21 May 2013

‘Far from Heaven’ and ‘High Fidelity’

Kelli O’Hara in Far from Heaven

Fresh off the plane from my Fort Worth Opera adventure, I was profoundly gratified, on a very personal and frankly egocentric level, that a few friends went all-out to welcome me home with a pair of musical-theatrical entertainments. “Don’t we hate it when our friends become successful?” Morrissey warbled, and yet in the cases of Amanda Green and Scott Frankel, I’ve got to cheer. What they’re doing in the theater is nothing short of miraculous.

Scott has written the score to Far from Heaven, Richard Greenberg’s adaptation (with lyrics by Michael Korie) of the film from 2002, written and directed by Todd Haynes and produced by Christine Vachon, two more old friends of mine.* Inspired by the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, the story concerns a Connecticut housewife whose immaculate existence is upended by her husband’s struggle with his closeted homosexuality and by her growing friendship with a black man. Julianne Moore played Cathy in the movie (and earned an Oscar nomination while she was at it); Kelli O’Hara takes the role here.

For this audience, perhaps the first of the many pleasures of Far from Heaven is the loving care Scott has given to crafting an ideal vehicle for Kelli O’Hara’s voice. Though she’s primarily a Broadway baby now, she was classically trained and studied with Florence Birdwell at Oklahoma City University, where she sang a good deal of Mozart. To this day O’Hara boasts a purity of tone, remarkable range, and a beautiful sense of line. She can spin out long phrases like nobody’s business — and Scott has written music to show off exactly these qualities, while calling on dramatically darker colors than O’Hara has needed to use in shows like South Pacific and The Pajama Game.**

Listening to her in Far from Heaven, I could almost sense the creative teamwork as composer and singer explored possibilities and arrived at solutions that worked best as theater — and as a showcase for a gorgeous instrument. “You can do this? So let’s try this!” The results are thrilling, and great chunks of show are through-composed, song flowing seamlessly into song as Scott liberates his gifts.

Coming undone: Steven Pasquale and Kelli O’Hara.

Much of the score evokes the romantic sweep of the Sirk melodramas (as did Elmer Bernstein’s score for Todd Haynes’ movie), but without being strictly imitative: we are very much in the hands of the man who wrote “Another Winter in a Summer Town” for Grey Gardens. But that’s only one of the voices Scott deploys here, and it was most especially when Cathy’s husband, Frank (Steven Pasquale) was introduced in a violent, period-perfect jazz number, that I realized how fully the music reflects the characters: here is a man who is only barely controlling the passion he’s trying so hard to suppress altogether.

Fans of Grey Gardens will miss the wit that Korie displayed in “Revolutionary Costume,” but really it would be out of place here. These are characters possessed by poetic yearnings — but largely deprived of the language to express their desires. The sheer banality of their existence, against which they’re all colliding, has also informed their speech, and the dramatic tension of the piece comes from their struggles to say what they feel.*** The poetry comes in the music — that which is beyond words.

Like Michael Greif’s swiftly moving staging, Greenberg’s book follows the movie closely — as I recall it, without having seen it in full since its initial release — and it provides for zesty turns from Nancy Anderson as Eleanor, Cathy’s best friend; and from the mighty Alma Cuervo, as a vicious local gossip. Throughout the show, the focus seems squarely trained on Cathy (O’Hara has approximately 600 costume changes, all exquisite), but as the men in her life, Pasquale and Isaiah Johnson manage to shine brightly. Johnson is particularly impressive in his subtlety, a very difficult feat, but one that is exactly right for a man who has determined all his life not to cause trouble.

I was living in France in 2006, when High Fidelity ran its brief course on Broadway, but I made up for this, or tried to, by blasting the original cast album across the French countryside. An adaptation of Stephen Frears’ film (which in turn was an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel), the show features a book by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Tom Kitt.

Kitt’s songs reveal more character and flavor than the usual generic stuff that passes for rock on Broadway nowadays, and he gets extra mileage out of hilarious parodies of specific musicians, most notably Bruce Springsteen, whose cameo appearance echoes the role of Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam. This all makes perfect sense for a show about a guy who owns “The Last Real Record Store on Earth.”

Jenn Colella in the original Broadway production.
It is impossible to say how much I love this woman.

From my perspective, the show’s most important element, however, was the song lyrics by Amanda Green, overflowing with a raw urgency that I found startling — and wonderful. When I first heard the recording, I kept thinking, “But she’s such a nice girl!” And then gradually I realized that, yes, Amanda is a nice girl — by choice, because as these lyrics demonstrate, she could easily kick my or anyone else’s ass.

Amanda is on a roll this season, with two Tony-nominated shows, Bring It On and Hands on a Hardbody, on Broadway; for the latter show, Amanda herself earned a Tony nomination, with Trey Anastasio, for Best Original Score. In short, this is the perfect time to revisit her first Broadway show.

Led by Kitt at the piano and an ensemble of top-notch musicians, the concert at 54 Below featured songs from the show, without more than a few lines from the book and only discreet staging (by Leigh Silverman), so that it’s no easier to assess the show as a theater piece than it is when you’re sitting at home (in France or anywhere else) and listening to the recording. What the concert did reveal was that the runaway energy of these songs is ramped up to breathtaking levels when they’re performed live.

Will Chase and my idol, Jenn Colella, reprised their roles from the original production, along with such Green-piece veterans as Taylor Louderman, Ryann Redmond, and Janet Krupin from Bring It On, and Allison Case and Jon Rua from Hands on a Hardbody. Ana Gasteyer and Adam Chanler-Berat lent their strengths, Mario Cantone proved a formidable Springsteen, and I really ought to know more about everybody else who sang. However, seated waaay in the corner at stage left, I discovered that there are in fact circumstances in which 54 Below does not boast perfect sightlines.

This was especially disappointing when it came to Jenn Colella’s first big song, “Number 5 with a Bullet.” She is, if anything, the ideal interpreter of Amanda’s work, the conduit through which that electricity flows unstoppably, and while I’d admired her in other things, it was when I first heard her perform Amanda’s songs that I fell head over heels for her. My view of her in “Number 5” was limited in fact to her heels, dancing up a storm, but blessedly unobscured when it came time for “Ready to Settle,” a duet with none other than Amanda herself, in glorious voice.

By now New York has had several opportunities to get to know Amanda and to realize that High Fidelity was a fluke only in the brevity of its run on Broadway. The strengths of wit and feeling that she unveiled in this show have held up, and whether with music or with lyrics, she’s still wielding a fierce sharp knife, paring away layers to reach the core of truth. High Fidelity may have failed to find its audience the first time out, but this concert made clear that material this good must be heard again.

It took both Amanda and Scott a little time to find their respective paths, and yet they’re both marching confidently forward now. And that is a joyful thing to witness. Work this good doesn’t shut me down or make me feel small or resentful: it encourages me to dare to do my best work, too. And so, with respect to the angsty Englishman Morrissey, I’d like to revise his lyric: Don’t we love it when our friends become our muses?

Amanda and Jenn share the stage at Birdland.
According to the transitive theory of inspiration,
Jenn is also my muse.

*NOTE: I say all of this up front, in the interest of full disclosure, but it should be clear to all at this point that I don’t turn off my critical faculties just because I know the people involved.

**I interviewed O’Hara for a story that ultimately did not appear in Opera News, while she was appearing in South Pacific. She’s a delight, just as one would hope. Another impressive credit on her résumé, The Light in the Piazza, is surely closer, in terms of vocal demands, to Far from Heaven, Piazza was written by Scott’s fellow Yale alumnus Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers, composer of — yes — South Pacific. Also, Michael Greif’s partner is Jonathan Fried, who was in theater at Brown just a class or two before me, and it should be noted further that Dennis Quaid, who played Frank in the movie, also co-stars in the film Postcards from the Edge, in which the very young Scott Frankel makes a memorable appearance. Kevin Bacon ain’t got nothin’ on these folks.

***Onstage as in life, the Bouviers may have lost their minds, but they retained an extraordinary richness of speech. “STAUNCH!”

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17 May 2013

Warner Bros. Announces ‘Potter’ Reboot

Hemsworth as Dumbledore.

HOLLYWOOD -- Just two years since the final installment of the hugely successful Harry Potter film series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2, Warner Bros. Entertainment today announced a reboot of the franchise, based on the novels by J.K. Rowling. Principal photography is set to begin June 12 at Leavesden Studios in England, with a fresh new cast of actors in the iconic roles of Harry, Hermione, and Ron.

