Tuesday, December 2, 2008

So you want to hold a masterclass...

What is a masterclass anyway? The basic format is that a select group of young artists perform and coach their repertoire with an established professional in their field – all with their peers looking on and listening.

How the master professionals choose to use the time is anything but basic. What kind of learning atmosphere will they create? What boundaries will they establish for themselves in terms of what or what not to say? How does one go about giving advice and coaching to a young artist for the first time in front of total strangers?

I don’t know if those were the exact questions on Joyce DiDonato’s mind when she came to hold a masterclass with the HGO Studio last month, but it was clear from the first moment that she came with a constructive vision for how the time would pass (whether or not she’d admit that to you!)

The way Joyce introduced herself to us was as memorable as any of the work we did afterwards.

She talked to us about herself and the way her career began – and didn’t begin in as many words. She readily answered any questions we had about her conservatory training and her time as an HGO studio artist. There is something altogether transcendent and encouraging about listening to a talented goddess like Joyce DiDonato talk plainly and openly about her journey to where she is now, without the slightest hint of bitterness about past failures or boasting about present success.

Before moving on to the singing portion of our class, she reminded us to do something for our own journeys that too many of us forget in the daily grind, “Enjoy the ride.” Then one by one, singers got up to perform a range of repertoire from “Depuis le jour” to “Se vuol ballare” to “Give him this orchid.”

I think the best word to describe what she wanted from us consistently through both sessions was awareness. Awareness of what? It varied from person to person. Often times we default into certain habits when we’re not really living in the moment or being specific with our text. Glazed expression, a careless arm gesture here, a tossed-away verb there – sometimes we give the illusion of being connected to what we’re saying but in reality even the most artistically illiterate audience can pick up on insincerity.

It was this tendency that Joyce relentlessly picked out and made us redo with textual and presentational precision. She helped us take risks that might be counterintuitive but deceptively simple, whether it might mean staring at one fixed point for the first eight measures or smiling during a particularly horrible and traumatic point in the aria.

And you just know that the class is awesome when the pianists are just as riveted by what’s going on as the singers.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Firecracker Role

I've just finished my week of alternate cast performances of Beatrice and Benedict. Although this show may not be considered a well-known opera, it's a show and a role (Ursule) that I've wanted to work on for a long time. I first fell in love with B&B through hearing the beautiful "Nocturne" that ends Act I at the wonderful Colin Graham's memorial concert. He had planned the programming for his own memorial concert, and included pieces of music that meant a great deal to him. I remember being moved to tears when Kiera Duffy (soprano) and Mary McCormick (mezzo-soprano) went into the second section of the duet, and I knew right then that I wanted to sing it one day.

And, that day came last Tuesday!

We sang three shows for packed houses of the most energetic audiences I have sung for in my life: two (early!) morning elementary school shows with a high school evening performance in the middle. I honestly thought we'd get the biggest response from the morning shows, but was entirely surprised when the high school night absolutely blew the other two audiences out of the water! It was so much fun to hear them "Ooo!" and "Aaah!" when Beatrice and Benedict (played by two Studio members, Faith Sherman and Beau Gibson) finally admitted their feelings for each other. I think the thing that caught me most off guard was that they actually laughed at the jokes! Not that the jokes in this aren't funny, but this is Shakespearian language which is sliced and diced into small bits of dialogue. It's not the easiest thing to follow, but they were on top of it, laughing in places that most of the regular audiences missed. Joyce DiDonato (the 1st cast Beatrice) told me earlier on that she was jealous that she didn't get the high school night, and now I know why! What fun!

I also have to say that putting this character together was a great learning process and a lot of fun for me as well. In my time as an opera singer I have done a lot of character and bit roles. However, I've never really run across such a flirt as Ursule! She is bawdy, flirtatious, and downright crass at times, but she is FUN! At first I didn't see it. Her music is just so serene and luscious (the “Nocturne” and the Act II trio are both her main pieces), and does not immediately lend itself to such a firecracker of a woman. However, her dialogue is in complete contrast! (I.e. I got to say "Twill be heavier soon by the weight of man!" in response to Hero mentioning that her heart was "exceeding heavy"... firecracker, no?) I think it took right up until the final dress for me to find Ursule's personality in full. I am an actress that really finds my character in the clothes. That is to say, when I get into costume, I feel like I am finally that person. I also got to be blonde for the show, and I decided to test drive the whole theory that blondes have more fun. I'm still up in the air about that, but if Ursule is any indication, I'm sure it's got some validity to it!

So, now that the shows are over, I have no more long nights at the opera house. I am not watching this opera every single night, and I get 8 hours of sleep (if I can tear myself away from Grey's Anatomy on abc.com.) Life is a little more back to normal, but a little less fun without Ursule in it every day. -JB

Photo by Felix Sanchez

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Unsung Heroes

It could have been so much worse.

I realize that by now that has become somewhat of a cliché in Houston, where most of us were spared the utter devastation that Hurricane Ike wreaked upon our neighbors in Galveston and other areas further south. I also realize that is small comfort to many of us who have to cope with damaged homes, financial woes, and, still in some cases, no electricity.

Perhaps it is too early to count our blessings while we mourn lost lives and lost homes, but perhaps it is precisely the right time for the more fortunate of us (myself among them) to take inventory of all that we have not lost.

I will always associate Hurricane Ike with something gained - a new and deepened admiration of the Studio Buddies.

The week after the storm, one of the most oft-repeated phrases used in conversations with my studio colleagues was, “I have the coolest buddies EVER.” They offered us shelter during the storm and after, and those that could gave us a place to have air conditioning, hot showers, full meals, and iced drinks. Those without power still found ways to be there for us, from calling us to offer assistance in what ways they could or taking us out to lunch or dinner once the restaurants were up and running.

For those of you who don’t know who these mysterious people are, the Studio Buddies are comprised of individuals and couples who dedicate a ridiculous amount of time and money to making our transition to Houston as studio artists a warm and welcoming experience. Their love for opera is surpassed only by their generosity and love for a great conversation over lots of delicious food, wine, and beer.

