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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Battling Depression Mindfully


I wrote this specific blog months ago and have been wrestling about whether to publish it or not for weeks and weeks.  Then Robin Williams died yesterday. According to news reports, he took his own life after a long struggle with depression.

[Deep breath...]

Suffering from depression happens too often in silence. Please keep in mind that, from what I can gather, each story of depression is unique -- this is my journey.

[Another deep breath...]

Depression is a silent storm raging deep inside millions. I've kept silent for decades, from the fear that if others knew my problem they'd think less of me or think I was weak. It's simply embarrassing and, I hate to say it, depressing to admit you're depressed, let alone a long-time sufferer.

But I've discussed a number of personal things on this blog, from my beard to my dyslexia. This one's the biggie. Much more epic than any beard could possibly be.

And so I type.

What do I mean by depression?

For me, once depression sets in, it triggers terrible thoughts and emotions - like marbles spilled from a box on a table, scattering into uncontrollable areas, falling off into corners, hiding under furniture, while others sit spinning in the light. Some you never find again, some you scoop up easily, others sit hidden and, years later, make their presence known by a barefoot walk through a darkened room.

But I bet that might seem an unlikely, perhaps too quicksilver a metaphor, for depression; especially for many who might be lucky enough to not have suffered regular bouts. Often I read accounts of depression that make it seem like it's a slow motion event. Maybe it is for others or for scientists studying it. For me, though, it happens in the blink of an eye; an exceptionally fast setting-in period (this latest state felt like it happened over lunch), and that's a scary thing still to this day. It's much different than my anxiety - which rears its ugly head with noticeable warning bells. Anxiety leaves me just as quickly as my depression seems to arrive but it arrives a bit more slowly, unlike my depression. Once my anxiety decides to leave, though, it races away (after burying me alive in fear and shivering sweat.) Just writing about anxiety gets me jittery... 

Back to my old friend depression. 

My latest struggle arrived during lunch, right after I'd ordered some Indian curry at the food court in the underground mall in downtown Montreal. Unbeknownst to me as I looked around at the others sitting and eating, I went from normal to sad. Thoughts flickered into my mind like gnats around my head walking through a park in the summer months. And there I was, sitting alone in a court full of hundreds of people wondering if anybody else felt as awful as I did. Walking away, without finishing my curry, I meandered back to my studio and sat, unable to work or think because what was present in my mind was a clenching fist squeezing hope out of my soul. Finally, recognition: this was a deeper than normal depression.

Depression scatters my mind. It's as if my mind is getting cut up into pieces by some hooded character lurking in the shadows leaving me unable to think clearly. In a day or so, my mind is no longer recognizable to me, which leaves my heart really, really empty and folded in a dark, dark gravity sinkhole in the middle of nowhere. 

I can sometimes see it coming, though. Just like in some horror picture, the sound track of my mind changes, the lighting shifts angles, my voice quivers, coloring itself with trepidation, the temperature of my body drops, and there is a filter that creeps over my lens when looking out into the world, especially looking into the mirror of other people's faces as they gaze my way. I look at others wondering: Do they know?

Knowing that my depression eventually leaves keeps me steady, keeps me going. I've had years getting to understand this state.  But I've not really embraced it until recently.  Depression is completely unlike anxiety. The panic, the shakes, the racing mind that knows it's the end come for sure. Anxiety washing through you is like facing an uncaged tiger, hungry from the hunt, smelling the fear, seeing the darting eyes. It knows I'm here - naked and defenceless. Then it attacks and I hope I'm somewhere private, so that no one sees me in hell.

Hell. Depression can sometimes feel like a slow walk into hell. It's a road I've been on and explored for many years. One that I have walked, to my undying gratitude, with my wife who takes my hand and loves me and smiles and shines a light back on Earth for me to head towards. How terrible it must be to live with depression without someone standing with you, being your lighthouse. I know I am a lucky man, but it is a hard thing to acknowledge weakness with your partner in life. Luckily I'm strong in many other ways and during other times. I know that we are there for each other, no matter what. Knowing that, in the deepest way possible, is an extremely comforting thing.

But I am alone during the first few moments when depression settles in, before it's recognized. It has become less scary for me in the last five years or so. I know the pattern: massive levels of activity, 24/7 events scheduled in the ical, unending to-do lists that grow even while being dealt with systematically and successfully. All culminating into yet another big weekend of performances (I'm in opera, so these weekends are literally operatic in proportion.) There's always a "let down" afterward. That's normal, right? Everybody feels those, for sure... right?

My letdown comes and goes pretty quickly though. It is almost always replaced by the Full Monty Depressive State. Sometimes it's even entertaining at first -- it can certainly hit as a strong feeling; the opposite of numbness, at least for awhile. The numbness comes later when the life and vitality get sucked out of you. There's the tightness that arises in my chest and throat as I hold back, day after day, the internal sobs that sit just underneath each breath. Some days the clouds settle in and rain softly, some times all light disappears, other nights my mind is so numb it can't even sleep to get rest. The fatigue can feel monumental.

A few years ago, I realized I'd been like this since my childhood. I wrote a poem about my depression in high school that I remember to this day over 30 years later. (One wonders why my teacher didn't take me aside and ask if I was alright.) Instead, I got an "A+" and was praised in class as it was read, to my horror, out loud. Here's an excerpt:

I am alone. 
The clover in the fields within me I have not found.
Droplets of dew are my moonlit worlds
Swirling through mists of my own creation.
Frightened of evaporation, I hide my soul;
The sun knows my mind 
But can not pierce the fog.

Sad, eh?

Yet, all is not lost this time! I have found that clover (after years of looking, I might add.) I've walked those fields mindfully for almost two years now, breathing in and breathing out; experiencing the present moment as vividly as possible. 

How? I've been meditating in the mindful (Vipassana) tradition since a desperate, anxious moment a few years ago led me to try it out. Luckily, I found a weekly sitting group with an amazingly patient and earthy teacher (Daryl Lynn Ross of True North Insight), and knew within a few weeks that I had struck gold. At least, I knew there was a possibility that I could learn something about myself by sitting with myself without judgement.

I have even moved toward understanding my latent Buddhist beliefs that I believe have sat in my heart and mind ever since writing an 8th grade term paper on Siddhartha's life (I don't know why I chose that topic, but it took more than 30 years for me to return to studying Buddha's teachings.)



