Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Fox, The Star & The Flute

I know it didn’t look much like summer here in Virginia this week, but this too shall pass. To conjure up some heat, here, finally, is information on our 2007 season! More details will be found at www.wolftrap.org/opera in a couple of days.

First, two operas in new productions at The Barns, our unique indoor chamber venue:

Unfaithfully based on the comedy by Ben Jonson

Music by John Musto
Libretto by Mark Campbell

Friday, June 22 at 8 pm
Sunday, June 24 at 2 pm
Friday, June 29 at 8 pm
Sunday, July 1 at 2 pm

Wolf Trap commissioned Volpone in 2001, and John Musto and Mark Campbell hit a home run with the premiere in March 2004. Since then we’ve been asked many times about bringing it back, and we’re happy that this year’s audition tour netted us a great cast. Because the premiere performances were outside of our normal summer season, and because it sold out, many folks missed Volpone at its premiere. Don’t miss it this time – tickets go on sale next Friday, March 9.

The critics had a good time, too. Here’s the propaganda:

  • "A masterpiece was born.” The Washington Post

  • “Volpone employs everything from Broadway to bel canto in a ferociously clever musical adaptation of Ben Jonson’s play. Mr. Musto is not afraid to entertain." The New York Observer

  • “An effervescent black comedy… witty, unsentimental, and thoroughly engaging.” The Wall Street Journal

  • “…a caffeinated score by John Musto and a rhyme-happy libretto by Mark Campbell…” Opera News

John and Mark believe that comedy is in short supply in today’s new opera climate. They’ve set about correcting that imbalance, and you’ll be so glad they did.


Emmanuel Chabrier

Friday, July 27 at 8 pm
Sunday, July 29 at 2 pm
Friday, August 3 at 8 pm
Sunday, August 5 at 2 pm

It’s difficult to be silly and elegant at the same time, but this French operetta manages it. I became acquainted with L’√Čtoile when I saw the production Glimmerglass Opera and New York City Opera shared in 2001. It immediately went on our “short list” of pieces to consider for Wolf Trap when the casting was right. And this year, it certainly is.

Recitals with Steven Blier

Steve comes back for his 14th consecutive summer. He’s a brilliant colleague, a musical inspiration, and an important mentor for an entire generation of Wolf Trappers. 2007 brings us a Tale of Two Cities:

Berlin Night Life
Saturday, June 2 at 8 pm

  • Steve’s description: Songs from Berlin's theaters and cabarets, exploring the sexual mores and political currents of Berlin during the Roaring 20s.

  • The cast will also introduce us to the song of the Comedian Harmonists – an internationally famous, all-male ensemble that was one of the most successful musical groups in Europe leading up to World War II.

Manhattan Diaries
Saturday, August 11 at 8 pm

  • Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin, John Musto and others.

  • “I Happen to Like New York”… “Take Me Back to Manhattan,”… “Down in the Depths on the Ninetieth Floor” ...

Mozart’s Magic Flute

Filene Center (outdoor amphitheatre)
Friday, August 17 at 8 pm
Saturday, August 18 at 8pm

Flute is back, after an unprecedented 8-year absence from the Filene Center stage! It’s a great piece for us, for so many reasons, and even I am finding myself looking forward to this, my 9th production. Flute is magical when the sun sets over the hill, and it’s possibly the perfect opera for our roster of young artists.

An entire generation of singers began their careers with Flute. Nathan Gunn, the Papageno for this season’s Metropolitan Opera production, first bounded onto the stage as the feathered birdcatcher in 1994 at the Filene Center. Dawn Upshaw sang her first Pamina at Wolf Trap in 1985. Mary Dunleavy launched her young career as the Queen of the Night here in 1994, in the same production that featured Eric Owens (of recent Grendel fame at Los Angeles Opera) as Sarastro.

Special Concert Event!

in concert
The Filene Center
Thursday, June 28 at 8:15 pm

Alums Denyce Graves and Simon O’Neill return to the Trap to sing Carmen and Jose. Members of our 2007 Filene Young Artist roster fill out the rest of the cast. The brilliant Stephen Lord conducts the National Symphony Orchestra. It doesn’t get much better than this.

And, of course...

