I can't imagine how much effort it would have taken most of us in the last week to remain completely unaware of the fact that Britney Spears was having some trouble. One week without turning on the TV, accessing the Internet, standing in line at the grocery store, or speaking to other humans...I guess would be possible if you were incredibly organized...
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.