Monday, October 26, 2009

Stir Crazy

The other day, one of my colleagues called, begging me to go out with him to Brighton, which is not far from Glyndebourne. He said, "I have to get out of here – I going out of my mind. I mean, I love it here, but I'm just not used to having this much free time. It's driving me crazy – I need to be doing something!" He explained that, accustomed to normally working on a concert schedule, he wasn't used to having to waiting around for so long in between performances and devoting such an long time to just one thing. Instead of having an intense week of rehearsal and then a series of back-to-back concerts, stir craziness was setting in during these multiple days off between shows.

When I first arrived here, I was anything but restless – I felt stimulated and energized by our intense rehearsal schedule that provided a consistent regularity for our first month here. It was nice to be in the same place for an extended period after running around all summer, with a regular regimen to my days and weeks. But by the time my colleague called the other day, as the rehearsal schedule was winding down and our opening approached – I felt very much the same way, and I acquiesced. After a year of only concerts and recitals in which I was constantly on the move, learning new music, and either constantly rehearsing or performing, I could relate to his unease with so much free time and such a long period on just one project. We had a lovely night out filled with martinis, red wine, stimulating discussions about life and music, and a really lovely Italian meal.

A day or two after our opening, the cast's hive-mindedness that I wrote about a while back took an inconvenient turn – we all came down with the same cold. For the second show, six of us showed up complaining of being sick, and while it hasn't (thankfully and touch wood) descended into any of our throats, it has forced me to take it easy most of the last week. With the exception of one mini-excursion that I took with my aunt who was visiting last week, I've pretty much been confined to resting at home in an effort to get better, and unable to really practice on my days off.

The thing that has been most unnerving about all this free, idle time, beyond feeling restless – or perhaps a symptom of my restlessness – is that it allows my focus to drift from healthy pursuits that keep me locked in the moment and enjoying all that I have in my life now towards thoughts of what I don't have. I can slowly feel the goals and dreams that I am aiming for turn into resentments and jealousy of things that I don't have – a general sense of impatience has started to pervade. Once I say these things out loud to one of my closest confidants, I immediately realize how ridiculous I sound complaining when I have so much to be grateful for and proud of. Immediately, everything is put in perspective. Still, it scares me how easily my hopes and aspirations can be pushed across the line to obsessions and expectations.

It's so easy to slip off track, but I'm so thankful that I have such a good network of colleagues and friends to point out when I am going astray and guide me back to where I want to be.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Gay Icons

Last weekend, I traipsed into London to catch the very last day of the Gay Icons exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. The Gallery had asked ten gay, public figures to choose six of their own icons – heroes or people, either straight or gay, who influenced or somehow had an impact on forming who they are in the present day. The selectors' choices were widely diverse, ranging from life-partners and family members to Virginia Woolf to The Village People. I gazed at portraits of people with life stories both familiar and completely unknown to me, moved by their tales of courage, strength, intellect, innovation, integrity, pride, and, at times, tragedy. About halfway through I noticed that in the middle of it all was a table stocked with silver and white cards asking us to write about someone we considered to be an iconic figure. It got me thinking about who I would have chosen as icons. I found it difficult to choose just six, and I found myself wondering exactly what an icon was to me. Was it a famous person or group whose image was ubiquitous who I looked up to? Was it a personal hero who inspired me? I began to wonder if there was a difference.

At times, some people debate with me the purpose of being on Facebook, Tweeting, and having a blog, and question my decision to open myself up to a seeming lack of privacy. I always reply to those people that I only share what it is that I wish to – I, like any blogger or person on Facebook, is as open as I choose to be. Funnily enough, I almost hit one of those boundaries when thinking about this post. While ruminating about the Gay Icons exhibit and thinking about blogging about it, I found myself incredibly shy and self-conscious about revealing who I consider to be important and influential to me, and it has, as a result, taken me a long time to draft this. I thought it was a strange time for my sense of privacy to kick in. Regardless, here are few of the people, a sampling of my own personal heroes that I look up to, that I would have chosen.

