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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Operatic Miscommunication

Recently, a colleague of mine experienced a difficulty working with others at a non-profit arts organization. Basically some miscommunication followed by a surprisingly sharp over-reaction by various people -- people both involved and peripheral to the issue. There was a breach of confidence in a private email and many anxious moments from the top level on down. After a day, things returned to normal but the angst involved was more than exhausting for all involved. My colleague called me to ask for advice and I tried my best, but basically all I wanted to say was "welcome to non-profit opera!"

So I thought I might write about what I think might be behind some of the communication problems that can happen at non-profit arts companies (and certainly I've seen and experienced my fair share.)

Communication happens between people and I'd like to put forth that the people who work in opera are rather a special lot. This involves trying to understand over-reactive, often dramatically so, people. (By "people", I'm referring to artists both on and off the stage and those working behind the scenes.)

Let's not forget that, aside from the bigwigs at the big companies, almost everyone working in non-profit organizations are underpaid and overworked. Most are highly educated and quite skilled at multi-tasking, as well as often being multi-talented: the horn player who's also the orchestra manager or librarian, the rehearsal pianist who's also the company manager, the receptionist who also sings in the chorus, etc. They are the backbone of our world and no company could really exist without them, so please do not get me wrong -- I'm not attacking the people who work at opera companies.

I actually want to talk about why so many of us who work in opera seem to be over-reactive to stimuli. We hear a great singer, or a great idea, we see a fantastic show, or find out that said show is sold-out, we experience performing at the top of our game, and we REACT; really react sometimes: we let out whoops, feel fabulous, walk around with huge smiles, feel as if we've conquered a mountain. We are decidedly manic when opera goes well, whether that means casting decisions, social media notices, patron donations, a good audition, or reviews hitting the day after in time to sell tickets.

And obviously, the reverse is true. When things go wrong, it can be as if the sky is falling. Low sales, will the company fold? Bad review, does that mean the artistic team sucks? A singer gets a bit moody in rehearsal, will their diva attitude rub off on everyone and ruin the process? The pianist can't play Albert's drunk scena, does that mean the training at their program has utterly failed them? Patrons upset with the color of tablecloths at the reception, OMFG -- panic ensues!

I see panic more and more nowadays. Real panic. It manifests itself in snap decisions to fix a problem before anyone finds out it exists (rather than sitting down to fix the problem long-term). It causes hurt feelings all the time because everyone involved in every aspect of a production now gets cc'd on every email. For example, some singer doesn't like her costume and the next thing you know, a wardrobe coordinator is all discombobulated and sends off an email (cc'd to the world) to the GD to complain. Or a young conductor might not know how to deal with time in rehearsals and starts to run over their allotment, instead of sitting down and talking to them, secret meetings get held behind their back via email (which is never, ever secret) wondering how to fix the problem. People aren't communicating, they are emailing and texting things. In this day of instant knowledge, people want instant solutions to complex problems. Last time I checked, opera was complicated.

As well, everything seems to be an "issue", or is a "major headache", and many personal confrontations get blown out of proportion because people see things now as US against THEM, and often seem to take everything - and I do mean everything - so personally. I see this as a growing problem, and wonder if it is because things are getting worse for these companies, and therefore for the people working for them, or it's just a sign o' the times.

Since starting to work in the opera business back in 1984, I can attest that the number of times I was yelled at - in front of many people, thank you - by conductors, directors, bosses, patrons, and divas (strangely, never been yelled at by a tenor, baritone, or bass...) was a lot. QUITE A LOT. Recently I've noticed that no one yells anymore, they just write pointed emails, or make phone calls, or head to the nearest ear in order to bend it their way.

Of course this type of stuff happens throughout all business. But I do believe operatic non-profits draw the dramatically over-reactive types to their doors. Certainly being passionate draws us to opera, makes us strive to be great artists, literally helping to make the art passionately exciting. But as one whose mantra is "In my operas, we don't panic; everything will be okay and we have a plan", I see all too often the opposite: no plan in place, no way to make new plans to solve problems, and way too much panic followed by hurt feelings.

Why? Because over-reactive people react to their circumstances. Reacting is the essence of acting onstage. However, constantly reacting to issues is simply exhausting in an arts organization. To always be on the defence, to not see problems in advance, to not know how to solve problems creatively, or to be overly subjective in responding to issues, creates an environment that is not conducive to creating opera, performing it, or selling it to anyone.

