Saturday, August 25, 2012

My Brunch with Greatness

Photo credit:  Markku Pilhaja
Saturday I had the joy of brunching with two of my absolute favorite divas, Jennifer Rowley and Kristi Bulot. Astute readers will recall my borderline creepy fascination with Jen, from her surprise debut at Caramoor in Maria di Rohan to her recent Verdi Requiem performances. (They might also find this recent profile, which she inexplicably gave to another blogger, fascinating.) Oh, and by the way, she's making her Covent Garden debut in December in Mr. Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable, and also covering Desdemona at the Met in March.

Of Kristi's recent triumph in Opera Manhattan's Suor Angelica, blogger Lucy Barnes wrote in Opera Obsession:

The Suor Angelica of Kristi Bulot grabbed my attention with her first notes, and gave a vocally and dramatically compelling performance. Bulot portrayed Angelica as a passionate visionary, unremittingly intense in expression. In Bulot's coloring of her voice, in her use of text, in her body language, it was clear that the constant work of renunciation is the determinant factor in Angelica's experience and actions....when I sobbed during Senza Mamma, I don't think I was alone. Bulot has a strikingly lush Puccini soprano, from strong gravi to brilliant top notes which she was capable of bringing to pianissimo.
'nuff said.

Kristi Bulot
For reasons known only to God and their therapists, both ladies seem somewhat fond of me, so we had a lovely time. Upon learning that Kristi is a finalist for a place in Chicago Lyric Opera's Ryan Opera Center Ensemble, Jen took an endearing interest in Kristi's upcoming final auditions in Chicago, imparting a tremendous amount of wisdom about the opera business, things she says she wishes someone had taught her when she was starting out.

Most important lesson of all: Lead with your long suit. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. As someone of my acquaintance with a crude mouth would say, put your balls on the table. Start with something that will make them take notice, something that shows passion. They want to see passion -- or balls -- first, and subtlety later. That takes confidence, and if there is ever a time to throw yourself into a role, it's in convincing a table full of impresarios that you believe with all your heart that you are exactly the singer they want.

Jen had lots of stories from her own experience about committing fully and winning because of it. Her confidence -- as well as obviously having the goods to back it up* -- have more often than not given her successful results from auditions. Jen exudes confidence and sure-footedness that comes from falling down occasionally but getting up always. Some of them she shared in the profile for that other blogger -- stories where she gave 100% -- "I'm-a sing this!" -- and it made all the difference in the world. It changed her life.

Please allow me to make some observations. The international singers who are called great are not great because of technical proficiency. Once you reach a certain level, everyone is good enough. Rather, it's about passion, about risk taking, about charisma -- that's where the magic is. It's true of so many singers of the 20th century's "Golden Age" and of many who are singing today. I've written before of a certain European soprano whose singing on recordings sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, but who took my breath away when I saw her live. It's happened more than once.

These life and career lessons that aren't usually taught in music school are common themes in discussions with rising singers I'm privileged to meet. I've reported it in several singer profiles, in my recent post sharing wisdom from the audition master class at Opera Breve Vocal Institute, and in posts from my dear friend Jeff Nytch, whose career now is in preparing university music students for the business of music. Knowing where I fell down in my own early career aspirations, and seeing many young people make mistakes, I hope this is useful as well as entertaining. (Now would be a good time to tell me it's both.)

*The goods, as I've observed and been told by successful people:

  1. Do the work.  Be ready. 
  2. Know yourself. 
  3. Know your instrument. 
  4. Know your capabilities.
  5. Grow a pair. 
  6. Did I mention doing the work?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

By Guest Blogger Jeffrey Nytch, DMA

“Not all who wander are lost.” You’ve probably seen that phrase at some point on a bumper sticker. Aside from the (unintended?) irony of pasting that on the back of a mode of transportation, it makes a good point: sometimes just because one is not on a straight-and-narrow, no-diversions path doesn’t mean one isn’t still heading forward in a meaningful way. It just means that we all travel our own paths, and those paths are as unique and varied as our individual selves.

