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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Battling Depression Mindfully

NOTE: This blog first appeared in August of 2014, after Robin Williams' suicide. I've reposted it below.

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: 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, July 16, 2015


REGRETs I’ve had a few…

Actually, I have no real regrets, only a few half regrets; more on those later.

I’ve wanted to write this blog for quite some time now, but regretfully have been hyper busy doing nothing. Well, almost nothing. The months of May and June were filled with looking for a new home outside of Quebec, looking for a new colleague to become the head coach for Opera McGill, and planning for the next season, which includes five operas at McGill: Adamo’s Little Women, Ching’s Buoso’s Ghost / Speed Dating Tonight!, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (which I’m conducting instead of directing) and Handel’s Rodelinda. Plus we are doing a special performance in September “Sondheim on Sherbrooke” and I’m cooking up a special extra project for May, 2016. I’m also looking forward to a return to Fargo for my 4th opera production there: Suor Angelica / Gianni Schicchi (conducted by Michael Ching). Hopefully there will be one or two more outside gigs down in the states and/or here in Canada as well. At least 7 operas between late September and next June!

So back to regrets…

Each year around May or June, I receive letters of thanks, emails of thanks, or messages of thanks from students about their experiences with Opera McGill. These are always wonderful to read, and make all of the hard work and effort seem like it has meaning to many individuals. There are themes that run through most of these messages of thanks – how holding them to high standards helped them realize their potential, how the program’s professional bent helped them on their career path, and how giving them opportunities to grow artistically meant so much. But there is another theme that runs through these messages of gratitude, one of regret.

The main regrets seem to be that they wish they’d taken advantage of all the opportunities provided by Opera McGill, that they wish they’d not worried so much about what their colleagues or teachers thought about them, and that they wish they’d not judged their experiences so harshly because now that they look back on them, they see just how extraordinary those experiences were.

I have to say that I especially agree with that last bit. So many young singers today really over judge and over think their experiences instead of just experiencing them, fully committing to them, and bringing into their rehearsals and coachings a sense of joyous discovery.  Too often I see young singers sit back and quietly remove themselves from the moment in order to judge it. From time to time, I receive a few complaints that there isn’t enough this or that, or too much of this or that.  Some even comment that there is too much rehearsal (how can there ever possibly be too much rehearsal?!) In what operatic world – outside of the German system of 6 years of rehearsing one recitative – can a singer ever be bored in a rehearsal? There is so, so, so, so, so much to learn and listen to and watch. If you find yourself thinking that rehearsal is the thing to “get through” so that you can get your costume on and sing in front of an audience, then I think you should rethink pursuing a career in opera. The life is rehearsal. The life is endless learning – new roles, new stagings, new ways of collaborating with new/old colleagues. The amount of time one spends in front of audiences is extremely small. It’s like the vast expanse of space in between the planets in our solar systems – it takes years to travel to Pluto, but then BANG WOW: Pictures of Pluto crowd Facebook and Twitter for a few days; then people move on… 

That’s what it’s like to work in opera.

So my advice is to jump in with both feet, go to every rehearsal you possibly can! See every single recital, get to every masterclass and ask as many questions as you can! Take your professors and mentors for coffee and grill them for answers about the questions that are on your mind. Work with new pianists, read through your aria books and those musical theatre anthologies. Get out to hear concerts – classical and popular. Do as much as possible to avoid surfing on the internet or watching YouTube videos or posting on Facebook. You can do that later, after school ends.

Sounds simple, but sadly it is truly hard to do.  One could start with putting away the smart phone for hours at a time. Maybe just check FB every other day. Maybe save YouTubing until a Saturday morning. These are just thoughts. There is tons of expert advice on that subject available on the interweb… Oh…

My “half” regrets?
1) Not learning enough piano concertos back when I had the chops. Oh well.
2) Not spending enough time learning certain opera scores back when I was younger and had more time. By “learning” I mean being able to play the scores and storing their texts in memory. Scores by Wagner (Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Meistersinger) and Verdi (Ernani, Otello, and Luisa Miller), learning the big Strauss works (Ariadne, Arabella, and Rosenkavalier are the only three I basically know), and some of my favorite 20th century operas: Pelleas, Grimes, and Lulu – love them, but I only can play certain sections now; the sections I learned back during my Juilliard days.