Sitting and breathing, allowing my mind to become calm and quiet down, has allowed me to see clearly the rising and falling away of my crazed, scattered, reactive, and depressed mind. I've also gotten to breathe through and investigate the emotions connected to many of those thoughts and the feelings connected to them. 

And so when the old pattern of depression shows itself, I have begun to recognize it even before it has begun to really manifest itself. And even though it resides in me (now, as I type these words), I know that it will - always - fall away. Impermanent just as the feet of snow that sat on my front lawn in Montreal during the first week of April; one week later and flowers burst forth from the soil, just waiting to join the world.  The sun will rise, it will shine down, and it will melt the snow, evaporate the fog, and warm my face as I lift it upwards to take in yet another Spring. The clover in the fields within me can smile remembering previous sunny Spring days and look forward to ones that will come soon. As they always do and always will, since everything flows from one state to the next. I can be content and happy, then I can be sad, and then smiling again. I know this now because of meditation.

For even though I may sometimes, all alone, beweep my outcast, depressed state, mindfulness meditation practice allows me to know that I don't need to change my state with kings. (I'm paraphrasing/quoting a Shakespeare sonnet here, bear with me!) Kings and I have no commonality except our humanity. I have no need to change my state, at all. It changes moment to moment without me.

Our state changes constantly, with every breath. Though my body may occasionally betray me with panic, though my mind fogs in and all I want to do is lay in bed unthinking my way through the day, I have a way through. A path lies open for me to trod. A path is there for all to walk upon, actually. 

A path that opens with each breath.

For even though meditation can't "cure" me, even though meditation isn't going to prevent these storms from hitting my mind and heart, meditation practice has illuminated for me a number of insights into my experience thus far:

1) Thoughts and Emotions can be like storms. All storms pass. Some are big ones, some are brief, some are just wind, others are wonderful and needed. But they pass. Daryl taught me this, and the more I read about Buddha's teachings, the more I understand this.

2) I can see the storms on the horizon now, almost smell them. And knowing they're coming I can breathe and calm my mind, which calms my body, and then I can continue to enjoy the present moment. Some storms do dissipate before arriving, this I know as well.

3) The breath is always there. It never leaves.

4) I have courage, a deep deep courage. I've always had this strength. Courage lies in all of us.

5) Being depressed isn't who I am. Being brilliant isn't who I am. Being talented isn't who I am.  Missing notes isn't who I am. Disappointing others isn't my purpose. Inspiring others isn't my purpose. My purpose is a mystery to me, but I'm happy to continue to investigate what it might be.

And I am just me - and that's okay.




If any of you reading this also suffer from depression, I urge you to talk about it - with loved ones, with friends, or with medical professionals. 

I'd also suggest trying meditation. Meditation is simple, there are so many online resources about it, so many guided talks. I like to browse a website on dharmaseed: http://www.dharmaseed.org they have hundreds of talks, and offer many links and resources. There are apps for your phone. Even the U.S. military is teaching mindfulness meditation - and it's really helping soldiers both on and off the field of battle.

I have never medicated myself for my depression, but have considered it. I hope that those out there suffering with more severe mental health problems than me get the help they might need. 

It is suffering in silence, thinking you're the only one like this, that really can get to you. It takes courage to seek help, to admit it's time to talk to someone. Courage is in us all. Please trust in that and know that you are not alone.

- Patrick


Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Art of Listening, Watching, Breathing

I recently posted a status on Facebook:

"Listen with your eyes, watch with your ears, and breathe with your heart."

A friend (aren't we all friends on FB?!) wrote a quick comment, which was later taken down just as quickly --- but I saw it, thank you very much --- that was obviously a knee jerk reaction to my status. It went: "I find it better to listen with my ears and breathe with my lungs."

I just don't think that that's enough. And I don't think this friend was really listening to what I was trying to say on that oft-misunderstood medium known as Facebook. This isn't a blog to defend my status, it is a blog that will take my original sentiment and try to expand upon it, as well as try to explain why I posted that status in the first place.

Listening is a difficult thing to do sometimes, just on a person-to-person basis let alone on a more general day-to-day level. But listening is what I do in my profession. As a stage director, I'm listening to lots of people sing opera, listening to the singers describe their needs, their ideas, their questions. I'm also listening to designers discuss themes at play in the opera, color schemes, fabrics that inspire, makeup ideas, and offering solutions to a myriad of problems. The listening continues when the orchestra players get into their "pit" -- I don't have enough room, we can't hear the horns, all we can hear are the horns, the conductor is too high or too low or too dimly lit, or too vague in their motions.  It's endless listening!

I watch people as they talk. I watch their body language, their eye focus, their facial muscles, their gestures. These tell me many things. I also listen to their tone and volume levels. Low and breathy means something different than high and nasal when the person's tone is normally much more average or bland. There are high breaths, deep breaths, sighs, tensed jaws, teeth clenched, tight intercostal breaths, collarbones exploding with tension breaths. Everyone expresses themselves differently. When you hear the phrase "it is written all over your face", understand that often it truly is written on your face.

These expressions send messages of subtext. The face can be saying "this situation is making me extremely unhappy and I'm about to lose it" but the chosen words might be "I'm fine, I'm happy, everything is alright."  It's an acting technique - playing the opposite. It's also in a director's bag of tricks - playing the subtext.  Everyday human beings do it all the time when they're walking down the hall and a coworker asks "How ya doin'?" and the response is "great" (said in a flat, un-great tone because you've just been handed divorce papers.)

I wish more singers understood their faces. Their thoughts are written all OVER their faces! Many times it's because they are so expressive already in their regular, everyday lives because it's a holdover from their more dramatic or comic characters they embody onstage. Sometimes, it's just part of being a singer. If you didn't know, singers usually employ more facial muscles than most other Americans because singing in other languages demands using more of your lips and tongue than normal citizens of the U.S of A.; let alone the act of operatic singing and how one learns to increase breath control and decibels of sound over large spaces. Get a group of singers together in a cafe, and the others in the room will notice them immediately. They are gregarious conversationalists, even when tired and on a break!

So one can listen with their eyes. Years spent coaching singers has taught me this.  One can see a bad tone being created before it gets sent out into the theatre. One can see a legato phrase happening a bit before it starts to materialize in sound. It's connected, on many occasions, by how the breath is taken, or not taken, from the heart.