Rosemary Russell – Rosie was the first voice teacher that I worked with for an extended period of time – from the ages of 16-22. Over those six years, she not only taught me the basics of singing, but also fostered the love of music that she saw in me. During my study with her, I hungrily chewed through a vast amount of repertoire, from songs to oratorio arias to opera. From her, I learned what it is to be a musician – not just a singer, and how technique and expression serve each other. One of the most valuable lessons she ever taught me was that there are many ways to make a career in music, and that not any one of them is less honorable or less successful than the other. She inspired in me the courage to pursue this passion of mine full-throttle. The lessons she gave me continue to teach me to this day, and I suspect for many years to come. Many times over have I had a moment in which I think to myself, "oh yeah…that's what she was talking about…" She passed away in the fall of 2005, and I have missed her greatly ever since.

Dan Savage – Not only have I been entertained by his column Savage Love as well as many of his books for many years, but I've found inspiration in both the advice he gives and in those varied people who seek it. Listening to his podcast and reading his column, I've learned that both diversity and acceptance are beautiful things to be celebrated enjoyed, and in doing so, our lives will be richer. Also, I greatly admire his political activism and very vocal criticism of the government's denial of our civil rights as gay people. There is great strength and pragmatism in his message to his audience, whether it be listeners seeking sex and relationship advice or viewers of CNN hoping to catch the latest debate on gay politics.

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears – Britten's biography was the very first biography of a composer that I had ever read . I found myself fascinated by the story of his and Pears' lifelong relationship – a partnership that was not only a personal one but also artistic and creative one. Such total synthesis of two lives is a goal I think that most couples aspire to, and to see it achieved in a gay couple makes it doubly moving. Their story, coupled with their incredible artistic output have inspired in me not only a great love for Britten's music, but also the drive to always keep pushing ahead musically and artistically.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – During my first year in the HGO studio, I was quite busy with many small assignments on stage. On one of the few nights I had off and to myself that first season, I sat down on my couch and put in a tape of the Glyndebourne production of Theodora and found myself transfixed as I watched Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Irene. I couldn't tear my eyes away as I was hypnotized by her total commitment and her earthy musicality – every note poised with energy and direction. She quickly became one of my favorite singers to listen to. I've striven for that kind of commitment in my own music-making ever since.

Martin Katz – I first met Martin at the University of Michigan as a freshman at the School of Music when working with one of his Master's students. During my time at Michigan, I worked with him through many of his students, sang under his baton in my first performances of Fenton, and studied with him in two of his song classes. The most important lesson I learned from Martin was the relationship between text and music, and how both feed each other - and how powerful the combination of the two really can be when we dig deep as performers. He, along with Rosie, nurtured my love of songs and recital repertoire, and really taught me how to perform them. I have always been grateful to him for it.

Brendon Watson, Jennifer Erb-Downward, Erin Marie Williams, Leah Plunkett, Tory Dicarlo, and Josh Cowen – These six people are the people who have been my closest friends since my days in High School in Ann Arbor. Our friendships were deepened and cemented shortly after I came out of the closet at 15 or 16, and they have supported me at just about every major moment in my life. Each one of them is incredibly successful, accomplished, driven, intellectual, open, thoughtful, loving, caring, insightful, and incredible fun. It is from them that I have learned how to really listen and what the true meaning of friendship is.

Erin Marie Williams and Brendon Watson

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Yesterday, I went to visit Martin Isepp for lunch. Martin is an incredible vocal coach with whom I've spent the past three summers working on various song repertoire at Marlboro. My summers working with him have deepened my love of lieder and reconnected me with my passion for music in general. He's pushed me to demand the best from myself in my work and to constantly dig deeper. The main thing I've taken from him, though, is the importance of conveying the heart of the music. In all of my sessions with him, I am constantly humbled by how great the music we perform is and how much it demands of us, and at the end of our sessions I am always left feeling as if there is always further for me to go in being able to convey all that is there. At one point during our lunch yesterday, I was asking Martin for some feedback about a recital program that I have been thinking about for an upcoming recital tour next fall. After listening to some of my ideas, he considered them for a moment, and then said in his gentle manner, "it sounds like it could be really lovely, but one has to be careful not to get too intellectual about things."

