Monday, April 27, 2009


The Twitterverse is holding an opera plot contest - a re-run of last month's informal contest, this time with official judging and prizes! To join the fun, start here. If you want to join the fun but you don't tweet, start here.

The gist of it? Reduce an opera synopsis to 130 characters. Amazing to see what can be done. It may help me swear off deadly dull detailed program synopses forever! And of course, we're particularly watching for entries for our 2009 trilogy...


You can't tell those are your BFs? Seriously? Oh no! Don't do it with the other one! Wait. Maybe you want it like this? Huh?

In the words of the immortal Crosby, Stills and Nash: "Love the One You're With."


Mortals, gods and allegory - oh my! Why coming home sometimes makes us wish we traveled more.

Home after 20 years to find a houseful of men after your wife, drunkards & horny teenagers in the yard. Grab that bow and arrow.


Entourage, a la Bohemia. Consumed girl shows up. Momus! I love you! She left. Let's eat. She coughs. Muff? She croaks.

Seamstress pals around with bohemians in a December-May affair. Receives muff as parting gift.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Ampersand'll Get You If You Don't Watch Out

On this beautiful summery spring day, I'm inappropriately excited about this short blog entry. (Go ahead, click on it; it won't take long.) This isn't Schadenfreude, for I bear no ill will to our symphonic neighbors to the east. I'm just happy that he noticed that Wolf Trap is still in there swingin'.

The Filene Center has 7,028 seats (including the ones on the lawn where you get grass stains on your bottom and get to snack on wine and cheese all night). My Wolf Trap colleagues who deal with bookings on the pop/rock/jazz/blues/etc (let's just use the common if slightly misleading "non-classical") side often cite the smallness of our venue. Hahahahaha. Yes, I know it's tough to compete with huge arenas for the the attentions of huge pop culture phenoms. But dealing with roughly three times the number of seats in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for each night? See, my heart skips a beat just thinking about it.

The "&" Part of My Job

Yes, I run the WTOC. But here's my whole job title: "Director, Wolf Trap Opera & Classical Programming." It's the ampersand that gets you all the time. I book our chamber music series, and I also work with the National Symphony Orchestra on the shows they bring out here each summer. And that's why Tim Smith's blog entry made me do a little happy dance.

Especially in these crazy times, it's tough to program "legit" (not my word) stuff in a 7,000-seat theatre. In the summer. Outside. There's no doubt that it's fun to hear the NSO play the lush score to Wizard of Oz with the moving towering two stories above you. And gamers of all ages will meet the orchestra for the first time, courtesy of Sonic the Hedgehog and his friends at Video Games Live. But here's the thing: it'll be every bit as magical to hear Sarah Chang dig into Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto or the Washington Chorus sink their teeth into Carmina. Not to mention the awesomeness that is going to be our Bohème, complete with the lush sounds of the NSO and some cutting-edge video projection design.

OK, the commercial is over. But it came from a good place. I didn't intend to proselytize today, but I was so pumped from the fact that someone noticed that we weren't doing Opera/Symphony Lite all summer. (Nothing that there's anything wrong with that:))

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Confessions of a Bibliophile

I have a new office neighbor here at Wolf Trap, just a few doors down. Thanks to generous donations, we were recently able to expand our music library, and I'm anxious to share it with this year's WTOC members.

The library itself is a relatively recent addition to our operation, but it has grown quickly in its scope and importance. Most days I wonder how we operated without it. There are over 5,000 items in its catalogue (not strictly impressive by library standards, but a huge thing for us), and the database is a thing of beauty. A recent search for Rossini's Barber of Seville brought up 4 different score editions, 5 audio recordings, 2 videos, the Beaumarchais play, 9 biographies of Rossini, and 21 opera programs spanning 56 years (including one from Glyndebourne in 1954.) Not to mention decades of periodicals, dozens of general opera reference books and a New Grove.