I really had the time back during those summers when I was playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, plus I was playing for the god of opera choruses Donald Palumbo. What was I thinking not working on these scores and then talking to Mo. Palumbo about them, or asking to maybe work on one or two with him? Imagine what I could have learned! I had oodles of time during my masters degree now that I look back and think about it. I had tons of time while an apprentice coach at DMMO when Stewart Robertson was running that program. He’d have been fantastic to work on Grimes or Ariadne, for instance. I could have conquered the big Donizetti works all at once when I was at Juilliard instead of waiting to learn them as the jobs came along.

Those sorts of regrets. Otherwise, my life’s journey has been charmed and wondrous! I hope everyone out there gets as exciting a journey for themselves!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

And I know things now...

The great Stephen Sondheim wrote:

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

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

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

Those other lines are as interesting to ponder as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the intentions of your coach? Your teacher? The composer? The librettist? What are they trying to say that perhaps they can't articulate with words. Or notes. Or pitches. There's meaning all around us, yet we latch on to words only, all too often. "Your vowels are too dark." "It's marked piano." "I think you're not right for Edgardo." "Your high notes will come when you're ready." "Think blue."

Don't trust those words. Look for the meaning behind them. Trust your instincts.

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

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

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

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

It's a palindromic effort, really. By going inward, one discovers an "undiscovered country" all around us.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Judging a Book by its Cover

A few personal stories about book covers:

Back in 2001, about a week or so after conducting Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Dallapiccola's  Il Prigioniero in Princeton, I found myself in Galesburg, Illinois working with my father-in-law who was ripping up a high school gym floor in preparation for laying a new basketball court.  It was an un-airconditioned gym and it was August. Hot and humid doesn't really even begin to describe the air.

Dressed in work boots, jeans, an "Opera Festival of New Jersey" baseball cap, and a white tee shirt now dirtied from sweat and the remnants of the floor I was sweeping up with not much success (the piles just seemed to reform every time I moved into a new section...) I was pretty miserable. I remember thinking at the time that even though I had just received some of the best reviews of my conducting career from the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, here I was getting callouses on my hands, smelling pretty rank, yet looking forward to downing at least a couple of ice cold beers once I got home.

I wasn't working for the money, I was really there to assist my father-in-law. During his work years he was one of just a few guys who knew how to "cut in" a basketball court by hand. If you know what that means, then you'll be impressed. If you don't, just know that you should be impressed.  He was also one of the hardest working people I'd ever met, the opposite of lazy.  Certainly when we talk about opera and how we "work" hard at it, there isn't really a comparison when someone like my father-in-law talks about "work".  My wife and I had left New Jersey and driven to Burlington, Iowa to spend time with family. It was her idea for me to offer to help out, so I reluctantly did thinking it'd be a good change from all that Hungarian opera swirling around my head.

My wife was happily back at her parent's home with our first son, who was barely two years old. We were trying for another, to be honest, and there is something to be said for manual labor making you feel like a potential progenitor, especially after downing an ice cold beer on a hot summer's afternoon. Perhaps that's just too much information...

This is an opera blog, I promise!

Anyway, I was busy sweeping the floor, getting dust and crap all over me, sweating in the 100+ degrees of heat when a woman walked into the gym to see how we were progressing with the job (I think she was the principal.) Before she got to speak to my father-in-law, she saw my baseball cap and a funny smile came upon her face. "You a fan?" she said to me. I had no idea what the hell she was talking about, so I think an unintelligible "huh?" escaped my lips. Looking at me with some sort of sad pity for my inability to articulate an answer, she spoke to me again - in a very slow tempo: "You. Like. The. Opera?!" And she smiled and pointed to my cap.

"Oh," the maestro confusedly said because his brain was melting in the heat and humidity, "yeah, I..." and then my father-in-law spoke up and said "he conducts opera!"

Silence and Wonder. Her smile faded as I took my baseball cap off (I was raised to take my hat off in the presence of a lady and she seemed like the type who'd appreciate the gesture) and said "Hi there, I'm the son-in-law" and held out my amazingly dirty hand, which she didn't shake because she was very confused.

