Thursday, February 26, 2009


I spent most of today doing spreadsheets, so the language center of my brain is in hiding. Cowering, actually, under piles of numbers.

Therefore, in lieu of legitimate blog content, a few diversions:

Recent Searches That Led Folks to this Blog

  • How to tie rope to opera house traps (uh, come again?)
  • Kim Whitman blog (ah, my evil twin...)
  • Translation volta la terrea aria
  • Opera supertitles controversy
  • Mezzo audition arias

And my favorite...

  • Naked French audition (wonder what s/he was actually looking for...)
What I'm Giving Up for Lent

OK, this may sound facetious and somewhat frivolous but it's not; primarily because of what this particular Lenten discipline will accomplish if it's achievable.

For the 40 days of Lent (plus the 5 Sundays therein), I will not take my work home. The laptop stays in the office. The browser on the home computer will neither be pointed toward web exchange server, nor Blogger, nor Twitter.

This means I have to be ruthlessly efficient at work, and I have to be willing to face the consequences if I can't meet a deadline. It just so happens that March and April may be the absolute only time of the year when I could actually even attempt such an experiment. And it may come to partial grief. But it's worth a try.


And finally, a Thomas Merton quote that a thoughtful colleague sent to me in response to this post. Thanks, JL.

"Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else. They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness. The urgency of their swift movement seems to ignore the tranquility of nature by pretending to have a purpose. The loud plane seems for a moment to deny the reality of the clouds and of the sky, by its direction, its noise, and its pretended strength. The silence of the sky remains when the plane has gone. The tranquility of the clouds will remain when the plane has fallen apart. It is the silence of the world that is real. Our noise, our business, our purposes, and all our fatuous statements about our purposes, our business, and our noise: these are the illusion."

Thomas Merton. No Man Is An Island

Monday, February 23, 2009

Tweet. Tweet.

Over on Greg Sandow's blog, he's talking about going viral. I've been half-heartedly experimenting with Twitter since last year, and I'll have to say that I'm still not convinced. I can easily see the potential here, and I know that it's already working for some people in certain niches. And although I consider myself a fast-follower (well, probably because I tend to be a fast-follower...) I realize that none of this happens without a significant amount of effort. The time spent establishing a Twitter network and figuring out how to use it has to come from somewhere. And since the work days are full to overflowing, guess what... yet another piece of business that spills over into the rest of what's left of Life. Is it worth it?

Don't mean to whine (even though I am...), for all of this is terribly exciting. But I'm not sure that tweeting for my company isn't shouting into the wilderness. For sure, with any luck, when the millennial generation moves into the heart of the opera demographic, they'll bring all of this 21st-century networking with them. But for now, I'm less convinced.

Yet I'm still out here cyber-kicking. The blog turns 5 years old this year. And I'm committed to sticking with the Twitter experiment at least throughout this coming season. But I firmly believe that for any communication to work, the originator must know her audience. And in this case, I'm not sure I do. But perhaps I'll only find the answer through doing.

Find me here:

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Inspecting. 5.

A look in the rear-view mirror at the recent Inspector from Rome workshop:

The Goal

We set out to put Act One of this new opera "on its feet," since that's the only real way to figure out what works and what doesn't (and everything in between). We get a chance to adjust the piece before we get into a production period when such adjustments would cause the project to run over deadline and/or over budget. And, a telescopic look at Act One invariably has positive implications for the development of Act Two.

Back Story

Wolf Trap commissioned the first Musto/Campbell opera (Volpone) and premiered it in 2004. Since then, John and Mark have written two more operas - Later the Same Evening for the University of Maryland and the National Gallery of Art, and Bastianello for the New York Festival of Song.

Source Material

The jumping-off point is the classic comic play The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol. Setup: Provincial community awaits arrival of important official but mistakes the wrong guy for said official. (Kind of like Waiting for Guffmann...) The basic premise is time-tested and, not incidentally, in the public domain. The source play takes place in 19th century Russia, but our opera takes place in 1932 Sicily.


We engaged a conductor, director, stage manager, and singers for all roles in Act 1.

The piano/vocal score was provided to the singers about 2 months out. (A portion of it came a bit later.) Because John composes with Finale we were able to output a midi file from the score, enabling the singers to listen to the accompaniment and their parts on computer or iPod. An artistically limited vehicle, but a fabulously helpful tool.

The singers were asked to learn and absorb the material well enough to withstand an informal staging process. We have done workshops before with some singers still on book, and given the short turn-around for these things, it's completely understandable that artists may not be as completely memorized as they would be for a production staging period.


We spent about a day working the music for each of the act's three scenes. The absolutely marvelous thing was that by after that first day, the singers were completely off book for the staging portion of the workshop. (Thank you thank you thank you thank you.) The director was then able to experiment with a potential staging as if we were going to go onstage with the thing in a few weeks.