You’d think they would have cancelled the big welcome party which they were going to throw for us that week. Everyone would have understood, yes? Nope. They threw a party in true Buddies fashion complete with all the goodness I’ve mentioned above, and if they were dealing with their own troubles post-Ike, none of us would have known.

That’s not a definition of “neighbor” you’ll find on dictionary.com, but I can’t think of a better one.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

this is our moment

Our poor blog has been neglected too long. Some of the reasons include the choosing of next year's Studio, the world premiere, the planning process for next season, and the rehearsing of our last two operas...at least we don't have to ask where the time went! There's much to catch up on and reasons to reflect, but let me start with the project that's been taking up most of our collective time: Benjamin Britten's masterful Billy Budd.
There's a lot to say about Britten and why HGO has chosen to focus on his work in coming seasons, but right now our company is in thrall to this piece. It's enormous. But opera's big, right? How is this one even bigger? A checklist...

1. A huge, complex orchestra that whispers and roars, rattles and sings. This band has "quadruple winds", which is hip conductor-speak for four of each kind of wind instrument. At least that many of each brass instrument, too. Seven timpani players. Huge drums onstage. An ocean of strings. And, just for icing on the cake, a live explosion backstage. Clearly, I'm betraying my own penchant for headbanging noise in the way I list things here, but nothing beats the sound of an orchestra like this in full cry except the sound of the same orchestra playing on the edge of silence. Nothing, nothing, NOTHING beats the energy of so many musicians concentrating, breathing, and hearing together.
2. A similarly huge group of singers onstage. The cast list is long, but it's the chorus that makes the show - there are around one hundred men and boys aboard the Indomitable. And it's an all-male night, which makes for some of the most thrilling choruses imaginable - but, as with the orchestra, the most breathtaking moments come when that mass of men prays together in a murmur.
3. A set that rotates, opens up to several levels and closes again, can support forty men, is a boat, a road, a hill, a slope, and the jaws of hell.
4. A story that is about, variously (and this is a partial list), the depth of human connection, the human propensity to worship and destroy what is best in themselves, the allegory of sacrifice, thwarted love, the impossibility of justice, the acceptance of the mixed suffering and joy in existence. Fledermaus it ain't.

A piece of this breadth, depth, and height will challenge and stretch an entire company. Yes, every piece of music is worth doing well, and it's difficult to do even "simple" music well - ask any musician about the Bach inventions or the Mozart sonatas, pieces that we study as teenagers, and no one will call them easy. But when all those people I listed above (performers, but also crew members who are dealing with that set, stage managers, all the backstage people who must dress and wig and assist that huge cast, those who must plan their travel and accomodation, those who must see to their compensation and care) are working to full capacity, a magical thing begins to happen in a company. No one can do their job halfway, no one can "phone it in". Everyone is tired but focused. The halls begin to contain passionate conversation about what is right and wrong in the production. Everyone begins to own the process and the hoped-for triumph.

And the day after the dress rehearsal? You should have heard our orchestra playing La Boheme. A popular opera, a great one, and by no means easy. But - transformed, after climbing the mountain of Britten's masterpiece.

We're a company transformed. This is our moment, the one we've been waiting for these long weeks.


Friday, February 29, 2008

Opera to Go! Midland Tour - Thursday

Opera to Go!’s west Texas tour came to an end in San Antonio. After a very chilly dinner on the river walk, we all went to bed. Thursday morning was an early show at St. Mary’s Hall. There in a beautiful campus designed by O’Neil Ford we performed for about 200 kids. Coker Novosad was our gracious host and announcer. “This is Chuck”, he said, “and he makes these operas for kids. This is a cool show. What’s really cool is that Chuck works with my Dad (Chris Novosad) and he came all this was to do this show for us.” Later at lunch, Coker suggested that “The Magic Flute” should be a video game. “There could be a place where you play the game, or you could watch the opera, or the other choice would be the main menu.”

Over a wonderful lunch of salad and pasta, Coker, asked: “Hey Chuck do think I could write an opera?” Of course, I answered. It would be the best opera ever.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Opera to Go! Midland Tour - Wednesday

Another chilly morning greeted us on our 3rd day in the bustling metropolis of Midland. Armed with a breakfast of Texas-shaped waffles and several cups of coffee, we headed back to Carver for our 9 A.M. show (not all that early for OTG). The kids were just as responsive as yesterday. The Q&A sessions after each show are definitely one of the highlights of performing with this group. We have heard it all from ‘My uncle’s name is Brian’ to ‘Dancing!’ to ‘I liked the part where he fell down.’ But today we had a particularly thoughtful question from a young girl who asked if we had always wanted to be singers. Reminded me of the conversation we had in the van just 3 days prior. On our way back to the hotel, we were all determined to snap some shots of the prairie dogs we had seen just around the corner from the school yesterday. They are pretty darn cute but I hear they are a menace to the local cat population.

For lunch we settled on a Whole Foods-esque café that featured all natural sandwiches, wraps, burgers and delicious smoothies. It’s tricky to get 9 people to all agree, but this group is fairly easy going. I had made a bit of a stink about not eating at any chain restaurants. It’s just something about driving 8 hours to eat at a place that is 10 minutes from home. I think we were all quite sated despite a stowaway jalapeno in my wrap. While Youngha and Cecy might relish in wasabi, Tabasco and jalapenos, my taste buds are wimps!

After lunch we had our final show in Midland which was a bit farther away than the first two locations. We may or may not have made a couple of u-turns on the way ;). Our fearless leader unfortunately did not have a GPS device to pilot the way. Once there, the band teacher delighted with some Midland humor. Apparently The Magic Flute is the sequel to The Voodoo Euphonium. Har har har. And all this time I thought it was the prequel to The Spastic Piccolo. My bad. The show went well and Katherine nailed her stratospheric coloratura (despite suffering from some serious congestion). One young girl asked Hannah if it was fun playing the princess and I had to resist answering the question myself. I have donned a dress for OTG more than once – Princess Esperanza in Mary Carol Warwick's The Princess and the Pea sprang to mind.

