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Monday, April 17, 2017

Opera B!NGE Fest 2017!

"I've had a great idea." -- PJH about a year ago

This past March, Opera McGill celebrated its 60th anniversary by presenting an entire season of opera - seven operas - in just 24 hours. In order to truly celebrate Montreal's 375th anniversary, Opera McGill set off to present opera not just on our campus, but in Montreal proper. Our first foray actually happened this past January with our production of Die Fledermaus at the wonderful historic theatre Monument National located in the heart of the Quartier des Spectacles. During the 24 hours, in addition to putting on three operas at on-campus venues (Pollack Hall, Redpath Hall, and Wirth Opera Studio), Opera McGill presented a double-bill of French opera at the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur and a double-bill of operas by Garner and Bartok at the Theâtre Paradoxe. It stretched us, literally, to be able to figure out the logistics of this project, but wow was it worth doing!

This was an idea that popped into my head while binge watching on Netflix over a year ago. Binge watching - for those who may not know what that is, or who may not do it - is sitting down in front of the telly and watching a season (or two, or three) or a TV series on Netflix in one stretch. Because we live in the country and don't have cable tv channels, only wifi limited internet, our use of the tv is different than many other families. Lots of DVDs and lots of Netflix. Usually we start on a Friday night choosing some show (my wife and I heartily recommend: "Grace and Frankie", "Last Tango in Halifax", and any BBC murder mystery from "Midsomer Murders" to "Death in Paradise") and then getting comfortable and watching show after show after show until we can't take any more of it.

So I thought, could this be a way to take in opera? Create a whole season of opera - in this case 7 one-acts - and then present it in 24 hours in such a way as to bring in audiences. New and old audiences, from across a wider range of Montreal perhaps? Would people take to the idea and join us on an operatic binge of sorts?

The planning phase was huge. Picking operas that would compliment the pool of students usually involved in opera; picking operas that represented something important was also very important to me. It was important for me to show audiences the Past, Present, and Future of opera. I also wanted a variety of production styles - historic, traditional, non-traditional, venue-based, and abstract styles that audiences see nowadays. This Binge Fest was going to try to show our audiences different ways to present operas in 2017.

I chose Dido and Aeneas as the first opera for Friday night because it was the first opera presented 60 years ago in 1957 by Opera McGill. That seemed appropriate, as was the venue: Redpath Hall. We decided to present it with a small baroque orchestra and with beautiful period costumes, sort of a nod to the history of Opera McGill. Stephen Hargreaves conducted and it was directed by Jessica Derventzis, one of two guest directors for the B!NGE. The second opera was to be presented in the morning of the following day. I picked my adaptation of Mozart's The Impresario mostly because it was updated to a NYC "audition space" and Wirth Opera Studio is a perfect audition space as is. In order to entice people to come in early, we offered complimentary Tim's coffee and Timbits with the price of admission. (Huge success, btw). This one was tricky to cast because the two sopranos needed have to have exciting extensions beyond the staff (going up to high F!), and I added two extra sopranos to the show in the adaptation.  Plus the pianist is also an onstage character who has lines, has to act, has to sing, and play the entire Mozart score brilliantly. Boy did we get lucky with Jack O! Both Dido and Impresario sold out days before, (there were actually people posting on FB trying to Dido tix!)

The early afternoon opera I wanted to be for kids. I had tons of great experiences performing for kids on various tours down in the US and one of the great operas written for kids is called "Sid the Serpent Who Wanted to Sing". We presented it in Pollack Hall with a rock-style lighting design and a very colourful set and costume design. I played the piano for this one (I'd played it hundreds of times on tour back in the 90s) and the cast of four delivered the 45 minute piece with tons of energy. At the end, when I invited the kids down to the edge of the stage, we had a rush of hundreds of kids eager to meet the Juggler, Clown, Strongman, and Sid as well as get their pics taken with them. One of the singers said she "felt like a Disney Princess". It was nice to collaborate on the show with my wife, Elizabeth Koch, who helped direct it. (She had performed the role of the clown about a hundred times back in the early 90s on a different tour.) Hopefully, Sid will live again sometime soon for more Montreal children.

The late afternoon show was a double-bill of two lovely French one-acts: Massenet's Le portrait de Manon and Ravel's L'heure espagnole. We presented these two very different pieces in two very different areas of the same venue at the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur east of McGill's campus. The Massenet was performed in the regular recital hall venue and then at the intermission the audience was invited to move to the other side, get a complimentary glass of wine (another big hit) and watch the second show in a pseudo-immersive style area. The audience had to stand, sit on the floor, move up to the balcony gallery overlooking the space, or sit in the two dozen or so chairs that were provided. It created a whole different atmosphere to take in an opera. Both were brilliantly performed to sold out audiences, with the amazing Olivier Godin as guest music director and pianist. The inspired direction was by another guest, Jonathan Patterson, who really had a challenge directing the Ravel in the Art Gallery space (check out the video below to see why!)