"Really? Wow!" she literally exclaimed. And then she said something I'll never forget: "Judging by your appearance, I can't imagine that to be true."

Well, I was standing before her not looking like I'd looked when Martin Bernheimer of the Times (Financial, of course) wrote his thoughts about me: "He made much of Dallapiccola’s aching examination of torture by false hope, even more of Bartok’s epic essay in psychosexual angst.” (Truly, how many conductors get such a cool review using the word "psychosexual"?!) There I was the opposite of an artistic, flamboyant, tuxedoed opera maestro. In fact, I had visited the local barber upon arrival in Iowa and gotten my favorite summer haircut, a very severe high and tight flattop. This principal was looking at me with eyes that couldn't imagine me as a classical conductor. She said something about how the gym was progressing, gave me another quizzical look, and turned around. I guess the cover of my book was way too blue collar for her to imagine me in front of an orchestra and opera singers waving a baton.

I thought about this on the ride home, and I've thought about it quite often over the years -- why and how do so many people think there's a "look" to a conductor, or to an artist, or to us classical musicians in general? So often the only time they see us is when we are in gowns and tuxedos; all dressed up in 19th century finery for people who now attend the theatre in jeans, work boots, a tee shirt, and baseball caps. I've seen them. Our audiences' idea of dressing for attending a concert, recital, or opera has completely changed from even my time at The Juilliard School in the early 90s. Why haven't WE changed? Why don't we dress like our audience, for indeed that's why men wore tuxedos to play in the symphony -- because the men in the audience were dressed in tuxedos as well.  I purposefully broke from tradition by not forming a "look" that said Maestro with a capital "M". I found it all way too pretentious, and I was much more comfortable in a, for lack of a better phrase, working man's skin. Sadly, though, I wonder how many people cultivate a look or a persona that turns them into something that they can't own, or something they really can't identify with honestly. I suppose the same is true, to a lesser extent, in academia.

Just a thought.

Here's another:
The cover of the book entitled: "Sweeney Todd" says it's a musical. Yet can we just pause for a moment and think about the Sweeney productions being put on this year alone by opera companies? Here's a short list: Vancouver Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Hawaii Opera Theatre, Virginia Opera, Eugene Opera, and I'm sure I've missed a few! Yet lots of opera lovers won't call it an opera because it's not called an opera. How many of them call Die Zauberflöte an opera by mistake? Or Carmen? Or any of those wonderful operettas that people think are operas? In my book, any story told through music and singing is basically an opera, unless there's tap dancing; then it's a musical. Thinking this way makes the delineation pretty easy: Street Scene is a musical and A Little Night Music is an opera.  I tire of the ceaseless, petty discussions about what is what and which is which, to be honest. If it works in a theatre, sells tickets, and can be sung then I think it doesn't matter in the least. It's a new day kids, better get on this boat cause it's already sailed!

Here's another:
The cover of my face: Celebrating my 50th year of life, I decided to stop shaving and grow a beard from November 21, 2014 to November 21, 2015. This journey is referred to as a "yeard" by pogonophiles (beard lovers). I can not even begin to tell you how this has changed my life. It's not like I've never grown a beard or facial hair before. Just take a look at some of the pics on the right hand side of this blog and you'll see a number of different looks. I've blogged about them, actually. I think in today's world the perception of who you are is much stronger and more "real" than the reality of who you actually are.

When I'm out and about now wearing my sunglasses, jeans, and flannel shirts, I look like a hipster from Brooklyn. I know this, yet I'm in no way trying to emulate them. I actually resent the fact that I've come upon the glory that is bearding at the same time a whole bunch of skinny-jean wearing ironic hipster models have taken to marketing leather briefcases that cost thousands of dollars. I don't look like those models, though, cause I'm fat in comparison and my beard is rather white. I bring this up because strangers really assume things about me because of how I look. I've gotten so many questions about cars, about where to find a good tattoo artist (I have no ink cause I'm scared it'd get infected!), about where to buy drugs (a few have even asked me if I had any on me!), and the list goes on. I get asked if they can touch my beard (um, no), and on the flip side, I get lots and lots of compliments, free coffees, and a few free beers bought for me by total strangers telling me they "loved my stache" or some sort of compliment.

