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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Montreal's Best Bets for Opera America Conference Attendees

I've been asked by a number of friends and colleagues planning on attending the 2016 Opera America Conference (here in Montreal) to offer my advice about what they should see, do, and - most importantly - where they can find a great French bistro, while staying in this wondrous city.

So the blogger in me thought I'd just blog about it instead of sending the same info via email or FB. I have included tons of links as well, so you shouldn't have to google too much.

First off, a few tidbits about Montreal:

Montreal is the 2nd largest French-speaking city in the world (the only one that's bigger is Paris). Springtime is beautiful here, but May is different than other North American cities I've lived in. (Frankly, Montreal is most beautiful in the fall, so come back sometime then!) However, the city does explode in the most beautiful way in May. The flowering trees, the flowers in the ground, the grass, the leaves. Everything EXPLODES in just a week or so -- usually late April and early May.  So bring your antihistamines, just in case.

Otherwise, you should experience lovely weather with a chance of rain every day you are here. Pack an umbrella too.

On top of that umbrella, pack a sweater, a light jacket, a heavy jacket, tee shirts and flip flops, comfortable walking shoes, plus clothes for 2C or 20C. You see, the weather just simply can't be predicted up here from day to day (let alone from hour to hour.) If you plan on going out and about in the city, just layer your clothes and be prepared to take things off as the day progresses.

Money -- the U.S. dollar exchange rate really favors y'all. Be prepared to shop with that strong dollar, although know that some things up here will seem super expensive. 

Getting around -- I say walk or taxi (Uber is available). There aren't that many places you'll want to go, outside of the two Markets listed below, that you can't really walk to or take a quick taxi.  The subway is called the "Metro", but there's also a supermarket called "Metro". Take the former if you want to move about quickly and cheaply, avoid the latter.

French -- go ahead and speak all the French you want. You'll be greeted back in English, in most cases, at the top notch shops and restaurants in the Old City and in downtown. Once you get outside of those areas, the city becomes very French. Enjoy and use all those operatic phrases you've learned over the years from listening to Carmen, Manon, and Faust, not to mention all those Debussy and Poulenc songs you studied way back when... There are always English menus available. But don't go looking for directions or signs down in the subway in English. The subway is totally in French. So what if tourists get lost?

Best Bets ossia Things Not To Be Missed In Montreal

Seriously, the cheese here is freaking amazing! It's actual cheese, unlike what's sold down in the states. The best fromagerie (cheese shop) is at the Atwater Market (Marché Atwater en français). Go there and breathe in deeply. Saturday is sample day. Go down the stairs into the back and there, behind the counter, are cheese experts who love cheese and love sharing cheese. They give samples. Ask them tons of questions. They can tell you the hour that a cheese will be best for that evening. NOT KIDDING.
The fromagerie's website: Fromagerie Atwater
(And if you can't get to this one, there's a whole bunch at the Jean-Talon Market. Or, if you can't make it to the markets, order a cheese plate instead of dessert at any nice french bistro. Get Quebec cheeses. They're not pasteurized and oh so wonderful.)

2) The Markets
There are two great markets. One is huge and wondrous: Marché Jean-Talon. Locals and tourists flock there on the weekends, so if you have a chance on a Thursday or Friday, go then. It's simply splendid. You can find anything there. I bet somewhere in some booth, there are Ricordi critical editions of Un giorno di Regno (and certified organic, for sure!)

Then there's the slightly more Romantic (albeit much smaller) Atwater Market. Sometimes I weep at the way vegetables are displayed with such tender-loving care by the farmers -- I've never seen such gorgeous fruits and vegetables laid out for sale. It's as if they're getting ready for a Food Network documentary or something.  You can stroll along the Lachine canal (if it's really nice, rent bikes or kayaks) and sit down with friends and eat a fresh baguette from Premiere Moisson (try their pastries too), some cheese from the fromagerie, a bottle of wine from the SAQ, and chocolates from either of the chocolate shops there. Heaven.

You can find more information here: Montreal Market Info

3) Okay, I'll get to them now: The Restaurants! 
Montreal boasts great restaurants. Some are so good you won't be able to get reservations (most are in Old Montreal), but if you call now, you might get a table. Montreal locals eat LATE, therefore if you ask for an early table, you might luck out. Be prepared. Service, for Americans, seems slows. You'll also never get a bill. Ever. They'll let you sit at that table and talk all night. It's deemed rude to push a bill onto a table here. Just ask for one 10-15 minutes before you're actually needing to leave. It takes a while to get it, then to pay for it. "L'addition, s'il vous plaît" is the phrase to remember.
Forego the "best of Montreal" restaurant lists. They'll include Indian, Thai, Korean, BBQ, etc. You can get that cuisine anywhere in the states. I'd recommend the following:

French Bistros:
($) Laloux: Laloux website
($$) L'express: L'express website
($$$) Au pied de cochon: Au Pied De Cochon website

Other choices:
Food and Wine list: Food & Wine Article

If you want a great Tea experience, Montreal has some excellent and cool places. Anne Kostalas' blog is the definitive info: Montreal Tea Places  While I'm at it, check out Anne's travel blog. (She also blogs about opera!): Dear England, Love Canada

And if you want a definitive list, here's the top 38 for the spring of 2016:
Best Montreal Restaurants and Map Listing for Spring 2016

4) Cuban cigars anyone?
Now that y'all can get to Havanna without being arrested, I suppose Cuban imports are easy to find down in the states. If not, head to either Casa del Habana or Cigares Vasco. If you like pipe tobacco, the famous shop is Blatter et Blatter, just a block or two from Place des Arts. Google them.  
In addition to those imports, you can find other interesting things one can't find in the states. However, most of these can't be brought through customs! If you find any dried dates from Iran -- buy a box. They put other dates to shame.

5) Sights to See:
a) Mont Royal (how Montreal got its name... mount royal...)
If you find yourself not all that interested in another "how to get butts in seats by tweeting" seminar and it's a sunny day, take a long walk up the mountain. You won't be disappointed. It is QUITE a view!
b) McGill Campus -- kinda reminds some people of Hogwarts. It's right off of the intersection of Sherbrooke and McGill. There'll probably be food trucks there too, and some of those are really good (Grumman78 tacos, for instance!) While I'm at it, head to their main restaurant for the only really good Mexican food in Montreal: Grumman78
c) The Botanical Gardens and Olympic Stadium -- Iconic stadium in the East part of Montreal.

6) The Churches
In Old Montreal, pop into either Notre Dame for Sunday morning, or one of the smaller and more intimate chapels. I'm not a church goer, but Montreal has tons.

