Monday, October 11, 2010

Circles of Life

There's a long tunnel that leads from the Theater District parking garage into the Wortham Center. And as strange as this may sound, it's one of my favorite places in the building---the passageway into a musical world that is flat-out magical. My daily walk through its tiled halls accounts for approximately half of my commute to work. And since it's empty 90% of the time I'm in it, it's a first-hand witness to my eccentricities. Skipping, running, singing bits of opera, talking to myself...maybe these are things best not confessed, but so it is. Through my comings and goings it's seen me in just about every mood: eager anticipation, nervous excitement, pure bliss, frustration and inadequacy, utter exhaustion, and so on. Basically, it's been watching me grow up.

Monday morning I entered that hallway and as I started my commute through the building, I laughed aloud. Yes, I was THAT excited to go to work. Crazy, right?!? Why? We started production on the project I've been looking forward to since spring, Peter Grimes. As an opera coach, so much of what we do is about preparation. First there are the hours of personal preparation: studying the orchestration, adjusting the piano reduction to be accurate and orchestral, learning to play it, translating the text (bless Grimes for only have bits of bizarre English), learning the vocal lines, and basically stamping your soul with the specific piece of music. And then there's the coaching and preparation that's done with the singers themselves.

Then production begins and preparation is put into practice.

On Day 1, I played for the first staging session we had and it was completely surreal. I sat at the piano in RR1 and played the Prologue for a conductor whose brilliance never ceases to amaze me and for a cast of world-renowned, talented singers. And it was all I could do to keep from grinning the entire time. Because almost two years ago I was in that exact room, sitting at a piano almost identically positioned and playing the Prologue to Peter Grimes while singing all the parts. Auditioning for the HGO Studio.

Needless to say, when I left Monday evening I was still completely ecstatic. Amazed at the talent that converges in a rehearsal room, awed by the genius of a masterful composer, and 100% overwhelmed because I'm blessed enough to be a part of it. And while I didn't laugh on my commute out, I walked through the tunnel that night profoundly satisfied and so happy I thought I might burst. At which point a quick skip seemed perfectly appropriate.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Tenor Idols

As I get ready to head back home to Houston, I find myself very excited about this upcoming season at Houston Grand Opera. I am particularly excited about this season because it has some of the most incredible operatic works, like Madame Butterfly, Peter Grimes, Lucia di Lammermoor, Ariadne auf Naxos, The Marriage of Figaro, and a relatively new work, but an incredible piece, Dead Man Walking. This season gives the audience a taste of a wide range of styles and musical periods, but each opera is the quintessential example of their respective periods and styles.

I also have to say on a personal, and rather selfish note, the singers that are going to be seen on the stage this season are the world’s best of the best. The tenors alone, are all idols of mine. There is only one tenor that I have personally seen perform live. As for the rest of the tenors... I have all of their albums, and watch them on youtube all the time. Anthony Dean Griffey, who will perform the role of Peter Grimes, was in the first professional production of an opera I had ever seen. It was my junior year in college at University of Houston, and Joseph Evans, a faculty member at UH, came up to me and told me that a tenor, who he was in a cast with at HGO in a production of Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, reminded him of me. This was completely interesting to me, because I felt like I hadn’t found another tenor who sounded like me. I thought maybe if I saw him in action and he was similar to me vocally then surely I could learn a lot about my self and my development as an artist.

I had been a part of the HGO Chorus in productions before going to see this production, but oddly enough, I had never actually been to see a production at HGO. The only view I had of the Brown Theater was from the stage into the house. I got a ticket and experienced something I had never even thought to imagine! Everything about the production, the orchestra, the singers, the acting… EVERYTHING was amazing. It was my first show, and it is still my all time favorite opera, so far. There are tons of operas I love, but Of Mice and Men, found a place deep inside of me that no show since has reached. It’s a lot like having a favorite movie that all of your friends dislike, but somehow amidst the dissing of that movie you hold tight to the truth of the places it took you while you watched it.

