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Friday, March 25, 2022

Don Giovanni: The Monster

    Mozart's score for "Don Giovanni" is arguably his most sophisticated, emotional, and forward-looking opera. There are moments of such Germanic emotionalism underscored by his wonderful canvas of chromaticism and Sturm und Drang elements that foreshadow Beethoven, von Weber, Bellini, Berlioz, Verdi, and of course, Wagner. Da Ponte's libretto is also one of his best, mixing dark drama with many moments of giocoso (playfulness). Mozart even labeled it a dramma giocoso when it premiered in Prague at the National Theatre of Bohemia in 1787 (later entering it into his catalogue as an opera buffa.) The blending of comedy, melodrama, and supernatural elements is also a forerunner of the 19th century Gothic fiction by Mary Shelley, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, and Bram Stoker.

    But it has a problem, a big problem.

    For most of its life as a performed opera for the public, audiences have historically been entertained by the story of Don Giovanni, loosely based on the myth of Don Juan as well as the real-life Casanova, as a simple tale of the rake-seducer of women who ends up being punished for his libertine life by being taken directly down to Hell by the supernatural figure of the Stone Guest who he has invited to dinner and who enters in during the act two finale with some of the most famous music ever written. Many women who are patrons and opera lovers of a certain age have told me that they find the idea of a grand seducer quite a positive figure to love/hate onstage. For others, they wonder why the show is done anymore. 

    Why? Because Don Giovanni seduces women, sleeps with them, and then dumps them so that he can find a new lover. This was a libertine notion, and certainly not foreign to the Europeans who first saw the opera as it spread across the world and gained in popularity. According to Giovanni's servant, Leporello, he has done this not just hundreds of times, but over a thousand times; all over Europe. Reading a translation of Leporello's aria "Madamina..." is like reading a horror story of tricked women, many of whom were most likely taken against their will or at least slept with him under false pretensions (promises of marriage in particular). The loss of a woman's honor was a huge, massive and often completely devastating loss to her and her family.

    So why was it such a popular opera, given that the first thing that happens is a chase scene where Giovanni's latest conquest is following him out of her house late at night as he is fleeing masked? This is a scene that has, over the recent years especially, become quite complicated to stage. Did Anna ask him up? Did he break in to force himself on her? What happened right before the opera's curtain goes up? There's nothing in the libretto, only later do we get Anna's story where she tells her fiancé that a man she did not know appeared in her room, tried to force himself on her, and then finally tried to get away because she was screaming. We also meet one of his spurned women, Donna Elvira, who has chased him to Seville to either exact revenge, or plead with him to renounce his life and return to her. During the course of the opera we witness another seduction, that of the peasant (and recently married) Zerlina whom he later attacks in his castle. In act two, Giovanni sings a serenade under a window in order to get a woman to let him in. Is this his modus operandi? Serenade women with a mandolin and then take their virginity? And how is that anything to applaud or think might be something to turn into a beautiful moment onstage? Giovanni himself talks about how wonderful a night he's had "hunting young girls".

    Giovanni is a monster.

    So as the stage director for a "Giovanni" production, what am I to do with not just his character, but the whole piece? The music is too fantastic to jettison this opera from the repertoire but the subject matter is way too traumatic to put on the stage, especially with students who are very aware of #MeToo, the PTSD involved in sexual harassment and assault, let alone the trauma of presenting this onstage to others.

    So I've taken Giovanni the monster and made him an actual monster in my production, one who lives in a completely fictional world of vampires.

    This idea came to me ten years ago when I was mounting a semi-staged production at McGill. I explored the idea, it was somewhat successful, and then I put it away. However, once we decided to produce it again at McGill, it was clear I needed to address the issues that made the piece untenable to many of my students. 

    If one looks at the libretto, one finds a large number of references to blood. Anna sees the pool of blood around her murdered father, the Commendatore. Anna demands of her fiancé that they kill the offender and make his blood flow. Elvira shows up demanding vengeance of a kind that can only happen by Giovanni being killed. Giovanni talks about hunting young women. Leporello talks about a "flush of blood" during the act two finale. 

    And what is this assault Giovanni makes? It is to murder a woman's honor, something so awful for so many centuries, that a part of their self dies too. During the Gothic era, when vampire tales became extremely popular, it was clear that the metaphor for a vampire being invited into the house by his victims, biting and sucking their blood in the bedroom, and then flying away as a bat or running away as a wolf into the night, was mostly about sex. Vampires have been sexualized ever since they changed from the eastern European nosferatu monster who lives in cemeteries into a dapper, sexy, gentlemanly Count Draculas who seduce women and then kills them. This sexy vampire character is now all over present-day media, books, film, and tv - from Anne Rice's "Interview with a Vampire" to those many angsty-teenage stories of High School heartthrob vampires found all over the world.

