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Friday, February 14, 2020

Fear In Opera 2.0

One of my most popular blogs was on Fear. (Here's the link: Fear In Opera ) I'd like to riff on that again, this time asking the question "What happens when artists start to fear the art itself, or the making of their art?"

I see this fear on social media posted by singers, coaches, teachers, and other artist-types. I experience this fear more and more during opera rehearsals - both at academic programs and at professional opera companies. Singers, administrators, pianists, directors, stage managers, all seem more afraid than ever. What is it that frightens them? What stops them from communicating and collaborating freely with others? Stage managers are afraid of rehearsals - what might happen if someone walks into a rehearsal and witnesses choreographed, simulated violence? Will someone in the room be triggered? How can we make sure that everyone in the room will be okay with watching someone stab another character?  (Given that the libretto calls for a stabbing, and all of the singers who've agreed to take part in the production have - hopefully - read the story, one would expect that everyone in the room would be okay with it, yes?)

But it's not just in the rehearsal room, now we must warn people that they will experience loud noises in the theatre (one hopes the opera will be loud at least sometimes!) More seriously, though, what happens when you do an opera where a sexual assault is the crux of the plot? Do you post trigger warning signs? Or should the company provide lobby therapists for audience members? Is the title The Rape of Lucretia enough of a warning? What about Don Giovanni when a director updates the story and the assaults become much more graphic? Where are the lines to be drawn - both in rehearsal for those participating and in performance for the audience?

As well, what happens when there are actual issues - real ones - that arise in rehearsals? Do we have the capacity to discern the fictional from the real? Are we creating a generation of artists that confuse being uncomfortable with actual anxiety or panic disorders?

What do conductors do when it's time to tell a singer that they don't approve of their artistic choices, or a more personal critique, the timbre of their voice? I can't truly describe how different it is to give notes to singers nowadays. The defensiveness and the anxious emotional states that get created by being criticized "publicly" are way out of proportion to the notes usually given, for example: 'make sure to pick up that cup on your way over to the soprano'. Many young singers receive notes as if they are under attack from some online troll. Worse, they can't discern between serious and casual notes because everything is taken so personally nowadays.

We are in a state of fear, everywhere. On stage, in the rehearsal room, in the audience, and in our online communities. It is a new Age of Anxiety. (Would that W.H. Auden could write a sequel!) Perhaps our orchestras should be programming Bernstein's Symphony #2 on every weekend during 2018 to get all of us to look back on the late 40s and wonder if our world is more or less anxious than it was 70+ years ago?

But what's so important not to forget is what happens when we fear things. Us humans have a strong reaction to that emotion, so it's important that we shouldn't start to be afraid of Art.

That which we are afraid of, humans tend to vilify or control or build walls up against it. This is an historical fact, and it is indeed actually frightening to think about the ramifications of our current state of fear. What happens if we tried to eliminate the very things that make art? Bizet said it best: "As a musician, I tell you that if you were to suppress adultery, fanaticism, crime, evil, the supernatural, there would no longer be the means for writing one note."

Particularly those of us within the arts communities need to make sure we are not creating new environments of fear. We need to actively seek ways to nurture environments that allow the creators to collaborate creatively and freely in an open space free from judgement. We need to help ourselves and the public understand how Art can be therapeutic, how Art can help build societies and cultures, and how Art ultimately cross-pollinates beyond borders influencing humanity's ability to be empathetic to others.

The danger is when we fail to speak out letting others who are intent upon pushing (or simply accepting without question) an ideology that purports that Art is somehow hurtful or politically incorrect. Many of us believe that we must be careful not to offend, careful to make sure those trying to learn about Art, appreciate Art, or create Art, be kept in safe, comfortable environments. This mindset creates the illusion of safety.

Safety is about control. Control is about fear.

And Fear, as Frank Herbert so aptly put it, is "the mind killer." Fear is potent and powerful.

Fear Kills Art.

Schumann was a composer who had many fears, I'm sure. But even with all of his many problems, he gave us all a clue what our next steps should be in order to bring the world back to a more positive and less fearful place: "To send light into the darkness of men's hearts - such is the duty of the artist."