Yes, that sounds all touchy-feely, but I mean it.

Breathing is something that happens all by itself for most of our lives. We do not need to breathe from the heart while we are sleeping, or sitting on a bus, or waiting for a number at the DMV, or while reading this blog. However, singers do need to focus on breath in a much more immediate and intimate way. Sadly, breathing is something that doesn't get focused on all that much lately in the teaching studios. That's a different blog perhaps...

When we express something important, or something particularly true to a close friend, a lover, a child, a spouse, or a parent, we breathe differently. There is a connection to our feelings -- for lack of a better place in us: our heart connects to the breath. Because singing is something quite extraordinary, and singing opera libretti text is something very extraordinary, one can't take an ordinary breath and intone "I've loved you since before time began" over an 80 piece orchestra while bathed in soft blue lights costumed in a Grecian toga. All the text leading up to that point and afterwards also demands a special connection to every breath taken.

In fact, I think all breath in opera is special and should come from the heart. Otherwise, why sing the text? If it's not important enough to connect the thought with real feelings and emotions, then why is it sung?  I've said over and over that "Opera is never about the day nothing happened."  It's true. Opera is always about the day something happens! And that something is so special and exciting that people are expressing themselves in poetry, in song, through an orchestration, with dance and gestures, and -- most importantly -- through the fragile human vocal folds.  Connecting their breath with their thoughts leads a singer to express text on pitches in a much more satisfying and intense manner. Try it out. Every phrase being led by a breath from the heart!

What about that part of watching with the ears?  That's the fun part!

If you close your eyes and listen to Mirella Freni sing practically anything (my favorite is her rendition of the recitative before Susannah's act 4 aria), or Corelli, or Domingo, or Pavarotti, or just-name-a-great-singer-from-before-2000, and you'll "see" their character come alive through the sheer power of their vocal artistry. I hate hearing that in today's world, opera singers have to be able to "act" as well as sing. I hate that.

Hate.

What were they doing before the 21st century? Just singing?  Well, they were acting THROUGH their text via their voices. It's what bel canto was really predicated on. It doesn't really mean "beautiful singing", it actually was a style of singing which carried the meaning of the text and the emotion primarily through the voice. One didn't need Method Acting Techniques; one didn't need to make eye contact constantly and sing sideways into the faces of their partners. What a singer did was imbue the meaning of the text, and its emotions, in their singing. You have to really listen to see this acting technique happening. You can hear it in Sutherland's singing, in Callas', in Scotto's, in Hadley's, in Sill's, in Milne's, shall I stop...?

This art seems lost, or at least it is hard to find. It's there at the top, in singers like Fleming, Hvorostovsky, Kaufmann and in the younger lesser known generation like Matt Worth, John Osborn, Alyn Perez, and Sandra Eddy. But many people I've worked with lately seem to not be able to hear this kind of intention in singing or in singers. I'm talking primarily directors and conductors, but young singers included.

If you look close enough and listen intently enough, one can hear the truth coming out of mouths. One can also hear lies.

The lying is what comes out mostly. It's because the truth is harder to find. You have to dig down for it and look for it and listen for it. You have to struggle to understand. You have to juggle many choices and ideas - of others - before you can even begin to find the cave that must be explored.

That cave is deep and dark and scary and unexplored. Even when the cave has a sign that says La bohème over it, it is still an unexplored country.

I'm just in the midst of bringing a Le Nozze di Figaro into dress rehearsals. I've loved this opera for thirty years now. I first heard it in 1984 at Des Moines Metro Opera. I was thunderstruck by it! I'll never forget hearing "Deh vieni" for the first time or hearing the Count ask for forgiveness in Act 4. I cried.

Later, when I discovered what a perfect opera it was, I was in awe of it. I stayed away from doing it. I turned down one when I was in my 20s cause I thought "how in the world could I have anything to say about such a perfect opera?"  Since then, I've coached it tons, I've conducted it, I've performed in it, and directed it (not enough times to even begin to scratch the surface of it.) I'm getting ready to produce it at Opera McGill this January (Nicola Bowie directs, Gordon Gerrard conducts). It is a masterpiece of such depth that I'll never explore its cave.

Here's just one example of a great cast and a great conductor. There are many, many others out there:

The Met 1999 Excerpt of Act 2 Finale

But I have listened to it, I've watched it, and I've breathed in its phrases.  My heart sings just to be swimming in its waters. I hope that everyone involved listens, watches, and breathes it all in, understanding that they are just at the beginning of a long journey into a vast, mysterious cave carved out centuries ago by that great master of all, Herr Mozart.

It is something difficult to convey, this wish.

Breathe with the heart.

Watch with the eyes and ears.

Listen with the ears and eyes.

Then repeat, often, and humbly.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hubbard Hall Opera Theater's Le Nozze di Figaro!


I'm in eastern upstate New York currently directing a production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro for a relatively young opera company. Hubbard Hall Opera Theater is part of a Cambridge community based center for the arts: Hubbard Hall Arts Center. Started decades ago with a focus on producing theatre works, Hubbard Hall expanded about seven years ago to include an opera company. In years past they have presented Cosi fan tutte, Carmen, La bohéme, Hansel and Gretel, The Barber of Seville, Abduction from the Serglio, Don Pasquale, and a few others; some with piano accompaniment, but most with orchestral forces. This year's season is the aforementioned Nozze as well as Puccini's comic operatic masterpiece Gianni Schicchi.

I must admit to not knowing anything about the opera company until its artistic director called me up a few months ago to ask if I might be interested in directing the Mozart. As often happens, there was a different director associated with the production and then other factors came into play so the company was looking for a stage director. As also happens (more often than you might think), I was recommended by a student who had just left my McGill program after spending three years with me. Geoffrey Penar (who performed in productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflöte, and Volpone) is singing the Count in the HHOT production and I have him to thank for this gig!