7) Museums
Montreal has a Museum row -- almost all are within a few blocks of each other west of McGill on Sherbrooke Street West. There are also a bunch of bars over in that area (on Crescent Street and Bishop Street), and one really nice bar (it's at the Ritz Carlton, also a great place to get afternoon tea.) A very nice ambience for cocktails, if I do say so myself; the orchid cosmo is my wife's choice.)

and last but not least... OLD MONTREAL!
Don't miss this part of the city, no matter what! It's a little bit of Europe right down in the old port area of Montreal. Totally within walking distance of Place des Arts (in fact, the right path will lead you through Chinatown) it is the part of the city that now substitutes for Europe in so many Hollywood movies. Everything from the Smurfs movie to the X-Men films are using Montreal, and especially Old Montreal, for their shoots.
Old Montreal has lots of tourists and some of the so-called restaurants down there are really awful. Any restaurant that takes walk-ins for dinner is going to be expensive and not worth it, in my book. But walk around, shop.

Shopping: St. Catherine street (basically anything west of University) is where everyone seems to go. There are high-end fur stores here in Montreal and I bet they're having sales. Also, "The Bay" is Montreal's version of NYC's Macy's store. Can't miss it. It's at the McGill Metro stop.

Nightlife: Here's a site for the Nightlife (Clubs, Cigar Lounges, Concerts, Tattoos, etc.)
Go Montreal Night Life Site 

I'm sure there's a LOT more to see and do, but these are the ideas I'd share with any friends visiting. I do hope that everyone has a great time at the conference and is able to see some of Montreal. It's certainly unique to other North American cities and it'd be a shame to keep within the walls of some hotel listening to Operatic Deep Thoughts 24/7.

And if you're interested, please check out some of my other blog entries on opera (100,000+ views so far.) It focuses not just on academic opera, but issues all of us are facing, particularly those who sing and create opera!

See you at the conference,

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Creative Closet

Creativity. Big subject. Lots of articles and books and studies (I was recently a subject in one.) I've written that those who try to explain creativity certainly are missing the point.  Oops. Oh well, this is my stab at blogging on Creativity and Imagination!

Creativity hides itself away from time to time. Certainly everybody has heard of "writer's block", though they may not have experienced it. I prefer to think of it less as a "block" and more as a dark room or big closet, that I sometimes can't find or access. Like in the Harry Potter novels. You know, the "room of requirement" that appears whenever Harry needs a place to hide something, or a group of students. Creativity, if thusly personified, knows I need it from time to time, but it sequesters itself in a room and, sadly, doesn't tell me where the fuck it went.

Then all of a sudden, I'm walking along a hallway in my mind and a door presents itself. I open it and walk in. Creativity smiles again, announcing its presence!

Creativity, as defined by Wikipedia (our go to source for all information nowadays it seems) sounds as if it is flourishing everywhere:

"Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed, such as an idea, a scientific theory, an invention, a literary work, a painting, a musical composition, a joke, etc."

Forming new and valuable things is quite common, though. It happens all the time; as defined above, creativity is as prevalent in the world as the common cold, ants, sand on the beach, nitrogen, or sunlight.

But we all know it isn't that common. In fact, creativity could be in danger of being lost along with its companion and partner in crime, imagination. The reason I think it is in danger lives beneath and beyond my fingers as I type this blog: computerization, the internet, social media, digital media, yada, yada, yada. Maybe, maybe not. That is, I venture to guess, a different blog.

For now, I'd like to write about creating creativity in our everyday lives as well as writing a bit about creativity in singers, as well as in the pianists who play for singers.

I'll start with the latter.

It is not enough to sing or play what is on the page. If this is a point of contention with you, or if you are creating music with someone - either a collaborator or a mentor or a coach - and their dictum is "just do what's on the page" then y'all are just missing the point and there's nothing much I can write, say, or do that might change your mind. Be content that your artistic masturbation will be seen and heard by some as "profound" or "deep" but in fact you've chosen the artistic coward's route and what you're really presenting to the public is not just fraud, but a sad and ultimately boring performance.

Harsh words, perhaps. However even in contemporary music where a composer has put as much as possible onto the page in order for their music to be correctly presented, there still is room - LOTS OF ROOM - for a creative approach to the text and music. The reverse is true of music where there's not a lot put onto the page beyond text and music (like so much of the 18th and 19th century repertoire.)

Creativity starts with questioning every note, every measure, every bit of text; EVERYTHING.

For both singers and pianists, a creative approach to any score begins with thinking about the relationship between text and music. Why do you think the composer wrote those notes on those syllables? Why do you think the markings - dynamics and expressive - were put in certain places but not others? Would you write it differently? Are there markings that might be missing? If you had the composer in the room with you, what questions would be the first ones you'd ask about the piece?

Then you move on to think about the composer's life right when the piece was written. Why did they write this piece? Who was it written for? When and where was it first performed? What have the performance practices evolved into since the first performance? And, most importantly, what does your imagination have to say about the piece? I'm not talking emotional response, I'm talking about your intuitive imagination - that piece of you that can see elephants in clouds, that can ascertain if someone doesn't like you shoes, that can hear donkeys braying in a Puccini orchestration, that can feel a phrase should speed up just because it feels right.

Imagination is key. Playing outdoors with little kids instantly tells you if you have lost your ability to access it or not. I don't know how anyone can sing a recital, rehearse an opera, or perform for the public without spending time at play with little kids. Go out and find them. Your nieces, your friends' kids, they're everywhere. Offer to babysit, for free, and sit down in their rooms with their toys and go to town. Freely accessing your imagination with an Imagination Black Belt Master next to you (the Master is the kid, fyi) is a better use of your time than surfing Youtube for Auger performances of the Schubert song you are trying to get under your belt.

Kids are open and creative, naturally. Until someone tells them to colour within the lines or that the box is not a space ship, they live in a world that artists get to live in and touch throughout our performing and rehearsing lives (at least, hopefully live there from time to time!)

Creativity starts in that same child-like open space, mentally and emotionally. I find the most open spaces I end up seeking have everything to do with water: Long steamy showers. Walks in nature, preferably near streams or lakes. Floating in the ocean. Swimming in a pool doing laps. Driving in the rain, or watching a thunderstorm from the safety of a living room window. This past winter I found open space in front of our fire place (something I hadn't been able to experience since leaving Ithaca, New York over a decade ago.)

Water and Fire. Nature. Earth. I think creativity is linked to an elemental force in humans.

At some point in our collective history, we didn't communicate via email. We didn't have language. But I think (yet certainly can't prove) that before language, we had imagination that brought forth language.

What was causing the world to tremble? What caused the water to freeze or disappear? Why could fire burst from the sky in a rainstorm but be lost by the rain itself?

I believe that accessing your imagination reconnects you to a more primitive self. Most of us know that music hits people on a variety of levels: emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual. All of us musicians know that, for reasons too difficult to explain, music can move humans in an elemental, primitive way.

Music itself springs from imagination. Singing does as well. How does one phonate? You imagine a tone, a pitch and a vowel and then out comes a vocal line.