Indeed, it is our duty to send light into darkness, and not the other way around.

Operatic Fear! (A reblog)

It's 2020 and it is, unfortunately, time to reblog this one.
So. Much. Fear. Out. There.

I’m going to write about fear today. I feel fear and hear fear way too often nowadays in young singers, I see it in young pianists while they enter a room to play for singers, and I read about it on social media all the time now.

Fear is permeating our world!

It must stop.

So – first a few quotes, then a personal story, and then my thoughts on Operatic Fear!

A few of my favorite quotes on Fear:

We have nothing to fear, but fear itself – FDR
            (Yes, everyone knows this one, but it is TRUE!)

Fear keeps us focused on the past and worried about the future – Thich Nhat Hanh

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when man is afraid of the light – Plato
            (This is so true in today’s political climate)

I say I am stronger than fear – Malala Yousafzai
            (Really, knowing her story, how can ANY of us be afraid?!)

Always do what you are afraid to do – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
-       Frank Herbert

I remember reading Dune in Jr. High School and re-reading the above Litany that appears often in the first section of Frank Herbert’s classis sci-fi book. I memorized it.

I had much to fear and this Litany became my friend; my weapon against my fear. It sat in my brain and was turned over and over, both consciously and unconsciously, until it became something second nature in me.

My fear? Fear of death, specifically my death. I was brilliantly misdiagnosed when I was a wee lad of eight; being told, while I was in the room, that I would most likely go blind, or blind and deaf, and that the skin disease would move inward into my neck and perhaps my brain resulting in death by the time I was 18 years old.

That takes a toll on a young child, as one might imagine.

My mother took my hand, said something amazingly rude, and walked out of the office with me in tow saying – very loudly – “we will find another doctor who knows what he’s doing!”

I remember being taken to a Dairy Queen afterwards. I ate a large hot fudge sundae while my mother cried hysterically in front of me in the car, cigarette smoke swirling all around us.

Even though we found another doctor (a much younger, fresh-from-the-Mayo-clinic doctor), and my skin disease was treated successfully (obviously I’ve made it past 18), being told you might die before you reach college does something to you. I was formed by this event.

At exactly the same time, I started playing the piano.

I was fearless at the piano. My amazing piano teacher, Berneil Hanson (still teaching in Council Bluffs, Iowa!) was also fearless. She tossed Bach, Beethoven sonatas, Ravel and Chopin onto the piano and we conquered difficult, college-level pieces when I was in Jr. High. I had no fear of them. I didn’t blink walking into a concerto contest in Omaha with the Beethoven #2 barely learned that morning. I made up the ends of Bach fugues, improvising my way out of them, during state piano contests. I never practiced, because I had no motivation to do so. That motivating fear in most of us – to prepare so we won’t fail – was lacking in me, profoundly so.

I failed. All the time! And I triumphed as well! But failing did not alter my lack of fear.  Fear had no place in my mind, and therefore had no place in my music making. Those pieces I learned in the late 70s and early 80s are still mostly in my hands. When I play them, I youthen as a musician. Time turns backwards and I’m once again 14 years old.

But all that changed in college.

I initially studied with a piano teacher who thought the reason I missed notes was because I had a memory problem. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth, which was somewhere between my secret of never practicing and that I had little respect for the notes on the page (still do – I respect the composer’s intentions, but I don’t think the notes are the point). So in just one semester I was pretty miserable, I was having nerves – for the first time – playing publicly, I doubted myself and my talent, I was discombobulated in one semester by a well-meaning piano teacher.

This happens to many, as we all know.

My dropping out of college was a two-fold event: I turned 18 and hadn’t died, but had subconsciously expected to, and my love for playing the piano had died. So I dropped out, had what I’d now describe as a nervous breakdown, and listened to a lot of Tears For Fears, Sting, U2, and Billy Joel.

Dropping out of college was the second most important formational event of my life. It is one of the huge motivations in my teaching:
            Allow for failure.
            Don’t jump to conclusions about a student.
            Think about the big picture
            Today is just a snapshot of the student, not a symptom of something wrong.
            It’s totally okay to fail, to drop out even.

