Tuesday, November 20, 2007
As you have all heard by now, November 10 was, as KK mentioned in an earlier post, a life-changing day. Both performances of The Refuge were amazing, and the coverage it received was phenomenal. We made the FRONT PAGE (above the fold!) of the Houston Chronicle, and the front page of the Arts section in the New York Times. Charles Ward with the Houston Chronicle gave a fabulous review of the performance, stating "Overall, the production was first-class..." The Houston Chronicle published an editorial, and the evening performance was broadcast LIVE on KUHF 88.7 FM.
As I said, the coverage was phenomenal. It was also seen or heard on the following: Radio Saigon, Saigon Houston, Chronicle Vietnamese community paper, Our Texas Russian press, South Plains Public Radio (Lubbock), The Star Telegram (Fort Worth), WOAI TV San Antonio, KXAN Austin, Fox TV Houston, KPFT Radio Houston, KSWO Wichita Falls, and Austin American Statesman.
If you missed The Refuge, or if you want to see it again, I hope you will join us in May, when HGO performs it at Miller Outdoor Theatre. In the meantime, I have included some beautiful pictures taken by Janice Rubin at the dress rehearsal for your enjoyment. Oh, I almost forgot! Here are a few video clips from the dress rehearsal as well. Enjoy!
Video Clip 1
Video Clip 2
Video Clip 3
Photos © 2006 Janice Rubin
Sunday, November 11, 2007
We did it yesterday, twice. I don't even know what or how to write about it yet, so I'll leave you here with a picture taken from stage left of HGO's dedicated, skilled, generous performers. Thanks, everybody, for a life-changing day.
Off to Indianapolis today to begin the Studio audition tour. I'll be posting from the road, and hopefully linking you to much more REFUGE photography and reviews.
Friday, November 9, 2007
- our amazing men, BG, LB, and RM, in the "Soviet" movement
Thursday, November 8, 2007
Sunday, November 4, 2007
I was raised in the frozen north. Lake Wobegon, you betcha, Da Vikes and da cheeseheads, the whole nine yards. The colors and open expressions of Texas amaze me on a daily basis. It's a long-standing stereotype that warmer temperatures engender warmer emotions and more creative language is born under bluer skies. Evidence to support these ideas is all around us in Houston, never more so than at a Day of the Dead festival. We went to the Lawndale Art Center on Saturday to perform "Mexico" from THE REFUGE, and did so among an incredible display of local art. We were surrounded on all sides by gorgeous retablos - these are home altars made to venerate any one of the endless saints. This folk art form flourished in the nineteenth century but is still practiced in styles colorful, allegorical, whimsical, spiritual. Little altars everywhere, we set up to sing.
On the one hand, as I listened, I thought, excellent, it's powerful, he really got it. I mean, he wasn't happy about the experience, but he had a real experience, moved well beyond his zone of comfort. On the other hand, it was frustrating. Music supposed to make you feel better? But the classical industry has been telling people for a generation that we're like salve, therapy, chamomile tea. Relaxing music for your commute! Classics to soothe! Mozart to make you smarter! The upset gentleman had totally internalized the message that classical music was a protection and escape from the dangers and terrors of the world, and didn't want to hear those things expressed through classical music's language. Yikes. Dia de los muertos.
So back to Lawndale. We're with DH and ER, as usual, Studio soloist AS, and six terrific soloists from the University of Houston. There was no way we could schedule singers from the HGO chorus to do this performance (they're still involved in an opera or two), so we reached out to UH for a sextet to take over the very complex choral parts of this movement. Kudos to them all for their professionalism and hard work, and for an excellent performance.
In this movement, the solo soprano sings the words of an interviewee: "Sometimes I think it would be better to stay behind with your kids...you're not going to take away pain with money." It's a stark moment of contrast with the essentially joyous feeling of the choral sections, and it adds real pungency to have these words arguing against immigration, against that kind of risk, in the middle of a work that celebrates it. Another twist: these words are sung by AS, a young woman who is herself a transplant from another country, in Houston to hone her craft as a singer, to give herself a chance at a rare and fantastic life.
One story of risk that ends in failure, another of a success passage tinged with doubt over the real rewards of the risk involved, artists at crossroads, little altars everywhere. Upstairs at Lawndale, we look at Day of the Dead works by Houston highschoolers: Superman as a skeleton, a retablo venerating Jimi Hendrix, an altar to a dead father made of ramen noodle packets and his favorite CDs. Downstairs adults and children make sugar skulls. Brilliant colors and music and dance celebrate the dead, the living, the saints, all here in one room together...I would say it's just like at the opera house, but isn't that obvious?
