Thursday, December 13, 2012

In Defense of Modern Opera Productions

I know how to read music, sing and act. People tell me I’m pretty good at all three. Bonus! It makes sense, then, that I have been supporting myself for over a decade in one of the only jobs that allow me to combine those three talents: opera. I love it. There, I’ve said it. I love opera. But when I say it, I doubt that I mean what you think I mean. Opera (stop saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means).

There are many people, for their love of opera, who take a stance against so-called “modern” opera, claiming it destroys the intentions of the great masters. In fact, on Facebook some clever person of German persuasion (I can tell by his or her syntactical errors in English) has created a page dedicated to trash-talking of modern opera productions. And it has a lot of followers, including some of my colleagues. 

This Eurotrash ‘pestilence’ must be stopped! This is only a trend, and surely the masters will stand the test of time! And of course we must blame ze Germans. Germany, after all, is where most of these ‘abominations’ are being produced.

Germany (and the German-speaking countries Austria and Switzerland) also happens to be the only place on Earth where you can have a full-time job with benefits as an opera soloist, and it has dozens of towns with really reputable opera houses putting on hundreds of performances (if not thousands) each year. So, if you ask me, ze Germans can do whatever they want with opera. They’ve earned it. 

I realize many people are not going to agree with what I have to say here. It is a matter of taste, after all. I never even said you have to like opera in the first place. There are people I know and love who say, “Opera’s not really my thing” without ever having seen one. Those people are much more deserving of my understanding, however, than the antagonists of my story, who purport to be opera experts (and as far as opera history goes, to an extent, they probably actually are), and yet refuse to let this living, breathing art form change. My ignoramus friends are far more likely to be open to the risk of coming to see a show I’m in and forming a fresh opinion about it (good or bad) than these stodgy opera critics who think they know what I, the singer, want to achieve in my performance.

Why is opera the only art form which is so reluctant to evolve? (I guess I should mention at this point that I am talking about new dramatic stagings of older operas, not newly composed works) Should we stop at Monteverdi? Mozart? Massenet?  Where is the line? Should we stop composing operas altogether?  And if you really were an opera expert, you would realize that the period in history which “they” seem to idolize was as guilty of non-authentic performance practices as we are today. Instruments have changed (once in a great while you’ll see delightful performances played on historical instruments -- sometimes mixed with modern staging, which makes me feel right at home, like in my living room furnished equally with antiques and IKEA); making cuts in the score is standard practice (*gasp* what would the great masters say!?!?); voice type-casting has also become a fashionable, arbitrary matter.

The fascinating thing about opera is that there is one constant - the music (including the voice and the style and technique with which the music is sung). Neat, huh? But how many times do we have to see a Rigoletto wearing multi-colored tights and a funny hat with a hunchback? For how many hundred more years? That's not what it's about. Whether he's a court jester, or a janitor in Trump Tower (MY idea, don’t steal it), it's still about the hypocrisy of the upper class.  And who cares about the political conspiracy against the King of Sweden in 1792? Huh? Yeah, that's right - no one. What we care about in Il Ballo in Maschera is Gustav falling in love with his best friend's wife, and wanting to ban them both to a far away land so that he can uphold his honor and not taint their friendship (a picture of the production from Erfurt is what gave me the idea to write this blog entry in the first place). Pity that everything gets screwed up and he ends up getting killed in the end. Because that can happen any day. In any costume. In any place. And I see no problem in taking these antiquated political plots and making them into something more accessible or relevant to a more modern concept, such as the Erfurt production in Ground Zero. Or what about that fascinating set at the Bregenzer Festspiele of the same piece? (Google is your friend: I won't post the photos here)

I wish I could placate the tirades of the traditionalists. We still use the instrument the way it was originally made, after all. Look at how much the camera has changed since people started taking pictures or making films, for example. I guess painters still use brushes and, well, paint. But look at the difference between DaVinci’s Mona Lisa and Picasso’s portraits of women. The techniques are totally different. Still, how do we judge what is ‘good’ in art? In painting, whether it be Picasso or DaVinci, we’re still looking at color, composition, or maybe chiaroscuro and brush-strokes. It’s how we can tell the difference between Caravaggio or the Dutch dudes who tried to emulate him.

And in singing, whether the backdrop is a velvety, gilded king’s throne or a toilet in a butcher shop, for all I care, the voice is still judged by timbre, intonation, musicianship and consistency. Opera, no matter how you slice it, is still a collaboration of set and costume designers, directors, musicians and conductors in which the music is a catalyst for the drama (in case you were wondering, I was including singers under the category of musicians - yes, I am one).

