Thursday, March 30, 2006

Just Show Up

Feeling disconnected from blog world lately, but posting anyway. Reading "Improv Wisdom", and today I learned that the Third Maxim is "Just Show Up." Motivation is not a requirement. So here I am.

Boston Brass did more than just show up at our two school presentations today - they were absolutely terrific.

11:00am at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax. Midday by high school standards, but pretty much the crack of dawn for performers whose professional day usually runs from mid-afternoon till about midnight. The gentlemen were energetic, focused, and committed to communicating with the roughly 130 teenage musicians in the room. Advice on practicing, sight-reading, stage fright, and making music with friends - all interspersed with spot-on playing that belied the "early" hour.

2:00pm at Bailey's Elementary School in Falls Church. About 250 students in the gym, and the presentation shifted to raucous audience involvement (a couple hundred kids practicing a brass instrument "buzz" is an awesome sound) and giggle-inducing comedy (Bugs Bunny's got nothing on these guys.)

Back to Opera

Absolutely terrific design presentations yesterday. I know I promised photos, but I'm waiting on some digital images from the designers. We're always amazed at what designers are able to do with our quirky space at The Barns. No fly space (above the stage), no upstage space, no offstage left space (just enough for entrances and exits), very little offstage right space. No show curtain unless it's part of the design. That means that scene shifts are often done "a vista" (in full sight of the audience), and they need to be done safely, elegantly, and quickly, all with people watching.

All by way of saying that if you're the kind of person whose creativity is stoked by the challenge of limitations, well then, we have just the theatre for you. But again and again our directors and designers fall in love with The Barns and do magical things with it.

Our Comte Ory scenic designer just finished working on Spamalot. That, by itself, would be an interesting tidbit. Add the fact that the show he's designing for us is a comedy set in the Middle Ages, and you can imagine what fun we had.

Rest assured, Ory will not be filtered through Monty Python. But it was tempting...

Put It On the Blog!

Talking about the blog on the way back to the train station. Costume designer asks that I remind all readers that, and I quote (I think), "Costume designers were not put on earth to make singers' lives miserable." (That's not verbatim, but you get the point.)

Raw, Messy, Exhilarating... what was I thinking?

A reader comment on my somewhat incomprehensible rant from a few days ago: "Anonymous" says: "Whether you like it or not, or whether it is "right" or not, "raw, messy, exhilarating, gut-wrenching" experiences are not what mainstream consumers want for their classical music dollar."

Actually, my series of less-than-attractive adjectives was meant to apply to the process of making music, not the consumer/patron experience. But I agree, somewhat reluctantly, that many "mainstream consumers" do seem to want their performances served up with a slightly claustrophobic sheen of decorum and detachment. And maybe that's not something to be concerned about. But from where I sit, it seems, at the very least, to be a significant obstacle between us and the future of the classical music experience.

Then again, I could be blessedly and completely wrong.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Rambling and Ranting

Catching up on trade periodicals. Nice piece in the April Chamber Music magazine called "The Ear of the Beholder." Resonates with recent postings and discussions on competitions.

"The only thing the judges can agree on is whether or not a mistake has been made... So the winner is often somebody who doesn't make mistakes."

The article also makes a nice reference to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To paraphrase: Quality is an event, and it can happen only when an object and an observer (the music and the listener) resonate.

Art That's Good for You

Still seething. Gave myself a week or so to cool down. Didn't work.

If you read the link (probably expires soon), skip the politics. Not because I don't agree with them, but because they're beside the point and obfuscate the discussion.

I am so tired of having to prove that the arts change the "functional activity inside our brains." Damn Mozart Effect. The bean counters have to prove something in order to keep the funding flowing, but this relentless focus on the behavioral benefits of engagement in the performing arts makes me nuts. (Don't get me started on No Child Left Behind...) It places raw, messy, exhilarating, gut-wrenching live music, theatre and dance on the same level as video games. Watch those synapses fire! Improve brain functioning! Really.

Speaking of Video Games

Reading Got Game: How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever. I don't need much convincing. And it's not all gloom-and-doom. There's a "gamer" in my household, and he manages to be one of the most geeky AND personable and artistic people I know.

