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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Married for 25 Years?!

Where has time gone?

My wife, Elizabeth, and I are getting ready to celebrate our 25th Wedding Anniversary. She and I both think it's crazy that 25 years has passed by in what seems like a handful of years.

We had had a crazy time leading up to our wedding.

Beyond the seven year dating that led up to our nuptials - which included a few big break ups, long distance bills totalling in the thousands of dollars, multiple cities, and four college degrees - we decided to finally tie the knot mostly because she had "found the dress" while visiting Iowa during the summer of 1991. I was suffering in an internship position in the upper MidWest while waiting to move to New York City to join my on again girlfriend. Elizabeth called me up one day and asked me to marry her. Over the phone. It went like "So, I found the dress..." pause "And..." pause "I think we should get married."So Romantic.

You see, I had asked her to marry me two summers previous, on a very Romantic afternoon on a mountain in Colorado, with a ring and all. She had said yes, but then a year later we were breaking our engagement. Long story. Let's just say it's hard to commit to each other during seven years when you had only been together about 12 months total during those seven years...

But we decided it was now or never! We were going to get married or risk losing each other all over again.

So the plan was for me to move to NYC to start my fellowship at the Juilliard Opera Center (joining Elizabeth who was already a member of the JOC), live "in sin" (as it used to be called) and then get married a few months later. Simple. However, a few too many operatic events tried to prevent that plan from being implemented. First off, the same weekend I moved to NYC, Elizabeth flew to Chicago to audition on the stage for the Lyric Opera of Chicago's young artist program. She signed a 12 month contract with LOC that weekend which began two weeks after our planned December wedding. Oops.

Then she was cast as Vanessa in Barber's Vanessa at Juilliard. It hadn't been performed in NYC since its premiere with Steber and Elias, so everyone came to the performances (two weeks before our wedding, yikes) including the NYTimes (great review), Carol Vaness (rumoured to be among the cast of a never-happened Vanessa at the Met), and many others. In the cast was a young Jay Hunter Morris as Anatol, Jane Gilbert as Erika, and Carlos Conde as the Doctor. Richard Bradshaw conducted and it was directed by Ed Berkeley. Wow. Then just to make things really interesting, two weeks leading up to the premiere, my Dad had a major heart attack (but managed to recuperate and be at our wedding less than 4 weeks later.) Crazy month, eh?!

The night in question, December 28, 1991, was a cold, extremely typical, winter's evening in Burlington, Iowa. We chose the Saturday between Christmas and the New Year in order to accommodate our friends and family who, we'd hoped, were free that week. Outside of disappointing my parents, as their wedding anniversary was December 26th ("Why not just get married Thursday?" my mother would whine during the preceding months), the date was perfect because Bethany Lutheran Church was decorated to the nth degree with Christmas poinsettias, a lovely tree, and that holiday "air".

So many friends came, our relatives (my family: small, hers: ginormous), and our wedding party looked marvellous, from Maid of Honor Lisa to Best Man Rusty and all the rest. We did a very traditional wedding, complete with communion (in order to garner more time for more music), a church reception with requisite punch and the big white cake. The evening, though, ended in a totally unique family potluck party graciously hosted by one of Elizabeth's cousins. A keg was donated and the DJ was also a cousin. Lots of dancing into the wee hours. We honeymooned at a local Bed and Breakfast for two nights.

We could not have had a more perfect wedding, really. The music was provided by a bunch of our friends from Simpson College singing many favourite madrigals and Christmas Carols. The most memorable one was a totally unique rendition of "Good King W" that had to be heard to be believed! Anne Larson, our voice teacher extraordinaire from Simpson, sang our favourite Sven Lekberg song (look him up - amazing art song and choral composer!) and blew everyone away with her voice and musicality. We wish we had a video of her singing (we could barely afford the photographer).

Speaking of afford - the wedding was really "given" to us by so many others - our parents, yes - but more so by our musician friends, Elizabeth's two amazing cousins who provided the reception space and all of the flowers as their wedding gift, and all of the family that brought food to the second reception. We were unbelievably poor and were getting ready to embark on the next few months with practically no money in our pockets, living in two separate cities (Chicago and NYC). What were we thinking? In fact, we drove home from Iowa to NYC and then a week or so later back to Chicago on the cash we'd made during those many dances at the reception where people would put dollar bills in our wedding finery.

I remember thinking we had it all. We didn't need money, we had each other, we had our futures.

Those futures, at the time, seemed boundless. Elizabeth was at the height of her success as a young artist, going from Santa Fe to Juilliard to Chicago in only a few years. I had finished my masters in KC and had gotten the JOC fellowship, spending the fall playing for Marlena Malas, Frank Corsaro, Nico Castel, and making my collaborative pianist debut at Alice Tully Hall. All was well. I foresaw many years living in NYC, getting onto either the Met or NYCO music staff and just, well, succeeding.

But that was not to happen as I envisioned. A year later, I was on tour with Opera Iowa and getting ready to start my own contract at the Lyric playing for Maestro Palumbo. Elizabeth and I never returned to NYC, except to visit or for auditions. Our careers happened far and away from that city.

Which was totally okay, in the end. I think that it's important to go with the flow, go with what doors open, but especially to not have regrets in life. First off, if you're a fan of the movie About Time, going back to change something in your past typically changes the rest of your life and why in the world would I want to do that?!

So years later, twenty-five in fact, I sit in Alexandria, Ontario typing these words in front of a roaring fireplace as an ice storm rages outside. My wife is listening to "Time after Time" from the movie soundtrack from Julie and Julia sung by Margaret Whiting (it occurs at the end of the movie as Julia finally gets her published cookbook delivered). It's an apt song for us:

"Time after time
I tell myself that I'm
So lucky to be loving you
So lucky to be
The one you run to see
In the evening, when the day is through
I only know what I know
The passing years will show
You've kept my love so young, so new
And time after time
You'll hear me say that I'm
So lucky to be loving you."

Here's a link in case you'd like to listen to her sing it:
Time After Time

My wife and I are a team, something many still don't quite get even after I've blogged about it for years now. She is my muse, my harshest critic, my heartiest fan. Her voice sits in my head whenever I coach Mozart or Puccini or Barber or Schumann or Handel or, let's just admit it, any kind of music. We both come from the same place: southern Iowa (I'm Missouri River coast, she's Mississippi River coast) and that gives us a massive commonality that is our glue. We also have mirrored talents - she's a great singer who could play and I'm a great pianist who could sing; she can teach belting equally with the more refined classical style and I move in and out of opera and musicals with a great deal of ease. She was an amazing actress onstage and I direct my operas thinking that she's playing all the parts (male and female). She is the butter to my bread, and the breath to my life (to quote Julia Child.)

So we sit comfortably together in our living room, and it is now December 26, 2016.

Twenty-five years later. No party plans. No big trip. We want to spend our time together with our sons while they are still at home and so have decided to spend the evening together, maybe go out. We will play it by ear.

If anyone out there is lucky enough to know what it's like to spend 25 years together as a married couple, I tip my hat to you. Looking back, it seems like it was an inevitable journey that I can't imagine making with anyone else.

Here's to 25 more!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Music Is Not The Music

The Music Is Not The Music?!

My wondrous piano teacher at the Conservatory of Music at University of Missouri - Kansas City, Joanne Baker, taught me many things. Chief among them was to disregard musical scores while playing them.


