera WAS, look ahead and know that the future is a MUCH different place than you might think.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Fall 2015: My Soundtrack

A more personal blog. After shows close (and Opera McGill has just closed THREE operas in the last week and a half), I'm usually in a contemplative mood and spend oodles of time thinking about the past, looking forward to the future. It's avoidance of the present, but still…

I listen to a lot of music, but usually not opera.  At least not while I'm in the car, or commuting, or at home, or out and about. I listen to opera typically only at work or to prepare for upcoming rehearsals.

If you run into me about town, on the metro or commuter train, or even walking about the halls, you'll see my with my earbuds in, connected to my iPhone.  I'm listening to a playlist that hasn't changed much since this spring after getting back from my directing gigs in the states.

It's my soundtrack for 2015 and I just realized there was a theme at work here, truly unbeknownst to me.

My most played songs and why I think I've gravitated to them; here goes…

#1 "Viva la vida" by Coldplay
This song hits me pretty hard. It's the lyrics:
I used to rule the world
See it rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemies eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing "now the old king is dead, long live the king"
One minute I held the key, next the walls were closed on me
I discovered that my castles stand upon pillars of salt, pillars of sand
Coldplay Video
Oh, yes. That's the feeling I've had for a number of months now. I'm feeling a bit out of the loop, feeling that my glory days are starting to sound like those old guys I first worked with in the opera business. "I used to be someone," my ego cries, "but now no one thinks I'm relevant," my internal secret voice-of-worry whispers. So now I sweep the streets I used to own, operatically speaking, while seeing younger, and much more talented, folk running opera companies and young artist programs.

But that's, of course, not quite the truth. There's no need to wear your resume on your tee shirt so that people will know you once actually were someone at some point in time. Yet, I meet so many people who do just that. I am guilty of it, I'm sure. Why do we worry about these sorts of things? Isn't making opera, creating new productions, and mentoring the next generation enough?!

#2 "Beautiful City" from the recent revival of Godspell on Broadway:
Out of the ruins and rubble
Out of the smoke
Out of our night of struggle
Can we see a ray of hope?
One pale thin ray, reaching for the day
We can build a beautiful city
Yes we can, yes we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels, but we can build a city of man.
We may not reach the ending
But we can start
Slowly but surely mending, brick by brick
Heart by heart...
Beautiful City video
This song is all about my emergence, via mindfulness meditation, from a haze of anxiety brought on by the stress of turning 50. I'm older (and I do think a bit wiser). But getting up and out of bed in the morning is harder and harder. Walking around the city seems to take longer. Two glasses of wine seems like four now. My body seems a bit foreign and doesn't respond like it used to. This makes someone like me worry about the future. Worry about death. Will it come quickly? Will it be a slow, painful death? Anxiety rushes in and then madness ensues.

Luckily, I found Vipassana, or Mindfulness, Meditation. And if I have a mantra, it is this song. (I used to play it in the car on my way to mediation, on endless repeat…) Healing takes time, and it is brick by brick. Step by Step. But out of these struggles, out of the darkness, there is light.

And speaking of LIGHT…

#3 "Light" from Next to Normal
We need some light
First of all we need some light
You can't sit here in the dark
And all alone
It's a sorry sight…
The price of love is loss, but still we pay
"Light" from Next To Normal (sing it Aaron!!)
It's time to get out and live; in the light. Just when any of us think our problems are the most important, you realize how lucky you are to live in the world where, for the most part, light and abundance dance all around us!

#4 "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears
Everybody Wants To Rule The World
Welcome to your life!
There's no turning back...
It's my own design
It's my own remorse
Help me to decide
Help me make the most freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts for ever
Everybody Wants to Rule the World

I did, way back in the 80s, expect to rule the world. Didn't happen.

#5 "While You See A Chance" by Steve Winwood
This has been my theme song since high school, and it is at the core of my being:
Steve Winwood
When some cold tomorrow finds you
When some sad old dream reminds you
How the endless road unwinds you
While you see a chance, take it
Find romance, make it
Because it's all on you!