It's really cool to walk around at my age and feel completely new again. My face is very different with this beard and sometimes even I don't recognize myself in the mirror in the morning. I like this evolution to big grey-bearded guy whose age is hard to pin down now, but it's not who I am. I'm also the clean-shaven preppy frat boy, and the handlebar moustache dandy, and the bald by a razor dude who loves the shock value of a shaved head and an all black wardrobe. Come to think of it, how could I ever get a tattoo? It's permanent and that's one thing I'm not.

This playing around with my outward appearance goes hand-in-hand with my ever changing operatic career. Most of you will change careers, I certainly have. From pianist to coach to conductor to administrator to director, my career path makes total sense to me. I hate it when people box me in, or define me as just one or two of those bits. I'm all of those bits, and so are so many of us in the arts! Yet why is it important to define a young singer as this or that type of voice? Why is it important to tell a young musician to specialize in this or that type of music? Who are we to tell others what they are? Simply because you see me now with a big white beard doesn't mean that's who I am. Simply because I direct more operas than conduct them doesn't mean I'm one or the other, or that I should do one over the other.

A final example:
A wise old singer once told a master class gathering to remember that the singing heard that day was "just a snapshot" of the present moment. No matter how they might sing, it was just a snapshot, a representation of who they were right at that moment. If they were incredible, they might not be again, if they cracked on a high note it might not ever happen again. Their future was unwritten and they should take the comments given as something for the present. It was terrific advice! I give the same advice as often as I can when a singer is frustrated or feeling like they are lacking something technically. Imagine if you just decided however you were performing right now was your book? Would you print it and make copies? What would the cover read? I think it's not only important to NOT judge a book by its cover, but not print out our books as if they are fixed in ink on paper. Our lives, our artistry, our craft and technique are always evolving, always moving dynamically in so many directions. Try not to limit yourself by trying to define yourself so that you can fix your "self" in time and space (so that then you can judge yourself!)  The path to happiness and success is in another direction, in my humble opinion.

So this has turned into a longish blog, and a bit personal. I guess what's going through my brain right now is more about the future than the past. Where to go now? What new challenges might be ahead? How will opera's present trends move forward and create a future that my students and colleagues can be celebrated in and be successful in as well?

Too many great books out there, try not to just pick up the ones with covers that make you feel comfortable, or make you feel smart. Pick up the ones that make you crazy, confused, and especially the ones that challenge you to rethink the world you live or work in.

That'll keep you young, and that'll keep you from boxing yourself into a box of your own creation!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Singing in the Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Operatic Playground

Over the years I've come to realize two things:
1) I love rehearsing much more than watching performances.
2) I find that I know much less than I once thought. In fact, the longer I direct opera, coach singers, or teach, I find that the ratio of what I thought I knew to what I don't know opens up exponentially.

But recently (perhaps the last ten years or so), I've been working with, and running up against, all sorts who behave as if they actually know it all. Or at least they behave like they know quite a lot more than they actually do. (Just to be clear, I'm thinking about both professionals and students.)

Let me give you three examples:

Example Number 1: The pianist who believes they should be conducting opera even though they've played only a handful of operas and/or attended just a few professional opera productions in whatever city they're living in currently.

What makes this the #1 egregious example for me is that I believe it is a big part of the cause of the evaporation of the operatic landscape of North America (that's another blog...) It used to be that conductors learned the repertoire through years - YEARS - of experience playing staging rehearsals, playing voice lessons, coaching inexperienced singers, leading opera chorus rehearsals, playing dozens (if not hundreds) of scenes programs, and listening to live opera performances as often as possible. Nowadays, young pianists seem to feel entitled to not only large quantities of money (I did most of the above list for free during my years as a student, and then for peanuts in my twenties) but also think that their limited skill sets give them the right to talk their way into conducting opera at small, medium, or even large opera companies. I'm astounded by this trend, which I believe is connected to the youth obsessed symphonies hiring music directors who are so inexperienced they haven't conducted even a small percentage of the repertoire.

Example Number 2: The assistant director or stage manager who believes they should be directing opera after a few years of assisting one or two semi-famous directors.

