Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Return of Lunch Music!

"I Can Cook, Too"
Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano

"Roses and Lilies"
Dominic Armstrong, tenor

"Somewhere over the Rainbow"
Ava Pine, soprano

"Black Max"
Daniel Billings, baritone

Jeremy Frank at the mighty Yamaha

Part of the peanut gallery (photo by Beth Krynicki)

A Little Lunch Music is a weekly series of mini-concerts for the employees of the Wolf Trap Foundation, graciously given by artists of the Wolf Trap Opera Company. Look for Lunch Music photos on Thursdays throughout the season!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Dysprosium, Technitium & Palladium

I've historically been a bit frustrated about our inability to tap into the wealth of knowledge, ideas, questions, and enthusiasm that lies within all of the artists and staff who spend a summer at Wild Times Opera Camp. This summer we've decided to be proactive, and we've established a weekly discussion forum - a series of "table" talks. Earlier this week, we had some fun with the Naming of Things. The first noun that came to mind was "Symposium," but that sounded so helplessly stuffy that I don't even want to attend. We ended up with:

Wolf Trap Opera Company’s

Periodic Table

Elements of our Craft

Although a few of these sessions will include guest faculty and artists, and they will be open to Wolf Trap interns, staff, and all members of the WTOC, the intention is not to do a dog-and-pony show type of panel discussion for the audience. It takes very little to put me on the Master Class expert struts his stuff for the benefit of the assembled unwashed soapbox... Remember this? (Ignore the font color disasters if you follow the link.)

We want to create an environment where our artists can brainstorm and share their own knowledge about all manner of things related to our profession and art form. So, to that end, and thanks to the ever-creative RT, here's the first draft of our Tuesday series:

June 2
Es 99 – Einsteinium
(Be smart about stuff)
Cautionary tales, ideas, and strategies about the business of singing. What's working for you, and what isn't? Where are the smoke screens? Where's the line between professional and personal?

June 9
Ca 20 – Calcium
(Strong bones make for a healthy body)
With guest artist Susan Shields
Most of us will never be dancers, but there are ways that we can honor our bodies and bring an enhanced awareness of our physical selves to our work as musicians. How can we get over our inhibitions to embrace this? And let's stop pretending that we can get by without doing so.

June 16
Dy 66 – Dysprosium
(True love is hard to come by… look it up)
A Così fan tutte Panel Discussion
The sky's the limit. Often said to be an opera more for the performers than for the audience… Who belongs to whom?

June 23
Ac 89 – Actium
(becoming someone else on stage)
with guest artist Leon Major
How is acting for singers different than for theatre actors? Where do you find your point of departure? Do you recognize your own process?

June 30
Au 79 – Gold
(He who makes the gold has some of it taken away)
with guest Aaron Urbanek
You can't spell arias without an I, R, or S: Tax Tips for the Working Musician.

July 7
Tc 43 – Technitium
(All the geek you can handle)
A discussion about Web 2.0, led by yours truly. What it's like to be on the bleeding edge of living in the cloud. (Got any more geeky metaphors?)

July 14
Pd 46 – Palladium
(And other ancient artifacts)
Ulisse Panel Discussion
Digging into a baroque opera. Is it for the faint of heart?

July 21
No 102 – Nobelium
(Altruism is a good thing)
FYA/WTOS Round Table
This year's Filene Young Artists speak candidly with our Studio Artists about their experiences with young artist programs, summer programs, grad school, etc.

July 28
Cm 96 – Curium
(Too little too late)
A Bohème Panel Discussion
What it’s like to update a classic. And what's with this new concert staging hybrid? Is it a trend, and does it require a different skill set from the performers?

I'll file reports this summer from the brain trust:)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fun with the God of Thunder

From: Conductor Thor
To: Ulisse Director, Administrators, Orchestra Contractor, Technical Director
Subject: Thor wants thunder!

Dear Ulisses colleagues,

As the score specifies thunder several times, and since the love of thunder is in my genes, I've been researching authentic thunder makers for Baroque theaters. The thunder 'sheet' is a later invention (all of that metal in a big sheet) but thunder boxes and bowling logs, etc seem to be more authentic. I know they have a thunder drum/box at the Met filled with tennis balls, etc. Evidently it makes quite a racket. Do you think our percussionist and the prop dept could put their minds to this and see if we could come up with something effective? Not a big deal, but it might be fun if we could find something noisey and authentic.

From: Kim Witman
Subject: RE: Thor wants thunder!