Too often, we bearers of the classical music tradition who teach in Universities unmake our students in order to “build their technique” or “create a new musician from their raw materials”. Too often coaches and voice teachers “fix” singers. Like they’re broken or need some sort of hole filled.

Musicians aren’t doughnuts. They don’t have a hole in the middle of them that needs to be covered up somehow by sweetened frosting in order to make them more palatable to the outside world. No one is a doughnut.

Too often, young singers and young pianists who enter the world of opera around their late teen years, become overwhelmed by the pretentiousness of the art form, or the sheer amount of repertoire built up over the centuries that they are expected to dive into, or the mystery of what communicating in other languages while embodying a character from ancient Greece means to their emotional makeup as a human being, or they get caught between the entertainment factor and the artistic factor inherent in opera. But most often, they simply stifle themselves as performers because they fear being wrong.

Being incorrect.

Making some stylistic, linguistic, musical, dramatic, or vocal mistake that someone – usually behind a table – will notice and take off points, put into their jury comments, or not hire them because they choose to place an appoggiatura in a Mozart recitative, or some other egregious what-the-f-do-you-think-you’re-doing choice that fills the panelist with profound loathing because they are way too pretentious.

More importantly, fear also affects the sounds singers and pianists make.

Pianists slam on the soft pedal while playing for singers. All the time now. Why do this? What are they afraid of? That they’ll overwhelm the singer? That someone will hear them play a wrong note, or leave out (rightly so) many of the notes in the piano reduction? They are playing an orchestral reduction. Most often opera orchestras have between 30 and 50 players in the pit. Twenty string players all playing pianissimo is LOUDER than one pianist playing softly with the soft pedal on.  Stop this immediately! You’re not playing a Debussy song (and one should only use the soft pedal where he specifies una corda!) The meek pianist is a sonic bore, and your musicality can’t be heard if it is way too subtle.

As we say in musical theatre land: Sing Out Louise!

Looking to the singer side of the aisle, I think fear really permeates decisions about what to add onto a score – for instance, ornaments. Nowadays, it is the rare singer who presents their own ornaments in an aria. I’m talking about Handel, Mozart, and Rossini in particular. It’s as if their whole education as a singer has missed one of the big important lessons: ornamentation is a part of being a singer. Finding ornamentation that works for each unique voice is something that singers, their teachers, and coaches should all be working on during their time in school.

The way to becoming an artist is to clarify for yourself what your voice can do that is unique and special, as well as what you can do as a musician that is unique and special. One of those things is ornamentation.

It’s not brain surgery, either. There’s no mystery here. Too often I hear young singers give the excuse that they’ve “never been taught” how to ornament. Or they’ll say they didn’t want to add any ornaments because “they don’t know how to do it” or that they are “afraid of doing it themselves.” Or worse yet, that some important coach told them that if they ornamented, say a Mozart aria, that “they would kill me”.

That sort of nonsense infantilizes a singer and moves the responsibility from creating their own artistry onto others, sometimes onto people who have had only a few hours of contact with them in some Masterclass, summer program, or production.

Look at your own fears and walk towards them.

Are you afraid to learn a new piece on your own and make it your own without any outside help for fear you might be doing something wrong, or it might cause some sort of harm? Run towards that fear and learn a new aria this week!

Are you afraid to play Verdi because you’ve never been taught or coached or had any experiences with Verdi outside of playing a few arias? Well run to the library and pull out Aida or Ballo or Otello and play through the score!

Are you afraid to study with another teacher during the summer for fear that your teacher might find out? Who is the employer here? You employ your teachers and coaches, they do not employ – or control – your freedom to learn from whomever you deem important. Take control of your life. Take responsibility for your own learning, your own process. It is literally your business to do so!

Finally, there is nothing to fear from opera. Opera lives and breathes humanity. You’re creating sounds that only a few hundred thousand people, out of billions, can make. How cool is that?

Celebrate your courage. Celebrate your unique gifts.