This is a toss up with the pianist. Similar problems exist, except that a director actually needs no skill set to call themselves a director. They literally just say they are a stage director and, poof, they are a stage director. The problems an inexperienced director can cause are huge in number: insisting singers sing to each other (sideways) causing acoustic problems in big theatres when an orchestra starts to play; solely focusing on the text while ignoring the composer's music and musical intentions; not understanding the physical connection a singer needs in order to communicate with a conductor (and vice-versa); being disorganized and/or not knowing the repertoire well enough to project a staging schedule in order to keep people's time from being abused; I literally could just blog about this for days...

Example Number 3: The young singer who thinks they are pretty savvy having spent the last few years focused on opera so why should they be expected to sit around at a rehearsal and watch others' work? What could they possibly learn from a colleague's staging rehearsal? What would be the reason to sit in and listen to a colleague's coaching? Why should they spend the time sitting around during a part of the opera they are not even in? (God forbid someone might actually learn the entire opera as opposed to just their role!)

Here we go ---- There was a time, not too far back in the past, when us opera folk would actually go to rehearsals we were not called to in order to learn something.

That "something" is a -- SSHH -- it's a secret!


Us old timers seldom actually let others in on this secret, or what the secret actually is because, truth be told, we can't really articulate it in any way that won't sound like some old grey-bearded geezer going on: "In my day, we walked uphill both ways through a blizzard in order to learn our Mozart recitatives!"

But I will try to articulate why attending rehearsals, for young singers, young pianists, and young wanna-be directors/conductors is so very vitally important: Learning happens through Observation, Reflection, and Insight.

Observation: Most young people (and I'm not talking about just students, I'm talking about professional opera singers I've been working with recently) attending rehearsals no longer observe the rehearsal they are in. They arrive at their appointed time, take a seat, and open up their smart phone. Then when it's getting close, they start to pay attention to where the rehearsal process is in the opera, and then they pop up and take part. Once done, they usually go back to their seats and check to see what's trending. What these non-observers miss is, in a nutshell, THE POINT OF IT ALL. Opera is about collaboration, it's a totally collaborative process (not usually a democratic process, please don't confuse these two notions...) and one that is built on interpersonal relationships. Sometimes it's based on a look, a glance, a raised eyebrow, a lost cue from a conductor, a missed breath, a flubbed passage from the rehearsal pianist. It's a very elusive and hard-to-see process. One must be truly engaged in the room to really get what's going on. One has to put down their phones, their laptops, their books, and especially their opera scores (look at your scores in a practice room please) and observe: listen with your eyes and watch with your ears. Yes, I wrote that correctly.

Reflection: Why did the rehearsal work the way it did? What makes that baritone so damn good at taking staging? Why isn't the conductor hearing the soprano's vibrato and adjusting their tempi? Why does the director ignore the mezzo and berate the tenor? What makes the composer's harmonic choices work so well at certain dramatic moments but not others? What would I be doing if I were the singer/conductor/director? You can not reflect without first observing your present moments in front of you. Being ignorant of the present moments causes people to gossip and make rather ridiculous leaps of faith in our business.

Insight: This is the great result of spending time in a rehearsal observing and reflecting about the work, the process, and the people trying to collaborate in the room. It can lead you to achieve at a much higher level, can lead to greater understanding of a composer's other works, and will make you a better human being. Down the road, it will allow you to feel ownership of whatever you choose to do, be that teaching, performing, directing, or producing.

Every time I get myself into a rehearsal room I learn something new. Lots of somethings, actually. If I could impart any kind of wisdom onto the next generation, it would be to run to rehearsals with a renewed energy akin to a young child running onto a playground or jumping into a pool on a hot summer's day. This is our play time, this is our moment to connect with people who love what we love. It's our time to dive into the consciousness of the great composers and swim around in their amazing brains. It's a way of playing with eternity, really. What could possibly be more interesting on Facebook? What could possibly cause one to think that their time was being wasted by having to sit and watch an hour's worth of rehearsal? Our opera, the one we have chosen to live in, is never performed for anyone. It's an operatic, collaborative life that we are uniquely pursuing despite today's cultural, economic and social changes. Don't turn away from that life. Realize that the rehearsal process is an eternal, ongoing, never-ending "opera" that will always give back.