Lately, I've noticed a lot of PR-hype about the booing at the new Tosca at the Met (which I did not see, being in England), and many reviews complaining about how the director's "concept" seemed to get in the way of the emotional impact of the piece and Puccini's vision of the story, leaving audiences, at the very least, dissatisfied. I've also seen many blog posts recently offering young artists as much business advice as possible so that they can groom themselves to be picked up by one of the many apprenticeship programs now that audition season is upon them. It's all had me thinking about being a bit "too intellectual" about things for the past month, so what Martin said resonated with me and struck a chord. It's all reminded me of my young artist days at HGO and at Glimmerglass, when I heard a ton of advice about what to sing in auditions, what to wear in auditions, I reformatted my resume countless times, spent hours in the copy room making sure my audition notebook was just right, fussed over which headshot to pick, and lost many an evening pouring over the internet worrying which manager would be best for me to contact or which program should I apply for. Yesterday at lunch, I recounted to Martin a story about how I used to offer the most difficult and flashy list of arias, trying to market myself as a certain type of singer, of a certain fach. The catch was that I was not really singing the music that I really had a passion for. I over-thought everything in order to fit myself into the box I thought I needed to fit into in order to move ahead. So, rather than have any sort of fun preparing and performing these pieces, I would simply fret and worry. I used to get incredibly nervous every time I auditioned, because rather than focus on my joy in singing, I was trying to sell myself as something. In the end, I realized that I was only selling myself short.

Hearing Martin's counsel, I also thought about a video celebrating Leontyne Price's NEA Opera Award last year (via Yankeediva) that I've watched a couple of times over the past few weeks. In it, Ms. Price said two things that really struck me. The first was: "To sing, I think, is the most human. You are the vessel, everything depends on how YOU feel as a person…you must have JOY to deliver this sound," and the other was: "…it needs ALL of you to be delivered, it needs EVERYTHING you have, but you must ENJOY giving everything you have."

While all of the business ends of this vocation are crucial to know and our intellects are vital, I was reminded yesterday that what is most important is that we not lose our passion in what we put forth as singers and musicians. Every time we open our mouths to sing, it's our responsibility to say what is in our hearts. Otherwise, it's just noise.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Inside the front cover of my Falstaff score is a little sticker that states that the score was a gift from the University of Michigan Friends of Opera, an organization that sponsored voice scholarships and opera productions at the University. In the fall semester of my senior year at the University, I learned the very first role I ever performed in Italian out of that Falstaff score - Fenton. The year before, we had staged the act I, scene ii Fenton/Nannetta duets for my scenes in opera workshop, and I was so excited to have a chance to get to perform the role in its entirety. I spent the end of my second summer at the Aspen Music Festival dutifully working Fenton's words into my mouth and emblazoning the notes he has to sing into my brain as I looked forward with anticipation to my first foray into the land of Verdi that autumn. Each time I look into the score, I see all of the notes I made translating each and every word and jotting down the directions our conductor, Martin Katz, gave us in rehearsal.

The wonderful thing about the diligence with which I studied this score the first time is that all of that hard work stuck. I've revisited Fenton couple times since then, in excerpts (in a scenes program at Manhattan School) and as a cover (while at HGO), and every time, coming back to him is like revisiting an old friend. No other role has felt so comfortable and so easy to remember when it comes time to revisit him.

Here in Glyndebourne, one challenge has been to remain open about my ideas about Fenton. Having lived with him so long, I've developed some pretty specific ideas about who he is dramatically and musically over the years, and as I've been presented with some new ones, I've noticed that it has been a bit difficult for me to be open and consider them, thinking instead, "But no! It's this way!" It's sort of been a spin on that age-old adage of it being hard to teach an old dog new tricks. It's incredibly easy to simply fall back on what one knows and just ride the wave, skimming the surface.

Thankfully, mostly due to the wonderful team of colleagues that have been working on this production, I've been able to realize that my knee-jerk reaction has been far from optimal, and been able to give things a good, college try, seeing where they take me. And lo, and behold, they have taken me to so many new places and deeper levels than I thought were possible before. I've had dramatic questions answered that confused me before, musical phrases are taking on a new life, and my perception of Fenton's relationships to those around him has come to a clearer focus – most especially with Nannetta. My experience here so far has left me feeling that I am somehow able to be inside Fenton's shoes with a bit more specificity and richness.