    It then transforms the piece to remove the sexual assault and replace it with actual assault where a literal, supernatural predator is out there hunting women to kill them. It makes clear that everything Giovanni is doing is terrible and monstrous. There is no room for "oh, but his serenade in Act Two is so melodic and lovely" because he's under that window trying to get a woman to invite him in so he can kill her.

    In order to adjust the opera for this concept, I have placed it in the Victorian, Gothic period of the 1880s in Bohemia so that the supernatural elements can seem more at home. Giovanni lives in an abandoned castle falling apart next to a grave yard. Donna Elvira is a 19th century Buffy-the-vampire-slayer who arrives in town hunting Giovanni, loaded with weapons to kill him. She shows up with a crossbow, a bag of stakes, a crucifix, garlic, holy water, a knife, and a pistol with lots of silver bullets. She is here to kill him. The Commendatore dies not by a sword fight, but by shooting five bullets into Giovanni's body as he walks toward him, unaffected, and them is attacked in the classic vampire way - he is drained of blood and dies. For me, the move into the fictional world of the vampire works quite well for this particular character since he shows up as the invited Stone Guest - a supernatural figure. In the world of a vampire, if you are bitten you might end up UnDead. So the Commendatore's reappearance at the end of the opera is just another vampire seeking revenge on his maker.

    There are many other implications with this concept. One of the biggest is how I treat the serenade at the top of Act Two. No longer is it "cringy" watching a potential rapist try to get invited in while we all listen to this gorgeous serenade sung by a lovely baritone. I show it now as part of his supernatural powers. Vampires were known to be able to hypnotize, so I show another woman (the owner of a tavern next to the other building) coming under Giovanni's "spell" (his voice), and being pulled toward him against her will. We clearly understand he is there to kill, and so he does; just as the accompaniment to his serenade ends he attacks her and she dies. Will there be applause after that aria I wonder? Should there ever be applause after that aria when one thinks about its implications?

    Other transformations: Instead of a big feast of food at a table in the act two finale, we see dead bodies lying around as servants bring in peasants for Giovanni to feast on. He drinks their blood and even talks about what great wine he is being served. We see his voracious appetite for death on display as happy orchestral music is played from various operas known to audiences at the time. But perhaps the biggest change for a character in this concept is Leporello.

    How complicit is Leporello in the original libretto? Is he forced to do his master's bidding? There are a few times when it is clear that Leporello tries to emulate his master's behaviour (resulting in getting slapped at Zerlina's wedding by one of her friends). He so often starts a scene by saying he's going to leave his master because he is fed up with his life and his master's morals. Yet he doesn't. He is strangely tied to Giovanni. In my vampire-Giovanni world, Leporello is a Renfield type of character who is caught under the vampire's spell.

    I'm not sure if this concept answers other questions about the morals of the piece when seen through a 2022 lens, but it has been an interesting one to explore with the designers and the student cast members.

    As well, I hope that our audiences enjoy the choices of our music director, Stephen Hargreaves, who has led the students to create the most highly ornamented Don Giovanni I've ever been a part of.

    And remember -- vampires aren't real.

 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Paths of Sewanee

Written the morning of July 17, 2021 at the Blue Chair Cafe, Sewanee Tennessee

Paths of Sewanee

The clouds roll by as I step out for a morning walk in Sewanee.
Sleek shiny black skinks greet my bleary eyes as the bird song awakens my ears to their frenzy.
The morning sun waking me hours after waking the birds thrilled to meet another day.
Eating handfuls of wild raspberries growing by the haunted graveyard, crossing the path of Mr. Grumpy Turtle and a nervous, twitching little rabbit; I walk.
From deeper in the wood, movement happens and just as we exchange looks, a young fawn leaps away.
But mostly, and because they permeate Sewanee, it's the trees that silently make their presence known. 
The oaks courageously standing watch over the woods.
The exhalation of the forest spreads a kind of delicious, sweet air that I take in with every other step.
Breathing in the trees.
An exchange of sorts between their ancient wisdom and my ancient knees.
Paths open and close.
Drizzle.
Rain.
The heat of the sun.
All blend together morning after morning.
Then another music starts up, joining the bemused bird choruses of cardinal clicks, chick-a-dee-dee-dees; as the locusts' gnarly sounds rise to join the crickets: Another exchange begins, another complex interplay for the day as a lone tuba warms up on a bench outside, exploring their own paths of sound.
Another kind of sharing.
The singers start their warmups inside stone walls as a meadow of pianists fly across their keyboards in whirls of scales. 
The conductors wave their magic wands of birch in front of eager young magicians creating sounds from air, from metal, from wood, from horsehair.
A magic permeates Sewanee.
Courageous young musicians exploring their own unique paths via our many musical tour guides;
Following the maps of trails created by composers - some from long ago, some forgotten in time, some emerging as saplings from their own thousands of forests strewn across the world.
Music.
From under a canopy of green, vistas open before us - of majestic valleys and skies;
From under a canopy of symphonies and arias, real and imagined vistas open before us - visions created from sound that stir the soul.
And more steps are taken, magical and musical.
And more of the forest unfolds along these paths in Sewanee, visited by echoes of Beethoven, Verdi, and Williams; 
Echoing down into Abbo's Alley where children still dance to the music of the trees.
Listen.