If you're wanting to conduct, that's great. Go for it. Start small and start humble. Make sure you spend the thousands of hours necessary to begin to understand the repertoire, singers, singing, orchestras, languages, style, and how to manage time and people. If you're wanting to direct, get to the opera houses and watch. Get into rehearsals and observe. Start directing scenes programs, create your own opportunities to work with singers and start collaborating with them. Avoid dictating your thoughts or thinking about the "piece". Think about the people involved in the creation of the piece: first and foremost the composer! If you're wanting to sing and perform opera, fabulous. Hie thee to a rehearsal, one that you are not even involved in at all. Ask to be a stage manager. Ask to be an assistant director. Play rehearsals. Listen to live singing in opera houses. Get to rehearsals early and put down your phone upon entering the room.

Oh -- and a few final thoughts: There's no way to know it all. It'll never happen. You'll never be ready either. So work hard in the practice room by yourself. Be prepared. Then rush into that wondrous operatic playground that is the rehearsal room and ENJOY!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

2014 Year In Review!

Writing these end of year reviews is a pleasure, as it gives me a chance to look back and wonder "how did it all happen so wonderfully?" It also allows me to, yet again, discover that my memories of past events are almost entirely positive. Do we remember the bad stuff nearly as much as the good? There are only a few negative memories (feelings rather) that stand out from 2014 and most of those are about traveling, my health, or a generalized feeling that a few too many things slipped through the cracks. The rest of the memories bring a smile to my face. I hope some of these bring a smile to those who helped make my memories in 2014!

January 2014
An entire month spent on one thing, and one thing only: Opera McGill's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. To say it was beautiful would be an understatement. The design team was astounding: Ginette's costumes hitting an all-time high; Florence's jaw-dropping makeup designs that created a monkey god Puck, a blue-boy, and gorgeous fairies and humans; Serge creating hundreds of light cues, including a moving full moon; Vincent's huge set (probably our biggest ever) with a centerpiece of a magical tree that haunts my memories of so many scenes. The casts were terrific and sang Britten's music and text like it was their own. The kicker was that I got to work with two friends -- Andrew Bisantz (funny, I started 2014 out with him and I'm ending 2014 with him) who was our fantastic maestro and Nicola Bowie who came in toward the end of the rehearsal period and choreographed a number of dances that really put a cap on the production. I think it may have been our strongest production yet and certainly set the bar high for future productions!

Here's Anne Kostalas' terrific video preview showing a bunch of snippets:
Midsummer Video

The tree and my fantastic casts and team:

February and March 2014
Opera McGill was busy preparing and rehearsing Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi along with a Shakespeare Scenes program. I popped out to Washington, DC to do a bit of work with my old friend Julian Wachner and his Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center (this year was "Essential Verdi" and included a dinner at the Italian Embassy where I was one table away from three Supreme Court Justices [Ruth Bader Ginsburg!)] and got to meet the amazing Nancy Pelosi!) The year of shakespeare was coming to a close and we had some amazing last few Shakespeare Sessions. I was thrilled with Maestro Brott conducting the Bellini with Nicola Bowie back again, this time as the stage director. The Scenes Program was astonishingly performed. Co-Directed by Paul Hopkins and I, it was a scenes program where the students presented the Shakespeare version first, followed by the operatic treatment (i.e. Mercutio's monologue "Queen Mab" followed by Gounod's aria "Queen Mab"). It was extremely well-attended and it also was extremely well-received.

In DC...

April 2014
The end of a remarkable semester spent co-teaching a graduate research seminar class with the illustrious genius, my colleague Professor Paul Yachnin. Once a week we got together to discuss a Shakespeare play and the operatic treatment of the same play. Once a week my mind was blown. Once a week I wanted time to just stop so we could continue talking and discussing and questioning! The students kept up (it was a LOT of material) with reading the plays and listening/watching the operas. Among others, we tackled both versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Otello, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Romeo et Juliet, three versions of The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff, The Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me Kate, Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. I will never forget the class, the students who took an active part, or Paul who challenged us all. It's so great to allow your mind to expand and grow, even a wizened old professor has tons to still learn!