The artistic director of HHOT is an operatic factotum of a young woman. Alix Jones is, from what I've seen over the past week, a tireless AD/GD/ED/FD/HD/TD/EtcD (Artistic Director/General Director/Executive Director/Financial Director/Housing Director/Technical Director/Etc Director); basically a one-woman show. Responsible for getting the shows chosen, casting made, artistic team put together, contracting singers and orchestra, coordinating set designs, finding props, building and painting sets, and then putting on a nice dress in order to serve as MC during a young artist community outreach event.  I've been very impressed with her, and her company's, ability to juggle quite a lot of needs while maintaining a rather fun and casual environment in which to rehearse opera. That's rather tricky, speaking from experience. She also has been creating opportunities for young talented conductors, this year the orchestra and singers are being led by Lidiya Yankovskaya (click on her name to check out her website.)

Speaking of experience, my experience has made me feel, on this gig especially, like an old man o' the theatre. It's now been 30+ years in the business and though I've done quite an awful diverse number of jobs in opera all over America, I'm very much feeling my age. Staying in patron housing can be fun when you're younger but when you're set in your own ways, you realize just how inflexible you start to get. It's one thing to be a houseguest for a weekend, imagine four weeks. I'm making a concerted effort to find my flexibility here, both out of and in rehearsals.

The space that HHOT performs in is truly unique. Hubbard Hall is a remarkable 19th century "opera house" built in 1878 that was neglected for much of the 20th century and then had a renaissance due to the determination of one man, Benjie White, and the community of Cambridge. Here's a link to the history of the hall:

http://hubbardhall.org/about/history/

And here are some photos I took on a morning off strolling around Cambridge. I came upon a great farmers market right next to the old train depot.



And here's a terrific short video on the arts community that has found a home in Hubbard Hall. They are currently looking for donors to help them buy risers for the theatre and it's a micro-donation project via indiegogo, so if any of my readers from any part of this globe think they might like to donate $25, $50, or a $100 check out this video and see how terrific - and unique - this arts community is. They have Irish dance classes, yoga, Tai Chi, theatre improv, art classes, and much much more:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/risers-at-hubbard-hall

These are what the current risers look like:


As long as we're on links, here's a link to information about the opera performances:

http://hubbardhall.org/opera-spotlight/

And a cast list, where you can check out the bios of the young singers performing both operas:

http://hubbardhall.org/opera-spotlight/auditions/

I've been very impressed with the level of talent, both in the leads and in the smaller roles and cover casts. Mozart's perfect opera, Le Nozze di Figaro, is a daunting task to take on for the first time. The role of Susannah, for instance, is said to be the longest soprano role ever written. It certainly is a role that takes a great deal of stamina both vocally and dramatically. She's such a great, smart, liberated female character, written back in the 18th century by the great Beaumarchais in his banned play La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro (The Mad Day or The Marriage of Figaro) and then a bit later turned into THE comic operatic masterpiece of all time by Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte.

Here's a pic of my cast:


I mean to use all caps when I write "THE comic masterpiece of all time". I believe this is the perfect opera. Perfect in form, certainly. No one really could argue against that one. Just looking at the 2nd act it's clear that Mozart was a formal genius of structure. Just the key signatures alone give one a clue to his architectural genius. Each piece moves from E-flat (Countess' aria) to B-flat (Cherubino's aria) to G (Susannah's aria) to C (the duet where Cherubino leaps out of the window) and then when the big "finale" begins (the best one written, truly) Mozart writes in a tonal palindrome moving quickly from E-flat to B-flat to G to C and then back to F (a palindromic relationship, trust me) back to B-flat and ending in E-flat. That's just one part of one act, mind you. The other characteristics of this opera that make it perfect lie in how the characters' emotional lives develop through not just the plot devices and wonderfully comic and sexually-spiced text, but through the brilliant and transcendent musical score that Mozart gave us.

If you're in the area and have the chance to see the performances (we open on August 13th and it runs that weekend and the next), please come.  The venue is truly an intimate one -- perfect for experiencing opera live and up close. The singers will be just feet from the front row, the orchestra will be behind the singers so you will literally see tonsils, tongues, quick eye glances that you'd miss in a big theatre, and you will experience the power of acoustic, sonically-charged opera right in your face!  It's almost rock-n-roll, from a decibel perspective, once all of the characters get onto that stage and start singing!

Here's the link for tickets:

https://www.z2systems.com/np/clients/hubbardhall/event.jsp;jsessionid=EF00FA83FEC0103ED70641FAED417AC9?event=1202

And if you can't come, find a recording in your house, or find one online, or check out youtube for full-length performances of this fantastic opera by Herr Mozart. And look for Opera McGill's own production of Le Nozze di Figaro this coming January at McGill University. It'll be directed by Nicola Bowie and conducted by Gordon Gerrard with a terrific student cast!

One more link for Opera McGill:

http://www.mcgill.ca/music/programs/department-performance/opera-area

See you at the opera!
Patrick

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Operatic Judgment

Operatic Judgement is really loud, much like opera. It can be loudest in our own heads, it can be seen by thousands in print, and it can bring careers to a halt if left unchecked or unbalanced.

In opera, judgement is everywhere. It pervades the art - and the people who create it, buy it, and sell it - like nothing else.

Young singers are barraged by judgements, both from within (silent yet deadly judgements!) and without (both from private and public sources).

First the Outer Judgements...

These come from both public and private sources. The private ones can sometimes hurt the deepest and stay with you the longest. The examples that might spring to mind are: a vocal coach saying off-handedly that your "coloratura really sucks today" or a voice teacher telling you your timbre "isn't right for German music" or, as happened to me, a middle-aged assistant conductor strolling up to me after I'd just played my way through a hugely difficult Russian opera piano technical rehearsal to drop the bomb "you know, you're a great player and all, but you play without rhythm, just thought you should know."

That jab took me three years of a masters degree to get over. Once I was at Julliard I didn't really worry about playing with rhythm cause I was, well, at THE JULLIARD SCHOOL ASSHOLE!

I digress.

Often times these private sources of judgement are very private, as in you never actually hear the judgement. You don't hear what the audition panel is whispering to each other while you sweat your way through an Adams' aria from Nixon in China (but you imagine what they're whispering, that's for sure!), you don't hear the discussion had between the Met district judges about your performance, you don't know why you didn't get into that great $45,000 per year grad school but you think maybe it had something to do with the fact that your audition panel was staring blankly off into their computer screens while you and a never-met-you-before-sad-excuse-for-a-collaborative-pianist fought your way through a difficult Strauss set.