I've been asked many times about where my "creative ideas" come from. I've been told that my playing is extremely "musical". I've received comments that my ideas and way of working with others are "inspirational". I think creative ideas, musicality, and being inspiring all flow from an open space, a natural space, where Imagination lives.

Living within an imaginative state is dangerous, exciting, and can lead you to insights completely unlooked for or unknown. But you have to give up a few things to do it.

The first is correctness. Trying to be correct and at the same time trying to be a creative artist is just not something that is easily doable, if at all possible. Give it up. Stop trying to please others. Stop thinking that if there aren't any markings on the page, then one can not make any choices. Start thinking that even if there are markings on the page saying "slow down" you don't have to slow down!

The second is understanding that you are not borrowing the music and the text. You are not renting it. You own it. You must own it for it to be yours. Yes, I know, I know, it's actually Schumann's. But is it? Really? He, like almost every other composer, wrote for the world, for others, not for themselves. Most living composers will say the same thing when confronted with a live singer and it usually goes along these lines "well, if that works better for you, then please go ahead." They want to collaborate. And through our imaginations, we can collaborate with Rossini, with Mozart, with Brahms, with Stravinsky. They can live again in our imaginations and then we can express the results of our imagined dialogues with our audiences. Thus making the piece, or the opera role, OURS.

Once you own a piece or a role, then you have something to say to others. That's how that works. When you are simply renting or dabbling or putting your toe in the water to see how hot or cold the bath might be, then you really are doing a disservice to the composer and the poet. They lived their lives creating and they want the fruits of their labours to live via performances that access truth through imagination. I feel this strongly. When a performance doesn't work, one of the reasons is because the humans performing it simply forgot to access and celebrate their humanity.

Humans are amazing. They intuit so much without sometimes knowing how or why. They can see colours in music. They can hear truth (or lying) in a singer's voice. They can see shapes, actions and/or metaphors in a blue-lit curtain cascading down onto a staircase. All music is impressionistic on some level and most, if not all, representations onstage in opera are impressionistic. None of it is "real". The minute the music is over, it is gone. The score closes and gets put back onto the shelf. Does it still sing to itself when you leave and the lights are turned off in the studio? After the set is struck, does the death scene play itself out in some way, vibrations of violence or love illuminated by the lonely onstage ghost light?

I think so.
I hope so.
Actually, I know so.
And so do you.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why Opera Is Struggling PART THREE

The third of my three part blog on why I think opera is struggling in the 21st century.

INTRO Recap...
There's been lots of talk on social media sites and opera blogs about how opera is dying. I don't believe that it is, not yet. But...

We do know that our audiences are getting older and that their numbers will diminish unless new audiences replenish the traditional, older operatic fan base. We have signs that these new audiences are appearing - here and there - but nothing definitive and certainly not enough to stop opera companies from closing in the U.S. and in Canada (Gotham and Ottawa being the latest and biggest companies to shut their doors in 2015.)

I've thought about this, for a long while now, and I believe that opera is walking a path that will lead to its extinction, perhaps in some of our lifetimes. It's beyond a blog like this to reason it out, as this is a complicated issue and certainly not all the news is bad. (For instance, there's tons, TONS, of new opera being produced nowadays. Fantastic. Go Opera.)

However, we have some serious problems.  I've divided my ideas into a three part blog.

The three ideas I'm exploring…

1) Industrial Age dogmatic notions of audience control, fashion, elitism, and programming continuing to be used and professed in North America by both opera companies and academic institutions.

Click Here for the Link to Part One: 

Part One

2) Critical Editions, the Rise of the Early Music movement, and the Fall of the Opera Singer.

Click Here for the Link to Part Two:

Part Two

3) The Struggles of Marketing Opera in the 21st century; our operatic Product has changed.

Part Three
Building new audiences while keeping our old audiences is tricky; curing the common cold might be easier...

3) The Struggles of Marketing Opera in the 21st century; our operatic Product has changed:
Social Media will not sell our tickets. Tweets basically just hit other tweeters. Facebook events spread the word about opera performances only to a small number of already interested parties. I'm convinced social media is not going to sell opera in the way we need to make ticket sales be a major component of earned revenue.

It's time to market opera operatically.

Many of us remember the Age of Subscribers. That wondrous age of ticket patrons who lovingly and loyally opened up their mail boxes to find something incredible every season: a Brochure. In this historic document, one could find information about every opera happening that season, who the singers were, (even what they looked like!), info about the production team (not as important back in those days), what nights the operas were scheduled for, and ticket prices. Then they'd fill out the form in the brochure, enclose a check, and mail it back to the opera company. Even just ten years ago, an opera company like FGO based much of its projected budget on solid ticket sales made half a year, or more, in advance of the operas' opening nights. Imagine!

Nowadays that doesn't happen. It's all single ticket sales, many of them happening at the last minute. Opera companies can no longer count on firm earned revenue figures based on an August culling of subscription brochures bringing in millions of dollars of ticket sales. This is a problem because if you are counting on earned income and your ticket buyers purchase at the last minute, then many factors (snow storms, bad reviews, other community events) can work towards taking away an audience's money.

Many things contributed to the fall of the subscriber during the last ten to fifteen years. The recession, the internet, even the tragedy of 9/11 (many of us remember that year and the following summer as the moment when many financially solid opera companies and festivals went from selling close to 100% of their seats to having major struggles filling seats). While I have no solid evidence to support this, it seems as if the turn of the century, 9/11, the rise of the HD theatre Met broadcasts, Netflix binge watching, as well as economic crises like our latest recession all conspired to change many local operatic markets into new and difficult-to-navigate landscapes.

I believe that one of the biggest problems facing opera today is that today's opera companies have few new ideas about how to market their product, let alone compete against touring celtic violinists or canned tenor hunks. Even the Met is having problems selling tickets to their live performances.

Yet tickets are being sold all over North America for opera in the movie houses! The Met has become a cinematic opera company, bringing in millions of dollars in ticket sales by showing their operas in movie theatres from Fargo to Ft. Worth. This in turn has changed the way audiences go to the opera and enjoy the Met: in jeans, drinking big gulps of Mountain Dew while chomping on Milk Duds and Nachos. Many of the posh movie theatres have waitresses, fabulous wine lists, and you can order your steak with a buttered popcorn and a local craft beer on draft.

Who wouldn't want to attend opera that way? Plus it is LOUDER and it is UP CLOSE. Many of the high definition cameras are located in the Met's orchestra pit rail and can look up into a singer's nasal cavities, nay even into their mouths to see their dental cavities. The huge dolby speaker systems in place in our movie theatres are put to use and the singers' voices and the orchestra are mixed in order to accommodate these systems. It's shocking to hear a voice in the cinema that you've heard live (i.e.  acoustically.) Singers can sometimes sound not at all like themselves. Obviously bigger and louder, but also much more balanced in overtones, sometimes much less brittle and thin. Everyone sounds round and robust. Rock-n-Roll baby!

But I believe that the Met HD theatrical movie productions are helping to wound our precious live, acoustic operatic art form.

