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Friday, June 8, 2018

A Varna Bulgaria STREET SCENE!

I've been in Varna, Bulgaria now for 20 days. Wow. It's been an amazing three weeks and time has certainly flown by, like the Black Sea waves crashing onto the fantastic beaches just minutes from my hotel room.

What brings me to Varna? Why, the Bulgarian premiere of Kurt Weill's Street Scene. Shocking to think that it's never been done in this country, given that it premiered on Broadway in 1947, but when one gets to know the piece it's understandable. It's the perfect example of a hybrid piece of theatre: neither a musical, as it takes operatic voices to handle the four major leads, nor an opera (a few too many big music theatre dance numbers). For years, I've used it as my answer to the endless question, "What's the difference between a musical and an opera?" My answer: "There's no tap dancing in opera. That's why Street Scene is more a musical."

However, after working on this piece here, I have to modify my thoughts. Street Scene, even though it won a Tony Award for Best Original Score and had a cast of primarily Broadway actors in it, is more a slightly-flawed opera than a pure piece of musical theatre.

Why the 'slightly-flawed' description? For me, the show doesn't know what it is. For sure, it was one of the great first experiments combining the opera/musical worlds that continued on through Blitzstein (Regina in 1948), Bernstein (West Side Story, Trouble in Tahiti), Menotti (The Telephone, The Medium, The Consul), and even into today with some of the recent Heggie and Guettel works.

Is Street Scene, at its core, the traumatic story of a jealous husband murdering his wife? Is it a look into post WW2 New York City, foreshadowing the Red Scare and the anti-immigrant feelings that festered there? Is it a light-hearted look at the milieu of immigrants (The Ice Cream Sextet, for instance) or is it a tragic romance between a young, smart New York Jew (Sam Kaplan) and his I-wanna-leave-NY girlfriend destroyed by her parent's dysfunctional marriage (Rose Maurrant)? In between these stories there is a tapestry of amazing Broadway songs ("Wouldn't ya like to be on Broadway?" and "Moon-faced, Starry-eyed"), massive operatic arias (an aria for Trumpsters: "Let Things Be Like They Always Was" and the poetic "Somehow I Never Could Believe"), with classic songs "Lonely House" and "What Good Would the Moon Be?" all thrown in together.

Curiously, the first act is a wee bit too long, but contains ALL of the great songs, arias, and dances. The second act, for me, is where the piece unravels a bit. The libretto forces too many people together to precede the jealous double homicide, and then can't come up with enough emotional - or logical - reasons to make sense of Rose's decision to leave the city and strike out on her own (abandoning her younger brother Willy to a life without a mother, father, or sister btw!) With that said, it all hangs together just enough to make a very moving and wonderful evening in the theatre!

People sometimes think I get too judgemental about music, opera, and composers. I think it's important to be objective about the operas I'm working on so that I can see them clearly. The minute I get into a love affair with a piece (like Nozze or Bohème), it can be dangerous for me as the stage director or conductor. There are very few perfect shows, but tons of truly excellent ones that give so much to audiences, performers, and to the history of entertainment. Street Scene is one of those amazing pieces, with an imaginative premise -- putting an entire show onto a New York City street, coupled with Weill's musical genius and theatrical chops that makes one understand why it stands the test of time.

I'm hoping that the Bulgarian audiences will enjoy it here in their delightful city situated right on the Cherno More (Black Sea).

I've had some time to myself here and have gotten to know a small part of this large city. It sits on the East Coast of Bulgaria, almost directly north of Istanbul making this the furthest East I've ever been. The people are gracious and extremely polite, except when in line for gelato. There it is the aggressive customer that gets served first! And I have to put in a word for the Varna gelato -- it is AMAZING. Best gelato I've had anywhere. A few pics of my sight-seeing around the city:

There's a lot of fish, not surprisingly, on the menus here and there are these cute little sardine-type fish that get brought in daily from the Black Sea called SKAG. They fry them up whole and are delicious - heads, spines and all! In addition, I've found excellent Turkish grills, a cool sushi place right on the beach (yes, sushi here is quite good), in addition to the Bodega where most of us eat our lunch (it's one of those Argentinian-type meat places where they bring you the cuts right on the spit).

