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

angle of repose

It's 2 PM on a beautiful Saturday. The Texas sky in October and November is something to behold, blue as a robin's egg; when it's cloudless and filled with sunshine, it's one of the prettiest sights I know.

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

Bringing it

You are viewing the back of David Hanlon and the front of Evan Rogister, our line of first defense in the musical preparation of THE REFUGE. Here we were rehearsing the movement described in an earlier post, which we have since performed for a community group - this has happened with one other movement as well. David has been diligent in teaching this score to our Studio soloists, and together with Evan, to the musicians in our community who are participating. They are our resident experts on how to mic a sitar, how to balance a singer and a dan bau, and how to pronounce an anthem in Congolese. We would be hard pressed to do this work without them.

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!

More catch-up: Opening Night

In my frenzy to catch up with my posting, I have neglected to mention the fantastic photographer who has contributed to the last few entries. Eric Melear is on our music staff: pianist, conductor, coach, and intrepid lensman, he's a truly multitalented person. He captured the beautiful image above at one of our last BALLO rehearsals: Tammy Wilson, in perfect light, ready to go on as Amelia. "I literally dropped everything when I saw that light," Eric told me. I know the feeling - moments like the one above are so brief. Before you know it, that door has opened, and a person/career/life/opera has moved into something new.

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?

More catch-up: Bayan on the Bayou

HGO's home, the Wortham (for those of you not familiar with H-town), sits right on Buffalo Bayou. This was a matter of considerable interest to me when I came here from New York last year. I thought I had come across all manner of remarkable creature in Manhattan (including one memorable and intensely brave rat on the 168th Street A train platform), but nothing prepared me for the alligators. Seriously. After a good rain, you can sometimes enjoy the antics of a gator or two in the temporarily flooded park across the street from the opera house, all within sight of the freeway. Gators one moment, Verdi the next: not a combination I had ever expected.

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.

Catchup, part 2

It's good to be the king!!

In the last scene of BALLO, the king has invited his court to a masked ball. In our production, everyone at that ball is dressed as the king. It is, in a word, postmodern - in another word, cool.

While our chorus resides in AwesomeLand (when not becaped for Verdi, they are singing precise French and marching about in FILLE DU REGIMENT rehearsals), work continues apace on THE REFUGE back in the Studio. The week is full of an interesting conjunction of the sorts of assignments that can come the Studio's way: two singers are away at a patron's ranch for an important event, one is in New York singing a recital, four are singing Brahms quartets for a Houston-based ballet performance. Three are in BALLO, two are in FILLE, and the music staff is running interference in between all of these activities, sometimes coaching, sometimes practicing, sometimes performing. At this moment, a brand new and technically difficult work like THE REFUGE feels like quite a burden. It's long, it's difficult, and it's really hard to sing - and for people who have all this other performing to do, it feels like a burden and a compromise. It especially feels so confined to the practice room - but that's the slow and steady work I referenced a couple of posts ago. When you're shuttling between the stage and the practice room, the practice room can feel so small. That's where we are. Patrons and recital lovers stand up to applaud us one night, we lurch with a huge opera toward completion the next - and after it all, we head back to the practice room for more slow, unspectacular work. Those kingly robes feel mighty pretend at times.

And so the Daddy Tomato said...

Props to anyone who gets the Pulp Fiction reference.

Um...hi there. Remember me? I think the last thing I wrote here had to do with slow and steady work. Well, nearly a month has gone by, filled with said work, certainly steady but rarely slow. Let me try to catch you all up on some of it! Opening night of our season is past, our second production is set to fly, and THE REFUGE advances (seriously, Mahler 8 seems like an afternoon runout gig in a cafetorium compared to this piece)...well, take your shoes off, stay a while.

Back around that last post, we had just started rehearsing Verdi's UN BALLO IN MASCHERA. Fabulous mid-Verdi goodness: betrayal, loyalty, misunderstanding, amor, more amor, death, forgiveness. Big choruses, glorious orchestra, glamorous and amazing soloists. But now I'm speaking of opening night, and in this blog we're not there yet. You see under the green hat in the picture the grin of our leading lady. Tammy wears Ryan's chapeau in one moment, but in a few weeks that hat will be worn by a conspirator who wants to take the life of that same lady's lover, and we'll all be drawn into that tragedy. I never get tired of this transformation.

The last week in September sees our BALLO cast rehearsing together, while elsewhere in the opera house...
-the High School voice students begin their lessons, and Opera To Go gets going.
-the Studio singers have voice lessons and coach; a few are in BALLO, others prepare for FILLE, one is preparing a New York City debut recital, another prepares a huge all-Russian program for Houston, and two others are away on important jobs.
-A recital program featuring Studio singers happens at an art museum in Houston.
-Our REFUGE coach and I are working with the Studio soloists on this oratorio, but also attending Congolese and Spanish church services and working with a group of singers from The University of Houston as we prepare this piece. Sue Elliot, our Special Projects Coordinator, is also talking to specialists in Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, and Russian music and securing their participation in this piece.
-and...writing this several weeks down the pike? None of us have ANY idea of what lies ahead.