Make no mistake. Opera companies can no longer ignore these sorts of movie ticket sales. We have to figure out how to sound and look a bit like these broadcasts. We have to reclaim the audiences who love bigger-than-life celebrity personalities, who are also excited by live theatre and theatrical production values seen - and heard - where? On Broadway. I'm talking about mic'ing, about lights, and about making a few more cuts to our beloved pieces of art in order to deal with today's audiences and their needs.

I believe that the age of the large opera house is passing right in front of our eyes. Get opera into smaller spaces. It'll be LOUDER and it'll be UP CLOSE. This is already happening with all these young startup venue-based opera companies and directors. R.B. Schlather knows this. Eric Einhorn knows this. Aria Umezawa knows this. Joel Ivany knows this. Audiences and critics seem to love these innovative ways to present operas. R.B. actually is responsible for creating a new, hybrid operatic form: operatic rehearsal as art installation. Rehearsing in a museum, inviting the public to view the process as art, in and of itself, trumps the actual performance as raison d'être. Yoko Ono shows up, passersby pop in as well as hard core opera lovers.

The opera product has changed in the last 10 years. It's pretty easy to see that relying on Facebook events, or hiring live tweeters, or other social media excitement that is, let's face it, so 2010, will not keep opera alive. It's another distraction, an internal one, that keeps many of us from seeing the writing on the wall: opera needs new audiences or it will die.

So my solution? Not sure, but I know that what we are currently doing is only working in fits and starts, here and there, at some very forward looking companies like Philadelphia, Ft. Worth, and Glimmerglass. I think about Mad Men's Don Draper who's mantra is, "Change the Conversation."

Some recommendations:
Find singers who can excite audiences with the power of their voices! Hire them and get them into the public -- with mic's and sound systems. Tenors with high Cs, coloraturas who sing way, way off the staff, low profundo basses, full-voiced sopranos, hunky baritones, and sexy Carmen-singing mezzos. Don't allow anyone to sing a Despina aria in public again out of the context of the opera. Mix the rep with lots of operetta, musical theatre, and - hold your breath - covered operatic versions of pop songs! Pavarotti did it. What about singing a Bocelli tune? A counter-tenor singing some Adele or Elton John?

Get opera out of those awful huge Performing Arts Center "opera houses". Have at least one opera a year in a found venue or experimental space. Mix it up. There are community theatres sitting empty that might love to bring in a new public between their regular showings.

Bring the HD cameras into opera productions; with their close-ups perhaps projected live onto screens in the opera houses during the operas. Let the audiences see what's happening onstage UP CLOSE.

Mic the sound in the opera house. Operatic Puritans just hush up. We all know it's already being done secretly by a few of the larger opera houses throughout the U.S. and Canada. Just go ahead and make it really work. There is a reason people think that The Phantom of the Opera actually is an opera. The singers sing pseudo-operatically, but it's all mic'd and mixed. It's louder.  If the venue is small enough, then fine, no mic's. But those padded chairs in the 2500 seat PACs designed for Broadway touring amplified shows can not truly give the acoustic art form a fair hand. The deck is stacked against us on this. Move on.

Drop this idea that some new production team will design an opera set in the roaring 20s that will capture the audience's imaginations. Maybe it will, but is this selling tickets? Audiences can see the roaring 20s in the movies, with Leonardo's face in close-up. If I had an opera company, I'd be spending a LOT less on stage directors, a LOT less on set designers or concepts. I'd be pumping the money into state of the art mic'ing, employing a sound designer, and putting money into a lighting designer, the rental of additional lighting instruments and effects, and most importantly time in the actual venue to cue and rehearse the lights. Oh, and money for singers and quality conductors. Toss out putting in a operatically green conductor into the orchestra pit. Toss out putting an orchestral conductor in the orchestra pit. Get your rehearsal pianists into the pits. There was that guy named Solti once. He knew how opera went because he was trained in an opera house playing for opera rehearsals. Conducting is mostly bullshit, btw, but no one is going to say that in public. Oops.

Market opera in old ways. Does anybody get mail nowadays? What might happen if you opened your mail box and there was a colour brochure about opera in it? Would you be excited? I'm not saying ask people to fill out a form and mail it back (many wouldn't know how to do that, sadly), keep your websites and online tickets purchasing, of course, but stop it with the email blasts. They get deleted right away.

Start up a frequent opera goer club/card membership. Like Delta Airlines or your local grocery store. Earn points for other local theatre groups tickets on discount, or the next opera get a free drink at intermission.

While on the subject of refreshments… STOP IT WITH THIS INCESSANT BAN ON BRINGING DRINKS AND FOOD INTO THE OPERA HOUSE.  There are ways to do this. Plastic cups with lids and straws work fine for wine. A few theatres do this and it is SO COOL. Maybe no nachos, but would a bag of popcorn be so bad? Oh, that's right, it might make noise… See Reason Number One on that subject!

And finally, the most important suggestion: Return to our operatic traditions! Get young voices to study the traditions of opera -- All that stuff NOT in those precious critical editions. Get them to listen to the great singers of the 20th century and get them to LISTEN, not WATCH, those singers. Start to reward the unique sound that may have flaws instead of rewarding the mediocre sound that has nothing wrong with it, but sadly nothing right at all present in the music making or the vocal sounds presented.


So I'm not saying opera is dead. I am worried it is dying in a way that is imperceptible; only being seen and felt in subtle ways. I believe that the art form itself needs to be resurrected by those intimately involved - the singers, coaches, conductors, directors, and producers - in order to ensure that opera stays viable. That means change. Change is hard for many. Some say we must hold onto the past, but opera was never about the past. It was always moving forward. From Mozart to Donizetti to Massenet to Menotti to Jason Robert Brown, opera was and is about the next exciting piece of music theatre.

We need to hook people again. Most of us got hooked into opera via the music and the singing.

But no one will get hooked by singers making generic sounds and bland artistic choices based on some books sitting in libraries. No one is going to the opera to watch a conductor wave their hands, they are going to hear great music being made in collaboration with others. No one is going to become a life-long opera goer because a Fledermaus gets set in a concentration camp, or a Trovatore gets set in a giant-size urinal. However, they may get hooked by a high B-flat that takes their breath away, or by the drama of a Butterfly killing herself, or DeRocher being executed onstage set to a beeping machine accompaniment. They might get hooked by being thirty feet away from a singer who is sweating in an abandoned warehouse, or get hooked by the sonic boom of a chorus of 40 singing at the top of their lungs.

One opera goer at a time.

But it starts with a renewal, an oath to stop making this operatic wax museum thing we are calling opera that only echoes the real thing.

It can be found today. Look for it in the Met Donna del Lago cast, in the Lucia singing Lucia in Eugene this season, in the provinces and local community theatres putting on The Mikado or Sunday in the Park, or some small unheard of opera company putting on an Edgar Allen Poe opera in the middle of a Halloween Haunted House.