The traditionalists want to bring back the Golden Age of Opera, because they blame the modern productions for dwindling audiences and killing the genre. Yeah, okay, so, bring back the days where people didn’t even pay attention - they walked around, ate dinner, talked to each other, left in the middle of the performance to get an ice cream during the Aria di Sorbetto. Now translate that to today: If somebody talked and used an iPad while I was performing, I'd bop them upside the head. No one would care if I broke character if they weren't paying attention, would they? I think it's fallacious to think of opera as anything else but theater (would you chomp on popcorn during Hamlet's monologue in the play? Didn’t think so), and even scarier to think that people can't sit still for more than five minutes. So, invent a "sciatica section", where people with back problems can walk around. Sure, bring in a glass of wine and some cheese, but please... pay attention!

There is a much more evil force out there threatening to kill your precious “opera” - the likes of Katherine Jenkins, Paul Potts, Charlotte Church and, yes, even Andrea Bocelli. And yet these people against modern opera productions catapult into a critical frenzy when they see one single photo from Erfurt’s Il Ballo in Maschera on Facebook or an excerpt from Bayreuth’s Lohengrin on YouTube, trading countless indiscriminate comments about how the ego of the Regisseur is killing the art form. You don’t like it? Fine. But back your opinion up with a few criteria besides one picture.

Heck, every now and again, I like to put on a pretty gown and sing a pretty aria. I, too, am proud to be a part of an art form that has existed over 400 years - even longer when you consider that the voice was the first musical instrument ever made.  But why do I sing? My answer to that question is not etched in stone, nor tattooed on my ass. I enjoy singing for singing's sake - I especially enjoy portraying a character, combining the music and the drama, expressing and creating something on a stage in the moment. It doesn't matter how Callas did it, how Deutekom did it, how Schwarzkopf did it, how Ponselle did it.... Yes, we can watch and learn, but we can also DO and learn, and find the answers within ourselves, together with our directors and conductors, our friends and colleagues, no matter what the set looks like or how the story is being told.

 As for opera’s “Golden Age,” the title character of Baby Doe says in Douglas Moore’s opera from 1956: “Gold is a fine thing for those who admire it. ... Gold is like the sun, but silver lies hidden in the core of dreams.”  We’ll see ... 

photo: Caroline Harvey

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Comfort Zone: Part Two

Previously on The Comfort Zone...  I was sitting in a regional train, literally as well as figuratively, in a rather uncomfortable seat going nowhere really fast.
Today I’m sitting in the fast train -- literally as well as figuratively -- on the way back from a job that I couldn’t have said “Yes” to had I not said “No, thank you” to my previous Comfort Zone. It had been risky, I thought, to turn something down even when I had nothing. But it paid off. Even before the productions in question, which would have collided with each other timewise, once I said “No” to the Comfort Zone offer, bigger and better things started pouring in. 
This season I have been an operatic superhero, doing most of my singing by “saving the day”, jumping in for various roles, two of which I’d never actually sung before. It has definitely been a fun ride: being compensated adequately for my efforts,  working with colleagues who match and even surpass my level. But these people here outside my Comfort Zone have superpowers, too. They can see right through me. 
I may have amazed them with my super-fast learning skills, my ability to juggle (see previous post: “It Takes Balls to be an Opera Singer”), and my cooperative manner, but they recognize that I’m not quite reaching my full potential. I may be a superhero, but I am not a superstar. I’m not talking in terms of salary or renown but rather vocal production.
There is something out there (maybe my operatic evil nemesis alter ego within or something) that prevents me from taking better care of myself and my voice. I’m not saying I stay up all night partying or that I eat badly and don’t exercise. It’s more like flossing your teeth or drinking 8 glasses of water a day. You know you should do it, but do you? Really. Do you??
Well, good for you.
Discipline is not one of my strong points. I have patience (or maybe I’m just stubborn) and tenacity (or maybe I’m just stubborn) and ambition (or maybe I’m just ... stubborn?) which has gotten me as far as I am. And for certain roles, my vocal efforts are more than sufficient. But to consistently take it up a notch, and sing roles which require not only natural ability, but skill, I am going to finally have to concentrate and do all those things that my great teachers and coaches have told me to do. It's the difference between being excellent and being exquisite.
What? Do you mean to tell us that you don’t sing well, Christine? Well, no. I do all right. But we have to remember that the purpose of practicing is to train your body into doing the right thing without having to think about it. And until that becomes automatic, I’m going to have to pick up the speed a bit. It takes a lot more momentum than I’m used to to jump on a moving fast train.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

It Takes Balls to Be an Opera Singer

This entry was inspired by a post in Cheryl Studer’s new blog:
I'm looking forward to more such fascinating insights from Ms. Studer, and glad she's decided to bless the blogosphere with her presence!