I have made my success not being afraid to take a chance, to do something I had no business doing. Conduct opera? Sure. Direct opera? Sure. Administrate a multi-million dollar budget? Sure. Write a blog? Why not?
Don't wait around my friends, otherwise life just passes you by!

And of course, there's loads and loads of others. I couldn't live without Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Barber, Brahms, or Chopin, but I couldn't get through the day without Sting, Michael Jackson, Prince, Elton John, DMB, or the Doobie Brothers!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Time for Time

A reposting and re-edit of my earliest blogs, but certainly the subject has been on my mind recently!

Time's been on my mind today. Not enough time to get everything done. Not enough time to completely prepare for what awaits during the next 6 months (Little Women, Buoso's Ghost, Elixir of Love, Rodelinda, Gianni Schicchi, Suor Angelica, and a few other huge projects like my libretto adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing having its first public outing in London, England in April.)

Not enough time to take some time off; so many of us feel this way in today's rushed world.

So I thought I'd take the time to blog about TIME.

Time expands, slows down, and speeds up when music is present - either being made or being listened to. We've all experienced this phenomenon, some more than others. I've known for quite some time (pardon that one), that my sense of time was a bit, um, different. At first I was made to feel that my sense of time was extraordinary (my mom wouldn't set the oven timer for cookies, I could just call them done at 9 or 10 or 11 minutes - whatever the recipe called for.) I had a crazy sense of time, almost Vulcan.

Later while I was in college, I was made to feel that my sense of time was deficient. You see, I couldn't keep a steady beat. At all. Really!

I had terrible experiences with others - particularly other students - who made it a point to point this out.  I started to feel a bit incompetent, and then I started to think something was wrong. I realized that other musicians noticed if music was moving forward - they called this "rushing". They also noticed if the beat wasn't steady - I called it "being expressive." Sometimes they made faces when this happened, as if it was either hurting them, or something was smelling kinda bad. I usually perked up because something was happening of interest...

The metronome - an instrument that has nothing to do with music making - clicks inhumanly at regular intervals to make audible the illusion that there is a beat somewhere in time. For years I tried to practice with it, tried to understand how it simply wasn't representing the time that I felt inherent in the phrases of music I was playing. I swore the metronome was dragging or rushing through piece after piece. It didn't matter if it was Bach or Ravel or Mozart or Copland. Time clicked differently in me and in my music.

Now of course, with my almost 51 years of life giving me a bit more insight, it's clear as day that my sense of time is vastly superior to those others out there making music who try to follow the illusion of time, ictus, and especially tempo. Okay, superior sounds a bit - well - superior. Sorry.

Maybe "more evolved" would be a better way of saying it? Except that I think what's gone on in music lately is a devolution of time -- into a non-human, robotic sense of time clicking in even beats that neither speed up or slow down. Perhaps it's the GarageBand software, or the clicktracks on Broadway, or the computerization of music making via Sibelius or Finale. Once a composer puts something on the computer, and it's 4 minutes and 31 seconds long, it ALWAYS is 4 minutes and 31 seconds long (until a human plays it live and messes it up!)

However, Music is Art; and time flows in Art differently than in life. Isn't that part of what draws us to Art? The ebb and flow of time is unique to each great piece of art I've ever worked on - from Chopin's 2nd ballade to Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle.

Art certainly needs its Apollonian construct and structure to exist. It’s the vessel that art lives in – like Time sitting in Space. Art exists at the intersection where things vibrate – the vibration of creativity, the vibration of the string or the voice, the vibration of the emotional energy of an actor, the vibration of light and color on the stage, etc. Vibrations are key to understanding Time and Space and I think this connection to music and music making is vital and needs to be explored.

Time opens up whenever Music happens. Another way to open time (or better yet, allow it to flow freely), requires that one needs to allow for divergent thinking to create possibilities (i.e. works of art) to explore all those great questions posed by composers, scores, libretti, collaborations, singers, pianists, conductors, etc.