Immediately after the show it was off to San Antonio with just a little drooling on my Texas flag pillow. We glimpsed a road runner that was too quick for any photos. No doubt a coyote was in hot pursuit. Kade claims to have seen a boar. This trip was all about the Texas wildlife. 5 hours and several pieces of beef jerky later, we pulled into our hotel right on the river walk. It’s remarkable considering the city is under siege by musicians for the TMEA conference. Despite the falling temperature we ate outside at Casa Rio (we were all too hungry to wait for a table inside). We warmed ourselves by taking ridiculous pictures of each other and laughing hysterically. Thank goodness for digital cameras. Then it was off to a decently early bedtime. Have to be up again in the morning for our final performance of Flute. After performing in Abduction and Flute in the HGO chorus and Flute on the road, I’m about Mozart-ed out! Lying in my bed that night I was thinking how interesting it is that with HGO we will rehearse a show for 2 months and then perform 5 or 6 times over 2 weeks. Whereas with OTG, we rehearse a show for 2 weeks and then perform it many times over 2-3 months. It is simultaneously a challenge to keep the show fresh and an opportunity to really explore our characters and the music. I know we all look forward to taking the show on the road again - after we get some well-deserved rest. Maybe next time we’ll go to Cabo!


Friday, February 15, 2008

Opera to Go! Midland Tour - Tuesday

One of the exciting aspects of being a performer in HGO’s Opera to Go! is putting our show up in unique places every day. This week we are on the road, taking our technological, forty-five minute version of The Magic Flute to Midland, TX.

This morning we performed our first show in Midland at the Carver Center, a local school where gifted and talented elementary school students attend twice a week. We arrived to find a surprisingly resonant brick auditorium, which is always a treat for us as singers. Since we perform primarily in schools, we are always adapting to a new acoustic and a new group of children (which varies amazingly in mood from one school to another). Some rooms have a dry acoustic that can make it more difficult for us as singers, and some give us a live, ringing sound that flatters voices but demands a much more detailed and strong approach to diction. In this case, projecting the sound was easy, but in order to make the performance understandable and easy to follow, we really had to heighten the intensity of our diction. The size of the stage can also vary widely, and we have to think about everything from our blocking during the show to watching sightlines so the students cannot see us when we are behind the set. Making adjustments like this are so important for us, as we really want each child to be able to completely understand what we are doing onstage, and to enjoy every aspect of the performance without distraction.

After spending our usual half hour setting up and putting on our costumes, the kids began to file in. Several cast members were still warming up their voices backstage, so our director began by speaking to the children about the exercises that we were singing and explaining why opera singers warm up. Soon the audience was full and we began the performance. I’m happy to report that the kids in Midland are absolutely wonderful, and were among the most attentive that I have ever seen! When we finish a show we always allow some time for questions, and these students did not disappoint, asking about everything from set design to how to sing high notes.

After a quick trip back to the hotel and lunch, we made our way to a second school, Emerson Elementary. Here our audience consisted of a large group of fourth-graders, their teachers, and several members of the local media! As it turns out, Opera to Go! was featured on the evening news, and a story and photo will appear in the local paper on Wednesday. The second show of the day went as well as the first, and the children were extremely responsive.

The evening brought us to the home of a member of Midland Opera Theater’s board. Sue, our amazing host, cooked a delicious dinner for our group and her fellow board members, and it was a great time to connect with opera enthusiasts in another part of our state. For those who have never been to Midland, these people know how to have a good time! The board members were all so friendly and gracious, and we had a great time getting to know them.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Opera to Go! Midland Tour - Monday

[Kade Smith is the program coordinator for HGOco. This is first of a series of guest posts about Opera to Go!'s tour of The Magic Flute.]

Opera to Go! set off on a journey to Midland, TX yesterday to perform our brand new version of The Magic Flute. We all met at the Wortham Center, some of us bright eyed, a few bushy-tailed. Because we needed a cargo van for the OTG sets and a passenger van for the singers, we took two vehicles and therefore had two drivers. Chuck Winkler, our director, decided he would drive the solitary cargo van, while I drove the passenger van.

Our first stop was in Katy, where we picked up our Queen of the Byte/1st Lady, Katherine McDaniel. Seeing the traffic coming the other way at 8:30 in the morning gave us all a new appreciation for those of you who have to make that commute every morning! It was a good idea for us to pick her up, especially since it gave us a chance to stop at Chick Fil-A and get some breakfast (of couse Alejandro Magallon, our Tamino, saw the Taco Cabana next door and couldn’t resist the call of a breakfast burrito!)

We then continued on I-10 to San Antonio, and amid intermittent naps by the cast, discussed our musical heritages. Everyone told when they first started singing (or playing piano, in the case of our pianist Youngha Guk). Many of us have been singing all our lives, and a couple of us discovered opera later on in high school or even college. Alejandro said that he studied astronomy before he decided that he wanted to perform.

Our first important stop past San Antonio was the Buc-ee’s, a Texas favorite known for its smiling cartoon beaver on the logo and great local snacks. We got beef jerky, drinks, more beef jerky, some chips, and even MORE beef jerky! Dennis Arrowsmith, our Sarastro, found a Texas pillow that he had to have. I think the window was a little too hard on his head when he kept falling asleep, so he needed some cushion! I myself got a Buc-ee’s t-shirt, which I’m hoping will help me fit in when we go roller-skating later on today.

The rest of the drive was usual- some good conversation, a few games, lots of western Texas brush. Just so you know how nerdy musicians can be, one of the games we played was to name as many composers as you can from a certain country! I chose France, Brian Speck, our Papageno, chose Germany, Katherine was brave and picked Scandanavia, Alejandro chose Spain, and Cecy Duarte, our Monostatos/Papagena /3rd Lady, chose Italy. Dennis took over England for Youngha when she got tired of the game and he actually woke up for a bit!