After a great dinner with some VIP guests at the Pullman (what a wine list!), I traveled to the last venue and got there in the nick of time to do my somewhat lengthy thank-you speech before the start of the last two operas: James Garner's East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon and Bela Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle (sung in the original Hungarian!). I chose these pieces for a couple of reasons. James Garner is a young English composer (24 years old) and I'd been looking for new "voices" in the opera world for quite some time. I've often thought that too many opera composers are a bit long in the tooth by the time they get to writing an opera and I was thrilled to find out that James was already writing numerous operas in his early twenties, plus he's a singer himself so his pieces really showcase voices in a way I've not heard in awhile. He understands voices and that is rare in a composer of opera nowadays. I thought his piece would make a sort of bookend to the Purcell - who wrote the earliest opera we have in the repertoire, Dido. The Bartok is simply my favourite opera written in the 20th century and I've been waiting to do it at Opera McGill until the right singers came along. Luckily, two graduating masters students were a perfect fit and the opera was a great project for both; certainly demanding vocally and musically, but also it's a very dark opera that demands a lot from the singers dramatically. The end result for both pieces was fantastic. The students gave terrific performances, Stephen conducted both with aplomb, the venue itself became part of the set and lighting designs, and I have never been more happy as a stage director.  The venue also came with a bar in the back, beer on draught, and we had the audiences seated "cabaret style" at rounded tables where they could enjoy their drinks and the opera at the same time.

To get a feel for the Festival, simply watch the following wondrous 15 minute documentary made by our videographer, Anne Kostalas. I think the audience interviews are really insightful and there is a palpable excitement about the 24 hours that she captured.

Here's the link: BingeFest Documentary

Anne also did a really cool "trailer" video for the Binge that she and I concocted one afternoon. The idea was to follow Bluebeard and Judith from venue to venue as if they were going to the Binge Festival as a date; in costume, with a soundtrack provided by the two singers and Stephen Hargreaves at the piano. Some people were confused by what it was all about. Perhaps now would be a good time to look back at it and see if we did a good job showing what to expect.

Here' the link: BingeFest Trailer

A huge project like this B!NGE Festival doesn't happen by itself. First off, you have to have the idea and convince others that it is a viable idea. My previous blog touches upon that kind of challenge.

Here's the link: Blog: Creative Conversions!

Then you have to put the right people into place, specifically the one person charged with getting everyone to the right place at the right time. That would be Russell Wustenberg, Opera McGill's production stage manager. He and I have now done over a dozen shows together (12 in the last year) and he has tremendous skills at organizing people. We couldn't have survived without him! The design team had to collaborate with four different directors and find a way to get to 14 tech and dress rehearsals over two days leading up to the Binge. Florence's makeup designs for Bluebeard -- wow! Serge's lighting in the Paradoxe -- wow! Vincent's numerous sets and set pieces that popped up all over Montreal -- wow! Ginette's costumes that ran the gamut from Trojan Aeneas to Steampunk Bluebeard -- wow! Then there were the multiple teams of students recording the operas led by Martha de Francisco (the unsung heroes of Schulich's research and performance departments -- recording hundreds and hundreds of concerts, recitals, and operas every season), the genius George Massenburg who did the video archiving of the actual performances you see on Anne's documentary, and the tireless Maureen Leaman Matulina who coordinated all of the various box offices and ticket requests as well as showing up to the shows themselves. All of these amazing professionals went above and beyond the norm and were the reason the festival succeeded so "effortlessly".

But the biggest kudos have to go to the students themselves. This wasn't your ordinary opera production schedule. We started the week after Fledermaus closed - no rest for the weary. Each show was given only a handful of staging rehearsals and coachings. Because there were seven shows, most of which had separate unique casts with just a few overlaps, we had to start stagings a month and a half before the B!NGE itself. That meant that some shows (like Impresario) got staged in February and weren't looked at again until the week of the Binge. This meant that many students took it upon themselves to continue rehearsing without a creative team -- which frankly is a terrific way to learn and work on your own ideas about character and physicality. They also were singing music written in a wide variety of styles and historical periods as well as in four different languages (English, French, German, and Hungarian).

Creating that schedule was a labor of love and could not have happened without my years of work at Glimmerglass Opera where we rehearsed four operas concurrently as well as running a young artist program with hundreds of added private coachings on top of the MainStage production schedules. When people ask me how the Binge happened, I have a hard time answering them. I smile and say something like "planning is everything." Well, the truth is is that planning actually is everything. But planning takes time and experience and willing participants.

Another question I get asked is "will you be doing it again next year?!" Well, the answer is yes! I've decided that binging on opera is a good thing and a cool way to create a buzz, find new audiences, and gain performance opportunities for the Opera McGill students. So next year, in March of 2018, we will be Binging on Bernstein! To celebrate the 100th birthday of Lennie, Opera McGill will be presenting three performances of Candide in collaboration with Boris Brott and his McGill Chamber Orchestra. Additionally, we will be presenting an afternoon titled "Arias and Barcarolles" which will be scenes from his many theatrical pieces - both opera and musical. It'll be a lovely weekend of Bernstein and I hope all will join us!

By the way, Opera McGill has a Youtube channel. Check out all of our numerous other videos here: Opera McGill YouTube .
As well, Anne Kostalas, videographer, has a blog. Check her out here: DivaFilms

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Creative Conversions

When projects are successful, people get congratulated. This just happened to me. Opera McGill's concluding production this past March - usually a series of performances of just one opera - was of a different nature. Far from any regular production, in fact, anywhere.