Exploration takes time, but leads to Discovery and New Lands and New Horizons. Yet, it is such a vast missing component in today's world of google-the-answer-now and tell-me-how-it's-supposed-to-go.

Take the time to simply explore, next time you've got the chance to make some music or learn some music or listen to music or look at a sculpture.

And throw that metronome away!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


It seemed like a good time to repost this blog -- one of my most viewed.

"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!)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015



A colleague recently suggested that I blog about my history with injuries because, in her words, “it’d be great for others to know that you overcame them so well.”

Well… not so well, if I were to be honest.

Here goes ----

I was about a week into my Masters degree in piano performance at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri – Kansas City when I turned left in front of oncoming traffic that all looked like it was turning left. Sadly, a big pickup truck gunned its way around the turning traffic and ran into my car (luckily no one was sitting in the passenger seat), spun it around 2.5 times and it landed in a heap. Car was totaled, I was shaken, there was broken glass in my hair.

I seemed fine, headache for weeks but I was young and didn’t think anything of it. My body hurt, but people said that it was normal.

At the Conservatory, I had a new piano teacher, Joanne Baker, who was shocked to find out I had never really practiced like a real pianist. She demanded a good six hours a day, and so I set off practicing those hours (three in the morning, two in the afternoon, and one late at night after opera rehearsal.) I was also playing evening rehearsals for the fall opera (double bill of The Medium and Gianni Schicchi). That’s a lot of playing, and for me it was a huge change. (Honestly, never practiced more than a few hours a day, and that was rare.)

My literature wasn’t that demanding, frankly. A Haydn Sonata in C, some Chopin Mazurkas, Copland’s Piano Variations, and reading through some Ravel pieces. But by the time Christmas break rolled around, I was waking up with pain shooting down my right thumb and through the outside of my pinky finger.

Two different specialists said two different things about the same diagnosis: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome of the right wrist. One said 65-75% damage and advised surgery, the other said 75-80% damage and suggested physical therapy, not driving, and not playing. (Years later I discovered I probably had whiplash that went untreated…)

Here's a link about Carpal Tunnel Syndrome:

Dear Mrs. Baker told me “no surgery!” We stopped playing for a semester. I couldn’t fulfill my graduate assistantship playing for the opera either. We worked on my left hand – scales and a short sojourn with the Ravel left hand piano concerto. We also talked about music A LOT, and we talked about listening to music A LOT, and we talked about how to learn music.

She challenged me to learn a piece without playing it, so I did.

I also entered the Conservatory’s Concerto/Aria contest with a concerto I learned without playing it. I’d gone almost three months without playing the piano with both hands. An Eternity! About a week before the contest I tried it all out. My right wrist was not, in anyway, shape, or form, the same. But the pain was gone.  It was weird to play with this foreign right hand. It didn’t move quickly as before. It was stiff and didn’t sing the same way. I was pretty devastated.

But I entered that contest and I won that contest. That summer I also performed another concerto with a chamber orchestra in Kansas City. My fellow students had no notion that anything was different. I did. I still do. I miss those pre-injury days so much.

But life moved forward. It was clear to me that my piano soloist days were pretty much over and I happily graduated with my masters and moved to New York City to begin my opera fellowship at The Juilliard School.  My right hand was obviously good enough for opera!

And life moved forward. I started conducting as well. It was an incredibly fulfilling musical life during the 1990s!

Everything was fine until one night I woke up and my right arm was paralyzed. Not “asleep” mind you, it was DEAD.  I freaked. Once it became alive, there was a lot of pain. The pain wasn’t like before, either. It was also in the neck and in my forearm, and in my hand, my right hand.

This was after the birth of our second son and he was a hearty lad who slept in the same bed as his parents. I was fresh from losing an opera company (see previous blog about my education on treachery), was returning to run the young artist program at Glimmerglass (where I coached everyday from the piano), was running the opera/musical theatre program at Ithaca College (where I conducted the shows as well as coached everyday from the piano), while trying to be a father and husband.  Something had gone wrong.

It wasn’t a regular thing either. I thought that maybe I was sleeping on it wrong. I thought it was my posture. I thought it was stress.

