Sunday, July 31, 2005

Saying Goodbye

Three singers finished their work with us this weekend and headed for home. I love those summers when we can keep most of the company on through the final opera, but the only way to do that is to program a finale to the season that involves a huge cast – Magic Flute, Falstaff, Tales of Hoffmann… you get the idea. Not so this year.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

"I am in need of music that would flow"

Our season often starts with our “death by aria” concert for the Wolf Trap Associates. (That’s not really the title. But you get the idea.) This is the first time it has ever happened this late in the summer. And it was a surprisingly atypical event. In early June, the performers don’t know one another well, and there’s always an element of jockeying for position, of worrying about whether you’re good enough. But after 2 operas, 2 concerts, and a stint in the woods, they’ve become great friends. And the relaxed atmosphere pervaded the whole afternoon. I got a chance to play the piano again (after a desperate get-my-chops-back-in-a-hurry series of practice sessions), and a good time was had by all.

The program: “Largo al factotum” (Il barbiere di Siviglia), “Amour, viens aider ma faiblesse" (Samson et Dalila), “Signore, ascolta” (Turandot), “Pronta io son » (Don Pasquale), “Wie schön ist doch die Musik (Die schweigsame Frau), “Heimliche Aufforderung" (Strauss), "Un soave non so che” (La cenerentola, of course), Magician’s Aria (The Consul), “Sonnet (1928)” (DeBlasio), “New York Lights” (A View from the Bridge), Black Max (Bolcom: Cabaret Songs), “Sweeter than Roses" (Purcell), “Dich, theure Halle" (Tannhäuser), JNNY (Sellars), and a surprise reunion of our certifiably crazy Instant Opera cast. This time, the adult version of opera improv. A brain surgeon and Brittany Spears, the latter of whom gave birth onstage. You had to be there.

By request, the Elizabeth Bishop sonnet set to music by Chris DeBlasio:

Sonnet (1928)

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

Friday, July 29, 2005


Another bout of illness in the Giovanni cast; this time a bit less severe vocally, but still traumatic in its own way. It’s so hard to spend weeks and months refining something and then have your “instrument” rebel. The sobering thing is that it’s unavoidable. Most singers are surprisingly hardy people. But there’s no way to get through a decades-long career without having to sing while “indisposed.” Very very tough to do it at the beginning of a career, but it’s a skill. And the only way to learn it is on the job.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Audition Tour Prep

Nailing down the audition dates for the fall. Probably 12 days in 7 cities. Typically about 350 singers. 700 arias. The cycle starts all over again.

Although it seems as if we’re looking ahead before we’ve even finished this season, we actually operate way behind the typical scenario. Most companies have known for many months what their 2006 seasons will comprise. Although we’re laying the groundwork for the singer auditions in November, we won’t know what our 2006 repertoire will be until the very end of 2005. That leaves a painfully small window of opportunity for our artistic teams; by the time we hire directors and designers, there’s often less than 3 months before plans and renderings are due. But we persist, because waiting until we hear this year’s “crop” of singers before choosing our repertoire means that we have the chance to hire the best people without having to worry how their voice types and talents will shoehorn into predetermined repertoire.

But I digress. Seven cities this fall, including, for the first time since 2001, Seattle, WA. (The regular stops are Philadelphia, New York, Cincinnati, Chicago, Houston, and Vienna, VA.) The application will go up on the website in about 2 weeks, and the first completed forms will arrive by the beginning of September. And so it goes. I’m already being asked if I’m going to do an audition blog again. The idea of it makes me tired, frankly. (I’m not doing such a hot job at getting these postings up in a timely fashion…) But maybe I’ll have a renewed sense of vigor and purpose and a delusional burst of energy and goodwill. Let’s hope not.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


Normally, this is the quickest turn-around of the season. There’s no “buffer” of time between the 2nd and 3rd operas – it’s the only way to cram everything into 12 weeks. It means that singers who work on both operas (in this case, the three who are in both Giovanni and Cenerentola) rehearse the new opera between performances of the old one. But because Cenerentola has morphed into a concert staging, we’re starting rehearsals a bit late, and this week has turned into a mini respite. Lots of artist releases granted for out-of-town travel, with singers and staff taking advantage of this 4-day period to make a quick trip home, take a voice lesson, or just get out of town. Easy to reach your saturation point working a 6-day week all summer… especially in late July and August when it seems absolutely everyone else in Washington has headed for the beach or the mountains.