So what's the solution then? The experts have a few ideas. They are:

1) Prepare
2) Smile
3) Listen
4) Validate
5) Be succinct
6) Be unifying

1) Prepare as much as possible. Think through as many different "what could go wrong" scenarios as possible. Hoping for the best - at an opera company - is probably the worst thing one could ever do. Something always goes wrong. Preparation is key to try to anticipate problems. When laziness takes over and prevents preparation from happening, people get angry. I always think pessimistically when preparing, imaging the worst case scenarios; basically I set the bar really low. Trust me, it helps to not think that some magical opera creature will show up to solve your (or their) problems.

2) Smiling during a confrontation, or reading a problematic email, is extremely helpful. It reduces the reaction. Try it and see how powerful this can be. Smile right now. Feel better?

3) Listen more than Talk. That way you can try to better define the problem and what the underlying other issues might be that have caused the problem. In meetings, be the last - the very last - person to talk.

4) Validate regardless if the outcome is going to be something that will make others happy or upset. Try to make them see that their viewpoint has been taken into consideration. Thank them for their input and their concerns. Validation is a huge secret key to unlocking the Door of Frustration that many walk through during problems that can arise in opera.

5) Be Succinct. Don't mince words or try to write the perfect email that will wrap everything up in a nice neat package. When the time comes, just be direct and clear. This will help those who feel the need to respond with an "but you said this, so now I retort with another new thought or issue" email sure to make things more difficult and perhaps even worse.

6) Be Unifying. Leaders - whether they be administrators, executive directors, chorus masters, rehearsal pianists, maestros, or lead singers - must unify the forces. Discussions and emails can go on and on and on, and move towards circular logic if you're not careful. Unifying others by calming them down through smiling, listening and validating, will allow the solution to better present itself to all involved.

There are a lot of overdramatic people who work in opera, absolutely. But we can also be very empathic, introverted, and judgemental; not the best combination of traits. But when our reactions are tempered, clearer thoughts present themselves and our creative juices actually can be used to create creative solutions. Empathy is a super power, lest we forget.

The last needed bit is something that Captain America talks about at the end (the very, very end) of the most recent Marvel Universe movie "Spiderman: Homecoming". I won't give it a way, but it is rather funny, (something else that is needed in solving problems creatively: a sense of humour.)

Okay, I'll give it away: PATIENCE.

We all need to exercise a wee bit more patience with others. There's a lot of miscommunication that happens when people become impatient and want answers right away, or want solutions in place too early. Take a step back and view things from a place of perspective. See if that helps. And smile.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Credo: My He(art) Is Not A Clock

Sense8 blog #2
There's a lovely moment in Season One of Netflix's "Sense8". It takes place in the Anahuacalli Museum south of Mexico City. The museum was the brain child of Diego Rivera, the amazing artist who also happened to be Frida Kahlo's husband.

In the episode, Lito - a closeted Mexican gay action-hero celebrity - is mourning the breakup with his boyfriend, Hernando.  During multiple flashbacks, we overhear the two men talking about love and art:
Hernando reminds Lito of a line from one of his movies: "My heart is not a clock." Lito remembers that his character was always late prompting Hernando to say how much he loved that line because it was both "an apology that is also an anthem."

Later, Hernando (speaking in front of a Diego mural) says to Lito, "Love is not something we wind up, something we set or control. Love is just like art. A force that comes into our lives without any rules, expectations or limitations, and every time I hear that line, I am reminded that love, like art, must always be free."

At the heart of art, there is no mechanism. Love and Art share this. To create an algorithm for love would be impossible - although many are currently trying. To create the same for art would totally screw it up. Deep down, we know that our hearts are not clocks. Often, love comes to us at the wrong time in our lives. My wife and I fell in love when we were in college, but we were not ready to marry. That happened seven years later after much angst and passion. Love finds people who aren't ready for it. People go looking for love and can't find it. Love is a mystery.

I find that Love, actually, just happens.

Talk to any musician or actor and they'll try to articulate this idea of "happening". Being "musical" is something that can't be taught, it just happens. Being "in the moment" is something that acting teachers try to work on with their students, oftentimes through various methods - which are just other forms of clocks and mechanisms really - in order to let things happen organically. Musicians recreate scores written in black dots on white pages, interpreting tempo markings and other notions (like "Allegro" or "Very slow" or "half-note = 76") which are also simply different ways of saying "time moves like this". Again, another clock.