We'll work on this.
And I think that Thor needs to be in the opera.

From: Technical Director
Subject: RE: Thor wants thunder!

Hey all,Have we discussed getting the actual god of thunder onstage? Are we concerned that the creation of lighting bolts backstage by a deity poses a possible fire hazard?Also, traditionally Thor wears a loin cloth onstage. Since the production seems to be heading in a more post modern industrial direction do we need to consider a thong or 'banana hammock'?

From: Conductor Thor
Love all the ideas, kind of a post modern, all gods baroque ring cycle and Thor must appear on stage. I've often thought professionally of just going as 'Thor', like Cher or Bono or the Artist formerly known as Prince. But for your own comfort and safety I was thinking more of a helmet with horns and animal pelts, ----lots of them. Banana thongs? Seems distracting, and talk about danger! Sparks!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Chapter 5 - Let Me Tell You a Story

For context on this post, go here.

Eleven years since I last spent time with Fiordiligi, Dorabella, Despina, Ferrando, Guglielmo, and Alfonso. I actually didn't think I missed them, but I'm glad to have them back. The thing is, they've changed. Or perhaps it's not they who have changed.

This is the Così of words, of linguistic intelligence. I'm writing my first set of supertitle translations and uncovering things I never noticed before. And I'm recently hyper-focused on telling stories to opera audiences in a new way.

My own kids are now the prototypes for the couples in Così. I don't feel like Fiordiligi or Dorabella any more, perhaps sadly. Rather, I feel like their poor benighted mother. Get a grip, girls!

Having had teenage boys in and out of my house since my last experience with Così, I can no longer get exorcised about Ferrando and Guglielmo. They're just immature. And any teenage girl worth her salt understands that.

And I'm kind of newly pissed-off at Alfonso. Really, he should know better. I don't care if he's developed this warped world-view of love. He should be grown up enough to keep it to himself. Finally, I feel kind of sorry for Despina this time around. She's kind of happy with her single-minded focus, but it's still evil of Alfonso to use her and not clue her in to the whole scheme.

As I tweak the translation, I listen to these people talk to and about one another. For the first time, it doesn't just feel like "opera world," it feels like the real world. And I'm determined to use language to flesh out that feeling as far as I can.

Now it's time to stop talking about Così and to start to find out what this chapter really holds. See you at The Barns at the end of June!

Fortunate is the man who always looks on the bright side
and lets reason guide him through the pitfalls of life.
That which makes others weep will bring him laughter.
And he will find lovely calm in the chaos of the world!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Chapter 4 - Imposter Syndrome

For context on this post, go here.

I took over as General Director of Wolf Trap Opera in 1997. When my predecessor was planning to leave to run the young artist program at the Met, he mentioned that I might want to look into taking this job. I said, "What are you, nuts?" (Well, actually I used another adjective, but this is a professional blog:)

A few months later, the job wasn't filled yet, so I applied. My kids were both in school, and the itinerant musician hours were (as many of you no doubt know) a spectacularly bad fit with my children's school hours. I actually got passed over for the job the first time, but was offered it after the first choice applicant decided not to take it.

Nice set-up for Imposter Syndrome. I've had it all my life - as a musician, as an administrator, as a parent. But the summer of 1998, it was in full bloom.

The fall 1997 audition store unearthed some nice Mozart and Rossini talent, and my first WTOC season behind a desk was fairly conservative: Così, Abduction, and Barber. (I still my first irate patron letter, entitled "Lack of Imagination.") In retrospect, there was much to be proud of in my maiden outing as an administrator, but at the time I was convinced I'd be exposed as a complete imposter and dragged out of the theatre by my hair.

This was my visual Così. As a coach, I had been more involved in the dramaturgical and character-based aspects of opera than a lot of my musician colleagues. But design? Talk about culture shock. The first few years of my administrative life were spent educating myself on the side of the business that I had largely avoided as a coach - the visual side. Costumes, sets, lights. Damn.

I think I got into the whole multiple intelligence thing because I was frustrated with the way so much of our culture is visually-based. Voice teachers, coaches, even my therapist colleagues back in the day - they were all so fond of using visual imagination as a springboard to relaxation, imagination, and discovery. But here's the rub. I never really learned how to see.

Somehow I see with my subconscious. I must notice things, for I rely on so many cues that can only be gleaned by seeing. But I have a serious lack of ability to call on my visual intelligence in any predictable or helpful way. Wanna see me break into a sweat? Open a ground plan on my desk. Just the thought of it makes me need to breathe deeply.

