Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Catching up on last week's newspapers... got more than a little testy after reading this in the Post. Responsible as I am for mounting productions in a 380-seat house, paragraphs like this one left me cheering:

Chamber opera, like chamber music, exists (among other reasons) to remind big-time makers of big opera what the core meaning of the form is. In the case of opera, chamber opera reminds us of the importance of drama, character and interaction. Done well, it is an antidote to the blustery, stand-and-sing opera style into which so many large companies inevitably devolve. It is a purifying, refreshing form, like reading poetry after a Dickens novel. Couldn't have said it better myself.

But then Mr. Kennicott also said of last week's Terrace Theatre performance of Turn of the Screw:

The importance of this production is how it highlights the crying need for the addition of more chamber opera to the city's diet.

Well, it's not exactly a starvation diet... A few years ago Mr. Kennicott himself wrote of "some of the best, most innovative and theatrically experimental opera in the area - in small, loving shows of interesting repertoire presented at the tiny Barns of Wolf Trap". A mere 15 miles from the Potomac.

Mechanical Failure

I've been following the Grendel excitement in Los Angeles. It's not Schadenfreude, honestly it isn't. Wouldn't wish this much trouble on anyone. But it's hard to relate, since the budget of this single production is higher than our entire last two seasons. Anyway, my favorite player in this saga (in which the true drama, as so often is the case, is backstage...) is Los Angeles Opera COO Edgar Baitzel. He was quoted in Saturday's NY Times: Grendel's technical problems are "so out of control" that "you would need to have God as a general director" to have avoided the cancellation.

Machines of all sorts conspire against us, too. At least we don't have computer-driven turntables...

Xerox machines can smell fear. Or at least urgency. We need to make some funky-sized copies of the orchestra books for Orpheus, and the copier will have nothing of it.

And my car quit yesterday. While I was spending Memorial Day waiting for a tow truck (is that better than spending it in the office, where I was supposed to be?), I had a flashback to my first summer at Wolf Trap. A hot summer day 21 years ago, also a holiday (July 4, 1985), and my beloved Volkswagon bug gave it up. I was freaked out about not getting to rehearsal on time, and I was stranded on the shoulder of the Beltway in 95-degree heat. And I was 2 months pregnant - just didn't know it yet. But in retrospect, it explains why I sat there and cried for a very long time. In comparison, yesterday was merely irritating.

Conspicuous Blogging

I confess, I'm writing this in rehearsal. Eurydice is being killed by the snake. Repeatedly.

I can't tell if our artists are curious or anxious about the blog. Three of them came up to me in the last half hour to ask if I was blogging. (You know who you are:) I'm sure some of you will take me up on my offer to step in as guest bloggers this summer!)

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Opera People

Enjoying a busman's holiday. Here on business, visiting Opera Theatre of St. Louis, but I really feel like I'm playing hookey*. (Or at least that's what we used to call it.) Last night, a huge amount of fun was had at Barber of Seville (photo by Ken Howard; WTOC alum Kate Lindsey with her Barber colleague Hugh Russell,).

It continually amazes me how small the opera business is. In addition to several generations of ex-Trappers trodding the boards here (Kate Lindsey & Josh Winograde in Barber; Ian Greenlaw in Hansel; Scott Hendricks & Robyn Redmon in Jane Eyre; Carolyn Betty & Jennifer Aylmer in Street Scene), WTOC conductor/director/designer/coach colleagues (Dean Williamson, Stephen Lord, James Robinson, Michael Albano, Erhard Rom, Cameron Anderson, Ben Malensek), and former apprentice staff (coach Justina Lee), I caught up with some other OTSL staff members who had Wolf Trap connections spanning the last 25 years.

During my first few years in this business, I wondered if I would ever fit in. The personality types that surrounded me just seemed so strange that it always felt like being in a very foreign country. In retrospect, most of the disorientation came from insecurity and culture shock, from feeling as if I’d never belong. And truthfully, those first blurry years at Washington Opera were full of very cranky divas and divos whose whims seemed impossible to satisfy.

Since that time, though, I've come to treasure opera people as one of the biggest assets of this work we do. I suppose most of us, if we're lucky, come to feel that way about our colleagues. Of course, there are exceptions.... :) But largely, the challenging lifestyle and the way not-for-profit salaries weed out anyone who might be in it just for the money(!), and the underlying and abiding affection for the music give us many important things in common. (And I promise I'll re-read this paragraph next time I want to throttle someone at work.)