DC and AS with their skulls, Drop dead gorgeous.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
I've related a few stories to you about the REFUGE-related community events we've participated in. Re-reading them, I see that I've emphasized the positive (what a weak word - try life-changing) aspects of bringing musics of different cultures together. It has been positive, amazing, unexpected, dramatic. And also awkward, full of occasions to unintentionally cause misunderstanding and insult, and downright scary.
At the end of "Vietnam", the second movement of the piece, our bass-baritone sings the Vietnamese national anthem. That's not been sung since 1975. We had no idea how people would react to it. I talked in an earlier post about the tricky task of singing the stories of the interviewees for this piece. One of our Vietnamese subjects had sung the national anthem in his interview; he was talking about singing it secretly with his fellow inmates in a North Vietnamese prison camp. Our composer and librettist understandably included that proud, unbearable moment in the piece. But one Vietnamese man's pride could be another's poison. How would other people from that place react to hearing the anthem - and react to it sung by representatives of a nation so deeply involved in the war that divided Vietnam?
These are enormous questions. And, in the moment of performance, their burden lies most heavily on the shoulders of the performers. The words and the voices that will move the audience are coming out of individuals who can then end up being the focus of the listeners' forceful emotion. The stories they are telling are not the performers', that's what we've been saying. Except now we know that, in the moment of performance, the stories do belong to the performers.
RM, FS, BG, and DH ended up the focus of forceful positive emotion at the Vietnamese event. But there have been moments all along that felt like potential powderkegs. There's a text in the Pakistani movement where the interviewee speaks of feeling a lack of religious freedom in Pakistan. When we first rehearsed this movement with our guest Quwali singer (Ali, who is incredibly skilled and gifted), he became very concerned at this and about the reaction it might get. Now, the text in question came from a Pakistani man, but in the piece it's placed in the mouth of a mezzo - JB happens to be the young white daughter of Harley-riding Georgians. When she sings that text, it is hers in that moment. All went well at the Pakistan-American Community Center when we performed the movement, but there was a lot of anxiety about that text.
Misunderstanding has flowed the other way. A fair amount of humor has arisen during the preparation and rehearsal of this piece. Theater folk understand that tension is diffused in this way, both tension over the amount of work involved and tension over the subject matter. And theater folk can also be monumentally blind to the fact that not everyone is part of their world. We've had to put out a few fires when someone joking about a text setting or a line set in an awkward vocal way has been perceived by someone as joking about the story.
Beyond this is the simple burden of singing about unbearable, harrowing experiences. Not all of the REFUGE deals with these - the piece has humor, lightness, joy. But some of the stories are beyond description in their horror and grief. Every performer must learn to deal with emotion, singers especially; they must learn to draw on their emotions without letting their throats close in response. But even the most harrowing operas I know tend to deal with subjects like murder, rape, or abuse in a stylized way. THE REFUGE simply puts those words out there. It doesn't portray rape or murder, it speaks of those things. There's no veil of character for the singers to wear. Indeed, they realized quickly that "character" was not the right approach. RC and I talked about this a lot - she has the task of singing an 11-minute tour-de-force that tells the story of a woman who walked from El Salvador to Houston. It would be one thing to "play" that woman, a la LA VOIX HUMAINE or ERWARTUNG, but that's not the piece, and not the way to honor this real, living woman and her experiences. So RC's job is just to say the story, which is almost literally unspeakable. In fact, the woman who told it spoke parts of it for the first time ever to our interviewer.
And so our singers deal with discomfort and terror, in the face of people who have experienced things they cannot imagine. And in the course of singing the words, they do imagine these things, they must. But none of the singers mistakes imagining for experience. They are all heavily aware of the responsibility they bear. This is completely new territory.
In writing the above, I realize that I'm speaking about the experiences of people I know. I don't know everyone in the project equally well. I can't say that none of our singers, soloists and chorus, have ever experienced events as shocking and terrifying as the ones in the libretto. If so, what is this piece like for them? Wrenching? Liberating? And again, why does this piece engender these questions, when WOZZECK or WAR AND PEACE never would?
I'm saying a lot and having trouble finding what it is I'm trying to say. All of this comes after the events of the weekend, and after reading a beautiful unrelated blogpost by nick, so honest, and also this by yankeediva: two friends musing on the nature of what we do and why we do it. I've just re-read both posts and am no closer to an elegant wrapup of my own.