It was an opera "binge" festival. I believe the first of its kind. Seven operas in twenty-four hours in five different venues (three on campus and two quite off-campus, non-traditional operatic spaces) with forty plus students singing over fifty roles. We called it the "Opera B!NGE Festival!"

It was my idea entirely, I state humbly. The idea came to me last year while binge-watching Game of Thrones. Why not binge on opera, I wondered, since that's how we are all ingesting our entertainment via Netflix. When I texted Russell Wustenberg (Opera McGill's PSM) with the sentence "I've had a great idea", I meant it. When do any of us every feel we've had an idea worth of the word "great", let alone decide to share the idea with others? Sharing is the tricky part!

Like many great ideas (like all ideas, actually), you have to decide to do the work necessary to figure out how to actually make it happen. How to plot what is needed, create the moving parts necessary, put them into place, pay for it, plan for it, balance artistic options, make it exciting. But mostly, you have to sell the idea to others.

Selling creativity. Selling ideas. Selling potential. Did any of us get into the arts thinking we'd have to sell ideas?  And just so I'm being clear about my feelings on the subject: selling your ideas totally sucks.

It's the hardest thing about my life. Walking into an office or meeting and selling my "vision". Sitting with others and talking about plans I've imagined in order to get a critical mass of approval, or at least the thing that hangs in the air most often, the "well, if you think that might work and can pay for it and if it's something that you think might be successful and if it's not going to cause too much difficulty with others and if it's something that won't harm any kittens and if it's something that no one will think is offensive and, and, and, and, and..." is truly a hard thing on most people's psyches.

It's exhausting.

For you see, any great idea that I've had in the last decade has been met with resistance. Sometimes quite a lot of resistance. Oftentimes from surprising areas, oftentimes unbeknownst to me until after the fact when I'm told "I didn't think this one would work, but hey -- congrats!". Only occasionally have I been told "Yes! Excellent idea. Go for it!". Usually it's a struggle to prove that my {brilliant} idea might have merit.

This isn't the case for my regular ideas. You know, the ideas all of us have that help continue our various successes in our varied careers. Those ideas are usually accepted as a matter of course after a little bit of conversation. For me, it'd be ideas like deciding to do a double-bill of Puccini, or bringing in a guest director who's with it and young and fresh, or making casting choices that are common-sensical. I often find that these regular ideas get masqueraded around as "brilliant" ideas usually because they are decidedly not brilliant. They are comforting, and many people mistake comfort with brilliance. 

Brilliant is scary. Brilliant is innovative. Brilliant is the unknown. Brilliance takes a specific kind of creativity.

Creative ideas scare people. They scare creative people, strangely. The path of most resistance usually is found in, or comes from, those people deemed artistic in some way, those actually in the arts. It seems that inspiration is not something many creative-types take to when they are supposed to be the standard bearers of the creative arts. 

And let me be really honest here -- oftentimes, I resist creative or brilliant ideas because I may not fully understand them, or feel they might take something away from my program, or may be beyond my capacity to understand the scope of said idea. Resistance is easily found when it comes time to create something others may not fully understand.

So selling the brilliant idea is about communication. It's about a conversation. It's about conversion

My friend and colleague, Paul Yachnin, is in the midst of a huge multi-year research project: Early Modern Conversions. (Check out the site, it is simply an AMAZING project: Early Modern Conversions Site ) He and I have spent some time discussing the ideas of conversion, as well as discussing creativity over the years. Often these discussions involve oysters on the half shell and a bit of vodka, but almost always our conversations end up with me being slightly converted in my thinking to his way of thinking, or at least to a newer hybrid way of thinking about something.

Conversion and Conversation. These words are related. As Paul writes on his site: "The ability to convert is uniquely human. When we awaken to a new faith, join a new political movement, or take on a new identity, we exercise our freedom to reinvent ourselves and also to become who we were always meant to be."

And so we converse with others to convert them to our way of thinking in order to bring about a new idea into our world. For me, that means selling, sorry -- talking -- with others to try to awaken in them the seed of an idea that I discovered inside myself. This is exciting when it all goes well. When you're being misunderstood, or thwarted in some way, this is decidedly not an exciting thing. Luckily for me, my powers of persuasion usually go hand in hand with my level of passion needed to bring the idea into being.

So next time you have an idea, write it down! And then go to someone else - a friend, colleague, family member - and try to have a conversation about your idea. Let the idea live, though. Don't try to shoot holes through it, since every idea is quite vulnerable when first birthed. Ideas need nourishment and community. The brilliant ideas need even more. They especially need time; time to grow, pop through the soil, breathe some air, see some light. All ideas are seedlings that need the various stages of growth in order to really end up being something worthwhile. 

Additionally, creativity needs to convert not just others, but the person who initiated the effort in the first place. We are converted by our ideas. We are awakened by them. And if they are solid ideas worthy of boundless effort, they can convert others, awaken them. And certainly the world needs some awakening, eh?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Art and Freedom of Expression

The line between artistic expression and artistic offence has never been finer. In fact, I think we've reached a point where it is simply not possible to create anything without offending someone, be they an individual or a group of individuals.