In a production situation, when you hit a snag, you examine your approach to the material to see why something isn't working. But in the workshop, you are also able to take a look at the material itself to ask if there might be something there that is impeding success.

What We Learned

We looked at the entire piece from micro and macro perspectives. Some examples:

Text Setting: Pitch
This is particularly important for a comedy, where intelligibility is critical. John had done a lot of this vetting while writing, but we caught a few more things that needed to be inflected differently in order to come across clearly. This arose most often when a particular syllable ends up too close to the extremes of the vocal range, where differentials between vowels just aren't as pronounced. (I'm not talking about singer vowel modification, just the acoustical properties of frequencies that limit our ability to hear things in extreme ranges.)

Text Setting: Rhythm
Timing is everything, and crispness of rhythm goes a long way toward vitality. Most of the changes consisted of shortening note values so that the inflection and delivery of a word or sentence didn't come across as stilted or affected.

Because Mark works in rhyme, and the structure of his libretti is so married to the structure of John's music, many problems are encountered and solved before the notes even get written. But even during the workshop, Mark listened intently and suggested occasional alterations and alternatives to refine the language, illuminate the characters or improve intelligibility.

The metronome indications in the score had to be created in abstract during the compositional process. Conductor Tim Long internalized them, we began rehearsing with them as gospel, and found that they were pretty easily negotiable. But once the thing got up on its feet, John felt that quite a few of them were too plodding. An easy change to make in the score, and one that has important implications for the score's effectiveness. Tim understands what makes transitions and tempo relationships intuitive, and he and John worked tirelessly to determine the best way to get in and out of sections of the score.

Precious few, proportionately speaking. But if we can nail most of them in the development phase, that's pure gold for the copying/printing process.

Piano Reduction
With yours truly at the keyboard, John had a pretty good test case for what's playable and what isn't, and how it sounds when reproduced by someone who doesn't yet know the orchestration (which is still in John's head and not yet in mine). Many pianists better than I might've nailed the thorniest parts of this score. But I'm a pretty good indication of what Average Rehearsal Pianist can do without creating carnage. John now knows which parts of the piano/vocal score need to have their expectations reduced :)

A few times we adjusted the rhythmic or pitch placement of an individual line within the texture of a duet/trio/ensemble, so that the desired effect was achieved - so that the audience could more easily hear what was meant to "stand out."

Connective Tissue
Two transitional moments were amplified in length because there wasn't enough music written to achieve the needed entrances or exits. John wrote some more music that evening so that it could be tested the next day. And in a few cases, we found that as little as a single measure of music (subsequently deleted) was getting in the way of the timing of the phrase and the rhyme.

The entire week, John was absorbing the way in which the vocal lines fit within what he has conceived for the orchestral texture. Some vocal/instrumental doublings were added to clarify the balance. And brainstorming ensued as to specific colors for certain effects.

Learning Curve
Our singers were heros, learning the score quickly and smartly. But occasionally, there were moments when they struggled disproportionately with a specific interval/pickup, etc. Sometimes the effect was worth the struggle. (Says I:) But almost as often, John would suggest a tweaked vocal line that preserved the intentions of the original but was far more intuitive to the singing brain.

The Big Picture
And finally, at the end of it all, we took a deep breath and presented it to a small audience of friends. For if an audience can't get caught up in the story, then all of the negotiating about sixteenth notes, quarter rests, and synonyms is irrelevant. The entire creative team had a chance to step back from the microscope and allow the hour to unfold in real time. This week we're gathering our thoughts and sharing them.

I cannot say enough about the value of an environment where all parties bring experience, smarts, patience and good will to bear. Kevin staged the piece, and Tim conducted it, as if we were going to perform it. The singers dug deep and worked hard. Stage management endured our almost-daily chances of rehearsal venue with admirable good humour. And the composer and librettist were willing to look at their material with enough detachment and professionalism to allow it to breathe.

What's Next

As we formulate our responses to the workshop, John is busily orchestrating Act I, and Mark is writing the libretto to Act II. Things will move quickly to keep us on track for workshopping Act II in September! Till then, we turn our collective opera attention to summer 2009, which is (gulp) right around the corner...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Inspecting. 4.

The reality of producing and playing a workshop has eclipsed (well, smashed...) any hopes of systematically blogging about it. I will have to do so in the past tense. Later this week when the dust settles. We've been working steadily all week, and colleagues from OTSL (with whom we co-commissioned Inspector) arrive today for our final run-through.

We're indebted to the cast of this workshop (see below) for their wonderful preparation, good will, enthusiasm and talents. And of course to John and Mark for this gift of a comic opera about the foibles of government, greed and chutzpah.