Guess what – it was all of those things, plus that old car wreck injury to my neck back in my masters degree. I saw a great chiropractor and he (along with another PT) diagnosed me with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. (Sounds like something a T-Rex would get, yes?!)

Here's a link about Thoracic Outlet Syndrome:

Posture was key here. I walked around with a yardstick down the back of my pants to keep my spine upright. I had to learn to drive with a LOT less stress (we drive stick shifts in my family…) I had to sleep on my stomach with my arms in positions to open up my collarbone. I went to the gym for the first time.

But the damage seemed done. Plus when I conducted, it was hard for me to get my right hand any higher than my shoulder. Hard to do when conducting opera singers from the orchestra pit.

I persevered in secret. Only my wife really knew the extent, and she was certainly the only one who knew my inner panic. I told a few close friends, but was so fearful that if anyone in the business found out, I could be out of future jobs. Who needs a conductor with a right arm that sometimes can’t move?

And then the phone call came from Stewart Robertson asking for my advice on finding Florida Grand Opera a new Director of Artistic Administration. We talked and the next thing I knew I was being flown down to Miami for an interview. That was a dozen years ago.

But here I am now in 2015 playing in public with my students (most recently a Sondheim program) and getting set to conduct Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore in January. What happened?

I give credit regarding my healing to 1) Nick, my trainer at Ithaca College; 2) my wife for insisting that I sit up and watch my stress levels; 3) a friendly local chiropractor and 4) South Beach!

1)   Nick – I wish I knew his last name. Nick was great. Nick was a tyrant about me being in the gym as much as possible. He asked me at our first meeting “how big do you want to get?” (Of course, I wanted to lose weight, he wanted to know about my biceps I think!) Getting my body in shape really helped right away.
2)   It’s impossible to thank Elizabeth so I won’t. (Thanks honey.)
3)   Chiropractors aren’t for everyone, but for me it was terrific. He got me walking and sitting up, he made me think about my posture at the piano, and he gave me great exercises that I still do today.
4)   South Beach. The Ocean.  I can’t recommend it enough. Floating in the ocean is incredibly healing and therapeutic. There were days that I’d leave the office and drive fifteen minutes to South Beach. I’d walk onto the beach and take my suit and tie off down to my boxers and get into the ocean and float. Then I’d dry off standing on the beach, put my suit and tie back on, and return to the office. I didn’t tell people I was doing this, either. (Another reason to have super short buzzed hair!)

So that’s it, really.

It’s important to remember that life throws you curves. We all get thrown curves. Injuries are serious, for musicians they can be devastating. But the human being is a remarkable creature and healing does take place. With patience and with determination to change your ways, injuries can be managed. Many come back stronger than ever before. I came back different, with a different skill set.

I’m certainly a stronger musician thanks to my time spent away from my instrument, thinking and listening to music instead of playing it only. I’m certainly a VERY different conductor now. I don’t wave my hands unless I need to. Most find it way too economical and rather not all that inspirational. Showing the sound is important, yes; making sure the singers understand where they are in the measure is important; beating time is important; but I’m not into the massive arm waving anymore.

Most importantly, my decision to leave Ithaca College and Glimmerglass Opera was a decision that truly hurt me – it was a very difficult decision and sometimes I regret making it. However, my time at Florida Grand Opera was absolutely integral to my career path. I would not be at Opera McGill, I’m sure, if I had not had the experiences balancing millions of dollars of artistic budgets, being part of the administrating to open downtown Miami’s half billion dollar performing arts center, and casting, scheduling, contracting, coordinating all those wonderful operatic pieces of the puzzle.  I bet I might still be at Ithaca College if I hadn’t woken up that night with a dead arm.

But then I’d not be typing these words, I’d not be living in Ontario, I'd not have turned to directing operas instead of conducting them (something that is tremendously fulfilling!), I’d not be running the best opera program in Canada, and I’d not have gotten to know so many very wonderful students, colleagues, and neighbors here in Montreal and in Canada.