“We want to bring these stories to life for a new generation,” Warner Bros. executive Ray Swan told reporters. “With J.J. Abrams directing, I can guarantee you this won’t be your grandmother’s Harry Potter!”

Scarlett Johansson as Hermione.

Admitting that he “wasn’t a huge fan” of the original movies and books, Abrams, who has also rebooted Star Trek and will turn next to Star Wars, promises to bring more action to the Potter series, casting actors such as Liam Hemsworth (Dumbledore), Jeremy Renner (Snape), and Colin Farrell (McGonagall).

“And we won’t wait until the end of the series to blow up Hogwarts, that’s for sure,” Abrams said.

Farrell as “McNervous” McGonagall.

The new series is intended to run “parallel” to the original, Abrams explained. “I’m very happy to announce that we’ve signed Steven Seagal to play Voldemort. Refusing to admit defeat, he’s going to transport all the major characters into an alternate time frame. This will permit us to proceed with completely new, much more exciting adventures.

“Audiences today want fights and explosions, not any of that cerebral mumbo-jumbo,” Abrams continued. “Enough with the Latin spells and the stupid literary references already! Am I right? I want to get down to the essence of Harry Potter, and then ramp that up. He’s got to be harrier, potterier.”

Seagal as Voldemort.
Really, it’s not a good idea to say his name.

Bringing the press conference to a close, Swan told reporters, “I know there are some stick-in-the-mud fans of the old movies who will complain, but what do they know about running a studio? It’s not about making audiences happy, it’s about making money — I mean movies. We’re here to make movies. Definitely. Movies. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to sedate J.K. Rowling again.”

Not to be outdone, Summit Entertainment later announced a reboot of the Twilight series, this time using actors.

As of press time, the role of Harry had not yet been cast.

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12 May 2013

The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 22: In Conclusion

Time to hang up my hat. Or rather, my wig.
Photo by WVM©

So, kids, what did we learn from this episode? All sorts of things, really, but I’d like to focus on this: much of the charm of my engagement with the Fort Worth Opera stems from the discovery that a community, brought together by music, is indeed possible — and right in what used to be my own backyard, where I never imagined that such a community could exist at all.

Getting to work with the company has meant getting to experience the Fort Worth Opera community in new ways. Sure, it’s impressive to see people gathered at Bass Hall for a performance. But it’s something else entirely to see the community gathered under other roofs — or, in the case of the company party at Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican restaurant, under the vasty Texas skies.

The company party at Joe T. Garcia’s:
Steven Eddy, Emily Caroline Hagens, Elizabeth Westerman,
Ian McEuen, and Amy Burgar.
Photo by Tracy Nachelle Davis©

How did this happen? In the interest of reason and fairness, I have to point out that, for all I knew in the 1970s, similar communities grew up around Fort Worth Opera and the Dallas Civic Opera, where I attended so many of my first performances. Still, for me as an adolescent, opera was linked to the isolation I felt, tied up with my uncertain sexuality and with my intellectual snobbery, all of which made me a target for taunts and blows. These in turn made me feel even more isolated, and persuaded me that, whatever I did with my life, I would have to get out of Texas altogether and find or create my own community someplace else.

It was Darren Keith Woods who brought me to Fort Worth Opera, first by producing work that was exciting enough to lure in this jaded critic from New York — namely, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, in 2003. The doorway to Darren’s Fort Worth community began to creak open, since for that production he hired my friend Joyce Castle, as well as Janice Hall, who would become a dear friend, too, as the years went on. And Darren himself, seeing that we were of like minds, kept finding ways to keep the conversation running between us.

How do you make a Hortensius?
Darren Woods, at right, in Daughter of the Regiment,
with Joyce Castle, J.R. Labbe, and Matthew Powell.
Photo by Ellen Appel©

I’ve said it before — said it, in fact, in a profile I wrote for Opera News — if Darren sees that you care about the people and things he cares about, then he must reach out to you, share with you, bond with you. It is his nature. He doesn’t merely embrace, he doesn’t merely love. I mean this in the nicest possible way, but Darren is like the Borg of Opera World. Resistance is futile.

And why would you want to resist? Consider, for instance, that conductor and FWO music director Joe Illick fell in love with Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos when he found an LP recording at a second-hand sale when he was 13 years old. Knowing nothing at all about the opera, he fell in love with its incredible music. And years later, Darren gave him the chance to conduct it — in performances that also happened to be the first time Fort Worth got to hear the piece.

WVM onstage, at right, with Steven Eddy, Anthony Reed,
Ian McEuen, Cecelia Hall, and (in background) Michael Adams.
Photo by MYPhotographyNYC©

A gift to a friend can be a gift to the community at large, as that Ariadne has been a gift to Joe and to Fort Worth — and to another longtime friend, stage director David Gately — and, need we add, to me.

Consider, too, that Darren recognizes how much the Fort Worth Opera audience loves Ava Pine. Darren loves her, too. (So do I. Really, everybody does.) So he set about looking for another opera to do with her, and hit on Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment, an ideal vehicle for her vivacious personality and exquisite singing. It’s also an ideal vehicle for another friend, Joyce Castle, whom Darren brought back to the company to sing the Marquise, one of her signature roles — and seeing those names, and remembering that Hortensius had been one of his own signature roles, back in the day, Darren couldn’t resist joining in on the fun.

Everybody loves Ava.
Opening-night gala at Bass Hall.
Kris Robertson Photography©

His return to the stage after 16 years was a hit, to say the least. The audience greeted his entrance with applause (“You’re like Carol Burnett,” Joyce said to him), and in a later scene when, fed up with Sulpice’s demands, Darren declared, “You can’t order me! I run this place!” he provoked an uproar of cheers. We were all in on the joke — and it felt good.

Yet again, we had — all of us — been brought together in opera. By Darren. In Fort Worth. Which, you may recall, is in Texas.

Darren swears this was his swansong as a performer: he’s got his hands full just running his company, popping in to check on rehearsals, keeping in touch with donors (and potential donors), auditioning singers, attending performances, and maintaining his vast network of friends. (I’ve noticed that Darren’s friendship is something like the kiss of the Witch of the North, in The Wizard of Oz: folks in Opera World are much more likely to look kindly on me when they know that Darren and I are friends.)

The General Director, in his other leading role:
Darren at the closing-night Artists’ Circle Dinner.
Kris Robertson Photography©

He prefers to call fundraising “friend-raising,” and he emphasizes the sociability — the community — of the process with dinners and parties. The donors don’t merely become Darren’s friends, they become friends to one another, too. And, since the artists and staff — and a certain Haushofmeister — join in these events from time to time, we become friends, as well, just as Jeff Jones and Rhonda Krasselt and Joseph Lesley and I have become friends.

Darren means for these relationships to last. If you bought a ticket to one opera, he’ll try to persuade you to buy a ticket to another. If you bought season tickets this year, he’ll try to persuade you to come back next year. If you gave money once, he’ll try to persuade you to make a regular habit of it. It is for you as it was for me: once Darren starts the conversation, he’s going to find ways to maintain it.

It’s for this reason, I think, that Darren insists that the fact that an opera is new isn’t enough to persuade him to produce it. He wants “operas that stimulate conversations within the community” — his words — and he sees to it by sponsoring talkback sessions like those that followed performances of Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied and the works we heard in the Frontiers showcase.

Discussing Glory Denied with the community.

These conversations are beneficial on all sorts of levels. For starters, Darren isn’t leaving the audience to fend for itself in the often-intimidating sea of new music. You have a question for the composer? Ask her — she’s sitting right here! And chances are, she’ll learn something from you, too. In sessions closed to the public, the Frontiers composers also heard from the panelists who selected their work, and as I say, we didn’t merely talk at them but exchanged ideas, while they shared with one another, too.

The singers took part in the Glory Denied sessions and were moved each time by the voices they heard from audience members saw their own life stories in those of the Thompsons. And the network weaves itself more and more broadly, spreading outward, catching up more and more of us.

Your moderator, Kurt Howard, discusses new music.
Photo by WVM©

In large measure, what happened this season is that people got chances — to hear music, yes, but that’s just the beginning. Michael Mayes got the chance to perform a powerhouse role the like of which he’ll be lucky ever to find again. I got the chance to co-host a radio program. Curating the Frontiers showcase, producing director Kurt Howard got the chance to branch out in even more creative ways, not least by moderating the feedback sessions, which he did with all the aplomb of a seasoned news anchor. Composers got the chance to hear their unpublished work performed for an audience by first-rate singers — who got the chance to work with living composers. And so on.