Anthony Dean Griffey was a large part of the impact that production and the opera had on me. It was actually the defining moment, if I had to pick a particular point in time, that I decided I wanted to be on that stage, doing what he did. He embodied the character of Lennie in such a real and truthful way, and I remember, after the curtain descended on the final cutoff, looking down at my hands and some how they were different, I was different. It was a realization that in that single experience I was changed, and I saw everything in a new and exciting way. It was a moment, considered to be late in life by a most, that I had been introduced to the audience view of an opera. Of Mice and Men was my very first opera to see. It was in the dark velvet chamber of the Brown Theater that I discovered my calling, and my purpose, and my love. I’m learning the role Peter Grimes, and I’m so excited that I will get to sit in the audience to see another Anthony Dean Griffey performance.

P.S. – I saw my first musical here at Wolf Trap this year (CATS), and I have yet to attend a (pop) concert, but hoping to change that soon.

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The HGO Studio / Wolf Trap connection

On reading Kim Wittman’s blog posting here a couple of weeks ago, I have to admit that my first reaction was one of envious amazement that she has time to write posts for OTHER PEOPLE! It’s impressive enough that she’s such a religious poster on her own blog, considering the many varied demands on her time, surely she can leave my blog alone and stop making me look bad…

Once I got over myself, I got to thinking about the similarities between Wolf Trap and HGO Studio. I’ve often been asked whether there’s an official link between the two programs – the answer is a clear no, but the question raises some interesting issues.

HGO Studio only operates September-May – and therefore HGO Studio Artists are only paid for that nine-month period, even when they’re returning for the next season. It’s a definite part of our philosophy that performance experience is a valuable training opportunity – so while HGO is not performing over the summer months, we encourage our Studio Artists to go out to the places which are. They need to ply their trade in other places, learn other systems, make other contacts, and experience different worlds.

There are many summer jobs out there for young opera singers – Aspen, Chautauqua, Glimmerglass, Merola, Ravinia, Santa Fe, St Louis, Tanglewood – and those are just the first ones to spring to mind. Each is very different – some places are geared more to training than performance; at others, there’s very little formal training but you’re on stage every night for months singing in the chorus. Some give recital opportunities; some concentrate on opera. Each has huge strength. So, when there are so many choices out there, why is it that there’s a perceived connection between us and Wolf Trap? Why is it that four of this year’s 11 Studio Artists have chosen to head there this coming summer?

In short, I think the answer is one of ethos. HGO Studio’s stated aim for its Artists is to help them develop their individuality as performers – to become inspired and inspirational artists as well as highly-trained musicians. Wolf Trap responds to the fact the HGO Artists have something to say – remember the WT panel has to be inspired enough in an audition to want to program an opera for the person in front of them! You’ve got to make a unique impression for that to happen – it’s a rather different audition mindset than “we need ten tenors for the chorus of Tosca”.

So I am excitedly making my travel plans for the Summer, to try to take in all three Wolf Trap productions – Zaide, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Il turco in Italia – to watch Catherine Martin, Nathaniel Peake and Michael Sumuel take center stage and tackle the sort of roles which are still a few years off on the HGO stage (and to catch up with Stephanie Rhodes who will be working on music staff there). I know they will each return to HGO in September different, and better, because of those months working away. For those of you who are interested in opera as theater, music as communication, and Studio Artists as the stars of the future, I encourage you to join me.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Opera pianists are actors

Opera pianists are actors, and the role we play is that of an
orchestra. Whether in a musical coaching or staging rehearsal, one of our most important responsibilities is to reflect what the orchestra will sound like when they join the singers towards the last week of rehearsal. To that end, we spend an enormous amount of time doing score and listening work. We spend hours reconciling the orchestra score with the piano arrangement. We'll listen to as many different recordings as we can, comparing and internalizing the sounds of various orchestras.