Yes. You see, all of her students played their pieces from memory during their lessons. All the time. From the very first lesson. No opening up a Beethoven Sonatas book to Op. 109, placing it on the piano, glancing at it to see the key signature (E major) and perhaps to gather your thoughts before entering into Beethoven’s world via the keyboard and your ten fingers. For Jo-Jo (my pet name for her that I shared with only a few other students), learning “the music” happened before the piano lesson. The point of the lesson was to make something OF the musical score, which she would place onto her music stand, coloured pencils in hand, ready to make her markings (all lovingly dated, which now are a sort of nostalgic trip — on November 20, 1990 I neglected Brahms’ bass lines and kept missing the same notes in the same passages, all the while earning exclamation points here and there…)

Initially, this process was maddening. Then one day we had a conversation about it. Jo-Jo lived before hashtags and memes, but if I could put a tag on that conversation (and practically any other interaction with her) it would be: Jo-Jo Convo = Mind Blown.

This insistence on memorization from Day One annoyed me during my first semester studying in her studio. I spent my days ingesting musical scores as quickly as possible so I’d have something to work on in our lessons, at the expense, I strongly felt, of the musical score’s details. A typical lesson might move along the lines of Me playing a movement of a sonata by Haydn, then Jo-Jo would hobble over to the second piano in her studio (she walked with a cane but was incredibly agile for her age) and sit down. She’d say something along the lines of “so, you played the first motive like this”, then she’d play it exactly how I had played it. Pause. Then she’d look at me and say, “is that how you meant to play it?”. Then she’d smile, sweetly. Like a cat playing with a mouse. “Well”, I’d say, “I guess.” Then she’d say something along the lines of, “well, is that what Haydn wrote?”, and smile sweetly again. Ugh. This was EXHAUSTING.

But this was an invaluable process. It taught me to memorize the SCORE, not just the notes. We had to know — as soon as we knew the notes — when the crescendo started, if there were dots or carrots over notes, if there were slurs tossed in. We also had to know if they were editor markings or composer markings. And, ultimately, her process taught me to really, truly listen to how I was playing the piano and the music, instead of looking into a score to see the notes and markings and be distracted visually. For you see, to really be able to transport our listeners into the worlds created by those geniuses, we need to really concentrate on everything BUT the black dots on the white pages. So why practice doing exactly that during our once a week lessons, and THEN at some point in the future have it “memorized”?

Why indeed. But that didn’t stop me from asking her about it. She had a few things to say in response to me questioning her process. Three of those ideas really stuck with me. I don’t have what she said verbatim in my mind anymore, as I’ve morphed her ideas into my own. The following is my attempt to write about these three notions as I remember them, (the final one being the MIND BLOWN one, fyi.)

Where The Eyes and Ears Meet
Sitting at the piano while playing through any score, causes your head to be up and looking at the music in front of you. Not necessarily conducive to listening. In fact, if the brain is focused on looking at those thousands of notes and the hundreds of musical markings in something like a Chopin Ballade, can the brain also really be focused on listening to those notes and remembering all those markings? Researchers tell us that humans actually can’t multitask. Jo-Jo insisted this to be true as well. She wanted us focused on every sound that was being created by our ten fingers, our wrists and arms, our feet on the pedals, and how our inherent musicality and our intellectual choices influenced those sounds. When one focuses just on sound, without the distraction of the information passing through our eyes and visual cortex, there is a whole other level achieved. Why not practice this way all the time to prepare for your eventual performance of it? I’ve written extensively about “seeing with your ears and hearing with your eyes.” This is where that concept initially came from.

Knowledge Is Memory
How can we just play through a score over and over and over and over and over and over (you can only really get this picture if you’ve practiced the piano for tens of thousands of hours) without trying to actually learn the score. It is so easy to just “play” through a piece, thinking you are practicing it. Yes, there are hard sections that get practiced - big octave passages, fast sections, double trills - and easy sections that are just so pleasant to practice, but all too often pianists are playing through a score without actually committing its details to memory until they actually have to do so. To memorize a piece, from the very first moment, the very first note, is a whole different ball game. I learned to memorize instantaneously, measure by measure. Once this happened (one day, all of a sudden, it became possible after months of struggling), I was able to learn - really learn - at a crazy fast rate. I learned the entire Brahms F minor sonata in about ten days. Mind you, I was never a diligent practicer either. I brought in the first movement after looking at it the day before the lesson. My fingers knew how to play, I just needed the knowledge residing in those black dots on those white pages to be in my mind. Jo-Jo’s genius was also telling me to do this backwards by starting at the end of a piece and memorizing measures backwards. I still do this today when time is tough. As you move forward into a piece, it’s like you’re following a well-trod path in a forest of millions of trees. The further in you go, the clearer the path. 

The Music (Musical Score) Is Not the Music
Jo-Jo wasn’t all that impressed with Urtext scores, critical editions, or editions by some famous so-and-so. She was more interested in interpreting the scores. She told me that those who looked into scores to find the music were “forever deluding themselves”. She hated correctness for correctness’ sake. Music seemed much more apparent to her, particularly the great masterpieces by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, etc. She didn’t understand how anyone could just play the notes and think they’d done something special. “Anyone can play these notes, but only a few of us can make music out these notes” was something I remember her saying. She compared musical scores to churches. “No one goes into a church thinking that God is the actual church. You walk into a church to discover God.” Then she added, “A musical score is not the music. You enter the structure of the musical score to discover the music, to discover the composer’s intentions, wishes, dreams.” Everyone, in her view, entered a church and saw different things, felt different emotions, and found God in different places and times. The same was true for pianists, we entered into a score to gain knowledge and then we moved beyond it to find the music in the music. That’s why Horowitz and Ax are very different pianists, they aren’t the same people but they went searching for the Truth and then put their version of the Truth onto a stage for others to experience. 

Lessons with Jo-Jo were best kind of lessons. Each was an adventure. An act of Discovery. Like we were sailing uncharted waters in familiar ships to find new lands and peoples, to be dumbfounded at the undiscovered countries waiting for us in the works of the great masters. 

At our last lesson, Jo-Jo smiled at me, took my hands in hers, (I can still see her eyes so clearly in my memory!) and told me, “You make so much music out of so many missed notes. Change that last part and you’ll have something real to share.”

But ironically, I never changed that last part, really, but it's led to my success in opera. 

Working in opera is all about missed notes. Rehearsal pianists have to learn to drop tons of them because they are playing only a ten finger version of a score meant to be played by a 50 piece orchestra. That’s mostly impossible unless you drop a bunch of notes practically every measure. When you coach a singer, you should be focused on what they are doing, not on the notes you are playing. Good coaches know when to play all the notes and when to give outlines of the score, what the singer might actually hear coming up from the pit, for instance. As a conductor, it’s about focusing on moments within the present moment; during any given moment a conductor might be focused on a singer’s breath, cueing a chorus entrance, looking over towards the oboe to see if he’s ready to enter at a tricky point, or collaborating with the concert mistress on a final pianissimo ending to an act while watching her bow. Hundreds of thousands of notes dropped in order to concentrate on just a few notes each and every millisecond.

Joanne Baker is no longer on this Earth. But she lives on in all of her students and their music making. She definitely is present in almost every single coaching and lecture I give or rehearsal I might lead. She was an architect of musical sound and she showed me the secret garden where such a vast and rich array of structures to walk into and find the music resounding off the walls. I’ll never be able to thank her now, but I try to thank her through my work with my students, the music I try to make with others, and in my writings on music. She, along with Robert Larsen (my über-mentor), Berneil Hanson (my first piano teacher in Council Bluffs), and R. H. Fanders (my Humanities teacher at T.J.H.S.), give credence to the adage that sprang from Galileo Galilei’s mind: “You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.”

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Fantastic Opera Beasts and Where To Find Them!

SPOILER ALERT: Please do not read this blog if you are concerned about knowing too many details of the history of the J.K. Rowling wizarding world. (Definite spoilers from the newest film!)