But Music is not a clock. It is not something one winds up, or something that can be set to control its elemental pieces. Music is a force that enters into our lives without any rules, limitations, or expectations. Music, like love, must always be free.

Of our many anxieties, Musicians truly fear the notion of dragging or rushing. It is a deeply ingrained idea that music has a "tempo" and that that "tempo" must be decided upon and kept. This comes from the silly - and terribly amateurish idea - that music moves through its bars in equal time. So equal, one can set a clock to it. We call this clock a METRONOME. It was, perhaps, the worst thing ever invented where music's concerned.

You see, all music flows forward at various speeds. Listen to any great pianist and you will find that you can't find a metronomic marking that holds past a few bars or so, even though there's no "marking" from the composer that says "speed up a bit here" or "drag a bit here." Music is not metronomic. Humans are not metronomes. Our heart rates move up and down all the time. See a person you're angry with and what happens? See your cat getting ready to jump into your aunt-who-hates-cats lap and what happens? Voices are human things and so each one will vibrate differently, causing the shifts in vibrato and breath that should change how fast or slow one aria gets sung by various singers.

Debussy said it best: "You know what I think about metronome marks? They're right for a single bar, like 'roses with a morning life'. Only there are those who don't hear music and who take these marks as authority to hear it still less!"

Debussy got it, I think. But most musicians are simply scared of tempi. Why? They get yelled at for dragging, or rushing by conductors or their teachers. "Don't Rush!" is something we've all heard more than a few times in our life. Another example of why: during the weeks it takes to put on operas, singers rehearse with a pianist, and then in the last few days they sing with an orchestra. Inevitably they notice that things feel differently and chalk it up to "the tempi are different", or "this conductor changes tempi once he's in front of an orchestra". While this might be true, something else is causing the perception that time is moving differently when one changes from piano to orchestral accompaniment: Pianos are percussive instruments, and many times the rehearsal pianists - if they are young - rush the conductors. Orchestras seldom rush, and most of the instruments playing create sound in a non-percussive manner, changing the time it takes for their sounds to reach the ears of the singers. So parts of an aria or duet might feel too slow, other parts too fast.

We train young conductors and pianists to "keep a tempo". We talk to singers about time like it is fixed somehow. They work to find "their tempo" for this or that aria. Instead, I think singers and pianists should go listen to recordings of great singers and conductors. Quickly one discovers a more organic flow of time, a flexibility, that also appears to change phrase by phrase. The sense of time was more horizontal and less fixed before our current age of anxiety. We fear TIME in music so much that the solution seems to be to set a clock into it's heart in order to control it.

This clock sits at the centre of all mediocre music-making.

That's what happens when we fear something. We set out to control it. (Here's a link to my blog on fear: Fear In Opera)

We created metronomes long ago, but we continue to create invisible ones today. Too many put these clocks into the heart of their art.

My credo? I believe that My Art's Heart Is Not a Clock. I believe it is another kind of force more akin to Love, that lives without limitations and expectations.

Those who want to know what to expect before the Art is created, those who want to put limits on Art, or those who want Art and Artists to have adequately comfortable lives that are safe, shouldn't be leading our world, or our musical worlds. Many are, and that is the really frightening thing.

So toss out your art's clock. Allow love back in. Love that has no bounds, no rules, no walls. You'll find a release and a freedom that is truly exhilarating and, perhaps, transformative.

And spend some time checking out Frida and Diego. They were cool.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Eye of the Beholder: Art is Love Made Public

“Art is love made public” is one of my favourite episodes from Season Two of Netflix's "Sense8" series (created by the amazing Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who brought us The Matrix). There are many characters and the plots are too vast to go into. For the purposes of this blog, this scene focuses on two male lovers living in Mexico who, up to this point, thought their affair was private: Lito, is a machismo action movie star, his lover Hernando is an Art History professor.

While discussing a piece of art in his class, Hernando Feuntes (Lito’s lover) finishes his lecture with: “It (art) is the language of seeing and being seen.”

Then the class starts to giggle as their phones all light up. When Hernando asks what’s going on, one of the men in the class shares what they're all looking at by putting a viral photo up on the lecture room view screen, for all to see. The picture that has gone viral is a photo of Hernando and Lito having sex (and it is quite explicit.) Everyone laughs. The guy who put it onto the screen then wryly asks “Is this art, Mr. Feuntes?”