I think that these private sourced judgements make up the bulk of the pronouncements faced by all artists -- outside of the inner demon voice. Some young artists take a cavalier approach to these pieces of judgement, sometimes casually known as "feedback" in the biz, in order to ward off feeling being overwhelmed. This approach can lead to not seeing yourself or your progress with objective eyes. It's a state of denial that can feel comforting and protective, even self-empowering. But it's not good to ignore anything and everything you don't like said about you or your talent. Particularly from people you've decided to learn from and/or study with at a school or summer program. Other young artists I've known take everything, and I mean everything to heart. They end up demented, to put it mildly. Their talent becomes discombobulated, their egos get crushed, and they wander through the halls (practice halls, school halls, audition halls) with a deep-seeded desperation that one can almost smell.

Balance is needed, as in everything. Think chiaroscuro. 

Instinctively you should know if these judgements are coming from a place of creative, positive intentions or if they are coming from a place of coldness or insensitivity. Allow the myriad of feedback that comes your way to have a place in your mind to sit and spin for awhile, in order to take a better look at it later and decide if it's something to be considered or something that might better be left in the trash bin.

The public sources are primarily those faced at "public" masterclasses (that's a whole other blog: "The Irrelevance of Masters giving Classes in Public") and in print: the dreaded opera critic.

Masterclass "feedback" is easily misunderstood and thankfully, easily forgotten. Many times, when something actually positive may happen and a learning experience is taking place, the young artist isn't in the mental space to really grasp hold of what's either being said, or what is taking place to make such positive changes in their music making or their technique. They are onstage performing in public, not in a private space focused on learning and process. Learning is easy while sitting during a masterclass, it is much more difficult while performing in one. These are different mindsets and I don't get why so many people seem to think that masterclasses are a great place for "students to learn." Yes, students learn while watching them, it's usually a much different thing for those being the guinea pigs. Yet these public judgements stick with young artists if something dramatic is pronounced like "you don't know how to sing, my dear!" (Actual quote from an actual diva giving a public masterclass a few years back.) These judgement stickies sit on people's lapels in both the minds of the young artist and the audience (comprised of both amateur enthusiasts and colleagues-and-comrades-in-operatic-arms). They can devastate. They can also give absolutely the wrong message and, at worse really, false hope. My mother went on, until her death, about how "Dr. Fake Name from Drake University said you were the most talented 12 year old he'd ever heard play the piano and that you could be the next Van Cliburn". Well, I might have been but that didn't play out that way, did it Mom?

I urge all to take with a grain of salt any pronouncements made at a public masterclass, especially if it concerns switching vocal ranges or major fach changes. One song or aria can not, no matter who the genius might be listening to you, tell them whether you're really a baritone or not. The flip side of this masterclass stuff is when it goes really well, when major changes take place that cause everyone to nod their heads when the artist turns to the audience with that "come on, everyone nod their heads so that Miss Mezzo can understand she's fabulous now" look. If such change were truly possible in masterclasses, then more singers would be better with more frequency, yes? Why are these changes temporary? Why can't they be recreated by the singer?  Mostly because they aren't really in the room. They are in their heads trying desperately to either impress, not suck, or learn from their idol. It is not conducive for true experiential learning, in my humble opinion.

Operatic Critics, here I go...

Actual Operatic Critics (AOCs), an endangered species in modern journalism, can really make an impact on a production's ticket sales, on a young singer's burgeoning career, and on most fragile egos if something negative is written for all to see. In print, on their blogs (usually the later nowadays), and occasionally in opera magazines that, sadly, few people even read, these professionals sit and pontificate from on-high on matters of utmost importance. Well, not really. They do like to go on about how a singer is the next coming of Christ, or the representation of mediocrity onstage, or simply should stop singing before somebody throws a tomato at them. Most of the reviews I've read over the last ten years (except from the fine critics at the NY Times and a few others at the Washington Post, Financial Times and the Philly Inquirer) are just terribly written either by those who know way too little about music, let alone opera, or by those who listen way, WAY too much to classical music recordings. My knickers get in a twist particularly about operatic conductor reviews. They are either "serviceable" or perhaps "uninspired", but usually, they are just not really mentioned. Imagine! How did the opera happen, mind you?

Point of interest, perhaps: My conducting reviews, outside of one or two given me by a certain New Jersey critic, were uniformly lovely, even complimentary (just wanted to say that so no one reading this thinks I have a bone to pick about how I'd been reviewed in my career, I don't.)

Basically, the problem is that AOCs really have little to no knowledge of what goes into creating just one, or any for that matter, specific operatic moment in the performance they are witnessing in a theatre. They are really writing in the dark, so to speak. For example, decisions made by producers and designers impact a set's colour palette that then can impact a costumer's decision on fabric choice that then shows up on a singer's body and either makes them look glamorous or dumpy. While said singer recreates blocking given to them by a director (who perhaps hasn't thought everything through) and at the same time struggles to make a long musical phrase but finds they are restricted in their waist by said fabric that matches the color of the door behind them, which was chosen specifically to show the subtextual need for their character to escape their operatic situation. So what happens? The last bit of fioratura gets messy and the critically-eared critic jots down in their program "messy coloratura from diva #2"!

Got it?!

These decisions I've just detailed all can have huge impacts on musical phrases going this way or that way, on singers being able to breathe correctly and efficiently, literally on the music being recreated onstage and down in the pit. There's no way to fully comprehend all of the collaborative decisions that go into each and every moment in an opera, and these decisions end up in reviews - unbeknownst to anyone really - that can have terrible psychological consequences; on a young singer especially.

I tell all my students and young artists I work with the same thing: If you believe the good reviews, you have to believe the bad ones. So don't read them, don't believe them - regardless of what's said.

Got that?!

The Inner Judge. The Inner Voice. The Demon. The Cheerleader. The Friend.

Ah, this is the hard one. Everyone has them. Their inner demons, that little voice sitting up in your head. That sports commentator that won't shut up and just allow you to enjoy the moment cause they have to give a blow by blow critique of how you're doing moment to moment. I don't really need to explain this one, or what it's about. There are lots of blogs and quotes and masterclasses about how to help deal with, mute, or permanently silence (sorry, not possible) the Inner Judge.