Over time, I've convinced myself that this flaw isn't fatal. Complete knowledge and disclosure goes a long way. And I continue to educate my eye. I try to hire people I trust to make the technical theatre decisions. And lately, I'm learning that my instincts are really not all that bad. It's just that I have trouble articulating them.

Up next, the final chapter (for now): Let Me Tell You a Story.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Chapter 3 - Recitative Whiplash

For context on this post, go here.

First, a definition: The recitative is the portion of an opera that's sung without full orchestral accompaniment - in this case, with just a harpsichord. Strictly, the recitative (or recit) is meant to be accompanied by a "continuo" group that often includes various keyboard, plucked, and/or string instruments like harpsichord, lute, organ, cello, etc. But in the case of this production, and in many Mozart opera productions, the accompanying instrument is a solo harpsichord.

1995 was my aural Così. (Gardner more commonly called this intelligence by the name "musical," but I find that too encompassing.) I had recently begun accompanying my boss Peter Russell (then General Director of Wolf Trap Opera) on the annual audition tour, and I was listening to voices in a quantity and a fashion that I hadn't done before. So I spent a lot of time thinking about Mozart's writing for the voice, how he differentiates these six voices in Così, and what it takes to nail these roles.

Anecdotally, there was a pivotal moment in one of the performances that demonstrated how completely I had internalized Mozart's recits.

Recitative is essentially dialogue that's sung on pitch. It goes by pretty quickly, in the rhythm and speed of conversation. But it's not strictly improvisatory - the composer has written it down, and the harpsichordist is given a predetermined series of accompaniment chords that guide the recit through the correct keys so that everyone arrives at the next "number" (aria, ensemble, chorus, etc) intact.

But, like speech, much of recitative sounds alike. So it's kind of easy to get lost. And that's what happened. We were cranking along in a recit scene when someone jumped way ahead. I heard it happen, and somehow I followed. At this point, we were in the wrong key, but I was transposing and trying to keep the melodic structure of the recit intact. Just about the time I was wondering how to modulate to the key we were supposed to be in, someone else decided to back up and sing the part that we inadvertently skipped over. OK, fine. But then, when we finished the omitted part, we came up to the part we had already done. What to do? Repeat or skip? We skipped, and I realized that we had about 5 seconds to get into the right key before we crashed into the upcoming ensemble.

Confused? No need to make sense of it. It all lasted maybe 40 seconds (and several lifetimes). And really, no one else ever knew. (We didn't have supertitles at the time... that could've been awkward...) The point here is that not only was the dialogue/recit of Così completed embedded in my aural memory, so was the general sound of Mozart's recitative. The fact that I could make it up on the spot was a revelation. (One that bore fruit ten years later in Instant Opera, but that's another story.)

I was listening in a way, possibly with an intensity that I hadn't been aware of before. This third one was the Così of the musical ear.

Up next, Chapter 4 - Imposter Syndrome.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Chapter 2 - Guns? Really?

For context on this post, go here.

My 1991 Così was my first at Wolf Trap, and it was a watershed in the beginnings of my grappling with the extra-musical aspects of our business. I entered the world of opera as a pianist, and I entered it quite late. I got my first opera job at the age of 30, and I had some serious catch-up to do. So I developed a healthy dose of tunnel vision for a while, for I simply had to get my own house in order and stay one step ahead of the singers. I had paid scant attention to some of the theatrical aspects of our art form. And a Christopher Alden production was just what the doctor ordered to get my attention.

I don't know why I remember guns. But the Albanians had them. And it wasn't a big deal, particularly in retrospect. Fairly mild. Yet it fascinated me. For the first time, I found myself lost in these characters and the crazy world they made onstage. The music was still there, still integrated, but I had gotten to the point where I could stop paying full attention to it all the time.

Gardner talks about interpersonal (between individuals) and intrapersonal (self-knowledge) intelligences. The shock of some of the production choices helped me begin to examine the people in Così, how they related to one another, and how well they actually knew themselves. I was a little preoccupied with Dorabella, probably because I wanted to be her. (Personally, I think I had the convictions of Fiordiligi without her coglioni, and that was boring. Much more fun to imagine living free and easy like Dorabella.)

In retrospect, I hadn't even begun to figure out how Mozart's masterful musical characterizations defined these characters' personalities and world views. I was looking at them through a very specific, rather distorted lens; yet it was just the one I needed to give me a new gateway into the world of Così.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Chapter 1 - I'm Playing As Fast as I Can

For context on this post, go here.

