Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Little Lunch Music is Back!

Yesterday marked the return of a WTOC phenomenon from last summer: A Little Lunch Music.

More than a year ago, SSW suggested that we use the common area of our building for a regular lunchtime concert, giving the rest of the Wolf Trap Foundation a chance to see and hear what the opera company is all about. For months I stalled. There's nowhere to hide from sound in our open environment, and what if the Foundation staffers couldn't stand a weekly dose of singing at noontime? After all, there are people in this organization (and everywhere) for whom opera is anathema. And I, sadly but unavoidably, spend much of my life seeking not to offend.

I needn't have worried. If there are those for whom Lunch Music is a bad thing, they're having the grace to just leave the building and not complain about it. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, from both audience and participants. And I am oh so happy to have been wrong.

Another great thing about Lunch Music is that I'm not in charge of it. Josh Winograde organizes the rep and singers, and he also writes legendary emails telling Foundation staff about the day's offerings. Here, for your amusement, is this week's installment:

TO: Everyone
FROM: Joshua Winograde
RE: TODAY!!! "A Little Lunch Music" Returns

We are thrilled to announce that A Little Lunch Music is back by popular demand! We hope you’ll join us today as we start our series of lunchtime concerts by busting out the big guns!!!
Question posed by real English student on… “What's mean of ‘bust out the big guns’?"

Answer from a real online tutor…
This is a time to get bigger, get down to business, be more serious, use secret tools.

For example:

You: "This is too heavy, I cannot lift it."
Me: "Okay, this is a time to bring out the big guns.”

You: "I have a very, very, very hard English question for you."
Me: "Okay, time to break out the big guns. Let me get my dictionary."

You: "I feel that we might be starting to plateau in our progress.”
Me: "Oh, time to break out the big guns, hmmm?"

You: “There are all these opera singers running around the building disrupting my last 8 months of peace. Does that mean the Wolf Trap Opera Company has arrived?”

Okay, fine… So I wrote that last one. But you get my point!

Please join us for a lunchtime concert of BIG GUN arias…

Today, May 30 from 12:00-12:20 PM.

In the Earle Williams Learning Center … come listen from the balcony, the main level, or even your office!

Arias from HUGE, ENORMOUS, GARGANTUAN, MONSTROUS operas so big that we are unlikely ever to be able to present them in a space this intimate again. The operas are BIG, the arias are BIG, and the voices… let’s just say you’d better hold on to your hats!

We don’t want to give it all away, but here’s what you’ll hear this afternoon…

Elisabeth’s Aria from Tannhaüser

Sometimes (okay, fine, most times) that I enter a room, I play this aria on the CD player in my head. The music that Wagner wrote for Elisabeth’s BIG GUN entrance in the 2nd act of Tannhaüser is, quite simply, the BEST entrance music anyone ever got…

Mozart had previously held this honor for the entrance that he wrote for the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, but Wagner showed him who’s boss.

Wagner writes Elisabeth’s entrance to illustrate the ecstasy with which she enters this “holy hall” having just emerged from a self-imposed, full-fledged societal withdrawal upon learning that Tannhaüser has returned from Sodom, or was it Gomorrah?

Never mind… as I said, we will never do this opera here, so just enjoy her one solitary moment of happiness. Oh yeah, did I forget to tell you she dies of grief less than two hours from now?

Amfortas’s Aria from Parsifal

We move from BIG GUN entrance music to BIG GUN exit music…

Remember that time you stubbed your toe and it was a whole week before you could wear your stilettos again comfortably?

Well, boo-hoo because King Amfortas has been bleeding from the same magical wound for about a decade.

In act 3 of Wagner’s Parsifal we are finally at Amfortas’s exit music. In this aria, the King prays to his deceased father to offer him relief from his sufferings, and therefore death. Unlike our heroine Elisabeth from Tannhaüser, all ends well for Amfortas, whose exit music is a false alarm… he is healed rather than killed.

Don’t worry, though, the soprano Kundry still shows up 5 minutes later to die of grief again.

Riccardo’s Aria from Un ballo in maschera

Another king … another BIG GUN exit … only this time, sadly, there is no false alarm (i.e. He dies).

King Riccardo, who is either the Governor of Boston or the King of Sweden depending on who you ask… don’t ask… is in love with his best friend Renato’s wife, Amelia.

Unbeknownst to the King, this aria will be his last.

