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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Fantastic Opera Beasts and Where To Find Them!

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you haven’t seen it, please do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really? Repression as a destructive force? YES.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mischief Managed.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

A Prescription for Operatic Prescriptionists!

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

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

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

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

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

I am an operatic descriptionist. 

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

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

Dire words. I do not type them lightly.

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

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

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

This all seems very normal and good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[evil smile]

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to the philosophical argument…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 4, 2016

An Autumnal Ponder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last fall, Michael Ching was in rehearsal for our latest opera production (a double-bill of his Buoso’s Ghost and Speed Dating Tonight!). My cast was there to listen to him talk about his music, his music making, and his thoughts on the current state of operatic composition. It was a great talk that also culminated in his singing one of his pop songs at the piano (a song about a veteran, sung by the Michael on November 11th – quite moving and quite an insight into Michael as an artist). Were other students there? Outside of my most exceptional students, no. Were they invited? Yes. Were they free to come? Absolutely – it was during our regularly scheduled class time.
So why didn’t they come? I just assumed all would. I certainly took notice of the ones who did not show up. Perhaps I should have made the talk mandatory? Is that what we are coming to in teaching the next crop of singers who are spending thousands on their vocal studies but not spending the thousands of extra hours needed to expand their knowledge?
I think it has something to do with how young people think they’re supposed to learn – in some direct way. Information is only needed to answer their specific questions or situations. If they weren’t in Buoso, then why would they come to hear the composer talk about it? They’re singing another opera by another composer. What could they possibly learn by connecting the dots themselves?

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

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

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


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


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

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Serenade to Shakespeare

Most of the big Shakespeare celebrations have come and gone. In case you missed it, 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Just a few years ago, we were celebrating the 450th anniversary of his birth (a date not quite as fixed as his death) in 2014. If the math fails you, that's 1564 - 1616 for good ol' Will Shakespeare.

I spent a whole year back in 2014 celebrating the 450th. Productions connected to Shakespeare's works on the stage: Giulio Cesare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I Capuleti e i Montecchi, a huge scenes program featuring excerpts of both the Shakespeare plays and their operatic treatments: scenes from The Tempest, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merry Wives of Windsor with the opera versions by Hoiby, Britten, Gounod, Nicolai, and Verdi, and a special evening of "Songs and Sonnets" focused on songs with Shakespeare texts by Tippet, Finzi, Quilter, Korngold, Thomson, and Vaughan Williams (his Serenade to Music was the finale.) We documented the whole year via the talents of videographer Anne Kostalas. The documentary, which is fascinating in all that it encompasses, is viewable here (highly recommended!): Shakespeare at Opera McGill

This year, I missed the big celebration in London, England (by just a few days) put together by The Globe. It looked amazing and I hope it was a huge success. Here's a link to that site: Shakespeare400 at the Globe

There were, are still, many more celebrations ongoing. One of them is happening toward the end of July at the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Again, another link: July 27th Shakespeare Serenade at the TSMF

This is a combination of the Shakespeare scenes program and the evening of songs and sonnets from the Opera McGill 450th celebration and I'm really looking forward to putting these two evenings together for a Toronto audience. It's such a huge program that I couldn't play the whole thing, so I invited the wondrous Michael Shannon to share the program with me at the piano. It's all happening at the University of Toronto's Walter Hall on July 27th. Check that link out for ticket info and don't miss it!

Putting this program together has been a rather huge challenge. There are 16 singers involved, most of whom live in the Greater Toronto Area and are leading very busy lives this summer. The scenes program is slightly easier because it involves a trio or a quartet of people -- that's easy to schedule. The Serenade second-half of the program, however, is staged with all 16 singers moving about as individuals. There's only one way to do this and that's to have everyone present in order to make the interactions work. We're basically doing it in one night, so wish us all luck.

Not that I'm worried because the talent of the performers is huge, as is their experience. These singers have graced Canadian stages from Vancouver Opera to the Canadian Opera Company to L'opéra de Montreal as well as performing in hundreds of opera productions at their schools (yes, the majority did go to McGill but, hey, I wanted to work with my former students again!), summer training programs throughout Canada and the United States, and Indie opera companies like Opera5, Compagnie Baroque Mont-Royal, and Stu&Jess Productions. Michael Shannon, who is also a former student, has been spending his time learning his operatic trade at places like the San Francisco Opera and the C.O.C.; not too shabby!

It's a concert inspired by the Bard, with a traditional kind of opera scenes program yet with the twist being that the audience will first watch the singers act the original Shakespeare scene and then watch and hear what it looks like when adapted for the operatic stage. Truly a unique way of presenting these scenes and one that informs both the Shakespeare and the operatic version. It's also quite challenging for the singers to act the Shakespeare!

The second half is a non-traditional approach to a song recital. Normally, a singer walks out onto the concert stage with a pianist in tow, bows to the audience and then sings through a cycle of songs by someone, with the emphasis being on the text and the music. Dramatic energy and action is typically frowned upon (god knows why…) by many who view the recital as something quite conservative and stolid for, um, serious people. The audience sits in silence and reads translations of texts while they listen. (Sometimes I think I might as well be listening to a recording at many of the recent recitals I've attended.) When taken to its extreme, a singer can take away any original perspective on the piece, giving up any sort of personal stamp on a set of songs in order to give, I don't know, some sort of justice to the purity of the composer perhaps? This drives me crazy because, of course, with the great recitalists that is the last thing they do.