Walking Through Walls

I must report that I've received a handful of emails responses to my previous post on spike tape on the rehearsal floor. A few from grateful stage managers, and a few in the category of True Confessions from singers, the most memorable of which read:

I can never figure out the tape on the floor. I walk around the stage and hope that my singing or "acting" distracts the stage management from the fact that I just stood and sang on a fireplace. I am waiting for the day when a director humiliates me in front of everyone by announcing that I'm clearly making my entrance through a wall. Somehow, it ends up working itself out in tech week!

So, if you're a geographically challenged singer, take heart. You may escape undetected.


Does anyone say "playing hookey" any more? Word sleuths may appreciate this, from word-detective.com:

"Hookey" (also spelled "hooky") apparently developed from the colloquial phrase "hooky-crooky" common in the early 19th century, which meant "dishonest or underhanded." The connection between the two phrases becomes clearer when we recall that to "play hookey" properly, one had to pretend to go to school. The child would head out the door at the proper time, schoolbooks in hand, and only when safely out of sight of home would their true itinerary become evident. Of course, the child then often spent the day dreading detection and capture by nearly any grownup, most especially the local Truant Officer.

Alas, even some of us workaholics still spend days off dreading detection and capture by the grown-up version of the Truant Officer.

Have a great Memorial Day weekend.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Spike Tape and Sound Clips

No, it's not an elaborate game of hopscotch. It's just the rehearsal room floor. If you've never been on the upstage side of the footlights, you might be interested to know what the performers spend weeks looking at before they get onstage.

We're in our beautiful rehearsal space (natural light! air conditioning!) next door to the theatre, and the spike tape on the floor represents the contours of the set. Green is Acts I and III (the garden; with the music stands representing vertical panels in the set), and pink is Act II (the Underworld).

Now, it's a blessing that I personally never have to navigate a rehearsal floor plan, let alone a real opera set. I'm spectacularly bad at translating two-dimensional symbols into real objects. (I'm reminded of when my husband was trying to navigate our rented 30-foot RV through the streets of San Francisco (don't ask...), and every time I'd say "Turn right at the next street", he'd scream, "But you didn't tell me it went straight uphill!") Anyway, more power to those talented singers who aren't surprised when they get onto the stage and see real steps and rakes and other obstacles. And bravo to the stage managers who decode the ground plan and spend long hours measuring and affixing all that tape to the floor.

Good Things Really Do Come in Small Packages. Really.

This, yesterday, from Drew McManus over at Adaptistration, after his recent visit to Chicago Opera Theatre. He admits that he's "never had a really memorable small budget opera experience." Goes on to mention COT's small budget that's exponentially bigger than ours. Sigh... It's the best things that come in small packages, my friend. No room for waste, for excess, for ego, for negative energy. Sleek, streamlined, clean and mean. :) Brian Dickie and I will convert you if it's the last thing we do.

Hear It For Yourself

I've been relentless in my enthusiasm for Herr Telemann's Orpheus. I believe I may have tamed technology enough to offer you a few 30-second samples.

If they don't work, send me an email and give me the bad news. If they do work, there'll be more.

Dr. Seuss Flowers

I will persist in foisting upon you random pictures of my garden. Since I don't get to visit it in person a lot during the summer, its presence on these blog pages is comforting.

Today's featured purple alliums are what one of my neighbors calls Dr. Seuss flowers. They multiply every spring, popping up randomly and making a mockery of any delusion of discipline in the garden.

Monday, May 22, 2006

More Chamber Opera

Off to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre this evening for Britten's Turn of the Screw. The Terrace is such a beautiful place for chamber opera, and it's so rarely done there any more. The economics are daunting. Hard not to hemorrage money with only 500 seats available per performance. (I should know... we're nuts enough to mount full productions in a theatre with 375 seats...) My first full opera season in Washington included opera at the Terrace - 16 (or was it 18??) performances of Don Pasquale and about a dozen of Poppea. I'd admit that all of this happened 21 years ago, but that would make me sound like a geezer...