Riccardo has come to terms with his love for Amelia and he plans to set everything right between him and Renato, but Renato didn’t get that message, and he stabs the King.

Cherry on the Top And, as a special treat, we ended up the 20-minute set with a preview of tonight's Happy Birthday to Two (Bernstein & Bolcom) recital, with"Bruce" - an unforgettable song by neither Bernstein nor Bolcom, but from Bill Bolcom's and Joan Morris's cabaret catalogue.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"If Verdi Had This Cast...

.... things might have turned out differently."

So said a member of our music staff after one of the first King for a Day rehearsals. And so have remarked a few other random folks during the course of this last week.

Meaning, first and foremost, that we are lucky to have a fabulous group of singers for this piece. So how is that different than any other WTOC production, you say? :) We get lucky pretty often. That's what happens when you get to match your best singers to your rep.

But we're starting off this season particularly strong, with a cast that feels just right for this quirky gem of a piece that is Verdi seen through a Rossini lens with a brushing of Donizetti.

But how would things have turned out differently?

Well, the premiere of Un giorno di regno was a disaster, and a large part of the blame (or so musicologists tell us) lay at the feet of the cast. The singers were engaged to open the season at La Scala with a serious opera by another composer. Either their gifts were ill-suited to comedy, and/or they were none too happy with also having to sing an opera by a 27-year-old upstart named Giuseppe Verdi... Well, sabotage is probably too strong a word, but the cast didn't exactly give it their best effort. The soprano and the tenor barely phonated all night, and (reportedly) just marked through their parts. The piece fell on its face and closed after a single performance.

A few years later, given a decent chance by a different cast in another town, Giorno was a success. But Verdi had been soured on comedy, and it took him 53 years to return to it. However, had he been privileged to work with our group of singing actors, well, he might've gotten right back on that horse.

If you're in the DC area, come to my talk before one of the performances. For those who are reading this from afar, I'm going to do my best to record these talks this year and post them here... we'll see if I succeed.


If you're a blogger, you know what a meme is - a kind of personal quiz/chain letter that travels the blogosphere. You answer questions, then you tag someone else. I've been tagged quite a few times with these recent memes, and if I don't take my turn I'll be accused of not playing well with the other children. This is where today's opera post ends and the randomness begins. Read on at your peril.

The Rules of Meme #1

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

It's either sad or reassuring that the nearest book is Nico Castel's Handel Opera Libretti Volume 1. (OK, it's sad.) I'm supposed to be working on Alcina supertitles, but I'm blogging instead.

I've run into trouble with instruction #3, for there are only 5 sentences on the page... So I'll count clauses instead, and end up with:

All'alma fedel amore placato, il fato ed il ciel promette pieta. In mezzo ai martiri la gioia ravviso... (Fate and the gods promise compassion to a faithful heart whose love endures. In the midst of adversity, I can see joy again.)

And since I've already broken the some of rules, I'll go for broke. I can't remember who tagged me, and I can't think of anyone I know who hasn't already been tagged, so I'm breaking the chain. (If the fortune cookie message in my sentences above holds true, I have nothing to fear.)

The Rules of Meme #2

Each player answers the questions about himself or herself. At the end of the post, the player then tags five people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know they’ve been tagged and asking them to read your blog. I'm going to break this chain, too. (Maybe I don't play well with others after all...) But I will answer the questions.

What was I doing ten years ago today?
May 28, 1998. Hmmm... I was overseeing the start of a Wolf Trap Opera Company season. Wow. What does that mean??

Five things on today's "to do" list:
Finish Act I of Alcina supertitles.
Mock up Candide program.
Establish track ID lengths for Volpone recording.
Send email to this year's company members to opt out of any mention on the blog.
Answer the damn memes.
(I did 3 out of 5...)

Things I'd do if I was a billionaire:
Starting worrying right then and there about what to do with the money.

Three bad habits:

Five places I've lived:
East Haddam, CT
Greencastle, PA
Elizabethtown, PA
Hyattsville, MD
Vienna, VA
(Pretty boring...)

Five jobs I've had:
Music therapist
Church organist
Piano bar singer
Opera coach

That's quite enough meming for now. Back in a couple of days with a report on this weekend's concert with Steve Blier - Bernstein & Bolcom.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Marchesa del Poggio's Story

I am a Marquise. Although you might think that being of noble birth gives me an advantage in life, I can assure you that I've had quite enough of it.