Friday, March 26, 2021

My personal Opera Quest

    At the end of the movie "Eat, Pray, Love", Julia Roberts narrates the point of her journey. (If you haven't seen the movie, it's okay. The "eat" part is a wonderful journey through Rome that will make you crave pasta, the "pray" part is okay but has problems because of a whole crap load of fat-shaming references aimed at Julia (really?!), and the "love" part is my wife's favourite part - mostly because of Julia's love interest embodied by a man who cries, calls his children 'darling' as well as kissing them on the mouth. She sees me in Javier Bardem's character, who I'm nothing like on the outside, but quite the same on the inside.

Anyway -- the point of the journey gets narrated over a lovely musical theme and a montage of her biking to reach her love. This is what is said --

            "The rule of Quest Physics goes something like this: If you're brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting - which can be anything from your house to bitter, old resentments - and set out on a truth-seeking journey (either externally or internally); and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue; and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher; and if you are prepared most of all to face and forgive some very difficult realities about yourself, then the truth will not be withheld from you. [pause] I can't help but believe it, given my experience."

It's a good quote. And an interesting one when looked at through the operatic lens.

To perform an opera, one needs to rehearse it. During rehearsals - if they are rehearsals with good intentions and solid collaborations - the singers, director, and conductor often search to find the truth of the story, or a phrase, or a moment, or a vocal choice. To find that truth often takes a combination of a few things: 1) Vulnerability, 2) the Courage to Fail, 3) the Courage to Stand by One's Ideas, and 4) Acceptance that one doesn't have all the answers. It's a quest of sorts.

Vulnerability is not weakness. It is the opposite. Those of use who have consistently tried to be honest, open, and vulnerable in our collaborations often face exposing ourselves to criticism. People nowadays seem to want answers, not questions. The vulnerable ones have to ask questions in order to seek answers. And - newsflash - asking questions does not guarantee answers! 

As Hemingway once said, "The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed." I've certainly been feeling quite vulnerable trying to create opera during this pandemic. A few have been quick to point out that I'm not doing everything as easily as I used to pre-pandemic. It's easy to cast critiques my way because I've forgotten to do this, to proof that, to administrate contracts, to return email, to get others onboard, to get decisions made, etc. It's been an impossible job to do, yet I set out on a very specific quest this year -- to produce an unprecedented amount of opera for my students at McGill. This quest has left me feeling exceptionally fragile while at the same time feeling unbelievably proud.

The Courage to Fail is just that. Allowing yourself to see failure as a good thing, a teacher, a learning experience. When one fails - in small ways or in big ones - one can move forward a little bit easier knowing that you know things now, many valuable things, that you've never known before... To put it mildly, I've learned a shitload of new things this year that I never knew I'd ever need to know, want to know, or be able to teach to others who also needed to know,

The Courage to Stand by One's Ideas is a vital part of any quest. How does one question anything or anybody unless you've got a starting place, a home, somewhere that feels familiar and comfortable? Because to stand by your ideas means you're going to have to enter through unfamiliar doors and get into uncomfortable spaces to test yourself, your ideas, your mettle, your resilience. It's been my resilience that's gotten me through these long months. I've discovered an inner strength that was always there externally. My work ethic was always a mix of some strange ability to get up at 6am everyday and push through till midnight day after day after day, juggling multiple projects, without getting fatigued physically. However this year has been about a mental fatigue all of us recognized soon enough: zoom fatigue, the eye fatigue of screen time, email fatigue, and the psychological fatigue of being disconnected from other humans. I've had to discard quite an awful lot of my ideals, which have left a small amount of extremely strong ideals that have become pillars supporting me through this past year.

Acceptance is hardly talked about anymore. "God grant me the strength to accept what I can not change." is a mantra for millions. For many years, my mantra was "Patrick grant me the strength to change what I can not accept." Through sheer force of will, I've managed to change quite a lot in my years on this planet. But this year has made me question the sanity of trying to make changes - in people, in programs, in places - that aren't mine to push onto others. I've accepted that perhaps my next move forward is to stop pushing for change in others and to start pushing for change in my self, but especially my life.