After taking a moment, Hernando decides to continue the lecture using the picture as the subject...

“Is it art, Mr. Valles? Why don’t you tell us what you see?”

The student says “Looks like shit-packer porn.”

Nervous giggles emanate from the other students.

Hernando retorts: “Shit-packer porn, that is very interesting. ‘Cause this is where the relationship between subject and object reverses. The proverbial shoe shifting to the other foot. And what was seen, now reveals the seer. Because the eyes of the beholder find not just beauty where they want, but also shallowness, ugliness, confusion, and prejudice. Which is to say the beholder will always see what they want to see, suggesting that what you want to see, Mr. Valles, is in fact, shit-packer porn.”

More chuckles from the students, while Mr. Valles looks on uncomfortably.

Hernando finishes, “Whereas someone else, someone with a set of eyes capable of seeing beyond societal conventions, beyond their defining biases, such a beholder might see an image of two men caught in an act of pleasure. Erotic to be sure, but also... vulnerable. Neither aware of the camera. Both of them connected to the moment of each other. To love. And as I have suggested before in this class, art is love made public.

There are many moments like this in Sense8. Turning societal conventions on their heads and asking questions of the viewers themselves. Trying to take a public art form - a tv series - and move it back into a person's private life, to get them to think about their own biases and ideas.

A colleague of mine, Paul Yachnin (Tomlinson Shakespeare Professor at McGill University) once said during a public talk that “theatre (he was not just meaning Shakespeare’s theatre, but all theatre) is the private made public.” He went on to say that one of the terrible things about incarcerating another human being is that you remove their ability to have a private life.

Social media is certainly making most people’s private lives, their thoughts, their meals, their dates, their holidays, their everything super public. For some, the public might mean a closed group of friends, for others, a much larger group of friends of friends, and for some a total public presence (like our dear President Trump). All their thoughts sent out into the world. Their PRIVATE MADE PUBLIC.

Social Media is, in its essence, THEATRE.

If we return to Hernando’s point, that Art is Love Made Public, and if private-made-public Social Media posts are theatre, then Art and Love can also be thought of as a form of Theatre. And as all social media seems to be self-focused, many people are finding that their lives, their literal faces, can be made into a type of public theatre. It’s yet another reason why opinions are being transformed into facts, why people are being duped by fake news – it’s hard to discern real from fake in a world where everything is theatre.

For theatre isn’t real. It is fake.

Yet, social justice warriors on the left, and Trump supporters on the right, are having problems recognizing the difference. They see productions and think that images and words created in the theatre are real, or are offensive, or... dangerous. The uproar this summer with the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar is a perfect example of people not figuring out what’s theatre and what’s real. Trump supporters stood up in the theatre to protest the show’s JC looking a lot like Trump (after JC gets assassinated), then real security show up to remove the protestors. But, and this is the meta-gone-crazy moment, later in the play fake protestors stand up in the audience (as part of the play) and protest the assassination and are escorted from the venue by fake security guards. But then the meta goes beyond the horizon: real security guards were needed to escort the fake ones to ensure their safety from the real protestors, or I guess others in the audience upset about the protesting itself. Many in the audience were left perplexed.

But this isn’t only a problem with people who are blinded by their support of Trump, or who haven’t read the play to know what it is actually about. (These protestors are often derided by us liberals for being ignorant, fyi.) Ignorance lives on both sides of the political coin. However, the left sees itself as not just holding the upper hand, but holding the correct hand. Productions of operas, movies, paintings, and books are being singled out for being politically incorrect, oftentimes without realizing the subtleties of the history of the pieces, or the lives of the authors/artists. They are doing the exact same thing as the JC protestors – trying to shut down the private made public. They are trying to control art.

Often the people being silenced are being singled out because of their outward appearance, i.e. their race or their visible cultural identity (often, this is put upon them by those criticizing their works.) Someone might see me and make the obvious - but incorrect - conclusion that I'm a straight, white, male. But my personal identity is much more fluid (and complex) than that and for some of my ancestors, they were far from being considered "white". I'm mostly a European mix (Scottish/Danish), but my Catholic Irish immigrants and "Bohemian" immigrant ancestors on my mother's side would argue their point: they were not allowed into WASP establishments, institutions, or public groups, so how "white" were they? My mom was called Cat-licker by the same protestant kids who would wave their hands over their noses when she passed because she smelled like fish (Catholics ate lots of fish I gather.) Would anyone say her struggles as a young Catholic child in an all Lutheran small town were not caused by her perceived identity?