Here's one of the mini documentaries about the Shakespeare Sessions. (Check them all out on the Opera McGill Youtube channel. Just google "Opera McGill Shakespeare Youtube" and you'll find them!)

Shakespeare Video #6

May 2014
I love May in Montreal. It started out with snow still on the ground (I took a photo of melting snow drifts in downtown Montreal during the first week of the month, believe it or not) and ended in full, magnificent bloom of Spring (spring happens all of a sudden in Montreal because the winter lingers 4EVER.)  Most of this month is a blur, except towards the end when I went to the Bluedog Barbershop and had my beard... wait... come to think of it, I shaved my big beard off sometime in late March. That was a mistake, frankly. Totally missed my beard, so I started growing it, but then in mid May my burgeoning beard took a turn for what are called "friendly mutton chops". I kept them through the summer, just because.

Gosh, Sirius and I look a lot alike in this...

June and July 2014
Off to Iowa!  My family and I love Iowa, it's where I am from and it is where my wife is from. We spent a great deal of time in Burlington, IA (the southeast side of the state right next to the Mississippi River) and witnessed yet another flooding of the great river (not as bad as the two "500 year" floods that have happened during the last, um, 20 years. Climate change, anyone?!) I cooked a lot, the boys watched tons of tv, we went to the pool, took Sirius for walks, saw relatives (including a very nice visit with my sister and brother-in-law), and I got super sick to my stomach. Super sick. I was sick for about a week, not being able to keep anything in me. Thus, in my weakened state, I couldn't take looking at the chops anymore and shaved them off. Right before it was time to leave, I recovered. But just barely. Truly not a happy moment in my life!

Here's a pick from a family outing over looking the Mississippi River:

And a flooded Mississippi:

August 2014
A last minute gig offer took me to upstate NY where I discovered a remarkable young opera company called Hubbard Hall Opera Theatre (here's the link about my time there: Blog on HHOT ) I loved my hosts and the teeny town of Cambridge, NY, where HHOT is located. We did a Downton Abbey Le Nozze di Figaro. It was nice to direct it there, since I'm not directing the upcoming Le Nozze di Figaro that Opera McGill is producing this January (rehearsals start in like a week!). Nicola Bowie returns to direct it and Gordon Gerrard returns to conduct it (he was last at Opera McGill for Don Giovanni) fresh from his appointment as the associate conductor of the Vancouver Symphony. My students are very lucky indeed. Anyway, performances happened there and I returned to Montreal with barely a few days before McGill started in with its crazy schedule.

HHOT Nozze:

On a personal note: It was in August that Robin Williams died, and I wrote a blog about my own struggle with depression. I've never received as many private messages about a blog of mine as this one:   PJH Blog: Battling Depression Mindfully   
It wasn't a brave thing to do, by the way, it was something that I needed to write as much for myself as for others.


September to November ossia A Fall from Hell ossia A Crazy Semester 2014!
This semester was Krazy with a capital K. I took on just a wee bit too much. There were extra public lectures and performances (not a big deal, but probably one too many), I directed a spectacular production of John Blow's Venus and Adonis while Aria Umezawa, not to be outdone, did her own spectacular version of Rameau's Pygmalion (it was a double bill of baroque one-acts.)

A terrific video preview by Anne Kostalas on the baroque production:
Link to Youtube Preview

Just working on the baroque opera would have been fine, but we had a record number of graduate students arrive on campus this year (we accepted the same number as always, but this year practically everyone accepted our acceptances!) and so I added a few things into the season: a staged Knoxville and a presentation of At the Statue of Venus; a scenes program for the spring semester (which had to get organized this semester); more acting and repertoire classes for Opera McGill; and I took on the Schulich School Singers again this semester (they were the chorus for the baroque opera and will be the chorus for the Mozart in January) preparing them musically, and keeping their schedules organized. Added to all of this was the fact that beginning this January, I am on a half-sabattical. Gone for January thru July! But that meant trying to get the spring semester all organized way before I might normally have done so (which ultimately makes it a good thing!) I could not have done this without my two amazing Opera McGill office assistants, Michaela Dickey and Russell Wustenberg. Oh -- I also coached and played the Knoxville, and I also spent most of the end of November coaching Nozze. That's always a pleasure, but wow it takes a lot of time to get through the piece with a double cast. They are going to be wonderful and I can't wait to come back into town and see their opening nights!  Oh -- I also spent a good amount of time being a part of the design process for a production I'm directing this January and February at Ithaca College -- Adamo's Little Women. The design team is a combination of students and faculty. The BFA program at Ithaca is superb and I'm really looking forward to this production, conducted by Brian DeMaris.  Oh -- I was on the Austrian Ball committee and was in charge of making sure there'd be music for the ball. Can't have a ball without music. Stress... Oh -- I also had to spend a few brain cells on preparing for my December gig...