I'm an internet junkie, but the allure of the book still draws me and probably always will. I have both a Kindle and a pile of books on my bedside table. Digital libraries and searchable resources are golden, and I would not chose to live my professional life without them. But books and scores have texture, character, and (for me) a feeling of calm and substance. Am I in the last generation that will feel this way?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I Dreamed a Dream

I'm emerging from a few days of manipulating databases, and my right brain is out there foraging for food. So I was an easy target for this week's YouTube phenom, Susan Boyle.

The incongruity is inescapable. Forget the fact that her stage savvy is non-existent. I'm astonished by the fact that a woman with so little apparent connection to the center of her body (listen to that speaking voice...) can somehow find a way to pump out sound and (generally) sing on pitch. There's some crazy source of inner energy that only organizes itself when she sings.

All of that is curious to me, but somehow not as important as what we tend to do with someone/something like this. It's the Paul Potts question. (Yes, I know, Paul had some professional credits, and in that way, it's a different story. But bear with me.)

In my volunteer life I've worked with amateur (mostly teenage) actor/singers for 20 years now. I have a soft spot in my heart and my head for the way in which finding your voice onstage adds texture and value to your life, even if you aren't headed for a professional career. I know that these folks on the reality shows want to be famous, and I can't begrudge them that. What does rankle me (well, there are better words for it, but this isn't a personal blog) is the way our culture doesn't appear to value any of this unless it generates money or is done at the professional level.

Ms. Boyle couldn't function in a professional theatre if her life depended on it. Mr. Potts is a heart-felt musician with a lovely voice, but he couldn't sing Calaf in a real opera house without self-destructing. So fine. That doesn't mean that they don't have something to offer or that their talents and efforts are unimportant. But the message that gets out there - to those hundreds of thousands waiting in stadiums for the American Idol free-for-alls, to those beautiful and talented teenagers who can sing and dance, to regular people like Ms. Boyle who are chasing a dream - is that the only dream worth having is one where people pay you large sums of money for your music and a publicist and agent own your soul.

The professional music business is just that: a business. It's not often a place to indulge your passions and follow your dreams. rather, it's a place where your passion and dreams require daily protection and reinforcement so they don't die.

So sing as if your life depended on it. Feed your soul with art, literature, music, theatre... by being around it, participating in it, supporting it. But don't think that the only way or the best way to embrace it is to hit the big time.

That said, Ms. Boyle got the adrenaline boost of a lifetime from that crowd :)


For a blog rant on a higher level than mine, see this YouTube Symphony post from Greg Sandow.

And finally, on a much more somber note, see this news about the Orlando Opera. Although we're doing just fine so far (knock on wood), we're saving money by forgoing this month's Opera America conference. I'm sure it's going to be a difficult but important one for the industry.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Resumé Rants

I'm cleaning out my blog drafts folder - notes that I've made to myself and never fleshed out for a full post. Enjoy this, a random brain dump from last autumn's audition application process:

Please, dark/black font color only. Occasionally your resumé gets printed or photocopied, and the sexy light blue text disappears.

When you list the venue/organization for a role you've performed, please don't write "Opera Theatre." It may be apparent to you which Opera Theatre you mean, but it's terribly confusing for us until we match it up with the name of your conservatory, etc. Find a better way to abbreviate so that it fits in the column.

I'm liking the thumbnail photo as a feature on the resumé itself. The one upside-down thumbnail photo got our attention, but ultimately, it was a little irritating.

Please resist the urge to tell us everything you've ever done. A 3-page resumé is hardly ever to your advantage. Get a website and put everything there.

Last things first: Please put performances, degrees, etc in reverse chronological order.

In general, though, the professionalism of singer resumés has improved noticeably in recent years. Doesn't mean that we don't receive occasional train-wrecks, but my anecdotal sense is that it's getting better.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Fish out of Water

I am in the zone... writing supertitles, shepherding preseason production meetings, preparing to welcome artists. Opera. This is what I do. The rest of it is the price I pay for what I do. :)

In spite of the fact that I run a company, I am so not a typical opera fan. Talking about opera is such a pale imitation of doing it and experiencing it, and (not for lack of trying) I am still not good at being on the downstage side of the proscenium.