The fearmongers will cite short attention spans and other media-induced pathologies. But there's a singular deep and active focus that these kids understand that almost mimics meditation and arts engagement. Don't get me wrong - I'm not drawing parallels here. But the passivity of the TV generation has been replaced, and I think it's a move in the right direction.

Quitting while I'm (arguably) ahead

Apologies for the circular ranting and rambling. If I had more time, I'd spin out some sort of treatise. As it is, half-formed thoughts will have to suffice.

Big day tomorrow - design presentations for our first two operas. Back at you on Wednesday with pictures!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Dead Fish

Any hope for a thoughtful blog post has vanished. The day flew by at a disorienting, fragmented and chaotic rate.

The List

Established the details of Orpheus wind instrumentation. 2 recorders, 1 oboe, 1 bassoon, 1 trumpet, 1 lute. Baroque lute players are hot-house flowers. What came first? The temperament or the effects of playing an instrument that only stays in tune for 3 minutes at a time? (Sorry; please don't flame. Just kidding.)

Started search for a small portativ organ for the Orpheus orchestra.

Established schedule of Italian and French language coaching days

Updated and verified rehearsal schedule for Romeo et Juliette concert with NSO

Collected and compiled chorister acceptances for this season. Started drafting contracts. Truly great group of singers this year.

Established Instant Opera improv coaching and rehearsal schedule. Realized anew (gulp) that I've committed myself to improvising in the woods again this summer.

Proofed some ads and brochures

Finished tweaking my Figaro/WTOC article. Enough already. Let it go, for godsake.

Finished intern interview process.

Worked on chamber music series subscriber recruitment

More contract drafts for designers and guest coaches

OK - sorry. That was boring. And it couldn't have possibly filled the last 10 hours. But somehow it did.

Talent, Lifer or Mandarin?

Fun with internet quizzes - take the test here. For the record, I scored Talent: 63% / Lifer: 33% / Mandarin: 56%. I don't think this is good.

Pisces Mortui Solum Cum Flumine Natant*

In preparation to conquer my demons in Instant Opera , I'm reading a fabulous little book: "Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up." While predictably championing the value of living an unscripted life, author Patricia Ryan Madsen underscores the importance of charting some kind of course.

Maybe my quiz score isn't so schizoid after all.

[*Only Dead Fish Go With the Flow]

Go Patriots!

Heading home to watch the game. Staying far away from the computer this weekend. You should too, if you can.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Season Announcement!

No time to write anything else tonight, but here's what we've been spending all our time working on...

2006 Wolf Trap Opera Company -
press release
list of performances

2006 NSO @ Wolf Trap (National Symphony Orchestra) -
press release
list of performances

The Washington Post article on the Wolf Trap season announcement.

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Not Nearly Enough is at Stake

This from Terry Teachout's About Last Night:

  • "I rarely go to classical concerts. It’s not that I love the music any less, but over time I’ve become increasingly alienated from the experience of concertgoing: the noisy audiences, the unimaginative programs, the feeling that not nearly enough is at stake… I find that few classical music events… are capable of inspiring me to surrender a precious evening I could spend doing something else."

I don't always find myself engaged by Teachout's blog. I respect his track record and position in the cultural landscape, but I don't always get it. But I'll keep this blunt assessment in my back pocket for quite a while.


This from a recent email exchange with a director colleague. The subject is Peter Brook's "Deadly Theatre":
  • "There is always a deadly spectator, who for special reasons enjoys a lack of intensity and even a lack of entertainment... In his heart he sincerely wants a theatre that is nobler-than-life and he confuses a sort of intellectual satisfaction with the true experience for which he craves. Unfortunately, he lends the weight of his authority to dullness and so the Deadly Theatre goes on its way."
How many times has fear driven us to pander to the Deadly Spectator? And the resulting Deadly Performance drives away our hope of a future audience.


And this, from The Rest is Noise (it's months old, but I bookmarked it):
  • "Classical music, for all its elite trappings, is actually a radical, disruptive force in American culture, whereas most popular culture, for all its rebellious trappings, is intensely conservative."

Radical. Disruptive. Ah, there's the future.


Living on the Right (and I don't mean politics...)

So happy to see that Wired magazine and author Daniel Pink recognize that right-brain people are on the ascendancy. I always knew we would run the world someday. And do it better than ever before.