A few days ago I wrote about how much classical musicians and listeners love knowing what to expect. Our technique arms us as we set ourselves against the storm of this performance, this life. Even new pieces contain familiar gestures, familiar forms. Rarely, if ever, will we have the task, the opportunity, of taking on so much that we do not understand and cannot predict in the course of preparing familiar gestures and forms for public performance.
We get into the whole business of performing to express something. It's usually personal at first, and can grow into something more universal. How amazing, then, to be confronted in one piece by so much human experience, and to suddenly see it all around you, where it always has been, where it always is. It's an enormous task just to stay open enough to take it all in.
The very techniques, the very forms musicians have learned as vehicles for expression, can then become the places where they hide. Their refuge.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
We opened FILLE DU REGIMENT last night to standing ovations. How gratifying to have our first pair of operas up and running, to hear our chorus and orchestra making such beautiful music, to hear and see our varied, skilled, unique soloists. All sorts of work behind us now, with all the requisite celebration.
THE REFUGE is kicking into high gear, however. Coming up in the next ten days are performances of individual movements of the piece in five different community venues, including a gallery, a huge outdoor stage, and a restaurant the size of my hometown high school. We'll hear traditional Vietnamese string players, sitars, tabla, African choirs, mariachis, and they will hear us.
As they travel around Houston for those REFUGE nights, the Studio is also
beginning to coach the repertoire they'll sing for a staged concert of opera scenes in December. They're auditioning for visiting guests. An acting coach has been in town working with them for the past week, and a celebrated soprano will arrive in a few weeks to do a master class. Our library is consolidating the scores of two premieres the company will do in the next year and a half, and distributing music as it arrives. The guest conductors of our winter operas are in contact about details for the orchestra parts. The music staff is preparing to, well, prepare it all.
Tonight is BALLO again at the opera house. I'll be sitting a few miles away listening to the Houston Chamber Choir. Two reasons - first, a love of choral music that goes back to my roots in Minnesota (where people still sing in church!). Second, a reminder to myself that it's important to sometimes just be a listener. Some other group of people agonized over every detail, logistical and musical, of tonight's choir concert. I will have the privilege, the sheer luxury, of coming to take it all in.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
I write this in haste before running downstairs to the dress rehearsal of FILLE DU REGIMENT. This week will see auditions (Studio singers singing for agents and general directors of other companies), casting meetings, the beginnings of another large program, and another community performance of part of the REFUGE. In short, everything we've been preparing for is beginning to happen. We're bringing it - and the preparations for things two and three months down the road have begun.
We also welcome for the first time today our friends from the San Francisco Opera, who are holding auditions for their training program here. They'll audition in other cities too, as will we in their city in just a few weeks. We're all looking ahead to next summer and next year, checking on the progress of talented singers around the country, dreaming up what might come next...
...all while the daily work continues, I remind myself as I hear the orchestra tuning over my office monitor. Time to go!
The slow and "unsexy" (as one of my colleagues, SB, terms it) work that I've been describing does add up, and then one of those doors can suddenly open. Life in the Studio is a rollercoaster that shuttles musicians between the incredibly mundane and the unbelievably dramatic. This year, the 30th anniversary of our program, will see quite a few dramatic steps forward, with Studio members stepping into starring roles. It can be a very strange things for the artists involved - being required to show up for language class, for example, and then walking into the leading lady's or gentleman's dressing room. And when to launch a developing talent is always a big question, one to which there is no single answer.
Opening night was joyous for me as one of the Studio's mentors, but it was also fascinating for me as a musician and a lover of opera. A story unfolded on our stage, sung by musicians at various stages of their musical lives, some right at the start, some just hitting their stride and some well into their prime. That combination sounded like real life to me.
The photo in this post speaks romantically of a new beginning, but I hope it also speaks to you of your experience in the theater. What happens when you open that door and walk through?
I've thought about this a lot. We in classical music are used to being able to expect things. We traffic in known styles, known traditions. Many of us, and many of our fans, treasure this dearly. One colleague of mine, attending a punk jazz show with me several years ago, turned to me at one point and asked, "But how do they know if what they're playing is RIGHT?" Being right is important to us, and indeed every virtuoso builds a technique that will enable them to be both fearless and unerring.
Enter THE REFUGE. Have I mentioned THE REFUGE?