This has been the case, let's not forget, throughout most of history. It's clear that to be an artist throughout the ages - from ancient Greece to 2017 - is fraught with tension between how an artist creates, who they create their art for (the state, religion, patrons, public, private, for its own sake, etc.), when/why it is deemed 'art', and how long it survives before being lost, shredded, erased, bombed to oblivion, criticized, re-thought, or celebrated. Art is not - in any way, shape, or form - easy.

Yet, art endures. It is still here and there are many of us out there trying to create art. Be they painters struggling away in a co-operative community studio in Burlington, Iowa or a composer in Ottawa, Ontario, or a filmmaker in Israel, or a director in Boston, or a choreographer in Toronto -- artists are everywhere. There are millions of us all around the world; some quite privileged (i.e. celebrity artists), but most artists out there still struggle to make ends meet. In my case, I understand that my life is a very rare, wonderful, yet strange life. On the good days (I'd say 75% are good days now), my life is truly a gift. During opera rehearsals, coachings, and performances, my life is typically transcendental, communing with long-dead geniuses through direct contact via music and text.

How exceptional is it to sit in a room and play all day in rehearsal (see my blog "The Operatic Playground's Secret" here: LINK ), or wave my hands in front of an orchestra, or sit and design blocking for some masterpiece by Handel? Truly Exceptional. Absolutely. Pretty easy life, frankly.

However, thinking that all we artists do is sit and play all day removes our expertise, ignores our years of training and practice, and it negates all of our sweat and tears and long hours trying to come up with something quite elusive: An Original Idea.

Ideas are integral to the continuation of the human race. Innovation is something we usually think about now only in the realm of technology. But artistic innovation, artistic ideas and thoughts, are absolutely essential for our human experiment to continue forward. It is as essential as Climate Change research, the International Space Station, theoretical quantum physics, or new Artificial Intelligence inventions. Artistic Innovation - a viable and important "AI" - should be made a priority for any state, local, or federal funding because without it, there is no need to continue the rest of our society's march into new technologies.

But who is to say what is art? Who is to say what art can or can not encompass? How do we innovate art when it is not clear to many what kind of art is allowable?

But more importantly: Who do we trust to make those decisions?

I trust no one. Everyone sees their world through their own lens and this lens creates their realities. My reality is different and, thank you very much, I don't give a fig about what others might think of my reality. My brain, which creates my thoughts, is my own and not up for control. Any type of control of an artist, outside of the realm of public safety or criminal activity, is dangerous for the society that seeks to put such controls, leashes, or muzzles on their artistic communities.

Control is another word for censorship, because censorship is all about control. Censorship is one of the ugliest human efforts that is easily disguised through other means or phrases. My grandma called it "being polite". All our great composers were censored, just read up on Verdi or Shostakovich to understand what a nightmare their lives must have been while trying to create the art that we now consider masterpieces. In the first decades of television, censorship was put into place in order to "protect" the public from offensive words/images/themes, or to protect the public from ideas those in power thought hostile to the American Way. Lately, the notion of protecting others from offence has turned into trying to control on campus speakers from expressing their ideas. Most of the current phrases used in identity politics are more about controlling others' words and speech, i.e. their thoughts, then about progressing the social construct towards a fairer future. To be clear, criticism is not censorship. Criticism is vital and essential to art and society. To critique something means that ideas are being pondered, questioned, ripped apart, agreed with, or at least noticed. To censor is to silence, to not allow ideas to be pondered or questioned or ripped apart or agreed with or to be noticed at all.

Censoring others' artistic expressions simply isn't conducive to a society's health and growth. All cultures, nations, groups need to be in a constant state of evolution and growth. In the natural world, growth happens through destruction. In art, it is the same. One often must remove the status quo in order to see something in a new light or to glimpse something entirely new. Those seeking to curb artistic expression because it might offend someone else or trigger a past trauma can end up pulling the roots out of an artist's intentions to express themselves through their chosen means. The line between curbing and cutting out all artistic expression can be a very blurry line indeed.

This new initiative comes not just from those sometimes described as "politically correct" or from the "progressive left", but also the far right (some would say "alt-right".) Seeking to control people's bodies through the removal of healthcare, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, the intense need to overturn abortion rights, the crazy - almost frenetic - need to regulate straight marriage away from the LGBTQ+ communities, the weird obsession with who can use what toilets, and their new interest in controlling the media by gaslighting it via the new administration, is a deception to control people's abilities to create their own identities, their own lives and cultures and communities. That's the fast track to destroying art, let's be very clear, as art is oftentimes created on the fringes of society, or in brand new cultures and communities that are far removed from the status quo.

Artists are not normal, I'll go further - we are kinda strange. What do I mean by that? How does this manifest itself?

A quick and personal example:
When I look out my train window during my early morning commute onto a bleak mid-winter landscape in the middle of western Quebec, what do I see?
Well - I see music.
I hear poetry, imagine a set design for Samuel Barber's opera Vanessa, I jot down ideas for a new chapter in my novel, I contemplate black and white abstract shapes, discover new examples for subtext in a line of text from a Schumann song, or think about whether I'm observing a new version of the colour grey.
I feel my own emptiness and loneliness and wonder if anyone else on the train is feeling the same emotions.
I feel the motion of the trees flying by because I can become that cold, dead tree filled with hidden life waiting to burst forth in a few months.
I start to experience time differently. The passing of a tree might be a few seconds, but for me it lasts minutes, maybe the whole morning.
Time opens up for me and I see new realities, hear new music, think new words, and create new life from a simple glance out a window.