  • The future no longer belongs to people who can reason with computer-like logic, speed, and precision...the abilities that matter most are now closer in spirit to the specialties of the right hemisphere - artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent.

Rock on.

Website Warnings

Spending a lot of time lately doing phone interviews with prospective interns for the summer. Especially with phone interviews, I tend to google applicants first. A word to the wise: Be careful what you put on the internet.

Selling Figaro

Days behind deadline on my “wrap” article for this summer’s printed program. Two pages which have the potential of being read by a few hundred thousand people waiting for other performances (rock, pop, jazz, blues, musical theatre) to begin. Why should they "surrender a precious evening" to come to the opera?

Sobering, dare I say intimidating. We have over 10,000 tickets to sell for two Figaro performances. One ticket at a time. We've done it before and we can do it again. The good news is that the product we're selling needs no apology. The challenge lies in our ability to get that message across - to tell the story.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Gotta Empty Out the Inside of My Head

Engaged in the annual springtime delusion that I'm going to turn my 2.5-mile regular power walk into a jog. (Don't be too impressed - so far that means that I walk up the hills and run down them.) I have an iPod playlist just for this purpose, and it doesn't contain anything that comes close to the music I work with for a living. The purpose is to deactivate my left brain and provide an irresistible groove. A tight rhythm section, some good acoustic guitar or piano, lyrics that make me smile. The perfect spring-cleaning song in today's shuffle - Inside Of My Head (David Wilcox).

The Bassi Speak

A comment posted on this blog a week or so ago:

"A question for you about us big, heavy voices that take years to develop - how do you recommend we find opportunities? I'm a basso profundo, so I'm looking at just hitting my stride in my late 20's. Of course, when you're 30 it's too late to win a Met competition, and young artist programs still seem to have this prejudice for younger instruments. But the rungs of this business are set up for people to finish their degree(s), hit the YA circuit, and then try for covers or comprimari - and it seems beyond the pale for some companies that a singer might miss a rung or two.So what's a low bass to do? How do we deal with the "end of the great big American voice" syndrome?"

I polled some of my favorite basses. Here's a composite response.


Music schools are a great umbrella protecting a young bass from the "real" world. (NOTE: a bass is still "young" in his late twenties!) You can build up a lot of concert, recital, as well as operatic repertoire, all under the watchful eye of your "team" of teachers and coaches.

Find a way to extend the schooling -- you'll always be a commodity if you're a low bass at a school, and it's a lot of fun being needed (more fun than being one of every bass in New York, 20 to 75 years old, auditioning for the same role).

Find a degree program that won't require a loan and then revel in that program's offerings; stretch out the time -- it's not a race to get out, particularly for a bass. You'll get more stage time (invaluable, in my opinion) and more studio time.


Create opportunities to sing in any capacity wherever possible. For me, the greatest benefit came from singing outreach/runout shows for a local opera company for a number of years while in my twenties. I proved to myself that I could sing in the morning, and it provided a daily dosage of excited, energetic audience of elementary school students. There is no better way to develop the voice than to use it every day! And there is also no better way to get comfortable onstage than to sing a lot, particularly when the role is in English.


This country has seen an enormous surge of young artist programs in the last decade, and just about all of them will be looking for a bass each year.

Many YAPs have a prejudice for younger instruments, but I promise that a bass that sings consistently through his natural vocal range could just about write his ticket into any program he chooses.

Be smart about finding YA programs that actually put their YA's on stage in smaller roles. Granted, sometimes having to do your 14th performance of Ceprano sucks big time, especially if you consider Sparafucile and Sarastro more up your alley. But being a bass "saved my ass," because I would have absolutely HATED doing all that language work, music study, role memorization, movement and acting work, etc., and only occasionally put it to test. Even in the smallest roles, at least I was on stage constantly through my 20's.

A young bass is actually at an advantage. Even if you are miles away from your "prime" there are a million roles you could do.

Young basso profundi (as well as dramatic types) presumably already have a sizable voice, even if it's rough around the edges. For that type of voice, it would seem logical to look at young artist programs that are attached to big houses ("big" as in "cavernous auditorium") and who look to the young artists for actual mainstage work (generally to save money). If (again presuming a future "dramatic" singer already has a large, if unhewn, voice) these companies do in fact use their young artists on the main stage, they would love to save money by using a young basso as a second armored man or as one of the 25 bass comprimario roles in a Verdi opera. If you have a loud voice and a middle C, you're on.