My cousin and I are cooped up here in this stuffy old house in Paris when all of life is swirling around outside. For heaven's sake, it's 1953... the middle of the 20th century! It's just like this wonderful new movie called Roman Holiday, where Audrey Hepburn plays a young woman who spends her whole young life missing out on all of the excitement in the world outside... Of course, we can hardly escape this house to go to a movie theatre, so we'll never know.

I have a lover. His name is Chevalier Belfiore, and you should see how gorgeous he is in his uniform. But he's been strangely absent lately, and I'm not at all happy about it.

My cousin is in love with a dashing young man named Edoardo. But my uncle is determined to marry us off to two of his old cronies. I'm stuck with some stuffy Count, and my cousin gets the penny-pinching head of the Treasury. (To add insult to injury, the Treasurer is her boyfriend's uncle...)

We've been trying to escape our fates, but now there's a double wedding scheduled for this weekend. I need a plan, and now it seems I've had quite a stroke of luck.

My adorable Belfiore has been strangely absent lately, and now I know why. He just showed up here in this house, pretending to be the King of Poland. (I'm sure there's a good reason behind all of this, and I'm determined to find it out later.) Just to toy with him, I'll pretend to want to marry the old Count just to see if I can get him to give up his disguise. But first, I have to convince him to use his power as the "King" to help my cousin get away from the old Treasurer fellow.

Wish me luck!

Did You Say 1953?

The Marquise is a pivotal character in King for a Day, and we're several days into rehearsal now, telling her story through some lucious Verdian melodies and ensembles. More about the music in this weekend's post, but first, a few words about the production.

When I taught a recent opera intro class for Wolf Trap's adult education series, we had lively discussions about "updates" - placing operas in more recent time periods. It doesn't take much to imagine that this topic generates all sorts of impassioned opinions.

I've seen my share of controversial stagings, and I'm not saying that moving an opera from its original time period is automatically a good thing. But first, consider this. What exactly is a "period" production? In this case, should we wear costumes from the early 1700's, when the real King Stanislaus of Poland lived? Or use dresses and furniture from Verdi's time?

Productions of La traviata in the late 1900's were backdated to the 17th and 18th centuries because the subject material was too controversial to clothe in contemporary dress. The setting of Ballo was moved from Sweden to Massachusetts to avoid political discomfort. If, in Verdi's time, it was acceptable to play fast and loose with time period and geography in order to distance the subject material, might it not now be palatable to put a story in a time and place that make it come alive for us?

Not to belabor this, truly, because this particular "update" is both gentle and genteel. A bunch of stuffy old ex-pats living in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in the 1950's provide the perfect environment for this story. The analog is a strong one. It clarifies and heightens the story, and the stakes are equivalent in either environment. In both places family duty trumps youthful desire, and military titles and blue-blood lineage are naturally overinflated.

I'm sure you can imagine how the story turns out (for it is a comedy, after all), but I doubt that you can imagine how exciting it will be to see and hear this cast at The Barns in June. More about that in a few days.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ready? Not.

My early life as a musician was tyrannized by details. I have a hard time letting go of the small stuff, and I wasted lots of hours (years?) obsessing about the wrong things in my music-making. Not because caring about the details is wrong, but because my fixation on them robbed me of the opportunity to figure out what was important. It's probably why I am so doggedly determined to have the singers on my watch keep sight of the big picture.

Sometimes the whole isn't bigger than the sum of its parts. Sometimes it's entirely different.

I've been moonlighting recently playing rehearsals for a colleague. (What, you say? Your recent practice did you no good? Go here and scroll down.) The oratorio is minimalist in style, and in trying to play it with very little preparation (sorry), there is significant danger in the details. There's no way to heed so many fast notes, such micro-tuned tempo relationships, ubiquitous polyrhythms - I'm getting great practice ignoring the siren call of the small stuff. The only way to survive is to pull back, look at it from a distance, try to hear the architecture of the phrase, and make the rest of it up.

I'm exaggerating a bit, but not much.

Musicians who are constitutionally conscientious and fastidious (you know who you are) are the darlings of conductors, colleagues, and producers. Their research, preparation and meticulousness are reassuring and enviable. But sometimes they're just keeping their demons at bay. For years, the only way I would ever play something in public (even in a rehearsal with colleagues) was to believe that I had prepared for it more than anyone could ever expect me to. As if I was stacking some invisible ledger on the plus side, and could therefore be forgiven if (God forbid) I made a mistake.