I'd venture to say that many others on the train might not go beyond, "gosh it looks bleak out there" or "I hate winter" or "Can't wait to go snowmobiling this weekend." Don't get me wrong, I think those same things too (maybe not the last...) So maybe for some reading this blog, this does not seem strange. For others I've conversed with about their internal monologues, it is a strange thing to be empathetic with a forest of birch trees while sipping a latte on a ViaRail commuter train.

Artistic effort is an endless struggle to imagine and then create new worlds amidst our current world.

I believe that censoring creative effort is then one of the worst sort of crimes in an open society. And no, I've not been outright censored. I've been criticized - in writing, to my face, behind my back - which is totally part of an artist's life. But, like most artists, there have been subtle moments of censorship here and there along the way. Sometimes it's financial - not enough money to fulfill an artistic vision, sometimes it's from committees looking at programming - Mozart is good but Stravinsky won't sell tickets, or in the rehearsal room - meeting another collaborator and it becomes clear that all of your ideas about their character will have to be tabled in order to just get the singer to walk and talk at the same time, or at a design meeting where firm ideas worked out for months are shot down by others, or perhaps when a general director decides to not pursue a show because it might cause controversy in the community. The dismissal of ideas without dialogue is, for any artist, hard. A part of you kind of dies inside. What you've spent thousands of hours working on to create, all of a sudden gets erased. Like a magic towel appearing from nowhere to say "nope, this idea isn't what is wanted, sorry!" and then it gets wiped away in a few seconds or a short meeting or, nowadays, via email.

Many others are feeling this dismissal, this silencing of ideas, in a much more profound manner around the world. In their workplaces, in their churches, in their artistic communities, on their stages, among their colleagues, on campuses, or from friends and family members, it's becoming more and more the norm for people to silence others by calling them out for holding ideas that make others uncomfortable or expressing ideas that others think are just downright wrong. Dialogue seems to have been replaced with Monologue. Innovation can't happen in an environment seeking to snuff out ideas others don't like, don't understand, or find uncomfortable. In the realm of social media, where complex ideas get reduced down to hashtags, a photo, and 140 characters, it can get downright scary: #SomeIsm / look at this photo / here's how we shut them down and call them out!

Our world won't actually progress if we condense difficult, complex, and subtle ideas down to a Tweet or a Hashtag. Good for mob mentalities and mobilizing via Facebook, but not necessarily good for any real dialogue (that old notion where two parties speak and listen to each other) or good for real answers to questions posed by works of art. Why did that artist submerge a crucifix upside down in a container of urine? What were Mozart and DaPonte saying about the sexual liberation of women in the music and text of their opera Così fan tutte? Is added violence onstage during the Scottish play simply gratuitous, or is it integral to the storytelling for a contemporary audience? Are the added female characters in Peter Jackson's adaptations of Tolkien's two works important for gender equality issues or are they simple marketing ploys? What was Picasso really saying about war in his "Guernica"? Why are the themes in the film "Breaker Morant" still pertinent in the 21st century? Are the anti-Semitic elements in one of Bach's masterpieces enough to make it a piece of art that should be banned? And then there's Wagner's output... What about jazz - an art form created by African Americans and taken up by white musicians; is there cultural appropriation involved when white musicians play jazz in public? (Google that last question, if you're interested in why I included it.) These are all great questions, and they should be allowed discussion.

My answer to those who want to try to muzzle my artistic endeavours is to continue to create, albeit more carefully, until such time that it becomes clear to more people that artistic expression and innovation is integral to the health of society. Offending others is seldom the point in art. The point is usually to try to nudge people to see another side of a story, get them to think beyond their everyday assumptions. Art creates a more humane human because it opens the mind a wee bit, maybe only for a minute, or an evening, or a week, but still an opening happens and that can allow the mind to unfreeze itself and loosen up a bit and ponder a few new ideas.

It's time to once again push people to have to strive to think and understand something beyond the superficial trappings and images of what they're seeing onstage and on a much more personal level, pushing back a bit where my physical image is concerned. Expect a few more Imeneo type of productions in the near future, a return to the image I adopted during that production, and expect my adeptness with growing interesting facial hair to reflect the feeling that my artistic voice is a bit muzzled in today's climate.

The right to create and to experience art, publicly and privately, is a foundational pillar of all evolved societies. Let's strive to construct artistic societies all around this globe that can help mend humanity's frayed tapestry. Art heals and the world is in dire need of as many artists as possible. So give to a symphony, buy a painting from a local artist, volunteer at a school with no art classes, write some poetry and share it online instead of ranting about the latest craziness in DC, encourage your children to take photos or make up stories, invest in piano lessons for yourself or your kids, but a ticket to a play showing at the local community theatre. There are a thousand things you can do to support the arts.

One thing I would ask is to try to stop judging the art and the artists so harshly. At least for the next bit. Art needs to be celebrated again and, for the moment, it might help to step back and just fucking celebrate that Art Is Still Among Us.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Married for 25 Years?!