Healing happens!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Secret To (My) Success

Recently, an article made the rounds on Facebook about how creative types succeed (or don't succeed) based on their abilities to network. I agree with much of the article, particularly the sentence about Luck playing an important part of success.

Here's a link to the article:

He references a terrific writer, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, who wrote a book that was pretty influential back in the 90s. I heartily recommend it: "Flow".

Here's the wiki link about Mihaly:

Go ahead, click on those links and read away!

Now that you've read some bits from the above links, we can move forward.

According to Jeff Goins, the author of "The Unfair Truth…", there is a systematic approach for creative types who achieve "success" (let's not even discuss what that word means!)
These steps are:
  1. Individual
  2. Field
  3. Domain
"First, an individual must master her craft in a given domain (art, science, mathematics). Then, this person must offer the creative work to a field of influencers in that domain who are trusted experts. Finally, the gatekeepers decide if the work is worth being accepted as authoritative into the domain."

I see this very clearly when I look back at my "path". Of course there's no PATH out there (I've blogged about that one a few years ago) it just seems like there's a path when one turns around and sees where they've been and how they got to where they are now.

But this Systems Approach is an interesting way of looking at How To Succeed In Creative Fields By Trying. There's some great stuff about needing a network, moving to find a better field, and talking about the idea of 'gatekeepers'. 

Let me explain by using my life as an example. Then, at the end of this blog, I promise to reveal the Secret To My Success!

PJH's "Systems Approach" history -- in an extremely truncated version!

Yes, I mastered my craft pretty early on. I was playing Beethoven sonatas in Jr. High and playing them well (Op. 2 No. 2 is not a sonata that most 13 year olds start out on, considering the leaping left hand 10ths.) I got noticed and found myself playing Chopin Ballades and the big Romantic concertos before I was even in high school. I discovered musical theatre and used my talents for faking dancing and my bass to tenor range (none of it all that great) to get me into school shows as well as community theatre. Because I could tap dance (sort of), I found myself in a community theatre show where I met a guy who was putting together a show in Omaha and they needed a pianist/music director. So at the ripe old age of 17, I got my first pro job as an MD for the "musical" Trouble in Tahiti. It was the perfect operatic start -- Bernstein courtesy of my musical theatre network (and my tap shoes!)

I offered my "artistry" to many trusted experts, from local stage directors wanting to take me out to bars with names like "Neon Goose" in Omaha's Old Market when I was barely 16 (welcome to the world of theatre…), to  Drake University piano professors who thought I was too distracted by musical theatre to be a "serious" pianist, to my teacher at Simpson College, Robert Larsen who opened up a literal whole new world for me at Des Moines Metro Opera during my first years as a wannabe opera coach. One person in this new operatic field was the DMMO apprentice program director, Stewart Robertson (who later became my boss at Glimmerglass and Florida Grand Opera.) My "Field" opened up considerably when I moved to NYC to accept a fellowship at the Juilliard School's Opera Center. All of a sudden I was playing for Marlena Malas' best students (including Troyanos on occasion), and playing repertoire I'd never gotten my hands on in Indianola, Iowa or Kansas City, Missouri. Seemingly overnight, I found myself playing on the Met stage (Levine in the house) for a soprano whose audition repertoire that day included arias from Lulu and Die Walküre. WHAT?! SERIOUSLY?! And on an upright piano, no less!

My Field had become the Opera World.

There were many mini-gatekeepers along the way who helped me move forward and opened doors. (Actually, I ran into many who thought they were THE Operatic Gate Keepers but I quickly was able to steer clear of their egos for the most part.) But there were three exceedingly important Gatekeepers in my life, two who intersected one day in line for coffee and the third I met because of the second Gatekeeper.