Opera lives, yes indeed. And opera must continue to thrive because it is unlike anything else out there! It challenges the performers and the audiences alike to think, to experience, to feel, and to be passionate about something untouchable told through purely human means.

I believe that there are others out there who have better ideas, surely much more talent to implement them, or are much more passionate than I am about opera. I hope they step up to the plate and take a few swings!

We must not allow opera to fade away simply because we held to our principles, kept the "traditions" (often while not really knowing what those traditions actually meant), and looked solely inward for solutions to our operatic problems.

It's time to change the conversation by having conversations.

Opera Sings Life. That's its power.

Why Opera Is Struggling PART TWO

The second part of my three part blog on why I think opera is struggling in the 21st century.

INTRO Recap...
There's been lots of talk on social media sites and opera blogs about how opera is dying. I don't believe that it is, not yet. But...

We do know that our audiences are getting older and that their numbers will diminish unless new audiences replenish the traditional, older operatic fan base. We have signs that these new audiences are appearing - here and there - but nothing definitive and certainly not enough to stop opera companies from closing in the U.S. and in Canada (Gotham and Ottawa being the latest and biggest companies to shut their doors in 2015.)

I've thought about this, for a long while now, and I believe that opera is walking a path that will lead to its extinction, perhaps in some of our lifetimes. It's beyond a blog like this to reason it out, as this is a complicated issue and certainly not all the news is bad. For instance, there's tons, TONS, of new opera being produced nowadays. Fantastic. Go Opera.

However, we have some serious problems.  I've divided my ideas into a three part blog.

The three ideas I'm exploring…

1) Industrial Age dogmatic notions of audience control, fashion, elitism, and programming continuing to be used and professed in North America by both opera companies and academic institutions.

Click Here for the Link to Part One: 

Part One

2) Critical Editions, the Rise of the Early Music movement, and the Fall of the Opera Singer.

3) The Struggles of Marketing Opera in the 21st century; our operatic Product has changed.

Part Two
A particularly difficult issue, and I understand that this opinion of mine won't go over well with some...

2) Critical Editions, the Rise of the Early Music movement, and the Fall of the Opera Singer:
Aside from the ancillary argument that our young singers are confusing the 17th century for the 19th century, or that they are revering all opera scores as come scritto (not understanding that Puccini and other 20th century scores were marked for printing in a much different way than Mozart's scores were, let alone Handel, Lully, Gluck, Rossini, or much of the operatic canon), something happened in the last 30 to 40 years that altered how opera is taught, learned, rehearsed, performed, and recorded for posterity. It is tied to what happened in baroque music during the later half of the 20th century.

First off, though, everyone needs to understand that I love baroque opera. I love directing baroque operas, and love coaching Handel. I love baroque music in general, albeit famously not getting the big Bach vocal works, (once referring to them as pretentious hymns written in a hurry and in need of judicious cuts.) How dare I think that, let alone that something about the Early Music "movement" might be responsible for the current crisis in opera?

Early music musicians understand that their music is about improv, about the re-creation of scores barely written down onto the page, about making massive amounts of decisions based on conquering how to recreate figured bass, how to ornament, when to ornament, plus all those period tuning decisions which I don't understand but are super important. They are musical Indian Jones archeologists - not just studying it, teaching it, or finding it but getting down and dirty in old scores, digging into the minds of those dead composers and finding bits and pieces of things to put together to make something that was once dead, live again. They are the most exciting thing about the "classical" music scene right now; leaders who acknowledge that the creation of new music is just as important as performing the complete Bach Cantatas. Look no further than the vocal group Roomful of Teeth, or Julian Wachner at Trinity Wall Street to see the future being led by a total dominance of understanding the past while creating the future, oftentimes through a baroque musical lens.

Opera folk just don't do this -- why? Because they've missed the message of historical performance entirely.

There is a by-product of this early music "movement": score reverence. Our early music colleagues discovered that scores of their beloved music were impure, discoloured by centuries of editors and musicologists trying to understand this crazy, misshapen - literally baroque - music. So they altered the scores and reprinted them for 19th century tastes. They added harmonies not available to Handel or Telemann, inserted Romantic notions of dynamics, articulations and tempi markings. They created monstrosities. This is how baroque opera (particularly Handel and Monteverdi) was first resurrected in the mid-20th century, via very Romantic editors. The early music nerds took decades to clean this all up, finally printing all the holy critical editions found in music libraries around the world today. But of course they didn't think for a moment that any of these critical edition musical scores were, by themselves, the point.

That essential meaning of the why and how of critical editions didn't successfully transfer to opera.

Once other editors and musicologists moved into the operatic oevre, cleaning up Mozart, then to Rossini and Donizetti, and ultimately to Verdi, the damage was done. Scores were scraped clean of anything not found in the autographs, and anything that was suspect was sent to the purgatory of the "appendix" or notated in forwards sometimes longer than the actual scores themselves. We lost the notion of the Mozart appoggiatura, cadential fermati, and why bel canto traditions were splashed all over the aural histories and first-generation divas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. We lost thousands of performance traditions put into place during the lives of the composers. We lost traditional cuts, we lost performance practice that wasn't written down in 17th century treatises, but put down in scores that were passed on down through the generations. In this brave new world of Critical Editions, scores became bibles and everyone became way too scared to do anything not found in these new operatic testaments. One might be burned at the stake for daring to sing some Ricci ornaments in front of Pope Muti, unless it was ordained holy by one of the new Bishops of Critical Editions: Cardinals Gossett or Zedda. And now it's the local, mostly uneducated, small town vocal priests selling the praises of things like secco recit rests that must be taken exactly as written, (even the rests!) because "that's what Mozart wrote" to unsuspecting parishioners attending Mass at the Church of Our Holy Opera.

Currently it is de rigeur for any operatically inclined artist to use these by-products of the rise of the early music movement when learning and performing most opera rep. We use the dogma of "critical edition" knowledge to perform only what's on the page. Put another way, we use this dogma to justify NOT making any decisions based on historical knowledge, NOT to dig into the minds of dead composers, and NOT to work on that very important part of the operatic craft that was once integral to the art form: understanding that composers' scores were pretty much just hints, blueprints, and/or jumping off points to specific brilliantly trained singers in order to create entertainment that sold tickets to live audiences so that they could make a living and not starve.

I'll continue down this path…

Today, this misunderstood notion has led young singers to be told by VIPOP's (very important professional opera people) to say things like "if I hear you ornamenting the Count in Nozze I'll kill you" while at the same time offering up serene wisdom about using appogiaturas in secco recitative. We are left with an art form that is more or less a "paint by numbers" systematic approach, and more troubling, a non-offensive yet very generic next generation of singers.

Creating Opera by a Paint-By-Numbers philosophy will lead to no one buying tickets because it isn't art anymore, it is a pale imitation. Modern day audiences want authenticity, they yearn for it, in ways they do not understand. Yet opera is feeding our present day audiences a diet of white-washed, watered down, clean-yet-oh-so-bland, boring opera.