I think this is particularly important in the arts. I’ve noticed that folks often think the road to success is a straight line. And by “folks” I mean humans in general, and artists in particular. And there are two problems with this. One is that the “straight line” view implies a single acceptable destination, when time and again we see careers that unfold in unexpected ways – ways that turn out to be far better for the person in question than the original goal would have ever been. The second problem with the expectation of a “straight line” to success is that it hardly ever works this way. Both our reading of history and the popular media reinforce this idea that the “greats” see greatness in their future, go for it, and perhaps after a period of struggle or hard work success shines its face on them. From there on out they’re on Easy Street.

This is a fiction. There might be individual cases where this is the way things unfolded, but they are the exception, not the rule. Far more often we travel a twisty path of apparent defeats and hollow victories before we finally figure out what we want to be about. And that’s okay: our path helps shape us, helps us develop our skills (can sometimes force us to develop new ones), and enriches our personal and professional lives in ways we can’t possibly foresee. Those experiences make us better.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Great Singer of the Week: Erika Köth

Uncredited and undated photo from Google

There aren't enough YouTube videos of this wonderful singer, and most are auf deutsch. Here is where you can learn about her from Wikipedia.  (I suspect the German Wikipedia article has more information!)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Audition words to the wise

On August 4 I attended mock auditions open to the public at Opera Breve Vocal Institute, a summer young artist program held in Texas. Those for the musical theater students were much like an audition masterclass, with immediate feedback from Associate Artistic Director Ben Sheaffer and OBVI Artistic Advisor Rich Affannato, while those for the opera students were more formal, simulating the real audition experience.

Rich Affannato
Sheaffer and Affanato gave excellent pointers to the musical theater students, tailored to the level of proficiency and accomplishment of each singer. I think nearly all the pointers would also useful for opera singers. Some examples:
  • Auditioning is a totally different skill set from performing, and you might never use it in performance.
  • Walk in confidently.  You will always have nerves. Don't allow them to make you appear apologetic, or at the other extreme, too effusive. Civil, confident, open. Say your name and what you are singing.  Have your book and materials in good order.
  • Within the first few seconds you must evaluate the room. Determine whether the auditioners are open and friendly or terse and business-like, and don't take either seriously. Determine how much space you have to use.  
  • Don't engage the auditioners in your performance. It keeps them from doing their job. Focus on a point above their heads.
  • Don't be afraid to be still in an audition. (An exercise they recommended was to practice an audition with no body movement at all.) Don't move toward the auditioners while you're singing--it frightens them. Really.
  • Ben Sheaffer
  • Know what the audition is about, what is being cast, and know if you are a good candidate. Tailor your audition, your product, to that.  Auditioners will be thinking about what they're casting, and whether you are a good fit. You sometimes have 30 seconds or less to show that you are. (n.b. I usually advise opera singers to take a more general approach unless specifically instructed to prepare an audition for a particular role. But there are those in the opera world who disagree with me on that.)
  • Auditioners care less about your song's original context than what you can show with it. They are looking for smart actors who make intelligent choices.  
  • If the audition format is to perform two song excerpts ("cuts") without a break, finish the first completely in your acting and presentation before beginning the second, OR make your immediate segue deliberate. Make it clear this is a choice you are making.
  • If the pianist gives you a single pitch to start and you need to hear it again, or to hear the first few pitches, or a chord, don't be afraid to ask--that is much better than starting off in the wrong key. 
  • The "secret" trick:  Create your own back story to your song. Use a story that works for you. Make it totally different from the original context of the song. Show intelligent choices using your own story. (This reminds me of a story an opera director and teacher told about some former students who used a pack of flash cards with different emotions to pick at random each time a way to act their auditions arias.)
  • Know the emotional range of the song you're performing, and where each line belongs within that range.
  • If you use a standard or very commonly performed song, invest at least as much thought, commitment, and focus as a more current song. 
  • Have a back story behind "ah" or other non-word syllables just as you would with meaningful text.  What is it that you can't just speak, but you have to sing at the top of your lungs?
  • Regardless of the song choices, there should not be a discernible difference in the level of commitment or preparation between songs. (OK, that one is mine. I don't want to know from your performance which song or aria you've been doing for years and which is new for you.)
I've spoken of writing an "Auditioning 101" article with the sort of information so many young singers need to hear. There isn't a lot I'd add to this. Much of what I heard that afternoon gave me new insights into auditioning, and being a veteran of both sides of the table, it all makes incredible sense.