I often recall that, before The Turn of the Screw, my brother had never gone backstage to congratulate a performer after a show. He got that chance because I knew Joyce Castle, but now Darren gives everyone the chance, basically by moving “backstage” to the mezzanine lounge at Bass Hall, where the audience can mingle with the singers.

Lounge Singers: Wes Mason and Derrick Parker meet
young audience members after a performance of La Bohème.
Ann Coleman is in the background at left.
I think this is another Kris Robertson photo.

And so next season, seeing that Ava will sing in Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, you may think, “Oh, she was so good in Daughter of the Regiment, and I really enjoyed meeting her. And you know she went to TCU! Maybe I’ll give this new opera a try.” And you’ll have a chance to share in another musical adventure.

It’s an extraordinary thing, what has happened in Fort Worth. And for the city, for its opera company, and for this Haushofmeister, it has happened because of Darren Keith Woods.

Vielen Dank, mein gnädiger Herr.

What a time I’ve had!
Photo by Suzy Williams©

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The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 21: Master Class with Joyce Castle

Joyce Castle, by Carol Rosegg.©
Among the reasons I love this picture: Joyce and I went to lunch together
immediately after Carol Rosegg took it.

Joyce Castle said all sorts of wise and wonderful things at her master class on May 6, and I didn’t write down any of them. Granted, I was laughing much of the time — Joyce is an entertainer even when she’s teaching. (This is no surprise, since I’ve learned so much from her about life and art when she’s ostensibly “just” entertaining.) But the fact of the matter is that I didn’t even bring pen and paper to the auditorium at the Fort Worth Academy for the Fine Arts, and so for a complete record of her brilliance we are all going to have to look elsewhere.

Four young singers offered arias from their respective repertoires. These folks work in different capacities with Fort Worth Opera, and they have different voice types, too — two lyric sopranos, Jeni Houser from Ariadne and Kristen Lassiter from the Frontiers showcase; one mezzo, Meaghan Deiter, from the company’s Mikado and Julius Caesar in 2011; and one baritone, 19-year-old Michael Pandolfo, a Fort Worth Opera chorister whose solo here promised much.

Deiter had the guts to sing one of Joyce’s calling cards, and one reason Leonard Bernstein loved her: “I Am Easily Assimilated,” from Candide.* Deiter was wonderful, as I expected her to be, vibrant and funny, with a first-rate Rovno-Gubernian accent. And yet in terms of the audacity involved, this was something like taking your drawing to Rembrandt and saying, “What do you think?”

“I’m not going to say anything,” Joyce announced. “It’s yours now.” And in a very real sense, taking a piece and making it yours is the most important thing a singer can do. Don’t copy Joyce — or Marilyn Horne, or Joan Sutherland. Don’t imitate. Share with us what the song says to you.

Beyond that, even in those cases where the singer’s choice lay far from Joyce’s own rep, she had specific, highly pertinent suggestions — and what struck me was that, in every case, the singer was able to take Joyce’s advice. Each kid demonstrated the savvy needed to understand almost instantly what Joyce was looking for, and the technique to apply it. “You want a different color in a rapid passage so high that only dogs and musicologists can hear it? Okay, let’s try it!” In each case, the results were superior.

This is a far cry from what I’ve seen in some European master classes, where the master singer will make a suggestion and listen patiently as the younger singer proceeds to repeat her original interpretation exactly the same way, until the master singer can only shrug and say, “Okay, let’s move on.” Yeah, American singers are better trained, and Darren Woods does his darnedest to hire the best of the best.

All evening, the young singers from Fort Worth Opera showed the strength of character to accept that they’re not perfect as artists, and that’s remarkable, too. They understood that Joyce is only trying to help them to improve and to grow — and they may even have understood that Joyce herself is still improving, still growing.

In conversation with a friend, the vocal coach and author Mary Dibbern, I observed that Joyce’s vocal tone may actually be warmer now than it was 20 years ago. “It is!” Mary cried in reply. “She keeps singing better because she keeps singing!” (Which is not to say that either of us, hardcore Castle fans of longstanding, thought Joyce was a slouch to begin with.)

It’s not given to many singers to enjoy the variety, excellence, and duration that Joyce has known — and continues to know — in her career. But she’s sharing what she can, here in Fort Worth and at Kansas University, and on stages across America. We’re all better off as a result.

*NOTE: Another Ariadne colleague, Amanda Robie, had planned to sing the number, but was indisposed; Deiter was her last-minute replacement. One more reason to salute her bravery.

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The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 20: The Critic Critiqued

Given enough time, I will learn even to play with others:
This is my reaction to an insult directed at “mein gnädiger Herr”
and delivered by the Tenor (Corey Bix).

It has been suggested (if “suggested” is the right term for a remark accompanied by threats of violence) that, when a person compliments me on my performance, I not respond by pointing out all the myriad faults that I found in my own work.

This is difficult to do, but the question is: why do I feel the urge in the first place? Am I poo-poohing the critical judgment of a well-wisher — and if so, why would I do that? It’s rather a nasty way to respond to a kind gesture.

Or else am I fishing for compliments? “Oh, no, really, I think was just terrible, so please tell me even more about how wonderful I really was!”

Really, it’s not only about opera that I’m learning during my time with the Fort Worth Opera Festival. I’m also learning about myself — or trying to.

When I knew I was good: As Oronte in The Misanthrope,
directed by James O. Barnhill.
Brown University, 1980.

In all, I’ve been extremely lucky. I got good notices in all the reviews that mentioned me — and given the relative brevity of my role in Ariadne auf Naxos, it’s rather surprising that any mentioned me at all. And yet I’m able to stand back and say, “Well, yes, it’s a good review, but the critic used to write for me at Opera News, so really he had to say something nice about me.”

Or else, on those occasions when the critic’s estimation of the singers didn’t match my own, one’s confidence in the critic’s assessment of oneself is necessarily weakened. While all the cast got at least a couple of good lines to add to their clipping files, not one critic was as across-the-board enthusiastic about the singers as I was, and a couple of critics even confessed to being underwhelmed by the opera itself. The little voice in my head says, “If that critic can be so wrong about Richard Strauss, why should he be right about Bill Madison’s work?”

Somewhat similarly, when a member of the Ariadne cast goes out of her way to encourage me, I’ve found myself thinking, “Well, yes, but we’re colleagues, so really she had to say that.”

This of course ignores the rules of earlier manifestations of Opera World, when a diva might have gone to the intendant and demanded that a bumbling incompetent amateur Haushofmeister be fired on the spot. (Indeed, in old German, there’s a single word for “bumbling-incompetent-amateur-Haushofmeister” designed to help the diva do just that.) In today’s Opera World, however, we play nicer.

Most often, however, when a colleague has said something generous, I’ve been so caught up in my own neurotic self-criticism that I’ve barely known how to respond, and sometimes have barely managed even a thank you. This is bad strategy, of course, because some day I will want to hear generous words from artists I admire, and they’ll have been persuaded — by me — that it’s not worth the effort.

I haven’t appeared onstage in 30 years, and it’s been even longer since I was reviewed in anything other than a college newspaper. I’m not sure I ever knew how to handle this sort of situation, though I do recall being somewhat more confident of my own abilities back in the days when I did this more often — and did it in my native language, besides. When I played Oronte the poet in Molière’s Misanthrope, I knew damn well that I was good. Now that I’ve been playing the Haushofmeister, I have felt as if I were at constant risk of exposure for fraud.

And not just any exposure. Public exposure. In the pages of the newspapers that so many of my friends and loved ones in North Texas read every day.

It would be easier to endure, I think, if Sue the Dresser forgot to give me my costume and I marched onstage stark naked.

Es geht doch auch anders:
Nico Castel as the Haushofmeister at the Met.

Fortunately, I haven’t been doing this by myself. Stage director David Gately (and, for that matter, conductor Joe Illick) gave me enough space and showed me enough patience that I’ve been able to muddle my way toward something that, in ordinary circumstances, might be considered an interpretation. Mercifully, that interpretation chimes with David’s. Both David and Joe were kind enough never to observe that I never auditioned for this role, and that Darren Woods had only my word for it that I spoke any German at all.

