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Monday, June 27, 2016

Community in Opera

"a unified body of individuals" 
"an interacting population with common interests, goals, history, or culture"
 - Webster's online dictionary

Opera companies, summer programs, young artist training programs, and practically every guesting gig in opera share what I'd call the "idea of community". From disparate parts of the globe, varied people with different specialties come together for a brief period of time to unify, interact, and collaborate to create an opera production.  They become a community, and oftentimes a community that feels like a family. Yet these are temporary communities for the most part. They energetically come together, rehearse intensely, oftentimes sharing deep secrets, memories, or emotions, perform as one, and then disappear literally overnight. Temporarily a close-knit and vital community. (Cue Cher: "Everything is temporary!")

Some opera companies, perhaps a few too many, are dysfunctional families filled with verbally abusive parental figures, Maestro Dad and Director Mom, arguing with their more moneyed relatives, Uncle Arts Director and Aunt Exec Director, while trying to cajole their adult children to do what they want, when they want it, and exactly how they'd like it.

Okay, not the best metaphor perhaps.

But the land of opera is one filled with communities and it's such a wondrous moment when you come into contact with a real, honest-to-god community of people who are actually there for each other, return year after year (summer festival music staffs, for instance), and seem to actually want to collaborate in such a way that has nothing to do with their own agendas but everything to do with the common purpose at hand; artistic vision meets artistic excellence for the greater good.

I've experienced this just a few times in my 30+ years in the business.

The first was at Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO) in the mid 1980s. Back then it was a 1+ million dollar opera company nestled on the campus of Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa putting on eclectic seasons performed in repertory fashion. There was a synergy among the music and directing staff, many who returned year after year (brilliant people like Reed Woodhouse, Buck Ross, William Farlow, and Stewart Robertson) to coach, prepare, and assist the apprentices as well as the guest artists who were all brought together by the founders Robert Larsen and Doug Duncan. Guests returned year after year and sang multiple roles. Amazing artists like Lauren Flanigan (the greatest Curly's Wife ever, the funniest Clorinda ever, the most vivid Musetta), Evelyn de la Rosa "diva Delarosa" (so many, many coloratura roles), Carroll Freeman (great with Rossini tenor roles), Anne Larson (the "local" character mezzo who sang circles around everyone else - her Bertha and her Thisbe, not to mention her Quickly, still sit in my mind as the definitive versions of those roles), along with the spectacular Nova Thomas (the greatest "Donde lieta" I'll ever hear) returned year after year to Indianola to make memorable music in the middle of Iowa. The middle of Iowa, not even in Des Moines, (in Indianowhere as we used to call it!) Why? Was it Robert? Was it singing in that unique theatre? It certainly couldn't have been the artist fees or the high heat and humidity.

I think that there was a palpable sense of community, of family, that was created by the chemistry of the artists, the artistic staff, Stewart, Doug and Robert. It was a unique group of people, from all over the U.S. (and Glasgow in Stewart's case). This community was disassembled during the years following Doug's untimely death in 1988. I was there from the summer of 1984 thru to 1988, then returned in 1990 and again in the mid 90s. People left, things changed, the community changed and grew apart, as is natural. I had started there behind the lobby bar, moving pianos and Xerox machines, taking notes for RLL at his feet in the pit, and later moved on appearing onstage in my first professional role, Turandot's father, Emperor Altoum, being a rehearsal pianist for shows like Boris Godunov and conducting a performance of Albert Herring (my one and only time in that glorious pit!) DMMO was my first operatic family and its community was my operatic Midwestern small "home" town where I got the chance to grow up, immersed in opera.

Stewart went off to Glimmerglass and made a conscious effort during his twenty years there as Music Director to create his own unique community. I was lucky to be a part of it for many seasons. There was a core music staff that returned year after year. Unbelievably talented pianists, coaches, administrative interns, and assistant conductors and directors flourished next to Lake Otsego. I think many, especially the young artist returnees, felt a special quality to the Glimmerglass community sequestered each summer in upstate New York. A combination of rehearsing in un-air-conditioned venues, sitting in intense heat listening to recitals in Cherry Valley, freezing our arses off during late night piano dress rehearsals in the theatre, and eating Alex&Ika's duck curry all added up to creating an experience one had to embrace fully, or resent each day otherwise. Years of knowing our colleagues really helped when the goings got tough, the schedules got tougher, or the singers needed help or advice for successfully navigating a long and challenging summer. Some of my fondest memories are of the YAAP recitals played by the likes of Timothy Hoekmann (certainly one of the greatest collaborative pianists of his generation), Mark Trawka, Laurann Gilley, David Moody, or the legendary Dan Saunders.

After I left Glimmerglass, I worked many places and found myself in various other communities, some quite enriching, some challenging, some supportive, and others totally alien to my way of thinking.

The Opera McGill community has a flow in and out of it because of the students starting their studies and then, inevitably, graduating and moving on, but the core stays - the coaches, voice instructors, and especially the Opera McGill designers. Vincent Lefevre, his wife Ginette Grenier and I have designed almost 50 operas together in ten years. That's an amazing amount of opera to do together! Our community is tight and their artistic expression and mine weave in and out of each other like a beautiful tapestry.

And then last month I spent three weeks in Toronto for Opera5's immersive, unique, bizarre, deafening, manic, wondrous, crazed, yet brilliant Die Fledermaus in an, I'll be honest, ugly venue (918 Bathurst) conducting the best pick-up orchestra I've ever had the pleasure of making music with (more on that later) with a cast and chorus who gave one of the most spirited and alive performances I've ever been a part of recently.

