Tuesday, July 26, 2011

August's Musical Bounty

I always seem to have this silly expectation that the summer time is a time of relaxation and a slower pace to things...I think it is the residual feeling from childhood that once June hits, school's out for summer and I can just play. The reality is always that summertime is also music festival time, and my work plate suddenly becomes full of the widest variety of composers I ever perform in one condensed period of time. What I love about summers is that festival time is a time for musicians to explore, and I always inevitably end up falling in love with some newly discovered gem by a composer that I've never even heard of or finding a neglected treasure by a composer I am already very familiar with that's been overshadowed by much of their other more popular fare.

Here's a list of most of the composers (along with their dates, Wikipedia mugshots) who I'll be spending next month with:

Jake Heggie (1961 - )

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)

Alma Mahler (1879 - 1964)

Hans Pfitzner (1869 - 1959)

Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957)

Frederick Delius (1862 - 1934)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 - 1908)

Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856)

Gioacchino Rossini (1792 - 1868)

Domenico Cimarosa (1749 - 1801)

Josef Mysliveček (1737 - 1781)

Niccolò Jommelli (1714 - 1774)

George Friedrich Handel (1685 - 1759)

Should be an interesting month. I can't wait to see what new musical obsessions await.

Friday, July 22, 2011

More Road Trip Pics

In honor of the weekend, I thought I would encourage everyone to have a some "Forced Fun" time and post a couple more pictures from my mini-break out West...

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Forced Fun

I took a little road trip down the coast of California last week - it's something I have always wanted to do, but I've never seemed to be able to find the time to do it.

When I got back from Europe a few weeks ago, I came home to the inevitable list of housekeeping chores one has waiting for them after a 9 week sojourn abroad as well as a giant stack of music to learn for next month, and I have to admit I was a bit overwhelmed. Regardless, I knew a needed a break after the business and intensity of the past few months, and after a day or two of stressing about the idea of vacation, I took a few days off anyway and flew out west to do the drive I've always been wanting to do.

After having had a few days to hike around in the woods and on the rocky beaches along the Pacific, I feel completely refreshed and ready to dive right back into life's usual grind. My days on the road reminded me of my days as a camper at Interlochen, in which we had something we called "Forced Fun" two days a week. Twice a week we were required to put our instruments back in their cases, put all of our music or scripts away, and go outside and play for the afternoon. I absolutely despised the idea of it back then - always the workaholic, I remember a few instances in which my camp-counselor had to pry my violin out of my hands and put it back in the case for me. Yet, in the end, I always felt the better for the imposed break afterwards - just like I do now.

Moonrise over Los Angeles

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

In Case You Missed It

The side entrance to Saint-Denis

In case you weren't able to catch our performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Saint-Denis Festival last week, it will be streaming online here at medici.tv (a very cool place to watch many a live, classical music performance) for the next 55 days or so.

I was quite proud of our performance that night - it was pretty incredible to get sing the piece with such wonderful colleagues in such a beautiful space, for such an attentive and enthusiastic audience. The atmosphere in the cathedral was perfect for the masterpiece, which is so meditative and dramatic all at the same time.

"Backstage" at the concert

I'm on a bit of a mini, West-Coast road trip for the next couple of days as a treat to celebrate the end of my amazing 9 week European sojourn. And I must say - the sunsets are pretty stunning here, too:

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Sex and the Roman City

Lucano and Nerone in Florence - photo by Ruth Miriam Carmeli

After spending much of the Spring singing liturgical mass settings and bible stories, my trip to Florence in June was a sudden flip to the dark side. Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea is filled with attempted murder, twisted political intrigue, infidelity, complicated love triangles (or perhaps parallelograms?) and people cross-dressing left and right. The best part is, while the events of the story are adapted fairly liberally, they’re based on true stories and human history. Much like watching the HBO series Rome, you get a glimpse of just how much and just how little humanity has changed over time – then we had Arnalta dressing up as Poppea in his/her final scena, and soldiers gossiping and complaining about Nero and Poppea’s love affair and it’s effect on the state at the beginning of the opera. Now we have RuPaul’s Drag Race and Bill Maher and Jane Lynch reading Anthony Weiner’s sex-tweets on HBO (link probably NSFW...).