So I'll talk about my inner judge. He's really mostly a pissy asshole who obviously has a blood sugar problem. He doesn't like the way I play recitative (Patrick! too flashy, too much, make it simple, you should have studied recit with someone important); doesn't like the fact I miss notes (wow you played that aria with no wrong notes, oops there you go missing the same passage, you should have practiced, what will so-and-so think about all your wrong notes); doesn't like how I direct the first scene in any opera (well you got it done but it's not what you wanted, this makes no sense, they don't get you at all here); doesn't like Massenet (why don't you know how this Cendrillon goes?). He has quite a range of dislikes and disappointments and never ceases to show up and work hard on my behalf.

During performances at the piano, I've learned to silence him with the "I don't care what they think" mental game. There's just too much going on playing for a singer in a performance to spend time thinking about what people might be thinking about my playing. I typically, if I'm allowing myself to think about the audience, try to imagine that they are being blown away by my awesomeness. It really actually makes me play better. Truly, being awesome in your own mind is vital to making art in public!

As a director, it's important to stay open in the rehearsal room to everyone. This can lead to staying too open to everyone's judgements. You see it on faces, you hear it right to your face as well. Getting others in the room to quell their inner judges, to calm their anxieties about being good or correct or "what the conductor/director wants" is a very integral part of my job as a stage director. Death to opera happens with the phrase "that won't work because..." I've seen whole shows just die because someone won't try an idea given to them since they've judged, before even doing it once, that it won't work, or worse, know it won't work "for them".  Inner judges on public display in rehearsal rooms are seldom helpful.

Recently, however, I've found a more powerful ally in my quest to put my inner judge on hiatus: Mindful Meditation.

The Buddhist tradition of Vipassana meditation, or as it's translated "Insight" or "Mindfulness"meditation, has become a big trend recently. The U.S. Armed Forces are using it with soldiers now in basic training to prepare them for the rigors and stress of combat and deployment. They find it reduces the incidence of PTSD on soldiers returning from the field, and those soldiers suffering from PTSD report that Mindfulness Meditation really does help with the symptoms, stress, and anxiety.

Not that a public comment to a singer is like PTSD, but we all have teeny moments of post traumatic critique disorder, or PTCD that sit in our heads and can, with little notice, disrupt or derail a coaching, lesson, rehearsal, or performance.

"Your recits are too loud and too sung" can turn into singing way off your voice and paranoia about learning recitatives. Going into a staging of a Mozart opera can bring out floppy sweats in a young singer thinking they sing too loudly or too much, but when they try to NOT do that, they get comments about lacking intention in their music or connection to the text. What are they to do? PTCD is a real problem in opera.  Yes, it's truly a minor thing when compared to real stress from the battlefield or from personal tragedies or from real phobias, but our unconscious brains may not be able to see a difference. If they did, why would the stress of negating some past comment cause the mental anguish it sometimes does?

Mindfulness Meditation is an answer and it's easy to do! Twenty minutes a day, sitting and breathing and taking in each moment. Not focusing on the past (it's gone) or the future (it doesn't exist). Mindfulness has taught me that everything is impermanent. Each production I direct is over a month later. Each note I play resounds for only its planned duration. Every laugh, joke, or missed step in rehearsals is fleeting and should be cherished.

What we should not cherish or hold onto, however, are all these judgements that come into our world. Let them exist, acknowledge their existence, but only in the present. Don't let them live beyond their moment. Take a breath, take a walk. Look at the trees - they don't judge their twisted trunks or their brilliant green leaves or their lack of growth in any given year. We don't judge trees like we judge people: "she's so fragile", "his voice is so brittle", "she's just not getting it, why doesn't she change teachers?" Imagine the tree version: "that tree is so fragile, can you believe it, what was it thinking?", "that tree is so brittle, it really should become more flexible!", or "that tree just doesn't understand its purpose as a tree, it should seek a new mentor tree."

Confession: I'm into trees now, sorry for that metaphor. I think it works, but my inner editor is saying I should go back and delete out that paragraph...

Meditation has changed my life. I'm going on two years now, and am just beginning to see the impact it is having on my inner emotional health, my family life, my inner struggles, and my work in opera. I may falter here and there, but it's just a moment. It's all I'm doing at that moment. I get up, move on, the storm passes, another show gets directed, I meet new students, my children grow up, my facial hair changes. It's all fleeting.

Impermanence is a powerful thing to understand. Once embraced, it can really act in an empowering way through your mind and into your life!

Don't hang out with the past. Don't hang onto it either. Letting go of self-judgment, from time to time, is a very healthy and important way to keep creating, to nourish your inner artist, and to make music flow easier in this world of ours!

Namaste,
Patrick

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

War and the Pity of War

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1. The Great War. The War To End All Wars.

There are a some operas about modern war, and a few about WW1. The most recent, and notable is Kevin Puts' Silent Night, which has had much success down in the states. This month, Fort Worth Opera is going to be producing it, with a great cast. Next year, L'Opera de Montreal will be producing it as part of their 14-15 Season. I think some of the piece is wonderful, although I haven't seen it all, only catching parts of it here and there on the web.

Last year, Fort Worth Opera produced the world premiere of Tom Cipullo's Glory Denied, again with a terrific cast (Michael Mayes, Caroline Worra, David Blalock, and Sydney Mancsola) conducted by Tyson Deaton. It's about a Vietnam vet. I can't think of another Vietnam opera, actually.

As well, there aren't too many operas about WW2, let alone the debacle of the U.S.'s latest war.

In the 20th century, we do have a few other pieces -- Wozzeck, and The Good Soldier Schweik -- which seek to look into the interior of a soldier, albeit two very different types of soldiers in two very different types of stories. There's also Owen Wingrave, by Britten, that looks at pacifism within a family bred on war. Am I missing something obvious? Stravinsky's Histoire isn't really an opera.

Yet, there are so very many operas about war written before the turn of the century. It's rather an operatic specialty. Lovers headed off to war (Cosi fan tutte), soldiers massing for battle Trovatore, Macbeth), celebrating a war hero (Giulio Cesare, Otello), even female warriors (Partenope). So when I decided to look at World War One, it became clear my options were limited (and Puts' opera was already taken by the professional opera company here in Montreal) so I looked outside the box.

One way of looking at war is to set pieces smack dab into the middle of war. Pieces that normally one doesn't associate with war, let alone world war one. Another way is to look at pieces written during the war -- interestingly enough, lots of cool composers were writing during 1914-1918: Lehar, Bartok, Stravinsky, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and that guy named Puccini.

