Monday, January 29, 2007

Recommendations, Reponses & Recitals

Before I get to the main topics... this photo from last Friday evening's Discovery Series concert with the Parker String Quartet.

Rich Kleinfeldt, our onstage host, is enjoying his mid-concert Q&A with the artists. I think I snapped this photo right about the time Rich was asking violinist Karen Kim about their New Music/New Places initiative. They performed at Red, Hot & Blue (in D.C.) last August, and we wondered if it was tough to play to a bar crowd. This led to some discussion about the World's Largest Six-Pack - an important topic for both Rich and Karen, Wisconsin natives.


My post announcing the new Wolf Trap Opera Studio brought this comment/question:

I've always been curious about why companies require letters of recommendation before an audition is granted. I understand that they provide valuable input if a singer is under serious consideration, but many times I have asked my poor, sainted recommenders to jump through hoops of letters and forms, only to be denied an audition in the end. When I apply for day jobs in the business world, I am asked to provide a list of "professional references" along with contact info. That way, if the company is interested in me, they can contact some of the people on my list for a written or oral recommendation. Is there a reason why the opera world doesn't operate the same way?

Our "regular" applicants for our roster of Filene Young Artists require no letters of recommendation. We're one of the few YAPs that don't require these letters, and we get regular notes of thanks from colleagues because of it. So it wasn't without a lot of thought that we decided to require letters for our Studio applicants.

By the time a performer is a good candidate for our company, s/he usually has ammassed a small body of work collaborating with conductings/directors/coaches/mentors whose names are familiar to us. A look at the resume will reveal a handful of people who could give us their impressions of the artist in question. The opera world is a small place - the majority of the singers we hear in our regular audition tour are folks we have either heard before or heard about. (Very often in a good way.) And finally, by the time these singers have finished a handful of degrees and a YAP or two, and/or sung roles with small companies, their auditioning chop usually are a reasonable approximation of their performance potential.

Not so with singers in our Studio demographic. We have asked to receive a few words of recommendation from mentors in their academic environment so that we may use this information to fill out what is a slightly murkier picture. The resume itself is not as useful in this demographic, for often the performance experience is more an indication of the number and type of opportunities available in their academic environment than it is of their talent and/or potential. And the 10-minute audition isn't really as strong a litmus test as it is for the more experienced folks. (And the audition format isn't a flawless indicator even at the higher level.)

All of that said, I've read and written enough letters of recommendation to read between the lines. Very often, what isn't said is more telling that what is. But in the case of the studio, we're looking less for a testimony of the student's work and more for a professional opinion of the suitability of the singer for this type of program.


Another recent comment:

I can't wait to hear what you have to say about the Edirol MP3 recorder! I have wanted one to record lessons, etc. with for a while, since the R-9 came out, but haven't been able to get real feedback from a classically trained vocalist.

I adore my Edirol R-09. I've been through multiple DAT recorders and mini-discs. But nothing beats this. Easy to use, records in high-end WAV format or compressed MP3, and downloads instantaneously to your computer (and subsequently to the iPod).
And if you're feeling particularly down on yourself that day, there's a nifty little reverb option that plays your recordings back with varying levels of acoustic sweetening. :)

Not Exactly a Tough Crowd

Played my recital for the first time yesterday in Arlington. For a wildly inappropriately supportive audience. Gratifying if a little embarrassing. Will be doing the same program in Pennsylvania in a couple of weeks.

A few observations about my recent return to the solo piano repertoire:

I have to look at the music even when I don't need it. I've spent 40 years playing the piano while I look at any number of other things - the music, the conductor, the singer, the instrumentalist I'm accompanying. When my eyes catch a glimpse of my hands on the keyboard, my conscious mind freaks out. Omigod, what am I doing? How do my hands do that? What if they miss?

I am hyper-aware of the audience. And not in a good way. When I speak to an audience, I find myself constantly reading their reactions and adjusting my talk accordingly. On Sunday, I found myself doing this with the music. And sometimes veering dangerously far from my original musical intentions because I felt I sensed boredom or inattention.

I lapse too easily into faux pianism. I spent sufficient time wood-shedding some difficult technical stuff. By the time I got to this weekend, I could almost always nail these passages in rehearsal, at a variety of speeds, in a variety of conditions. But I have just played too many opera reductions. In performance, I tended to sacrifice some accuracy for an approximation of an overall musical goal. I should be able to reconcile the two, but I had a lot of trouble resisting temptation, especially in the big 19-th century rep. Playing fast and loose with chord voicing, arpeggio configurations, and pedal technique, even when I didn't have to.

I made my peace with Rachmaninov. I've spend 35 years running from Russian music. Played 3 Rachmaninov preludes (the easiest ones....) and enjoyed the heck out of them.