The fish and the Bodega:

All of this food and drink comes incredibly cheap. The Bulgarian currency, the lev, is not doing well against the dollar or Euro, so even though a whole fish dinner might be priced at 15lev, that makes it like $11 U.S. Therefore, if you're looking for a cheap European getaway with beaches and TONS of hot sun, good food, low crime, and lots to see and do, head to Varna!

My one negative has been my health. It's hot and humid here, and we rehearse in an un-airconditioned space where the wafting cigarette smoke (it seems all Bulgarians smoke) makes it into the second story windows. One morning, after working a bit of a dance number, I got dizzy and then dizzier, and then came full on vertigo. I've never experience that and never want to again. My colleagues thought it was low blood sugar or a blood pressure problem. I thought I was having a stroke or heart attack (I was white as a sheet and sweating profusely). Needless to say, I got back to the hotel and AC, they called a doctor, and I had an injection of something right there in my hotel room. I will tell the whole tale in another blog, I promise (as well as the tale of how my lighting session happened in the theatre and the fun challenges of working in a language you do not speak!)

The 5:58am Varna sunrise over the Black Sea from my window:

Needless to say, I'm feeling much better but spend most of my time off in my cool hotel room looking out the window at the Black Sea. Our premiere is two nights away, and the U.S. Ambassador is coming to the show! I've got a formal kilt ready to go, as I have maintained my 2018 "Kilt Trip" the whole time I've been in Bulgaria. Gotta admit, it's been tough to keep wearing the kilt here in the heat and humidity, as well as in a culture of machismo guys throwing lots of questioning looks.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

And I (might) know things now... A Varna blog

I'm in Varna, Bulgaria directing Weill's Street Scene (in its Bulgarian debut!) Working with a terrific team of talented singers who range from very green to some nicely seasoned artists. The show is a tricky one - neither a musical or an opera. Totally a hybrid and, therefore, dangerous: if the tone is too much one or the other it can falter. Push the musical numbers too far and the tragedy won't resonate. Push the harsh drama and the comedy might come across as glib. To be honest, I've never liked the piece, but am finding the challenge to be a terrific one, all surrounded by the AMAZING city of Varna! (I'll blog about this wonderful city soon!)

I've been thinking about an older blog I wrote, one from a few years ago. It's about teaching and learning. I thought, perhaps, it was time to publish it again. Here 'goes:

The great Stephen Sondheim wrote:

"And I know things now, many valu'ble things that I hadn't known before.
Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood, they will not protect you the way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers, and though scary is exciting,
nice is diff'rent than good." - Little Red from Into the Woods

I've repeated those last 5 words to many groups of people -- young artists gathering for the first time, students in a rehearsal for the first time, also privately to many young singers or pianists, and at many dinner parties. Some, not all, understand the sentiment.

Nice is indeed diff'rent than Good! These words came to mind recently again when a person who I'm sure thinks of themselves as a good person was causing another person to suffer greatly. They did it nicely and that's why I think they thought they were still doing good. Nope, not good at all. So I sang the song to myself, yet again. This time though, I started to think about the words at the start of the verse...

Those other lines are as interesting to ponder as well.

So I'd like to write about faith and singing. Yes, truly!

Putting one's "faith in a cape and a hood" is a lot like putting faith in a person or a process. It's important to know if you are putting faith in the process itself, or in the person responsible for said process.

Too general and vague?  I should get more specific...

Shamar Rinpoche once described the "4 Ways of the Wise":

1) Depend on the teaching, not on the teacher.
2) Depend on the meaning and not on the words.
3) Depend on the depth and not on the surface.
4) Depend on wisdom and not concepts.

