Monday, June 29, 2009

The Fox and the Critics

First, the Fox. Big Daddy Fox Volpone.

Exactly two years ago tomorrow, our recording of Volpone was In the Can. As of last weekend, it is finally on my desk, available in the lobby at The Barns and on its way to CDBaby and iTunes! (Should be available online in a little under 2 weeks.)

It was a much thornier and confusing process than it had any right to be, and it almost foiled us multiple times. But we persevered and prevailed, and we are thrilled to get this marvelous comic opera out there where more people can hear it!

Good Things about Bad Reviews

Second, the critics.

In recent seasons we've generally escaped the disapproving glances of the media. Didn't get off so easily this time, so today was an interesting day. I've written before about the challenge of handling reviews within a young artist company. One of the biggest hurdles is getting folks to ignore the coverage when it's approving. It's so seductive to read that a knowledgeable person loved your performance. But once you succumb to identifying with the critic's assessment, you're doomed to the same buy-in when (not if, but when) it turns south.

So, in the spirit of gratitude journals and other various list-making exercises, my five good things about bad reviews:

1. You don't have to tear them down repeatedly from the dressing room corridor. Good reviews tend to get posted on walls and doors throughout the theatre by folks who want to share their pride in their production. But not everyone reads these things, and most people shouldn't. So we search and destroy, even though they're flattering. Bad notices don't tend to get posted as frequently :)

2. Colleagues feel you need respectful silence. (To mourn or something...) These days tend to be quiet. Folks who would normally be hammering at us for information are giving us a wide berth. It's weird, but I love it. Got a lot done today:)

3. Fans and supporters are galvanized! Emails and phone calls come in from folks who loved the show and are determined to let us (and, generally, the media) know about it. God love 'em. I'm just happy to know that they had an enjoyable night in the theatre. That, and our continued efforts to serve the music and do our best work, are the most important things.

4. It has the potential to free you for the next performance. My worst work onstage (and in life, to tell the truth) comes when I am paralyzed by fear about what will happen if someone doesn't like what I'm doing. Because it's inevitable, you know. Once the worst happens, though, and the world continues to turn, an incredible sense of freedom can set in. And the next performance feels like flying.

5. They get you one step closer to embracing the only critics you should have. (Yourself, and those in the business you trust.) Not everything we do is flawless. Not every mistake we make is detected. And not everything we obsess about is wrong. The only way to continue to grow and to enjoy your journey as an artist is to be honest to yourself, to continue to seek out feedback from people who have your best interest at stake. Experience has shown me that many of the cringe-worthy things I've done have been soundly endorsed. And some of the most wonderful things I've been involved with have been savaged.

Let's keep the conversation going. It's part of the art form, and differences of opinion and perspective keep us all from getting too complacent. We'll talk more about this some other day, but in the meantime, there's more Mozart to enjoy. One more terrific performance tomorrow night!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

In the Name of Love

Così is sold out. Has been for weeks. A donor gave back a pair of tickets, though, and we're holding a contest to give them away. The tickets are for closing night, Tuesday, 6/30. If you want them, all you have to do is go to the Hotspot and tell us about the craziest thing you ever did in the name of love.

(Click to play slideshow.)

Me? Well, I'm far too boring to have ever done anything even remotely crazy for love. But it's been an interesting week with my Mozartean friends, and I gave my all to try to understand what all the fuss is about.

The real singers protraying the six people onstage have been amazing - going from strength to strength as they work through this most thorny of singing and acting assignments. (Don't let anyone tell you Mozart OR comedy is easy.) I've enjoyed their company immensely and have been amazed at their energy, talent, humor, and generosity.

It's those other people with whom I've had an "interesting" time. Fiordiligi, Dorabella, Ferrando, Guglielmo, Despina & Alfonso. Depending on what kind of day I'm having, they either amuse, intrigue, bumfuzzle or infuriate me. (The latter being my reaction when I'm cranky and just want them to grow up.) The first act is always fun, but the second half's adolescent overreactions wear thin when my mood is dicey to begin with.

Get a grip, ladies. Man up, guys.

This is not my typical reaction to these folks, and I'm afraid that it probably comes from getting older. (Yes, folks, I had a birthday this week, and I'm feelin' it:)) It's also about trying to reconcile the depth and strength of these young people's musical and dramatic actions with the actual subject material. No one died, nothing tragic happens, yet these folks go at it like it's the end of the world. And I guess that's the point. It is, for them.