One of the characters that I portrayed in Florence was Lucan, the famous poet and close friend of Nero at the time that the opera takes place. While many different stagings of this famous scene between Lucan and Nero exist, many directors seize upon the fact that Nero was famously bisexual as well as the passionate, sensual nature of the music, and commonly stage it as a big, gay love scene between the two characters. It is a bit of a controversial decision to decide to stage the scene explicitly as a homosexual love scene, and I found myself wondering as we rehearsed how the scene might have been staged in Monteverdi’s time. In the end, I also found myself realizing that unless someone invents a time-travel device in my lifetime, we’ll never really know. If you’re interested in the academic debate about the scena, you can read some more scholarly thoughts on it in this little article I stumbled across on a late night wander through the ether here.

Regardless of other people’s opinions, I feel that a very strong argument for a highly sexualized staging can be found in the music. Whatever Monteverdi intended, his intention was sexual and there is an intense climax involved – once Lucano starts singing “Bocca, bocca…”, a ground-bass ostinato begins in a meter that is a slowly rocking three. The note values that Lucan sings gradually get faster and faster while Nero sings “ahi” repeatedly, each iteration of “ahi!” getting higher and higher until they finally climax together, with Nero singing his final “ahi!” on a high G. It’s pretty sexy music – some of the sexiest music in the entire opera, as a matter of fact. There’s even a little bit of afterglow after, as Lucano sings languidly of Nero drifting off into “the ecstasy of delightful love” after the big climax. We should all be so lucky to have sex as good as this music.

You can hear one interpretation of the scene here (although in this production, Nerone is played by a mezzo whereas in ours it was played by a tenor)

The sexy "bocca, bocca" business starts around 3:06. This version truncates the afterglow moment - you can watch the complete scene here (which was not embeddable...).

While I have done the role before, this was definitely the most sexualized staging I have ever performed – in fact, it was the raciest staging I’ve ever performed in any opera, anywhere, ever. It found Nero and I fondling and passionately caressing each other throughout the entire duet. During the “bocca, bocca..” section I referred to above, I dry humped Nero as I sang, my hands exploring his body as he grabbed my hips, pulling me in closer and harder with each thrust. As we approached the musical climax, my hand made its way to his groin, and it was explicitly clear to all that I had finished him off with my hand as he came, wailing away on his high G.

(Do I need to label this post NSFW? Did Danielle Steele just invade my body?)

Anyway, as we rehearsed the scene last month, I found myself gaining a newfound respect for actors who do love scenes frequently both on screen and on stage. While I have had to kiss many a woman (and a man or two as well along the way) in various productions, I’ve never actually had to simulate quite this level of sexual activity on stage, under a spotlight, before. It really requires a lot of selflessness and letting go of inhibitions to do an act that feels so private in public. In front of an entire production team, stage crew, and cast of colleagues, that can be quite intimidating. In rehearsals of the scene, I would find myself thinking, “Is this right? Should my hand really be going here now? Am I making him feel uncomfortable? Is it ok that I am humping him like this right now – or is it too much? I’m closing my eyes as I hump – does that look ridiculous? Am I allowed to sing with my eyes closed?” And yes, my parents were at the opening night performance.

Thankfully, I was singing as I did all of this, and the concentration that all this multi-tasking required left no choice but to push past the boundaries of my inhibitions and keep plowing forward, so to speak. I was incredibly lucky to have the most wonderful colleague as Nero, who (despite being a happily married father of two adorable-looking young children, judging from the pictures he showed me) was entirely comfortable jumping right in and seemingly had fewer inhibitions than I did. His ease made finding my own pseudo-comfort with it all easier and made it all that much simpler to just get right down to business.