All of that preparation is vital yet abstract. Ultimately we are
not imitating notes on a page, nor digital music from a speaker, but the
live sound of a great orchestra in a grand hall. Fortunately, as an HGO
Studio member I get to hear the HGO orchestra in many rehearsals and
performances in the Brown Theater. Everything I hear in those sessions
translates into my playing. As I listen in the hall, I ask myself all
sorts of questions."When I hear the string players play pizzicato, is
the plucked sound short or does the hall give it a slow decay? What is
the character of this melody when a single clarinet plays it, as opposed
to the full violin section? In a very busy passage, what instruments
come to the foreground?"

It's good for an actor to research a role through observation.
But even better is to do some musical Method-acting and become part of
what you are observing. I got this chance by playing the celesta in our
performances of Tosca. There's nothing like sitting in the middle of an
orchestra for a run of rehearsals and performances to soak up the
orchestra's many sonorities in the piece. Yet as important as
internalizing the "What" of an orchestra's playing is internalizing the
"How" of that playing. How does an orchestra respond to a conductor? How
do they rely on their section leaders? How does the way that an
orchestra make sound differ from that of a piano? How is music-making
different when you are playing a part as an orchestra player instead of
the whole as a rehearsal pianist? These questions have fascinated me for
the whole process. During the long stretches I have between celesta
passages, I often occupied myself by comparing the different speeds at
which the orchestra would respond to Maestro Summers's beat, depending
on the tempo, character, and instrumentation of the moment. When I
translate my orchestral experience back to the piano, I achieve a more
detailed and colorful sonic palette, and a sense of the warmth and
spaciousness that comes from 71 people making music together.

When I joined the Studio, I was gobsmacked by the quality of the
singers I would be working with in rehearsal. It never gets old
accompanying the likes of Christine Goerke, Patricia Racette, or Laura
Claycomb. But it's just as exceptional an opportunity to make music
within a group as accomplished as the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra.
When I study a new score and ask myself "What would it be like to hear a
world-class orchestra play this? What would it be like to be in a
world-class orchestra playing this?" I'll have had the benefit of
first-hand experience.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Voice Lessons

I had my first voice lesson when I was a senior in high school getting ready for auditions for Texas All-State Choir. The auditions were and are taken very seriously in Texas with 4 rounds of auditions. My teacher told me he wanted to check my breathing and made me lie on the floor for the entire lesson with a book on my stomach. Needless to say I thought the whole voice lesson thing was a waist of time and money.

I then went to college at The University of North Texas and began having voice lessons that quickly changed my opinion of the whole voice lesson idea I had. It quickly became one of the things I looked forward to each week. After my undergrad I went to Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and worked with another teacher that really gave me tools to enhance my voice and become more comfortable as an artist. I will never forget the teachers that have spent so much time and energy into helping me achieve what I have.

One of the greatest things about being in the HGO studio, among many, is the fact that we have an amazing teacher to work with. Dr. King has taken over right were I left off with my last teacher at CCM and I feel I have grown exponentially as a singer. There is no easy way or easy fix to learn how to sing. It takes time, paentience, dedication and a teacher that will invest in you and believe in your talent. We, the studio members, are lucky enough to have a company back us up along with a teacher who cares about us and keeps us vocally healthy. As singers you are asked to sing roles that are not always what you may think you will sing. In Elixir, for example, I never thought I would have to learn that opera because there wasn’t a mezzo role….but when I received a call from the Studio Director about an opportunity to sing main stage it didn’t take me long to say yes. The role was out of my comfort zone because of the high tessitura but I worked through it, with Dr. King and others, and learned how to sing it. Sometimes we grow the most when faced with a challenge that we were at first not ready for but in the end conquered.

Special thanks to Dr. King for the one of my favorite hours of the week!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

From the Other Side of the Curtain

“Kiri, these are the men who will be carrying you out of the window. Would you like to practice this a few times before the show begins?”