I had a marvelous time.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"She really is pretty nuts."

The vacation was pretty much a bust. Five days with the flu. And a chunk of time dealing with some deadlines that weren't met before I left the office. (Yes, what part of "a lack of planning on your part doesn't constitute an emergency on my part" is so hard to understand?) Grrrr.

Surprised to see myself quoted in last Sunday's Washington Post in an article about arts organizations using podcasts and the like to reach out to a new demographic. Can't say we're ever unhappy to see ourselves in print, but it was jarring.

The podcasts were new in 2006 (I did 3 of them - see sidebar), and although the intention was a good one and the feedback has been tremendously positive, they felt ill-prepared and not as thoughtful as I would've liked. (That's what happens when you squeeze yet another thing into days that are already bursting at the seams.) The approach is casual and irreverent - which, in context can be perfectly disarming. But out of context.... well, let's say I sounded like a bit more of a loose cannon than I'd like. But... if it gets just a few more people to reconsider closing their minds to this great thing called opera, well then I guess it's a well-calculated risk.

More important, though, is the need to correct a few of the misconceptions that the article leaves with readers. In bouncing back and forth between discussions of podcasts and internet radio, it created a good deal of confusion. Wolf Trap is most definitely not using any live or unauthorized recordings as part of these podcasts. We've used only 3o-second clips from commercially-released recordings and have rigidly adhered to all industry standards and to our agreements with our musicians. If you were to download my discussion of Telemann's Orpheus (the origin of the crazy lady above - photo by Carol Pratt), you'd pretty much get 5 minutes of me talking. More informative and entertaining than you can possibly imagine. Yes indeed. But containing no audio from our performances.

Honesty and Empathy

The tall order of the week. Finally in full swing with audition feedback requests, which have been steadily trickling in over the last few weeks. About 60 requests to date. If you've placed a request, please be patient. Singers tell us that we're one of the very few places that offers helpful criticism, and I feel (sometimes too keenly) an obligation to do it well. And that means being frank and humane at the same time.

Being frank because, well, it's in short supply. It's so much easier not to say difficult things. Being honest takes a fair amount of time and a lot of psychic energy. You run the risk of getting people pretty pissed off. (Even when they've asked for your opinion.) And you run the significant risk of being all wrong.

And being empathetic, because criticism can't be constructive if it makes the recipient feel so threatened that s/he can't take it to heart. And because life is hard enough already.

January 23, 1986

A happy birthday to my favorite 21-year-old! Neither of us looks a day older than we did in the spring of 1986 :) (I have, though, ditched the big '80's hair...)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Vacation Time

A short post this week - and a slightly more personal one than typical - as befits my current state of leisure.

The last couple of days have been spent in the reflected glow of Physics Science Fair Hell, but my son's project is due tomorrow, and this too shall pass. Otherwise, I'm spending a majority of my days at the piano, which is something I haven't done for a very long time.

Those of us who work in the music business and who also have something of a history as musicians ourselves have to reconcile our two identities. Even though I spent 15 years as a working musician (opera coach, pit pianist, recital accompanist, piano bar entertainer...), I never had a whiff of an aspiration of becoming a professional soloist. I have neither the chops nor the patience - not to mention the temperament - to spend that many solitary hours at the keyboard. But for those 15 years I played. And played and played. All day almost every day. (And almost never practiced, except in grad school. Shhhh. Do as I say, not as I do.)

So although I miss making music on a daily basis, I'm thrilled to be able to make a contribution to the business from the other side of a desk. For a number of years I believed that it was possible (and preferable) to set aside the piano, exploring the many creative possibilities of artistic administration. But what I miss about being a musician has absolutely nothing to do with the music business.

I realize this will sound a little "woo-woo" (what my favorite yoga teacher used to call the fringe element in her own business), but bear with me. There's something almost meditative about playing the piano, and I miss that the most. I am the queen of multi-tasking, and the office environment in which I spend my days has allowed me to take this tendency to extreme. So it's no surprise that most of the things that I don't like about my life are due to haste and shallowness of concentration. Too many things, too fast, in too random a fashion. This is not news. (As a matter of fact, a colleague pointed out a recent study that showed that a multi-tasking brain functions more poorly than a brain on drugs.) As we all know, music exists in time, and there's a reassuring suspension of time at the keyboard. The perfect antidote to the runaway train that is the rest of my day.

No, I won't romanticize this much further, for I well know that anyone who entertains the idea of sustaining music as a profession soon suffers the frustrations, deadlines, and conflicting demands that all of our face in our work. But I'm more convinced every year that it's in my best interest not to deny this part of me. It will always be just a pasttime, for I'm far too humbled by the prodigious talent all around me to pretend that I could ever compete on a professional level. But its place as recreation doesn't diminish its importance.