We arrived in Midland last night just in time for dinner. At the hotel we met our Pamina/ 2nd Lady, Hannah Nelson, who flew in from Minnesota- no, South Dakota (an inside joke) where she had been singing in a concert this weekend. Our dinner, again in true west Texas style was- can you guess? Barbecue. It was delicious! After dinner we came back to the hotel to get rested for our shows today.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Starting a Family

Now before you start rumors that I'm pregnant, I'm only letting you know that we've started rehearsals in earnest for Last Acts. I’ve been slow to write about the first few days, as we all find our pace for the initial rehearsals. We’ve had the customary music read-throughs, which are leaps and bounds ahead of normal premieres thanks to the cast singing the workshop in December. We’ve sketched out the staging for Act I and have a clear idea of how to build this family and how they’ll interact with each other.

But remember that HGO is also hosting Concert of Arias this week, with which our conductor Patrick Summers is heavily involved and that Jake and Flicka are hosting and judging tomorrow. And, oh yeah – Magic Flute has had performances every other day since last Friday, in which Kristin (a third of our cast, mind you) is singing First Lady.

Plus it’s a “world premiere,” loosely defined in several ways:
  • The first public performance of a musical piece or play
  • That’s what it sounds like with piano?
  • No, you should have Version E with the two added pages, minus the cut we made yesterday, and your line should now read, “These shoes rule.”
  • You want the pianos where?
Now, I’m 90% joking, of course, but when you’re creating something from scratch, it has a whole host of challenges that your typical Mozart opera doesn’t have. Yet, these are exactly what make it rewarding. The atmosphere of good will and collaboration in the room is palpable and with it comes a refreshing level of patience, flexibility and curiosity. Thankfully so, as there are many logistics to solve (where DO those pianos go?) and even more family issues to sort through in Act II.

Cocktail Party Tip #2
I’m sure Kristin would love to tell you about the socks she’s wearing in this picture. They were a gift from Flicka and Jake and reference the duet Kristin sings with Keith in Act II. I wonder if Keith got his own pair….

Saturday, February 2, 2008


Today is a red-letter day at HGO, one that comes every year and yet is newly special and thrilling each time. Today, the semifinalists of the McCollum competition arrive, the singers we chose on our long audition tour last November (remember that multi-week blogging hiatus?). In the coming week, they'll compete for prize money, and some will be asked to join us in our Studio next season. The competition is exciting, of course - all that energy, daring, and skill brought to bear - but there's a deeper process at work as we try to discern who will be a good addition to our company. Is this the voice we want, is this person hungry to learn? The singers are trying to discern this as well: are we the community they wish to join for several years, are we the teachers, the colleagues? Do they respond to our process? Could Houston be home for a while? We don't simply hand out checks at the end of the week, but we ask a few people to change their lives in order to join us.

In and around this week, so much more is happening, and all of it feels emotonally and artistically large. We will close our fine ABDUCTION tomorrow and say goodbye to a cast of beautiful singers; what pleasure they have brought to us! FLUTE will continue throughout the week, simple and profound, with another lovely cast featuring our current Studio so auspiciously. For me, these performances turn bittersweet as I realize how soon we will say goodbye to some of these artists who are truly a part of the HGO family. And on Monday, we begin to rehearse the world premiere of Jake Heggie's LAST ACTS, creating a brand new opera on our stage.

The moment is big, so many things new, so many things beginning, all of it tinged with a taste of farewell. And I know I'm not alone in feeling grateful, grateful for these people, grateful for a life in which we have the opportunity (the responsibility!) to create, to communicate, to use the words and music of Mozart or Heggie to tell stories about human life.

The picture accompanying this entry is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's; her voice also accompanies the writing of this entry. The above musings led me to play the recording of her solo Bach cantatas this morning. If you don't already own this, improve your life and get it! She was one of the most direct, honest, raw communicators I ever had the pleasure to know and hear. She left us too soon and left so much beauty behind. The picture is taken from her Metropolitan Opera performances of Didon in Berlioz' LES TROYENS, on which I assisted. I will never forget her in those performances, always immediate, new, and real.

What a gift, to be part of a community of performers and listeners who together make this work.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Opening Night Fever

another missive from Miss Louisa D - "like butter" -

On Friday we opened Magic Flute. There's a special excitement in the air on opening nights. The audience members sip champagne and greet their friends in the lobby before the show starts, the women in gowns with freshly blown out hair and newly manicured nails, the men in tuxes and polished silver cufflinks. The ushers chime the scale that means the curtain will go up soon, and there's a surge toward the doors of the theatre. As the house lights dim, programs are closed,conversations become hushed, and cell phones are surreptitiously silenced. The laughter is more immediate on opening night, the applause more prolonged. The men who manage to yell "Brava!" at exactly the right moment in the silence between the last note of the soprano's aria and the beginning of the applause are always in attendance on opening night. It's magical to feel the energy in the house.

At least, I assume it's magical. I don't really know for sure, because I don't sit in the audience on opening nights of the shows I work on.There's a special place for the assistant director to sit during the show. It's right behind the audience in the orchestra section, and it's called the viewing booth, but I affectionately refer to it as "my cave." I'm usually running around until right before the curtain goes up, checking in with the chorus and all the principals, answering questions, and giving a few last-minute notes from the final dress rehearsal. One last sweep past the stage manager backstage, and I'm off to my cave.

The viewing booth is soundproof, which is great on the one hand (if something goes wrong, you can shout as loud as you want about it and no one in the audience is any the wiser), but somewhat frustrating on the other, because I don't hear the music like the audience does. Everything is piped in through a speaker into the booth, so it's more like listening to a recording. I don't experience the audience response in a real way, either, so I don't know whether a joke has gotten the right reaction unless people are roaring with laughter. I'm on headset, but the headset in the booth is so uncomfortable (besides the fact that it ruins my opening night hair) that I turn the volume all the way up so that I don't have to actually wear it (a practice no one backstage appreciates when I have to say something and I forget to turn the volume down again). On the bright side, I can eat Cheez-its in there.