And since the final dress rehearsal, when I skipped an entire speech, thus screwing up the orchestra and singers and obliging me to scramble and ad-lib in German in order to get us back on track, nothing truly terrible has happened. (And even that incident went unnoticed by several people onstage with me — though it did cause the surtitlist, R. Jason Smith, a moment of stress.)

Even more than the costume (designed by Susan Memmett Allred), the wig and makeup design by Steven Bryant, as applied expertly by James P. McGough, gave life to the Haushofmeister I’d envisioned: the amalgamation of every officious European bureaucrat and hotel clerk I’d ever dealt with.

One of my principal inspirations was the Scots nun who ran a pensione in a convent in Fiesole. We constantly ran afoul of her rules. Rather than shaking her finger at us, she’d hold up a finger and then shake her head. (Really, she wasn’t a bad person, just more severe than one expects to find anybody in Italy to be.) An odd sort of Puritan Catholic, the good sister would never have worn anything as ornate as what I’ve worn in Ariadne — and yet when I looked in the mirror I could see her, somehow.

Perhaps more importantly, when I see pictures of myself in the show, I see a real Haushofmeister. Maybe not the world’s finest, and no rival to Nico Castel, but at least the audience isn’t being cheated. People seem to enjoy what I’m doing — or at least the ones who don’t enjoy it have kept their opinions to themselves, for which I’m eternally grateful to them.

Because if I’m sure of anything, it’s this: when I start pointing out the flaws in my performance, the last thing I want to hear is agreement, followed by a detailed accounting of how I am even worse than I thought.

“The day I’m satisfied with one of my own performances is the day I throw in the towel,” Beverly Sills used to say. Herself an acclaimed Zerbinetta, she also used to say, upon receiving a compliment backstage, “Thank you! That’s so nice to hear.” And that was it, period. Maybe there‘s a lesson in there.

To arrive at anything like an objective understanding of my own work, or to feel anything like ease and confidence in the part, would doubtless require five or six performances. Alas, we’ll have only two. And so I find myself craving more of what I never imagined I’d have.

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11 May 2013

The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 19: How to Communicate Offstage

Bass Hall by Night.
Photo by WVM.

“It used to seem like forever before that first letter arrived,” Joyce Castle was saying the other day. She was recalling her days as an American in Paris, among other glamorous locations, in the days before e-mail, cell phones, and Facebook revolutionized the ways that opera singers on the road maintain their personal relationships. Nowadays Joyce herself is a conscientious correspondent via e-mail, and I possess proof positive that she knows how to write and send a text message on her telephone.

For my first foray into Opera World, I’ve benefited from ready access to all the up-to-date technological doo-hickies: talking and texting to my boyfriend several times per day, I hardly felt the distance at all, and a four-week separation, which might otherwise have posed problems in a relationship so new, became more a nuisance than a threat. It should be noted, however, that I discovered that my phone got next-to-no reception in my hotel room, obliging me to wander out into the unseasonably chilly North Texas springtime every time I want to talk. So much for up-to-date technology.

With my godmother, Ann Coleman, on opening night.

Beyond the ease with which I’ve kept in touch with New York and France, I’ve been in familiar territory. So many members of the Fort Worth Opera family are folks I’ve known for years, including both singers like Joyce and Ava Pine and behind-the-scenes wizards like Keith Wolfe and Nathan DePoint. Other friends and loved ones live near enough that several were able to attend the opening-night performance of Ariadne auf Naxos. All things considered, this is far and away the longest business trip I’ve taken — and yet it didn’t seem terribly isolating.

I’ve also had the fun of getting to know new friends and colleagues while getting closer to some folks (Caroline Worra and Michael Mayes of Glory Denied, for example) whom I knew only a little before I got here. The question of what comes after — after the Festival closes, after we leave Bass Hall and the college-campus atmosphere of the hotel, and after we fly away home — lingers unspoken.

And here’s Uncle Tim on the front of the Sitzprobe,
but you can see the side of the house.
Left to right: Corrie Donovan, Jeni Houser, Michael Porter, Anthony Reed, Zac Engle, Steven Eddy (standing), Audrey Luna, Marjorie Owens.
Photo by WVM.

By sheer coincidence, one of Opera World’s foremost exponents of electronic communication, Joyce DiDonato, was reflecting on this very question even as we took part in the Fort Worth Opera Festival — and she did so electronically, in a video blog that she periodically records and posts on YouTube. Prepared in answer to a question from an aspiring singer who’s also a fan of Little Joyce,* the video spread rapidly and widely among my singer friends, who found agreement and comfort in her words.

“Loneliness is a big part of this career,” Little Joyce says in the video. “You have a fabulous triumph, or maybe you don’t, but at least you’re singing and you have a high after the show. And you come back to your grungy apartment … and you’re totally alone, and there’s nothing in the refrigerator. Everybody else had [somebody] come visit, and you didn’t. That sense of aloneness is devastating.”

She’s de-vlightful, de-vlovely, de-vlogging:
Joyce DiDonato explains it all for you.

Joyce continues with a bit of advice, on a very hopeful note: “You have to learn how to be by yourself. I actually think that’s a super-incredible, valuable thing to learn. …That’s where you find out what you’re really made of.”

And while you may not see a colleague again for a long time after you’ve shared the intensity of preparing and performing an opera, and in the process established a genuinely meaningful personal bond, “The beautiful thing is, you pick up right off where you left off.” She does, too. I’ve seen her do it.

Tri-coastal: My brother flew in from San Francisco, and Elise flew in from New York for opening night of Ariadne.

In my own experience, I’ve bonded very closely with colleagues on the show Rags and at CBS News. Although many of those relationships fell away over time, it’s gratifying when we run into each other and really do pick up where we left off, just as Little Joyce says. Other relationships have endured pretty darned well, and we keep more regular contact.

Because of Facebook and whatever social media may yet come our way, I can mingle the picking-up and the regular contact. I can see who’s singing what and where, and who had what for dinner. Sometimes I’ll have something to contribute to the conversation, and sometimes I won’t. But each and every one of my Ariadne colleagues shared an improbable once-in-a-lifetime adventure with me; they went out of their way to embrace me. I won’t forget that, and I’m looking forward to cheering them on as they pursue new directions and new triumphs. They’re an astonishing group of artists, and very dear to me, as well.

Audrey Luna, Marjorie Owens, and Steven Eddy.
Publicity photo by Ellen Appel, courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

*NOTE: Infrequent readers of this blog may not be acquainted with the necessity of referring to Joyce Castle as “Big Joyce” and to Joyce DiDonato as “Little Joyce.” They’re both mezzos, they’re both from Kansas, and we who love them both madly are not going to split hairs over questions of age, so “Joyce Junior” or “Joyce the Younger” aren’t options. Big Joyce is taller than Little Joyce — and there you have it.

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The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 18: New Frontiers

Frontiers 2013: The Inaugural Class.
Left to right: Eddins, Current, Kushner, Jei, Sonenberg, Frey, Krausas, Karchin, Woods, Soluri, Brevoort, Howard.

This community that is Fort Worth Opera expanded this weekend, with a new program called Frontiers. A showcase for new works, Frontiers presented 20-minute excerpts (or, in two cases, complete operas that are short enough to be performed within the time limits) — in part because, especially now that Fort Worth Opera has earned a reputation for contemporary opera, the company’s management is deluged with submissions and proposals. General director Darren Woods can hardly review, much less produce, every score that crosses his desk. By narrowing the field to a select group, the Frontiers program can focus attention on several pieces and provide a valuable experience to the composers and librettists, without overextending the conductors, pianists, and singers who perform.

The selection panel comprised producers, conductors, a composer, a stage director, and one critic, who brought to the selection process a variety of practical experience, as well as aesthetic judgment. In this first year of the program, I was flattered to serve as a panelist — and yet mystified when Darren began to explain that this showcase would provide feedback for the composers and librettists. “Don’t they all do that?” I asked.

No, in fact, they don’t. A new piece may get produced, but in most cases the composer and librettist pretty much have to grab by the collar random audience members, company management, and performers, then wring out of them any assessments and advice. Darren and the producing director of Fort Worth Opera, Kurt Howard, who served as curator of the Frontiers program, were determined to offer creative teams more than the morale-boosting gratification of hearing their work performed before an audience.

The eight works were divided into two showcases, on Thursday evening and Friday afternoon, with feedback sessions scheduled for Friday and Saturday mornings (without an audience in attendance). Just as we’d all hoped, every one of the composers and librettists agreed that the feedback was valuable. But there was another surprise in store.

