Friday, February 29, 2008

Be HIP and Slow Down

I've been enthusiastically following the posts and comments on the discussion of Historically Informed Performance (I do love that it's called HIP... I need someone working on some awe-inspiring abbreviations for me...). Thanks to Brian Dickie for bringing this up, then following up. And hats off to Tim Nelson for his thoughtful and detailed explanation.

There's little I could add to this discussion, except to give a bit of perspective as to why we make the choices we do. Wolf Trap has taken a range of approaches to its past productions of operas by Monteverdi, Cavalli and Handel. In recent years we have gravitated toward using pit musicians who specialize in historically informed ("authentic") performance practice. Why?

Since we only do 3 productions a year, we reconstitute our orchestra on an as-needed basis. Happily, the majority of our musicians return each summer, but there's always fluidity in the ranks due to competing gigs, vacations, and the vagaries of instrumentation for any particular summer. When we produce operas from the 17th and early 18th-century, we're always looking to include the expertise and sensibility of colleagues who have detailed knowledge of those traditions. And that usually means turning to pit musicians who spend at least a portion of their professional lives playing this "early" music.

But we deliberately work with coaches and conductors who have at least one foot firmly planted in the operatic mainstream, for we don't intend to turn our singers into Baroque specialists in 4 weeks. We want to approach a Handel opera with both respect for historically informed performance practice and a desire not to fall into the "earlier-than-thou" camp. (Sorry - I don't mean to offend. But there's a fringe of the early music movement that we don't dare approach.) Not surprisingly, this mixing of specialists and "generalists" has the potential to be problematic, but we've always found it refreshing. It makes for lively and inclusive music-making. I'm sure this approach isn't for everyone, but it works for us.

There's more on this, and if you're interested, I will point you to this entry written two years ago as we were making decisions for the 2006 Orpheus by Telemann.

Stop. Now.

My daily routine has gotten out of control in these last weeks. If I didn't keep reminding myself that life was no doubt harder in the 18th century than in the 21st, I'd romanticize turning back the clock.

Rather, I am declaring this Leap Day a mini-vacation. Not from work, but from a low level of free-floating anxiety that is threatening to escalate. I am (so far, but it's only 8am...) convincing myself that there's no need to hurry and little reason to be anxious. Plenty of time to breathe from the belly instead of the clavicles. And no time at all for obnoxious people, a few of whom have recently crept into my life.

So yesterday's post on the Slow Down Now Blog was just the ticket. Have a look.

More Friday Links

Someone you know doing college/conservatory auditions? Check out this post, as well as its related links. Not geared toward singers in particular, but full of useful information.

Thinking about putting your organization on YouTube? Start here.

Did you enjoy the recent "How Does An Opera Company Change Its Light Bulbs" post? If so, go here for the Italian version :)

Big news in the opera YAP world here: Juilliard and Met Meld Opera Training in the NY Times.

Leap, then Look.

Happy Leap Birthday to two of my favorite people, GAR and ACB.

And Happy Leap Day, from one my favorite indulgences, Storypeople.

I'm a good jumper, he said, but I'm not
so good at landing.
Maybe you
stay closer
to the ground
then, I said
& he shook his head
& said the ground
was the whole problem
in the first place.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Triumph of the Amygdala

I find myself in a curious predicament.

I am unreasonably and somewhat pathologically addicted to a musical that I've seen 6 times in 10 days, traveling over 700 miles to do so.

Now, perhaps you have been where I am. Maybe there was/is a performer, a show, a piece of music that you couldn't get enough of. Where perhaps distance or even cost simply couldn't keep you away. But you have to understand that I've never been like that. Always the somewhat sanguine professional musician, I've been aware of the value of these things but have almost always (by default, not by choice) kept my emotional distance. I'm a compassionate audience member and a supportive colleague, and I never intend to be a harsh critic. I am ever mindful of why musicians do what they do, and how critical it is to stay focused on what's really important. But I never stop being analytical.

But suddenly I'm like a crazy woman, unable to get enough of it, and laughing and crying out loud every time I relive it.