And it's the voice teachers, coaches, conductors, directors, administrators, and casting directors - along with the singers - who are complicit in this problem. Not all, but many. Those who find any kind of modest success at an operatic singing career understand that it's not about being clean and correct, but about being effective and exciting that makes audiences stand up and take notice. Yet those who train young singers whose first step into the professional world - the young artist programs - understand that this path seems to begin with an "offend no one" approach to auditioning. They learn not to offend, to sing just what's on the page, make no major artistic choices, and hope that this will get them hired. Many get hired and then a few get a career, having been trained to not really penetrate an operatic score because we have schooled our new generation of singers to offend no one, entertain no one, and ultimately be no one.

We do this by creating PRODUCTIONS that distract the audiences from missing what was once the essential component of opera: great singers singing in the stratosphere, singing loudly or softly and beautifully, creating roulades and fioratura passages that defied gravity. Now our "divas" are Lady Gaga, Christine Agulara, and Taylor Swift.  The only way to really save opera is to put singers at the forefront of this art form again: allow them to LEAD the bulk of the musical decisions, not passively receive wisdom from a conductor who may have little experience with the literature; make them LEAD dramatic decisions, not passively receive direction from a stage director who may not have ever attended opera in an actual opera house; make them responsible for understanding the differences in performance practice between Handel, Rameau, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Massenet, Bizet, Strauss, Berg, Weill, Bernstein, Sondheim, Heggie, and all of the great opera composers to come.

It is time for the singers to take back opera!

Click Here for the Link to Part Three: 
Part Three
(Marketing Opera in the 21st century)

Why Opera Is Struggling PART ONE

There's been lots of talk on social media sites and opera blogs about how opera is dying. I don't believe that it is, not yet. But...

We do know that our audiences are getting older and that their numbers will diminish unless new audiences replenish the traditional, older operatic fan base. We have signs that these new audiences are appearing - here and there - but nothing definitive and certainly not enough to stop opera companies from closing in the U.S. and in Canada (Gotham and Ottawa being the most recent and biggest companies to shut their doors in 2015.)

I've thought about this, for a long while now, and I believe that opera is currently walking a path that might lead to its extinction, perhaps in some of our lifetimes. It's beyond a blog like this to reason it out, as this is a complicated issue and certainly not all the news is bad. (For instance, there's tons, TONS, of new opera being produced nowadays. Fantastic. Go Opera.)

However, we have some serious problems.  I've divided my ideas into this three part blog.

Three ideas I'd like to explore:
1) Industrial Age dogmatic notions of audience control, fashion, elitism, and programming continuing to be used and professed in North America by both opera companies and academic institutions.

2) Critical Editions, the Rise of the Early Music movement, and the Fall of the Opera Singer.

3) The Struggles of Marketing Opera in the 21st century; our operatic Product has changed.

Part One
Starting off with an issue from hundreds of years ago...
1) Industrial Age dogmatic notions of audience control, fashion, elitism, and programming continuing to be used and professed in North America by both opera companies and academic institutions:
It is very clear from historical documents that opera goers used to behave much differently before the Edwardian era. For hundreds of years the opera was a place to go and, yes of course watch the opera, but also talk, have dinner, have drinks, have sex, read letters from lovers, walk around, and encore any part that needed to be heard again. People would respond to what was going on with vocal noises, not just applause and "bravos". It was much like what Shakespeare's original audiences did - they booed the bad guy, they talked back to the stage, they REACTED to the live theatre which made for a vivid experience. Same for Liszt recitals - swooning women reacting just like young girls listening to the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

Opera used to be like this. And then someone, I know not who, decided audiences needed to sit in reverent silence without moving for hours on end, in order to "enjoy" the theatre. Many did. Many did not.

The Industrial Age ushered in many things - technologies, child labor, public schooling to educate factory workers - and it ushered in the age of classical music audiences sitting in rapt silence. No whispers. No reactions, outside of polite applause once the time came. Now of course there were exceptions to this - the music "hall" with its Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan offerings, the Italian opera houses (still to this day the most exciting audiences to be a part of with their catcalling, whistles, booing, and vivid applause and screams of "bravo" that can go on and on) and the American Broadway and vaudeville stages where people went to be entertained.

But by and large, classical music started turning into something that was a traditional, elitist event. One had to wear black ties and top hats or gowns and gloves to the opera. Ticket prices were expensive (no longer -- it's the hockey, baseball, and basketball tickets that are way more expensive than your average opera ticket.) Important to note, not just anyone could go to the opera. In many cities you needed to be of a certain social status if you were going to be a regular attendee.

This didn't help with the popularizing of opera. Not in the least.

And today it is one of the biggest factors involved in the killing of classical music by classical musicians. Orchestras still dress as if it is 1885. We set ourselves apart via the costumes we choose to wear for recitals, costumes based on 19th century society types. How strange when we are needing regular folk to buy tickets. Tuxedos are literally so 19th century; alien to our modern day sense of casualness in everything from the workplace to going to church. This needs to change.

And us opera lovers need to STOP behaving in the theatre as if we are the Vestal Virgins of the Holy Opera God and shushing others for whispering, or making anyone feel that they need to SIT, SHUT UP, AND ENJOY THE OPERA DAMMIT! We need to let kids in and let them be noisy, we need audiences to become vocal in their responses - beyond applause. We need to make audiences comfortable about coming to see our shows. But we don't.

We continue to allow the theatre experience to be physically uncomfortable. The seats are built for smaller people from the first half of the 20th century and sometimes the aisles are miles away. Theatre seating should be reassessed, just like the stadium seating in modern day movie theatres. We need drinks and snacks available quickly and everywhere - not just at one kiosk. Restrooms need to be overhauled, as does the idea of how long an intermission is -- cut some of the music in order to find five more minutes for a longer interval. I've been at opera companies that push for a 9 minute intermission - this is just plain stupid. Give everyone a break, that's what happened back in 1832, fyi.

Those of us in the opera field also help to perpetuate the Victorian theatre-by-silence by not laughing at the jokes onstage, or reacting with anything but applause or a bravo. Someone needs to figure out how to change this. It could be life-changing for our art form. I remember an irate man getting so upset he left the opera house because audiences (me included) were laughing out loud during a Donizetti comedy. He screamed "this is opera for Christ's sake, give it some respect!".

We need to figure a way to get audiences to start being comfortable with the idea that they can react to what's going on onstage without the worry that one of the opera fascists will descend upon them and ask them to stop distracting the performers. We need to get audiences involved physically and emotionally with what they are hearing and seeing and if that means being disruptive to the "age-old" tradition of sitting with stiff necks enjoying the art in silence, so be it!