But the defining aspect of my identity is my atheism. According to the recent polls, being an atheist makes me the most hated type of person in America; the most "immoral". My privilege is great, but I could never run for President. A guy with a middle name "Hussein" has a better chance of being President than any atheist would have (at least currently.) Times might change, we shall see. I make no travel plans to certain countries because my atheism is grounds for my execution.

Should Art or Artists be seen solely through the lens of their identity? And if so, what is that identity? For example, is my art atheistic or should it be distilled down to that of a white married guy, negating my actual and more complex identity? If names and identities were hidden from the public, would art be seen and heard differently? On the operatic stage we can see people and make opinions about their identity, but I don't think we can hear identity. We can't hear race, for instance. Sometimes we can hear an accent (Americans singing in French, the French singing in English, the English singing in 'Merican), but usually the training of a professional opera singer overrides their cultural background. In an art form that is predominantly about hearing, shouldn't that be the dominant element when discussing an opera singer's performance?

Time does move forward and no issue lives beyond its time without mutation. Issues typically evolve. Times change, people change. The Eyes of the Beholders change. But the ART stays the same. It is who is seeing the art that changes. The seers think the art has changed, but it hasn’t. If you understand that, then you're more enlightened than most. The Art is just revealing the seer's current biases, their current issues, their current hearts and minds.

So – what are The Eyes of the Beholders, i.e. the public, revealing what’s in their own hearts and minds now? Currently, I think they reveal a lot of hatred, bias, close-mindedness, anxiety, worry, anger, offensiveness, defensiveness, shallowness, ugliness, confusion, prejudice, but mostly: fear. Otherwise, I think we’d see more discussions about how Art – whether it’s public art, theatre, music, poetry, murals, or even facebook posts – is empathetic, enlightening, open-minded, positive, educational, beautiful, spiritual, or culturally broadening.

As Hernando stated, Art is the language of seeing and being seen. Art is love made public.

What do you see when your Eye beholds art? What does that say about you?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Department of Practice

Many of us study or work in schools of music, or departments of music. At McGill, I work in the Department of Performance which is just one department of the larger Schulich School of Music of McGill University.

We call ourselves that, I guess, because we are performing professors who teach about performing to future performers.

Or do we? Is it all performing all the time? Certainly it looks that way with over 600 public performances given each year in our various venues on and off campus. (That's a lot, mind you.) Each of those performances represents hundreds of hours of preparation, score research, listening, active learning, studying with mentors, and - especially this - practice.

"Practice makes perfect" or my favourite (NOT): "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice."

Both of those famous quotes are truly not true. Far from it. Research has shown that too much practice focused on achieving perfection oftentimes does not give one perfection. And really, what's perfection? Totally unattainable outside of a few Olympic gymnasts or divers, (or Julia Child's recipe for boeuf bourguignon.) As well, getting to Carnegie Hall is pretty easy nowadays. Put together some money, gather your forces, and rent the hall. I know lots of people who've performed at Carnegie, but I can tell you honestly that very few got there just by practicing.

But practicing is a huge part of a students' world. When I was a piano major, I never practiced (I've blogged about this probably too much. It sounds like a boast, but it actually is my only regret in life.) There's a famous memoir "I really should be practicing" by the great pianist Gary Graffman. The title speaks deeply to many instrumentalists during their student years, and it really spoke to me as it was my mantra at Simpson. I'd say it late at night while painting a set, or I'd say it later the same night over shared Dominoes Pizza with others who should've been practicing too.

Nowadays, just like in yesteryears passed, students stress out about practicing - either they're risking injury by practicing too much or ignoring the pile of music on their desk. It's stressful just typing about practicing!

I think what might be adding to this stress is that, through social media, we are now teaching young people that learning itself is stressful. Because, you see, stress sits very close to the feeling of being uncomfortable. Stress is now being seen as entirely negative, which is too bad because stress is not always a negative force. Uncomfortable, yes. But not always a negative thing.

"Stress kills!" read the headlines. Then there are all the medical sites, with their "stress and high cholesterol", "stress and depression", "stress and binge eating", etc., etc., etc.