Yes, my success was really about standing in line for coffee in NYC with one Gatekeeper as he ran into an old friend, the other Gatekeeper. It is called LUCK. Here's the story (I wish I could animate it like the story of the three brothers in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows"!):

It happened in my second semester at Juilliard -- Luckily, I was assigned to play rehearsals for a 20th century scenes program that was being presented by The Juilliard Opera Center during my first year as an Opera Fellow. The director was the legendary Frank Corsaro and the conductor was a rising young American, Hal France. Hal was, at the time, the husband of the amazing soprano Sylvia McNair and he'd later go on to be the artistic director for Opera Omaha. But for me, back then, he was what I wanted to be: an opera conductor. Yet I really had no idea how to go about becoming one. I had practiced the literature for the program and it was HARD SHIT. Berg, Stravinsky, Floyd, Walton, Bernstein, and some others. Maestro France seemed impressed, but he was there to coach the singers before stagings began and that was his focus. We were up in his Julliard apartment waiting for a singer to show and, as LUCK would have it, the singer didn't show. Hal finally said, "Do you want to go get a coffee or something?" I said, "Sure, would you like me to bring back something for you?" (I didn't even think he would go with little old me) and he retorted with "No, let's both go and we can talk about you."

Really? Talk about me? What was going on here?

You see, back in 1992 we didn't have "mentors", nor did we even describe our mentors as "mentors". That just wasn't in the vocabulary really. I was hoping to just not get fired, let alone find a "mentor" who could offer advice.

So off we went. We walked into some place across from Juilliard (no Starbucks in NYC then) and waited in a long line. 

Lady Luck smiled that day…

The guy in front of us heard Hal and I talking and he turned around and said "Hal?" and Hal said "Donald? What are you doing here?" and then Donald said "I'm auditioning pianists" and Hal said "You should hire this kid." Yes, that's a true story!

Long story short, Donald did hire me. He hired me based on Hal France's recommendation that happened in line in a coffee shop because a singer had forgotten to come to a coaching that I was playing because I was pretty good (frankly, fucking brilliant) at playing 20th century scores because I had no fear of opera because I had gone to Simpson where a great man, Dr. Larsen, had taught me that opera was something to never be afraid of, and that I met Dr. Larsen because a friend of mine in High School had gone to the Simpson College summer music camp and recommended it to me because she and I had studied with the same wonderful piano teacher in the 70s and 80s in Council Bluffs, Iowa (Berneil Hanson) because I had lost my first teacher when she and her husband moved out of the state.

If that first piano teacher hadn't moved out of town, I would not be typing these words now.

So Hal France was the first Gate Keeper.

The 2nd was the freaking god of all opera gods: Donald Palumbo!

You see, I had no idea who "Donald" was at the time I was standing in line waiting for coffee with Hal. In fact, while he asked me questions, I kept thinking "who is this guy, and what job am I up for, and how embarrassing it was for me that I had NO CLUE!"

In case you might not know who I'm talking about, here's a great NYTimes article:
NYTimes on Donald Palumbo

So my first big gig after leaving the midwest and getting to The Juilliard School (one has to capitalize the "T" in "The" when one speaks of The Juilliard School, fyi) was at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Lucky Dog!

I played 15 operas under Donald Palumbo, who at the time was the chorus master for the Lyric Opera of Chicago (now he's working his magic at the Met.) Cosi, Wozzeck, Trovatore, Traviata, Boheme, Le Cid, Susannah, Don Quichotte, Tosca and others.  From Maestro Palumbo I learned that it was possible to be the pickiest musician alive and still get astounding results. I learned that if my ass wasn't on the piano bench 15 minutes before rehearsals began, I'd be fired. I learned that I would have to start at "Rehearsal 1" a thousand billion times in one night because the men couldn't get their first entrance in act one of Traviata to an acceptable level. I learned that there was no such thing as good enough. I learned that you had to insist on perfection in order to gain access to perfection's universe. I learned how the Boheme chorus goes, every last syllable of it. I learned how to redistribute choral lines in Tosca the way Toscanini did because that's the way Palumbo's mentor, the La Scala chorus master Roberto Benaglio, did things. I learned that the art of being a great operatic chorus master was a rare art and that Palumbo was the Michelangelo of opera chorus masters.  