During the show, I take a few notes on technical issues that haven't been completely worked out, singers who aren't standing in the right spot to be in their light, etc. I have what's known as a "crisis list," (although some people find that too alarmist and call it the"critical chorus list") which lists all the supers and chorus members who have a specific job to do, and who will do that job in the event of someone having to miss a performance. This happens pretty rarely at HGO, but it's good to be prepared just in case. On a good day, I don't have a lot to do in the course of a performance; I'm there as insurance for the days that aren't so good.

I watch through about the middle of the bows to make sure that everything is running smoothly, and then I gather up my belongings and go backstage. I see the end of the bows from the wings, and as soon as the curtain goes down everyone on stage erupts in hugs and applause and the stage is flooded with well-wishers like myself and other staff members. After a flurry of embraces, the singers escape to their dressing rooms to get ready for the opening night party, where they will be toasted and celebrated, along with everyone else who worked to produce such a fabulous opening night.

And in those moments, as I stand on that enormous stage, being hugged, thanked, and congratulated by some of the very best talent in the world of opera today, I certainly don't feel like I'm missing out on anything. So when the next opening night rolls around, you won't see me complaining. I'll be in my cave, happily watching the show and munching on Cheez-its.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The League of Just Us

My friends, it has been a weekend of daring feats here at HGO. We have put on two MAGIC FLUTES and an ABDUCTION in the space of 72 hours! Not only was that a lot of Mozart (and a lot of German dialogue), it was an incredible survey of the following:
XTREME RANGE!! We had Konstanze, Blonde, and the Queen of the Night at one extreme, Sarastro and Osmin at the other. This meant high and low Ds, Es, and Fs everywhere! These folks were truly able to leap tall octaves in a single bound. More than that, they got major style points in addition to their athleticism. High notes alternately sexy, scary, elegant, and generous; low notes alternately blustering, warm, threatening, reassuring.
MAD MULTITASKING!! Two, count them two, men who can sing and play wind instruments at the same time. OK, EC was faking it, but I've never seen anyone pay as much attention to a flute as he without making actual noise. This weekend, people at HGO sang while
-moving potted palms
-flying through the air in a cage
-making martinis
-being undressed, being dressed, balancing enormous gear on their heads
-lying on their stomachs, backs, sides, on couches, and hanging off the side of a train
-being surrounded by enormous fictional animals
and my personal favorite
-throwing handfuls of multicolored feathers into the air
FEATS OF STRENTH!! You'd think it was Festivus the way HGO Mozartians brought the muscle and endurance. They
-lifted other singers into the air
-spoke German recit while tied into a yogic bow pose
-covered a man with furniture while singing a trio
and my personal favorite
-carried on a well-deserved opening night celebration and returned for their second performance less than 36 hours later!
Superheros one and all. ;)
"Birdman", by the way, is a little tribute to Papageno, the character as well as the man playing him. PC is debuting this role, which is hard to believe because he inhabits it so beautifully. Papageno the character...well, in the rather convoluted story of MAGIC FLUTE, he's not supernatural at all, he's just a man with human needs and desires, and so he is the character we recognize and love. With a little magic help from music, he finds his true love and his purpose in life.
Which is another kind of amazing feat, after all.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

First Impressions and Last Acts

Learning Last Acts: The Music

I can remember clearly the first time I ever heard the name Jake Heggie. It was the August before I entered graduate school at the University of Michigan to study with esteemed pianist Martin Katz, and Martin invited me to a recital he was playing with Frederica von Stade at Ravinia, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. On the program, they premiered Jake’s song cycle Songs to the Moon and acknowledged Jake (who was seated a row away) after performing it. Me? I was thrilled.

Since then I’ve met Jake several times, but this is my first real opportunity to work with him. Patrick Summers, on the other hand, has known him quite a while, and if you haven’t read his article on Last Acts in HGO’s Opera Cues, start here.

Patrick writes of Jake:
For all of his surface humor, he is, more than almost anyone I’ve ever encountered, a deeply spiritual and just person. He is unnervingly empathetic. He views life not as a complex series of causes and effects, but as a simple matrix of shared emotions, and he loves tender, humanizing similarities.
This is exactly what comes through in Jake’s music. As I wrapped my fingers around Last Acts for the first time, what struck me immediately was that this is music that serves the drama. Funny, conversational, angry, pensive – whatever the mood, Jake’s musical language is one of empathy and color with rare directness. When it's a beautiful sentiment, his music is gorgeous – really, really gorgeous. When the characters are confrontational, his music becomes dense and more challenging.

As concerned as he is for the drama, first and foremost he is a singer’s composer. He loves the voice (most of his compositions are vocal), and it’s clear he KNOWS the voice. It’s beyond writing pretty melodies, which he clearly does well, but knowing where the drama lies in each singer’s range and how and when to capitalize on it. And singers love him for it. You can even hear me in my studio wailing like a banshee through sections of Last Acts because it’s just so….sing-able.

An added bonus in Last Acts is Jake letting his musical theater hair down. Part of the story is Maddy making her Broadway singing debut, so of course, there HAS to be a big musical theater number written specifically for Frederica von Stade. The Cullen will be a-rockin’, that’s for sure, and you can bet that I'll be just as thrilled as I was ten years ago.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Scheer Genius

Last Acts follows the life of a self-absorbed actress named Madeline (Maddy) and her two grown children - a daughter, Beatrice, whose unhappiness has caused her to seek comfort from alcohol, and a gay son, Charlie, whose partner is dying of Aids - as they struggle to understand and love each other. The action takes place in San Francisco, Hartford, Barbados and New York; the scenes are set in 1986, 1996 and 2006.
Learning Last Acts: Where to start?