The Met Competition

I wouldn't worry about the Met competitions, unless you are a once-in-a-lifetime voice. The cutoff age of 30 is just about impossible for a bass to truly compete with other voice types. To start with, the bass repertoire has very few show-stopping arias compared to any of the other voice types, so you have that working against you, too!


Take any greatest hits operas and I'll show you how many roles for bass there are, smallest to biggest... just off the top of my head: Rigoletto has Ceprano, Marullo, Sparafucile... Traviata has the "Cena e pronta" guy, the Doctor, Marquis and Baron... Flute: Armored Guy, Sprecher, Sarastro (more and more Papageno too these days)... Nozze di Figaro: Antonio, Bartolo, Figaro... Don G: Masetto, Commendatore, Leporello, Don Giovanni... Romeo has Capulet and Friar... Boheme has Benoit, Alcindoro, Colline (sometimes Schaunard)... Don Carlo has at least 2 bass roles smaller than Phiilip, Tanhaeuser has 2 smaller than Landgraf, Sampson has 2 mid sized roles, Midsummer has 3 smaller than Bottom... anyway, you get my point.

USUALLY the smaller roles can be done with ANY type of bass, be it "profundo" or cantante or bass/bari or buffo or whatever... additionally, they can almost ALL be sung by a bass in his "natural" voice (as compared to the small roles for tenor, which tend to be pretty "sprech-y" and "barky" right?)

In virtually any given season at virtually any given opera company, I PROMISE there are more good-singing small opportunities for young basses than for any other young voice type.

The Buffo Question

Another option would be to embrace stage craft and dive into some character stuff. This basically requires the ability to let go of the thought that every sound a bass makes has to sound like Kurt Moll -- if you're 25, it's okay to sound 25. And, if you're singing Bartolo, it's okay to not sound gloriously Rene Pape-like on your high e's. Figure out how to lighten up and sing up to an e, and buffo is a cakewalk.

In the young artist world there aren't any old basses around to sing the buffo stuff. If a company's gonna perform Don Pasquale, then some young singer is gonna have to don some aging make-up. If they're gonna do Barber of Seville, someone's putting on a fat suit. May as well be you -- you'll be making money while being on stage.

If you can follow a conductor while singing patter, you can follow a conductor anytime. Now, most basses tremble at the thought of being pigeon-holed and labeled "buffo," but if this you're an actual profundo, ain't nobody gonna care if you did a Pasquale in Des Moines when you were 25.


Consider yourself lucky that you have a rare voice type. If you can make it through the "growing pains" of the voice type, then your chances for a career are better than most. Find a good teacher, be a good colleague, learn languages, study music/art, and get onstage as much as possible. Understand that life, like singing, is simply a "work in progress".

Laying Low

Thanks, guys. Love having other people do my work for me.

Expect a few weeks with pretty lame blog content. I'm a little fried. Putting one foot in front of the other, trying to carve a few work-free hours out of every day, knowing that I have about 6 weeks to recharge before the summer steamroller hits me.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Today's Trilogy

1) Some advice on staying sane
2) A resolution to Just Say No
and (drumroll please...)
3) The final unedited audition comments installment!

Take Your Family to Work

If you haven't seen Michelle Kunz's terrific article in last month's Classical Singer magazine, you owe it to yourself to take a look. If you're single and/or childless, don't be put off by the "family" reference - the scope is much broader than that.

Despite the best intentions of those of us in this business who understand how difficult and how important it is to have a personal life, the fact remains that opera (and professional music in general) is not a family-friendly sport. You can rail all you want about the injustice of that statement (and I have, believe me), but it will not change. We're not alone, mind you - professional sports, high-octane medicine and law, law enforcement - there are lots of professions that are downright hostile and/or harmful to the personal lives of their participants. Accept it and move on. If you're in it for the long haul, read and heed Michelle's valuable recommendations.

Met Auditions - The Day That Wouldn't Die

Enjoyed myself at the Tancredi talk I gave last night. Many of the questions I was asked afterward weren't about Rossini, though, but about the Regional Met auditions I helped judged in February. Happy as always to elaborate about these things, but growing more and more convinced that this is the last time I will agree to judge a competition in the same area where I live.