These are four ideas perfect for talking about singing and the process involved in learning to sing.

1) Depend on the teaching, not on the teacher.
So true -- how many singers head to a specific studio to study with a certain teacher only knowing their name and reputation, but nothing about their technique or pedagogical philosophy? Too many think something like "Well, so-and-so won a huge voice competition so that means their teacher MUST know what they're doing!" Yes?!

Well, sometimes yes; sometimes no. Learning to sing is about many things, it is certainly not about studying with someone famous, or someone a singer might think will be politically the better choice. Those ideas are about furthering one's career either at a school or out in the big professional world. If you are still in need of technique, then make sure you are focusing on the teaching, not the teacher. If your teacher's teaching isn't making a positive impact in your singing, or if your teacher's teaching is too long a process ("stay with me and I will get you onto the Met stage with 6 hard years of work"), or overshadowed by other issues, like personality conflicts or too much psychological mumbo-jumbo they're not qualified to give, perhaps you should take your money elsewhere.

The same could be said of institutions. Depend on the teaching happening within those walls, not just on the reputation of those walls.

2) Depend on the meaning and not on the words.
This one is harder to understand. You have to access your instincts here. You have to listen between the lines and watch things you can only hear. It's about digging deeper. Into yourself, your score, your voice, your imagination. It's about trusting your own curiosity to ponder intent.

What are the intentions of your coach? Your teacher? The composer? The librettist? What are they trying to say that perhaps they can't articulate with words. Or notes. Or pitches. There's meaning all around us, yet we latch on to words only, all too often.

What does it mean when people in this business say things like, "Your vowels are too dark." "It's marked piano." "I think you're not right for Edgardo." "Your high notes will come when you're ready." "Think blue." "This is the only tempo that can work for this section." "You're just not ready."

Don't trust just the words. Look for the meaning behind them. Why are these words being said? Trust your instincts. Listen for meaning in the tone. Literally listen to the tone -- either of the person speaking, or the composer's choices of tone.

3) Depend on the depth and not on the surface.
This one's easy. Ponder an iceberg. It's surface is not at all what its full structure is. The superficiality of all of us is simply not what we are. Rossini is not all "I, IV, V chord progressions" as a colleague once described his music, nor is Menotti a bad composer (over-rated maybe...)

Diving deep into a score, into a libretto, into a character, into a design or concept -- this is what makes me happy to be living in this sea of opera. There's just SO MUCH DEPTH in opera! It never ceases to amaze me when someone says they "know" Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. Really? How is that possible? I've been living with that opera in my head since the 1980s and I wouldn't ever think I knew it! I'm still pondering the depths of Act 2. It'll keep my head spinning until I die, and that's just one part of one opera by one master composer. If you don't like uncertainty, if you want to know the answers, if not knowing something leaves you anxious or upset or feeling stupid, or if you think there are answers to be found by looking at those black dots on those millions of white pages, then please think about doing something else with your short life. Become a critic perhaps.

Operatic depth is infinite. You'll never know how far down the well goes where source material is concerned, for instance. Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream leads you, of course to Shakespeare's play of the same name, which leads you into the play within the play that ends the opera, the hysterical love story of Pyramus and Thisbe, in itself based on Ovid's "Metamorphosis" and which also is a precursor to the Romeo and Juliet star-crossed lovers story. All this leads to Shakespeare's education as a young man in the classics, and the next thing you know you're lost in Early Modernity.

Trying to figure out baroque treatises, or re-discovering Sir Charles Mackerras' landmark research on Mozart ornamentation (yes, take all the appoggiaturas), or frankly learning anything about anything connected with opera is a life-long expedition into the unknown worlds of religion, art, art history, world history, culture, biographies of kings, and the great literature of the last two thousand years.

Thinking that since you've learned your notes and texts means that you've learned your part, is truly delusional -- as delusional as thinking that the tip of the iceberg represents the true scale of its reality.