An Inspector from Rome
Act One Workshop
February 2009
John Musto, composer
Mark Campbell, librettist
Timothy Long, conductor
Kevin Newbury, director
Joshua Jeremiah, Mayor Fazzobaldi
Jamie Van Eyck, Bernadetta (his wife)
Kiera Duffy, Beatrice (their daughter)
Dominic Armstrong, Tancredi
Liam Bonner, Ossipo
Andrew Adelsberger, Adolfo
Alexandra Christoforakis, Malacorpa
Nick Houhoulis, Padre Ruffiano
Astrid Marshall, Bobachina
Meghan McCall, Agrippa
Chris Newcomer, Bobachino
April Irwin, A Secretary
Sean Corcoran, Stage Manager

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Inspecting. 3.

Tuesday, February 10...

.... Act 1 Scene 3 of An Inspector from Rome, where we get to know the Mayor's wife ("Shoes... Hats... Gowns!") and daughter.

... Day 6 of the Inspector from Rome workshop where your friendly blogger is hit with some mild variety of flu virus. Arms and neck aching badly during rehearsal - chalked it up to not playing the piano that much these days and being a keyboard wimp. When the fever kicked in a few hours later, I was plenty mad at getting sick but just a little relieved that my pianistic pride was still intact.

Well-timed, for today is the workshop day off. Ill-timed, for today was slated as catch-up for my real job...

Lots to report over the final 4 workshop days. I'm hunkering down today but will be back at you tomorrow.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Inspecting. 2.

Act I Scene 2 of the Inspector from Rome workshop this weekend. Liam (he said I could use his real name:)) and Dominic (he didn't say, but I'm sure he won't mind) are in town, playing Tancredi (the guy who is mistaken for the government inspector) and his sidekick Ossipo. (I always thought that Ossipo stood for Open Source Software Initial Public Offering, but I guess I was wrong. :)

Tancredi and Ossipo are political exiles, fleeing Mussolini's Rome. They've stumbled onto the provincial town of Santa Strozzetta, and they have gotten stuck there because Tancredi has gambled away their money.

Ossipo starts the scene by talking (well, singing) to his stomach. Actually, his stomach talks back to him, too. It's a nice comic device, but its usefulness goes far beyond shtick. Director Kevin Newbury has remarked that the composer and librettist of Inspector do a great job of solving expositional challenges. Ossipo is ostensibly begging with his poor starved stomach to stop growling, but what he's really doing is giving us his back story. Efficient and entertaining :)

I've had great fun watching the guys talk through these scenes. (And not just because when they treat them as dialogue I get a break from playing the piano.) Singers often rail against a director's request to treat operatic text as dialogue, but they really should not protest. Yes, I know it's hard. And some singers aren't naturally "good" at it. But what you learn about the scene and your character when you allow them to find their own rhythm is invaluable.

You know there are other things in life
Besides eating.
Your interests should be more diverse!
There’s poetry, science,
Painting, opera,

You’re right, I’m only making things worse.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Inspecting. 1.

I'm in my happy place (literally), at the piano. Playing An Inspector from Rome.

We are workshopping Act One of this brand-new-only-partially-born opera by John Musto and Mark Campbell. If you were lucky enough to catch their Volpone in 2004 or 2007, you'll not want to miss Inspector in 2010.

An Inspector from Rome is based on the timeless Russian comedy The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol. Even if you don't know the Gogol play, you might have a good frame of reference if you've seen the movie Waiting for Guffman. The details vary, but the guts of the story are the same. Clueless folk in a small town are awaiting the arrival of a muckety-muck. The person they take to be the visiting dignitary (in this case, a government inspector) is an unsuspecting bystander. Misunderstandings, incongruities, and comedy ensue.

Today, Act One, Scene One.

The action has been moved from Gogol's provincial Russia to the fictional Sicilian town of Santa Strozzetta. (strozzare; verb; to choke, strangle). The time is 1930, and the town is only beginning to hear about what Mussolini is doing in Rome. Facts are scarce, but vivid enough to strike fear in the heart of the Mayor when he receives news that an inspector from Rome will be visiting. (Perhaps incognito. Opera thrives on mistaken identity.)

The Mayor isn't exactly beyond reproach.

So the books were a little cooked,
Some minor taxes overlooked...

Hmm... and I thought this was a period piece... Some things never go out of style.

In Scene One, the Mayor calls together his Board of Directors: the Director of Order, Director of the Church, Directress of Education, and Directress of the Hospital and Cemetery (an intriguing combination), exhorting them to make sure everything is on the "up and up" in preparation for the inspector.

Composer John Musto isn't here yet, but that didn't stop him from emailing me a revised page of the score this afternoon. He'll be here all next week (with librettist Mark Campbell), and we'll continue to experiment, tweak, sing, and laugh.