CONTENT WARNING: This blog has ideas and thoughts put together in sentences. You know, like any other piece of writing…

“I solemnly swear I am up to no good!”

I read those words over a decade ago and loved them, for it sounded like my personal mantra that I’d been secretly saying to myself my entire life!

The title of this blog is “Fantastic Opera Beasts and Where To Find Them” inspired by the new film Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.

The latest, and let it be said the most adult, evolution of the Wizarding World by author J. K. Rowling, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them hit the movie screens this past month. I took my family to see it and was once again amazed and surprised by the film’s imaginative span and Rowling’s seemingly endless ability to morph, create, recreate, and exponentially expand the Harry Potter Universe.

If you haven’t seen it, please do.

If you are one of those who have not read the books, or seen the films, then perhaps this blog isn’t going to make much sense. I’ll try to refrain from getting too nerdy, but apologies ahead of time. If you want to skip down into the REAL blog about singing and magic, it’s about eight paragraphs further. (I’ve put asterisks and bolded the header so you can skip quickly to it!)

Rowling’s books, the latest play (London’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), the billion-dollar Potter film series, and now this new screenplay, attest to her ability to roll out big stories peopled with wizards, magical creatures, elves, goblins, muggles, nomajs (the American version of muggles), giants and a hippogriff or two all interacting on multiple levels of narrative story, allegory, and deeply emotional and political themes. Fantastic Beasts… is probably the most obvious of all of her output when it comes to the creation of an allegory that is very focused on real human history. Her output as a creative force is simply operatic.

Opera, the genre, is vast and huge; very much like Rowling’s universe. Actually, opera is bigger, by far, than the Wizarding World because the repertoire spans over 400 years, and it’s written and sung in practically every language known to Earth (and beyond, we have operas in Klingon and in languages from Middle-Earth). Opera is very dense and complex, particularly in the information that’s passed from the stage to the audience via the singers, the designers, and everyone else involved in a production. If a song could be said to be written in a few gigabytes, a song cycle would be a dozen gigabytes, symphonies would be hundreds of gigabytes. But operas are written in terrabytes. Hundreds of terrabytes comprise Wagner’s Ring Cycle alone. If you don’t know about TBs, it’s a huge, HUGE amount of data. 

It is not possible to simply sit down and take in everything that is an opera in one exposure. However, the thing that makes opera magical is that one CAN sit down and get so very much in one sitting, and that information is so very different from human to human. Each and every person who watches any opera walks away with a different experience. If one goes to a great opera like La bohéme and sits with 3,000 others, each will have a different experience, a different take. Each of the players in the orchestra and the singers onstage will also have a different and unique experience. No opera is ever, ever, ever the same from night to night. The variations are boundless. Like going to a Michelin-starred restaurant named La Boheme, you’re sure to get a fantastic meal, but the ingredients in each of those same dishes is absolutely different than the night before and the chefs putting the meals together are oftentimes different humans night to night. Not to mention the wine choices affecting the food tastes, where you’re sat, the others in the dining room, etc. Opera proves the point that we are all interconnected in a vast array of brilliant shining lights.

J.K. Rowling gets that idea, and gets it in spades. Fantastic Beasts… is no exception. And it started me thinking.

My first thought went to another English creative force: Benjamin Britten. (Perhaps another reason is that 40 years ago today, we lost dear Benjamin Britten.) His output was riddled (yes, riddled) with works about the Outsider. Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, Owen Wingrave, Death in Venice, to name the obvious examples, are operas where society and the audience peer into the life of a man who is not like the rest of the other characters. Again, connections to Britten’s personal life as being a closeted gay man in Great Britain who was able to move around in society quite easily — even with his secret being common knowledge as it was never spoken about in what was called “polite society” — come to mind. Britten was an outsider living in the midst of a society that chose to not see the real him, or his inner secret. An outsider composing operas about outsiders that became wildly popular with audiences, even more so since his death.

Rowling’s Outsider is the wizard Newt Scamander. He arrives by sea to the United States in 1926 via Ellis Island with just his suitcase, seemingly yet another immigrant trying to follow the American dream. He is befriended, in what is clearly the lower east side of Manhattan, by three characters who appear to be quite Jewish: Tina and Queenie Goldstein, magical sisters, and a baker, Jacob Kowalski. Connecting Newt to these three very specific types of characters in a story that is all about the magical community trying to hide itself from the rest of the “non-magics” (nomajs) seems to me to be a clear nod at what was going on in parts of Europe and in America during this time of terrible anti-semitism and the rise of fascism throughout the world. Jews started to hide the fact that they were Jews (not something new, by any means — just read up on what Mahler went through in his life) in order to move freely throughout society, academia, and business. A few years later, as the world seems to regularly forget, Jews’ very lives were at stake and millions killed. In the 1920s and 1930s, the danger was very real, at least to those who were aware and who could clearly see and understand the political rhetoric.

There are many evils in this new movie. The biggest threat is the unseen Grindelwald, the wizarding world’s Hitler. Grindelwald’s M.O. is that he believes the laws keeping Nomajs and wizards apart keeps the magical community from becoming the dominant power in the world. He dreams of a wizarding war (set to take place during the WW2 years) that will finally allow wizards to rule the world. But the movie plot actually entails trying to defeat a more devastating evil. It is an evil that can destroy cities and kill children: Child Wizards Repressing Their Magic.

Really? Repression as a destructive force? YES.

So — when a magical child tries to hide and/or repress their natural abilities, their magical talent, their literal magic, a horrible thing occurs: an “Obscurus” forms. This is a magical parasite that develops over time; basically if one doesn’t perform spells, the magic turns inwards and eats the child-wizard, turning them into a huge destructive black mass/cloud that rips apart streets and skyscrapers alike. Once this happens, the child dies (the film says usually by the age of 10). How terrifying! It is up to the Hogwarts' educated hero, Newt, and his band of three friends, to save New York City’s lower east side. They do that, as well as exposing who Grindelwald is pretending to be.

**Okay, so how does all of this relate to singing?**

I have believed for many decades that singers are magical. Let’s face it, all musicians are. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we are the only special people on the globe — far from it. In fact, I think there are many different types of wizarding communities among us: poets, architects, software designers, composers, mothers; basically anyone who creates.

Singers are a special community of musical wizards. We even train singers and musicians at special schools with specialists who teach and coach using enchantments, craft, potions, divination, and other magical arts. (I even teach at a school that some think actually looks like Hogwarts!) To get into these special schools, your talent must be evaluated in a mystical gathering called an “audition” by a coven of like-minded creatures who invite or deny entrance. Our mystical ancient maestros wave their magical batons into space and music happens out of thin air. We look into ancient books and read/speak an ancient language that most non-musicians (our version of Muggles) can sometimes only recognize as “music," but actually have no idea what the secrets inherent in those scores actually are, or how to read them, let alone realize them. Some of us are born into musical families, but many are also born into Muggle families who have no idea what makes us so darn strange and amazing. 

To perform an operatic score requires a great deal of this specialized, magical training but an even greater amount of actual magic is required.

Just to sing, to phonate pitches and then control their duration, dynamics, shape, and color, is a magical spell that first requires one’s imagination. We imagine the notes and our brains somehow — and this really still is a mystery — create sounds that get organized by our throats, lungs, tongues, and lips into poetry that is carried out into the world via simple vibrations. Where before there is only silence, after a musician magics the air with their imaginative intentions, there is music. 

They do this with the most invisible of elemental forces: AIR. Breathe in silence, breathe out Mozart. This is an amazing thing that way too few singers admit, let alone realize.  We acknowledge far too often that other creative artists seem special in their own abilities — from creating sculptures out of dirt to building virtual dreamscapes out of binary electrical exchanges — but seldom really think to ourselves how special we are.