For you see, I've been on an Opera Quest and not known it! I know I'm brave enough to leave behind the familiar and comforting because all of us in opera do this every time we open a new score to learn it, or open up an old score to re-think it. This is how we can re-discover "La Travaita" year after year -- by leaving behind our comfortable, familiar ideas of this masterpiece and diving back into it as a newbie would. I go on truth-seeking journeys every time I coach a singer, or imagine stagings, or raise my hands to conduct a downbeat. That's what all who live in opera days are filled with - lucky us! 

There is no truer statement than everyone we meet on our life's journey is a teacher. And what teachers I have had! I've blogged about a few - my first piano teacher Berneil Hanson, my humanities HS teacher RH Fanders, my master's piano teacher Joanne Baker, and my dear mentor of all things opera: Robert L. Larsen. And because my identity is very tied up into being a teacher, I see them in all of my bits and pieces and in all of my interactions with students. Teaching is also a journey, and the best evolve along that journey. I certainly have.

So the question arises, to follow the EPL quote from above -- have I been willing to face and forgive some difficult realities about myself? Yes - and my next pivot as a person will be in response to those realizations. My ego got some good bruisings this year. I've had to quite humbly admit I'm human and haven't been taking care of myself, my relationships. If I was a garden, I'd be a really cool and fabulous garden with tons of weeds growing and large sections looking quite neglected. Time to dig in, to dig up, to weed out, to replant, and to prune.

The truth has not withheld itself, it's just taken a year of a pandemic to make itself known to me.

And that's ultimately how truth in music happens. After hours and hours of practice, after endless discussions and coachings, after thousands of opinions tossed about - truth appears almost magically. But you need to be open, be honest, and be vulnerable to let truth show itself. And then, the hard part, face the truth, forgive yourself any failings, so that you can celebrate that truth as best you can.

What's the future hold for me? I think perhaps the same thing it did for Julia and Javier -- some private time on a boat far away from others holding the only truth I know: love and family.


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Singing in the Darkness

From time to time I think about how I started out in the opera business. I was very naive, very young, but certainly in love with the human voice, the art form, and all of the collaborative elements that poured into creating that operatic sonic thrill.

This happened in Indianola, Iowa. The home of Dr. Robert Larsen and his department of music at Simpson College and Des Moines Metro Opera, for which he was the founding artistic director. Dr. Larsen was an incredibly gifted pianist, an amazing director, an inspiring conductor, and a profoundly tireless professor, mentor, and leader.  We created opera in a very small department that was primarily populated by midwestern kids who'd never seen an opera, let alone knew how it was supposed to sound.  Because of this, we were free to sing it our way, free to make noises we thought were operatic, free to create art and characters (via texts in our own language - all of the opera was performed in English translations, or English operas by Britten and Menotti), free to express ourselves without the world looking on.  In a way, we were singing in a wonderful kind of darkness.

We didn't have a hyperawareness of the world's operatic landscape, unlike today where the light of opera can shine into every crevice of the internet. Working on Puccini's La bohème? There are hundreds of videos and recording to choose from just on Youtube. At Simpson, we had the Freni/Pavarotti LP recording. I loved listening to it when I was preparing to play Bohème for the first time (I was a Sophomore and had only played Hansel and Gretel plus a few scenes before heading into the listening library to take a listen to the whole opera.) I imitated what I heard and listened to my friends in the cast do their best with the challenging music (headed by remarkable singers - the Rodolfo, Mimi, and Musetta ended up working on the Lyric Opera of Chicago stage, as did a few of the younger choristers and myself years later!) It was a great weekend of Puccini; maybe a few hundred people saw it.

I do wish that young singers today had a chance to sing in the same sort of darkness; to be able to experiment, make sounds that don't work, fail sometimes - even in performances, but give it the ol' college try.  Nowadays so much importance is placed on each and every moment that I worry it straightjackets the artist part of the next generation of young singers' talent way too early. They get so worried about doing everything correctly, making no one upset at any of their choices (that thought never occurred to me, since I didn't know there were any "incorrect" choices except making Dr. Larsen unhappy by not knowing my music!), but especially, many are in a constant state of "fixing" something about their talent.

News Flash: Y'all ain't broken. There's nothing to "fix". You need chances to sing, to perform, to work out the wrinkles in your sound, or in your craft, or whatever combination of artisanal/artistic ingredients you need in order to move forward in your career paths.  Perhaps finding a place to work on these things, out of the way, or in non-traditional places/venues might be a better use of time and money? I'm not sure, but I do know that my time in the Indianola "darkness" was exceedingly enlightening, invigorating, and massively educational. I'm fond of saying that my years at Simpson gave me my 10,000 hours of opera, prepared me for doing what I do now professionally, and taught me more than most undergrad, graduate, and post-graduate programs combined.