Doing preliminary coachings for Cenerentola and Where the Boys Are (recital), but otherwise, pretty quiet. As delicious as this downtime is, we only have it because of the downscaling of Cenerentola. And that makes it just a little less sweet.

Sunday, July 24, 2005


All of my matinee audience predictions have come to naught this summer. And I couldn’t be happier to be wrong. Great audience today! And again, marvelous work from all involved. To have these young singers deliver Italian recitative in such a vivid, detailed, and in-depth fashion is a real gift. From them, and from our music and language staff.

The weather cooperated, and our annual company picnic at my house tonight was magnificent. My hard-working and talented daughter (yes, I’m prejudiced) catered the whole thing, the weather was stunning (dry, upper-70’s, in Washington in July?) and the mood was relaxed. (An unintended side benefit of our revised Cinderella rehearsal schedule is that everyone has an easy few days ahead of them this week.)

The comraderie this season has been pretty extreme. These young professionals seems to truly enjoy one another’s company. Not an easy feat in a business full of outsized egos. Our Giovanni director actually said that he was considering sowing a few seeds of discontent in order to create a little drama in his cast. (Of course, he was just kidding!)

I prefer to believe (in my naïve, humanistic, Pollyannish way) that this is the natural state of people who are engaged in productive work with colleagues who also care deeply about their work, and who don’t feel threatened by the environment or the task at hand. (OK, don't gag... I warned you…)

Anyway, we’ve reached the top of the season’s hill, and it gets easier from here on out. (Well, maybe not easier, but at least there are fewer projects ahead.) Two more Giovanni performances, two recitals, and finally, Cinderella!

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Swan Song in the Woods

A great week of bringing opera to the kids. Probably about a thousand of them all together. Lots of enthusiastic feedback. (Today’s 6-person story included a rapper/narrator singing Rossini, (I never would’ve believed it if I hadn’t seen it), a jailor, a prisoner, an evil landlord, a genie, and a fortune teller.)

We had set out to do two things; 1) bring the best things about opera to kids in a way that they couldn’t resist, and 2) do it in a way that engaged our own artists and gave them a chance to grow. Hard to imagine that we seem to have scored on both counts. Especially on the latter. Our six singers were challenged and intrigued in their work with Jim Doyle of Comedy Sportz, and they have new confidence about their abilities to weather any unexpected storm onstage.

Hope to bring this project back next summer, but it all depends on schedule, artist availability and budget. Would really love to take it into the schools in the winter, but that would require a significant infusion of cash. But, who knows…!

Friday, July 22, 2005

Don Giovanni!

What a marvelous opening. It’s gratifying to allow our young singers to sink into these bread-and-butter roles, but it’s intimidating at the same time. To quote from director Ned Canty’s 4,000-word (!) initial email to the cast: “Finding the right tone and the human truth in the piece is like tap-dancing along a high wire, with a pit full of alligators on one side, a pool of magma on the other, and a frothing mass of critics poised at the other end, holding a pair of wire clippers, a wild-eyed look on their faces. Worst of all, we are competing with the audience's platonic ideal production, complete with CD quality sound, a cast composed of all of their personal favorites, and production that conveniently blurs over all the difficulties of the piece.”

To bring this piece to an audience in the so-intimate-it-feels-naked-sometimes atmosphere of The Barns is a scary and exhilarating thing. But to have them respond as they did this evening is well worth the risk. Everyone did their absolute best work, and that is itself is payoff enough for me.

I gave my first Giovanni pre-show talk at 7:00pm tonight, and I think I finished planning it at 6:55. Months ago (on paper), combining tech week, the writing of supertitles, preparation of the pre-show, and playing Instant Opera performances seemed reasonable. As my kids would say… NOT!!! I’ve been in more than a little over my head. I hope to survive, but if I don’t feel at least a little regret, I’m afraid I’ll push the envelope even further next time.

P.S. In the woods, Mariah Carey and Batman went sledding every day, until a bear came to eat Nemo.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Cinderella Falls into a Pond

Once upon a time in a house, Cinderella and Manny Ramirez went to a pond until Captain Hook came to marry the princess. The mezzo-soprano Manny Ramirez was a big hit with most of the audience. Who says trouser roles stretch the imagination, anyway…

Day off rehearsal for Giovanni cast, and they need it. Terre Jones (Wolf Trap Foundation President & CEO) treated all of the young artists to lunch, and they had the day to rest and renew. Crews working hard in the theatre and costume shop to get ready for tomorrow’s opening.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

"The Uninvited Guest" times two

One of the best things about this week in the woods is getting to drive the electric golf cart. Simple pleasures.