4) Depend on wisdom, not concepts.
Lots of concepts out there. Many are quite helpful. "Nice is different than good" is a concept. When I sing Little Red's aria from time to time, it reminds me to open my mind about situations not always being as they seem. Wisdom is, again, instinctual. What makes something wise as opposed to smart, witty, or a revelation? Wisdom is something you find, I think. It is all around us, but forgotten or temporarily invisible until our mind's eye ponders an idea and passes through the surface of the idea into a deeper understanding.

It's through a focused, and concerted effort to delve the depths of discovery that one can find wisdom. It is through understanding meaning and intention that one can begin to dive down below these surfaces all around us. These efforts teach us as much as any teacher could or can.

It's a palindromic effort, really. By going inward, one discovers an Undiscovered Country within, yet also all around us.

Off to get a cup of gelato (the best I've had outside of Italy), that only costs about $1.60 (USD). The food and drink in Varna is unbelievably affordable!
Довиждане !

Monday, February 12, 2018

Operatic Safe Spaces

I have a new motto for opera!

Opera: A Safe Space for Exploring Uncomfortable Ideas!

Let's define some of those words. 

Opera: stories told through singing in front of a public audience
A: an indefinite article
Safe: secure from danger
Space: any expanse where humans can congregate physically, musically, or intellectually
for: a preposition
Exploring: to examine for the purpose of discovery
Uncomfortable: a state of unease
Ideas: a conception in the mind that can be shared

Over the past few years, two phrases have percolated into the consciousness and policies of many in our western world: "Safe Space" and "I'm uncomfortable with fill in the blank".  Usually, once someone becomes uncomfortable, they now begin to feel unsafe. Being uncomfortable is seen as something almost dangerous, akin to an assault of some sort. To feel comfortable is now something seen as a positive ideal, in all things. But that's where a danger lies, at least for us artists trying to create new, innovative works of art (dance, theatre, opera, compositions, productions, paintings, etc.).

To create art, one must push past the comfortable. Nothing new ever came from a place of comfort. Even authors who work in comfortable surroundings (I'm one of those, currently sitting in front of a roaring fireplace sipping a bit of scotch) must move into areas of their intellect that are undiscovered countries, and therefore not at all comfortable, in order to write anything that's close to interesting.

All one has to do is read or watch actors talk about their process to understand that they run from the comfortable. Viola Davis and Meryl Streep are just two who jump to mind. They've gone on record to say that if they find themselves acting from a place of comfort, their work in front of the camera will be terrible. The same if you read interviews with composers, writers, sculptors - literally anyone who creates. Comfort is not sought, in fact it is seen as quite dangerous. When Armie Hammer was interviewed about taking the part of Oliver in this year's amazing film "Call Me By Your Name", he said "It scared me. It made me nervous. The reason I had to do this project was because it made me feel uncomfortable."

I've blogged about running towards what scares you (It's called "Fear In Opera".) I really believe this and know it to be true! 

It is a truism that during the learning process there will be many moments of discomfort. Just the physicality of singing is not normal. No one sustains screams on organized pitches set to poetry in order to communicate ideas in real life. That's opera! In order to do so, one has to work hard to learn the music itself (this is seldom easy), work to pronounce the text correctly (not comfortable), work to memorize the music and text (not comfortable), and then once staging rehearsals begin even more discomfort comes into play: learning the blocking, stage combat (not comfortable and initially can be physically dangerous), simulating emotions from love to rage to grief (any emotion that might be 100% comfortable is certainly not very interesting on the operatic stage), or simulating physical love onstage (truly not comfortable -- put your hand here, embrace sideways while still singing loud high notes into each other's faces, practicing kissing, slapping, or formalized bowing, oftentimes timed to a musical score's tempo controlled by another uncomfortable entity, the conductor!) Most of the parts of creating an opera are the opposite of comfortable. 