But most importantly, professors of music need to stop teaching the next generation to venerate the art form like it belongs in a church or a museum -- a "look but don't really touch" approach. What I mean by this is that all too often, opera is held up like it is some great thing that must be approached like a peasant approaches an aristocrat on Downton Abbey: Gaze slightly down, voices hushed in reverence. It's like one is trying to teach that opera is somehow bigger or greater than anyone in the room. It ain't.

I love opera, I take it seriously. It is fucking hard to learn, to sing, to conduct, to direct, to produce (I should know 'cause I've done all of those things professionally.) However, those that take themselves too seriously simply because they are in opera need to be drummed out of our field. I'm thinking everyone from general directors who are out of touch with the communities they are producing opera in, to the young directors thinking deep thoughts about bringing "real" acting methods to opera singers, as well as to the voice teachers who teach the mystery of opera through pretentiousness. Opera attracts pretentious people, and for some reason many in the business believe in the pretentiousness of too many of our colleagues.

Make no mistake -- Pretension is the hypertension of the operatic heart.

I'll write that again: Pretension is the hypertension of the operatic heart. It won't kill opera, but it damages that which is at the heart of opera: it's entertainment factor. We've lost the popularity contest not because Frank Sinatra or Mary Martin or Sting or Elvis came along (well, maybe Elvis). We lost being popular because we left our audiences. We rose above them with our heilige Kunst, the dabblings of atonality that few could understand or follow, the elitist attitudes that opera was somehow better than operetta or musical theatre (puh-leeze), but especially we lost the popularity contest because our opera singers stopped entertaining and have been stopped by academic institutions from even thinking they that are entertainers. Getting a degree in opera has to compete, at the academic level, with getting a degree in Engineering. The art form, classical music in general, was elevated by academics in order to make a case for itself. It was turned into some sort of literature and history, thus losing its viability because it stopped being current and populist.

Once the academics got their hands on opera (and, frankly, all of classical music), they removed it from the populist hands of composers, singers, musicians, audiences, and impresarios. The rise of the academically trained singer shifted how opera singers learned their craft, shifted how voice teachers taught (one one-hour lesson a week), and shifted the artistry to a place where students were studying to be opera singers but they weren't in the opera houses listening to opera singers sing opera, or in most cases, singing on the operatic stage. Instead of studying voice from a teacher who had been on the operatic stage for decades, they now study with voice teachers who earn doctorates in voice but who may never have had a professional contract outside of a summer young artist program. But perhaps even worse, singers are learning about opera from books called "critical editions"...

Click Here for the Link to PART TWO:
Part Two (Critical Editions, the Rise of the Early Music movement, and the Fall of the Opera Singer)

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Operatic Playground's Secret

Posted a few years ago, but edited for brevity. The last part is better than the first part...

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 referring to both professionals and students.)

Let me give you just one example:

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!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Bearding Blog

It's been a bit of a rough year, to be perfectly blunt. Even though it seems as if 2015 was filled with professional and artistic triumphs, the personal tolls that were taken during the last 12 months were more than I would have preferred.

Acknowledging this is important. I think that end of the year overviews do serve a purpose, as well as all those New Year's Resolutions that seem to proliferate our world but not necessarily change many of our worlds. It's good to reflect, sum up, and see if the path you're on is the right one for the present or your future.

On the surface (literally the surface of my face), 2015 was the Year of the Beard. Growing my beard was the over-riding day-after-day event that I wore around for 365 days starting in late 2014. Actually it was my 50th birthday that started the whole deal.

I was worried about turning 50.

The men in my family have had a hard time in their 50s. Many that I'm blood related to have had major coronaries, major traumas, cancers, and/or death happen to them in their 50s. I approached my 50th birthday with an internal trepidation that I was mostly unaware of. I was thinking I felt great, I was on top of my game, professionally speaking, and looking younger than 50 if I were to be humbly honest with myself. But I was worried.

I stopped shaving on November 21, 2014. I had a leftover extensive handlebar mustache on my face and I thought it would be kinda cool to see what a year of not shaving would do for my mustache as well as my face. (In the end, the long mustache was the hardest part to deal with!) I joined a few online beard clubs, started my Yeard selfie journey by taking a photo every day (this eventually stopped about halfway through and I cut back to once a week), and bought hundreds of dollars of beard balms and oils online (plus a couple of nifty teeshirts I picked up along the way.)

The Austrian Ball stache in a tux:

So off I went, with a great deal of optimism, to Eugene Opera to direct a L'elisir d'amore which opened New Year"s Eve. I also spent Christmas of 2014 in the emergency room thinking I was having a heart attack. That was fun.  L'elisir was a great success and I loved working at Eugene Opera. Here's me on Christmas day...

Upon returning, I started in on the first part of my "half-sabbatical" at McGill. My projects were numerous, but January was spent looking into my health. It wasn't a pretty picture.

The mind-body connection is a powerful one and to just be pithy, I was riddled with anxiety and stress about too many things. Meditation was helping, but it wasn't enough.

With a scruffy face, I headed to my old stomping grounds at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY to direct Little Women and collaborate with old colleagues there (like the amazing lighting designer Steve TenEyck) and my very dear friend, Brian DeMaris. It was strange walking around the music and theatre buildings, even stranger being on campus. Ithaca is a great little town, and the food there is simply spectacular. Walking around the halls, I was overwhelmed with so many wonderful and vivid memories of students, their triumphs in particular. I realized I was missing the musical theatre repertoire. Because of my experience in Ithaca, I have a new goal: to reintegrate musical theatre back into my life! Ithaca in a nutshell: The best Thai food anywhere, a bunch of great bars, and a downtown pedestrian zone that is superb for shopping. The student cast members were terrific, and of course super-prepared. Brian is a terrific conductor and I loved every minute being there.

I also believe I saved a life.

One late afternoon, as the sun was heading behind the foothills above my Air BNB place, I was walking to my car to get some dinner and I heard a faint "please help me". I looked around and couldn't see anyone. I heard the same faint cry a few seconds later and realized it was coming from across the street. This was not a busy street, by the way, it was way out of the way of traffic. It was also WAY below freezing outside. In a driveway I saw an old woman on the ground in a house dress - no coat, no shoes. She was reaching up to me. I ran over and discovered she had not only fallen, she had broken her ankle (basically it was faced backwards) after getting locked out of her house. She was in shock and freezing after dragging herself about twenty feet towards the road to seek help. Luckily the ambulance came in time, and I had access to my parka and lots of blankets from my place. When I left Ithaca, I was told she was recovering. I hope that is still the case.

My beard came into its own in Ithaca. The opera was a success (it was beautifully lit and performed in an intimate space) and I had finally also gotten a grip on myself by the time I returned to Montreal.

Ithaca's Little Women:

During my sabbatical, Opera McGill was being run by Jonathan Patterson, a theatrical factotum, and the Nozze production was lovingly directed by my colleague Nicola Bowie and conducted by the wondrous Gordon Gerrard. Later in March, the double-bill of Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica was a big hit with conducting by Boris Brott and direction by my friend David Gately. (David certainly knows how to get all the laughs out of those Donatis!) It was nice to not have to worry about my opera program for three months, gotta admit.