As we entered the week of our opening night, we also started to rehearse with some of the community musicians who will be taking part in THE REFUGE, and we found ourselves increasingly more overwhelmed at the scope and meaning of this work. Pictured above is Vadim, our bayan player. Along with Ryan McKinny, Liam Bonner, and Beau Gibson, he was rehearsing his movement of the piece for the first time. That movement tells the story of several refugees from Soviet Russia, all of whom encountered prejudice and violence as Jews.
Our soloists had been talking a lot about the daunting task of delivering the text of this piece. What is the greater meaning to us or to our audience of our young, white, mostly American soloists delivering the stories and words of people who have been oppressed, disadvantaged, disenfranchised? There are many operas that deal with individual, societal, or political violence, but it's very different to deliver the words of people who are living, who are right in your audience. Or onstage with you.
As it turns out, one of those stories is Vadim's. It all comes home.
Trying to be right, an opera house in a swamp, combinations we never expected.
Monday, September 24, 2007
The Refuge - World Premiere!
November 10, 2007 - 7:30 PM
One Performance Only
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
We've started another season of watching (and helping) the artists of the Studio develop. Some days, they take major steps; already, in just the last few weeks, one artist made a role debut with a major US company to wonderful acclaim, and another signed with a prominent agency. Most of the steps we see are smaller, daily steps: steady technical improvements, a new emotional risk in a song or aria, a more beautiful connection with language or poetry.
What does this have to do with Ms. Spears?
Already I see that the Studio artists are growing up in a totally different world than the one I knew. When I got out of San Francisco's Merola program in 1992, I went off on several national tours with Western Opera Theater, which was one of several national touring opera companies. I conducted my first Bohemes on that tour, in Midland, Texas. The singers in our company got to perform their roles a dozen times or more, in small venues across the country. It was safe, off the radar; you could take risks, make mistakes. HGO's music director Patrick Summers, also a WOT veteran, has written a beautiful article about the defunct tour which you can read here: http://www.sfcv.org/main/mainarchives/main_4_1_03.php; it's well worth the read.
There is no "off the radar" anymore. That's the curse that comes along with all the blessings of our technology. Music of all genres is available at a click, and beautiful sound clips of most singers are available on their own websites. I can begin writing this blog inspired by the amazing blogs of other musicians (Alex Ross, Kim Witman, Jeremy Denk, Joyce DiDonato - also well worth your time!). But along with all that access comes...well, constant access. At its extreme is the kind of access that everyone of us has to someone like Britney Spears, when without even trying we know intimate details of her life. Opera singers, in general, don't end up on the covers of US or PEOPLE. But how do you train - the kind of slow, daily progress I was talking about - when everything you do is potentially accessible?
There's a more disturbing part of this. Back to Britney, and the number of people who tuned into the VMAs knowing she would be a mess - hoping she would be a mess. How do we train up artists who will be brave enough to take chances, challenge assumptions, and keep our beautiful art form alive, in a culture that enjoys watching failure?
These questions are on my mind as we get ready to start rehearsing our fall repertoire. More slow, steady, daily work.
Monday, September 10, 2007
Well, these are some of the things that have happened since my introductory post. Each of these events requres a pianist, preparation time, a room to be scheduled, a tuned piano...multiple events happen just to make the following list possible.
(Monday and Tuesday: voice lessons for each Studio singer).
Tuesday: chorus music for BALLO, sixth floor of the Wortham. Men arrive from all over the city: students, working guys, new parents. Men who are making it as freelance musicans, and men who give us some of their precious time away from a 40-hour-per-week job. Maestro Richard Bado has them sitting in a circle, intoning Verdi's music on spoken counts: "and one and two-ee-and-a..." Setting aside for one moment text and expression, the chorus internalizes the rhythm that will keep them performing as a unit no matter how much or how wildly they are asked to move onstage.
(Wednesday and Thursday: Studio rehearsals with pianists. How close to memorized am I for this small part in the first opera? What about that recital next month? There's a patron event that needs a duet. I have to sing an audition in New York this week, can I learn this music in time?)
Thursday: all the Studio singers and pianists perform for the senior administration for the first time. Audition clothes, headshots, resumes. General Director Anthony Freud and Artistic Administrator Diane Zola choose arias, and everyone makes their first impression. It's a strong afternoon, well done on all counts.
(Friday and Saturday: learning solo parts in THE REFUGE. An original and a revised version are haunting the building - is everyone's music up to date? Difficult rhythms get taken apart, scores are compared. David Hanlon, the principal coach, keeps a list of questions for the composer).