Next year's Opera McGill season for 2014 - 2015 will be focused on WW1 entirely.

Starting the fall semester off will be another pastiche (like the "Shakespeare Serenade from September 2013) that I'm putting together of songs with settings of WW1 poetry. It may be an all male cast, not sure. There are such wonderful pieces written and I'm looking forward to doing this research over the next few weeks. I believe I will call it "War and the Pity of War".

The rest of the season will follow our regular schedule - baroque opera in the fall, the mainstage in January, and the Black Box Festival in March.  In November, we will collaborate with the Early Music program here at McGill to produce a double-bill of John Blow's Venus and Adonis and Rameau's Pygmallion. Both of these pieces are not at all about WW1, having been written way, way before the war. However, we are setting them against the backdrop of war. Venus and Adonis will be set in the trenches of WW1 (Adonis hears the call to battle instead of the call to hunt) and Pygmallion will be set in the aftermath of a world war. January 2015, in my 8th year here at McGill, we will produce my favorite opera: Le Nozze di Figaro. Again, not really anything to do with WW1 -- but I'm really looking forward to the director's concept of moving it forward through time to the second decade of the 20th century to see how the themes at play in the Beaumarchais mix with the revolutions that were trying to take place throughout Europe - from Spain to Russia. In March, the Lisl Wirth Black Box Festival will feature two productions: once again, a collaboration with the McGill Chamber Orchestra (Boris Brott, artistic director) in a production of a double-bill of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica.

Now hold on! What's up here? WW1 and a Puccini double-bill. Well, yes. That's the easy one. Puccini wrote these pieces during World War One.

And as part of the festival, we will present a scenes program that focuses on pieces either written about WW1 or written during WW1, or perhaps by composers/poets who were soldiers during the war. That's a huge amount of literature and composers to choose from, so I'm looking forward to putting that program together!

This summer I'll definitely be doing some reading in preparation for the year. This war that called so many young men to battle, that maimed a generation, and ripped apart the fabric of Europe is still with us. These battles are still being fought today, just look to Ukraine and see the muddle that still exists there. WW1 didn't end anything. But it did leave a legacy of art, poetry, music, and a new vision for the composers, writers, and artists who survived the war.

Perhaps looking at this war through the lens of works not really associated with it may illuminate War in a new or different way, or place a perspective not found before. We will see.


Monday, April 7, 2014

End of Year Wrap Up: Opera McGill 2013-2014

It's been a huge year at Opera McGill. A Season celebrating many things, mostly Shakespeare (450th birthday year is 2014) but also Britten (100 year celebration was 2013), and of course celebrating the amazing, talented, fantastic students who populate the halls of the Schulich School of Music!

After a brilliant start with the "Shakespeare Serenade", and a wonderful fall production of Handel's Giulio Cesare (directed by Tom Diamond and conducted by Jordan de Souza), we did a low-budget but intensely exciting double-bill of The Telephone and La Voix Humaine that ended the first semester. January brought a culminating production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream (directed by me, conducted by Andrew Bisantz, and choreographed by Nicola Bowie) followed by a terrific mostly-staged collaboration with the McGill Chamber Orchestra (Boris Brott, artistic director and conductor) of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi (directed by Nicola Bowie) with a huge Shakespeare Scenes program tucked in between those performances. Whew! So much opera in two semesters.

I couldn't have done all of this without the terrific support of my three Opera McGill office assistants: Robert Parr, Michaela Dickey, and Caitlin Hammon. They were simply amazing and kept things humming along, all the while performing in the aforementioned productions and finishing up their own degrees at McGill.

Additionally, there were nights of arias (Death By Aria), nights previewing the season at various venues, and hundreds and hundreds of hours of rehearsals, coachings, and stagings.

That's where the actual work is done - in rehearsal. And it's where you either develop a love of the art form or not. If you don't like rehearsing, or find it boring, or think it might be a waste of your time, you really truly need to think of something else to do with your life. Opera is rehearsal.

Opera is not performing for adoring audiences. It is thousands of hours doing research - into scores, recordings, videos - and learning and practicing and coaching and then collaborating with dozens of others; most of that collaboration happens in the rehearsal process.

That's why I think it's so important for young singers studying opera to get LOTS of rehearsal time - whether it's as a walk-on, a supporting role, a lead role, or as a cover.  One must love rehearsing in order to be loved as a performer.

With that thought, here are my nominations for outstanding achievement in various categories:

Most Hours Spent in Rehearsals:
Russell Wustenberg (Serenade, Giulio, Midsummer, Capuleti, Shakespeare scenes)
Samantha Pickett (Voix, Midsummer, Shakespeare scenes)
Sara Casey (Giulio, Midsummer, Capuleti, Shakespeare scenes)
Rebecca Robinson (Serenade, Giulio, Midsummer, Capuleti)

Best Use of a Prop:
Lee Clapp (fingering the hilt of Pyramus' sword)
Brent Calis (breaking any rehearsal prop he touched)
Samantha Pickett (the pictures in Voix)
Collin Shay (standing on a grand piano)

Best Trip:
Vanessa Oude-Reimerink (Tytania and the fog)
My five days in D.C. directing at the Kennedy Center
Bottom's Dream

Best Use of Text:
Sara Ptak (Sigh No More)
Geoffrey Penar (It was a lover)
Katrina Westin (Merry Wives scene)
Chelsea Mahan (Shakespeare sessions as Tytania)
Caitlin Hammon (Sonnet)

Best Tear To The Eye:
Tytania/Oberon/Fairies (Final chorus of Midsummer)
Geoffrey Penar (Sonnet reading)
Kevin Delaney (Come Away)
Robert Parr (Be Not Afeard)
Rebecca Robinson (tomb scene in Capuleti)

Best Loudest Moment:
Kevin Myers (in the tree as Lysander)
Elyse Charlebois (Death by aria)
Samantha Pickett (Desdemona)
Ensemble (Serenade to Music)

Funniest moment:
Pyramus and Thisbe, the opera

Scariest moment:
Michaela Dickey and the FOG
Almost every musical rehearsal with the Lovers on Act 3
Our guests barely getting through customs

Most Memorable Moment:
Me giving notes in the tree after Midsummer
Running the Shakespeare Serenade in Redpath
Seeing Oberon up in that tree with lights and fog for the first time

Hearing the final moments of Midsummer echo in my memory still gives me chills. Thanks for that!