Dr. Larsen is still living in Indianola, mostly retired I hear. I wonder if he really knows just how special his aesthetic was, how unique he and his students were?  I hope he does. He certainly was a shining operatic light for many. On a personal level, I think of Dr. Larsen as a kind of lighthouse sitting out on the shore of some operatic ocean. Whenever I'm a bit lost at sea, I remember back to those care free days when making music was just something that happened naturally and without very much effort. It reminds me that I can do anything - if I just relax, open the score, and begin.

UPDATE: Dr. Robert L. Larsen passed away on March 21, 2021. His students from all over the world are posting memories on Facebook. His passion for teaching touched tens of thousands of students and opera singers, for those thousands who were lucky enough to learn and/or work with him at Simpson or DMMO went on to become teachers of their own thousands of students, or to create professional careers that reached so very many. He left an indelible mark and I'm forever indebted to him. 

Rest In Peace dear Dr. Larsen!

Monday, November 2, 2020

Galaxy Quest, Schubert, and Mozart

 If you don't know the 1999 movie "Galaxy Quest", then this blog won't make a great deal of sense. I'll take the time to do a fast and furious lowdown on the movie so the the rest of the blog might hopefully resonate.

"Galaxy Quest" is one of those great cult films. A send-up of science fiction space movies - in particular the Star Trek universe and its fandom - it goes beyond simple parody and achieves an enormous humanity due to the smart script and the amazing cast: Alan Rickman, Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, to name just the few standouts (the best is Enrico Colantoni as Mathesar). It basically tells the story of a group of aliens (known as the Thermians) who view the telecasts of a sci-fi television series "Galaxy Quest" and think it's an actual documentary of true life. These aliens recreate the ship, make its technology totally work, venerate the crew, and yet the whole time they think it's all real, like actually real Earth history! The fact that these aliens are way more advanced than Earth makes it even funnier that they don't understand how the tv show was just a piece of entertainment, based on actors and screen writers. 

The crux of the movie is the intersection of the two sets of characters: the aliens and the actors. The aliens completely misunderstand the reason for the technology (televised, episodic sci-fi entertainment), but make it work in order to save themselves from annihilation. In fact, it works so well because it is entirely based on the lines of dialogue, the set pieces, the spaceship models, and the gestures of the original actors in the series. The actors are at first flabbergasted that the aliens exist and amazed that the tech actually works and is real. They stumble into the narrative of the Thermians trying to survive a war against evil aliens and find their new purpose - motivating the Thermians to help them create a new future while the actors learn to set aside their petty jealousies of the past and work together.

So now we are all up to speed. What the heck does "Galaxy Quest" have to do with Schubert or Mozart?

It occurred to me today that many in classical music are like those "Galaxy Quest" aliens: experts recreating an entertainment they think is actually art, not realizing that the whole raison d'etre was to entertain people. Recreating it without understanding this basic fact (the tv show wasn't real, i.e. art is entertainment), causes a whole cascade of errors to rain down upon both those re-creationists (artists) and their audiences.The aliens are like many of today's opera experts, pedagogues, critics, and aficionados.

Let me explain further. 

Often, young singers (and frankly other classical artists) meet up with mentors, coaches, and teachers who impress upon them the idea that they need to simply express the text and the score as it is on the page and as the composer intended. They are told: Don't put your ideas onto the page - particularly for geniuses like a Schubert or a Mozart - because that might deter from the composer's intent, or god-forbid, ruin an artistic masterpiece. "Who are we to...?" is a common defense from experts, and seems to be asked to make sure we venerate the frigid pages of classical scores.

This happens everywhere, and with such frequency it is difficult to combat.

When a coach tells a singer to always follow the Barenreiter edition's use of rests between parts of sentences in Mozart recitatives. When a masterclass artist tells a singer not to take time on this or that phrase because it's not marked in by Schubert. When a judge tells a singer not to ornament Mozart or take appoggiaturas in Mozart arias. When anyone steps in to restrain anyone trying to make an artistic choice because they either don't approve, or they don't see it on the page, or they might have their tastes offended, that's when I see a problem and think about those Thermians onboard their version of the Galaxy Quest spaceship.

The Thermians are focused on a past that doesn't really exist, but doing it with exquisite accuracy. They can use the technology themselves but need the Actors for their survival. (A good friend of mine after reading a draft of this blog pointed out that there are musicologists in this movie too: the diehard fans of the series whose knowledge of the technical details about the ship literally save the day.) Knowledge of the past is not enough, you need to have the the other pieces to get everything to work: you need the Actors. The entertainers who originally created the roles and made it all seem so real. Singers and musicians are those actors, (who can't live in the fake past because it is a set made out of wood, plastic and flashing lights.) They need the aliens as much as the aliens need the actors. Opera experts need the living artists. The living artists need the researchers (die-hard sci-fi fans) to help supply needed knowledge to understand the alien's current tech based on the past tech. One without the other creates a disconnect in the art itself. But - and here's the important part - they need to be equally valued and both need to realize the intersectionality that exists between entertainment, art, entertainers, artists, and especially the past and present. Making music is an act of re-creation, not an act of paint-by-numbers. The latter is a copy without any life present even though it might be the most accurate of recreations.