We had never rehearsed with the chorus or orchestra before the first performance. So here I was with my hair in rollers being carried down from the window on stage just a few minutes before show time! What a way to prepare for my mainstage debut as Adina in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love

I could hear students entering the theater as I returned to my dressing room to put on the rest of my costume. The entire cast was abuzz with adrenaline! I was nervous as I stood off stage waiting for my entrance … I could hear the audience talking in their seats and the orchestra beginning to play. At that moment, I remembered my elementary school days when I wished with all my heart that one day I would be an opera singer. I thought of all the students who would see their first opera today and be hooked just like me! Somehow, I found strength and tranquility in that thought. As I walked out on stage I expected to get even more nervous. I looked out into the theatre, and I could feel the audience’s presence. I took a deep breath, and I had an overwhelming feeling of peace. This is where I belonged. I knew that this was the chance I had been waiting for all my life. Today I was performing on the Houston Grand Opera stage, and no matter what happened afterward, no one could take that away from me. This was the chance of a lifetime.

As we began the show we were a little hesitant until the first outburst of laughter. As the audience began to respond to the actions on stage I could feel myself relax and just enjoy performing. I don’t really remember too many specifics about the show. I just know that we were all trying as hard as we could. It was all a blur up until the last scene. I told Nemorino that I loved him and then he dropped to his knees and hugged me. The entire audience gasped and began to clap. In that split second I realized that the students understood our story. They were with us on our emotional roller coaster. We had made a connection—that is what this is all about.

As we finished the last note and waived good bye to the audience, Nathaniel Peake and I looked at each other with eyes of relief and congratulations as we waited for our turn in the curtain call. He grabbed my hand as we ran out to center stage, and the reception we got was breathtaking. That was a day I will remember forever!

Kiri Deonarine- First-year HGO Studio Artist

Be Ready for Anything

This upcoming Friday night marks the opening of Wagner’s Lohengrin one week after L’elisir d’amore opened the entire 2009-2010 season in brilliant fashion here at Houston Grand Opera. The principle singers and chorus alike bring such mastery to this poignant opera but it certainly has not been without trials. There were and will continue to be many great lessons learned from this experience.
“I’m going to be in a Wagnerian opera!” That was my initial reaction after learning about my assignment as Third Noble in Lohengrin. After seeing the cast line-up which includes Adrianne Pieczonka, Simon O’Neill, Richard Paul Fink, Christine Goerke, Ryan McKinny and Günther Groissböck, I couldn’t wait to start! But everything would not unfold as smoothly as we would have liked.
A few days before our Elsa (Adrianne Pieczonka) was scheduled to arrive in Houston, she suffered a back injury and was doubtful to return to action in time to join our production of Lohengrin. Fellow studio member Rachel Willis-Sørensen stepped in for the rehearsal and staging process as she is the cover for Elsa. Soprano Marie Plette was hired to come in with short notice but health issues forced her to cancel. Shortly thereafter a meeting was called for the principle cast members to discuss the status of our Elsa situation among other topics. Adrianne Pieczonka made great progress with injury treatment and would perform Elsa as originally scheduled. Richard Paul Fink (Friedrich von Telramund) learned of a family emergency and would be out for a few days. Simon O’Neill (Lohengrin) also had a family emergency earlier in the rehearsal process and had to travel back home overseas. After the dust finally settled, we were ready to fine tune this updated production of Lohengrin.

So what have I learned from this process?
1) You must always be ready to step-in when called upon. Rachel stepped in as Elsa with much more poise and than most 24 year old sopranos would have displayed. I commend my studio mate for how well she executed when called upon during this production period. Adam Cioffari, fellow studio member and Fourth Noble in Lohengrin has also been on call as he is not only Fourth Noble but the cover for Ryan McKinny (Herald). Ryan and his wife recently welcomed their second child, so not knowing when or if Ryan would need to leave rehearsal could only make for Adam being prepared at all times.
2) Flexibility is the name of the game. Director Daniel Slater made it here to Houston weeks into the process after everything was staged by assistant director and choreographer Leah Hausman. It was to be expected that certain things would have to change. As an artist you have to be willing to try things and quick to adjust to changes which will evidently happen. I’ve always heard that complacency is the death of an artist. I’ll also add that rigidity goes right along with complacency. Two very important lessons that can carry into any project I undertake in the near and distant future.

Michael Sumuel