I don't know what your long term memory is like, but mine is nonexistent. I retain nothing of what it must've been like to be a teenager in love. So empathy is hard to come by. I watched my own teenagers suffer, and I love them, so I tried to sympathize. But I don't truly understand.

Mozart was 34 when he wrote this opera. Young, for us, but more than middle-aged for the time. Certainly not an hysterical teenager. But while he wrote Così, his 25-year-old wife (pregnant for the fifth time...) was away from him. And he wrote her letters that repeatedly implored her not to cheat on him.

For me, in the middle of my stable, unremarkable middle class American existence, the potency of the emotion lavished on wondering whether or not Fiordiligi and Dorabella will fool around with other guys is over the top. But I guess for Mozart (and most certainly for the colorful Da Ponte, a Jew who became a priest then took a mistress and opened a brothel, and eventually became a grocer and a professor at Columbia University...), these things were life and death. Mozart wasn't stretching. Or amplifying or exaggerating. He just got it.

The 19th century had huge issues with this piece, and although we don't have the identical ferocious opposition (and we do have an even deeper appreciation for the genius that was Mozart), we still have our own distorted lens through which we sometimes see Così. A casualty of the age of irony, I guess. Alfonso excepted, these characters don't do irony. And God bless 'em, they do get hurt. And when they sing about it, Mozart tears our heart out.

There's a slight twist near the end of our production - one that I accepted but didn't really understand until tonight. I spend most rehearsals multi-tasking - answering email, taking notes, taking photos, doing paperwork. So I never really developed good traction it until tonight. But now I have to say that I don't ever want to do it any other way :) Not all of you will agree, but it certainly is great good for thought.

So.... what's the craziest thing you ever did in the name of love?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Così Final Room Run, Vocal Colors v.2 & Backstage Buzz

June 16-19, 2009:

The Così cast conquered two room runs in a row. What fabulous musicians, fascinating actors and special people these 6 are.

One day off, then into the theatre for sets, lights, costumes, makeup, magic... opera!

On Thursday, Daniel Billings, Michael Baitzer and The Phillips Collection filled our small auditorium with music and art on Thursday in Vocal Colors. What a wonderful new project this turned into!

And on Tuesday, artists and staff from Così joined me for a panel discussion in this week's Backstage Buzz.

The next 3 days? Così tech, the start of Ulysses rehearsals, and our official welcome reception for artists and donors.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Vocal Colors II: Billings & Baitzer

For the second (and final!) time this summer, our artists engage in a musical dialogue with paintings from The Phillips Collection.  Tomorrow (Thursday 6/18) at 1:00pm, baritone Daniel Billings and pianist Michael Baitzer treat Wolf Trap staff and guests to a mini-recital inspired by the likes of Renoir, Hartley, Manet, Degas, and Hopper.  Songs of Tchaikovsky, Copland and Barber take the stage along with traditional spirituals and a dose of Sinatra.

This weekend, it's onto the stage for the beginning of tech week for Cosi fan tutte.  We'll integrate sets, costumes, hair & makeup, lights, and orchestra in a dizzying 72 hours.  I'll report from the trenches.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Così at the Backstage Buzz 6/16

As I attempt to channel James Lipton, I'll chat with with members of the cast and creative team this Tuesday afternoon, and we'll get to the heart of this Così  fan tutte thing.  

Why should I care about these people in this opera?  What challenges have Dorabella and Ferrando (the roles played by the two singers on the panel) posed to their creators? And seriously, what's up with this "disguise" plot device?  How did this Così end up in a laboratory? Are Mozart's music and da Ponte's libretto at odds with each other?  And who does end up with whom in the end?

We'll tackle all this and more.  Got a question for the panel?  Post it in the comments or email it to me, and I'll try to squeeze it in!  And if you're in the area and would like to attend, write us at  Seating is limited.

We go into technical rehearsals in a few days, but until then I'll relish a few stolen hours on my porch.  It's perfect early summer weather in Virginia, but it's good that the low humidity and cool breezes only last so long. Otherwise I'd have to figure out a way to run an opera company from a wicker chair.  Or run an opera company that rehearses and performs here.  (Since I posted this idea on Facebook a few minutes ago, friends have begun suggesting a repertoire... Porch Song Trilogy... Porchy & Bess... and my own contribution, Porchis Godunov.)

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Today is StageMan's birthday, and we started the day in style with bagels and a prop cake at the scene shop. Fabulous crew this year!