I have seen time and time again young singers be encouraged to be some sort of transparent vessel and just sing the notes and the text so as "not to get in the way of the composer." They stand and sing Schubert songs without telling stories, or engaging in those stories in any way that might be seen as "acting" (the big taboo in art song -- acting a song -- is the worst offense for many now teaching young singers.) And we wonder why recitals are no longer popular with the public. They are boring. There's no text, except maybe on a piece of paper in a small font that you can't read in the dimly lit mostly empty recital hall (projected titles in recitals PLEASE). The singers are dressed like they are in some sad recreation of a low-budget "Downton Abbey" episode (why are we still dressing like Edwardians yet yelling for classical music to de-colonize itself? How about starting by stopping this crazy period gown/tux dress codes for recitals?) Singers are being asked to envision a better future for classical music. I would encourage them to toss out their tuxedos and figure new modes of how to bring the incredible wealth of recital music to a contemporary audience.

Our expert "aliens" don't get that Schubert songs (or any songs, just using his as prime example) were not written to be put into recital-museums by gorgeously-gowned automatons who simply sing the notes as written, the text as typed out, and follow the markings that might be in the score. These were pieces of entertainment, not sculptures or paintings that never change once created by the artist. And as entertainment, they were meant to be shared in as many ways as possible by as many different levels of singers (amateur and professional) in absolutely different arenas (from literal arenas, to living rooms in Iowa, to the Australian outback, to student recitals.) It's time to recognize this and stop with the pretension.

And the same with opera - I'll use ornamenting a score as an example. Ornamentation? Yes, by all means. Study Pamina's aria and you'll understand it's Mozart ornamenting his own melody for a 17 year-old Pamina who probably didn't have it in her to do so on the stage, or know that she should take the appoggiaturas so he wrote them all in. Do some research into this and you'll quickly realize that singing Mozart without ornaments is a sad and old-fashioned mode of performance practice. In baroque opera it's totally accepted and expected. But ornaments (defined as any alteration to the score) in operas must happen in Gluck, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Gounod, Bizet, Meyerbeer, von Weber, Beethoven (yes kids), and well into Puccini (fight me on that and you'll lose.)

It'd be funny if it weren't for the fact that classical music and opera audiences are dying. We need to embrace the notion that we live and work from past entertainments made by professional entertainers like Shakespeare and Mozart. But now the experts have replaced the past with their new version called art. They teach the Kunst as Heilige Kunst, revere it on pedestals, and sadly prevent it from living, breathing and - most importantly of all - evolving so that today's audiences can discover it and hopefully fall in love with it!

So the aliens get points for making the starship actually work. But when they missed that one piece of information - it wasn't real to begin with - they entered into a dramatic situation where their lives and culture faced annihilation by the evil alien. It took the actors coming back into their "world" to save the day, save the universe, and save the aliens. The actors had to drop their own pretensions and recognize that they too faced annihilation unless they embraced their new reality by taking the past and making it work for them again.

It's time for the entertainers among us to save the day.

"By Grabthar's Hammer, by the sons of Warvan, you shall be avenged!" 

- Dr. Lazarus as played by Alexander Dane as played by Alan Rickman

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Power of SURE!

The Power of "SURE"! 

This mini-blog was originally a post I put up on Facebook about three years ago. I think it deserved a second outing. It's about a teaching philosophy, yes, but more so it is about optimism and opening doors for others. 

I'm so proud of former students conquering Canadian opera companies, singing on the stages of the Met, Royal Opera House, Opéra de Montreal, Canadian Opera Company, Paris Opera, and so so so many others; students conducting opera and musicals on and off Broadway, appearing on major television shows and in movies, directing and stage managing professionally from the west coast to the east coast; students starring in shows on and off Broadway, at Carnegie Hall, and in London's West End. So so so so many wonderful talents have graced me with their presence, work, and artistry. 

I've been asked if there was "a secret" to these successes. 

 And there is a secret: They were odd. 

They didn't fit the mold. Many were thought of as flawed in some fundamental way by others who were also a part of their education and training. Many had interests beyond their major (voice majors now conducting or directing, pianists now singing, music theatre majors interested in opera and vice-versa). Many were actually quite unsuccessful, initially. Many saw their peers fly high way before them and wondered if they should even pursue their interests and dreams. 