Full disclosure - I have some idea how I ended up in this mess. Someone near and dear to me is in the show. The music of this particular composer somehow always hits me deep in my gut. And the subject material of the show in question resonates loud and clear with my own life at this moment. But after all, it's just a musical (ah, snobbery showing through?...), and an amateur one at that. And all of these factors have come into play before without this much of a punch.

My life in music has consisted of playing opera, oratorios, concertos, chamber music, jazz (not very well), piano bar entertainment, summer stock theatre, solo recitals, community concerts... well, let's say I've been around lots of bends. And I've supported both of my kids, as many parents do, through cello recitals, plays, chorus concerts, dance recitals, and basketball games. I've adored watching them play their hearts out in every possible way, and although their efforts never failed to touch me, I was always realistic. I didn't feel affection for the music, but for their courage in sharing their efforts with others, and the way they grew a little taller every time they did so.

So it's perplexing why now, this mild-mannered, detached musician is having a visceral, near-violent reaction to two hours in the theatre.

God knows I can always see the faults. Almost always to a fault. And this one has its warts, too, when viewed from a purely professional perspective. How many times have I sat in the theatre or concert hall and cursed the fact that I couldn't ignore the damn intonation or tempo or pacing or production values and just enjoy the experience? So why all of a sudden do these things not matter?

Of course, my left brain tells me that my amygdala has taken over.

The amygdala: a crazy little part of the human limbic system that rules our emotions. It plays a surprising part in our attachment to certain music - even certain performers. If you know someone who goes on and on about the golden age of opera singers (or jazz singers... or rockers... or actors... or athletes), chances are he became acquainted with his favorite performers at an exciting and emotional time in his life. His active amygdala imprinted this discovery with a big old emotional aura, so that the experience is remembered and re-experienced so intensely that it overshadows anything that comes after it. Hence, "they don't really sing like they used to."

I'm not knocking this, for it's an important part of why we love the arts at all. Neither am I diminishing it by acknowledged that there is probably a dry, clinical explanation for it. Although my son would be terribly proud of me for seeing through my emotion clearly enough to realize that everything has a biochemical cause. (Ha. What does he know? He's only 17.)

So I'll stop trying to sort it out. I may even stop worrying about it. Maybe it means I'm growing up. That if the message is clear enough, I have learned to listen to it in the right way.

There were oceans to cross
There were mountains to conquer
And I stood on the shore
And I stood on the cliff
And the second before I jumped I knew where I needed to be

Friday, February 15, 2008

How Does an Opera Company Change Its Light Bulbs?

Received recently via email - a collaborative effort from some notable (dare I say pre-eminent) colleagues, the following musings on how opera companies change their light bulbs.

Unattributed, unless otherwise indicated :) If there are attributions that should be made, please notify me! (Gotta be ever-mindful of intellectual property, you know.)


I do NOT change light bulbs; nowhere in my contract does it SAY I change light bulbs. ...I didn't break it during the fioratura aria, did I...?


Eh, sure. Why not. I'm already wearing pants andhalfwayup a ladder anyway.

Variant: How many mezzo-sopranos does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to change the bulb and one to complain that it is "too high." (Jonathan Pell)


Oh, for heaven's sake, what's all the fuss? Give it to me,I'll do it.


What kind of question is that? Of course I know how tochange a light bulb. What, you think that just because I can sing two octaves higher than most men that I don't know how to do what most men can? Is that it?


Placido Domingo can light up the Met's gold ceiling with hissinging and compensate for any lack of lighting. Are you suggesting I can't do the same here?

Variant: How many tenors does it take to change a light bulb? Just one. He holds on to the bulb and expects the world to revolve around him. (Jonathan Pell)


Of course I can. Easily. With one hand tied behind my back. While juggling three other light bulbs in my tied hand.


Oh, why not, I've got an hour and a half until my first entrance, anyway.


Eh... I can't. I'm sorry. I'm already carrying four props, two set pieces, a chair, a cloak, and a censer. I MIGHT be able to get itwith my teeth...