Where has time gone?

My wife, Elizabeth, and I are getting ready to celebrate our 25th Wedding Anniversary. She and I both think it's crazy that 25 years has passed by in what seems like a handful of years.

We had had a crazy time leading up to our wedding.

Beyond the seven year dating that led up to our nuptials - which included a few big break ups, long distance bills totalling in the thousands of dollars, multiple cities, and four college degrees - we decided to finally tie the knot mostly because she had "found the dress" while visiting Iowa during the summer of 1991. I was suffering in an internship position in the upper MidWest while waiting to move to New York City to join my on again girlfriend. Elizabeth called me up one day and asked me to marry her. Over the phone. It went like "So, I found the dress..." pause "And..." pause "I think we should get married."So Romantic.

You see, I had asked her to marry me two summers previous, on a very Romantic afternoon on a mountain in Colorado, with a ring and all. She had said yes, but then a year later we were breaking our engagement. Long story. Let's just say it's hard to commit to each other during seven years when you had only been together about 12 months total during those seven years...

But we decided it was now or never! We were going to get married or risk losing each other all over again.

So the plan was for me to move to NYC to start my fellowship at the Juilliard Opera Center (joining Elizabeth who was already a member of the JOC), live "in sin" (as it used to be called) and then get married a few months later. Simple. However, a few too many operatic events tried to prevent that plan from being implemented. First off, the same weekend I moved to NYC, Elizabeth flew to Chicago to audition on the stage for the Lyric Opera of Chicago's young artist program. She signed a 12 month contract with LOC that weekend which began two weeks after our planned December wedding. Oops.

Then she was cast as Vanessa in Barber's Vanessa at Juilliard. It hadn't been performed in NYC since its premiere with Steber and Elias, so everyone came to the performances (two weeks before our wedding, yikes) including the NYTimes (great review), Carol Vaness (rumoured to be among the cast of a never-happened Vanessa at the Met), and many others. In the cast was a young Jay Hunter Morris as Anatol, Jane Gilbert as Erika, and Carlos Conde as the Doctor. Richard Bradshaw conducted and it was directed by Ed Berkeley. Wow. Then just to make things really interesting, two weeks leading up to the premiere, my Dad had a major heart attack (but managed to recuperate and be at our wedding less than 4 weeks later.) Crazy month, eh?!

The night in question, December 28, 1991, was a cold, extremely typical, winter's evening in Burlington, Iowa. We chose the Saturday between Christmas and the New Year in order to accommodate our friends and family who, we'd hoped, were free that week. Outside of disappointing my parents, as their wedding anniversary was December 26th ("Why not just get married Thursday?" my mother would whine during the preceding months), the date was perfect because Bethany Lutheran Church was decorated to the nth degree with Christmas poinsettias, a lovely tree, and that holiday "air".

So many friends came, our relatives (my family: small, hers: ginormous), and our wedding party looked marvellous, from Maid of Honor Lisa to Best Man Rusty and all the rest. We did a very traditional wedding, complete with communion (in order to garner more time for more music), a church reception with requisite punch and the big white cake. The evening, though, ended in a totally unique family potluck party graciously hosted by one of Elizabeth's cousins. A keg was donated and the DJ was also a cousin. Lots of dancing into the wee hours. We honeymooned at a local Bed and Breakfast for two nights.

We could not have had a more perfect wedding, really. The music was provided by a bunch of our friends from Simpson College singing many favourite madrigals and Christmas Carols. The most memorable one was a totally unique rendition of "Good King W" that had to be heard to be believed! Anne Larson, our voice teacher extraordinaire from Simpson, sang our favourite Sven Lekberg song (look him up - amazing art song and choral composer!) and blew everyone away with her voice and musicality. We wish we had a video of her singing (we could barely afford the photographer).

Speaking of afford - the wedding was really "given" to us by so many others - our parents, yes - but more so by our musician friends, Elizabeth's two amazing cousins who provided the reception space and all of the flowers as their wedding gift, and all of the family that brought food to the second reception. We were unbelievably poor and were getting ready to embark on the next few months with practically no money in our pockets, living in two separate cities (Chicago and NYC). What were we thinking? In fact, we drove home from Iowa to NYC and then a week or so later back to Chicago on the cash we'd made during those many dances at the reception where people would put dollar bills in our wedding finery.

I remember thinking we had it all. We didn't need money, we had each other, we had our futures.

Those futures, at the time, seemed boundless. Elizabeth was at the height of her success as a young artist, going from Santa Fe to Juilliard to Chicago in only a few years. I had finished my masters in KC and had gotten the JOC fellowship, spending the fall playing for Marlena Malas, Frank Corsaro, Nico Castel, and making my collaborative pianist debut at Alice Tully Hall. All was well. I foresaw many years living in NYC, getting onto either the Met or NYCO music staff and just, well, succeeding.

But that was not to happen as I envisioned. A year later, I was on tour with Opera Iowa and getting ready to start my own contract at the Lyric playing for Maestro Palumbo. Elizabeth and I never returned to NYC, except to visit or for auditions. Our careers happened far and away from that city.