Lately I've wondered why.

Why I have so little in common with so many opera lovers... Why, if I didn't work in opera, I'm not sure I could go to the opera... Why I feel like such an imposter (my kids would say 'poser') when I travel in certain circles.

A few theories:


Or rather, lack of. My databases are legendary, because my longterm memory brain cells are not. You always have a second chance with me, for I probably don't remember the first one.

It's the episodic memory that's weak. I can't remember objectives details of specific performances, artists, careers. This makes me spectacularly bad at the favorite singer / best recording / historical performance game.

The procedural memory, on the other hand, is pretty much intact. I can remember how to do things. How the music and the stories spin out. How is all goes if I'm dropped into the middle of it. Process is golden. Product is fuzzy.


My world exists in thousands of shades of gray. To each his own. How calming it would be to see things in black and white occasionally, but how unlikely that is ever to happen. Judging performances, productions, artists on what is best and what is right? Never been able to do it, and not from lack of trying.

Opera lovers are opinionated. They know what they know. Full stop. No equivocating, no acknowledging that someone else's opinion may be valid. I cannot hold my own in their court.


Opera fans are big collectors. Recordings, playbills, reviews, memories. I don't collect anything. (I purge.) Whatever show I'm working on right now is my whole world. If there's anything else on the fringes of my consciousness, it's the show that's coming up next, not the ones in the past.

It Takes All Kinds

If you're a fan, God bless you. We need you. You give our art form energy, edge and passion. We love you. Just don't be offended if I can't be one of you.

*Barns fun-house photo courtesy of CameraMan. I've been looking for an excuse to use it.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Seth Godin's Passion/Pop Gulf

Some unfinished thoughts for a Monday.

Ever since Seth Godin wrote about the "Passion Pop Gulf" (almost a year ago!), I've not been able to get it out of my head. The Gulf is a no-man's-land, and I'm obsessed with how to stay out of it. Read the original post (it'll only take you a minute; it's short), then look at the graph below (I tried to link to Seth's original image, but the URL won't take.)

Working as I do for a marvelously messy and uncategorizable musical organization, I'm well aware of the Pop apex toward the right side of this graph - where the entertainment value and box office numbers are high. In our large amphitheatre, we provide lots of easy, free-wheeling musical fun. Hundreds of thousands of patrons depend on these shows for summer recreation.

I'm also well aware of (and slightly envious of, truth be told) the Passion apex on the left... the box-office-be-damned, bleeding edge, creatively brilliant and unbridled indie work that's done in almost every genre. At its worst (the extreme left edge), it can be self-indulgent and narrow-minded. But at its best, there are people drawn to it because it's not pop culture. (I love Seth's graph, but from a purely mathematical perspective, I think the hump on the left is just a tad optimistic...)

We do seem to be getting to a point in our long-tail age that a place at the very top of the Pop curve seems to guarantee a lack of authenticity. By the time someone gets that popular, that much of a phenom, it's almost taken for granted that they're a product of a popular music machine that somehow weeds out the truly creative and reinforces homogeneity.

I'm rambling. The WTOC will never have to content with any of the small liabilities (real or perceived) of climbing to the top of the Pop curve. Opera lives on the passion curve. The point here is that in pursuit of butts in seats, I fear sliding down the passion curve into the dreaded Gulf. Shaving down the rough edges in an attempt to be more palatable to more people, and in the process becoming a sad pale imitation of the folks who successfully ride the popular culture machine.

Yes, let's rid ourselves of the dysfunctional, old-fashioned, alienating trappings of classical music performances. All that does is clear the path for for anyone who wants to embrace the passion. But if we go too far - trying to be something we're not, glomming onto pop music trappings that really don't fit - all we do is dilute.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Così fan tutte... All Women Are the Same... So Do They All... What???