Okay, but can you leave it off during the performance? The timpani player is complaining of the glare.


I block them in the light. If they can't find their light, they shouldn't be in the business.


Of course I'll help! Can we put in some pink gels? Itw arms up the gold in the principals' Act III costumes. Ooh, and what about a liquid filter for Act II, Scene 4?


NO! You can't change the light! I've already selected all their hues!


Don't touch my lights! I'll do it!


No way, man. The Light Tech would KILL me.


Just tell us where this light is going to shine andwe'll be sure to stay OUT of it.


I need to know how this change will affect each and every cast member in all scenes and transitions, and write it down in my score, in pencil. Do you have any more post-it tabs?


I don't care. Don't touch my table.


Do whatever you want, but IT MUST BE IN FINAL FORM BY 5 PM!!!!!


OK, you guys go get the light bulb and bring it uphere. Now you two go get the ladder. Good. Now. Put the ladder here. No, HERE! Now, can you climb ladders? No? OK, who here can climb a ladder? Great. Got your harness, got your gloves, great. Now, take this and climb up here. Like this. NO! LIKE THIS! Here, give me that. Now watch me...climb like this...reach up here like this...unscrew this...screw in it? Great. Next time you can do it.


Sure, but first I'll examine the manuscript and determinehow it was done at the premiere of this opera, then I'll work on how we can make the symbolism of the light bulb change relevant to contemporaryaudiences. (Cori Ellison)


We'll swap it asap for a compact fluorescent. Happy to get those incandescent suckers outta here!


Fine, I'll do it. Let's keep this quiet, though. You didn't tell the Tenor about this, did you?


The Creative Staff of our Publications Division is going to press with the light bulb piece at 4PM on 2/15/08. WARNING: Any changes submitted past this hard deadline will not be considered.


Can we wait for a while on the light bulb change? If we're able to demonstrate that it is critical to our operations, we might be able to raise money to change it.


The Executive committee of the Board of Directors,working closely with Management, will form a committee to discuss the size,wattage, cost, and other specs and effects of the light bulb. A taskforce will be designated to inquire on possible branding initiatives, marketing tie-ins with light bulb companies, etc. The committee is to meet regularly and frequently, and is of course expected not to discuss its deliberations outside of committee meetings. PowerPoint should be very useful in conveying the information gathered and hopefully will be augmented with Excel charts. The committee may deem it necessaryto bring in outside third party consultants to provide benchmarks and a time line for deliverables. Feasibility studies will be required as well as on-site visits to other non-profits that have successfullychanged a light bulb. The cost of consultant(s) and feasibility studies will be underwritten by a special campaign that will target this need. We expect to have a strategic plan in place which addresses a master plan as to how to change this light bulb in about six months, at which point a town hall-style forum will be held with donors and subscribers to bring in further opinions revolving around the "Plan for a Brighter Future" light bulb Project. A press release is forthcoming. (by Matt Gurry with edits and additional contributions from Robin Thompson)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Syllabus and a Follow-Up

First, a peek at the outline I've been working on for the 5-week Inside Opera class I'll be teaching here at Wolf Trap this spring. 400 years of opera in approximately 7.5 hours :)

From Florence to London

  • OPERA PEOPLE: Divas & Divos
  • TOOLS: Recitative & Arias
  • FACH: Mezzos & Friends
  • THE BIG IDEA: Words & Music

Classicism to Buffa

  • OPERA PEOPLE: Composers & Librettists
  • TOOLS: Ensembles
  • FACH: Baritone
  • THE BIG IDEA: Mozart

Bel Canto to Verismo

  • OPERA PEOPLE: The Chorus
  • TOOLS: The Singer’s Technique
  • FACH: Tenor
  • THE BIG IDEA: Death Be Not Loud

Grand Opera

  • OPERA PEOPLE: The Orchestra
  • TOOLS: Language
  • FACH: Soprano
  • THE BIG IDEA: Gesamtkunstwerk

Opera in Our Time

  • OPERA PEOPLE: Conductors, Directors & Designers
  • TOOLS: Park ‘n’ Bark Meets Stanislawski
  • FACH: Bass
  • BIG IDEA: Where Do We Go From Here?