My first full Così was at Washington National Opera in 1989 (then The Washington Opera, a.k.a. TWO, when I was a proud member of the TWOTWO's - The Women of The Washington Opera). I was the only pianist/coach assigned to the show, and the conductor was one of the best Mozart pianists of our time. I was terrified.

I had recently survived a confusing and misguided struggle with carpal tunnel syndrome, and it had left me with a lingering lack of confidence in my keyboard technique. (Misguided because I spent two years deconstructing and reconstructing my technique, only to find out that the whole thing was hormonally induced, then undergoing carpal tunnel surgery.) Playing Mozart for this conductor had me so intimidated that I retreated inside my physical technique in a way I nevber had before.

I had never trained to be a solo pianist, and I had developed curious ways of approaching things that had more to do with recreating an orchestral sound at the piano than they did with building a pristine keyboard technique. The conductor used to come around behind my shoulder, watch my "nervous repetition" and alternately shake his head in wonder and cluck his disapproval. ("Nervous" in this case not having anything to do with my terror; it just means banging out a single note or chord in quick succession by kind of hammering at it, instead of using finger-substitution. Sorry - no more pianist jargon, I promise.)

In that way, this was my kinesthetic Così. I was so preoccupied with my own body and its relationship to the piano that I missed many other things. But it was still an important gateway to the piece. I still remember the hours of trying to make what was on the printed page for "Soave sia il vento" (which kind of looks like a Hanon exercise in E Major) reconcile with the shimmering sound the orchestra made when it played it. And, this being my first big experience with playing technical rehearsals on both the piano and the harpsichord (for recits), I was finding my sea legs on how to move my hands to the harpsichord in a split second and have it not sound like I was playing it with oven mitts on.

I had also retreated inside my body because I was in the first trimester of my second pregnancy, and I spent long 4-hour staging sessions wondering if I could wait until the next break to throw up.)

This Così also was a mathematical one. Gardner calls this intelligence "mathematical/logical." In music, it has everything to do with architecture and structure. Understanding Mozart as a pianist is a challenging and rewarding thing, but it barely prepares you for wrapping your mind around what it takes to create an overall structure for a 3.5-hour Mozart opera. The pacing, the way that the small moments need to stack up as building blocks for the entire evening - that's a left-brain task in the extreme. 20 years later I am still in awe of conductors who can do it, and I first became aware of its terrifying significance in my first Così at the Kennedy Center.

Next: Chapter 2 - Guns? Really?

Friday, May 01, 2009

Journeys with Così: An Overture and Five Chapters


In a previous life, I worked for several years in the mental health field. Shortly after I transitioned to the opera business (yes, as I'm often told, not a change of career, just a change of venue...), Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences became all the rage. I bought all of his books and immersed myself in what seemed to be a concept that was so fundamentally sound and obvious that it seemed impossible that no one had explored it before. Of course, it didn't spring from nowhere - there were plenty of antecedents, and there have been countless new and similar theories since. But to me, it was rocket science. Exciting and world-changing.

Had the internet existed at the time, I mightn't have tunneled so deeply inside this theory. But I was alone with my books, and I spent several years applying the multiple intelligences approach to my musical life. It completely changed the way I approached learning and performing music, and it fundamentally altered the way I coached and taught. For a time I even had pipe dreams about writing a book on the application of multiple intelligences in the performing arts, but I was sort of interrupted by child-bearing and child-rearing. :)

So what does this have to do with Così?

I'm approaching my 5th Così. And it feels (in a good way) like completely new territory. Familiar, yes, but not the least bit predictable. (Unlike my eight Flutes, which always seem like Groundhog Day. But that's another story.) As I stewed on this a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that each one of my Così experiences was approached in a very different way. There was a distinctly different agenda for each one, and yes, they align in a curious way with Gardner's Multiple Intelligences (visual, aural, kinesthetic, linguistic, mathematical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal).

So, here's the table of contents:

Chapter 1 - I'm Playing as Fast as I Can
1989, The Washington Opera (kinesthetic, mathematical)

Chapter 2 - Guns? Really?
1991, Wolf Trap Opera (intrapersonal, interpersonal)

Chapter 3 - Recitative Whiplash
1995, Wolf Trap Opera (aural)

Chapter 4 - Imposter Syndrome
1998, Wolf Trap Opera (visual)

Chapter 5 - Let Me Tell You a Story
2009, Wolf Trap Opera (linguistic)

This tale, serialized and posted in installments. See you next week in 1989.