Well, this second half won't be like that at all. There'll be over a dozen singers on the stage, casually drinking and listening to each other express their love, anger, betrayal, dismay, or hope via the most amazing texts by Shakespeare set to music by some of the greatest composers of the 20th century. The idea is that these people onstage have just left some sort of summer dinner party and have entered the garden to enjoy more of each other, while some are inspired to recite poetry (via a number of the Sonnets) and fall in and out of love.  It all ends with all of the singers performing the magical Vaughan Williams Serenade To Music, which if you've never heard it sung by soloists with piano accompaniment is sure to please. In fact, my favourite song - ever - is featured on the evening's program and I can't wait to perform it live!

And make sure to check out the other amazing evenings at the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Here's the link to their home site: Toronto Summer Music Festival website

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Year In The Life!

A few years ago, I had an idea about how to make young singers' lives more accessible to others, either people who were just interested, but especially to other young students who might be thinking about pursuing a career in classical music. So many people out there in the wide world have very few inklings about what goes into learning to sing -- especially opera. I thought someone should follow around a singer for a year and see what their life was like.

Why? Because there's a lot of misinformation out there about what it takes to become successful in opera and I wanted to expose a bit more of the truth. Oftentimes people are surprised to find out that one can major in opera studies. Too often I'm asked some surprising questions by audience members: Do the students do their own stagings? or, Do the students make their costumes too? No, and, no.

I wanted to answer questions that I've been asked over the decades: What kind of young person studies opera? What do they do every week? How long does it take to rehearse an opera? What goes into these operas? What makes the student experience with Opera McGill special?

What does a year in the life of an opera student look like?

A few years ago I'd met an amazing videographer, Anne Kostalas. Anne has spent hundreds of hours creating dozens of terrific video "trailers" for Opera McGill productions (here are two links to check out: Rodelinda Preview & Midsummer Preview), creating the wonderful Shakespeare Sessions documentary, (here's the link to all six parts -- please do watch it! Year of Shakespeare 6 Episodes), as well as becoming a fixture in the Montreal opera scene (her work can also be seen on the Opéra de Montreal's Atelier website: Atelier Young Artist Profile).

Anne was excited about taking on this project, but I'm not sure she or I knew just how much time and effort it would take to really get the story. We decided to follow three students: Chelsea Rus, a soprano in her 2nd year of her masters degree; Jonah Spungin, a baritone finishing up his bachelors degree, and Rose Naggar-Tremblay, a mezzo-soprano in the middle of her bachelors degree.  All three were cast in multiple shows, all three led very busy lives -- Anne captured so much more than just their operatic lives.

When I asked Anne about the finalized documentary she said, "Sure it was hard work but I'm convinced filming and editing this documentary was nothing compared to how hard these young singers work every day."

A huge thanks to Jonah, Rose, and Chelsea who, as Anne puts it, "were very generous to let me into their lives. I was shocked recently to see that over the last year we had texted each other more than 600 times." When audiences watch these episodes, they'll see many of those 'behind the scenes' staff who are instrumental in making Opera McGill happen -- from our design team, to the Schulich School voice teachers and vocal coaches, but also to the community of friends and family that surrounds these students.

Interestingly, the question that neither of these three students ever asked me directly was "why was I chosen?"

Well -- these three students represent the best in all of the hundreds of students I've taught over the years. Students who are dedicated, who work hard to achieve high standards of excellence in performance, but who also live interesting lives outside of their studies while pursuing goals beyond their academic work. Most importantly, though, these students represent the POTENTIAL in every student who studies classical music.

This potential is dynamic and practically thermonuclear! It explodes everyday in the practice room, in the classroom, in the studios and rehearsal spaces, and on the stage here at the Schulich School of Music and all over the world.

Rose, Jonah, and Chelsea were quite gracious under the scrutiny of the camera, as Anne told me recently, "Opera McGill could not have wished for three finer ambassadors." I couldn't agree more!

A huge, massive THANK YOU to Anne Kostalas. I'm such a huge fan of her work -- she sees stories where so many do not -- and am thrilled at how this documentary seems like a love letter to not just Opera McGill, but to the McGill campus and all the people who study and work here.

So without further delay...

We've decided to launch the last of the three episodes here on my blog! If you haven't seen the first two episodes, please watch them too!

A Year In The Life: Episode ONE
A Year In The Life: Episode TWO

And here is the final episode, following Chelsea competing in the finals of the Wirth Voice Prize, Jonah deciding his future while performing in operetta and recital, and Rose putting together her role in Opera McGill's spring production of Rodelinda. (Plus graduation video!)

A Year In The Life: Episode THREE

Monday, June 27, 2016

Community in Opera

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

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

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

Okay, not the best metaphor perhaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And bring roasted chicken or cookies or both.