But boy did he scare the shit out of me every single rehearsal that first summer. During the first month of rehearsal, I would wander home at night and my wife (we'd been married 6 months by that time) would ask "how'd it go" and I'd say something like "I missed a few notes in the Tosca and Maestro gave me the look of death but the Verdi went better, only a dozen or so notes missed". Later, I started to focus on what he was hearing, how he'd react, how he was fixing things or drilling certain sections, and I'd think to myself "he's going to stop for this". And guess what, slowly and surely, I was there. I was understanding his process and his expectations. His ears were simply the best in the business!

I learned so very much from Maestro Palumbo, and I'm certainly indebted to him for not firing me, and for rehiring me for the next season of rehearsals because that's how I met my 3rd Gate Keeper.

In the middle of June I think, Maestro Palumbo turned to me at the end of a rehearsal and spoke to me. I was stunned. He didn't really speak all that much to me, in a direct way, about anything other than "2 before rehearsal 45" or the occasional "don't drag". Come to find out, he'd recommended me for an assistant chorus master position at Pittsburgh Opera. Really? I practically cried on the L going home that night. I was elated. I had been recommended by my operatic god! For a job!

SO --- I prepared my audition (Storm scene from Otello, Komponist from Ariadne -- no problem there, it was my party piece as I sang it up the octave in my best dramatic counter tenor voice, "Salut!" aria from Faust, and the opening of Rigoletto and probably Carmen quintet) and was flown to Pittsburgh one fateful July 4th weekend. The audition was an awful experience. A dour chorus master who did not appreciate my fabulous high Bflat at the end of Komponist said "please play it again and sing down the octave" with a face that said "please die and leave my space".  I had knocked that Strauss outa the park, thank you very much.

I didn't get the job, but I had met Tito Capobianco and a few others there, and somehow I'd made an impression (in my youth, I was rather charming.) Side note: Three years later I was hired by Pittsburgh, probably because of that impression. Anyway, I was back at Chicago and my contract was coming to an end. It was August and it was hot in the city. My time at Juilliard was at an end and so I was looking at trying to struggle through being a freelance pianist in Chicago. Not. An. Easy. Thing. To. Do. In 1993…

Just as I was contemplating looking for a real job selling watches, I got a phone call from the third Gate Keeper. It was Michael Ching.

Michael had been up at Pittsburgh Opera doing an onsite evaluation and so had known that Pittsburgh had just pulled in a few young guns to audition for their assistant chorus master position. Michael called up Tito at Pittsburgh because he was looking for a rehearsal pianist in Memphis and asked him who his second choice was. They gave him my name.

Michael is the third Gate Keeper because he opened up a whole new section of the operatic world for me. Michael gave me my professional conducting debut (a matinee of Gretry's Zemire et Azor,) He got me my job as Resident Conductor for Ash Lawn Summer Festival, where I conducted 36 performances of 4 operas and 2 musicals in just six weeks during my two seasons. Later -- years later -- he would hire me back to direct an Orpheo in Memphis and then yet later -- a few more years later -- recommend me to David Hamilton (Fargo Opera) who was looking for a stage director for Fidelio (FIDELIO! I GOT TO DIRECT FIDELIO!) But more importantly, vastly, he reconnected my operatic DNA to my musical theatre DNA and allowed me to realize how I had ignored my musical theatre background while pursuing classical music. This ultimately led me to Ithaca College, btw.

Oh -- Michael's second in command was the operatic prodigy Karen Tiller. We were put together as the artistic team for Opera Memphis' The Turn of the Screw and loved working together. Later Karen would hire me to be the Music Director for the Opera Festival of New Jersey for which she was the general director at the ripe old age of 16. Okay, maybe not 16, she was in her 20s I bet. 

In New Jersey I got to conduct Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. BLUEBEARD'S FREAKING CASTLE!! My favourite one act of all time! In Hungarian! With the players of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia! And did I get a good review? I got a freaking awesome review from a Pulitzer prize-winning critic that used the phrase "pyschosexual angst" in a sentence talking about my conducting! 

And, in New Jersey I learned about treachery first hand; but that's not part of this blog, that'll be part of my book.

BUT back to the present day -- Here we are now in 2015, I'm living in Ontario, Canada, still teaching at McGill and still freelancing down in the states. After years at Ithaca College and lots of summers at Brevard and a few daring, daunting years at Florida Grand Opera, I'm returning to conducting this January. It'll happen at the end of January, 2016 -- Opera McGill's production of L'elisir d'amore in Pollack Hall. I'll be sure to blog about that process, and it's being webcast in HD so anyone reading this blog can watch it.

So, as promised -- the Secret To My Success!

We have to go way back to the summer of 1984. There I was, pouring a gin and tonic for the director of the DMMO apprentice program, Stewart Robertson. I was at DMMO because of LUCK. I got the job this way -- I was playing a voice lesson for a student of Doug Duncan, DMMO's general director, and he said something like "you wear nice clothes, how would you like to work at my opera company?" "Um… sure… I guess…"

So I was a house staff member for DMMO that summer (hearing my first Nozze, Dialogues des Caremlites, and AIDA!) answering phones, sharpening pencils for bitchy NY coaches, taking notes at Dr Larsen's feet during orchestra rehearsals, moving xerox machines and pianos on and off trucks, and tending the bar in the lobby of the theatre. But I also tended bar for private receptions and I found myself speaking with the wondrous Stewart Robertson.

Back to Stewart and his Gin and Tonic -- Stewart, in his very dashing Scottish brogue asked me if I was a student at Simpson. I said "yes." He asked if I was a singer. I said "no, not really, although I do sing, I'm a pianist." Then we talked a bit, I don't remember anything specific. I do remember saying to him something about how I loved playing Trouble in Tahiti in high school and how I loved playing Hansel and Gretel my Freshmen year but that there were too many notes and how frustrating piano reductions were. I was desperately trying to say something that was impressive.

Stewart's a nice guy, but he had people to see. So he ended our little talk with this nugget: He leaned in and said "Next time, don't try to play all the notes; just be careful to choose which notes to leave out." And he turned and walked away. There should have been mist. He disappeared into the mist. I sort of remember the moment with mist...

That's the secret. Don't try to play all the notes.

I've left out hundreds of thousands, if not millions of notes over the years. There's simply no way to play them all. That's been my secret.

But I'm not just talking about notes on the piano, or notes in an operatic score. There are other notes.

These notes are all around you. They are distractions to learning your craft. They are ugly people in your face saying ugly things to you or about you. They are your inner demons keeping you from focusing on your dreams. They are also your family, the people who love you, the people you love. They are the wonder of the world and its beauty. These notes connect us all to the past and give life to the present. They speak to the future as well - where we might go, what we might become. It is so important to remember that they are not all equal, these notes. 

Let some of them go. Forget about them, just as your right hand forgets about playing all of the octaves in a Verdi cabaletta. Let the bad notes go, for sure, because they don't belong in your opera anyway. Embrace the notes that give you purpose, that give you strength, harmony, and a backbone of rhythmic drive to get things done. 

Learn as many notes as you can, but know that you will not learn all of the notes. It is impossible. Even our operatic idols dropped a few, or more likely a million. Absolutely.

So go out and work on your CRAFT as an INDIVIDUAL. Then go out and share that art with others in your FIELD. Gravitate to those who are positive influences and those who help others become successful, or at least help them along the way. When you get to a Gate, say YES and know that you are ready to move forward.

And most importantly, don't forget to help as many others as you can. 

But most of all, learn to pour a really good Gin and Tonic. Be generous with the Gin, make sure the tonic is fresh, not too much ice, and the lime: juicy. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Auditions Auditions Auditions Auditions !!!!


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

Audition application season coupled with beginning of school year auditions!

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

Life was simpler ten to fifteen years ago. Really.

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

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

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

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

But I don't think anyone will listen to my sage advice, so I'll put down my thoughts on AUDITIONS that I post most every fall, albeit with some modifications for 2018.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And learn an aria or two...

Best of luck to all of you out there!