I preach this to singers all of the time, and I so rarely take my own advice. There are many people who aren't destined for an international career, and there are more variables playing into this determination that you might think. The raw equipment to be sure. More than a little luck and a tremendous amount of hard work. But there are temperamental and lifestyle considerations that can (and often should) derail the career of someone who otherwise would seem to have it all together. I perpetually counsel these folks not to give up on music. Satisfying local, regional, and other hybrid types of careers abound. I always felt that I had taken my own advice when I chose this, my most recent incarnation, as an administrator. What I had forgotten was that it is permissible, even advisable, to keep playing. And to try not to apologize for the fact that there are occasional dropped notes and miscalculated phrases. And to try very hard not to apologize for the fact that I'm going to (horrors...) use printed music for my upcoming recital. (There are enough hours in the day to dust off my chops and make some music, but not nearly enough brain cells available to memorize it all.)

Here's the menu for this week:
Bach's Goldberg Variations (only 10 of 30... don't be too impressed)
Lizst's transcription of Schumann's Widmung
Fauré Nocturne No. 1
Debussy Prelude Des pas sur la neige
Chopin Nocturne Op. 72 No. 1
Brahms Ballade Op. 118 No. 3, Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2, Capriccio Op. 76 No. 1
Rachmaminoff Preludes Op. 32 No. 8, 10 & 12
Musto Emma’s Waltz (from Five Piano Rags)
Gershwin Prelude I
Brubeck Summer Song (arr. McPartland)

I've only picked stuff that I love to play and that I can pull together in 4 weeks. A clear organizing principle, and one in which amateurs can indulge:)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Adventures in Blogging

Each day a few more of you are finding your way to this new blog address. Welcome back!

I had an exciting and unfortunate time in cyberspace at the end of December when I followed Blogger's instructions to change the URL address...

See, I had intended to phase out the blog during 2006, so its address was But I recently caved to pressure from various corners to continue writing, and it seemed clearer to delete the 2006 from the name and the URL. Blogger says to change the address to the new URL, thereby releasing the old one. Then create a new blog, name it with the old address, and put in a re-direct. It took about 30 seconds to navigate through the windows to reclaim the old address, and it was gone. I have since read on several forums that blog spammers have automated programs that claim addresses as soon as they're released. If you end up at the previous blog address, you ostensibly find links to online gambling sites. (Hmmm... I always knew that opera production was a sophisticated form of gambling...)

Casting and Scheduling

Speaking of re-directs, we've had a series of changes to our first draft of the summer schedule, repertoire, and casting, and much of the last 2 weeks has been spent in pursuit of a number of different configurations. I think we're almost finally ready to commit to one of them, and finally be able to make some real pre-production progress. Looks like we might have an 18th-century opera, a 19th-century opera, and a 21st-century opera!

What's Ahead?

I'll be posting about once a week through the rest of the winter (or what is passing for winter in this freakishly mild January). Here's what will be preoccupying us during much of that time:

This week

  • Finish engaging singers, conductors, directors, and designers.
  • Make offers to music staff and production staff.
  • Start replies to singers who have requested feedback on last fall's auditions. (Feedback requests were accepted starting January 1, and I've already received over 40. If you're waiting to hear, please be patient.)

Next week - I'm on vacation! For the first time since August 2005. (I know, how stupid is that...)

End of January

  • Application deadline for the new Wolf Trap Opera Studio.
  • Review applications and schedule singers for auditions in February.
  • More audition feedback emails!
  • Contracts, schedules, pre-production meetings, cut lists and editions, renting orchestra parts...
  • (And practicing the piano feverishly... I'm doing a solo recital for the first time in 21 years. It's very hush-hush, though. I'm not telling anyone and I hope no one comes.)


  • Write the Spring 2007 WTOC Newsletter
  • Auditions for studio artists and for Magic Flute chorus.
  • WTOC 2007 season will be announced - tickets to go on sale early March!

Finally, just for fun...

Theatrical Logic

In is Down, Down is Front, Out is Up, Up is Back, Off is Out, On is In, and of course, Right is left, and Left is Right.

A drop shouldn't. A prop doesn't. A cove has no water. Tripping is OK.

A running crew rarely gets anywhere. A trap will not catch anything. Strike is work. (In fact, a lot of work.)

A green room, thank goodness, usually isn't.

Now that you are fully versed in theatrical terms... Break a leg! (But not really.) (Actually, in opera it's "In bocca al lupo!", which takes on additional significance when you work at a place named for wolves:))