But Rowling also gives us a warning about thinking we are the only kind of special. This idea of thinking you’re really special can turn an ego to the dark side; the Trumpsters call people like us elitists due to our extensive educations. Well, we are, in a certain sense, elitist. However, there is a danger when an elitist mistakes Elitism for Puritanism. In classical music we have many different types of Puritans, or purists as we actually call them. I liken purists to Evangelical Christians on the Right, or to Social Justice Warriors on the Left, or to the followers of Voldemort - his DeathEaters - in Rowling’s world. All see their versions of the world in black and white, in right and wrong, in oppressors and the oppressed. There is no room for imagination, for innovation, for change, or for freedom to express new ideas or old ideas. Only the political decisions of a few, or the words written in someone’s holy scripture, or the ideas of a demagogue, are important. The individual dies in order to make sure that the purebloods, or today’s puritanical evangelicals, or the purely progressive politically correct, have their say in who is and who is not allowed to think, to believe, or to express themselves freely. 

Our recent destructive history teaches us this — the McCarthy years, the tragedies of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the nightmare of the Stalinist regime. All three political ideologies sought to control culture by defining what it was and what it wasn’t. Millions died, thousands of lives were ruined, careers were destroyed and lost. Yet these nightmares came about not from evil, but from an attempt to make things safe for the People, to make everyone more comfortable and to create a more cohesive society where everyone would live in greater peace and prosperity. Sound familiar?

Musicians run into these puritans from time to time. The passionate musicologists, the early music specialists, the editors of critical editions, the connoisseurs of old opera recordings, the critics either holding to an older aesthetic against updates or to younger critics shocked to find that opera contains historical elements of sexism and racism. Opera is an art form that is big enough to accommodate many different opinions. But it is not an art form that works in, or under, any ideology that tries to repress artistic ideas. Let’s hold a seance and ask Shostakovich his thoughts on this subject, shall we? 

We shouldn’t hide ourselves from those who don’t get us. We need to engage everyone and anyone who’ll listen. Otherwise, our bubble shrinks and we’re left with no audience at all — magical or muggle.

Opera lives not just for us specialists and lovers of opera, but also for the casual listener, the regular opera-goer, or the film director who needs to give an Evil-British-Spy something to listen to while he drives his Porsche to go kill some innocent, good-looking person.

During the training of these magical singers, there is now a risk involved. That risk is to be too safe, i.e. to not actualize their individual “noise” (as I call the sound one makes while singing) for fear that that “noise” might be too unique, perhaps a bit ugly, or out of tune, or a bit out of control. 

To not be safe seems crazy. Crazy. I remember thinking that the teachers at Hogwarts were insane to just expect the first years to know how to do things, but especially none of them seemed to anticipate injuries. From the first flying lesson on their brooms to Hagrid’s putting Harry on the Hippogriff (what was he thinking?!) these teachers dared to allow their students to experience the magic firsthand, regardless of the outcome. Seamus, in the book series, kept blowing things up with his wand during his initial attempts at spells. Harry freely admitted he’s not a great wizard, he’s just lucky (plus he had great instincts and trusted those instincts throughout all seven books). Young singers need to make contact with the magic firsthand as well. They need to be allowed to blow sounds up, turn the bird purple instead of red, say the spell backwards and in the wrong order, put the wrong type of eye of newt into a potion, but especially they need to learn to trust their instincts and be courageous. Seldom do the children at Hogwarts die in the classrooms (that’s a whole other topic…), and as I am fond of saying, opera seldom kills those who study it!

Fantastic Beasts… shows all of us in the magical/musical community the danger of repressing our talents. Trying to hide our sound, our ideas, our creative forces can result in an obscuring state, which eventually implodes into a destructive monster, both within and without. Failure certainly occurs if we obscure our talents by not sharing them, if we obscure our ideas by worrying whether they will be deemed acceptable by others. If we repress our literal voices in order to make safe sounds, or sing correctly, or make artistic choices based on the notion of non-offence or choices that are denying the truth of the piece, we risk destroying ourselves. We risk destroying the art itself. The magic dies.

How is Music Magic? Music stops time, moves it forward and backwards. The sound of music, of voices joined together, can incite violence or passionate love, it can nurture the minds of babies, calm a lost soul, ease the pain of someone’s grief, wipe away the anxiety of tomorrow — at least for a brief time while the spell lasts.  Music can heal; science is proving this right now. Music vibrates on the quantum level, in the music of the spheres, and can exist in our brains alone. Right now, I’m hearing strains of Mozart’s great Die Zauberflöte wafting around in my head. Is it real? Yes, it’s happening in my head (Dumbledore taught us this truth at King’s Cross Station in one of my favorite moments from “Deathly Hallows”). 

Opera is an art form that needs all the other arts in order to create it. It needs an audience of wizards and muggles. But mostly, it demands a vast imagination from all those involved.

And that is the biggest danger of all, as humans can imagine heaven and hell equally well.  

Therefore, let’s all be careful, let’s watch out for each other, courageously stand up for ideas and freedoms. To defend yourself, and others, against the Dark Arts first takes the wisdom to perceive the difference between truths and lies. As the year of 2016 ends, all of us must redouble our efforts in order to seek actual truth and look past the hashtags and the 140 character social media postings. Life is beyond complicated and no issue is black or white. Those who think otherwise are dabbling in the Dark Arts and us musical magicians need to arm ourselves. But more importantly, we need to seek each other out in order to join forces.

For Fantastic Beasts… also shows that the 1920s wizarding world sat upon a precipice: whether to hide themselves further, go to war, deny their magic, or figure out a different path forward. If only our current world knew which choice might win out in the coming decade. 

Who will be our magical leaders in the years to come? Who will help our musical wizarding community navigate the treacherous waters rising around us? Is Grindelwald hiding in our midst? These new voices making themselves heard, are they misguided Muggles sensing that our art is old-fashioned, wrong, or boring simply because they don’t understand it? Will new audiences walk into our theatres and be able to see beyond the superficialities of opera and truly listen with their eyes and see with their ears? (Yes, you read that one right.) 

Or maybe there’s a new generation of magical musicians waiting to step forward to help divine a new and better future for all that includes every part of our exceptionally strange operatic Art? Opera has dangerous, wonderful and truly magical spells that allow us to think deeper than we’d like, feel stronger than we knew possible, love the strange and familiar, question our very nature, but especially allow us to recognize the humanity that lives in each and every one of us. I know there are many Newts out there, and hope that they open up their suitcases pretty soon.

Mischief Managed.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

A Prescription for Operatic Prescriptionists!

The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.  - William Shakespeare
WARNING: This is a long blog but I was not willing to divide it into parts. (Apologies if you were looking for a little quick read!)  
SPOILER ALERT: I also reference a song by the Beastie Boys in "Star Trek Beyond"

First a few definitions…  
Prescription A recommendation that is authoritatively put forward.  
Prescriptive [Linguistics]: Attempting to impose rules of correct usage on the users of a language; Relating to the imposition or enforcement of a rule or method.  
Prescriptionist A person who makes up or dispenses medicines in accordance with prescriptions; an assistant to a pharmacist.  
Prescriptionism [Philosophy]: The theory that moral and other evaluative judgments have prescriptive force similar to that of imperatives.  

Description A statement that tells you how something or someone looks, sounds, etc. ; words that describe something or someone  
Descriptive [Linguistics]: Denoting or relating to an approach to language analysis that describes accents, forms, structures, and usage without making value judgments. Often contrasted with prescriptive.  
Descriptionist Originally: a person who describes something or someone; specifically one who gives (mere) descriptions that are free from evaluation, explanation, etc. Later chiefly: a person who believes in the importance or priority of description; an adherent or advocate of descriptivism.
Descriptionism The doctrine that the meanings of ethical or aesthetic terms and statements are purely descriptive rather than prescriptive, evaluative, or emotive.