For a production of Hänsel und Gretel in 2005 I had to learn how to juggle. I’d had some luck juggling in the past, but had never really learned the technique, so the director had an experienced juggler come in to teach me and my colleagues how to do it right. Performing opera is not unlike juggling, in that there are three things, balls so to speak, that have to be in motion simultaneously in order to assure successful performance: singing, making music, and acting the part.
Patrick, our juggling teacher, began by having us throw one single ball up into the air. He showed us that you don’t have to keep your eye on the ball to catch it - you just have to watch where you throw it, and when it comes down, your hand automatically knows where to go. (If you’ve ever watched jugglers carefully, you’ve probably noticed that they’re almost always looking up). Also, we were able to get used to the amount of power we needed to throw the ball high enough, or not too high, into the air, first with the right, then with the left.
It should be a given that you know how to throw a ball before you start juggling, much like you should always be working on your singing technique before taking it out on the stage. Nothing is more disappointing than having your stage partner forget everything you’ve worked on during staging rehearsals because all of a sudden they’re worried about their technique. If you let that ball drop, you leave your colleagues in the lurch.
The second step of our juggling lesson involved juggling two balls with one hand. Basically we were repeating the first step, but by adding the second ball, the whole action went twice as fast - kind of like learning a difficult passage of music slowly at first and then speeding it up. Then we took one ball in each hand, threw them up and let them fall. We were to listen to the rhythm when they landed. If we heard “ba-dump” that was correct. If it was “ba......dump”, we worked on it until we got the rhythm right.
This second step is crucial to the success of the third element, or ball - the action. Have you ever heard that joke about the conversation with an actor?
“What do you do for a living,” asked the reporter.
“I’m an actor,” said the man.
“What’s your -”
“ ... problem?”
Learning your music solidly makes taking the role on stage oh so much easier. I had the challenge recently of having to take over a role in Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk on short notice - I’d never heard it before, much less performed it. Within five days I had to learn and memorize the music, in some parts very rhythmically complicated. I had one or two stage rehearsals, and that was it. The simplest scene was the one I kept messing up, since I’d spent most of my time perfecting the more difficult passages. I went out on the stage during rehearsals with the easy phrases learned, but not well enough. So, while I was concentrating on the staging - making sure I enter at the right time, making sure the windows were open, making sure to start my action before pretending not to notice the tenor so that I can act surprised and get mad before telling him to go away - I skipped a phrase, switched my text and confused the conductor who was trying to keep me together with the orchestra, which at this point consisted solely of a lonely bassoon. We had to interrupt the rehearsal (the dress rehearsal, no less!) and start at my entrance again. Embarrassing....
Luckily, the premiere went along without a glitch. 
Even if no one notices it, dropping a “ball” during a performance always makes the singer’s own experience of his or her performance a little less enjoyable. Listening to the recording of the recital I gave last week, I’ve counted at least 5 mistakes of varying degrees, and I’m sure I’ll find more the next time I listen. I’m trying to forget about it, but since I only had the one shot to get it right (so far), I’m still rather angry with myself, wishing I would have practiced even more than I already did.
Back then during Hänsel und Gretel, there may have been performances where I made no musical mistakes, but I’m sure there wasn’t a night when the stage hands weren’t collecting tennis balls in the wings. The trick is, I guess, to keep practicing and practicing until everything flows smoothly, and you don’t have to think about it. Unfortunately, no step can be skipped. Knowing how to throw one ball in the air is just as crucial to the process as being able to juggle two or three, or even more. If you drop one, you just have to pick it up or let it lie, forget about it and act like you meant to do it that way.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I'll Have What She's Having ... Tapas For Singers

Gracias por su visita: Cafe Cristina in Madrid
We’ve all been there before: you go to a restaurant with friends, sit down, order, chit-chat while you wait for the food, slowly gaining an appetite for what you just ordered. Then the waiter brings the meals and you see what your neighbor has -- oh, now that looks delicious. Why didn’t I order that?
Now your own meal is unsatisfying, but you’re stuck with it. It’s a chore to finish, and the one or two morsels that your kind friend has allowed you to sample from her plate are not enough to appease your desire. Why didn’t you order that? Trading plates would be a bit awkward, and besides, why should your friend have to give up the meal she’d been craving all along just to make you happy?
Ah, envy.
I often go out to eat alone, usually when I’m in the mood for something specific and feel the urge to have it right that minute. I happen to live across from a very good café, and I only go there to eat when I want “my usual”. When I walk in, the wait staff already knows my order (oh my god, I’m turning into my dad), and if I ask for something different, they’re startled and ask me if I’m okay. 
If I want a bagel, there are only a couple places that serve them right, and ordering one anywhere else is taking a risk. Speaking of which, who knows why I continue to try Mexican restaurants here in Germany, having been disappointed by every single one, but I never give up hope.
Ah, hope. Ah, regret.
It was at my trusty Stammlokal (regular place) a while back where I got a sandwich (not my “usual”) on bread that was rock hard. I took a bite and thought, ‘Ewww, this is hard!’ but took three more bites, considered just eating the contents of the sandwich and not the bread, before working up the nerve to ask them to make a new one. This was, of course, no problem at all for them. But the fact that it took me so long to change my order - seriously, it was a conundrum - was an alarm signal to me.
Ah, the point....
At the smörgåsbord of singing, there are plenty of things to choose from:
Comprimario a la mode
for starters, a light load of small roles (no butter)
comprimario topped with mild recognition and a twist of lemon
Concert Combination Plate
only available at Christmas and Easter, or other special occasions 
Summer Salad
not quite as filling as a main dish, served on the terrace, possibly in the rain
Prima Donna
a filling portion of hearty goodness, well done, served in three to five acts, finishing with a glass of wine and a bouquet of roses