There are no recordings to consult, no synopsis in Kobbe’s Opera Book, no translating of foreign texts to do. So, quite simply and obviously, I read Gene Scheer’s libretto and learn who these characters are and how this story unfolds. Talking about the genesis of a good libretto is beyond my expertise, but suffice to say, beyond writing words to be sung, a good librettist sets the psychological tone and pacing of the entire opera without us really being aware of it. Add to the mix that when great composers partner with great librettists, nothing short of divine inspiration occurs – look at Mozart with Da Ponte (Le nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte, and Don Giovanni) and Verdi with Boito (Otello and Falstaff). Enter Gene Scheer and Jake Heggie.

Gene is no stranger to music and the theater. In fact, I can count myself among Norah Jones, Renee Fleming and Nathan Gunn who have performed songs he has written. Quite modestly he also told me at the workshop that he sang musical theater in Europe for many years – now we have a librettist who not only "gets" music but has real-life stage experience! He and Jake first collaborated on the lyric drama To Hell and Back and work so well together that after Last Acts, they will launch Moby Dick for Dallas Opera in 2010. (Pictured are Isabel Bayrakdarian, Patti LuPone, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer after the premiere of To Hell and Back.)

After I manage to get my hands on Terrence McNally’s original play, Some Christmas Letters, I quickly realize the casual genius that is Gene Scheer. Granted, he has a great place to start – McNally’s characters and words are exquisite – but as a piece of musical theater, it would result in a series of back-to-back arias. Gene does a fantastic job adapting the play and integrating separate letters to create the opening scene. We learn in the first 10 minutes exactly who each of these characters are and what their roles are within this small family. It’s sort of like a stranger being dropped into the middle of your family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It wouldn’t take long to figure out who’s the oldest child or the crazy aunt or the cousin who grew his hair long, dated models, and ran off to LA to be a rock star. Or is that just mine? Anyway, this is all to Gene’s credit.

What truly amazed me at the workshop was how the relationships of these three characters touched a deep chord in all of us present. Gay or straight, we relate to Charlie’s efforts to define and redefine his own individuality with the people who think they know him best – his family. Maddy has done the best she could coping with a huge loss and raising her children as a single parent, making very human mistakes along the way. Bea is often caught in the middle and finds ways to distract herself from her own hardships.

Having just been through the holiday season, it's no surprise that family drama makes for powerful opera. We all have it and continually find new ways to understand and love those we've known all of our lives.

Cocktail Party Tip #1
Should you run into Gene at a party while he's in Houston, here's some trivia to break the ice: He was classmates at Eastman with Renee Fleming and our own Richard Bado.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ne Texas cherche pas

I learned another new thing about my new home yesterday when I met Laurent Fouilloud-Buyat. He's a French Texan - truly! - who has a radio program called FM Houston. On this program, Laurent talks about whatever interests Laurent, which is a lot. He talks about social issues, Houston community organizations, Houston arts, and all with open-minded ease and an eagerness to find things out, to let people know about what's in this city. I feel lucky that I got to spend an hour with him ranting about opera, Mozart, the revolutionary war, and Dallas...but I'm getting ahead of myself. Check out this vibrant young guy's act. Listen to the podcast, or find out more about FMHouston.

Every day I am more convinced that Houston is America's invisible city. How did I not know more about what was here before I arrived?


And you can get it if you try

Here's another guest reporting from the world of THE MAGIC FLUTE. We open in just over a week, so our lives are about putting this show on stage right now. Louisa Daughtrey, assistant director, brings us up to speed on this process with her trademark mixture of clarity and humor (I begged her to do this after falling in love with her personal blog here. Here's what she has to say:

It’s 7:30pm on Monday night, and I’m sitting in the orchestra section of the audience with the director, the stage manager, the lighting designer, and the HGO lighting guys. The director is holding a "God mic" so that he can speak to the people onstage from far away (the stage manager has one, too, but hers is a "Goddess mic," of course). I’ve got a notepad to take notes for the director, and I’m on headset with the whole stage management team so that I can hear what’s going on backstage and also communicate any notes that need to be taken care of immediately. The cast is assembled in the house, getting a safety talk from the technical director. We’re ready.

First things first. It’s Magic Flute’s first night on stage. We’ve been rehearsing upstairs in the rehearsal room for two weeks, but since the set consists entirely of flown drops and other pieces too large to fit through the doors of the room, we’ve had to approximate the scenery with lines of colored tape on the floor and a few strategically placed music stands. This first rehearsal is the Piano Tech (from the Greek piano meaning "without orchestra," and tech meaning…um… "technical"). It’s a four-hour rehearsal, and we get two of them, which may seem like a luxury of time for a two-hour opera, but we manage to use every minute. We have lots to get accomplished at the Piano Tech: work out spacing for the principals, chorus, and supers, making sure that everyone knows where they’re going; coordinate all the technical elements of the production, minus the costumes, wigs, and makeup (we add those on Thursday); make any needed adjustments to the blocking we developed in the rehearsal room; light the show so that the cast isn’t in the dark onstage; and find out how long it actually takes the animals (spoiler alert: there are animals in this show, but none of them were harmed during the rehearsal process) to get ready backstage (turns out, a LONG time—but now we know).
This Flute isn’t technically a new production (the set is older than I am…sshhh, don’t tell), but it’s not a remount, either. We’re using an existing set and costumes (by David Hockney), but creating new staging and a new lighting design for it. This means that not only are the singers walking the set for the first time (except for our Sarastro, who’s been on it at a different company), the director is seeing it for the first time (except for watching the 1991 Met video). It’s an exciting night.

And then, before you know it, it’s 11:30 already and we’re sending the cast and stage crew home. We’re staying to have a production meeting to address any issues that came up tonight. We’ve rehearsed each of the set changes several times, set placement for backstage chorus, adjusted spacing, practiced the monster’s blocking several times (spoiler alert: there’s a monster in this show. It’s an unwieldy costume, but luckily we have the most muscular super EVER to wear it), and given everyone the requisite number of breaks.