Instant Opera!
Children's Theatre-in-the-Woods
July 17-21 at 11:15 am

Opera by "Mad Libs!” Improv opera for kids and their parents.
Last year's masterpieces included Sponge Bob Steals the Princess, Trouble in Disneyworld, and The Penguin and the Troll. If I weren’t in the cast myself, I wouldn’t believe that this could be done.

The audience fills in the Mad Libs blanks: Once upon a time in __________, _________ and __________ did ___________ every day, until ______________ came along to _____________.

As in… “Once upon a time in a castle, a bat and a princess ate green eggs and ham every day until SpongeBob Square Pants came along to steal the princess!”

We sing and play furiously for the next 10-15 minutes, alternating improvised recitative with snippets of standard arias.

That’s it for now! Next week, an update on the Wolf Trap Opera Studio.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Attention Span of a Gnat

A few links today. With apologies for the fact that I seem to be incapable of a clear, linear thought.

First, this on the PBS blog "Mediashift" - some thoughts on the "Attention Economy." Very much on my mind at this time of year when we're trying to put together season marketing materials. If I never had to write any more ad or brochure copy in my life, it wouldn't be too soon.

I have great respect and not a small amount of amazement at people who choose to do PR and marketing. Scrambling to get the public's attention is not something I ever envisioned myself doing, since I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to escape detection. Never considered myself a true introvert, but I was re-thinking this when I found myself agreeing to a surprising degree with this recent Washington Post article.

I don't mean to overstate this. I wouldn't consider myself shy, exactly, but you'd be surprised how many people in the performing arts are introverts at heart. That doesn't mean we're afraid of being in front of people when we have a job to do, though. Give me (or any of us) a gripping piece of music to perform, or even a topic about which we're passionate, and it's a different scenario. But working the room during a cocktail hour? Shoot me now. That's a whole separate Circle of Hell that Dante missed.

I've gotten completely off-topic.

Facing the Music

One more link - to this article about the New World Symphony in last Sunday's New York Times. It was so much like reading about our own young artist company, and it's surprising that the instrumental music world has so few opportunities like this.

"In the increasingly professionalized world of modern orchestras, where merely playing beautifully no longer guarantees musical greatness, ticket sales or successful capital campaigns, New World has set itself a distinctive mission: to mold graduates of elite conservatories and university music programs into the ultimate orchestra players while also trying to field a world-class performing ensemble."

Correspondingly, in the world of modern opera, merely singing beautifully no longer guarantees a career, either. And although many programs designed for emerging professional singers have as a mission the "molding of graduates from elite conservatories," we are one of the very few who do so while fielding an entire opera company - the equivalent of the New World Symphony.

Teutonic & Gallic

Chorus auditions this week, for our soon-to-be-named August opera at the Filene Center and a very-special-concert-opera performance in June. One in French and one in German. (Still speaking in code, I know. Sorry. I know that some of you are enjoying this guessing game, and some of you are, shall we say, getting very warm...)

Anyway, our audition instructions said to bring an aria in German or French. It's amazing how different from the norm the auditions are, given these parameters. Under typical circumstances, the rep skews overwhelming Italian, with English a distant second, and German and French coming in right after that. (And a smattering of Russian and Czech bringing up the rear.) But instead of all that Italian, we're getting a full-on dose of Wagner, Mozart (Flute and Abduction), Weber, Massenet, Bizet and Gounod. Have to say I'm enjoying it.

And if you're in the mood for some more sleuthing, you might want to try to figure out what leads me to re-direct readers here.


Pertaining to nothing except the fact that it seized my imagination... this excerpt from my current bedside reading (Gilead):

These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you're making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some notice.

Maybe this isn't artibrary at all, and I've come full circle.

See you next week with some summer repertoire announcements!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Ice Day

Ah, the Wintry Mix. It means that I get to catch up on the blog, nag my son about cleaning his room, finish the audition feedback requests, and attack a 3-month backlog of ironing.


Back when I was doing my music therapy degree, we used to study biofeedback. In the mid-70's it was a new thing and a big deal - we used to do experiments that would use feedback from things like respiration rate and skin temperature to reduce anxiety. It's a model that I think of often when I'm trying to correspond with singers in reponse to their request for comments on their auditions. The biofeedback signals didn't make a lot of sense, never telling a coherent story. Crafting a useful response to them really required a sensitivity and attention to the strength and patterns of the signals.