Here’s a short video to describe these ideas in musical terms:  Why You Should Learn Music Theory!

Yes, it is a great discussion of why prescriptionism is important to music theory. I agree. However let me get right to the point:

I am an operatic descriptionist. 

The above statement is one of the fundamental differences I have with some – not all, mind you – of my exceptional colleagues, both in the professional and academic worlds. I believe that the philosophical differences between musical prescriptionists and descriptionists are at the root of our current pedagogical dilemmas surrounding a singers’ initial education at college or a university, and their subsequent training and preparation to enter the profession life out in the real world. I additionally believe that it is one of the causes for why some opera companies are failing to reach new audiences while others are succeeding so well at it. Furthermore, I believe that the highest quality of summer/resident young artist programs are already moving forward along these lines but that many others are still trapped in a 1980s world of presenting yet another Carmen quintet with other opera “highlights” during tired scenes programs, thinking this is some sort of “training”.

Most importantly, I believe that if descriptionism becomes the guiding force in our musical world, it could bring a paradigmatic shift to the opera world and, deep breath, prevent its collapse.

Dire words. I do not type them lightly.

Almost all young opera singers are trained in a classical setting, at an academy, conservatory, university or college by voice teachers working within a prescribed curriculum that is part of a larger performance area or program. Prescriptions are put into place to maintain accordance with a larger University’s curricular standards, and/or to create an equanimity among the students’ examinations, aka their recitals.

There are certain things a singer must do to get a degree in voice. One of the biggest is their final Recital – in graduate programs there are usually multiple recitals. These recitals are a singers’ thesis or their final exam as it represents the culmination of their education in the classical vocal arts. Oftentimes these recitals are worked on for multiple semesters in order to present between 50 and 70 minutes of music for voice and piano accompaniment.

Now these recitals all have guidelines and rules, often in place for decades, handed down from what I’d imagine were all prescriptionist committees. Among other things, these rules oversee what can be sung and for how long. Most recitals at the undergraduate level are, rightly so, pretty prescriptive in their constraints. Multiple languages, historical perspectives, and genres are very tightly controlled by the voice teachers who judge and grade the student singers. Again, a pretty understandable idea. Typically in graduate programs, the reigns are loosened to allow more freedom for the singer to decide what they’d like to sing on their various recitals. Usually the length is still dictated and there are still, in most schools, guidelines for what constitutes these graduate voice recitals. For instance, at McGill every graduate recital is proposed to a committee of faculty who approve its content and length.

This all seems very normal and good.

But the problem is is that these voice recitals tend to all look and sound the same. Allow me to over-generalize: A guy walks out in a tux or a lady walks out in a gown, they open up with some nice Italian ditties from the baroque period, then move into a Schubert set auf Deutsche, perhaps something more Romantic, then into a French Impressionist set, infrequently making sense of the dense symbolist poetry, and then burst into an English set by Barber or Britten or Bolcom or Beach. Maybe, if they’re lucky, they get to end with something to “entertain” the audience, usually some piece of musical theatre they’ve been wanting to sing for years but haven’t been allowed to actually study in any way. They stand and deliver thoughtfully, taking breaks between “sets”. Applause follows. If they’ve prepared well, a passing grade is usually conferred by a chosen panel of voice teachers.

What’s the problem, you might ask? Do I have some grudge against the current recital format?

Yes, I do. I believe that there is more to a young singer’s training than learning to stand still while singing through an hour’s worth of song literature. I think that recitals should only be a part of a young singer’s thesis, not its sole culmination. I believe that students should be allowed much more flexibility and freedom when choosing repertoire, venue, length, order of songs, and even their dress. Hey - Why not ungroup a cycle and splatter it throughout other songs to create a more unique connection between the poetry or the music?

Why do I write these things on such a public forum? Because I’m concerned and too many others in the professional opera world have voiced their concerns directly to me as well. We are concerned about the type of preparation happening in many of the academic programs in North America. Most were developed in the last century before huge shifts in our world made new demands on our young singers - from needing video auditions for most programs, having up-to-date websites with media capabilities, knowing a much broader range of repertoire, navigating through social media, dealing with a saturated market of singers faced with a declining chance of being cast - just to mention a few. It is time to reboot opera at its roots.

This will be tricky for there exists a difficulty among prescriptive academics: how to stay in touch with current trends happening out there in the wide world. Sometimes, if they are aware of shifts and trends, they passively or aggressively ignore them because they have their proven methods to form singers. Sometimes it’s literally “my way or the highway”, and students are denied even thinking about new repertoire outside of the prescribed parameters, let alone learning or studying unfamiliar pieces from new or evolved genres. For the ones who do want change, they can be met with a wall of tenured professors who may or may not be interested in change.

So what makes one a “prescriptionist”? Well, it’s when one decides what classical music is and is not. That subsequently creates a prescription on the “is not” music, preventing a student from learning, studying, researching, or performing it during a most critical time – their early years learning to sing.

And let me add: To decide what constitutes “music” is an awfully difficult thing. Absolutely, totally, and simply, impossible. Let’s give it a try: What is music? Try to answer that. Go ahead.

Now imagine putting your answer into a prescription for a classical voice recital. This prescription creates the bibliography for what a singer will study and learn for their four years, and perhaps beyond. It will affect how they learn to sing (repertoire does that), what sorts of technical difficulties they will take on and hopefully conquer. The repertoire that is chosen as their course of study will have a huge impact on their burgeoning technique.

Let me be clear. I believe in the classical training of the human voice. Whole-heartedly. Even though I’d be hard-pressed to describe exactly what that is, or is not.

But let’s move forward and think about what that question (“What is music”) creates from an operatic perspective. For you see, the recital experience is part of the basic and essential training that goes into making a young opera singer. However, none of them make a living just singing recitals. If successful, they make their living singing opera, oratorio, recital, musicals, concerts in bookstores, giving masterclasses, and/or private teaching. Opera should be an essential component of all young singers’ training because it offers the first lucrative engagements that lead to management and bigger paying gigs. Yet it isn’t an essential component in many undergraduate programs outside of either some opera scenes or an annual production. The bigger the programs, the more opera productions, the bigger the budgets, the more opportunities to sing with orchestra, and lots more competition to get cast. That last bit’s probably another blog.

A few fun questions:
What is opera?
What constitutes some piece of art being called “opera”?
What makes one piece an opera and another piece not an opera?
Who gets to decide?

To get really down and dirty: What makes Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte an opera when it’s clearly a “Singspiel” (a German musical that has dialogue between its musical numbers.) Why do classical musicians think that Offenbach’s operettas are operettas, but his Les contes d’Hoffmann is more of an opera? What puts Carmen or Die Fledermaus decidedly in the opera camp, but other German operetta in the “Light Opera” arena along with Gilbert and Sullivan, Lehar, and the early New York musicals?

Speaking of musicals, the distinction between musical and opera is now being blurred by, of all things, opera companies. Recently major North American houses have joined the Europeans (who’ve been presenting musicals in their opera houses for decades) to present operas by a wide range of American composers. Leading the way were the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Glimmerglass Opera, and Ash Lawn Opera (a Charlottesville, Virginia company presenting opera and musicals in repertoire for the last 30+ years). Now they are being joined by Houston Grand Opera, L’opéra de Montreal, Central City Opera, Vancouver Opera, Chautauqua Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, LA Opera, NYCO, and Mill City Opera up in Minnesota (run by two young geniuses, the director David Lefkowich whose training is in theatre and stage combat and the conductor Brian DeMaris who runs the Arizona State University program which is a unified musical theatre and opera program – singers can study one or the other or both. IMAGINE.)