Audition Comments Coda

I watched about an hour of American Idol this week, and I'm struck by the lack of imagination in the panel. For the record, I tend to agree with Randy on almost everything. Paula comes across as dumb as a box of rocks (sorry if that's crude; please, no hate mail), and although Simon can generally cut through the crap and get to the truth, he needs a wider vocabulary. "Appalling" is a strong word, but if every third performance appalls him, well, something's wrong.

The last installment of our own audition comment drivel:

  • He’s not ready to inhabit something this difficult, but the interesting thing is that it never defeats him, even though he doesn’t own it.
  • The voice is just fine for a choral or specific concert application, but this guy is not an operatic animal
  • There’s something unfinished about the technique in the midvoice, but it’s a pretty unspoiled, uncomplicated sound
  • Windmill arms.
  • Delivering this scene nicely; not playing a single approach, allowing some trajectory
  • When she pushes it to forte it sort of gathers itself, but it’s still a messy footprint; the middle is shot full of holes
  • Not sure if the wide vibrato is due to nerves or if it’s systemic.
  • So many people can’t sing well in their own language.
  • I think she’d probably respond well to direction; there’s a good amount of energy and clarity, just that she’s not making lots of clear dramatic choices on her own
  • Character takes a vacation during coloratura
  • Seems comfortable singing the recit, but the Italian is heavily accented.
  • The big pashmina scarf is beautiful, but it’s seriously getting in her way. Becoming an aria about whether the scarf will stay put.
  • Operating on sheer chutzpah; needs a lot more technical grounding; right now the raw energy and enthusiasm overwhelms everything else.
  • A significant voice; she goes for broke pretty often; there’s little that scares me, for even her miscalculations aren’t fatal.
  • He is terribly nervous and/or unhappy with his performance. Is he sick?
  • Oddly enough, the voice resists speaking; a slight reverse sound envelope; is it a mannerism or a technical limitation?
  • Needs to learn how to stand there and deliver; there’s a little too much generic motion; moves forward, then back, hands out front, then gripping the piano; it’s sort of on autopilot; probably keeps him from freezing up.
  • She is animated on stage. Needs to develop. Soprano or not, doesn’t matter right now. Time will tell. Needs to improve technique and needs to polish the whole package.
  • There’s a viable instrument here, but it’s technically a few years away from being castable
  • Mozart is fine if a little more antiseptic than I anticipated, but clarity is a good thing
  • Let's check in again next year


Monday, March 13, 2006

Changing Your Mind

Thinking a lot about revisions. Preparing the talk on Tancredi for Washington Concert Opera, looking at the wildly different ending Rossini wrote for the second production.

In short, the premiere opted for a happy ending, one that focus groups, had they existed in the early 19th century, would've surely approved. Certainly it was what audiences expected. (Odd, that something called opera seria could not abide a sad ending.)

For the second set of performances, Rossini went with the original tragic ending from the Voltaire play. Not a lot of evidence exists to prove it, but it seems that audiences wouldn't stand for having their expectations tinkered with, and the happy ending was reinstated. Until Marilyn Horne got hold of it in the 1970's, but that's another story.

Gets Even Tougher in the 18th Century

Our preparation of Orpheus doesn't involve choosing an ending, but it does offer more options than your typical opera. There are a few gaps and ambiguities in the autograph score, and the door is open for interpretation. Specifically, we're looking at a transition in Act I whose abruptness could be problematic for today's audiences.

Do we jump into the breach that's already opened in this 280-year-old piece and tweak it to accommodate our modern sense of continuity? Do we slavishly stick with the original order, knowing that composers' first intentions are not always the final word? I for one have not yet decided.

The Basses Speak

A comment to a recent post asks "A question for you about us big, heavy voices that take years to develop - how do you recommend we find opportunities? ...What's a low bass (or mezzo, or Verdi baritone) to do? How do we deal with the "end of the great big American voice" syndrome?"

I forwarded these questions on to a few of my favorite bassi, and I'll post their thoughtful responses in a few days.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Vitamin D

Spring at last. At least for today. I'm not a sun worshipper - my northern European bloodlines don't allow me to last long out there. But a small dose on a March afternoon was just what the doctor ordered.