The composers and librettists ended up hanging out together, talking about their work and the challenges they face — not competing with one another but forming a community, and one that is now a part of the Fort Worth Opera community, too.

Showcasing Airline Icarus.
Left to right: Meredith Browning (Flight Attendant), Steven Eddy (Business Man),
and Ian McEuen (Scholar).

Consider, for example, that four of the singers in the showcase came from the Fort Worth Opera young artists program — and several came from the cast of Ariadne auf Naxos. They’ve now had the opportunity to work with living composers, a courtesy that Richard Strauss declined to show them. Along the way, they got the chance to showcase their own talents, learning and expertly performing unfamiliar music and multiples roles in a brief amount of time.

Really, this showcase made everybody look good, very much including the two conductors, Tyson Deaton and Stephen Dubberly, and two pianists, Stephen Carey and Jody Schum, who divided the works among them.

Two of the selections stand out particularly for me, not least because I expected to dislike them. The first is Stephen Eddins’ Why I Live at the P.O., a comic-operatic treatment of Eudora Welty’s celebrated short story that was clearly the hit of the entire Frontiers showcase. Yet when reading the title among the list of submissions, I groaned inwardly: this story has defied (and even scared off) attempts at adaptation before, simply because it’s so hard to find a way to tell it that is any more dramatic — or, for that matter, musical — than simply reading it aloud.

Eddins and his librettist, Michael O’Brien, hit on the brilliant solution of retaining Welty’s voice by making Sister both the narrator and an active participant in the opera, dividing her duties between two singers. With like felicity, Eddins found a jazz-flavored musical language that fits the dramatic setting and situation and is fun to listen to. The work is scored for big-band instruments; in the showcase, Jody Schum surpassed himself with a swing that not many musicians outside jazz can rival. (Those who doubt me can listen to the forces of the mighty Metropolitan Opera in Porgy and Bess.)

This piece also demonstrated what’s right with the young singers Fort Worth Opera hires. Beyond their musical talents, they’re all terrific actors, and when they’re handed comedic material this good, they run with it. Anthony Reed is younger than many of my socks, yet he laced into Papa-Daddy’s tirades with bravado; Kristen Lassiter and Jeni Houser were absolutely ideal as the sparring Sister 2 and Stella-Rondo, in whose mouths butter would not melt but quite possibly curdle instead. Amanda Robie made a terrific impact in the least-showy role, that of Mama, who’s trapped in the no-man’s-land between her daughters. And Corrie Donovan, herself a daughter of the South, went to town as the narrating Sister 1, smacking her lips over every syllable of the Pretty-Sweet poison she dispenses.

Why I Live at the P.O. is ready to roll, just about a guaranteed hit for any company that produces it — and promisingly, Eddins is talking already about writing a companion piece, a one-act opera based on a Flannery O’Connor story. (Indeed, baritone Michael Mayes, who attended the showcase performance, has threatened Eddins with bodily harm if he does not.)

Any new opera contains the power to surprise us, but some do so with exceptional artistry. My second surprise, Brian Current’s Airline Icarus, was one of the submissions I reviewed, and as I told him bluntly, the plot synopsis made it seem perfectly designed to inspire my hatred. Indeed, I’m not sure that any kind of description can convey the aesthetic pleasures that this piece provides — so I’ll keep my words to a minimum.

Suffice to say that Current and his librettist, Anton Piatigorsky, found in an airplane disaster a vehicle for sophisticated ideas about contemporary social interactions and the conflict between ambition and the frailty of human life, inspired by mythology and conveyed in exquisite poetry and gorgeous music, compelling (and sometimes comic) in the beginning and absolutely ecstatic by the end. It says something that I kept listening to the piece long after I’d completed my duties in the selection process. Airline Icarus is slated already for performance in Toronto, and I’m confident we’ll hear more of it, in more places, soon.

My response to Patrick Soluri’s Embedded, commissioned by American Lyric Theater to a libretto by Deborah Brevoort, was intensely personal: this is the rare occasion I’ve seen a dramatization of the most important ethical questions journalists face. How far does a reporter go in order to get a story? The reporter here is a TV anchor, sung by Kristen Lassiter (who impressed me mightily throughout the showcase), who gets the chance to interview Montressor, a terrorist, provided she agrees to embed herself in his cell. Like all the best devils in opera, he’s a seductive character — after all, in seduction lies drama — and as written by Soluri and sung by Anthony Reed, Montressor’s music was overtly erotic. I daresay half the audience got aroused. In keeping with the commission from the ALT program, Embedded found its inspiration in Poe (specifically The Cask of Amontillado), but it stands entirely independent of one’s knowledge of that story: it is its own kind of Tale of Terror.

Louis Karchin’s Jane Eyre is — obviously — drawn from classic literature, too, and it is in some ways the most “opera house” of the works we heard, with a three-act structure and a large-ish cast. Librettist Diane Osen has done an estimable job of paring the drama to its essence, and she starts off with an attention-grabbing scene that features arresting music by Karchin: a fire in Thornfield Hall. Among the selections performed at Frontiers, we heard that fire, as well as a few numbers that revealed how Karchin writes for the characters of Jane, Rochester, and Blanche Ingram but didn’t give us much indication of how he writes the drama — how he tells the story.

What I did hear certainly whetted my appetite for the rest. Remarkably, Karchin has taken on the entire project without a commission, but in an age when so many opera houses look to Big Novel adaptations for world premieres, Jane Eyre seems tailor-made to appeal to audiences.

We heard the entirety of Veronika Krausas’ The Mortal Thoughts of Lady M*cbeth, a chamber setting of a libretto by Thomas Pettit that juxtaposes Lady M’s principal speeches against several dialogues among the Three Witches. To a degree, this piece is another victim of synopsis-writing, because the highfalutin’ description didn’t begin to convey the real fascination of the music. Krausas creates an intensely moody, dreamlike atmosphere, in which whispering voices seem to come from everywhere and nowhere as Lady M (a bravura role for soprano Elizabeth Westerman) pursues her tragic destiny.

It’s so complete in itself that I’m less interested in hearing Krausas tackle the entire Scottish Play than in hearing her take on The Tempest: if anybody can convey Caliban’s “The isle is full of noises,” it’s this composer. Impressively, the almost lapidary polish of her writing still permits powerful emotional response: Mortal Thoughts is a strange and very beautiful score.

Yet despite the fact that it’s based on Shakespeare, I couldn’t on first hearing grasp the theatrical dimension of the piece. Mortal Thoughts seemed almost like a song cycle for soprano, if song recitals ever included backup singers (here, Jeni Houser, Kristen Lassiter, and Amanda Robie). But when Krausas told us about Yuval Sharon’s imaginative staging of the work, site-specific and augmented with dancers and other performers, I was forced to admit that there are reasons nobody hires me to direct opera. (See? Feedback is helpful for judges, too.)

The other complete chamber work we heard, and the opener for this showcase, was Wang Jie’s From the Other Side, and like Mortal Thoughts, it has already received performances. A musical fable that tells why there are 12 zodiac signs instead of 13, it’s a fun piece that manages the difficult trick of being whimsical without being cloying. The zodiac signs are Chinese, reflecting Jie’s native roots, and thus they’re animals, too. This suggests an opera for children, but I hasten to point out that they’ll need to be pretty deep-thinking children.

Here, the 13th animal, the Lark (Jeni Houser), sings to amuse the other zodiac animals, who are presided over by the Rat (Amanda Robie). But after a trip to Earth, where she meets the melancholy Cripple (also sung by Amanda Robie) and learns compassion, the Lark decides she’d rather live among people. There are all kinds of possibilities for exciting staging — Jie described this at one point as “an animé opera” — and I share her optimism that the piece could draw new audiences (children or not) to the opera.

Daniel Sonenberg’s The Summer King is in many ways the most ambitious work we heard, nothing less than a biography of Josh Gibson, a baseball player in the Negro League. Though Sonenberg hasn’t finished orchestrating it yet, Daniel Nester’s libretto seems to demand big, bigger, and biggest — big stage, big cast, big orchestra. Again, I’m not a director, and there may be economical means to achieve these ends, but I strongly suspect that if the finished project doesn’t somehow convey epic grandeur, then I will find it less satisfying. Fortunately, among American opera lovers, baseball is easily the favorite sport, so tapping into the crossover audience is hardly an impossible dream.

That said, my favorite section was an aria that, as Darren Woods observed, would serve beautifully as a stand-alone piece in recital or auditions. Sung with warmth of feeling by Amanda Robie, it’s a long reflection by Gibson’s mistress as she prepares to leave him.