But almost all, when I actually sit and think of them, did something extraordinary at some vital point: They imagined a future with them in it, doing something no one might have expected them to do. 

Their worlds of success came from pure imagination, and - importantly - from being allowed opportunities based on potential, hard work ethic, and often simply just showing up and trying. 

At least that's how I see it. 

And it makes me so darn proud to have been a small part of opening initial doors to let them peek inside and catch a glimpse of what potentialities might lie ahead - beyond how they might've been viewing themselves at the time; beyond how others were viewing them or putting them in boxes. 

They taught me never, ever to toss students into boxes of "they are THIS" or "they are THAT". Pedagogues need to see beyond the snapshot presented to them each day by their students in order to help them imagine a future beyond their present self-images. 

A simple but courageous request by a Freshmen organ major or a senior music theatre major: "I'd really like to be a part of opera rehearsals", could easily be turned down by many who have rules and structures that might not allow it, or who are worried they have no experience or expertise to offer. Instead, my answer, "SURE" (which is always my answer) sent them off on a path that led both to international opera careers. 

Avoid, or better yet, ignore, those who tell you you're not ready. Walk away from those saying you should be more realistic with your goals or that you shouldn't over extend yourself. Knock on other doors and ask the question to someone else if you're getting a "not now" or a "you should focus on your major, on your voice, on your technique, on your....." 

And if you are the one being asked, try "SURE!" as an answer next time. It totally works for everyone, even if it doesn't work out or there's a failure involved in the pursuit of whatever they were attempting. Everyone gains from the answer "sure". Believe me! 

See its power in action! Unseen career paths can be illuminated with "sure". Unknown doorways are unlocked with "sure". Futures change with "sure". 

It's a word of power that gives power to others without taking any power from those saying it.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Time To Pivot: Auditions!

It is time for a radical shift in how professional opera young artist programs audition singers!

It is clear that artists of color have been facing racism in opera. It is clear that singers who come from lesser socio-economic backgrounds are facing financial barriers that singers who come from money, or are privileged in other ways, do not face. It is also clear that the Victorian legacy of requiring "letters of recommendation" places a burden on many singers who are outside of, or cannot access, the regular power hierarchy of academic or professional opera programs. 

It is clear that the current state of the art is not where it should be regarding finding more equitable ways to counter these crippling issues.

These issues (and there are many more like them) need to be examined in open spaces to keep the conversation from hiding behind closed doors – yet another hindrance to open communication. Systemic inequities in the field need to change, and this will take time. However, there might be one area where change could be quickly and effectively implemented to increase the accessibility and equity in opera: How we audition young artists!

My Thesis: Companies should hold blind audio auditions via a controlled YAP Tracker-type platform where the identity of the singer is entirely withheld from the person or company holding the auditions. 

What?! Blind auditions?! But we must see the singer to be able to cast them appropriately! 

Really? Well, yes and no.

This is how my idea might would work:

1) A singer uploads an audio file with an identifying number that is secured by an outside platform (perhaps provided by YAP Tracker). They also upload a separate video file of a certain number of arias, as required by the company.

2) The company rep (or even better, a committee) listens to the audio files (note: without knowing anything except the ID number). Once all of the files have been downloaded and listened to, the company then picks a certain % of files to move forward on, based solely on the sound of the singer's voice. I already hear the chorus of lamentations: “But opera is more than singing.” Yes, of course it is. I'm a stage director. I get that. But let me tell you -- you can HEAR quite a lot of acting choices in the voice. You can HEAR connection to text. Just listen to any great singer and you can see with your ears. (I've blogged about seeing with your ears and hearing with your eyes before, so this should not be a surprise to anyone who knows my writing, or has sat in a masterclass with me.)

THEN -- This next "round" of auditions moves to video. Again, just ID numbers. No CV, no bio, no agent information. 

3) The company then decides who will be granted live auditions. After selecting, the company gets the info - any CVs, bios, or letters of rec (although I believe that these are truly a remnant of colonial tradition to keep privilege within the power hierarchy and should be tossed aside as soon as possible!)

This way, the selection of singers for a live audition has been given a much better hand in bringing all singers - the wealthy, the privileged, the disadvantaged, the poor, to a much more leveled field. At least initially. For the first round, just like in professional orchestra auditions, there would be no bias against or for singers based on their race, no discrimination against disabled singers, no preference given for singers from a certain pedigree of voice studio or conservatory, no preference given for singers who have spent money on prestigious (and expensive) pay-to-sing summer programs. The field would be leveled a lot more than the current state of YAP auditions.

More ideas:

4) For the live audition, companies would provide pianists (unless a singer wants to bring their own, which should be an okay thing still).