Another question: Is a musical still a musical when an opera company produces it and casts opera singers?

Many people I’ve discussed this question with go right to “mic’ing” for the answer. If it’s mic’d, then it’s obviously a musical because opera is an acoustic art form. Sure. Go there. Try that argument. Then head into any number of opera companies across North America (shall we all name names?!) and see the sound engineer in the back of the house maintaining floor mic levels “just to enhance”, or adjusting lavalier microphones attached to the singers’ costumes. If an opera singer sings opera in a house but mics are used, is the piece still an opera? I thought opera was an acoustic art form.

Using mic’ing as an answer is no longer viable because of the new technologies available, the fact that sound engineers are able to manipulate the singers’ voices live, and that too many new operas employ non-acoustic sounds in both the orchestrations and in the productions themselves. The genres (musicals and operas / acoustic vs engineered) blurred many moons ago. Way, way, way back. Even “classic” musical theatre, a genre that many opera folk think was an acoustic one, was mic’d. Yes, even that great belter Ethel Merman was mic’d. In shows as old as Gypsy. [Shocked?]

Here's a quick article mentioning this history: Acoustics-And-Electronics

But didn't we all agree, at some point, that certain pieces were operas – like Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess – didn’t we? Was the recent Broadway show a musical derivation of it, which starred many operatically-inclined singers like Audra MacDonald or was it a devolved operatic version?

The elephant in the room, besides Porgy, is Sweeney Todd by that great musical theatre composer Stephen Sondheim. Today, Sweeney is presented all over the world by opera companies with opera singers in every role. So, it’s an opera then? Even if they have to mic it because the orchestration is way too present right in the ranges of the singers? Arguably, the piece was written to be mic’d, just like Nixon In China (really? Yes!) What about when Sweeney is performed by non-opera folk (you know, those people who act first and sing later, who may not really have any classical training but have figured out how to sing thousands of times a year)? Does Sweeney revert back to being a musical?

For that matter, was La bohème an opera when it was on Broadway being sung by mostly opera singers, albeit very young ones, but mic’d?

What about Sondheim’s homage to operetta: A Little Night Music. Is it an operetta? Sounds like one, looks like one. It has more waltzes in it than Die Fledermaus, yet are young opera singers putting Henrik’s song ("Later") onto their audition lists as a legitimate aria (much more difficult to sing than, say, “New York Lights” or “Lonely House”)? Or are any mezzos putting “A Miller’s Son” onto their lists instead of “What A Movie!”? The latter, by Bernstein, sounds just as Broadway as the former. I’ve coached Petra’s aria with mezzos who have a decidedly heavy mix and can easily make the piece their own, yet they think they can’t put it on their list which oftentimes already has “What A Movie!” or Orlofsky’s aria or any number of Offenbach arias. God, Petra’s aria is even strophic, so it’s like a Schubert song! But the prescriptionists haven’t agreed to A Little Night Music being brought over from the dark side yet, even though other “operettas” by Offenbach and Bernstein (think Candide) were declared operatically worthy decades ago.

Menotti “operas”, like The Consul, The Telephone, and The Medium were all first presented on Broadway yet they are never, ever, discussed as modern-day musicals. The Consul even received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the year it debuted – something normally given to musicals and plays, but rarely operas. Bernstein’s Trouble In Tahiti or Candide are sometimes debated, but their excerpted arias definitely make it onto the Met voice competition from time to time, as do a handful by Sondheim. Yet few classical singers are presenting stuff from The Music Man or Camelot. Why?

To make matters worse, the new “operas” are being written in a style that can’t easily be distinguished from the new “musicals”. Take a listen to much of Jason Robert Brown (Parade) or Richard Rodger’s grandson, Adam Guettel who’s writing song cycles ("Myths and Hymns") and a Tony Award winning opera, sorry – musical – The Light in the Piazza. Then compare them to the other, “serious” side of things. Operas by Jake Heggie (particularly At the Statue of Venus), Torke, Puts, or Bolcom; all were preceded onto the opera stage by the likes of Barber, Argento, and Pasatieri who wrote in very tonal, jazz-influenced American style first created by Weill (Street Scene) and Blitzstein (Regina). Okay, Blitzstein wrote musicals, including the infamous Cradle Will Rock, but also wrote one of the great 20th century operas with lots of dialogue: Regina. What about the most popular new opera written in the last 25 years, Mark Adamo’s Little Women? It’s through-composed and completely sung. Absolutely an opera. But anyone who listens to the final quartet, the big tune “Kennst du das Land”, or analyzes its formal structure, can’t help but think that it would be quite at home on the Broadway stage.

Gosh, so confusing when one tries to nail down this repertoire!

Here's Anne Midget's take on a recent Sweeney Todd at Glimmerglass Opera this summer: When Musicals Become Operas

And then there are the singers who perform this rep! We used to talk about “cross-over artists”. Allow a quick digression: The first Horace Tabor in The Ballad of Baby Doe was Walter Cassell. He and I both graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Granted, he graduated at the end of WW1; I still claim him as TJ's most famous alumni. He set out for NYC to become an opera singer but initially this didn't work out. He spent time in Hollywood acting, and then back to NYC to star on Broadway. Finally the old Met contracted him and he ended up performing in hundreds of operas during his career. He was crossing over, back and forth, from the 1930s until the early 1970s (SEVENTIES!) upon his retirement. So perhaps I can be forgiven for wondering what the hell is wrong with people thinking that opera singers shouldn't sing outside of their opera repertoire, or if they do, they need no help, instruction, coaching, or training to do so because it's not as "challenging".  An example that comes to mind about what's challenging: I give thee two songs about marriage, Schubert's "Du Ring an meinem Finger" vs Sondheim's "(Not) Getting Married Today".

[evil smile]

Both are masterpieces in their own right. Both undeserving of comparison. However, how many classical musicians look down their noses at musical theatre thinking that it, in no way, compares to the heilige Kunst of art song or opera? Why do they do so? I think many, coaches in particular, have little experience with the literature and do not realize the extent to which it has changed in the last 25 years. To quote a friend of mine who conducts both opera and musicals: "Sunday in the Park is fucking hard. It makes Die Zauberflöte look like a walk in the park!" I concur, one summer spent conducting Cosi fan tutte, The Sound of Music, and Cenerentola in rep convinced me that the difficult piece to stay consistent on, the one that challenged both the orchestra and singers to keep all that underscoring in balance and on time, was the piece where the audience liked to sing all the bits they knew. And the casts were comprised of opera singers who might one night sing Dorabello, then Mother Superior, then Cenerentola, then Mother Superior, then Thisbe, then Mother Superior, etc.

There were many cross-over artists back in my student days. Formally trained opera singers who ended up making six figures singing JVJ in Les Miserables, or operatic “character” mezzos who did a year or two on tour with Phantom. Nowadays we drop the term "cross-over artist", even when a typical season for a barihunk might look like this: Escamillo (Carmen) in some city in Texas, followed by a Verdi Requiem and/or a Messiah, then singing Anthony (Sweeney) over in Oregon, then heading over for a world premiere at Ft. Worth Opera tackling cannibalism in a dystopian post-apocalypse future, then a recital tour of the Dakotas, followed by a summer gig at a prestigious festival singing two baritone supporting roles in South Pacific and Manon, performed in repertoire of course.