It’s not only because Matt Frey’s The Fox and the Pomegranate is a work in progress that I find it intriguing: here at last is a treatment of one of the great operatic subjects, adultery, but with a very up-to-date spin. I was tempted to call this a transgender Tristan, but Wagner is less interested in the triangular geometry of his drama (I’ve always felt Marke gets the short end of the stick), and ultimately Daniel J. Kushner’s libretto, with its dense symbolism, more closely recalls Pelléas et Mélisande — reimagined for the 21st century.

Frey is up to his own kind of impressionism, and not Debussy’s kind, as he writes hypnotic vocal lines, repeating and shattering and reassembling lines of text. There are plenty of money notes, too, along with some formidable staging challenges: to cite just one example, how does one convey that Nate (sung by Amanda Robie) changes sex in the middle of a scene? I also note that, despite Debussy’s popularity in the concert hall, Pelléas still has trouble finding an audience, though it’s had since 1905 to do so. But The Fox and the Pomegranate is so utterly original, so curious and so compelling, that, just as I can’t wait to hear the next musical passage as I listen to the score, I can’t wait to hear where this opera goes next as it moves toward completion and production.

That will be relatively easy to do now, because Kushner and I exchanged contact information, as I did with most of the other showcase participants; the singers and conductors shared contact information with the composers and librettists, too; and so on. Many of us are now friends on Facebook. Meanwhile, audiences were drawn in, and the rippling of the Fort Worth Opera community continues ever outward. It’s one of the most remarkable phenomena I’ve witnessed — anywhere, ever.

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08 May 2013

The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 17: Talking with Michael Mayes

Michael Mayes as Older Thompson in Glory Denied.
Fort Worth Opera Festival 2013.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Appel.

Especially with the severe military crew-cut he got to sing the lead in Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied with Fort Worth Opera this season, Michael Mayes looks like the kind of guy who used to beat me up for liking opera. A native of Cut and Shoot, Texas (yes, there is such a place), he wears cowboy boots, listens to country music, and played high-school football. He’s still a big bruiser, and yet he’s not a bully but a baritone, one more of the people in Fort Worth who have changed my understanding of the possibilities — and the realities — of a community centered around the very music that used to isolate me in this state.

Mike is currently singing the role of the Older Jim Thompson Glory Denied, the story of an American P.O.W. in Vietnam and the devastating effects of the war on his marriage, his body, and his soul. The score calls on him to roar in rage and frustration — he’s terrifying — and yet he also delivers arias of celebration and forgiveness with some of the most tenderly lyrical singing I’ve heard. All the while, he’s wincing from the blows of his captors, or staggering in drunkenness, or halting in the aftermath of a stroke.

Though he’s sung plenty of standard-rep roles, such as Don Giovanni and Escamillo, with companies throughout the United States, Glory Denied is hardly Mike’s first foray into contemporary opera: he lists among his credits Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking; in Fort Worth last season, he sang Kinesias in Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata.

While we’ve gotten to know each other only in the past month, Mike’s reputation preceded him. He’s a born raconteur — at full throttle, he dials his Texas accent up to 11, at least — and he inspires a cult-like following in the companies where he sings, not least for whatever workout regimen he’s pursuing at the moment.

On the morning that George Jones’ death was announced, Mike met me for coffee and talked a bit about Glory Denied and the power of opera to affect all kinds of communities.

Michael Mayes, Baritone from Texas.

Michael Mayes: I actually got the contract [for Glory Denied] before my contract here last year [for Lysistrata]. Darren had offered me Lysistrata right after Dead Man Walking, when I did the Motorcycle Cop and Moralès in Carmen [in 2011].

I was trying to sing for Darren forever, because the company is important to me and this area is important to me. I have a lot of family in the area. I kept trying to sing for him, but my allergies would be bad, or I would be sick. The first time I got to sing for him was here, when I moved to the suburbs of North Dallas with my ex-wife. He said, “I love you but I’ve already cast this season, except for these small roles” in Dead Man Walking and Carmen. It was a great introduction; the small roles weren’t high pressure.

At the time they were shooting a pilot for a reality show. They gave me a camera and I got a lot of good footage. It sort of embedded me in the culture of Fort Worth Opera.

[For the 2013 festival] Darren had me originally in a different production, and he said, “I’ve got this new project that’s come across my desk, and just from where you’re going with your career, I think this would be much better for you.” He told me about the project, and I said, “Yeah, that’s about right.” Just from him telling me the story, I knew, no matter what the score looked like, I would be interested. It would be meaningful.

I’m into opera that’s meaningful and has a purpose, beyond pretty music. I think opera is a great agent for cultural change. That’s the way it used to be viewed: revolutionary, exciting, new, dangerous. I like it that way; it’s much more fun.

Q: Darren says that when he’s looking at a score, it isn’t enough for it simply to be new. He wants a new opera to provoke conversations within the community.

MM: That’s exactly what this does. We’ve seen a lot of movies and books on the Vietnam War, but not too many operas based on it. Opera has taken on the subject of war but used it as a plot device, or like Daughter of the Regiment, a comic thing. But there hasn’t been an unflinching look at this problem we have. We have these boys who come back riddled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and say, “All right boys, get back to work.” Especially at the time this took place, no one even know what PTSD was.

The older Thompson recalls his younger self (David Blalock) in captivity, of which the younger Alyce (Sydney Mancasola) was unaware.
Glory Denied, Fort Worth Opera Festival 2013.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Appel.

I knew this piece would speak to so many people, and would be an effective tool for restoration and healing for people of a particular generation. At every single one of these talkbacks [following each performance of Glory Denied], that’s who stays and talks. It’s like they haven’t talked about it in a long time, they’ve relegated it to memory, this forgotten time that seems so long ago — but it’s really not. People were really affected by this time, and they get tears in their eyes, saying it’s wonderful to see that people are still talking about it and still care about it.

When I do projects like this, it makes what I do seem important, as opposed to doing it for myself to get a bunch of praise or entertain a bunch of rich people. This piece will reach anybody, anywhere. I don’t care whether they’ve ever seen an opera before.

I think that’s what we all want. More and more people are going into this business now not because they want to be big stars and sing pretty music. People are fired up. Just like in Glory Denied, the piece took place in an era of huge cultural change, and we’re going through another cultural change since 2001: this country, you almost don’t recognize it. Being a part of something that makes you feel like you’re part of the Zeitgeist or the landscape of cultural change — that’s exciting.

With Kirstin Chavez in Dead Man Walking.
Tulsa Opera.
Photo courtesy of Barihunks Blog.

After I did Dead Man Walking in Tulsa, a woman posted on Facebook, “That was so beautiful, you sang so well, and you’re a really good actor.” I’m not arrogant, but you hear those things a lot. And you say, “Oh, thank you so much.” Then she got to the next paragraph and said, “My daughter was murdered eight years ago, and your performance of Joseph Desrochers changed the way I think about the way I think about the man who murdered my daughter.”

I don’t care how many Giovannis you do, or Iago or Rigoletto, you’re going to affect people, but when you take a piece like this or like Dead Man Walking, you get people and yank ’em by the throat, shake ’em up and say, “Hey, this stuff ain’t dead. It’s living and it can affect people.” I think it’s one of the most effective ways to reach out and move people emotionally.

People think I’m crazy. I’ll say without any apology, they ask me about doing new work and how do you like it as opposed to standard opera? Hey, I love that stuff, it’s great. I’m doing Rigoletto this year at Boston Lyric, that’s my dream. I’m actually turning down a smaller role in a modern opera, because it’s my dream role to do Rigoletto. I still love these pieces. But I understand that during the time that a lot of these classical pieces were being written, they were the revolutionary new things that were going on the scene. People were still performing the classics, but I think we forgot about that. There are so many good stories in this country. We can reach whole new audiences, theater audiences.

Q: I’ve noticed that new work often attracts more theater-going audiences. Do you feel any special compunction to act better?