Hear It For Yourself

The cast sang through Orpheus from top to bottom today. One bit of good news is that the running time may not be quite as long as we had thought. And I know I sound like a broken record, but who knew Telemann could write like this? (Only partly kidding.) I'm so determined to get the message across that I'm working on putting multiple 30-second audio clips on my own website so I can provide links to them here on the blog. Check back in a few days - my geek son has promised that he'll help me achieve this.

Forever Young

Thinking ahead to Figaro (actually just working on the scenic budget, but that counts, doesn't it?) ... and I was particularly happy to see this article by Patrick Summers, music director of Houston Grand Opera, and a Wolf Trapper himself. Here's a taste (but you really should read the whole thing:)

Perhaps The Marriage of Figaro has endured simply because its music is so beautiful. But I suspect there is another reason: who among us cannot recall just one memorable day of our youth, whether real or imagined, which evolved into dusk, and during which we experienced disguises, jokes, tears, pain, forgiveness, and laughter at all of it by the time we slept? All too soon, of course, we learn that things don't always wrap up so neatly. Still, when it comes to the memories of our youth--those memories that we sometimes alter to our liking--that kind of Mozartian magic can exist.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Das Zauberklavier

Gotta love those high tech labor-saving devices like the computer (well, it's supposed to be labor-saving) and the washing machine (not high tech, but definitely high on my list). This week's favorite is the digital piano.

This morning the piano movers dropped off a Yamaha Clavinova (actually, it's probably a Klavinova in this case:)) for the rehearsal room. Again, not exactly high-tech (they've been around for quite a few years), but most definitely labor-saving. Or at least effort-saving.

The difficulty of rehearsing an opera that's going to be performed at baroque pitch is that the printed music assumes modern standard tuning of A440. But when you sit down at the piano and play through an aria in C major, the result is a half-step higher than the way it's going to sound once the orchestra arrives. So in order for the singers to acclimate themselves to the actual performance pitches, the pianist must play everything one half-step lower (B major in this example).

Now we coaches have all learned how to do this. All of us worth our salt can do it. But transposing a 3-hour opera is quite a task. Intriguing in a compulsive, masochistic way, but less attractive in practice. Being free to play the score simply as written frees up some critical brain cells to focus on articulation, voicing, diction feedback for the singers, not to mention planning where we're going to go for the lunch break.

Klavinova to the rescue. Not entirely satisfactory, for it doesn't quite feel and sound like a real piano. But the tradeoff is worth it. The press of a button, and A410 is accomplished. Call us lazy. We can take it. It's totally worth getting up at 7:30 on a Saturday morning and opening the rehearsal hall for the movers.

Idol - The Last Post

Sort of stopped following American Idol. I was pretty intrigued this winter, but lost interest in the last month or so. Partially because I just got too busy. But also because that competition, at its earlier levels, was about the raw talent and energy that those folks brought to it. Then it seemed to turn a corner and be all about how the pop music machine (not to mention the TV culture) could manipulate the performers.

Butts in the Seats wrote a few weeks ago about Idol.

I wonder what the impact the perception of easy fame might have on the performing arts and their associated training programs... I would be interested to know if anyone associated with a training program or even a performing arts organization has seen a rise in either numbers of students/auditioners/applicants, etc with completely unrealistic conception of how easily success will come to them. I would extend the same question in regard to attitude/perception. Perhaps there aren't significantly more people appearing on your door, but do the ones you are interacting with believe their route will be shorter with less dues to pay/shorter time performing for peanuts than they had in the past?

The question isn't surprising. But the answer (at least from my perspective) sort of is. Maybe I'll be proved wrong in a few years, or maybe this is an actual phenomenon that hasn't reached our doorstep yet. But the folks I talk to don't even think of the Idol experience extrapolating to the classical vocal world. The ability of the TV show to turn the girl/guy-next-door into an overnight success is firmly entrenched in the pop culture world.

I wonder if high expectations and low tolerance for disappointment is going to rob the arts of some real great talent that doesn't give itself time to develop and come into its own.

There's more truth here. But I somehow think that's it's more personality- and work ethic-driven. But I think the short-attention-span and skewed expectations are more a problem of the audience and the classical music business than they are of the developing performer.

Day off tomorrow. Back on Monday - have a great weekend.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


(Yes, it's a word:))

Don't ever let anyone persuade you that language study (and, to a certain extent, a natural and intuitive facility with languages) isn't critical to a singing career. This should fall in the "duh" category, but I'm surprised how often I meet people on both sides of the footlights who underestimate its importance. The range of repertoire staring us in the face for the next three months is a case in point. English, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Catalan, Basque.