Lowering My Standards

When I started blogging, I was told that you can spot the newbies by their voluminous postings. That veterans know you have to pace yourself. But as my boss reminded me this week, pacing is something I'm not particularly good at.

I seem to have reversed the pattern. I've been dreading posting lately, putting it off because it has begun to intimidate me. A trip back in time demonstrated one of the reasons.

Early posts seemed to average a few hundred words. 400-500 on a good day. Lately, I've topped 1,000 on a frighteningly regular basis. (And I'm not including the infamous 'auditions comments' postings, because those are computer generated from previous writing.)

The other thing I've done is to take it too seriously. A peculiar talent, taking a good thing to its illogical extreme and killing it off. There's been a lot of writing/rewriting/editing/censoring going on because I'm seized by the compunction to assess everything from my readers' various points of view - students, teachers, colleagues, performers, patrons, friends, enemies. (Not really enemies of course, but paranoia keeps us humble.)

Just 'splaining this for my regular readers, in case you wonder why I may be about to turn terse :)

Random Observations

St. Lawrence String Quartet last night. Who'd have thunk that a bunch of mild-mannered Canadians could dig into Beethoven Opus 131 with such abandon? If you like your chamber music genteel, it probably wasn't for you. But Beethoven would've loved it.

Still ruminating on a piece in the NYTimes a couple of weeks ago about teenagers and 'classical' music. I'd send you there, but the link has expired. My preoccupation with the content has to do with the way that article didn't bypass the significant generational and cultural difficulties with getting "younger" patrons in the seats. Forget teenagers... I'd be happy with a bunch of 30-year-olds. And it's not about content, it's about delivery. About the experience and the trappings more than about the music.

Thank goodness no one has invented a laptop screen that's functional in full sunlight. (Or if they have, I can't afford it.) Spent my time in the sun plugged into a Tancredi recording. Have to give a linear and intelligible talk on it in a few days, and because I've never seen it (!), I have some serious catching up to do. Wasn't prepared to like it as much as I do.

Caught a bit of Forza on the Met broadcast. Made me shudder as usual. My formative experiences with the big Verdi monsters were not generally positive. Forza, Aida, Trovatore, Don Carlo, Luisa Miller, Otello in less than 5 years. I was still wrapping my mind about opera, period, and I should've been weaned on less stiff stuff. Some great music to be sure, but the lingering impression was a blur of cranky high-maintenance divas and divos, unhappy conductors, unreasonable directors, dimly lit gray stone sets, nightmarish backstage cues, and ice-cold fear because I had no idea what I was doing. Yes, I know, too harsh. But it's taken me half a lifetime to get past it and realize how drop-dead gorgeous these pieces are.

Hope it's springtime wherever you are. See you in a few days.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Technology as Metaphor

“This server is currently experiencing a problem. An engineer has been notified and will investigate.”

I haven’t posted since Sunday and was starting to feel seriously negligent, but my desperate midnight attempt to blog was met by “server problems.”

It’s a Sign.

An omen. A metaphor for the rest of my life at the moment.

The entire evening was full of thwarted technological adventures.

Job 1: Transcribe the audio recording of the interview I did this afternoon with Emil de Cou about the National Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming concerts at Wolf Trap.
Obstacle 1: The mini-disc battery quit on me, and I realized I had left the AC adapter at the office.

Job 2: Choose excerpts from last summer’s operas to submit as work samples for a grant funding proposal that’s due in a few days.
Obstacle 2: The DVD recorder won’t work without the remote, and said remote has gone missing.

Job 3: Burn CDs onto laptop in order to pull 30-second excerpts for web page audio clips.
Obstacle 3: This probably would’ve worked if I hadn’t insisted on doing it at the same time I was trying to download photos and press kits for booking sheets for next season’s chamber music series.

Job 4: Blog.
Obstacle 4: “An engineer has been notified and will investigate.”

All while nagging my son to read his “Taming of the Shrew” assignment for tomorrow, attempting to make a small contribution to my husband’s repertoire dilemma for his upcoming English choral concert, and reassuring my daughter that it’s OK if she doesn’t get everything done that she hoped to during spring break. (The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree.)

Since you’re reading this, that means the server is back up and running. Gotta love those folks at Blogger – the status page says “The offending server is being replaced and then shot.”