MM: Oh, yeah. For so long the opera professional was treated as some sort of freak, you know. It was enough to have them stand up and put on their little dog and pony show, and that was enough. I mean, “Wow, that’s an amazing voice, it’s loud and it’s doing all these melismas, and using the language I’m not familiar with, it’s all so amazing, that’s great.” At some point the people that have an appreciation for that are all going to die, and we’re going to be stuck out here trying to figure out how to engage all these 45-year-old people that we ignored when they were 20 and 30 and 35, and turned off by all that stuff. It’s kind of this outlaw opera, revolutionary thing. We can reach out there and appeal to young hipsters, and that sort or 25-to-35 age group. A lot of those people are just bored. They’ve seen everything. They always want to be the first ones to see it, but it’s hard to impress those guys. We have a rally unique tool in our belt, these voices we carry around, that are able to express in a completely different emotional context some of these ideas that theater has been dealing with for a long time, it gives a fresh perspective.

People are shocked when opera singers can act and tell a story. I’ve gotten into furious online debates about the purpose of opera. People say, “The purpose of opera is good singing. The purpose of opera is making good music.” And I say, “Why the hell don’t we just have concerts if the purpose is just amazing music and incredible voices?” It’s not an opera if there’s not a story to tell. That’s the purpose of opera: to tell a story. If it was just good music, we wouldn’t need costumes, we wouldn’t need all this stuff.

We talked a bit about the increasing prominence of “Barihunks” — Mike is officially certified as such by no lesser authority than the Barihunks blog.

MM: You hear a lot of complaints about the way that this movement about “having sexy people do opera, aw, it’s ruining it!” [The complaints are coming from] a lot of people in the older generation that have served opera really well, and they’re irritated. It shouldn’t be at the expense of singing.

I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game. You don’t have to be either a good singer or in shape. You can do both. Actors are expected to do it all the time. They play to type; they are expected to look a certain way. I played Joseph Desrochers a few weeks ago: I was pumped up, looking as mean and lean as I could for this character.

Mean and Lean: As Joseph Desrochers.
Tulsa Opera, 2013.
Photo courtesy of Barihunks Blog.

And then I had to shift gears to play Jim Thompson. I realized that the bulk of my story is reflection. He’s an older man, his body mask isn’t a 29-year-old convict, it was a 59-year-old, broken-down, former P.OW. I eased up on my diet, got a little bit lower center of gravity. It feels different, better. My center of gravity is lower. It’s easier to make this body mask to play this guy. You take pictures of me in Dead Man Walking and me in this, you wouldn’t think it was the same person.

But that’s what our job is. In theater, they would just find some guy who was old looking. There’s plenty of guys who look old, but there’s not many that can sing like this and look old, too.

Q: And you do look old, especially once you put on that cardigan!

MM: It’s so hard to put on, which makes it even better. One of the coolest things for me is the transition — he has so many transitions, playing so many characters, interrogators and officials [as well as Thompson]. Once you press start, this piece moves. Making these transitions smooth is difficult.

One of my favorites is right after the slide show, with all these nice happy family memories, and all of a sudden the Vietnam pictures and the prison camps and the guys in their striped pajamas. It’s too much for him to handle. Suddenly you see him go from middle-aged Thompson to the guy who died angry and unfulfilled and bewildered by what happened to his life. I get that sweater and pull it on, over that stroked-out arm. Wheezing because he’s a lifetime smoker. His back was broken so the injury was really showing — for me as an actor, it’s great.

I observed that it takes guts to do all that while singing simultaneously.

MM: The word “no” doesn’t often cross my lips. I don’t know how to use it. I probably should be better at it, but I’m not afraid of anything any more.

Q: Were you ever?

MM: The first time I went to the Met to cover, I went to that building, and I wasn’t me. I didn’t know how to really act in that place. When I was younger, I was afraid to be who I was. Afraid to be this kind of good ol’ boy from East Texas that does opera. I realized that I could fake being fancy-pants generic American intellectual. I could do that pretty well, but it wasn’t true. I went through some pretty radical life changes in the past five years or so, I’ve been divorced and broke off an engagement. I didn’t lose everything, but you kind of feel like you do. You feel like everything’s gone and what have you been doing this for. After a while you feel like fuck it, I’m just gonna do it. I’m gonna do stories my way and tell them the way I want. If this business doesn’t like it, they can stop hiring me. Thus far they haven’t done it. There’ve been some lean years, but I’m stickin’ with it until they decide that’s enough.

George Jones, with his sometime wife, Tammy Wynette.
The country singer’s death was announced
the morning that Mike and I got together;
we began our conversation with a coffee-mug toast to him.

Q: What kind of music did you listen to when you were growing up?

MM: Country, bluegrass, and gospel. Almost exclusively. A little bit of funk and blues thrown in there because my dad had an incredible vinyl collection. I didn’t know who Bob Dylan was until I got to college. The Beatles, I had no idea.

My grandfather was a preacher; I grew up Missionary Baptist. They started me off young. I was third grade, second grade, playing guitar, playing in church during the music service. Brother Green, my mentor as a young kid, would bring me up there. He had a Gibson Hollow Body, and I’d get up there and mangle hymns, and nobody ever told me I was terrible. They instilled me with confidence.

The Bible doesn’t say make a beautiful noise, it says make a joyful noise unto the Lord. That’s what I do.

I’d sing that music. My buddy Randy Lindley showed me a few things on the guitar. He’s now the lead guitar player for Amber Digby and Midnight Flyer, a country-and-western band. She’s a big deal, sings at the Opry and some duets with Vince Gill. Every now and then they come to Fort Worth and let me sit in. It’s like that career I never had. Every opera singer has that alternative career they wish they’d had, me it’s a roadhouse country singer, retro, nothing after 1980. Once or twice a year I get the chance to relive that fantasy.

I think that’s the one thing we miss as opera singers, and what’s great about Glory Denied, so often the audience is 30 feet away from us at the closest. It’s 2000 seats and so distant, but with Glory Denied, they’re right there, really close. You miss that as opera singers. Most singers didn’t sing opera as little kids, they did something else that had that immediacy. I think among a lot of singers there’s a longing for that. Glory Denied has that immediate response. At Pearl’s, the lights are up and you can see the audience in the eyes; they’re right there with you.

Thompson and the recollection of his younger self (David Blalock).
Glory Denied, Fort Worth Opera Festival 2013.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Appel.

Q: How did you find opera, or did opera find you?

MM: I was playing football in high school, and I ended up breaking some fingers in one of my hands. After practice, I walked into the counselor’s office. My hand was wrapped up, and I said, “What do I do about typing class?” It was my freshman year. She said, “There’s only two things you can do mid-semester: choir or drama. Pick one.”

Those drama kids were super weird — I didn’t want to be one of those — which is funny because that’s totally what I am now. I ended up joining the choir because I knew I could sing already, I figured that would be an easy A. I’d sung in choirs, but when football started I gave it up. Mike Ware was the choir director; he said, “You’ve got something there.” He encouraged me to stay, and the next year Angela Rivera came in as choir director, she was also my choir director in fifth grade.

She encouraged me to join competitions. I ended up making it into the all-state choir of Texas. That year, it’s funny, that year of all-state, Ava Pine was in that choir, and so was Jesus Garcia. We were all in there together, 1994. I actually pulled out [the program] — all those names are on there.

When you make all-state in Texas, a lot of schools give you scholarship money, and I wasn’t going to get a scholarship any other way. I figured I’d just take the money and get a business major. But they sucked me right in. The all-state piqued my interest in Classical music. I’d never done that before, pieces like the Mozart Requiem. I’d never heard music like this, much less sung it.

I got my first role in college, actually a summer program at Stephen F. Austin, I did Frank Maurrant in [Kurt Weill’s] Street Scene. It’s a little low for me, but I’d love to do that again. That’s what got me, I think: this really compelling story. I got to play this total bastard; in the way he thought and the way he viewed the world, he reminded me so much of all the men in my family. My grandpa could stop a room with a look, silence every movement with one look, he was terrifying. I’d just use that face he would make and that manner he always had, and terrorize people. That made me see how I could affect people in that way. It seduced me, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

I did all the little roles you do in college, little-known Rossini operas, the stuff you do to cut your teeth. It felt like a contest or athletic event: who can sing the best G or who has the most coloratura? It didn’t feel meaningful to me. Then I got to CCCM and did John Procter in [Robert Ward’s] The Crucible. That just — bang, I can tell this story, I know this guy. Then I got to work on Margaret Garner, same thing.

I could start to see that was going to be my niche. But I didn’t have the connections; I didn’t know how to break into that world. I’d hear all these guys my age doing these new works, and I’d say, “How the hell, who are they talking to, to get these parts?”

I came to Fort Worth right when they started doing this [contemporary] stuff. It was a marriage made in heaven. I was able to express these thoughts with freedom and confidence. It was like coming home, so much so that I moved here for two or three years.