I'm sure I missed tons of memories, these were just those that came to me as I typed this blog!!

Thanks for such a terrific season everyone!
Thanks to Ginette Grenier, Vincent Lefevre, Serge Filiatrault, and Florence Cornet our amazing designers.
Thanks to our videographer, Anne Kostalas and our photographer Adam Scotti.
Thanks to everyone in the Concerts and Publicity Office at the Schulich School of Music as well as to all of you who continue to support the Schulich School of Music!
Thanks to our amazing guest artists: Tom Diamond, Jordan de Souza, Nicola Bowie, Boris Brott, Andrew Bisantz, Paul Hopkins, and Paul Yachnin.
And -- A special thanks to my wife and family for their support and understanding. Sirius is so happy to have me back!






Friday, April 4, 2014

Rating Music Schools

Note of Warning: The following post contains opinions. Crazy, I know, but true. Opinions. Hopefully, someone will not agree with these opinions, or agree. I don't care. That's how things work, or used to work.

Also, please note: The following post is supposed to be humorous. I warn you in advance, as much of it is not funny, it is just trying to be so...

RATING MUSIC SCHOOLS
There's been flurry of postings on Facebook about a recent blog - that some mistook for an article - rating Music Schools. This wasn't done via a newspaper or some magazine, it was so far as I can tell, one man's research into music schools in the United States (I don't know if he knew there were music schools outside of the U.S. - say Guildhall in England, for instance, or if it was decidedly just a U.S. list.) His top ten list generated few surprises, and I can't say I disagree with most of those choices. Many people were thrilled to see that their alma mater was rated above Juilliard (sorry, THE Juilliard) and posted excited exclamations about it all.

But I think there are some flaws in the logic behind these ratings.

For one, rating music schools based on the number of operas that get produced seems like an odd way of determining whether it's a good school or not for studying music. If a small school produces one opera and maybe a scenes program, that does not mean it is less of a school than, say, Indiana University, that produces upwards of 6 productions a year. Why? Well, there are hundreds and hundreds of singers at I.U. and even with 6 productions (even double cast) there are still only a certain number of roles available for students. Plus, most undergraduate students don't get cast onto the stage in roles at the bigger schools with huge graduate populations. At a smaller school, say Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, there is a very small population of students (all undergraduate) and usually two opera productions plus scenes. In their four years, students have a much higher chance of getting cast in a role than, say, at a big graduate school like I.U.

Full disclosure -- I went to Simpson College for my undergraduate piano performance degree...

These ratings weren't just about opera, though. Rating a music school is quite a difficult task. One needs to look at the overall population of students, the ratio of full-time professors and instructors to students attending, the facilities (some of the great schools are located in facilities where there isn't running water in certain parts of the building... Not speaking about anywhere in particular, it's just that it'd be nice if one didn't have to climb a flight of stairs and walk down a long hallway to use the restroom), the resources (human and financial), the cost of tuition and room/board, the diversity of subject matter taught (improv? jazz? business? stagecraft?), etc. The list is huge. I have to wonder what went into the decision to rate MSM above or below another school, like Eastman for instance.

Now, many of these schools rated as "Top Ten" are lovely schools and have churned out some wonderful musicians, but many parents of high school students, and the students themselves, are way too worried about getting into a "top" school. That's why these sorts of lists need to be taken lightly. As Malcolm's recent book "Goliath" aptly demonstrates, sometimes going to a smaller school or - god forbid - heading to a non-Ivy league school, or take-my-hand-I-might-faint, enrolling in an off the map school can actually lead to a higher success rate. In the opera world, there are tons of singers making it professionally who did not attend a CCM, a MSM, or a Juilliard (sorry THE Juilliard) but came from terrific schools in the midwest or in the south. (Are there music schools in California? Oh, that's right, there's USC and some conservatory in San Fran.)

I believe that what Malcolm (we are on a first name basis obviously) has to say about the Ivy Leagues is also true with music schools.  Not all schools are for all students, and sometimes it can make a great deal of sense to study music at a school that makes the student feel like they are a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Why? Read the book.

So, in light of the recent Music School Ratings list that made the FB rounds, I'd like to provide my own. Please do so knowing I'm making no endorsements for any school, nor am I criticizing any school. It's MY list.

Here It Goes:


#1 McGill's Schulich School of Music. Why? Cause the guy that runs the opera program there grows the best facial hair of anyone running any opera program in North America. Plus they do at least three operas a year, with orchestra and usually a few more with piano. And the fromage in Quebec is the best substance known to man!

#2 Simpson College in Indianola Iowa. Why? Cause RLL's a genius and created the most unique music department filled with singers singing all the time, all the repertoire (from madrigals to Floyd operas) and I went there, along with a few other rather talented folk, back in the 80s.

#3 UMKC. Why? Cause that's where I got my masters degree (do you see the trend yet?) And KC BBQ is almost as good as one finds in Memphis. But don't study in Memphis, too many distractions on Beale Street, you'd never practice and then you'd start singing the blues, and then your parents would get upset.

#4 Juilliard (sorry - THE Juilliard School.) Why? Cause it's fricken Juilliard, (sorry THE Juilliard School) and I was a fellow there at the JOC way back in the 90s. Best coaches anywhere, have to say.

#5 FSU. Why? Because Read Gainsford, Valerie Trujillo, and Timothy Hoekman work there and they are brilliant.

#6 USC. Why? Cause Buffy the Vampire shot some episodes on that campus and Ken Cazan is there and he's a terrific director. It's also sunny all the time, never rains, and everyone is beautiful.

#7 Ithaca College. Why? Cause they can belt musical theatre tunes and perform Gluck equally well. Their secret weapon? Boy Wonder runs the opera program and he's REALLY a genius. Truly.

#8 Northwestern University. Why? No idea why, just popped into my head. Everybody loves Northwestern. 

#9 Oberlin College. Why? Sydney Mancasola went there and she's as good as it gets. Plus David Gately went there back in 1935 or something like that.

#10 Anyplace that costs under $25,000 a year. Good luck finding one. That's a whole other topic.