December 2014
As mentioned above, I'm finishing out 2014 with Andrew Bisantz. Here in Eugene, Oregon, there is a wonderful opera company, Eugene Opera, and a terrific theatre, the Hult Auditorium, and a great troupe of people who sing in the chorus, volunteer with the opera, and guest soloists who really know what they are doing! We open Donizetti's comic masterpiece L'elisir d'amore on New Year's Eve and that's why I'm not home for the holidays right now. We had time enough for me to get back to Montreal for a few days, but I don't travel well anymore and it would have taken too much a toll on me so I decided to stay put over Christmas. It's been tough, for sure (I'm typing this on Christmas night as Shrek 3 plays on the tv, trying to keep my mind from thinking about missing Christmas with my family...) but rehearsals start up in another day and I'm really looking forward to this one! Chad Johnson is Nemorino and he sounds fantastic, Angela Theis is Adina and she's terrific, Marco Nistico is just amazing as Dulcamara -- a role he's sung a few times at places like Rome Opera, and the two singers who are from Eugene, Harry Baechtel and Sarah Kim are going to be big crowd-pleasers, I'm sure.

Here's a link to an Eugene Opera fun little promo video:
Catch me saying "The Monkey" on this video!

I travel back to Montreal on New Year's Day, see up the start of Opera McGill rehearsals the next day, and then get almost two weeks off before heading to Ithaca, NY.

That's the diary of the year. Typing it left me a bit breathless. I think I should re-think my schedule and get some downtime scheduled, eh?! Luckily, next year looks a bit easier. Little Women in Jan/Feb of 2015, then a return to Fargo for my third "F" opera: Fille!!! I've directed Fidelio and Figaro there, so Fille awaits (hoping for a Falstaff or a Faust next!) I hope March and April behave themselves better this time. Two years ago we got multiple blizzards there, but the year of Fidelio I was wearing shorts during the same months. Mother nature can be fickle. Currently my summer is free but a big move is in the works so I'll be super busy keeping everything in order.

As far as big moments this past year? What really stands out? Here's a bit of a list:

  1. Colin in the tree, Brent below -- magic!
  2. Final Fairy chorus -- haunting!
  3. Diving into heteroglossic intertextuality based on Bakhtin's ideas of dialogism (is that a sentence?) during one of our many amazing seminar classes.
  4. I. Kissed. The. Wall's. Hole.
  5. A thunderstorm in Cambridge, NY that rattled my eardrums.
  6. Never wanting to eat Taco Bell ever again.
  7. Seeing the Venus and Adonis chorus create lasting images onstage, everything from David's shell-shocked amputee to Nicholas' pipe-smoking doctor to those ladies in their gas masks...
  8. Blood onstage, fake blood and fake wounds of course, which shocked some of our audience members; then the end of the opera drawing sobs and tears from women and men in the audience. I haven't had audience members come up to me with tears in their eyes since we performed La bohème. Maybe it was the poppies at the end, or the WW1 uniforms, or the timing of the performances, but the production did make an impact that surprised even me.
  9. Being in beard-friendly Eugene, Oregon makes me so happy to have kept my big mustache (there's always a danger of my shaving it off some mornings) and to be growing back my big beard again. I'm just one of thousands here. I've seen some AMAZING beards here, huge long ones. Totally adjusted my idea on what a big beard is, fyi.
  10. My wife and kids. I love them so much and miss them way too often. My life is a dream in many ways, creating opera at McGill and elsewhere, but the time it takes away from my family is taking a toll. I'm looking to rebalance a few priorities in 2015, wish me luck!
And to leave you with those haunting words from the end of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream: