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Monday, April 27, 2015

Judging a Book by its Cover

A few personal stories about book covers:

Back in 2001, about a week or so after conducting Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Dallapiccola's  Il Prigioniero in Princeton, I found myself in Galesburg, Illinois working with my father-in-law who was ripping up a high school gym floor in preparation for laying a new basketball court.  It was an un-airconditioned gym and it was August. Hot and humid doesn't really even begin to describe the air.

Dressed in work boots, jeans, an "Opera Festival of New Jersey" baseball cap, and a white tee shirt now dirtied from sweat and the remnants of the floor I was sweeping up with not much success (the piles just seemed to reform every time I moved into a new section...) I was pretty miserable. I remember thinking at the time that even though I had just received some of the best reviews of my conducting career from the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, here I was getting callouses on my hands, smelling pretty rank, yet looking forward to downing at least a couple of ice cold beers once I got home.

I wasn't working for the money, I was really there to assist my father-in-law. During his work years he was one of just a few guys who knew how to "cut in" a basketball court by hand. If you know what that means, then you'll be impressed. If you don't, just know that you should be impressed.  He was also one of the hardest working people I'd ever met, the opposite of lazy.  Certainly when we talk about opera and how we "work" hard at it, there isn't really a comparison when someone like my father-in-law talks about "work".  My wife and I had left New Jersey and driven to Burlington, Iowa to spend time with family. It was her idea for me to offer to help out, so I reluctantly did thinking it'd be a good change from all that Hungarian opera swirling around my head.

My wife was happily back at her parent's home with our first son, who was barely two years old. We were trying for another, to be honest, and there is something to be said for manual labor making you feel like a potential progenitor, especially after downing an ice cold beer on a hot summer's afternoon. Perhaps that's just too much information...

This is an opera blog, I promise!

Anyway, I was busy sweeping the floor, getting dust and crap all over me, sweating in the 100+ degrees of heat when a woman walked into the gym to see how we were progressing with the job (I think she was the principal.) Before she got to speak to my father-in-law, she saw my baseball cap and a funny smile came upon her face. "You a fan?" she said to me. I had no idea what the hell she was talking about, so I think an unintelligible "huh?" escaped my lips. Looking at me with some sort of sad pity for my inability to articulate an answer, she spoke to me again - in a very slow tempo: "You. Like. The. Opera?!" And she smiled and pointed to my cap.

"Oh," the maestro confusedly said because his brain was melting in the heat and humidity, "yeah, I..." and then my father-in-law spoke up and said "he conducts opera!"

Silence and Wonder. Her smile faded as I took my baseball cap off (I was raised to take my hat off in the presence of a lady and she seemed like the type who'd appreciate the gesture) and said "Hi there, I'm the son-in-law" and held out my amazingly dirty hand, which she didn't shake because she was very confused.

"Really? Wow!" she literally exclaimed. And then she said something I'll never forget: "Judging by your appearance, I can't imagine that to be true."

Well, I was standing before her not looking like I'd looked when Martin Bernheimer of the Times (Financial, of course) wrote his thoughts about me: "He made much of Dallapiccola’s aching examination of torture by false hope, even more of Bartok’s epic essay in psychosexual angst.” (Truly, how many conductors get such a cool review using the word "psychosexual"?!) There I was the opposite of an artistic, flamboyant, tuxedoed opera maestro. In fact, I had visited the local barber upon arrival in Iowa and gotten my favorite summer haircut, a very severe high and tight flattop. This principal was looking at me with eyes that couldn't imagine me as a classical conductor. She said something about how the gym was progressing, gave me another quizzical look, and turned around. I guess the cover of my book was way too blue collar for her to imagine me in front of an orchestra and opera singers waving a baton.

I thought about this on the ride home, and I've thought about it quite often over the years -- why and how do so many people think there's a "look" to a conductor, or to an artist, or to us classical musicians in general? So often the only time they see us is when we are in gowns and tuxedos; all dressed up in 19th century finery for people who now attend the theatre in jeans, work boots, a tee shirt, and baseball caps. I've seen them. Our audiences' idea of dressing for attending a concert, recital, or opera has completely changed from even my time at The Juilliard School in the early 90s. Why haven't WE changed? Why don't we dress like our audience, for indeed that's why men wore tuxedos to play in the symphony -- because the men in the audience were dressed in tuxedos as well.  I purposefully broke from tradition by not forming a "look" that said Maestro with a capital "M". I found it all way too pretentious, and I was much more comfortable in a, for lack of a better phrase, working man's skin. Sadly, though, I wonder how many people cultivate a look or a persona that turns them into something that they can't own, or something they really can't identify with honestly. I suppose the same is true, to a lesser extent, in academia.

Just a thought.

Here's another:
The cover of the book entitled: "Sweeney Todd" says it's a musical. Yet can we just pause for a moment and think about the Sweeney productions being put on this year alone by opera companies? Here's a short list: Vancouver Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Hawaii Opera Theatre, Virginia Opera, Eugene Opera, and I'm sure I've missed a few! Yet lots of opera lovers won't call it an opera because it's not called an opera. How many of them call Die Zauberflöte an opera by mistake? Or Carmen? Or any of those wonderful operettas that people think are operas? In my book, any story told through music and singing is basically an opera, unless there's tap dancing; then it's a musical. Thinking this way makes the delineation pretty easy: Street Scene is a musical and A Little Night Music is an opera.  I tire of the ceaseless, petty discussions about what is what and which is which, to be honest. If it works in a theatre, sells tickets, and can be sung then I think it doesn't matter in the least. It's a new day kids, better get on this boat cause it's already sailed!

Here's another:
The cover of my face: Celebrating my 50th year of life, I decided to stop shaving and grow a beard from November 21, 2014 to November 21, 2015. This journey is referred to as a "yeard" by pogonophiles (beard lovers). I can not even begin to tell you how this has changed my life. It's not like I've never grown a beard or facial hair before. Just take a look at some of the pics on the right hand side of this blog and you'll see a number of different looks. I've blogged about them, actually. I think in today's world the perception of who you are is much stronger and more "real" than the reality of who you actually are.

When I'm out and about now wearing my sunglasses, jeans, and flannel shirts, I look like a hipster from Brooklyn. I know this, yet I'm in no way trying to emulate them. I actually resent the fact that I've come upon the glory that is bearding at the same time a whole bunch of skinny-jean wearing ironic hipster models have taken to marketing leather briefcases that cost thousands of dollars. I don't look like those models, though, cause I'm fat in comparison and my beard is rather white. I bring this up because strangers really assume things about me because of how I look. I've gotten so many questions about cars, about where to find a good tattoo artist (I have no ink cause I'm scared it'd get infected!), about where to buy drugs (a few have even asked me if I had any on me!), and the list goes on. I get asked if they can touch my beard (um, no), and on the flip side, I get lots and lots of compliments, free coffees, and a few free beers bought for me by total strangers telling me they "loved my stache" or some sort of compliment.

It's really cool to walk around at my age and feel completely new again. My face is very different with this beard and sometimes even I don't recognize myself in the mirror in the morning. I like this evolution to big grey-bearded guy whose age is hard to pin down now, but it's not who I am. I'm also the clean-shaven preppy frat boy, and the handlebar moustache dandy, and the bald by a razor dude who loves the shock value of a shaved head and an all black wardrobe. Come to think of it, how could I ever get a tattoo? It's permanent and that's one thing I'm not.

This playing around with my outward appearance goes hand-in-hand with my ever changing operatic career. Most of you will change careers, I certainly have. From pianist to coach to conductor to administrator to director, my career path makes total sense to me. I hate it when people box me in, or define me as just one or two of those bits. I'm all of those bits, and so are so many of us in the arts! Yet why is it important to define a young singer as this or that type of voice? Why is it important to tell a young musician to specialize in this or that type of music? Who are we to tell others what they are? Simply because you see me now with a big white beard doesn't mean that's who I am. Simply because I direct more operas than conduct them doesn't mean I'm one or the other, or that I should do one over the other.

A final example:
A wise old singer once told a master class gathering to remember that the singing heard that day was "just a snapshot" of the present moment. No matter how they might sing, it was just a snapshot, a representation of who they were right at that moment. If they were incredible, they might not be again, if they cracked on a high note it might not ever happen again. Their future was unwritten and they should take the comments given as something for the present. It was terrific advice! I give the same advice as often as I can when a singer is frustrated or feeling like they are lacking something technically. Imagine if you just decided however you were performing right now was your book? Would you print it and make copies? What would the cover read? I think it's not only important to NOT judge a book by its cover, but not print out our books as if they are fixed in ink on paper. Our lives, our artistry, our craft and technique are always evolving, always moving dynamically in so many directions. Try not to limit yourself by trying to define yourself so that you can fix your "self" in time and space (so that then you can judge yourself!)  The path to happiness and success is in another direction, in my humble opinion.

So this has turned into a longish blog, and a bit personal. I guess what's going through my brain right now is more about the future than the past. Where to go now? What new challenges might be ahead? How will opera's present trends move forward and create a future that my students and colleagues can be celebrated in and be successful in as well?

Too many great books out there, try not to just pick up the ones with covers that make you feel comfortable, or make you feel smart. Pick up the ones that make you crazy, confused, and especially the ones that challenge you to rethink the world you live or work in.

That'll keep you young, and that'll keep you from boxing yourself into a box of your own creation!