Which was totally okay, in the end. I think that it's important to go with the flow, go with what doors open, but especially to not have regrets in life. First off, if you're a fan of the movie About Time, going back to change something in your past typically changes the rest of your life and why in the world would I want to do that?!

So years later, twenty-five in fact, I sit in Alexandria, Ontario typing these words in front of a roaring fireplace as an ice storm rages outside. My wife is listening to "Time after Time" from the movie soundtrack from Julie and Julia sung by Margaret Whiting (it occurs at the end of the movie as Julia finally gets her published cookbook delivered). It's an apt song for us:

"Time after time
I tell myself that I'm
So lucky to be loving you
So lucky to be
The one you run to see
In the evening, when the day is through
I only know what I know
The passing years will show
You've kept my love so young, so new
And time after time
You'll hear me say that I'm
So lucky to be loving you."

Here's a link in case you'd like to listen to her sing it:
Time After Time

My wife and I are a team, something many still don't quite get even after I've blogged about it for years now. She is my muse, my harshest critic, my heartiest fan. Her voice sits in my head whenever I coach Mozart or Puccini or Barber or Schumann or Handel or, let's just admit it, any kind of music. We both come from the same place: southern Iowa (I'm Missouri River coast, she's Mississippi River coast) and that gives us a massive commonality that is our glue. We also have mirrored talents - she's a great singer who could play and I'm a great pianist who could sing; she can teach belting equally with the more refined classical style and I move in and out of opera and musicals with a great deal of ease. She was an amazing actress onstage and I direct my operas thinking that she's playing all the parts (male and female). She is the butter to my bread, and the breath to my life (to quote Julia Child.)

So we sit comfortably together in our living room, and it is now December 26, 2016.

Twenty-five years later. No party plans. No big trip. We want to spend our time together with our sons while they are still at home and so have decided to spend the evening together, maybe go out. We will play it by ear.

If anyone out there is lucky enough to know what it's like to spend 25 years together as a married couple, I tip my hat to you. Looking back, it seems like it was an inevitable journey that I can't imagine making with anyone else.

Here's to 25 more!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Music Is Not The Music

The Music Is Not The Music?!

My wondrous piano teacher at the Conservatory of Music at University of Missouri - Kansas City, Joanne Baker, taught me many things. Chief among them was to disregard musical scores while playing them.


Yes. You see, all of her students played their pieces from memory during their lessons. All the time. From the very first lesson. No opening up a Beethoven Sonatas book to Op. 109, placing it on the piano, glancing at it to see the key signature (E major) and perhaps to gather your thoughts before entering into Beethoven’s world via the keyboard and your ten fingers. For Jo-Jo (my pet name for her that I shared with only a few other students), learning “the music” happened before the piano lesson. The point of the lesson was to make something OF the musical score, which she would place onto her music stand, coloured pencils in hand, ready to make her markings (all lovingly dated, which now are a sort of nostalgic trip — on November 20, 1990 I neglected Brahms’ bass lines and kept missing the same notes in the same passages, all the while earning exclamation points here and there…)

Initially, this process was maddening. Then one day we had a conversation about it. Jo-Jo lived before hashtags and memes, but if I could put a tag on that conversation (and practically any other interaction with her) it would be: Jo-Jo Convo = Mind Blown.

This insistence on memorization from Day One annoyed me during my first semester studying in her studio. I spent my days ingesting musical scores as quickly as possible so I’d have something to work on in our lessons, at the expense, I strongly felt, of the musical score’s details. A typical lesson might move along the lines of Me playing a movement of a sonata by Haydn, then Jo-Jo would hobble over to the second piano in her studio (she walked with a cane but was incredibly agile for her age) and sit down. She’d say something along the lines of “so, you played the first motive like this”, then she’d play it exactly how I had played it. Pause. Then she’d look at me and say, “is that how you meant to play it?”. Then she’d smile, sweetly. Like a cat playing with a mouse. “Well”, I’d say, “I guess.” Then she’d say something along the lines of, “well, is that what Haydn wrote?”, and smile sweetly again. Ugh. This was EXHAUSTING.

But this was an invaluable process. It taught me to memorize the SCORE, not just the notes. We had to know — as soon as we knew the notes — when the crescendo started, if there were dots or carrots over notes, if there were slurs tossed in. We also had to know if they were editor markings or composer markings. And, ultimately, her process taught me to really, truly listen to how I was playing the piano and the music, instead of looking into a score to see the notes and markings and be distracted visually. For you see, to really be able to transport our listeners into the worlds created by those geniuses, we need to really concentrate on everything BUT the black dots on the white pages. So why practice doing exactly that during our once a week lessons, and THEN at some point in the future have it “memorized”?

Why indeed. But that didn’t stop me from asking her about it. She had a few things to say in response to me questioning her process. Three of those ideas really stuck with me. I don’t have what she said verbatim in my mind anymore, as I’ve morphed her ideas into my own. The following is my attempt to write about these three notions as I remember them, (the final one being the MIND BLOWN one, fyi.)