Tomorrow’s another day. Maybe I’ll post something of substance. Or I will put every piece of godforsaken technological crap that I own in a pile and pour gasoline on it.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Here We Go Again

Audition comments are back. Mostly because blogging is taking a back seat to my actual work, on which I am woefully and almost irretrievably behind.

Photo at the left from a break during Friday's chorus auditions, which went very well, thank you!

Comments are excerpted but unedited, randomized so that they're anonymized. (I know that's probably not a word, but the other day someone asked me to "calendarize" an appointment, so anything goes...)

  • This voice would speak better in another hall; it needs a little cushion
  • The instrument has more promise that most, and she’s fearless and focused, but there’s a lot of refinement to be gained
  • She’s reasonably animated when she speaks, but she goes into that “serious singer place" during the arias, though.
  • I hope and trust that she will come into her own. For that matter, that [insert name of conservatory here] is the right place for her.
  • I don’t really think Blondchen is her thing; she actually has more to offer in other areas, and others do the high E thing better
  • Is very busy during hard moments - almost totally drops characterization
  • A little stressed out by the coloratura, but managing; he’s more than a bit stuck physically, and it intensifies when he worries about the vocalism
  • One of the few times I’ve ever been convinced of this [Baby Doe’s Silver aria] as a viable piece of theatre
  • Singing this with investment and expression but without over-indulgence. Good for him.
  • I think the holes in the line are technical, and she’ll learn to fix them. So many great moments. Top is so strong. Great stage presence.
  • Gotta get rid of this recit.... it’s over 4 minutes long… Not going to have time for a second aria.
  • Getting spooked by the first aria. If you scare easily, you shouldn’t offer to start with something like this.
  • Doesn’t have the maturity to flesh out this scene, but the opulence of the voice goes a long way.
  • He communicates. Thank you. And phrases, thank you again.
  • Fix the French
  • Angular phrasing, has trouble at the end of phrases - interrupts her sound.
  • To her credit, it’s a big voice, but it’s finding precious few of these pitches
  • It’s a little of the clutch and stagger school, but it’s not pasted on… she really feels it this way
  • His body seems devoid of energy; totally disconnected from the singing in every way
  • The world needs basses, so let’s hope he keeps working hard
  • She’s trying so very very hard on every level with little payoff; it’s almost painful to watch
  • Coloratura is messy. Hard to tell if it’s the wobble or a moving note.
  • Getting totally flustered. I am not sure she is going to make it through this. Not ready for auditions.
  • Fix the German
  • Opening cadenza was kind of like jazz, and not in a good way
  • Has no clue what to do with her arms. Would benefit from seeing herself in a video.
  • Should not offer a bel canto aria in audition yet. Showcases all her shortcomings.
  • Will have to fight again his lyric tendencies; he has energy, but hasn’t figured how to really use it.
  • The top isn’t there yet, and neither is the coloratura; how hard is she willing to work?
  • Thought she’d sing the Mozart honestly, but even it is chock full of faux touches and compromises…throwing all of her eggs into the acting basket
  • Uh-oh. Old aria, bad habits. Like a different person singing... Is that his teacher at the piano? She looked directly at us during the first melisma to check our reactions.
  • Pulling off the voice a lot, scooping and swooping; language is chopped and diced the wrong way.
  • It’s a fairly mature old world approach, with significant accommodations, and a patchwork technique, but lots of heart.
  • Not a bad instrument, but everything is out of focus; the technique, the language, the style, the phrasing......
  • Some phrases very beautiful, other sag. Easy top. Nice ornaments. Can easily float and control top.
  • There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this voice, but she has very little to say musically, and this is such a crowded Fach.
  • Triphthong on the final E vowel.
  • Who told her that it’s OK to sing this?
  • Can’t understand a word.
  • He’s got spunk. Gotta love it.
  • Fix the Italian.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Aviaries and Tuning Forks

Maybe it was turning the calendar over to March that did it. But it's all about the birds today. The robins have come back to the bird feeder outside my office window. The cardinal that spent the entire winter bashing himself against said window has mysteriously and thankfully moved on. And the woodpecker that marks his territory every spring by drilling on the southwest corner of our house woke me up this morning.