If you find this ludicrous or exaggerated, you don't live on the dark side. I'm sure there are plenty of you who know exactly what I'm talking about. My life's work is to never forget the folly of living that way. I've figured out how to make music without going through this torture - and it only took me a few decades. And truth be told, it also meant making a decision to allow my life as a musician to take place in relatively low-profile, non-threatening circumstances. I don't think I ever had the chops to be a serious performing musician, but I know for sure I didn't have the temperament. If the stakes were higher, the demons would undoubtedly not stay at bay. Those of you who manage to stay loose and keep your perspective while playing at the top of the game have my utmost awe and respect.

This diatribe is brought to you by the fact that the curtain is about to go up on my annual "performance" - the summer opera season. And I'm not ready. I haven't dotted all the i's, I didn't lay infallible groundwork, and I certainly failed to anticipate any and all problems before they occur. Yet it begins nevertheless, and I have to let go of unfinished business. Pretend that I'm seated at the piano, and allow the details to be born aloft by the vision. Because it is possible, and I can still learn.

The Cleanest Verdi You Ever Saw

OK, so the Giorno orchestra part marathon should be over in a few days. Just to remind myself that it's worth it, here's your opportunity to compare the new product with scraps of the old.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Discretion Is Advised

As we enter the most public portion of our annual cycle, I refer you to a post of a few months ago on Arts Addict: Losing My Anonymity. Jason is a working orchestral musician with a highly successful blog, and he discusses the challenges of balancing transparency with discretion.

I've been blogging for over 3 years, and every few months the landscape changes. During my first season in the blogosphere, I was extremely cautious. Never used names, always asked permission before discussing almost anything or posting a photo of anyone. I still err on the side of discretion, but the dividing line has shifted.

Many bloggers have only found out that they've overstepped that line after the damage has been done. There are no rules except common sense and courtesy, and everyone has a different frame of reference. I've never been "anonymous" in any way, but the people I work with all summer and those I hear in audition every fall have every right to their privacy. Yet the success of blogs like this one depends on honesty and transparency.

So, if you're an artist about to spend your summer at the Trap, or if you have a friend or loved one who will be here this season, what can you expect? If you're an opera fan who checks out this space for inside scoop, will you really get it? Well, it's an overstatement to say that I have guidelines for these things, but here's a bit of the logic behind it:

Opt Out: Most of our artists and staff know about the blog. We make sure everyone understands that I'm posting regularly through the season, and I give folks a chance to opt out of any mention in this forum.

Photos: Performance and/or dress rehearsal photos are fair game. Other rehearsal photos and candids are case-by-case. If it's not the least bit controversial and it's flattering, I'll probably just go ahead and use it. It it's sensitive or personal in any way, and/or if it makes anyone look bad, I ditch it. If I'm not sure, I ask. (I'm the most camera-phobic person I know, and I'm sympathetic. It's probably why I prefer being on this side of the lens.)

Anecdotes: Humorous stories that don't put anyone in a compromising position are gold. Even so, I almost never use real names, and sometimes change a few details to protect the innocent.

Verboten: Unfortunately, some of the most illuminating events are emotionally charged and fraught with anxiety. Occasionally there's a way to address the substance of these events later, and in a context that protects anonymity. But many of those stories, no matter how compelling, will always remain private.

Ready Or Not

I didn't intend to take a blog mini-vacation recently, but I've been remiss. I was waylaid by a host of impending season-related non-blog-worthy tasks, a big volunteer project at my son's school, and taking care of some family business before I go underground for 4 months. But I'll be back next week (the official start of rehearsals!!) with entries every few days throughout the summer.

Postscript: Practice Makes Perfect

One of the most difficult things to get across to an aspiring performing artist is the importance of rehearsal. Not just quantity, but quality. It's not enough to think about practicing, and it's not much better to do it without energy, context and intention. The only way to perform well and consistently under pressure is to prepare for it thoughtfully and creatively.

So, I will take my own advice for once. I hereby practice.


"Sorry, but I can't."

"No, thanks."

"Wish I could help, but I can't."


"Thanks for asking - hope you can find someone else."


"Uh... no."

OK, maybe the next time I have to perform under pressure, I will have some rehearsal on my side. And I won't be in the same sorry state I ended up in this spring.

Amidst the spring chaos, City of Angels was rewarding, exhausting, and memorable. Thanks for holding it together on several fronts at once, Ben. :)