The cast and production team came from all over - Ireland, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Newfoundland, and even the U.S. - many of whom didn't know each other well. However, the core group knew each other very well. The artistic vision of Opera5 is led by Aria Umezawa. The general director is Rachel Krehm. Both went to McGill and after graduation, returned to Toronto where they, and three others, founded Opera5 (one of a dozen or so "independent opera" companies in the GTA). Opera5 put themselves on the map with the creation of their tongue-in-cheek "Opera Cheats" YouTube video series. These hilarious videos have had over 100,000 combined views and major opera companies now link to them. If you haven't seen one, I urge you to click here and check them out. Here's the link to their recent Hoffmann video: OperaCheat for Hoffmann

Come to find out, in addition to creating unique opera productions in the GTA and those Opera Cheats, what their real genius seems to be is assembling and nurturing fantastic communities of people. It's a rare gift, fyi, as the ability to put people together and get them to really feel like an "interacting population with common interests, goals, history or culture" is one of THE most important elements to running any successful opera company. Casting is important, yes, but if that cast doesn't jive with themselves or with members of the production team, there's little one can do but get through the performances while gritting your teeth.

But Opera5's community is different than any I've been seen before. It is quite youthful, almost obliviously naive as to how opera usually gets done. An energy that's very Buffy the Vampire Slayer: irreverence played up against the stolid traditions of O.P.E.R.A. It was a breath of fresh air for me, even though I felt like the odd man out - namely because I was twenty years older than anyone else in the room!

I admit that I was put off by so much right off the bat (excuse the pun). For instance, it drove me crazy that everyone congregated around the rehearsal table before, during, and after rehearsals. For those who might not know, the rehearsal table is a place for the director and their production team to gather, watch rehearsals, and work from in order to create with the cast. It's where we put our stuff and where we sit in judgment. It's certainly not a place to constantly socialize. However, Opera5's rehearsal table was a place where everyone - team, chorus members, cast - congregated (on both sides of the table!) to sit, watch, eat, and talk. It drove me crazy.

Yet it was a place that obviously helped build this Fledermaus community. People brought in shared meals, treats, and snacks. Everyone was equal there; there seemed no false hierarchy (director, then AD, then PSM, then ASMs, then others like designers and interns) at the table with lowly singers put into the corners of the room in chairs by themselves. It allowed everyone to be on equal footing and that allowed everyone to be free to create.

This Fledermaus was truly a collaborative effort, particularly because Aria left for the Merola program before the show moved to the venue. The chorus was asked to improv their way through interactions with audience members and they really were responsible for making those interactions come to life. The dialogue was initially rendered by Aria, but over the course of rehearsals everyone had a part in cutting, reworking, or rewriting the book. They were all so comfortable with each other that by the time the orchestra was added, spontaneous ideas flowed between everyone. Now I'm not saying that this does not happen other places, I've certainly witnessed fantastic collaborative efforts before, but I think this flow was different. It was much more egalitarian, much less controlled, much less judged, much more millennial, in the best sense of that word. If one can aim a criticism at Millennials it is that they think all opinions are valid (except anything that seems un-PC, which lately seems to be about everything, mind you), but for the most part ideas were tried out and allowed to fail, or to succeed, or to wither and then evolve. The orchestra and I, on a whim, even added a drunken waltz at the top of Act 3 to underscore Frank's drunken entrance. I conducted drunk and they played drunk. It was hysterical.

Here's a pic taken during that moment (yes, by an orchestra member):

The orchestra - another great example of positive community building! Amazing players (most from either Kingston Symphony or Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony) who played with terrific musicality and were remarkably together, considering the venue's acoustics and placement of the singers (mostly behind me). They played with an energy that was also very generous and giving. For instance, when the audience got too loud on our closing night, the orchestra just started to play louder so that the singers could hear the music, something that many other orchestras (especially pickup orchestras) might not have cared to do.

Not caring is a disease running rampant in our business (especially among singers, orchestral players, and administrators). I think an antidote to this problem can be found in community building.

For you see, many of the singers and players had already taken part in previous productions for Opera5 and so they had previously invested their time and energy into the company and the audiences. They understood the company's goals and artistic vision. For instance, when the orchestra was asked to dress in anything other than traditional black, they showed up in purple wigs, feather boas, tropical shirts, and tiaras. 

It goes without saying that when you are surrounded by people who are enjoying themselves while they are making music, the music that is made can be incredibly satisfying.

And that's what building a community of people gets you in opera.

So my advice to all is to surround yourself with positive and talented people who are interested in creating something together and then - here's the biggest part - invite them back again and again and again. Obviously not everyone all the time (that'd be impossible), but what's wrong with having the feeling of a "rep" company? It works for summer stock festivals. It worked for Arthur Freed making musicals at MGM in the 40s and 50s. It worked for Steve Jobs at Apple. It worked for Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, composers who loved writing many different roles for the same singers.

Why do some opera companies constantly hire different singers year after year? I think it's because they mistake novelty with marketing excitement. I'd argue there's a point to putting the same singer on the same stage year after year: audiences like to feel that they too are part of a community. Enjoying a singer's artistry in different productions from season to season is a very easy way to connect audience members with the company's sense of community. It literally builds an audience.

If there's anything we know in opera, it is that it most undoubtedly takes a village! So find a village, even if that means volunteering at first, or singing in the chorus, or being an ASM. Or take from Aria's and Rachel's handbook and build one yourself. Think not about what operas you'd put on, or who you'd cast, or where you'd perform. Instead, think about what sort of people you want at your table. Start there.

And bring roasted chicken or cookies or both.