One way to step away from fear is to step towards something else. I recommend yoga, or mediation, or walking in the woods, or strolling through a museum once a month, or reading a piece of literature that you can’t find displayed in the front half of the local bookstore. Get to a play, go see “Deadpool” and relish the breaking of the 4th wall, binge on Netflix. Then return to your piano, your scores, your practice room and SANG!!

And then, after drawing courage from your art, empower others to do so in creative, positive ways to help them acknowledges in themselves that when someone takes a chance,  when someone turns their back on being correct, exciting things can, and do, happen!

Friday, April 19, 2019

Audition Evolution!


Opera auditions are dinosaurs - remnants of an out-of-touch 20th century-based business practice that worked when there were a smaller number of singers who sang a smaller amount of repertoire, especially when compared to our present day opera world.

The world in which today's singers navigate is basically unrecognizable from the previous generation's world. We've all recognized that the opera world has changed - the repertoire, the physicality, the social media demands, etc. - but few recognize that the way in which singers get jobs has changed, or that the way auditions happen should be, and could be, changed for the better.

The traditional young artist audition: A singer applies to get one audition through a series of online hoops - both bureaucratic and financial, then hopefully gets a live audition at a venue not of their choosing, often with strangers in a room sitting silently (and, hopefully, attentively) behind a table. A typical amount of time, ten minutes, is allotted per singer which gives them maybe time for a quick hello and introduction, then two medium-length arias, and a perfunctory "thank you". Weeks later (oftentimes, though, never) an email arrives with either a PFO (known in the business as a "please fuck off"), or an offer of employment. To find employment as a singer, they must apply to dozens and dozens of companies and programs, while facing almost the exact amount of rejection as their number of applications. An actual casting or job offer is a rarity for most. 

Currently, even the ten-minute slot style of auditioning seems to be falling by the wayside, being replaced with one aria only auditions. As well, the financial demands on singers trying to get a job is causing many to question the business practices and models of opera companies and young artist programs. Some of us are openly wondering on social media if the less privileged stand any chance of "making it" when singers of greater socio-economic backgrounds have it much, much easier; from application fees, to pianist fees, to high lesson costs, to travel and accommodations, to paying for audition workshops and consultation fees, etc. Many singers are dropping thousands of dollars each fall for the chance to walk into a room where it is not clear how they will be measured or judged. Most of the time, it is not clear if they will get the chance to sing more than one aria.

We should be rethinking this whole process entirely!

I'll leave the business discussion for another time, however, last week I embarked on a deliberate change in how to conduct an audition, using Opera McGill students auditioning for our fall production as an experiment, along with my co-conspirator, Stephen Hargreaves (Opera McGill's principal coach and conductor for the production.)

We called them "Working Sessions" instead of auditions. We set aside 15 minute slots. Right away, you see the first challenge: TIME. Normally, one can hear six or more singers an hour, so over the course of a 10am to 6pm day - with a lunch break and a few washroom breaks - the maximum number of singers one can hear in a seven-hour day is about 40 singers (if you give them each ten minutes.) Moving to 15 minute slots, the number becomes far less - about 24 singers. Instead of one day of auditioning, Stephen and I did two days.

But Time wasn't the only thing that had to expand. Our Listening had to expand.

Let me explain.

First an honest confession: those of us behind the table have been known, from time to time, to tune out after a singer starts in on an aria and we judge their voice, or technique, or acting, or something, to not be to our taste. It's easy - all of us who audition as part of our job know this - it's easy to jump to a judgement after a few bars. Singing and performing opera is a subjective experience. There are voices you immediately love, some you are intrigued by, some - though rarely in an audition situation - grow on you, other voices just grate on your nerves and you want them to stop singing "Monica, Monica dance the waltz..."