With such a selection, sometimes it's hard to know what you want, until you see someone else getting it.
To celebrate the completion of a production last weekend, I went with my colleagues to our temporary Stammlokal, a wonderful tapas bar just around the corner from the theater. Although we were used to their somewhat lackadaisical service, the food is very good, and the drinks are a-plenty. Plus we enjoyed each other’s company, so the slow service never really mattered. But on this particular night, the orders got mixed up. Somehow, we all waited almost an hour to get any food, the drinks took a while, and we had to go a beg for a basket of bread to tide us over, having just come very hungry from our last performance. 
My order, even though I'd been the first one there, was the very last to trickle in, tapa by delicious tapa. All the while, people who had arrived after me were getting their dishes. They were offering me bites of this and that - would you like an albondiga? How about a patata arrugada? You want a bit of my tortilla? For once, I was completely happy with what I ordered. And although I was getting cranky from hunger, impatient, seriously near tears, and maybe even a bit rude, I declined their gracious offerings by sternly replying, “Thank you, but I want the food that I ordered!” And when my boquerones finally arrived, I savored every perfect bit. Giddy with joy, I shared my pimientos, and relished my manchego like it was a bar of rare, exquisite chocolate.
Ah, the lesson.
As I see some of my friends making their debuts at major opera houses, or premiering roles I wish I would have been hired to sing, or planning the births of their babies between gigs, or taking on jobs with decent salaries, I wonder if that’s what they ordered in the first place. Or if perhaps they’re looking at my plate, wishing they could have a bite of mine.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Comfort Zone: Express Train to Nowhere

There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. ~ Anaïs Nin 
Once I was riding on a train with a rather rowdy collection of passengers. It was the weekend, and throughout the car, there were small groups of people involved in bachelor parties, hen weekends, bowling tournaments, and who knows what else. My seat was quite near the door where one such group of young men was cleverly equipped with a beer cooler and a small boombox, listening to German “Schlager” at a fairly reasonable volume. Still, it was mildly annoying. At the next stop, a group of people sitting more toward the center got off and left a whole section of seats empty. I thought now might be a chance for me to have a more comfortable seat, as I’d been sharing leg room with the woman across from me, not to mention that it was a bit chilly sitting near the door.
But then it occurred to me that we weren’t yet past Cologne, Germany’s party central, and the chances of me sharing my section of seats with yet another, possibly even rowdier group of hens, stags, bowlers or what have you, was not exactly slim. So I remained seated in my current state of mild discomfort. I don’t remember what sort of people ended up occupying the seats where I could have sat. Pity, because then this story would either have a happy ending, or a tragic turn for the worse. But then, I wouldn’t be able to illustrate my point to you today. The thing is, you never know.
For the past little while, I’ve been experiencing ‘mild discomfort’ with a particular business associate. Through no fault of my or his own, our ways have parted (to keep the train analogy alive); we are not on the same journey. Just this past week, he offered me a role that could be very useful for my résumé, but I turned him down. He couldn’t quite understand why I would pass up such an opportunity, and it was hard for me to tell him why without hurting his feelings.
  In his environment, I receive the most applause (quite often because I’m the most experienced singer there); I have artistic freedom (due to lack of direction); I know exactly how the rehearsal process will be (because it hasn’t changed in 10 years). This is definitely my ‘Comfort Zone.’ I will ever be indebted to the trust instilled in me since I first started  working with this company.
All the same, while I’ve been riding first class in his regional train, so to speak, I’ve also been making short trips in high-speed locomotives, experiencing first hand how swiftly opportunities pass by. I’ve decided, I’m more likely to catch the Express to stardom and/or success (which by my definition simply means working in a manner suited to my abilities) on a different line. So, instead of remaining in my mildly uncomfortable seat, which has obviously gotten me nowhere lately, I’m going to risk finding a better opportunity at some other destination, even if that means perhaps never getting there.
And I’m pretty comfortable with that.

(special thanks to David Dickerson for trying to remind me how English works. Check out his amusing YouTube channel - greetingcardboy - to make your day slightly more pleasant)