A Young Artist Program in the Hinterlands

On two recent weekends I ventured to Wichita Falls, Texas, to meet the founders and some of the faculty and participants of Opera Breve Vocal Institute, a summer young artist program that takes place on the campus of Midwestern State University. (I won't tell them Texas isn't part of the Midwest if you don't.) This was the second season of Opera Breve's program in Wichita Falls, although the group has been around since 2008 in New York, providing young singers with experience and providing audiences with accessible and entertaining adaptations of operas.  The program's mission statement includes the following bold statement:
This opera company is not intended to be conventional, but rather, transformative; to present bold and brave interpretations of the standard and modern operatic repertoire and provide young, emerging artists the opportunity to perform roles that may not be available to them elsewhere. Opera for all.

On August 11 I saw a performance of an abbreviated version of Così fan Tutte.  It was a clever adaptation, treating the story as if it was part of a "reality" TV show, with the two officers disguising themselves as rich Abilene oilmen, and "OMG" and "LOL" used frequently in the titles.  It sounded hokey to me, but it really worked.  Director Eva Lenora was very successful with these young singers, for each appeared to have a very clear concept of his character, and to know what the character was thinking and feeling and when those feelings changed. (More than can be said with the Così I sang in grad school as Ferrando.)  This is a program for younger singers, earlier in their careers than many other young artist programs.  While the level of experience and vocal accomplishment varied, the level of talent and energy didn't.

There are only six characters, so to mention any without mentioning all would be pretty bad form.  This is unlike me, but I have to say the low voices in Saturday's cast were my favorites.  Bass Jonathan Moots is more experienced than many of the singers in the program, and gave a confident and convincing performance of the scheming Don Alfonso, while also singing beautifully.  Mezzo Anna Petrie is known and loved by audiences at Opera Manhattan and other New York opera companies. Dorabella is a perfect fit vocally, and she acted Dorabella's impetuous character with comedic charm and grace.  Andrew Jamison as Guglielmo played the wronged lover well, a talent that will serve him as he graduates to Verdi baritone roles.  Very young tenor Chris Mosz shows great promise, and I see him moving into much bigger tenor repertoire.  Sopranos Nicole McQuade and Page Madison as Fiordiligi and Despina also showed great promise, and I hope I hear them again as they grow vocally and gain experience.

On August 4 I attended mock audition open to the public.  There was so much valuable information from that day, I will make it a separate post.  I will also post when I have had a chance to learn more from Opera Breve Executive Directors Eva Lenora and Darla Diltz about growing a small opera company from the ground up.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

More Meat Pies!

I had the pleasure of seeing modest but ambitious Dallas ensemble Level Ground Arts present Sweeney Todd at its opening on August 10.  Even with scenic and electrical challenges that Artistic Director Bill Fountain explained prevented use of a platform that would have been very useful, the show had a great energy and verve and charm, if charm is possible in portraying the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Shane Strawbridge and Andi Allen
The star of the show always has to be the man playing Sweeney, and Shane Strawbridge was no disappointment.  A big, burly man, he embodied the obsessive nature of Sweeney Todd, with every action, every word calculated to move him closer to his  vengeful goal.  Mr. Strawbridge is a highly skilled actor, and also a skilled singer, although the role seems to lie a little low for him vocally.  Either the effort of projecting in his low-to-middle range over a small but slightly loud band or opening night nerves gave him a little bit of trouble once or twice, but not enough to mar a very fine performance.

Mr. Strawbridge was not the only one who seemed to be a good actor who clearly could sing, but whose role was not exactly a good fit vocally.  Andi Allen was a pleasure to watch as Mrs. Lovett in both dramatic and comedic moments, but some of her vocal lines were lost because they were low for her.

Many in the supporting cast were an absolute delight.  My favorite secondary character was Mark Hawkins as Judge Turpin.  He was smarmy and creepy looked very much like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.  His self-flagellation scene was brilliantly played.  He's a good singer whose role did fit his voice vocally.  Michael B. Moore as the charlatan Italian barber Adolfo Perelli was a joy.  He came ridiculously close to stealing his big scene completely, with his total commitment to the silliness and foppishness of his character.  Randall Scott Carpenter was brilliant as Tobias Ragg, the simple-minded boy who is first Adolfo Perelli's assistant, then Mrs. Lovett's.  His song "Not While I'm Around" with Mrs. Lovett had all the tenderness and desperation this tired old blogger could ask for.   Delynda Johnson Moravec was delightfully schizophrenic as the Beggar Woman.  The very young Monica Music and the more experienced Max Swarmer gave us pleasant performances as Johanna and Anthony, the young lovers.  (Aren't there always young lovers, no matter what show we're discussing?)