Today the successful singing actor must have a very wide range of rep and abilities in genres that encompass all of classical and popular music in order to have a fighting chance at creating a career. Where do these singers get the training to handle Handel and Hahn and Humperdinck and Henze and Hamlisch?

Perhaps these working performers are now experiencing the "rep" in a much different light. Perhaps they know something that we do not. Perhaps the operas that they’ve been performing in over the last decade or so have changed – from the directors’ expectations to the production values – influenced by a new generation of designers, conductors, directors, and audiences.

In a world where this training costs so much, and where there are so few business opportunities for the myriad and extraordinary talent that’s put out every year by music schools, I ask everyone the same question: Shouldn’t we be giving young singers the best possible education we can? Shouldn't their education and training encompass not just the 19th century, but give them a head start in knowing how to deal with everything from the early 1600's to the latter months of 2016?

Singers no longer can ignore the bulk of the dozens and dozens of new operas premiered this year, let alone in the last ten years. They can no longer refuse to learn musical theatre repertoire. Many young artist programs demand MT lit on the audition repertoire (and you can’t just shove “If I Loved You” onto your list and think you’ll be taken seriously), and too many companies are casting young singers in these musical theatre roles -- young roles. As acceptable as it is to hire a 50 year old Mimi, it is not possible to hire a singer who looks 50 as Johanna in Sweeney Todd. Therefore, young singers have MORE ROLES lying in wait for them! Why lose out? It’s tough enough out there! Young singers should use their youthful looks, their abilities to mix/belt, their high school knowledge of musical repertoire, or their local tap lessons as a child to increase their products’ viability in this crazy market!

But back to the philosophical argument…

Shouldn’t the 20th century musical theatre repertoire be given the same seriousness of training as, say, “Lonely House” from Street Scene and then included on recitals? How about a set of songs from, as Joyce DiDonato calls it, “The Great American Songbook” (okay, another problem, what committee decides which songs go into this book?). Hundreds, if not thousands, of songs by Kern, Gershwin, Gaudio (look him up), Arlen, or Sir Elton John totally qualify. What’s the difference between the Britten or Bolcom “cabaret” song cycles and actual cabaret songs sung by Edith Piaf or Ella Fitzgerald or Tony Bennet? Or songs by today’s popular singers?

Where’s the line? Is it as simple as how the music is written? Would composing music in mixed meter with sprinkles of dissonance here and there make a piece "better" or deem it more "worthy"? If that were the case, a bunch of Sting’s songs from the late 80s should enter the recital repertoire now. Is it that pop songs repeat text all the time or that they have a formal structure unlike the strophic songs? Is it the poetry? Is Heine somehow better than Miranda? Where does one get off dismissing certain types of poetry? Does that disqualify Hip-Hop? Calling all Hamilton fans…

So where and how does that whole “I’m a descriptionist” statement come into play with all these questions?

Well, descriptive types do not try to proscribe something. For instance, in linguistics, there is the whole argument about the use of the word “they” in its singular form: “Somebody left their umbrella in the office. Would they please collect it?”

Prescriptionists know there’s an old rule about singular plurals. Descriptionists know that this usage is common and therefore the rule no longer exists except in a few old-fashioned minds. There are also prescriptionists who want to prescribe how words are to be used. They are the grammar police.

If you missed it, take the time to watch this incredible video: Baltimore Sun John E McIntyre goes on...

Prescriptions are important for language and the study of language, absolutely. However, descriptionists only follow the language and current usages of words, their pronunciations, and grammatical structures. It is how a language evolves. These types of people make dictionaries, for example.

In classical music, descriptionists are sometimes the public, oftentimes producers, and many times the professionals creating the shows – from the singers to the designers. They know what succeeds with audiences (it’s easy to tell because they do or do not buy a ticket.) They see trends, they actually try to predict where these trends will head, or they help to establish them. They are the ones affecting change, and are the ones who understand, oftentimes, why these trends are taking place. Isn’t it time, then, that the Descriptionists have more of a say with what is going on in the music schools?

Isn’t it time that the academics who are passionate about teaching get together with the professionals (for lack of a better word, all academics are professionals too) to discuss OPERA IN THE 21st CENTURY? But even more, perhaps it is time for the academics to walk away from trying to dictate what music is, or what distinguishes one type of music from another and why one can be studied while something else can’t – oftentimes because of a marketing label. Perhaps it is time to allow a wider range of repertoire that works for individual student voices and not cookie cutter all students into the same repertoire.

This is a generational issue. Trust me. The older, and it’s got to be said, wiser, generation needs to become more flexible in their ideas, and try to realize that their notions about opera (and recital) repertoire are at least half a century outdated, if not more. The younger generation needs to step up and lead. They need to demand that centuries old ideals be reexamined and new ideals established.

I believe this is imperative to make sure that the future of our art form continues beyond the second half of this century. Classical music’s death knell has yet to chime, but warning bells are ringing – not that far away.

Classical Music has changed and can’t really go back lest we find ourselves curators of museums where singers perform ala paint-by-number. And it is in danger of dying if we continue to box it in and say what it is or what it is not. Our public no longer cares and others simply can’t distinguish between Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom and Puccini’s Fanciulla. [2nd evil smile]

We need to take back music. ALL OF IT. Claim it. Teach It. Perform It.

In J.J. Abrams’ cinematic future, a question is asked while the Beastie Boy’s punky rap-rock song “Sabotage” is wiping out evil aliens: “Is that classical music?” The answer, from Spock no less, “Yes, I believe it is.” Classical music, centuries from now, will not just be Bach, Brahms, or Bernstein. It’ll include the Beatles, the Beastie Boys, the B52s, and Babs singing “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”.

Recitals need to change to reflect our current world and to prepare singers for a life communicating text through music – all texts, all music.

While we’re at it, no more recitals on big stages with singers wearing sad echoes of period dress from the late 19th century. Let’s put recitals in the round or in spaces where audiences can be very CLOSE. Where they can see the spit, get the intimate connection with the text and the singer’s facial expressions. Find a salon sized space (where most classical songs were meant to be sung), or fill a small hall with fifty people instead of a huge hall with fifty people (a few dozen people in a large concert hall gives one the feeling that there are only four people in attendance.) Move about while you sing how ‘bouts? Recite the poetry beforehand, translate it so the audiences can contemplate the texts while you sing. Gosh, why not demand all recitals have projected texts? If opera must have them, then why don’t recitalists demand these? It’s not like there’s stuff to watch onstage. No one’s going to miss a bit of stage business reading a recital text projected near the singer. How is this not a thing already? Why are we subjected to reading small font translations of the songs in horrid lighting? It’s tough enough to be an aging audience member nowadays.

Here's a recent NYTimes article about "getting intimate": Big Music Doesn't Need Huge Halls

Opera companies have already jumped on the small venue bandwagon. San Francisco Opera has created a smaller space for their alternative titles, Fort Worth Opera performs in both their regular large opera house and in much smaller venues; Boston Lyric Opera is doing the same, as are companies from Philly to Des Moines. If you’ve not gotten out recently, it’s clear that almost all opera companies in America are changing venues in some manner, rapidly and aggressively. This is changing the repertoire, allowing for a plethora of world premieres. Sometimes I think there are so many new operas being performed that we are reliving what it must have been like in the mid-19th century!

And now we come to an important point -- These new venues, being smaller and/or non-traditional, have changed the types of singers that are being hired. You don’t have to find the largest voiced soprano to push her way through the Countess because your house seats 3000+; now one can find practically any sized voice and cast them into age-appropriate roles where they look like their characters. Guys singing the role of a Vietnam prisoner in a venue where the audience is a few feet away must look like it – from their army haircuts to their bodies. Ladies must look the part, particularly when it is a world premiere and there’s no precedent for “the voice needs to be this or that” in the role. Casting directors have their choice of fantastic actors who can sing and are crackerjack musicians. There is an emphasis on naturalized acting, removing many of the older notions of histrionics, gestures, and “stage deportment” and replacing them with modern acting techniques rooted in physical theatre or the Method.