However, all of us have worked, rehearsed, coached, taught, and seen performances by singers with voices we might not initially "like", or think are suited to their role. This happens all the time in opera. I've just returned from a gig in Virginia where my initial thought about a cast member's voice was negative, but then during the rehearsal process, I grew to love their performance. Love takes time. Loving something happens over time. Why do we expect to love voices in five minutes? Is the traditional audition style simply looking for "love at first hearing"? When you rehearse with someone over weeks, you get to know them, hear different things in their voices, see them act, talk with them at the break. Many singers with great voices are much less interesting, and sometimes problematic, after getting to know them as artists during the rehearsal process. Treating singers like Olympic divers - judging them on their technical difficulties and subsequent splashes upon entry - during one aria, truly obscures their talent, their full artistry, and who they might be as people.

Revelation: Our working sessions changed how I responded to every singer. Instead of jumping to a casting conclusion, instead of dismissing a singer because they weren't ready, instead of haphazardly listening in order to pass the time, instead of pouring over a resume to look for details I might already know and details that might not have any pertinence to being cast, I actually listened like I do in a coaching; I also watched like I do in a rehearsal. These working sessions were like an exercise in operatic mindfulness. I was fully attentive, even though we were going to hear more than one selection and some students were obviously not ready to be cast in an opera like La Clemenza di Tito. Instead of sitting their judging about who to cast, I was sitting there really listening.

Why the change in attention? 

Because I knew, as did Stephen, that we were going to ENGAGE with the singers, at least for a brief time, afterwards. As a coach, you are listening attentively while the singer sings - for details in diction, style, musicianship, vocal technique, etc - because you know that the minute they are done singing, it's your turn to start in and work some part of their artistry you deem should be the focus of the coaching. These auditions were a lot like that. I found myself thinking, "what can I say to help them?" and "how can we make this easier for them?".  It was exciting and exhilarating, and in no way difficult or more taxing on our energies. 

In fact, the opposite.

Sometimes, we listened to one aria and then decided to work on it from some aspect - usually musical, sometimes dramatic or physical – for the rest of the session. The singers relaxed and, almost to a fault, sang better the second time through. If we heard two selections, we would choose one of those to work on. Sometimes we stayed behind the table, often we moved to the piano. Sometimes I played, many times Stephen played (from his full score of Clemenza, as one does.) The students got 5 to 10 minutes of double-teamed coachings from the two of us. We were giving back something to each student who sang. They walked out, from all reports, feeling that they'd had a much more positive experience.

It was terrific to hear or see an issue during their audition, but then actually talk to the singer and see if they could do something about it. (Traditional auditions are like diagnostic sessions with a physician but not getting any diagnosis communicated to the patient!) Often, our singers were able to successfully change their musical ideas regarding tempi or address a physical tension issue. It was also interesting to see if we could get their musical and vocal imagination flowing better because they were feeling less judged. Often, the arena of judgment that surrounds auditioning easily kills imagination and stifles creative flow.

I ended each session with the same question: "What are your goals for next year?"

The answers were thoughtful and ran along a similar theme: To be more consistent in their performances and auditions. To learn more repertoire. To put into practice what they are learning privately in a public forum like an Opera McGill production.

More singers should be ready for that question. What are your goals for next year?

In my humble opinion, more companies should move to working session auditions, particularly Young Artist Program auditions where, as they are so proud to say, they are searching for the best talent. Can one do that in a traditional audition? Probably the answer is yes. I found remarkable talent during my years running the YAP at Glimmerglass, and I think I've had a great run in casting both here at McGill and elsewhere where I've been actively casting singers. The people running opera programs represent the best of the experts in our field, so they too find great talent. But I know, without a doubt, that we have missed great singers.

I think it's time for the professionals out there to acknowledge that times have changed, rep has changed, and the singers in front of them are different with different expectations about how they want to be treated. Work with them, if only for a few minutes, allow them to relax and sing better. Ask them a question about themselves, see them think and breathe while they answer. 

Most of us in opera love being in a room where opera is present – either the rehearsal room or the theatre. We love opera because our singers, pianists, orchestras, and production teams all collaborate, communicate, and connect in ways that are magical. Yet we still audition singers like it is 1955, expecting them to dress for business in a way that no one dresses like anymore – outside of Wall Street, banks, or high powered law firms. We make them get letters of recommendation from people saying that they are good enough to merit an audition while offering bits and pieces of information that may, or may not, be true or current or pertinent outside of the world of the writer. Theatre people laugh out loud at these letters – no actor must ask their former acting teacher for a letter saying they are a good actor in order to gain an audition with a theatre company. It is an antiquated remnant form the Victorian age where Privilege Persons kept their doors closed to those who did not have the right letter of introduction from the right person.