Weather's still chilly in these parts, though. And in a way, that's good. I seem to have developed this slightly panicked visceral reaction to unseasonably warm weather in the spring. Warmth = summertime = curtain up! And we're clearly not ready yet for the last part of that equation.

The List

Chorus auditions tomorrow and Friday. Lots of spots to fill this year. SATB in all 3 shows. Ordered the supertitle projection equipment yesterday. Contacted our improv coach at Comedy Sportz about prep for Instant Opera. Got a huge and important funding proposal put in the mail yesterday afternoon. (Thanks, Danna.) Wrestled orchestra and chorus schedules to the ground. And confirmed arrangements for the Boston Brass' upcoming residency in two Fairfax County schools.

That's why I make lists. So I can check things off of them.


It looks as if we're going with A415 for our Telemann opera this summer. In attempting to explain this whole tuning craziness yesterday (not on the blog, but in person), I talked myself in circles trying to explain how we know that 1) there were a variety of pitch centers floating around Europe in the 18th century, and 2) most of them were lower than our contemporary standard of A440. The notion of organ pipes being a measurement of pitch did occur to me afterward, but I had forgotten the real evidence - tuning forks. After a little digging this morning, I realized that there are extant tuning forks from Mozart, Handel, and (it seems) even Rameau. (No Telemann, but since our Orpheus is a truly cosmopolitan work in German, French and Italian, I figure that gives us plenty of latitude)

I'm getting ahead of myself. If you're already well-versed in what I'm talking about, skip the next section. If not, spend an extra 2 minutes with me. (If you are knowledgable, I encourage you to skip it because I'd rather not hear from you when you disagree about the way I've explained it.))

Concert Pitch 101

After searching the internet for good introductions to this subject, I prefer this explanation from the University of Houston.

For singers, the decision to remain at modern (~440 cycles per second) pitch or to go lower to "Baroque" pitch is critical. Singers can look at a role and tell pretty quickly if the range (high note to low note) and tessitura (where the bulk of the pitches lie, excluding infrequent outliers) will fit their voices. But if a piece of music was written assuming a pitch of A392 (purportedly Rameau's standard), every note you see on the page actually represents a pitch that's a half-step (the next key down on the piano) lower. For pitches at the extreme ends of singers' ranges, this is a big deal. A bass may have nary a prayer of nailing some repeated high F's in an aria, but if it's sung at 392 (or even 415, which kind of splits the different), it's suddenly doable.

Welcome Back the Experts

So, if this helps reproduce what the composer was actually thinking in terms of pitch (granted, this is a guess, but a fairly well-substantiated one), why not just do it? Well, there are those pesky string and wind players in the orchestra, most of whose instruments were built around the concept of A440. Why not just tune them down? Two reasons. First, the wind instruments pretty much wouldn't be able to do it. At least not reliably. Pure physics. The second reason is a bit more complicated.

It's past 9:30am and I promised myself to be done blogging by now, but I'm going to persist. Without a lot of proofreading.

"Authentic" instruments - made with similar design and manufacture specifications to those actually used in the 17th & 18th centuries - have certain acoustical properties that are essentially different than modern instruments. The players themselves can go into tremendous detail about this. But I'll address it from the listener's point of view. The modern sound is, generally, warmer, "thicker" and more abundant in lower overtones. Lush. The older sound is clearer and higher - not in pitch, but in the way its tone and timbre make it sound.

Assemble a bunch of modern instruments. You can even tune them down in pitch a little if you'd like. Put the Telemann/Rameau/Handel score in front of them. The result is certainly beautiful, but a little tubby. Thick. Ask them to play more quietly and clearly. Adjust the bow pressure and the air column. You'll get a cleaner, quieter sound, but it will feel a little emasculated and indistinct.

Now do it with some instruments that were designed to play at this lower pitch center. The color of the sound is different, but more importantly, the tension on the strings is higher. The player can dig in with lots of guts and determination, and the resultant sound will be dramatic and energetic but not tubby. Making it possible to create lots of drama and vitality while the overall sound remains crisp and transparent.

Not exactly a linear treatise on the subject, but with any luck, the beginnings of an answer to why we (and other organizations) occasionally hire specialists who have instruments authentic to this older time period and who have developed specialized skills in playing them.

Enough. Back to the birds and the budgets!