5) No application fees. No audition fees. Companies need to create a business plan for human resourcing. Make this part of the budget. Make the work load of listening to auditions part of a staff's load. Yes, many companies don’t have young artist programs – especially here in Canada. Yet even very small companies in the states have YA programs. You don’t have to start big, maybe one or two. Look to communities like Fargo and see what they’ve done. Look at smaller companies throughout the states and see their innovations with young artist programming – from Memphis to Omaha. YA Programs can become a vital component of a business plan, but potential young artists shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of a company looking for its employees.

6) If a company can't find the money for live auditions, they should consider virtual auditions. Most companies looking to cast into YA programs for 2021 will be holding virtual auditions this fall. If it's okay now, why not later?

7) Companies should consider holding more local auditions to look for local talent. Local talent is WONDERFUL. There are great singers in Toronto who have sung at Opéra de Montreal but who have never sung on the COC stage (and vice-versa). It's time to think about nurturing local singers to build their careers and experiences - not just in choruses, but in small roles, outreach contracts, and on the mainstage. Local audiences LOVE to know their singers. Do audiences really care who is being flown in from who-knows-where to sing a Frasquita in a production of Carmen? But if they are local -- what a story AND you have them there year-round! Put them on your stage in other roles, build them an audience with your audiences! Florida Grand Opera did this with one of their Young Artists (Leah Partridge). She started out in their young artist program and moved through the ranks, eventually singing numerous lead roles in many, many productions. She sold tickets in Miami because audiences knew her (the marketing director actually documented her fan base).

8) Problems with some of these ideas? I’m sure there are a few. The glaring one might be access to tech to create good audio and video recordings. There are solutions. If a singer is at a school, they should have access to loaned cameras and access to online software for editing. They should also have access to spaces in which to record. Perhaps companies themselves could create funding for singers without access to tech to help them either acquire it, or find spaces where that tech is located. Even at the company itself, perhaps? Many singers will now also be investing in mics due to remote learning and lessons happening due to the COVID-19 crisis. Another problem is that some voices simply do not record well - particularly voices of size. Perhaps one solution for this would be to have clear fach classifications so if a soprano submitted an aria from Tannhaüser, it could be assumed that their voice might be sizeable and perhaps needs to be heard live and in person.

SO -- If I were running an opera company, I'd be trying out the above things. Why not try?!

I'd also be creating a Fest style group of singers under contract who would live in the community year-round. This small cadre of singers would perform numerous roles onstage, be given a livable wage, be seen in educational and community outreach performances, and would - most importantly - be given a voice at the artistic table to give their input into everything -- from what operas should be produced, to the design elements, to what communities should be engaged. In this way, companies could make sure IBPoC artists would not just be represented, but be centered in the life of the opera company. That's how change happens. These local Fest singers would also put money back into their communities, unlike many aritsts flown in, provided housing, and then when they are done they fly out taking their fees with them.

Finding talent requires an investment. Singers have already invested tens of thousands of dollars into nurturing their talent. Why should they also be financially burdened with the costs of job interviews when they currently have to access so much that is based on their own socio-economic privilege: finding those in power to write them letters of recommendation, paying for pianists and coaches to prepare the audition, buying an education at prestigious programs in order to find the right pedigree of teacher or program, investing in audition wear, shoes, and makeup (and in masterclasses about how to do all of that – helpful hint: don’t pay for those masterclasses), paying for the pianist at the audition, paying to apply to get an audition, sometimes even paying to help defray the cost of the audition space, or the travel/hotel for those holding the auditions. Heck – why not create bursaries for singers to help them pay for traveling to the company callbacks? Creating a fund for IBPOC singers would go a long way to helping balance things. COC and Opéra de Montreal already do this for their callbacks (via their big fundraising galas that also double for their YAP finals.) Could the larger programs in the states follow suit I wonder? I’m sure there are donors who would love to see their money spent to discover talent where it might normally go hidden.  It is time for this burden to be shifted, and it is a great way for companies to look for new sources of funding from patrons, foundations, and government organizations.

Those are my ideas. I obviously can't force changes on the opera business, but I can make suggestions and get a dialogue going. If you think this is a good idea, share it. If not, imagine what your solutions might be and publish them!

A post-script: Over a year ago I blogged about the need to evolve auditions, i.e. the process of auditioning. Creating 15 minute "working sessions" instead of the traditional one or two aria audition. I still believe that the longer a singer gets to audition, the more they feel they have some sort of agency in the audition. Having "working sessions" is a great way to do this. Opera McGill did it a year ago for our April 2019 auditions and we loved it. Yes, it took a LOT more time to do, and it was hard sometimes, but I believe in them and can't wait to return to them once this crisis is over. Here's the link for that blog: Audition Evolution Blog