If you live in the DC area and you're interested in signing up, you should be able to find information at in a couple of weeks. Or, you could send me an email, and I'll make sure you get the information. It's on 5 Monday evenings between March 24 and April 21. Plenty of interesting stuff for opera fans and newbies alike.

Had a Bad Audition?

Singers may be interested in this exchange, which recently took place in the Comments section of Josh's post on The Audition Game:

Anonymous said...

This past fall, I sang for the Studio program. I would relish the opportunity to hear feedback about my audition - except for the fact that this was my worst audition yet. I'm sure that the feedback would be framed in a positive manner - all my experiences with Wolf Trap and their personnel have been fabulous - but I still feel like I'd be setting myself up for a bruising by asking for feedback from an audition that 1) I didn't think went well and 2) was months ago!However, Wolf Trap is so generous to offer feedback that I feel foolish for NOT asking for feedback. Josh and Kim, what would you do? I ask mostly because it seems like a pattern that even more established singers might experience.

A response from Josh:

Really good question. As a singer, I have to say that I probably would not ask for feedback from an audition that I felt was NOT reflective of my usual abilities. (Just being honest.) I am not sure I would be interested in having someone pass on their observations of me on an off day... I would probably be very likely to dismiss any constructive criticism, assuming it was not about me at all, but rather in observance of whoever that beast was that crept in and impersonated me! As an administrator, however, I would say you should really go ahead and ask. You may be surprised, especially if the feedback contains comments that you have heard before from coaches and teachers that you trust... it may prove to you that even when you feel you are at your worst, your level of auditioning is more consistent than you think. That applies not only to those elements that you need to work on to improve, but also to those things that we felt were successful.

And a postscript from Kim:

If you feel you have a handle on the specific ways in which you underperformed (vocal indisposition affecting a particular aspect of your technique; general indisposition affecting energy level or focus), then it might be just fine to get feedback. Because if what you hear from us aligns with your own impressions of what didn't go well that day, then some of your questions are answered.On the other hand, if you just feel it all went badly, and the feedback might just confuse you because you wouldn't be able to project backward and figure out which comments, if any, are truly useful - well then, it might make more sense to just move on.

Friday, February 08, 2008

February Adrenaline

Still can't tell you officially what's on tap for this summer, but I can drop hints. And will, shamelessly, over these next few weeks. Let the guessing begin!

Summer in February

This week's unseasonably warm snap jerked me out of my midwinter complacency. You know how for most of you, warm and sultry weather just feels like vacation? Well, my seasonal rhythm has been programmed to the opposite settings. A chill in the air lends a feeling of calm and peace, with the knowledge that in the best of all possible worlds (hint... pay attention...) there's plenty of time to do whatever needs to be done. Conversely, the warmth of the sun means showtime.

When it's 70 degrees - even in February - I get a visceral punch in the gut with a little bit of panic around the edges. The mercury rises, and the adrenaline goes with it. Got to get ready!!!

So it is, that here in February, I am writing supertitles! A personal best, for I've never started this early. (Applause welcomed.)

And what better way to get the linguistic juices flowing than ongoing multi-lingual games of Scrabble! (More hints to be had here.) No, Rahree and I are not eating bonbons and playing board games all day. A couple of moves a day means that the pace is glacial, but it's a fabulous diversion. Sometimes it's a reward for surviving a particularly challenging meeting or phone call :)

I make up words when I get stuck, but I usually vet them via instant messenger with my native speakers across the Atlantic. If I can come up with a convincing meaning and etymology for my neologism, I usually get dispensation to use it.

Friday Surfing

Via The Good Musician: A young child says to his mother, “Mom, when I grow up I’d like to be a musician.” She replies, “Well honey, you know you can’t do both.”