Of course, some things have gone wrong. They always do, and that’s why you’re not invited to this rehearsal. Props that weren’t in the right place, scene shifts that didn’t go as planned, drops that need to be re-hung, and German dialogue that still needs some refining (spoiler alert: the show is in German—and after watching last night’s final dress rehearsal of Abduction, I’m starting to think maybe all operas should be in German). But there was also the moment where the director was dictating notes to me: "The hedgehog can come onstage a little more. And tell the camel that he should be further upstage so that we make sure he doesn’t run into the bear," and all of a sudden, we looked at each other, laughed, and said "Can you believe this is really our job?"

Nice work if you can get it, indeed.

Monday, January 14, 2008

She's a Lady

Welcome to a guest blogger from HGO's production of MAGIC FLUTE...

Hi there! My name is Jamie Barton and I am performing the role of the 3rd Lady in Die Zauberflöte. This is my first year in the Houston Grand Opera Studio, and this is my first opera role on the big stage. This also happens to be my first opera by Mozart, my first German opera, and the first opera where I have had to learn dialogue in a different language. That’s a lot of firsts!

My role as 3rd Lady is not very large, but it is challenging: I am just one in an ensemble of three women who almost always sing together. It is not too often that singers in my line of training have to focus almost all of their energy on being a part of a group of singers. There are only a few shows that I can think of that feature a small group of characters that have to "sing as one voice". A lot of times they serve as background characters -- something as minimal as the single minded group of doo-wop girls in Little Shop of Horrors first comes to mind, as do the trio of gossipers in Kurt Weill’s Street Scene. I guess the most famous trio of operatic ladies other than the trio in Die Zauberflöte are the Rheinmaidens in Das Rheingold. I actually just sang as one of the Rheinmaidens in the Studio opera scenes back at the beginning of December! Although the three Rheinmaidens tend to have a few more solo lines, they do sing together a lot and represent one unified purpose. Perhaps in a funny way it prepared me for the uniqueness of performing the 3rd Lady in Die Zauberflöte. Although the Rheinmaidens are done within the first scene of a very long opera (and don’t return until several operas later), the performance time on stage is about the same as the three ladies in Die Zauberflöte. They also have very similar jobs… the ladies in Die Zauberflöte are sent by the Queen to do her bidding, which often involves using their womanly wiles as a tool of deception to guide Tamino and Papageno to do the Queen’s bidding. Similarly, the Rheinmaidens were placed at the River Rhein by their father Wotan, ruler of the Gods, to do his bidding of defending the golden treasure at the bottom of the river. How do they do this? By detracting men from their location by using their womanly wiles as a tool of deception, of course! I wonder where composers got that idea…

Singing as "one voice" in a trio that is supposed to think as one mind has its difficulties! First of all, one must understand that we are all trained to sing individually. That’s not to say that opera singers never sing with other people – we just tend to sing a lot more by ourselves than in heavy ensemble. It is all ensemble singing for the three ladies in Die Zauberflöte, and one must make vocal adjustments to be a good ensemble singer. One of my biggest jobs as being the lowest voice in this ensemble is to provide a vocal foundation for the two higher voices. The upper two voices sometimes end up having higher notes or quicker moving vocal passages, and my job is to provide a steady and firm base for them to sing over. Our conductor, Maestro Steven Sloane, was actually talking about that the other day during rehearsal. He said (speaking about one section in the score) that the 2nd Lady and I needed to act as a steady and strong foundation so that the 1st Lady could feel at ease soaring over our line. I have sung in a lot of ensembles before training as a solo operatic singer, but this is still an interesting job to have! Of course, while it all probably sounds like our job is to constantly avoid vocal land mines and to try to act as one character, there is a lot more freedom that comes with it. Even though we almost always sing as one voice, our characters are all very different personalities (especially in this production!) This adds a lot into how we can inflect the lines and even sometimes affects what the text can mean. It is also really nice to get to sing with two other incredibly talented women. I take a lot of inspiration from how they perceive their characters and sing their lines, and it’s nice to bond with such great people!

I think the hardest one of those "firsts" I was talking about earlier has been learning all of the German. I am not a native German speaker – I grew up on a farm in Rome, Georgia! So for this very American girl who often has very southern diction, it has been a long and difficult process to make me sound like I have lived in Germany all of my life. It started with a ton of work on my own. I did research on the opera by listening to recordings of native German speakers and I wrote out pronunciations and checked those pronunciations with reference books. I then started musical coachings to help me rehearse the role. The coaches at Houston Grand Opera are fantastic, so any questions I had about diction were quickly resolved. The process of learning how to sound natural has continued with having the conductor here – he happens to live in Germany, so that helps! I have found that people often have differing opinions about inflections in the spoken German lines, and that is also something I am still working around. However, I can honestly say that with every mistake I make in rehearsal and coachings (which are quite a lot, believe me), I learn something new. And, I guess that’s my job as a Studio member… to continually learn and grow as an artist. Thank goodness Houston Grand lets us learn on our feet!
You can learn more about Jamie at her site jamiebartonmezzo.com.

In the beginning...

[Eric Melear is an assistant conductor with Houston Grand Opera and likes to divide his time between being a conductor, pianist and amateur photographer. This is first of a series of guest posts about Jake Heggie's Last Acts, which will premiere with HGO.]

Last month I had the pleasure of traveling to San Francisco to conduct the workshop of Jake Heggie’s new opera, Last Acts, which HGO will premiere February 29-March 15. “Pleasure” is a bit of an understatement, as I’m sure you can imagine my excitement at being part of a brand new piece with the likes of Jake Heggie and Frederica Von Stade from the ground up musically. Yes, yes, be insanely jealous, but take comfort in that you will hence forward share in my experiences on Last Acts.