I headed to Fargo, North Dakota, where I went from having a beard to really being bearded. The production was Fille du Regiment and the great cast was wonderful. Eric Weimer conducted it brilliantly and I'll never forget celebrating the Passover with a bunch of the cast.

Here's a downtown Fargo beard:

Fargo is one of my favourite cities (yes, truly!) I love the opera company there as well. David Hamilton is a terrific general director and Fargo is a great city to spend three weeks rehearsing and enjoying the fantastic craft beers on tap around town. It also has the greatest barbershop! Everett's is a place I love going to get my hair cut and always try to figure out how to get in two visits during my three weeks (it's all about getting there in that first week!)

It was in Fargo that I started to get the "great beard" comments from strangers, as well as the curious looks from people passing me on the street. The surprise, for me, was how freaking white my beard came in. I was starting to look, um, older. Big white beard is not something that "youthens" you…

But I persevered. I didn't cave and shave. Nor did I let anyone trim my beard or mustache. And let me tell you, LOTS of people gave me advice on what I should do with the hair on my face.

Why? What possesses people, especially strangers, to chime in with their opinions about a man growing a beard? As my beard got longer, it became clearer that I was being judged for my appearance - mostly negatively out in public - which made no sense to me.

For you see, I believe that men are supposed to be bearded. Shaving our faces is an unnatural act. If left in the wild, men grow beards. There were no mirrors 10,000 years ago. The Vikings had big beards because they needed them way up there in the cold, plus there's no need to shave a face. I blame Alexander the Great and those Romans who came later to spread the idea that beards were barbaric. But really, my pagan roots yearn for resplendent facial hair! At some point in time, all men should grow a beard and find out what their actual FACE would look like if they were thrown back in time without razors, mirrors, and face moisturizers. This was a great lesson for me, accepting my natural, albeit very hirsute state.

The beard calmed me, that's for sure. The longer it got, the less anxious I became. I was able to clear my head quicker, I was able to meditate easier and with greater mental focus. It was strange. I was much less worried about my worries.

I left Fargo a big bearded guy.

And then we decided to leave Quebec. It was not a tough decision.

We are now in the country living outside of the small town of Alexandria, in the province of Ontario, Canada. I still work at McGill with a commute that's just a bit harsh. But we love - LOVE - living in Ontario. The people are so nice, our neighbours are SO nice. The cost of living is much cheaper, from gas to lower taxes on food and my pay check. Walking outside in my PJs onto my back deck in the mornings to watch the sunrise and breathe in the new day did wonders for my stress level, and my beard went crazy. It just grew crazy long.

In the woods of Ontario:

If I had been bold and shaved the upper lip, I would have had a true Amish beard (sorta sorry I never did it, truth be told). The country folk here took no notice, Montrealers certainly did. More difficult comments from lots of people. I found it hard to direct Opera McGill's Little Women this fall with the big beard. I couldn't express things as well, knowing that the students were seeing this big beard gesticulating and directing in and out of character - which worked fine for the father role but not so much for the other characters in the show. The last three months of my "yeard" (beard for a year = yeard, fyi) were tough. Waking up with mouthfuls of hair, having it split into a fork anytime the wind blew too hard, and when dressed up in a suit feeling like I was some sort of country-bumpkin with a big long beard; that was hard to do, psychologically speaking. I also started to think ahead into a future of conducting (2016 I'm conducting two operas) and wondered if a big long beard made sense. (It was okay for Brahms, just saying.)

Opera McGill's Litte Women:

But I am, if anything, quite a stubborn guy. And I powered through knowing that on November 21, 2015 I would make the full yeard. Completely untrimmed, mind you (this is a big thing in the bearding world.) Plus, I had entered into a gentlemen's agreement with a friend living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We both decided to grow a beard for a year and if one of us caved and shaved, or trimmed, we would have to take the other guy and his wife out to an expensive dinner. I'm part Scottish and therefore, cheap. No way was I going to lose!  I'm happy to report that neither of us "lost", we both gained a great beard and both of our wives were very supportive. (Actually, his is a monster beard and I was quite jealous once he reached the six month mark…)

November 21 to November 21:
November 21 came and it was the Austrian Ball. I decided to trim down my Yeard and leave the long stache. After keeping it for about a month, I buzzed down the beard to stubble and left my handlebar mustache. It's weird. It's like the last year didn't happen, like it's 2014 again. Looking in the mirror I am definitely younger. But I am missing my beard. Really missing it. I've no idea what 2016 will bring, other than starting it off back sporting the curls of my handlebar "mo" while starting a baby "mo-hawk" on my head. At least that where I'll begin 2016; we shall see where it all ends.

Trimmed for the masked ball:

My three outside gigs had commonalities: Eugene, Ithaca, and Fargo are all eclectic small cities. All have vital university communities, all are liberal enclaves surrounded by rural conservatives, each are somewhat geographically isolated, each is difficult to get to, each has unique yet thriving cultural non-profit arts organizations, all three opera experiences were generous and collaborative for me as a stage director, all three operas were led by superb musician conductors who also are incredible vocal coaches who love singers and this art form, all three cities had fantastic food. Eugene: food trucks and pinot noir ON TAP!; Ithaca: Thai food and Ithaca Bakery!; Fargo: microbrews on tap: hundreds plus the best homemade potato chips and beer dip!

So this was basically just a long blog about a beard, with a nod to what I did these past 12 months. Apologies, no deep thoughts about opera. I'll write something operatic next time.

However, my bearding a yeard wasn't just about not shaving. It was about patience and perseverance. Waking up every morning and looking into the mirror to see a man I didn't quite recognize was mostly fun, sometimes depressing, sometimes scary. As the yeard progressed, it took more and more time to get ready in the morning. Too much oil, balm and other shit to work through the beard, plus the long mustache needed a lot of attention. Next time, I think it might be interesting to trim and shape the beard as it grows. At least that would be my advice to others -- let it grow for at least 100 days before making any decisions.

And if any of you out there are guys, drop the razor into the bin and try bearding for three months. You deserve to see what you'd look like without any intervention from the various fake societies that surround us nowadays. Trust me, you will literally discover a new you, you'll find wisdom in patience, and you will discover an internal strength to swim against the current trends of societal norms.

Here's my video of my yeard journey in pictures: Time Lapse Beard 2014 to 2015

Plus, bearded guys are the best sort of guys out there -- they're gun-loving rednecks, axe-loving gay lumberjacks, hipsters who actually do brew their own beer, tattooed grandpas, veterans suffering from PTSD, and bankers, lawyers, baristas, writers, and chefs.

Beards unite men in a way that nothing else does. It puts us all on a common ground.

After typing that thought, I've decided to beard again. 2016 here I come!!