Likewise with what I'm struggling to do every winter with these audition comments. In auditions we hear things without context. Questionable intonation, lack of phrasing, messy diction, bland characterization, troublesome vocal timbre, compressed vocal range... We have no way of knowing from whence these things arise and whether they are root problems or passing symptoms in a developing technique. But so much the better. All we can do is make a note of them and pass the information on. Feedback. It will only make sense within a context of which we are only one tiny part. It's incumbent on the singer to incorporate our signals into the web of information they receive from everyone else who's involved in their training.

One of the biggest lessons I've had to learn is that I need to step away from most of the instincts I developed in years of opera coaching. Then, I would feel the need to create context. To perceive any problem within a larger frame that would help us figure out how to address it. Sometimes a screwy vowel is just that. Sometimes it's so deeply embedded in the technique that it can't be addressed by itself.

Anyway, my job now is different. No matter how difficult, it's important that outsiders like myself are able to respond impartially and somewhat impassively. I have no desire to be cruel in my bluntness (and in these days of American Idol, we all know what that means), but neither is it a good use of anyone's time and energy for me to be simply a cheerleader. We all need those unconditionally supportive people in our lives. But in spite of the fact that my temperament rebels against being the bad guy, it's probably my most important role in this scenario.

So now you see why it's so traumatic for me to write these emails :)

What I Did Last Week
A weekly feature justifying my pre-season existence and sharing my administrative pain.

Foundation Board Meeting: Sucked up a lot of the week, including a full day's preparation. All for a 10-minute presentation. But it was important, and we all know how hard it is to be informative, entertaining, persuasive and succinct all at the same time. Because the Board exists to serve all of Wolf Trap, there are many people on it who are not at all involved in the opera company. So it's not just a matter of sharing information - there's a significant element of proselytizing.

Discovery Series 2007-2008: Finished booking next year's chamber music series!

Contracts! Hard copies ready to go out for the summer season. It always takes so much longer than you think it should to get the paperwork churned out, passed through channels and refined.

Bumps in the Casting Road: Some serious jigsaw puzzle things happening with our summer roaster. I've never seen it in this much flux before.

More Planning for Barns Opera #1 (yes, still nameless for another couple of weeks): What we thought might be a re-mount of a previous production has now turned into a brand new exciting take on this piece.

Closing Out FYA 2006: Took the final look at '06 income and expenditures.

Unions: Informal talks with local rep for one of the unions with which we work.


To Houston Grand Opera 2007 Concert of Arias Winners Faith Sherman (First Place) and James J. Kee (Second Place and Audience Choice Award). Faith was on our roster both last season and this season, and James joins us this summer.

To WTOC alum Dawn Upshaw and her colleagues for the 2007 Best Opera Recording Grammy for Ainadamar.

And Happy Birthday

To my marvelous husband, my very own Cupid. I believe that today's meteorological event was in response to the cosmic shift caused by his very significant birthday. Can't wait for his second half-century!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

But What Do You Do in the Winter?

Ah, the "off-season." As in, "It must be nice to work for a summer opera company. What do you do the rest of the year?"

Truthfully, it still boggles my mind. We are literally scrambling, working through the evenings to meet deadlines. How can there not be enough hours in the day in February?

Planning at The Barns

A few people have called my attention to the fact that I promised that repertoire details would be available in February. Alas, that would be late February. Strictly speaking, February 28... Our season details go public on March 1, and tickets go on sale on March 9. So I figure I can't get in too much trouble if I spill the beans on the 28th.

But for now, I'm speaking in generalities.

The director and scenic designer for Opera #1 were at the theatre today. We were planning a re-mount of a previous design, but after today's exciting discussions, it looks as if it's going to be a completely new production.

Opera #2 has had its challenges with printed materials. We seem to be the only company in this country that's ever done it in original language (French), and finding the complete libretto hasn't been easy. And there was a protracted disgreement between the French publisher and its U.S. distributor about who was allowed to grant the rights to what. I think we've just about got it sorted out.

Planning proceeds apace for Opera #3 (at the Filene Concert), a fabulous concert involving two of the WTOC's "alumni", two recitals with Steven Blier, and a week of improv at the Theatre-in-the-Woods. Details in 3 weeks.