As a conductor and pianist, I’m often one of the last people to get on board for a project like this – usually after the music has been written. Before it reaches me, there have been ideas tossed about by Jake, Gene Scheer (the librettist), Lenny Foglia (the director) and the singers. There are preliminary talks with Terrence McNally (who wrote the play on which Last Acts is based). There are talks about making it a Broadway musical. There are talks of a cast of thousands…and then talks to return to its original three-person intimacy. And somewhere in there comes a commission from HGO and San Francisco Opera. Now with a premiere in sight, contracts are drawn up, words start to be written, music composed, set designs imagined, season brochures created, and a cast assembled. And sometime after all that is when my work begins.

I’m no stranger to world premieres or workshops for them, but each experience is always unique. Usually, a workshop consists of a conductor, singers, and a pianist rehearsing and reading through the piece, while the composer, librettist, director and members of the presenting opera company make suggestions and changes. Jake told me he insists on workshop-ing his operas, and it’s easy to see why. It is the first time that the score and libretto leap off the page and out of realm of ideas into a tangible piece of theater. It gives everyone a chance to decide what needs to be kept, tweaked, cut, and added, and answers very basic questions: Is the story clear? Does it suit the voices? What is the impact on the audience? All of this saves valuable rehearsal time in February and enables Jake to confidently finish orchestrating his score in the meantime.

Needless to say, preparing for all of this when the ink is hardly dry on the page is exciting, and the challenge is always, “Where to begin?”

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Little Help

What a week it has been here at HGO, or "Plague Central" - I feel like we should be smearing lambs' blood over the doors, or something equally Old Testament-drastic! A nasty virus has been making the rounds of our rehearsal spaces. People are washing their hands and applying Purell like it was sunscreen, but there's only so much you can do as you rehearse theater pieces that demand physical contact. We are living with the hope that this will have cleared our collective system by Friday, opening night of THE ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO. Two days ago we did something almost unheard of: we cancelled our piano dress rehearsal of that same opera because most of the cast was too ill to perform! People are making their way back, however, and fingers are crossed.

I must say, our Osmin, AS, one of the loveliest people I've ever met, has more voice than most humans even when he's marking (that's the term for singing half-voice, or in a lower octave; singers to it to avoid wear-and-tear at some points in rehearsals). Andrea's been sick and has been marking for days, and he still sounds like one of the best Osmins ever. Strangely, our tenors are doing wonderfully well, healthy, strong, and singing beautifully. They are not holding up the tenor reputation for fragility!

The big news is that a certain soprano who made an auspicious debut with us in the fall is back in ABDUCTION, replacing an ill colleague. TW had prepared the part of Konstanze, one of the most technically demanding in the soprano repertoire, and with just ten days to go until opening night she has stepped up to the plate. She sounds like a veteran of the part already: secure, gorgeous in tone, musically heartfelt. We're thrilled for this brilliant young woman.

As we finish the last few rehearsals for what promises to be a stylish show, I'm reflecting on the difficulties and drama of the last few weeks, with so much illness (it's affected the FLUTE cast as well, but they open later, so much less nailbiting has happened on their side of the hall). Rehearsals schedules have changed sometimes twice daily, coachings have been cancelled and recancelled and then returned to with a vengeance to make up for lost time. The work of every department - technical, wardrobe, wigs and makeup - has been affected. And everyone has stayed flexible, rolling with every punch, united in the goal of getting the job done...dare I say, in some respects, even enjoying the challenge? Our team is impressive when everything works smoothly, but maybe even more so when the going gets rough.

And so we get by with a little help from our friends, and that is what is about to happen with this blog as well. First up, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton updates from the FLUTE rehearsal room, and coach/conductor Eric Melear begins a series of posts on the process of bring a world premiere to our stage. Stay tuned to see what they have to say!


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Utopia, Texas

Greetings - long time no see! There is much to tell since I last wrote in this space nearly two months ago (hangs head...the shame...). We're rehearsing our winter rep here at HGO, a pair of Mozart operas, both Singspiels; that simply means that recitatives, the talky bits in between arias and ensembles, are spoken rather than sung. This tradition lived on through Gilbert and Sullivan and into American musical theater. Many people are watching Sweeney Todd on movie screens now - the Demon Barber does have his link all the way back to the Bad Boy of Salzburg!

So, all Singspiel all the time - Singspielorama? Singspielapalooza? There has to be a good nickname for this rep. There certainly is a good feeling up on the sixth floor of the Wortham where we rehearse. To have the whole company involved in these two Mozart operas is to experience joy around every corner. We are all absorbed in his sublime music (yes, "sublime" is the most cliched adjective possible in this case, but what can you do? The man seems to call down the voice of heaven in every simple, direct, endlessly inventive phrase. Sublime. Sue me). In addition to that, these two pieces are so hopeful about the human condition, so loving and forgiving, so optimistic, that we all are touched and inspired by them together. ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO is a story of constancy and clemency, and THE MAGIC FLUTE is about, in various ways, humankind's best and highest aspirations. As we start another year on this planet, things shaky all around us, we in Houston have the good fortune to be surrounded for a few weeks by this voice of hope and light, Mozart himself.

So there is much to say and tell, and this time around I have friends to help with the story - guest bloggers! You'll meet several over the next few weeks. In the meantime, a few images from December, or, What we did before our Christmas vacation:

The Studio put on a program of Opera Scenes, everything from Wagner to Massenet to Ravel to Handel - fabulous stage direction by Sandra Bernhard

Recitals: a beautiful contemplative Advent-themed evening at Rienzi was followed by a more glam holiday bash at the Tasting Room

All of the above events featured the amazing pianism of Grant Loehnig and Joseph Li, the gents at the far left of this photo - the singers of the HGO Studio outdid themselves throughout December. And now their stories continue - some singspiel-related and some not. We also have a pair of world premieres coming up, plus the return of THE REFUGE...

...Son of Refuge? The Refuge Identity?

All right, no more nicknames this morning. Back to the coaching studio - but we will see you here again soon!
(oh, and you should know...there really is a Utopia, Texas, it's not just in my head or on the sixth floor of the Wortham. It's about 90 miles west of San Antonio, and it truly is beautiful).