Depending on what motivates a musician to practice, the stress is magnified or lessened. Deadline to memorize a movement of a sonata looming? Good stress. Accepting a gig at the last minute that causes you to have to learn gobs of music overnight? Good stress. Taking on too many gigs while starting a new program of study and a new job bartending at night? Not the best kind of stress. Forgetting to translate your texts until the day before stagings begin? Shame on you!

Practice is not solely a sole activity. Collaborating with others is what most musicians do as the next step beyond their own practice. And collaboration can be difficult. Everyone in the room seems to have done more research than you, prepared more dutifully than you, had more coachings and lessons on their role than you. And they're all skinnier it seems and wearing cooler outfits in order to impress their new colleagues (why did I choose to wear the tight jeans today?) The stress of collaborating, especially with new colleagues, is like the stress of a blind date. You know the name of the restaurant (La Boheme), and the name of your date (Marcello), but you know little else and have to wing it, even though you've prepared for your date simply by living your life. Preparing for the first rehearsal of an opera takes a lot of practicing, a lot of preparation. Everyone is nervous and trying to impress, so everyone is stressed (and don't you hate the person who knows everyone else and is running around kissing everybody on the cheek?!) Why have sweaty palms too?

Collaborating is the big step towards being able to perform in public. It is a courageous act. It is also a joyous and wondrous communal act as well.  Collaborating is the reward for practicing. A lot of times, I think young singers misunderstand that rehearsing is practicing. We even use those two words for the same activity (particularly in high school when your parents would say "how was practice tonight?") But practicing is really something that happens before collaboration and rehearsal, and those two things are continuations of actual practice, to be sure. For most of us who do this long enough, collaboration is usually pure joy.

If one doesn't feel some sort of joy in the activity of practice or feel mostly joy while learning something new, collaborating on it, and then performing it, perhaps one shouldn't be encouraged to study music.  Music schools think they teach performers, but it is a misnomer really. We teach "practicers", because that's what we all do 'till our own song ends.

Practicers are who we are, really, because it's what we spend 98% of our time doing.

Practice doesn't make perfect, but it does make performers.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Fear In Opera 2.0

One of my most popular blogs was on Fear. (Here's the link: Fear In Opera ) I'd like to riff on that again, this time asking the question "What happens when artists start to fear the art itself, or the making of their art?"

I see this fear on social media posted by singers, coaches, teachers, and other artist-types. I experience this fear more and more during opera rehearsals - both at academic programs and at professional opera companies. Singers, administrators, pianists, directors, stage managers, all seem more afraid than ever. What is it that frightens them? What stops them from communicating and collaborating freely with others? Stage managers are afraid of rehearsals - what might happen if someone walks into a rehearsal and witnesses choreographed, simulated violence? Will someone in the room be triggered? How can we make sure that everyone in the room will be okay with watching someone stab another character?  (Given that the libretto calls for a stabbing, and all of the singers who've agreed to take part in the production have - hopefully - read the story, one would expect that everyone in the room would be okay with it, yes?)

But it's not just in the rehearsal room, now we must warn people that they will experience loud noises in the theatre (one hopes the opera will be loud at least sometimes!) More seriously, though, what happens when you do an opera where a sexual assault is the crux of the plot? Do you post trigger warning signs? Or should the company provide lobby therapists for audience members? Is the title The Rape of Lucretia enough of a warning? What about Don Giovanni when a director updates the story and the assaults become much more graphic? Where are the lines to be drawn - both in rehearsal for those participating and in performance for the audience?

As well, what happens when there are actual issues - real ones - that arise in rehearsals? Do we have the capacity to discern the fictional from the real? Are we creating a generation of artists that confuse being uncomfortable with actual anxiety or panic disorders?

What do conductors do when it's time to tell a singer that they don't approve of their artistic choices, or a more personal critique, the timbre of their voice? I can't truly describe how different it is to give notes to singers nowadays. The defensiveness and the anxious emotional states that get created by being criticized "publicly" are way out of proportion to the notes usually given, for example: 'make sure to pick up that cup on your way over to the soprano'. Many young singers receive notes as if they are under attack from some online troll. Worse, they can't discern between serious and casual notes because everything is taken so personally nowadays.

We are in a state of fear, everywhere. On stage, in the rehearsal room, in the audience, and in our online communities. It is a new Age of Anxiety. (Would that W.H. Auden could write a sequel!) Perhaps our orchestras should be programming Bernstein's Symphony #2 on every weekend during 2018 to get all of us to look back on the late 40s and wonder if our world is more or less anxious than it was 70+ years ago?