Many months ago, I bookmarked Greg Sandow's post about English supertitle translations of Italian operas, and then I asked Wolf Trap's own Italian guru Franca Gorraz to respond to some of the issues Greg raised. It's all on my mind today as I dive into what will grace the supertitle screens in this summer's Così fan tutte.

I try to start by holding both extremes in my mind at the same time: to capture as many nuances of the original text as possible while remembering that our audience needs to have an experience that's easy, natural, and unencumbered by the burden of academic correctness. So Franca is my touchstone on the original source, and I welcome her feedback on my supertitle drafts. And she is so accommodating and gracious when I say things like "It's too long - I only have 26 characters for that line" and "It goes by too fast - they'll be reading so furiously that everything else will get lost". Excuses, excuses...

For my previous posts on the art, craft, and masochism that is supertitle-writing, go here and here. For Franca's comments on Greg's blog post, keep reading!

As you can imagine, these questions are very familiar to me: I wrestle with them every single time I approach an opera in Italian (or French). Figuring out the literal translation is of course necessary and the very first step (blessed be Nico Castel for ever and ever, right?), and trying to put it in reasonable English that is still faithful to the original is essential.

The problem with it is that it is almost impossible to "translate" the differences in language registers, whose shifts do convey many unspoken messages and indications. Think of the more stylized structure of "Porgi amor," when Contessa is still very aware of her rank and follows the appropriate language and an unsullied legato line that reflects her control over herself and her own emotions, compared to the language of 'Dove sono" - utterly stripped down, by choice, to stunning simplicity (and still breathtaking line, of course).

"Dove sono" comes after that long recit with all its quicksilver mood switches... trepidation... pep talk to herself to convince herself that it'll be fine... seeing/watching herself reduced to this... the bitter, clear-eyed, structurally very tightly articulated list of the wrongs done to her - that culminate in that shattering line "fammi or cercar da una mia SERVA aita," the indignity of having to have a subordinate see all these weaknesses. (And oh how singers almost squirm at that "serva!" It goes so against the grain, against the feeling of Contessa and Susanna being "friends.") From this moment of stark reality comes the simplicity I mentioned.

This brings me to the problem of having to address the issues of language as indicator of social class and of the way the character identifies (or not) with it. One of the most sublime moments in all of opera, the silence that precedes Conte's "Contessa perdono" and then the words themselves, often get a giggle. How to convey to a modern audience the fullness of meaning, the cosmic significance of Almaviva humbling himself to his wife/property, and begging her forgiveness as countess... and yet, how else to translate than with "Countess, forgive me'"...

I think that these issues are particularly difficult for an American to face because English is so ideologically determined to avoid class references, of course, and the need to claim absolute equality is now so ingrained that acting /speaking truly as if you, Count Almaviva, knew that you held absolute rights, ordained by God, over Susanna is so very hard hard for the singer to inhabit, for the spectator to embrace.

Add to that the need to be aware of subtle lexical /structural choices that, for example, show us a character like Adina adopting, early on, a style of language that is more typical of the male world, to change later on to a much more 'feminine' and soft vocabulary and music, and you can see why I am always thinking I need more time to work on language! And let's not even talk of the need to transmit the colors and layers of the aural landscapes created, say, in Fauré's or Bellini's songs...

My only solution is to try and uncover all the layers for the interpreter, and then hope that his/her singing will somehow embody the awareness she or he has acquired. Sometimes it works, sometimes, not so much. It is still a joy to work on it.

I love that last paragraph. Franca does a lot of work with our singers - some of it easy and joyous, some of it almost maddeningly in its detail. And as you can imagine, some artists cotton to this type of work more easily than others. But as opera producers, it's not just about trying to put the right constellation of words up on the screen - it's about providing as much detailed context as possible so that the supertitles are just vessels into which the actors pour endless stores of nuance, character and meaning.

If you're coming to Così, Ulisse or Bohème this summer, you'll have the opportunity to download my supertitle script from our website before coming to the theater. (This is an idealistic promise made in April, but you can probably hold me to it.)