All of this recent activity has re-described what opera seems to be nowadays. But has this activity impacted where one finds the most opera singers per capita: our music schools?

I’m not too sure. The programs that adapt to these new trends will be the ones that thrive. The ones that refuse to change their curriculum, refuse to add new ideas to their training programs, or refuse to follow the repertoire trends will eventually be left behind and fade away, like Galadriel. She was radiant and powerful once, but her kingdom of immortals eventually had to disperse into the winds. I don’t want Handel, Debussy, Strauss, or even Menotti to disappear from our culture, or become artistic refugees lost in some western civ diaspora where few know their genius or appreciate the impact they can have on a human heart.

This is too important for ego or for an “it’s always been this way” attitude to stop new dialogues from happening.

It is time that the academics take notice and alter their prescriptions in order to save the health, and ultimately the life, of all our precious classical music. If prescriptionism stands in the way, then it’s time to adopt a much more progressive descriptionist stance.

It is clear that in language, descriptionists end up on the winning side of history. Let's hope that this is the case in music.

As Will Shakespeare said, those without music in them are fit for stratagems. And in case you were wondering, the descriptionist online resource, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary has a few definitions for "stratagems".

  1. a :  an artifice or trick in war for deceiving and outwitting the enemy
    b :  a cleverly contrived trick or scheme for gaining an end
  2.    :  skill in ruses or trickery
Prescriptions are artifices that have no place in Music or Art, nor should they be the causation for what ultimately educates and creates the next generation of singers, conductors, collaborative pianists, coaches, or teachers.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

An Autumnal Ponder

As many of us are just a few weeks away from the start of another fall term, I thought I'd post this short blog, written a while ago but never published.

Lost opportunities never, ever return:
I’m constantly saying to others that I don’t understand why so many students miss out on opportunities that are literally right in front of them.

It is a most worrisome trend, frankly, and it does not bode well for this generation.
A few examples:

At many schools, faculty members spend their days teaching talented students in private studios. These faculty members are - one would hope - quite knowledgeable because of their amazing performance experiences during their illustrious careers. Yet, how many students sit down and talk to their teachers about those illustrious careers? How many students ask their voice teachers out for an afternoon tea so that they can get to understand them better, not just as former performers, say, but as human beings?

At most schools there are special guests brought in to speak or to give masterclasses. For a month last fall, Maestro Christopher Larkin was here conducting our marvelous Little Women production. Did anyone approach Christopher asking for a private coaching? Did they ask to take him for coffee to talk about his career? Were they too afraid of the man who premiered Little Women to approach him?

A few years back, when Andrew Bisantz was at McGill conducting A Midsummer Night's Dream, he kept offering these sorts of things, and yet only a handful of students took him up on it.  The ones that did went on and on about how helpful he was, or how insightful he'd been giving career advice. Back in my earlier years at McGill I had students asking me for a coffee, asking me for extra coachings, asking if I had time to talk over a beer, and attending practically every recital and masterclass given during their short time here at McGill. They all seemed to also have time for amazing social gatherings with friends and peers. I blame FaceBook. It squeezed away any excess time students used to have and now they seem to have no time at all.

Guest conductors and directors brought onto campuses are rather busy too. However, they most likely would agree to at least a coffee.  When I’m out and about on guest directing gigs, I spend oodles and oodles of hours in coffee shops with members of the local chorus, with cast members, with production staff. Oftentimes I am there to listen and then give advice, but oftentimes I am asked questions about my own career path in order to help inform someone of their possible choices. 

I wish students would be brave and ask for more one-on-one time from guests, ask them for a coffee, let alone a beer or a perhaps even a dollar taco night. Massive lost opportunities. These never return. They never return because time is fleeting while one studies music.  It's all over in the blink of an eye and then you're out there on your own wondering how you got there and why you didn't take advantage of more opportunities while you were a student, why you didn't see more free concerts, or attend more recitals or masterclasses.

Often I am told by students that they are "too over-scheduled", or "too exhausted" and that they need time for themselves. I agree, usually (thinking about how this 50+ year old body is also exhausted and how my ical keeps me scheduled 7am to 11pm...) Yet time spent at a coffee shop talking about the current state of opera in North America is not necessarily time wasted or a body sucked dry of its energy. I know my students spend an exorbitant amount of time on social media platforms, but are not necessarily spending it engaging with other humans who share their interests or who have made a success of pursuing these interests. Why not ask real people how they did it instead of liking posts on FaceBook for thirty minutes, or chatting with semi-strangers online about why Joyce's latest recording rocked your world?

David Daniels recently posted on Facebook how upset he was that at one of his recent guest recitals at some university, so few students showed up. Can you imagine not attending a David Daniels' recital?!  Perhaps it's because they can watch him on YouTube? Or is it that he's taken for granted among the newest generation of singers? Do they really know of his career, or how his sound is so uniquely beautiful because of his exquisite ability to make music in both opera and song? 

Last fall, Michael Ching was in rehearsal 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 pop 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 just assumed all would. I certainly took notice of the ones who did not show up. Perhaps I should have made the talk mandatory? Is that what we are coming to in teaching the next crop of singers who are spending thousands on their vocal studies but not spending the thousands of extra hours needed to expand their knowledge?
I think it has something to do with how young people think they’re supposed to learn – in some direct way. Information is only needed to answer their specific questions or situations. If they weren’t in Buoso, then why would they come to hear the composer talk about it? They’re singing another opera by another composer. What could they possibly learn by connecting the dots themselves?

Moving further into this question, I believe that some students think the only way, or at least the best way, to learn is by doing instead of through observing. I've blogged ad nauseum about this, so I won't go into it here. However, allow me to reiterate, yet again, that observing others is THE quickest way to learn, to create critical thinking links in your own brain, and to evolve into an autodidactic learner - something that all successful musicians eventually must become.

This is already causing problems out there in the professional world of opera. I've experienced first-hand young artists whining about having to sing school shows in the morning and then attend afternoon and evening staging rehearsals. These types of singers won't make it. The world is not an easy place and - gosh, I'm gonna quote it for the first time on this blog: ART ISN'T EASY!

Making Art is not like making ceramic pots in a factory. That is a hard job and it is something a human can't do morning, noon, and night. Rehearsing and performing Opera, in the professional arena, is a different kind of hard. But it is a calling. It is a giving and a sharing, of a uniquely human talent, which takes a tremendous amount of mental and physical energy, yet something that gives back more than it takes. But most importantly, creating opera at a professional opera company simply can't happen in an atmosphere of whining. I've been meeting more and more whining young artists as the years go by. I've also concluded that the biggest whiners seem to also be the least prepared. 


So for those of you returning to your campuses around the world, think about every second's opportunity as yours for the taking. Don't miss a class, a rehearsal, someone else's recital run-thru, a masterclass, a symposium, a concert across town, a dinner party with new colleagues, a late-night walk about the city. Get out. Put down your smart phones and get smart through living! And if you do find yourselves honestly not being able to give 100% to your pursuits, that is OKAY too! Then it becomes even more important to talk to your teachers and mentors about perhaps why you're not fully engaged and maybe looking at some career alternatives before more time passes. They are there for these questions, so ask them!


To think that time is on your side is a mistake.
To think that learning only happens in a direct manner is ignorant.
To think that the others you learn from have nothing else to teach beyond their subject is delusional.
To think that you have nothing to offer others is forgetting why you are there in the first place.