The polyglot approach is truly in effect for the next few Orpheus-filled weeks. When I first learned of this opera in German, French and Italian, I was dubious, thinking that it must sound fragmented, even disjointed. The odd thing is that it makes perfect sense. Narrative scenes and arias in German give way to pastoral French arias and choruses, and ultimately to (of course) Italian rage arias. An oversimplification, of course, but it gives you an idea of the underlying structure.

And, even more to my surprise (and I shouldn't admit this...), Telemann's music is a powerful unifying force. I wasn't previously a fan. I really didn't know the vocal works, and the various instrumental concerti and sonati sort of blended together with all of the forgettable Vivaldi I'd ever heard. (An unfortunate byproduct of all of the unimaginative and truncated "classical" radio playlists we've all been exposed to.) But this is real stuff. Lyric, gutsy, tragic, funny and touching. And the vocal casting is more Mozart than Handel. A lyric baritone hero in love with a light lyric mezzo-soprano, a jealous dramatic coloratura soprano wild woman, a light tenor best friend/sidekick besotted with a charming soubrette, and a basso guardian of the Underworld.

All of this in one room, while the Spanish Treasure concert music wafts from across the hall. (Anyone know a Basque language expert in the Washington, DC area?.....)


Congratulations to Wolf Trap alum Carolyn Betty, one of the finalists selected for Seattle Opera's Debut Wagner Competition!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

And.... We're Off!

Orpheus officially kicks off on Thursday, but I'm ecstatic to have Orpheus stage management and music staff already in the building. Running a small company is great because it affords the opportunity to continue to dabble in being on the production side of the business. During the winter and spring, my inner music director and latent stage manager tendencies emerge as we do preliminary work on preparing upcoming productions. But by May, there's nothing more satisfying than handing everything over to the true professionals.

Rehearsals began yesterday for Steven Blier's Spanish Treasure recital (June 3). How I wish I had even a drop of Latin blood in me... This is such gorgeous stuff.


If you've been visiting these pages regularly (and since stats indicate about 2,000 hits a week, I guess someone is reading...), I apologize again for the pitiful showing in these last few weeks. The reasons for my inattention are numerous and boring. But we're back, the summer season has officially started, and I encourage you to check in regularly. Posts will be shorter, but will appear every day or two. And if my philosophical ramblings aren't to your taste, rest assured that summer affords little time for such indulgences. Summertime postings are all about getting the music to the stage. (If you haven't surfed last season's blog, and you have a few minutes, here it is.)

(Costume sketch for Orasia, Queen of Thrace, courtesy of designer Martin T. Lopez)

Monday, May 08, 2006

Mental Fatigue

Still on a bit of an unintended blog slow-down. I promise to be back soon with something approaching enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, I'm resorting to parasitic blogging... In the absence of any original or critical thinking on my part, I'm pointing you elsewhere:

Go here for the Philadelphia Inquirer's online multi-media review of the Curtis Orchestra - I'm sure the link is about to expire, but maybe it'll be there for another few days. I'm intrigued but not entirely sold. Adaptistration describes this new venture: Of course, putting music online is hardly a new concept but for what ever reasons, traditional newspapers have been reluctant to take full advantage of all the online medium has to offer (that, in-and-of-itself, is a large, separate discussion). Regardless, the Philadelphia Inquirer takes the first timid step into a new era of cultural reporting which allows journalist and reader to share in the same experience.

Congratulations to the inimitable Steven Blier, just named Coach of the Year by Classical Singer magazine. Playbill's story is lovely, but a bit understated. It's a nice companion to last week's Los Angeles Times article on collaborative pianists. (If you ever are seized by the desire to know more about all of this, bookmark the Collaborative Piano Blog. I particularly like the Skills and Preferred Skills for the Collaborative Pianist.) Read it all, and realize that none of it begins to approach the magic that Steve works with his colleagues and his audiences.

Set model photo above courtesy of Martin T. Lopez. Orpheus Act II: The Underworld.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

It's a Mystery...

The scene shop is up and running, putting Orpheus on its feet. Costume shop not far behind. The set model photo above is courtesy of designer Martin T. Lopez. Stagecraft is where the magic of the theatre truly remains for me. I know too much about the music sometimes - hard to stop from over-thinking the balance, intonation, tempo, interpretation. But after all these years I am still as stupid as they come about how our designers make magic on the stage. And because of that, I am entranced.