Today’s improv challenge: Once upon a time in a castle, a knight and a king played poker until a donkey came to eat the cards and ruin the game. Today’s improv opera “The Uninvited Guest”* is a natural companion to our other big event of the day…

…the dress rehearsal of Giovanni. Exceeding expectations, but still hard on everyone involved. Technical challenges to be solved, weary minds, bodies and voices to be rested.

*The kids’ uninvited guest was a donkey. Mozart’s was a walking, talking statue. :)

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Wizard’s Pool

First foray into the woods. Theatre-in-the-Woods, that is. Load-in at 7:30am. Didn't get home from last night's tech rehearsal until 12:30. Ouch.

We finally had a chance to try out our improv project on real children, and we lived to tell the tale! Today’s “mad lib” format netted the following challenge: Once upon a time in a castle, a wizard and a janitor swam every day until a mean lifeguard came to drown the wizard.

The tale that unfolded during the improvised recitative was faithful to the suggested storyline, with the exception of the death of the wizard, who, of course, came back to life. (The audience chose a happy ending, thank goodness. Opera traditions notwithstanding, we've learned it’s not wise to kill off characters when the average patron age is 7.)

Somehow, we managed to fit in excerpts from Cenerentola’s aria “Una volta c’era un re”, Monostatos’ rage aria, Juliette’s waltz, and the Count’s aria from Marriage of Figaro. The kids were a great audience, and we left feeling that we had won a huge victory! They were very excited to learn about bravo/brava/bravi – showered us with much cheering throughout the performance.

Back in the real opera world, we’re in the theatre for orchestra tech of Giovanni. It’s been so gratifying to work on this masterpiece that we’ve forgotten how long it is, and how utterly exhausting it can be. Just so beautifully dense. Makes the minutes and hours fly by for the audience, but takes its toll on the performers. Just no place you can coast.

Again, didn’t get through the whole show. Budgetary restrictions are tough on an opera as long as this one. This means we’re going into the dress rehearsal not having been straight through the opera since last Friday. Not optimal, but then again, not at all uncommon in the ‘real world.’

Monday, July 18, 2005

Sitz in the rehearsal room

Giovanni Sitzprobe, this time not in the theatre, but in the rehearsal room. It’s a trade-off. The Sitz in the theatre gives us an extra rehearsal to acclimate to the performance space, but it brings with it the typical difficulties in pit-to-stage coordination. A Sitz in the rehearsal room is more luxurious on a purely musical level; it actually allows the players to hear the singers, and, if it all works as it should, all parties come away from it with a greater understanding of the whole. Didn’t quite get through the show, though, in spite of marvelously efficient work by our conductor.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Perfido! Briccone! Scellerato!

The !*&%(^ supertitles* aren’t done yet! Every year I say I’m going to write them in the spring when things are calm. But the spring passes, and summer shifts into high gear, and somehow the calm period never comes. There no reason on earth why I put them off this long, but I did. Grrrrr.

Giovanni contains more colorful Italian insults than almost any other opera I can think of. It’s a particular challenge to find good equivalents for its long list of epithets. The English language (or at least the portion that has come down to us here in the 21st century) seems to have a paucity of strong, non-vulgar, non-comical insults.

*Supertitles are the English translations that appear above the stage in most opera performances. Some people hate them, most love them. The downside is that they split your attention between the real people onstage and the screen above the stage. The payoff is that they exponentially enrich our understanding of the drama.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

"Master Class"

Yes, in quotations. Because it’s not, really, strictly speaking, a “Master Class”. The training of most young singers includes a few run-ins with something called a Master Class, in which a famous singer humiliates students in front of a paying audience while pretending to impart the musical wisdom of the ages.

Sorry, that was a little harsh. Truly, it’s not often that bad, and often the system does work. I know some colleagues who do wonderful master classes.