The Vocal Colors mini-recital charmed the socks off a capacity audience of Wolf Trap Foundation staff, WTOC members, donors, housing hosts, and representatives from our partner The Phillips Collection. (Above, Jamie Barton and Jeremy Frank introduce Daumier's The Strong Man to Big Sister Says ("Beauty Hurts!") by Libby Larsen and Kathryn Daniels.)

A glimpse into the rehearsal hall shows that we are well into the "garden" scene of Così.

And... our 2009 newsletter is now available for viewing and download! Go here.

That's it for now. Scene shop is already counting down the days!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Apple and Chagall

I've blogged before about my visual incompetency. I yearn to see with the detail and texture with which I hear. It's a lifelong quest.

Tomorrow I will sit in awe of two of our performing artists (mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and pianist Jeremy Frank) as they revel in a challenge to respond to paintings by Cézanne, Chagall, Daumier, Bonnard, Monet, Lawrence and Degas. They've chosen songs by Libby Larsen, Henri Duparc, Fiona Apple, Claude Debussy, Charles Ives, and Elton John; and they'll perform the music in front of projections of the artwork (courtesy of the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.)

If you're a fan of ours in the Vienna, VA area, and you're interested in coming to this mini-recital at 1:00 pm tomorrow (Thursday, June 11), drop us an email at, and we'll reserve you a seat! (Reservations required)

(A fly-by visit to my office a few minutes ago reported that the Mark Chagall / Fiona Apple pairing is a marvelous thing:)

Sunday, June 07, 2009

In the Rear-View Mirror

Last night's Road Trip! concert left me speechless.

The paradox of blogging is that the stories that defy description are the very ones that demand to be told. Tweets and posts don't feel like strong enough vessels to contain an evening filled with such beauty, humor, talent, and generosity of spirit.

The full house at The Barns was treated to twenty-two songs ranging from the batty (At the Mardi Gras)... the heartbreaking (Haunted Heart)...

... the witty (A Summer in Ohio)...

... the jazzy (Sugar in the Cane)...

... and the... well... uh... indescribable (courtesy of Arizona Lady).

And of course, none of it would be thinkable without Steve Blier at the helm. Bravi, amici.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

72 Hours Till the Rubber Meets the Road

Only about 20 tickets left for a witty, touching, and thoroughly entertaining Saturday night with Steve, Ava, Dominic, Jamie and Daniel.

To tide you over, sample some lyrics that await you at The Barns...

Ol' whiskey comes from ol' Kentucky,
Ain't the country lucky?
New Jersey gives us glue,
And you - you come from Rhode Island,
And little ol' Rhode Island is famous for you.
(Dietz & Schwartz)

All New York’s a stage,
And all its men and women are very bad actors.
How they rant and rage, for food and drink and money,

For those are the factors.
Out of the Bronx and Yonkers
Rushing to earn a wage –
He must be strong who conquers
On the Manhattan stage.

(Rodgers & Hart)

Yippi-yi, away out west in Jersey,
I declare these are the thoughts I thunk,
Yippi-Yi, if Jersey looks like this to me,

Either Jersey or me is drunk.
(Kurt Weill / Ogden Nash)

Nightmare, daymare,
Feelin’ older than the gray mare.
Lost my lover in the blue, blue grass.

(Dietz & Schwartz)

Can't get Indiana off my mind,
Anywhere I chance to roam;
The music on the Wabash that I left behind
Calls me back home.

(Hoagy Carmichael & Robert DeLeon)

I could have a mansion on the hill,
I could lease a villa in Seville,
But it wouldn't be as nice as a summer in Ohio
With a gay midget named Karl, playing Tevye and Porgy.

(Jason Robert Brown)

Song der Prärie...Lied der Prärie..
Horst du es klingen, ein Rauschen und Singen?
Ja, das ist der Ruf der Prärie!

(Uh..... "Song of the Prairie" from Kálmán's priceless Arizona Lady)

From east coast to west... in two hours. Ride along.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

"On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined."

Studio Artists in their first day of dance with Susan Shields.
A magical morning in the woods.

Photo by Lee Anne Myslewski with her trusty (yes-I-am-jealous) iPhone.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Alfonso's Laboratory

Photos of scenic designer Erhard Rom's set model.

Costume Designer Mattie Ullrich presents sketches to the cast.

Little time to write today - dozens of new artists and staff, and lots to manage. Cosi cast is in the house, Steve Blier and his cast are making some seriously amazing music in preparation for Saturday's Road Trip recital, and the staff is already working overtime. We'll gain a little equilibrium in day or two, and I'll be back with a preview of Road Trip.