Kudos to director John de los Santos and the rest of the production team for dealing with the last-minute technical emergency that prevented the group from using the platform.  I was never really sure what the problem was, but in the end I didn't care because the work-around didn't intrude on the story telling.  I quite liked his directing overall, along with the work of the actors, for there was reasonably clear character definition and stage traffic seemed to flow very well.  No awkward moments that made one wonder why this or that choice was made.  (I also quite liked how he filled his skimpy little black shirt.  But that's beside the point.)  The small ensemble of two keyboards and bass, led by Music Director Adam C. Wright, played ably, but as I say they were occasionally a little loud.  It was clear Mr. Wright and his team had worked very hard with the cast on musical preparation, which was overall very well done.

Sweeney Todd plays weekends through September 1 at Trinity River Arts Theatre in Dallas.  I highly recommend it.

Monday, August 6, 2012

They want to be good, but conditions won't allow it

That, dear readers, is a quote and the theme of Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht, which I saw performed August 4 at the University of North Texas.  The work is based on John Gay's The Beggar's Opera of 1728, which was a low-brow reaction to the Italian opera that was popular with the early 18th-century cognoscenti in London.  Mr. Gay's work dealt with prostitutes and thieves and beggars and corrupt policemen.  It was a huge hit, the Jersey Shore of its day, compared to the Masterpiece Theatre of italian Baroque opera seria.  Inspired by a revival or that work in 1920, Messrs Weill and Brecht created an adaptation that premiered in Weimar Republic-era Berlin, 1928.  The lower classes were not romanticized, as one might have seen in a Hollywood movie of the same era, but rather portrayed in very gritty detail.  UNT faculty member Stephen Dubberly called Threepenny Opera in his pre-performance talk the pinnacle of decadent expressionism.

Murchison Performing Arts Center
University of North Texas
The performance itself was led by Dr. Dubberly as Music Director and Elizabeth King as Stage Director, and inexplicably sung in German while the dialogue was in English.  In my humble opinion that doesn't work at the Met and it doesn't work at the university level either.  I also think there was much that seemed to have required more rehearsal, even though this was the last performance of the run.  Not enough of the dialogue was cut, and what was left was sometimes awkward.  The singer-actors whose first language is not English usually did an admirable job of dealing with the copious amounts of dialogue, but there were gaps there, as well.

However, there were some standout performances that charmed even my creaky old heart. I don't have any complaints about the singing or musical preparation, with the exception of the occasional imbalance between orchestra and singers.  My two favorite cast members were Travis Wiley McGuire, who lent his considerable acting skill and resonant bass to Jackie "Tiger" Brown, the police chief; and Jamille Brewster, who played Brown's daughter Lucy with spunk and a capable singing voice that was woefully underused.  I also appreciated the shining vocal talents as Emily Hueske as Mrs. Peachum and Matthew Parker as Macheath.  Dagny McCartney gave a fine acting performance as Jenny, the prostitute who turns in Macheath.  Although Wei-Shu Tsai and Meng-Jung Tsai both seem to be good singers, I fear they were miscast vocally as Mr. Peachum and Polly Peachum, respectively--the roles didn't highlight the best parts of their voices.  Young Martin L. Clark gave a respectable performance of "Mack the Knife" in the introduction as the Ballad Singer.

Surely if there is no adequate English version of the score available, then an opera program of the stature of UNT can commission one.  This kind of a show needs to be in the language of the audience.  And it seemed like much of the dialogue simply seemed underrehearsed, and there was far too much of it.  Some judicious cuts would have made a long show shorter and some seemingly interminable scenes more bearable.  However, these were my only major complaints, and I call it an admirable university-level summer  opera production.  Students gained valuable experience, audience was entertained, and this blogger got a post out of it.