A Moving Target

It's an aberrent year. We've had three changes in our roster in the last six weeks - all after the crazy house of cards that is our roster had been built. 19 singers sharing 56 role assignments over 13 weeks. The infamous grid at left. (Without project and role names, of course. Still muzzled.)

The good news is that the changes have all been the result of important career opportunities for those who withdrew. And, after all, we exist to give our young artists a leg up - a chance to get the experience they need to take the next step in their careers. And these three (all of whom would've returned to Wolf Trap for their second summer) just happened to get some important offers that weren't so very convenient for us....

Not that we haven't ever had to make replacements late in the game before. But it's only happened five times in the last ten years. (Twice due to professional opportunities, twice because of illness, and once due to a true tragedy.)

Audition Feedback

I have a board meeting on Thursday, for which it will take much of the day tomorrow to prepare. But Friday is all about getting those feedback responses out. We've had about 65 inquiries to date, and it takes a good 10 minutes for each one. I've done almost half and will finish the rest by next week if it kills me. (I know... I've said that before....)


A comment from last week's post asked for guidance on those pernicious recommendation letters:

So what exactly makes a good reference, is it the things said, the person who gives the recommendation? How can we as applicants ask for a better recommendation and what can writers do to write a better recommendation?

There's little that the singer/applicant can do to control the quality of a recommendation. Basically, if we as professionals agree to write one, we are agreeing to represent you in a positive light. Some people in the music business have a good business sense and a good way with words, and others don't. We're not going to admit or not admit someone into our audition process based on the writing skills and general effusiveness of their coach/teacher/mentor.

  • 1) what can you (the applicant) do?... and
  • 2) why do we bother with this?
1) You can ensure that the recommender (is that a word?) knows exactly to whom s/he is writing and what the nature of the program/competition/etc is. The most important thing we want to know is whether or not you are a good fit for this particular opportunity at this particular time in your development. That's why the over-the-top recommendation ("She has the best voice I've ever heard in my career....") is rarely truly helpful. It only lets us know that the writer is dedicated to you and believes wholeheartedly in your potential. And that may say as much about the writer as the object of his/her recommendation.

In particular, for our Studio Artist program, we need to know if applicants are vocally solid enough to spend a summer away from their teachers. We hope to find out that there is a strong work ethic and a sense of curiosity about the business and enthusiasm and ambition to develop a career.

2) Most importantly (and this sounds really stupid, but it's at play, so why not say it?), we want to see if someone respected in the field is willing to go out on a limb for you and simply make the gesture. We also decided to put all of us through this (yes, all of this - you have to solicit, your mentor has to write, and we have to read) because when we get to the point of choosing those final 12 singers from the group of perhaps 20-25 who seem equally capable, there may be some details in these letters that help us round out the impressions we gleaned during those precious 10 minutes of auditioning.

What I Did Last Week - The inauguration of a regular blog feature to follow me through this pre-season period.

I do this ostensibly so that those of you who are interested in arts administration will have an idea of how you might spend your time in a job like mine. But also because I find it inconceivable that I can work hard and fast and still be behind, and I feel better knowing that I've done something.

Wrote all permutations of "blurbs" for the upcoming season. Each performance (opera, concert, recital, etc) needs different types and lengths of "ad" copy and images for different purposes - brochures, calendars, web pages, print ads, radio spots.

Drafted a chorus rehearsal schedule. Chorus auditions for our Filene Center opera and our concert opera performance are taking place in 2 weeks. (Want info? Write wtocauditions@wolftrap.org) By the time of the auditions, a draft summer rehearsal schedule needs to be in place.

2007-2008 - Finished all schedule discussion and negotiations with chamber music artists and their managers for the 07-08 Discovery Season.

Wrote recommendations. Yes, I'm often on the other side of this equation. Submitted recommendations for some of our previous Filene Young Artists for upcoming competitions.

Finalized music and stage management staff configuration.

Re-cast assignments for those artists who vacated our roster.
Isn't it sad that some of us feel a need to validate our existence?

Playing the Piano in Pennsylvania

I'm taking my modest solo piano recital to Pennsylvania this weekend, performing in the community in which I grew up in order to dedicate a refurbished piano in my home church. The memorial funds contributed in honor of my mom allowed this instrument to be installed in the sanctuary.

I've gotten a little cavalier about practicing over the last week, since I seem to have survived the concert in Arlington without too many visible scars. I think I should not be so complacent.