In the past, I actually haven’t have quite so many inhibitions about kissing someone or doing a love scene with someone on stage, but (despite the fact that this pushed boundaries further than I’ve gone in the past) that is mainly because my scene partner is normally a woman. Normally, in those situations, it’s very clear that I am working – it’s very easy to maintain that separation between what’s real and what’s pretend. Since it’s very clearly “acting”, the awkwardness of doing these things with a colleague melts away easily. Add to that, I know it’s socially acceptable to be sexual and loving with a woman, making me feel even more comfortable doing such things in public. Inhibitions aren’t so much of an issue, and therefore it’s easier to commit to my choices and follow through with conviction. This time, it felt different. Because it was a man that I was grinding against and kissing, I was in a situation that touched something much more real in me – something much more private, much more vulnerable.

On the one hand, that vulnerability felt terrifying. On the other, it felt amazing to stretch to a new level of honesty in performance. The combinations of fear and the newfound senses of freedom, daring, and accomplishment were exhilarating.

Oddly enough, at the end of the day, I find it harder to play gay than to play straight.

Take that Ramin Sethoodeh.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Bach, Saint Matthew, and Saint-Denis

In case you are free at 20:30 Paris time tonight and would like to watch some stunning Bach singing - our performance of the Bach's St. Matthew Passion with John Nelson and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris will be streamed live tonight from the Saint-Denis Festival at medici.tv. More information about the performance and the broadcast can be found here and here.

There has been some of the most incredibly beautiful singing of Bach I've ever heard going on at these rehearsals this week, and I am really excited about tonight's performance. Hope you can check us out.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Happy 4th

someecards.com - Independence Day reminds me how fortunate we are to live in a country that eschews violent street protests in favor of snarky blog commentary

Considering that I have stayed in hotels down the street from massive protests twice in the last five days (quite violent ones in Athens, actually...I'm not sure why they were demonstrating the other day here in Paris, to be honest), this e-card seemed the most appropriate way for me to wish everyone back at home a Happy Independence Day.

When discussing how much I travel the other day, someone asked me if I preferred being in Europe or in the States, to which I replied that while I love being on both sides of the Atlantic pretty equally, I really do love living in America. I've considered moving to Europe numerous times over the years for various job opportunities, and while I would have happily moved over here if the opportunities had been the right ones, I have always known that I would miss the sense of home and comfort that I feel so strongly about the States.

As much as I will be sad to leave Paris and this fantastically perfect weather we've been experiencing here this week on Wednesday, I am very excited to be heading back to the US after two months abroad. I can't wait to be back in that magical land where there is water in the toilets, Walgreens is open 24/7, there are hundreds of channels on my TV, and people get up-in-arms about Congressmen who tweet pictures of their genitalia.

As Dorothy chants at the end of The Wizard of Oz: There's no place like home.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Land of One of My Peoples

My trip to Greece last week was my first trip back to the country in almost 15 years. When I was growing up, my mother would make a point of taking us there every summer, and I hadn't quite realized just how many childhood memories of summer I had of the place. From the minute I stepped off the plane in Athens, memories came flooding back, and I felt transported back 20 years. It was bit like stumbling upon a journal from my childhood, and suddenly remembering parts of myself that I had forgotten.

The most striking thing I had forgotten was just how much of a dreamer I was back then. My favorite thing to do during those summers was to lie down on the beach after a brisk swim in the cold waters of the Gulf of Corinth and lose myself in the pages of some epic science fiction or fantasy novel. While I dried under the sun, I would escape to imagined worlds filled with colorful heroes and villains with superhuman powers. My life dream back then was that I would become a writer when I grew up and write some epic fantasy novel, along the lines of Lord of the Rings. After those mornings of reading on the beach, we would go home for a big lunch with my great aunt and uncle, and then, while everyone else would siesta, my creativity would flow, and I would attempt to sketch out fantastical stories of my own.

This time, I found that while my dreams have changed somewhat over the years, the place still has that same effect of unblocking my creative flow, and I felt a storm of ideas flood my brain and imagination that hopefully will turn into realities sometime down the line. Regardless, it felt good to have my creative juices flowing again and reacquaint myself with that little dreamer that was/still is me...it's left me feeling re-energized enough for this final stretch of this amazing European tour.