Today’s seminar, though, was a bit different. Three of our singers were on the panel, and four high school and college-age singers were the students. It was a chance for the younger singers to perform in front of an encouraging and well-meaning audience, and then to get some advice and feedback from the panel. We do this primarily because our folks remember so vividly what it was like to be 17, and they are great at offering advice about things like college, finding a voice teacher, choosing a summer apprentice program, and deciding if you really want to be a singer. The perenially surprising thing is that our singers love this more than anyone else in the room, and they’re always bursting with good will and encouragement.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Designer run-through

Finally. Straight through Giovanni. Again blessed with a remarkable cast. We always feel fairly secure about the vocal chops of our young artists – there’s a range of ability to be sure, but in general, they wouldn’t have gotten this far in the business if they didn’t have solid instruments and techniques. The sheer depth of the musicality is always a crap shoot, though. Hard to discern whether the brilliant performances we hear in audition will successfully translate into full-length featured roles. But the singers and artistic team have really dug deep, and the pay-off is exciting.

Never a summer goes by without begging the indulgences of our favorite ENT. This season’s first (and with any luck, last) episode with vocal indisposition has been weathered. It takes so little for illness, allergy or fatigue to make a dent in voices that are performing the equivalent of vocal high-wire acts every day. The good news is that youth is kind, and young voices heal quickly. The bad news is that early-career singers don’t yet have a lot of experience with weathering these storms. When is a little bit of hoarseness a passing summer allergy or cold, and when is it a career-altering crisis? Fortunately, we’re almost always dealing with the former scenario, and after a few days of panic, the mechanism returns to normal.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Back to my roots

Blogging falling into serious neglect these days. Because “Instant Opera” is a brand-new project, one that we are developing as we go along, I’ve put myself in the cast. Have enjoyed it thoroughly, but it’s made this week an endurance test.

I am astonished daily by the enthusiasm with which our artists have thrown themselves into this improv business. It’s hardly second nature to any of us, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about whether or not we’d be able to meet this challenge. For me, it’s a bit of a return to my roots. I was a registered music therapist in a former life, and playing theatre games with my drama therapist colleague and our psychiatric patients was part of my early training. This has to be easier than that!!

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Magic of Murder & Mayhem

It’s not a sane thing to keep trying to exceed expectations (ours and the audience’s), but I think we may have done it once more. An exhausting but rewarding night at the Filene Center with 10 of our singers, the Washington Chorus and the National Symphony Orchestra. Didn’t hurt that the weather was stunning – more like late May than July.

Semi-staging is a crazy-making thing. No one really knows what it is until it’s over. When you work on a full production, the basic goal is much easier to share. But this goal is harder to pin down. How do you work with a minimum amount of furniture and props, bring the scenes to life within the limitations of an 8-foot-deep downstage rectangle that's periodically shared with violin bows, and do it all in concert dress? Thank goodness we’ve now had a few years’ experience with this format. Doesn’t make the process simpler, but it does make it easier to recognize the free-floating anxiety that inevitably accompanies its birth. Our apprentice director Peter Kozma and coach Bruce Stasyna did a phenomenal job of shepherding this concert and turning it into an evening whose success surprised everyone but me. I’m not cocky by nature, but I was sure that the aggregate talent lavished on this project (singers, staff, musicians, crew) would crystallize into something we’d be proud of.

The moments of sheer grand opera brawn (Tosca, Aida, Trovatore) were flanked by almost transcendental moments (Hansel & Gretel, Butterfly) and thank-god-it’s-actually-funny gestures (Carmen, Mikado). The audience was responsive and supportive. And these singers who handled themselves like absolute pros have an average age of 26.

As requested, attached are the lyrics for Mikado song... Click here

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Instant Opera Kick-off!

Nothing like doing something you’ve never done before to ramp up the energy and anxiety. Today was our first session for our new program for kids – “Instant Opera!”. Based on an interactive model developed at Cincinnati Conservatory and then used at San Francisco Opera Center, this new venture of ours will take the stage at the Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods at Wolf Trap in less than two weeks. (Gulp…)

In a small-world scenario, we are working with Jim Doyle of Comedy Sportz. Our administrative intern’s sister is a member of the DC Comedy Sportz troupe, and she led us to Jim. We then found out that in his student days, Jim stage managed opera at Yale and worked under two of the stage directors at Wolf Trap this summer. Ours truly is a small business.

This afternoon Jim put 6 of our singers (and me, since I had the crazy idea to put myself onstage for this project) through some introductory improv exercises. Sobering and invigorating at the same time. We were looking for an “outreach” vehicle that would allow us to take opera to kids, represent the most fascinating parts of our art form at their best, and at the same time engage, challenge and energize our singers. And I think this is it. You’ll hear more about this in the coming week, I’m sure.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Kennedy Center "field trip"

We multi-task furiously in the middle of our season, and I feel very out of touch with Giovanni these days. We’re into our second week of stagings, but the looming NSO concert on Saturday night has consumed most of our administrative attentions. I say a little prayer of thanks that the Giovanni team is such a strong one, and that they won’t mind a bit of neglect.