This company really took me in. I was going though a difficult time in my life. Brett Starr and I, Roger Honeywell and I, Jeff Jones and Joseph Lesley, Darren and Steven [Bryant, Darren’s husband], Thomas [Rhodes], Nathan DePoint, these guys lifted me up, took care of me, and became some of my closest friends in the world. I thought, “I could go to New York, but all of my best friends are here in Fort Worth. Why would I leave?”

That’s one of the things we miss. You get lonely out there on that road. You make fast friends, we all do that, quick relationships and all that. But long-term serious, meaningful relationships that you come back to over and over again? Man, that’s the best.

As Don Giovanni.
Des Moines Metro Opera 2012.
Photo courtesy of Barihunks Blog.

Q: To what extent does being Texan define you?

MM: When you choose to brand yourself like I’ve done — I didn’t create this thing, I just decided to tell my truth and to be myself — but it’s a big risk, because people have certain preconceived notions about an accent. They think you’re stupid or you’re not taken seriously. I’ve probably lost jobs or missed opportunities because of that, but I think it’s more important to be this guy and tell this story.

I know that any day of the week, they can find guys to tell the Figaro story or the Almaviva story. But there are stories that are just mine, and those are the stories I want to tell. I’ve got to be myself to tell the truth. I think that it’s a longer road this way. Often it takes people two or three times meeting you to know who you are. It’s a process. If you’re playing a generic guy, in a suit, with a clean haircut — I could be a businessman or an accountant.

You meet those board members on their turf. I know that we’re always gonna have the professional crowd. We’re always gonna have them. I don’t think we’re at a real risk of losing buttoned-up professionals. I don’t think that’s gonna happen. But we are missing an opportunity tor each out to people who don’t look like that. When I go to a town where they’re liberal with their comps, I go to a neighborhood like this, and I find the most tattooed-up, earringed people, and I give them these tickets. I say, “These tickets are expensive and hard to get. I won’t ask anything of you, I just want you to come.” And they will show up.

For me it’s the most wonderful thing in the world to see a guy with purple hair and a Mohawk standing next to some multimillionaire enjoying the same thing. That’s the point of art, to create commonality among us all. That’s the reason why the cavemen started gesturing with their hands and making cave paintings so they could remove the barriers and have common knowledge. That’s what art is. It’s our Rosetta Stone.

So often we get these groups, they don’t speak each other’s language. But you put that bartender next to a CEO in [the audience for] Glory Denied, and they’re going to have a similar experience that they can talk about in a way that they can’t talk about other things.

I know I come across like an evangelist. I gave a couple of readings from The Book of Darren. If he ever writes an autobiography, that should be the name of it. Him and guys like him are what’s saving this business. It is kind of funny that during the greatest contraction we ever had in this business — it’s been rough, fees are in the toilet, people are financing their futures just to hang on for long enough — but there’s never been more new work and more exciting things happening than ever before. It’s because of guys like Darren.

The soldier and his bride: Thompson and Alyce (Caroline Worra),
with the figures of their younger selves
(David Blalock, Sydney Mancasola).
Glory Denied, Fort Worth Opera Festival 2013.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Appel.

You understand that there’s something that got a hold of you. You came from the same places these people came from, it can get a hold of them, too. Growing up in a double-wide trailer in Cut and Shoot, Texas. Thirty family members and friends are coming to this show, most of them have never been to an opera. They have no idea what they’re going to see. They’re thinking about stereotypes. They have no clue what they’re going to see on Saturday afternoon.

A friend came in to watch it, just to get his reaction. He had no idea. He didn’t even know what opera was. He came up to me afterward and said, “I started crying at the catalogue aria [“Welcome home”] and I didn’t stop crying until after the end of the show. I can’t even talk right now.” He’s younger than me and he doesn’t know anything about opera. It almost ceases to be opera. It’s an experience.

We have our own club here. You walk into any restaurant with Darren, and they’ve got that cocktail ready for him. You can hear it shaking. He’s the prince of this town. He’s made opera cool. Everybody’s talking about it. I bump into people, you have a conversation in a bar, “Oh, you’re one of those opera people!” We’re like the cool kids in this town.

It’s Fort Worth, for fuck’s sake. This town is moving in a direction, they call it Funky Town, it’s like Austin in 1954, you can feel it coming. How crazy is it that the company that’s doing all the new exciting work is Fort Worth? It’s crazy. It’s not Austin, it’s not Dallas, it’s not Houston. Fort Worth, it’s exciting. I love all of those towns, but man, you can’t get more of a Texas town than Fort Worth, and that’s where everything’s happening.

Glory Denied continues at Fort Worth Opera, with performances tonight (if you hurry!) and May 11 at the McDavid Studio at Bass Hall. Also starring Caroline Worra, Sydney Mancasola, and David Blalock in a production staged by Dean Anthony and conducted by Tyson Deaton. For more information and tickets, click here.

Cool Kids of Funky Town: Fort Worth Opera barihunks
at a lunch in their honor, hosted by a certain blog.
Left to right: Aaron Sorensen, Michael Adams, Steven Eddy, Wes Mason, Michael Mayes, John Boehr, and Anthony Reed.

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04 May 2013

The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 16: Opening Night

An important announcement! WVM (center, as the Haushofmeister).
In foreground: Audrey Luna (seated), Ian McEuen, Marjorie Owens, Stephen Lusmann, and Cecelia Hall. In background: Anthony Reed, Corey Bix, Michael Adams, Jeni Houser (obscured), Corrie Donovan, and Amanda Robie.
Photo courtesy of Ron T. Ennis.

And so the great day brightly dawns: the Fort Worth Opera Festival production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos opens tonight at Bass Hall.

If for some reason you simply can’t get to the theater, you can listen to a live broadcast of the performance on Dallas’ Classical station, WRR-FM 101.1; the station’s website will also provide live streaming, so that you can listen even if you’re, oh, I don’t know, in New York. The curtain rises at 7:30 local time.*

The Opera: Bacchus (Corey Bix) and Ariadne (Marjorie Owens).
Photo courtesy of Ellen Appel.

You won’t want to be late, because I’m only in the beginning of the opera, and thereafter you’ll have to content yourself with hearing the stupendous singers in our cast.

I’m thrilled that friends and family will join me in Fort Worth tonight, to share in this adventure. And just to make the evening more meaningful, my high-school German teacher, Terry Quon, will be there, too.

The Prologue: The Tanzmeister (Ian McEuen)
presents Zerbinetta (Audrey Luna) and her Troupe
(Zac Engle, Steven Eddy, Michael Porter, and Anthony Reed).
Photo courtesy of Ron T. Ennis.

Especially in Texas, there’s no guarantee that your students will actually use the foreign language you teach them — unless it’s Spanish, which in these parts doesn’t exactly count as foreign. Though I use German infrequently and sporadically, I note that this is not the first time my studies of the language have gotten me a paying job: after all, I worked at the Kurt Weill Foundation for two years after college. So this is a great chance to say, Vielen Dank, meine gnädige Frau Quon.

With Terry Quon at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.
Photo by Tommy Quon.

So much of this experience is completely new to me. As I say, it’s the first time in my career that I’ve had a dressing room to myself. It’s also the first time that I’ve had a dresser — the legendary Sue — and the first time that I haven’t done my own makeup. And I believe that this is the first time I’ve worn a wig onstage since the fifth-grade talent show, when I imitated Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine Jones. (Have I mentioned that I was an odd child?)

James P. McGough gives WVM a thorough makeover.
Photo by Lauren Weiss.

And lest we forget, this is also the first time I’ve acted onstage with a cast of opera singers. And not just any opera singers, but a tremendous ensemble of phenomenally gifted artists. They sing like angels, and they’re funny, besides. And every day, they show themselves to be kind and wise and dear. To guide me through this crazy stunt, I couldn’t have picked a better bunch of people than this cast; this director, David Gately; and this conductor, Joe Illick.

Ian clowns while the legendary Sue the Dresser attends to his jabot.
Photo by WVM.

But what to do for an encore? There aren’t a tremendous number of worthwhile speaking roles in opera. But I hear the Glyndebourne Festival is producing Ariadne auf Naxos this summer….

To my surprise, the dressing rooms pass
the white-glove test.
Photo by Lauren Weiss.

*NOTE: That’s 8:30 in New York, 5:30 in California, and 2:30 in the morning in France. Désolé, mes chers.

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