Friday: a recital at the Museum of Fine Arts. Two of the Studio singers brought Duparc and Schubert into a large, solemn space with the resonance of a thousand bathtubs. A crowd of several hundred people dampened the acoustic to cathedral proportions, It was our first time in this space for this crowd, and a success. I was worried that our program was too serious, but the space demands serious performance and concentration, it was designed for that.
(Saturday: children's chorus auditions. Highlights include a six-year-old with beautiful pitch and absolute confidence and a nine-year old who announced, just as the piano introduction to his piece was fading: "I never agreed to this! It was my mom's idea!")
Sunday: Special Projects coordinator Susan Elliott, David Hanlon, and I visit a church, searching for African singers to be part of one of the REFUGE movements. This group meets in a motel on the Southwest highway, in a room redolant with ancient cigarette smoke down the hall form the karaoke bar. There are sixty people. The pastor has the tenor voice of a strong and carefree angel, and every voice is lifted in the call and response. One impossibly talented teenage boy is the de facto music director, running synthesizers, calling out instructions. While the eldest members of his group converse only in Swahili, and their children in Swahili, French, and English, this young man has copied every move of 'N'Sync, and even performs a Christian rap in English over one of the choir's African songs.
The next time you ask a musician "What is it exactly that you do?", be patient when she hesitates in answering. It's complicated...and wonderful.
Sunday, September 2, 2007
It is my pleasure to welcome you to the Houston Grand Opera, and to our new blogsite. I'll be your host here, with plenty of colleagues and guests taking part in telling our story - or, more accurately, stories. There are hundreds of people working in dozens of departments to make our season happen, each with his or her own significant tale. One of the major events of our year, in fact, revolves around a mosaic of stories. There's much to tell.
For us, everything starts with the music, the great repertoire that exists and is still being created. I'm HGO's Head of Music Staff. My days involve work with our conductors, directors, pianists, and coaches, liaison with our choruses and orchestra, contact with our library, and meetings with staff from all departments. Most rewarding of all, I'm heavily involved with the daily work of the HGO Studio members, singers and pianists who are taking their first steps - and leaps - onto our stages, under our guidance. This is a remarkable vantage point from which to watch our season take shape.
Yesterday was a beginning for the Studio as we all returned from our summer activities. We met with the Studio Program Director, Hector Vasquez, and our Program Coordinator, Rubena Buerger, and began planning and preparing for the year ahead. It was so good to hear everyone. I've missed these gifted musicians, and am thrilled at our new arrivals. This year will see these people in major roles, supporting roles, in recital, in competitions, and away at other companies.
Our first day was merely the continuation of work for most of HGO's people. Our chorus has been at work for a week, learning the complex and beautiful music of UN BALLO IN MASCHERA under maestro Richard Bado's guidance. Our marketing and development departments are catching their collective breath after a successful open house last week (and a hugely successful new subscription campaign over the summer). Senior staff members have been all over the world taking in productions, hearing singers, and continuing the constant work of planning for the future.
Woven through all of this is HGOco, our company's innovative revamping of education and outreach. This initiative is ambitious, challenging, risky, and totally exciting, and its first project will consume our collective energy this fall. HGOco's stated goal is to unite our community through art, and THE REFUGE meets that goal head-on. It's an oratorio that tells the story of Houston through narratives collected from the city's diverse immigrant populations. It's a massive work for orchestra, chorus, soloists, and community musicians. This is going to stretch us all in ways we've not experienced. The soloists, for example, are from the Studio. We have a good idea of how to teach challenging new music to skilled singers. A world premiere, even a piece on such a large scale, is something of which HGO's people have deep experience. But now we have a chance to meet and work with musicians from other traditions, in musical idioms we haven't all practiced. Our composer, Christopher Theofanidis, has skillfully written music that goes from the florid style of Indian singing to African-tinged call and response to hard-driving, complex Latin rhythms. Another challenge lies in the stories themselves, which are by turn wrenching, brave, desperate, good-humored, angry, and hopeful. The people from whom these stories come deserve our honor, and our best musical performance; the responsibility is great.
All of this and we're not yet past Labor Day! Tuesday morning will bring the first voice lessons and coachings. Singers and pianists will work to put one note together with the next, striving for beauty and consistency, all in the service of telling stories old and new. I hope you'll meet us here often in the coming weeks!
Thanks for reading.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
For information on our 2007/2008 Season visit our website at www.HoustonGrandOpera.org.