Off to the Kennedy Center this morning for the orchestra rehearsal of “Murder…Mayhem”. No matter how many times we do this, I love watching the reactions of our singers as they enter the Concert Hall. We take this collaboration with the National Symphony Orchestra for granted sometimes (and we shouldn’t, of course), but the adrenaline hit that results from this first rehearsal is never diminished.

The singers handle it well, even though standing on the edge of the stage and singing Verdi with the entire NSO inches away is a little humbling. Even the most sanguine of them need to be reminded that this music was meant to be done with singers on the stage and a moderate-sized orchestra tucked away in a pit. Once we get to the Filene Center, amplification will smooth out the differences in placement and orchestration, and we’ll get to enjoy the voices as well as the luxurious orchestral sound. But for now, the name of the game is not to get sucked into thinking that you can compete with the entire NSO in a decibel game. That’s a pretty quick route to stripping the vocal gears and having nothing left for the concert.

A little flurry of excitement surrounding the updated “I’ve Got a Little List” lyrics. This is, of course, The Kennedy Center, and although our lyrics were created in a spirit of equal opportunity (meaning that absolutely everyone is insulted so no one should be offended), one wonders if it’s appropriate to say these things out loud on this stage. After being assured that this is a closed rehearsal, we settle in. Of course, during the introduction, a tour group walked into the back of the Concert Hall. Those folks will just have an interesting tourist story to tell when they get home.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Murder... Mayhem... Juicy chunks of great opera!

Finally got to see a run-through of the July 9 NSO concert. Great stuff - Carmen, Rigoletto, Lucia... Because young voices aren't a good fit with full-length grand opera roles, we don't often get to indulge in Verdi and Puccini. But in these concerts we include choice chunks of the meaty stuff.

Conductor Emil de Cou came up with the "Murder & Mayhem" title, and it allowed us to put together an evening of greatest hits from operas with extreme plots. (As I'm fond of saying; Is there any other kind?) It remains to be seen if the title (which was designed, of course, to catch attention) did its job. I read last week that the NY Philharmonic just did a concert called "A Little Nighmare Music", and the conductor allowed that he was worried about the kind of patron who would attend a concert with that name :)

Hard to represent these events in a brief soundbyte or inch of ad space. But the audience members who've taken them in for the last 7 years are overwhelmingly enthusiastic. We have 10 of our artists on this one concert, and that in itself is an embarrassment of riches. Put it together with the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington Chorus, and you have one of the highlights of the summer.

Just about time for a few fireworks (on the television....) - more than a little tired - now I know why they call this a long weekend...

Saturday, July 02, 2005

If you don't like the weather...

... wait a few minutes? Is that the adage? With a minor adjustment, it probably applies to any small arts organization.

There are two full-time and one part-time employees administering the Wolf Trap Opera Company year-round, and that means that every day brings a new challenge. The "off" season is a whirlwind of non-production related tasks from budgets to grant applications, from advertising copy to box office issues - not to mention the 3-month-long job of screening and auditioning young artists who apply for the next summer's company. Summer adds a few hundred seasonal employees (artists, staff, crew, orchestra, chorus, apprentices, interns etc) with their myriad needs and attendant problems (schedules, payroll, housing, transportation... I'm getting tired thinking about it...).

But the positive side of all of this is that for someone with a short attention span, it's a great job! Just about the time you think you couldn't possibly stand it for another minute, it's time to do something else. I wonder if they teach that in arts administration courses...

Friday, July 01, 2005

Opera at the improv

It's July, and time to start working on "Instant Opera!", our first appearances at Wolf Trap's Children's Theatre-in-the-Woods ( since the late 1980's. The old format (in which I participated as a pianist) involved taking staged one-act operas to the "TITW". The average attendee is probably about 7 years old, and the one-acts, while a great experience in many ways, were problematic. We've been looking for a way to return to the Children's TITW with a vehicle that would engage the children and challenge our artists, and now we have it.

We're taking a format called Interactive Opera to the TITW in mid-July. Our kick-off meeting today (me and 6 of our singers) was energizing and frightening. It's sobering to think that in a few weeks, we'll be doing daily performances of this improv-based program in front of hundreds of children. And we all know that kids are the toughest audience of all. More later!