But what's so important not to forget is what happens when we fear things. Us humans have a strong reaction to that emotion, so it's important that we shouldn't start to be afraid of Art.

That which we are afraid of, humans tend to vilify or control or build walls up against it. This is an historical fact, and it is indeed actually frightening to think about the ramifications of our current state of fear. What happens if we tried to eliminate the very things that make art? Bizet said it best: "As a musician, I tell you that if you were to suppress adultery, fanaticism, crime, evil, the supernatural, there would no longer be the means for writing one note."

Particularly those of us within the arts communities need to make sure we are not creating new environments of fear. We need to actively seek ways to nurture environments that allow the creators to collaborate creatively and freely in an open space free from judgement. We need to help ourselves and the public understand how Art can be therapeutic, how Art can help build societies and cultures, and how Art ultimately cross-pollinates beyond borders influencing humanity's ability to be empathetic to others.

The danger is when we fail to speak out letting others who are intent upon pushing (or simply accepting without question) an ideology that purports that Art is somehow hurtful or politically incorrect. Many of us believe that we must be careful not to offend, careful to make sure those trying to learn about Art, appreciate Art, or create Art, be kept in safe, comfortable environments. This mindset creates the illusion of safety.

Safety is about control. Control is about fear.

And Fear, as Frank Herbert so aptly put it, is "the mind killer." Fear is potent and powerful.

Fear Kills Art.

Schumann was a composer who had many fears, I'm sure. But even with all of his many problems, he gave us all a clue what our next steps should be in order to bring the world back to a more positive and less fearful place: "To send light into the darkness of men's hearts - such is the duty of the artist."

Indeed, it is our duty to send light into darkness, and not the other way around.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Nothing Is Original

Nothing Is Original

I recently saw a tee-shirt on a friend of a friend on Facebook. Very simple “Nothing Is Original” with “#RipItOff” hashtag below.

Simple statement. So very, very true.

The challenge, for us in opera, is to appear original. Most of us know this is not possible and it’s only an illusion. The score is someone else’s (oftentimes many else’s – composer, librettist, editor(s), performance traditions by long-ago dead singers), the staging is derivative of all previous stagings every seen on the stage (even if updated, characters must still tell a story with lights, costumes, and sets), the singers’ ornaments are from the past directly, or heavily borrowed, and the tempi of any conductor is well within most ballparks of what’s come before.

What gives us originality is the ever-new collaborations that are put into place for each new production. New singers, a new design, new ideas on these old ideas, a new venue, new players, new approaches, etc.

To think that many young singers don’t want to listen to recordings, or watch older singers perform to research their repertoire or a new role, is – for me – the height of hubris.

And the height of denying the fact that Nothing Is Original.

All operas are not original. All Art is simply not original.

Opera – all of it – springs from something else. All contain elements found in previous pieces. There’d be no opera without the camerata from Florence’s renaissance, but even those guys were looking way back into time to Greek drama. We have the original castratis to thank for the later 19th century bel canto renaissance. Mozart begat Rossini who begat Donizetti who begat Verdi who begat Puccini who begat Menotti who begat Heggie. The ties that bind, the degrees of separation, are so tight between all of the operas we work on every year. The dance that happens is a dance between the past and the future. To find the future, one does need knowledge of the past.

When we see or hear something new – say an amazing Robert Wilson production or new ornaments previously not thought of by Bartoli or a conductor flex time in a Mozart ensemble or a new opera by a young composer – we get excited. Wow! Now THIS is original.

No. Nothing Is Original

So: RIP IT OFF! Do it with aplomb and acknowledgement for what’s come before. Dare others to find your “inspirations”. But please, please, do not pretend you’re being original. You are combining the same ingredients into a new dish to be served, albeit in hopefully a creative, fresh, and tasty manner that seems beyond brilliant.

And the flip side to that is, dare to be derivative. Learn from all the others who’ve come before you. Working on a Carmen? Have you listened to every single recording that’s out there? Learning a Mozart aria for the first time? Have you watched a video of your aria sung by the great ones?

Technique is an individual thing, but it is the derivative tool that powers opera. You take other’s technical ideas and make them your own.  Do the same with your artistic choices.

Basically, own your own originality. 

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