Where The Eyes and Ears Meet
Sitting at the piano while playing through any score, causes your head to be up and looking at the music in front of you. Not necessarily conducive to listening. In fact, if the brain is focused on looking at those thousands of notes and the hundreds of musical markings in something like a Chopin Ballade, can the brain also really be focused on listening to those notes and remembering all those markings? Researchers tell us that humans actually can’t multitask. Jo-Jo insisted this to be true as well. She wanted us focused on every sound that was being created by our ten fingers, our wrists and arms, our feet on the pedals, and how our inherent musicality and our intellectual choices influenced those sounds. When one focuses just on sound, without the distraction of the information passing through our eyes and visual cortex, there is a whole other level achieved. Why not practice this way all the time to prepare for your eventual performance of it? I’ve written extensively about “seeing with your ears and hearing with your eyes.” This is where that concept initially came from.

Knowledge Is Memory
How can we just play through a score over and over and over and over and over and over (you can only really get this picture if you’ve practiced the piano for tens of thousands of hours) without trying to actually learn the score. It is so easy to just “play” through a piece, thinking you are practicing it. Yes, there are hard sections that get practiced - big octave passages, fast sections, double trills - and easy sections that are just so pleasant to practice, but all too often pianists are playing through a score without actually committing its details to memory until they actually have to do so. To memorize a piece, from the very first moment, the very first note, is a whole different ball game. I learned to memorize instantaneously, measure by measure. Once this happened (one day, all of a sudden, it became possible after months of struggling), I was able to learn - really learn - at a crazy fast rate. I learned the entire Brahms F minor sonata in about ten days. Mind you, I was never a diligent practicer either. I brought in the first movement after looking at it the day before the lesson. My fingers knew how to play, I just needed the knowledge residing in those black dots on those white pages to be in my mind. Jo-Jo’s genius was also telling me to do this backwards by starting at the end of a piece and memorizing measures backwards. I still do this today when time is tough. As you move forward into a piece, it’s like you’re following a well-trod path in a forest of millions of trees. The further in you go, the clearer the path. 

The Music (Musical Score) Is Not the Music
Jo-Jo wasn’t all that impressed with Urtext scores, critical editions, or editions by some famous so-and-so. She was more interested in interpreting the scores. She told me that those who looked into scores to find the music were “forever deluding themselves”. She hated correctness for correctness’ sake. Music seemed much more apparent to her, particularly the great masterpieces by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, etc. She didn’t understand how anyone could just play the notes and think they’d done something special. “Anyone can play these notes, but only a few of us can make music out these notes” was something I remember her saying. She compared musical scores to churches. “No one goes into a church thinking that God is the actual church. You walk into a church to discover God.” Then she added, “A musical score is not the music. You enter the structure of the musical score to discover the music, to discover the composer’s intentions, wishes, dreams.” Everyone, in her view, entered a church and saw different things, felt different emotions, and found God in different places and times. The same was true for pianists, we entered into a score to gain knowledge and then we moved beyond it to find the music in the music. That’s why Horowitz and Ax are very different pianists, they aren’t the same people but they went searching for the Truth and then put their version of the Truth onto a stage for others to experience. 

Lessons with Jo-Jo were best kind of lessons. Each was an adventure. An act of Discovery. Like we were sailing uncharted waters in familiar ships to find new lands and peoples, to be dumbfounded at the undiscovered countries waiting for us in the works of the great masters. 

At our last lesson, Jo-Jo smiled at me, took my hands in hers, (I can still see her eyes so clearly in my memory!) and told me, “You make so much music out of so many missed notes. Change that last part and you’ll have something real to share.”

But ironically, I never changed that last part, really, but it's led to my success in opera. 

Working in opera is all about missed notes. Rehearsal pianists have to learn to drop tons of them because they are playing only a ten finger version of a score meant to be played by a 50 piece orchestra. That’s mostly impossible unless you drop a bunch of notes practically every measure. When you coach a singer, you should be focused on what they are doing, not on the notes you are playing. Good coaches know when to play all the notes and when to give outlines of the score, what the singer might actually hear coming up from the pit, for instance. As a conductor, it’s about focusing on moments within the present moment; during any given moment a conductor might be focused on a singer’s breath, cueing a chorus entrance, looking over towards the oboe to see if he’s ready to enter at a tricky point, or collaborating with the concert mistress on a final pianissimo ending to an act while watching her bow. Hundreds of thousands of notes dropped in order to concentrate on just a few notes each and every millisecond.

Joanne Baker is no longer on this Earth. But she lives on in all of her students and their music making. She definitely is present in almost every single coaching and lecture I give or rehearsal I might lead. She was an architect of musical sound and she showed me the secret garden where such a vast and rich array of structures to walk into and find the music resounding off the walls. I’ll never be able to thank her now, but I try to thank her through my work with my students, the music I try to make with others, and in my writings on music. She, along with Robert Larsen (my über-mentor), Berneil Hanson (my first piano teacher in Council Bluffs), and R. H. Fanders (my Humanities teacher at T.J.H.S.), give credence to the adage that sprang from Galileo Galilei’s mind: “You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.”

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Fantastic Opera Beasts and Where To Find Them!

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you haven’t seen it, please do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really? Repression as a destructive force? YES.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mischief Managed.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

A Prescription for Operatic Prescriptionists!

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

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

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

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

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

I am an operatic descriptionist. 

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

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

Dire words. I do not type them lightly.

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

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

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

This all seems very normal and good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[evil smile]

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to the philosophical argument…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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