I could go on and on about why our current situation of auditioning is not what it should be. But I will leave you with one comment from a student as they were leaving: Thank you, I enjoyed that tremendously!

And I replied: So did I!

Imagine if all singers walked out of auditions saying the same thing, and those behind the table mirrored the sentiment!


Monday, March 18, 2019

Loud Silence


Pauses. Breaths. Internal waits. Inaudible sighs. Delays in thinking.


Silence in our lives is becoming increasingly impossible to find. I type that sentence at a cool cafe in Lynchburg, Virginia called the White Hart. Wonderful espresso and looks like great breakfasts as well (I'm intermittent fasting, so...) There's the ubiquitous hipster music playing - not too loud, thankfully - as I sit in a window seat feeling and hearing the traffic bounce by on Mainstreet USA. The frothing milk whining in high pitches while being steamed, the electric pulse of the espresso grinder, the high energy of a cute little SuzieQ excited to see her dad, the many sounds of glasses, forks, plates, and light discussion in that very congenial Virginian drawl...

All in all, most people would find it all pretty calming and not, in anyway, loud.

But there's no silence here.

Where do you find silence -- not just aural silence, but silence in the mind?

If there's a smartphone in your hand, or a keyboard underneath your fingers, then sorry - no mental silence happening, even if you're in bed late at night and there's silence around you.

To really understand silence, it has to be around you and in you. Bathing in silence is a rarity for any of us. Even for seasoned meditators, the internal silence of the mind comes infrequently.

And so, when one turns to music, to the billions of rests placed into scores or the millions of fermati sitting over silences, we see how much silence should be in the score. When one thinks about the silences inherent immediately preceding any downbeat or following any final climatic moment, one starts to see how profound silence is to the structure of music. Yet hardly any thought - or more importantly training in creating silence - happens during our every day music making (during rehearsals especially.)

Silence helps to define a composer's textual intentions, their architextual structures per se. Actors use silences - between sentences, between character interactions, between words and syllables sometimes.

Musicians tend to observe rests. And then move on to the important part, the music.

But ignoring silence in music destroys one of the more powerful tools at our disposal. Silence creates contrast, immediately so. It sets apart that which is in focus with the ears listening.  I wish more singers would use silence in their auditions. Giving a few seconds before beginning a piece. Allowing all of those thousands of rests and fermatis in their recitatives to really sit in space. Make those attending look up and wonder, "are they going to continue?"

Silence is a superpower, and people should wield it more often.

In life, listening is all about silence. Silence before speaking focuses a room. Silence within sentences forces the listeners to continue to listen. I think it also allows the collective minds in the room to take in what is being said, instead of only surface-listening to the tone and big words/ideas being presented. Details are getting lost, people are hardly listening, and then jumping to conclusions about people and people's ideas.

And then there's another kind of silence -- silencing others.

I might call it political silencing -- Taking the power of silence and slapping it onto people we've decided not to listen to, or allow them to continue to think their thoughts because we don't agree.  This silencing of others also silences ourselves, as it denies anyone involved the ability to think critically, examine through inquiry, or have a dialogue that runs two ways. It is the new political weapon of both the left and the right; a powerful weapon because silence is so massively powerful.

Musicians understand silence, so we should understand its power. Perhaps if more of us took silence into our everyday lives - turning off our phones, pulling out our earphones, stopping our comments on every and all subjects, driving with the windows down and the radios off, sitting in cafes listening to conversations, or asking our friends how they are and then actually listening to the answers. Perhaps that sort of training might allow us to really begin to interpret our musical silences in a different manner. Use them tactically, empower them to focus the audience upon something that has just happened, or something that is about to happen.

Really let the silence fall upon a room and feel its power to unite people.