Segue to one of my favorite moment from last weekend's Super Bowl, this commercial with Chester Pitts and Ephraim Salaam. I find the approach to the topic just perfect. Relaxed, good-humored, and somehow respectful of and affection toward both worlds.

I'm obssessed with this blogger's take on the upcoming San Francisco Opera season. Not because of what it says about SFO in particular, but the way in which his observations are uncomfortably dead-on in a larger context. I don't agree with everything PJWV says, but I sure prefer his rantings and ruminations to what I usually hear.

A few excerpts for those who don't have time to wade through the whole thing:

Re Season Opening Gala: They should switch to an hour of popular arias and then straight to the party. Or skip the arias altogether and just have the society women march across the stage in their usually garish and poorly chosen gowns. Warhorse, clothes horse – it’s not a night about music.

Re Idomeneo: This is probably my least favorite of the major Mozart operas, partly for semi-silly reasons, and yes, I’m talking about the lack of on-stage sea monster action. Sorry, I just have a sea monster thing, and if you’re going to tease me with frequent mentions of a terrible sea beast, then you’d damn well better put the thing on stage.

Re Opera Titles in Marketing: Then we have "L’Elisir d’Amore," a title the Opera insists on translating, because while apparently “Die Tote Stadt” poses no problems as a title for an American audience, that same audience is incapable of figuring out that L’Elisir d’Amore means The Elixir of Love.

Re Warhorses vs New Rep: Here’s a conversation I’ve had way too many times: Me (to Opera-Lover): Are you going to [name of the season’s token “modern” opera]? OL: Oh, no. I hate modern opera! I don’t want to hear that! Me (too courteous to point out he/she hasn’t heard the music yet): Oh. Are you looking forward to [fill in name of warhorse]?OL: Oh, no. How many times do I need to see that?


Monday, February 04, 2008

Interlude: Back at the Console

I spent 35 years as a church organist, starting as a teenager when I discovered that I could make more money playing Sunday services than I could by babysitting all week. As soon as my feet could reach the pedals, I was off and running.

A couple of years ago I hit the wall. Trying to hold down my "real" job, continue to function as a church musician, and raise a family was proving to be an increasingly lethal mix. So I "retired", and (just a bit to my surprise) I haven't missed it at all.

But yesterday morning I jumped back in to help out a colleague with the flu. Guess what? I still don't miss it...

Being part of the liturgy, though, always reminds me that good theater and good church are really not as unrelated as people think they are. I'm not being blasphemous, or at least I'm not trying to. It's just that dramaturgy and liturgy share etymology for a reason. There's a sense of pacing and arc in an effective workship experience, and being a cog in the wheel that drives the liturgy is just like working in the theater. My preoccupation with this arc is probably what keeps me from ever being able to feel like I have had any sort of a religious experience myself when I'm at the console. Satisfying in a way, but not exactly worship.

Monday Links

Back in operaland this morning, submitting these links for your edification:

ACB talks about being over the line - one of my favorite topics. I don't believe that enough singers venture close enough to the line, but you certainly do know when you cross it.

A few weeks ago I received notification that video footage from the "Future of American Popular Song with Steven Blier" is now available on ("bringing the best political, social and cultural content from the world's leading forums").

One of my favorite non-music blogs is Lifehack, and I've been meaning to share this link about improvising. Wisdom from Charles Mingus that applies to opera... and to life in general :)
  • Go with the flow... don’t second-guess yourself... don’t worry about what comes next.
  • You don’t play alone... improvisation is as much about the relationships between people as it is about our own self-expression.
  • Learn the rules so you can break them... know the rules well enough to know why they had to be broken.
  • Embrace limits... limits are the cause and reason of creativity.
  • When you make a mistake, keep playing. [Duh, you say. But do you really live this way?]
And one of my favorite tools at this time of the year: the Meeting Miser. Exactly how much did that last meeting cost?


Postscript February 6 - I've been notified of a Freudian misspelling that I shall allow to stand rather than whitewash due to the truth it speaks. Above, in paragraph #4: workship.