Now over the course of rehearsals, many of these things become incredibly comfortable, or at least manageable. That's what rehearsal is for and that's why we rehearse. Yet, I find some young singers don't understand that notion. If something is asked of them - for instance, cross to stage left and throw a handkerchief at someone - and if it might feel uncomfortable, then a judgement sometimes gets made that it should not be attempted because it makes them (themselves, usually not their character) feel uncomfortable. Instead of trying it (i.e. rehearsing it), the idea is dismissed and another more comfortable idea is explored instead, oftentimes without giving the initial idea a try.  (Even writing that paragraph and knowing someone will read it with the intention to prove that those ideas are wrong is really uncomfortable for me!) I'm not talking about rehearsing in an arena of non-consent. Consent is a totally different subject and extremely important in order to make everyone in the room comfortable and at ease. If people are currently rehearsing in a space without a dialogue about consent, then everything should stop and that conversation should happen. Why? It's 2018, that's why.

And that's one of the paradoxes about comfort and learning. In order to really act, one needs to feel at ease. The environment of the rehearsal space creates this feeling of, for lack of a better word, comfort. But once everyone moves into this safe space of comfort, we have to be able to start exploring the uncomfortable. This is an important detail. It's why actors love working with certain directors, why singers love working with certain conductors. There is a state of ease at play, a sense that everyone will be taken care of somehow, so that all can do their best work possible. And often that best work is found in uncomfortable places.

Why would someone ask someone else to feel uncomfortable? Being asked to be uncomfortable is now seen by some as akin to assault. Part of the problem is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to have conversations about polarizing ideas, as well as understanding the difference between the person in the rehearsal and the character being rehearsed. (The latter half of that sentence is the important part.)

There is a difference here. In opera we explore ideas that are meant to entertain a public audience. Opera is, as I love to say, "never about the day nothing happened." Opera is never about singing emotions that are boring, pleasant, or comfortable. These characters being sung by operatic performers are oftentimes terrible people, or victims, or assholes, or abusers. or family, or gods and goddesses, or queens, or supernatural beings, or regular people caught up in an irregular moment or event. But singing Tosca does not require the soprano to be at one with murdering a potential rapist and become a suicidal diva who sings one of the great final lines in all of opera before leaping to her death. There is a separation between subject and player, character and singer.

One of the failures of education today is showing up more and more whenever I work with young singers: an inability to understand the rational and irrational ideas present in all the elements of their art form.  Teaching critical thinking and problem solving (the rational) as well as allowing students to explore their imagination and emotional inner lives (the irrational) seems to be lacking in many backgrounds of singers I now work with -- mind you, not just in the academic world, but with the professional young artists and artists that I've worked with recently. It is becoming more and more a challenge to get singers to see beyond the score, to imagine worlds not present, to sing horizontal phrases that aren't tied to vertical beats, to act on the edge of emotions, to make audacious choices, to explore dangerous ideas and ideals that are, I clear my throat, uncomfortable.

If one wants to be a success, to innovate, to put themselves ahead of the pack, to make themselves heard and seen above the rest, to be known as a creative artist or exciting performer, one has to run towards what scares you. One has to runaway from the comfortable and easy choices, the things that make everyone else stay happily in their safe arenas. 

Because, you see, if one deems a space "safe", it actually deems all other spaces "unsafe". How about a crazy idea? All spaces should be "safe"? Is that possible? I believe it should be, at least in the artistic arena of the rehearsal space and the operatic stage. Safe from comfort. Safe from easy choices that make no one think beyond themselves. Safe from accepting the status quo. Safe from emotional restrictions and physical repressions. But especially, safe from censorship.

The operatic process could become a tool to reteach the world how to free themselves. To teach the world that it is okay to be both rational and irrational. Maybe that might make the world a safer place for ideas, thoughts, and differences of opinions. 

Opera could help teach the world to become a safe place to explore uncomfortable ideas.