I love what director Lawrence Edelson has to say about Telemann's Orpheus. He notes that it's not a "typical" baroque opera in that the gods are not omnipresent, and there's no deus-ex-machina (literally, "god from the machine", referring to the stage machinery that facilitated the appearance of the gods in the theater). But we feel the strong influence of Cupid (Eros) and Dionysos (Bacchus) throughout the story.

The characters' emotions and experiences are intense, and intimately felt in a way that is often dissipated in many Baroque operas with their adherence to traditional conventions of the period. Orpheus explores and juxtaposes different ways in which people feel and act on love. What does the relationship between Orpheus and Euridyce represent in this context? When we see this relationship play out before our eyes, how does that inform our view of the other relationships played out onstage? The answers might be different for each person who falls under the spell of this fascinating work, but surely anyone who has loved will find someone (if not many characters) in this opera with whom they can relate.

Acting Like a Grown-Up

Meetings. Lots of meetings them lately, somehow. Happy to get them out of the way before rehearsals start.
Otherwise, these are days filled with hundreds of small preparatory tasks that just fly by. And nine or ten hours later it's hard to imagine what in the world I did all day. I think it's called being nibbled to death by ducks.... Sometimes I have to go straighten up the paper in the copy room or rearrange my piles of scores just to feel that I've done something tangible :)

Good stuff in this morning's Foundation Board meeting, though. Wolf Trap's Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts reported on a recent study that demonstrates the tremendous impact that high-quality and high-intensity arts engagement has on the lucky preschoolers they work with.

Hate to Blog and Run...

... but I'm off to volunteer at the high school. U.S. non-professional premiere of Rufus Norris' Sleeping Beauty. My son is running sound effects. My week has been full of forest noises, sword fights, bells, fairy dust, burps and farts...

"Drawn from Charles Perrault’s original story, we see what happens after the Princess is woken by baffled and clumsy Prince. Of course they get married and have children, but the Prince’s mother is an Ogress with a taste for human flesh, and the fairy’s problems are just beginning…”

Monday, May 01, 2006

Coming Back

Apologies for the week-long hiatus. I tried to post a few times but wasn’t able to find my voice, as they say. I’ve addressed a lot of different topics here, but this blog, unlike many others, has never been an extremely personal vehicle. Well, personal maybe, but not private. So I couldn’t find a way to further address the loss of the five musicians at Indiana University. Because even though it was primarily a professional loss – aside from believing in Robert enough to bring him to Wolf Trap, I never really got to know him – the way in which I responded to this whole terrible thing was not as a colleague, but as a parent. And that’s a place I simply can’t “go” in this forum.

The Task Ahead

Life does go on, and perversely, the most urgent task feels heartless and callous. There are four roles in our summer season that are now unfilled. We start rehearsals for our first opera in two weeks, and it’s my responsibility to deliver up a full cast.

A wise colleague said in an email last week that we really should examine this whole “show must go on” thing. We’ve all been there. We’ve all honored someone’s memory by forging ahead and doing the best damn job possible. There’s significant truth and healing in doing so. But perspective must be kept and priorities must be clear.

We are fortunate to have an extremely loyal and big-hearted base of Wolf Trap Opera alumni. In the past they’ve helped us fill last-minute vacancies created by health problems and other emergencies. And it seems that once again, we will able to turn to an “old” friend. I’m being vague right now, but in a few days it should be official, and I’ll give you the details.

For the Love of It

Went down to University of Virginia on Friday to catch the Virginia Silhoo’ettes’ spring concert. (The Sils are a terrific group of young women that just happens to include my daughter.) As some of you know, I’m an unrepentant college a cappella junkie, and I’m addicted to the energizing and exhausting blast of youthful energy and talent that permeates these concerts.

Probably only someone who works in the music business could take the pleasure that I do in the way that these a cappella groups embody the best of amateur music. Preparing for careers in teaching, law, public service, and other areas, these singers just love to sing, and they throw themselves into it body and soul.

Bob Fincheimer Rules

On another family note… Happy Birthday today to my amazing 16-year-old son. He just happens to have a blog of his own, but because he’s a geek, it’s usually full of computer programming acronyms that I don’t understand:)