Friday, January 25, 2019

Are we really listening to music?

People are becoming way too literal.
Certainly on social media it is no longer possible to hear the tone in anyone's verbiage.

Lately, I've noticed many musicians seem to have stopped listening to the very music they are making, or are wanting to make.  At the very least, this is something I've been slowly adjusting to, almost unknowingly, during the last five years or so but only recently has it started to become clearer to me why the "how" has overtaken so much of music making.

So many seem lost in finding the "how" in order to recreate music, while no longer searching for the "why" in the music itself. The "how" is found in the score, the "why" is found by listening to the score and pondering the billions of questions that arise from all those sound waves entering our ears.

[The two words, "how" and "why", will be used quite an awful lot in this blog. In order to stay off some people's nerves, I'll just let those two words sit in sentences from here on without the quotes or italics to push home my points.]

I see this everywhere, not just in classical music. But since opera is what I know and what I most work in, I'll focus on my wonderful experiences trying to recreate these immense scores.

How something is sung - the duration, the articulation, the dynamic choices, whether trilling from above or below, following tempo markings, etc. - seems to be the point of most musical discussions for so many of us. Yes, this is important. I feel it is actually quite important, yet I'd describe these notions as artisanal, or part of our craft at creating musical moments. Artisanal craft is vital to keeping opera performances at the level of expertise needed and expected so that our audiences continue to enjoy these amazing scores.

But how is not the point.

Last year, during rehearsals for Bernstein's Candide, I was struck by the subtleties of his score. From the illusionary loss of one 1/8 note during the text "proving that this is the best of all possible worlds" to Cunegonde chasing her own laughter a few beats behind the orchestra in "Glitter and be gay", Bernstein subtly gives us deep meaning via musical notation into the subtextual lives of his characters. The same, of course, holds true for other great composers - like Mozart in Così fan tutte. The sisters should be sad that their fiancés have departed for war, but the major key and cut time signature in their act one duet suggest something altogether different. One finds connections to sexual frustration simply in Mozart's employment of the key of E-flat major throughout his works: Cherubino's "Non so piu"; Countessa's "Porgi amor"; Dorabella's "Smanie implacabile"; Elvira's "Mi tradi"; even the Pamina/Papageno duet singing about wanting marital bliss is in E-flat. These are just quick examples.

What gets missed in so many rehearsals (mostly because there's so little time to talk about the why) are discussions about why the score happens in its specific way. Why did the composer choose this key? Why did the composer place fermati here and not there? Why are we all feeling profoundly sad during a C major section? Why one measure in 7/8? Why these rests in the middle of this sentence? Why? Why? Why?

We get bogged down, entirely too much, in the how questions. How long are you okay with me holding this fermata? How fast can I take this? How will you be conducting this section? How should I pronounce this bit of text? Endless, endless Hows.

What we need are more why questions that lead to the how responses: Why the shift in tonality at precisely this point and what does that do to how I sing it? Why did my character drop out of the score's vocal lines and how can I create character choices while silenced? Why does this tempo feel slow to me but not to others and how can I continue to sing through this tempo?

The why leads us into arenas of opinion, into areas of subjectivity. Both places are no longer seen as the safest places to be. We want things to be correct. We want the music making to be comfortable and understandable. Many of us are very uncomfortable making musical choices that are hard to explain or come from some non-objective or instinctual place. Music making shouldn't have to be defended if it is honest and attuned to the why. If others aren't understanding your intentions in your music making, perhaps those intentions are not clear, not honest, or - at least in the moment - not specific enough to warrant understanding from others. The why can inform us and leads us towards the artistic creators' original mindset. Or at least, it can allow us to peer into those minds, as if looking through a keyhole of a door into a vast ballroom. We can only see bits and pieces, but at least we are looking.

The Why and the How. Both integral to making music.

Listening to music, really listening to it, should help us all to start to ponder both with equal excitement and humility. And while we are listening to the music, it's important to acknowledge that it's being made by human beings. If one wants to listen to the music, one has to listen to the people making the music and not just our own sounds and ideas up in our brains.

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 !