On the day of our opening performance, I cannot express enough gratitude to the Falstaff team and cast for such a great rehearsal process and to wish them all the best for a great run of shows. We have 16 of them (15 + 1 student matinee), so I cannot wait to see just how much more this will take flight and grow with each show.

Pictured above from top to bottom: Harry Nicoll (Bardolfo) and Colin Judson (Dr. Caius); Kathleen Wilkinson (Mistress Quickly); Thomas Blunt (Assistant Conductor), James Gaffigan (Conductor), and Elena Tsallagova (Nannetta)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

John Smith Made Me Cry

Being abroad for so long involves a lot of alone time, which, in turn, allows for a lot of time to catch up on TV. As I haven't had cable for the past 4 years, I've mostly relied on watching TV shows on DVD anyway. The day before I left for England, I took a couple of hours to run around San Francisco (where I was vacationing before I came here) to buy some essentials for my three-month tour survival kit. Along with stops at Walgreen's and Kiehl's for things like my facial scrub and contact lens solution, I also knew that I had to stop somewhere to pick up some seasons of television on DVD. I have learned these past few years that TV can be dicey abroad (although I have since discovered that it is not so bad here in the UK, despite having only 4 channels...). As I traipsed around the city, I yearned for the days when Tower Records and Virgin still existed, and then it occurred to me to duck into Border's. I ran around the store picking up some reading material and then browsed the picked-over, messy, small DVD section for things to keep me entertained. Thankfully, I did find one of the TV shows I was looking for -
This American Life, Season 2.

Watching the final episode last night with my friend Susie, I found myself holding back tears as they told the story of John Smith - or of many different John Smith's. I was caught off guard at this portrait of the fact that regardless how different each person's life seemed to be, the journey of life is something that each one of them had in common. I'm not really sure how to put it into words, but I found myself relating to these vastly different people in different stages of their lives, feeling some sort of primal connectedness. Somehow, the stories of these vastly different men and boys became the story of everyman. As humans, our life journeys are so different, and yet so the same. It was This American Life truly at their best.
Do yourself a favor in case you missed it and rent it. If you are a Netflix member, you can stream it instantly here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Revelations in the Dreamscape

I dreamt the other night that I was standing on a hill, watching many of the people in my life. I noticed that, one by one, they would get bigger in size, kind of like in that horrible sequel to "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids". At first, I panicked, thinking that they were succumbing to some sort of virus, and the dream suddenly took on a strange, Sci-Fi, zombie-thriller turn. I ran from person to person, trying to pull those people closest to me away from the infected. What confused me was that they didn't seem to be scared of getting infected, and I would watch in horror as they would expose themselves to the infected and then become giants. I ran, confused as to where to go, horribly upset to watch those I love succumb to what I perceived as a horrific disease, guilty that I couldn't save them, and terrified to my core that I, too, would catch it, and that my life as I knew it would be over. Then suddenly, it dawned on me that every single one of these people had clear ideas of what their goals were and it was for that reason they were all getting bigger. Right before I awoke, at what turned out to be the end of the dream, I realized that I didn't need to be afraid anymore, and that getting bigger was a good thing – not a thing to be scared of.

Friday, October 02, 2009


The post I labeled as "Random" the other day was actually more a bit of synchronicity than I let on earlier. In rehearsal here at Glyndebourne, the recurrent theme has been teamwork, and for a show as ensemble-oriented as Falstaff, nothing could be more important to get this show on its witty, sharp feet. My colleagues here have created a sense of camaraderie that I have found rarely paralleled in other operatic experiences that I have had. It's not that I have worked with a plethora of prima donnas or that most of my past colleagues have been a string of difficult personalities – it's more that this particular cast has gelled in a way that I have only experienced a few times before, and I know enough to recognize just how special this experience is proving to be as it unfolds.

One of the odd symptoms of our hive-mindedness has been to show up for rehearsal color-coordinated. Tuesday we all came to work wearing some matching shade of pink, purple (as you can see from the slightly blurry picture above). Wednesday and Monday, we all wore black. It's been happening since the first week of rehearsal – the joke about getting the memo to wear a certain color to work grew old by the beginning of the second week. I've never seen anything like it.