Saturday, June 30, 2007

The beautfiul end of the tunnel!

This morning the dense fog hovers claustro-phobically over the city by the bay, and while it’s tempting to feel as if the day will stay dreary and overcast, one knows with authority that it will soon lift, and that the scorching, luminous sun will emerge to reveal the blinding cerulean skies above. Ah, the marvelous marvels of San Francisco!

Tossing aside any valiant attempt at a cohesive entry this time around, I offer instead the varied ramblings of a tired, yet energized, close-to-vacation singer with the soundtrack of “School’s out for the summer!” blaring through my head! It feels like decades since I’ve claimed this song as my June Anthem! Ramble away:

*What an unabashed thrill, and constant, on-going master class to watch Kristinn Sigmundsson craft his Baron Ochs every night. I’ve never been able to stomach that character much before to be quite honest, for it can so very easily cross over into a nauseating caricature that makes the 4-hour opera feel as if it is the entire Ring Cycle given without intermissions. My hypothesis on why his creation actually evolves to be so endearing and ultimately sympathetic: Kristinn respects and loves the character, never settling for the obvious choice. He truly thinks he is entitled to all he is demanding, and considers himself a true Don Juan in each of his encounters. It is an unabashed delight to watch. Throw in his majestic, malleable facial expressions and you have a masterful performance on hand. Oh, right – I nearly forgot: he also SINGS the bejeebers out of the role! Heilige Mutter von Maria Taferl he’s good!

Lesson learned: never take for granted that a character (or person, for that matter!) is decidedly, 100% worthy of being written off!

*What a lesson in humble artistry to share the stage with Soile Isokowski’s Marschallin. She has the unique ability, even in a 3,500-seat theater, to draw in the audience, inviting them to listen to her most intimate thoughts spun out in a refined, most delicately silver-spun line, breaking your heart with her honest, pure sound. Her perfect use of the text, her trust in the beautiful vocal writing of Strauss, her innate coloring of each phrase, and her ability to get out of the way of the music gives her Marschallin such a human, fragile life. And as far as I’m concerned, her voicing of the line, “da drinn ist die silberne Ros’n…” is all one would ever need to believe that a true paradise exists somewhere. It is “Desert Island” good.

Lesson learned: never miss the opportunity to hear this wonderful artist!

*Anyone concerned about the direction of opera in today’s media-driven climate need not worry if it produces singers like Miah Persson. What a vibrant, committed artist who sings beautifully and insists on never being less than 100% committed to the union between the music and the drama. She sings with a technique that serves her unbelievably well, even through dreaded allergies and other physical circumstances, she is impeccably and thoroughly prepared as a colleague and an immaculate musician, and she brings an instinctive, vital energy to the stage that makes Sophie a much more multi-dimensional character than she might appear on paper. There is no better scenario than to be on stage with colleagues that LISTEN to you, REACT with you, and CREATE the drama in real-time, and Miah does this in spades!

Lesson learned: look to singers like this to insure the future of opera!

*Kudos to any casting/artistic director who is committed to casting an entire piece from strength to strength, knowing that a truly breathtaking theatrical event thrives on every role being brought to vivid life and sung impeccably well. I don’t know that I’ve witnessed a better example of that than in this realization of Der Rosenkavalier. There wasn’t one sung line where the audience was asked to suspend its belief or exhibit patience with a sub-par performance. From the perfectly accomplished Faninal of Jochen Schmeckenbecher (best name in the world!), to the Duenna of Adler fellow Heidi Melton (watch out opera world, here she comes!), to the brilliance of fellow Wichita State Alum, Cathy Cook’s gloriously sexy Anina, it was a stellar cast from top to bottom, and allowed the audience, I think, to truly escape into and believe in this world. This gets my blood pumping! As a rich bonus, every single person in this cast was an unmitigated joy to share the front and back stage with, and made this experience yet another magical moment in time for me.

Lesson learned: there are no small roles. Well, OK, let’s be honest: there ARE, in fact, “small roles”, however, this lesson is that they don’t automatically or necessarily yield a small IMPACT! Bravi, tutti!

*This is the most glorious music to sing. Some people have asked me if I approach the singing differently, or question why my voice seems to take on different colors/timbres in this role. Honestly, I’m not smart enough to juggle separate techniques for each genre I sing – I have one ‘technique’ and sing in one “manner” (IF I’m behaving myself) and fully expect it to serve any type of music I may sing, be it Rossini, lieder or Strauss. I fully believe the answer simply lies in the fact that the language, the vocal writing and the orchestration all work together to inform the colors and phrasing in one’s singing. It comes down to singing what has been handed to us by the composer (in this case perfectly penned by Strauss), and staying out of the way of the music. If, for example, Rossini, Strauss and Britten were all given the same notes to play with, they would each come up with a completely different interpretation, set with different phrasing, unique text, and separate requirements – regardless of the notes being the same values on the page, the results would be light years apart in sound and impact. This is one reason I love exploring varied repertoire, and never find even a hint of boredom setting in.

Lesson learned: stay out of the way, Stupid!

*I love my job. I continue to pinch myself that I am continually given the opportunity to bring such masterful music to life. The fog that has hung over me this past year with the loss of my parents is undoubtedly real, profound and life changing, but through the midst of the mist I have had music to cling to. I endeavor to continually recognize that music is not the only thing in my life – it is simply a part of my life. But I have had the blessed fortune to be able to turn to it as a source of comfort and guidance and even therapy. In a most literal fashion, singing the role of Idamante seems almost cruelly ironic, but as I’ve noted before, Mozart’s music possesses a cleansing and healing quality entrenched in each phrase, and I know that it serves to be a guiding force through my grieving. While the words of the Marschallin can touch listeners in nearly any phase of their life, I know that listening to them each night on the stage has had a calming effect on me, and penetrates my heart deeply in my need to let go and not hold on to the past. It was as if my Father were whispering those very words into my heart to help me move forward.

Lesson learned: Leicht muß man sein mit leichtem Herz und leichten Händen halten und nehmen, halten und lassen…

(Light must we be, with light hearts and light hands, to hold and take hold, and to let go…)

Well, like the inevitable clock striking midnight, the fog has now lifted, inviting all to jump with abandon into the day here in San Francisco. It’s nearly time for me to clean out the refrigerator, clean up the rental unit, pack up my belongings and say goodbye to this rich city. I will surely miss the fresh air, the inventive, delicious cuisine and the “brisk” breezes, however it is the friends, the audience and the cast members that will leave the biggest imprint on me. Little do they all know it, but they have each helped me through a very difficult time with their patience, their enthusiasm, their artistry and their friendship. I began the journey of my first Octavian here, healed some of my grief here, walked through the light at the end of the tunnel, and quite simply, loved every minute of it.

Here is to brilliant azure skies, silver roses and letting go!

Production photos: ©Terrence McCarthy
San Francisco Opera, Der Rosenkavalier

Thursday, June 28, 2007

In my thoughts

I almost started to write that today the "world of opera" mourns the announcement that the legendary Amercian soprano Beverly Sills is gravely ill. That is far too narrow a statement. Perhaps more importantly, the world is truly with her today in their thoughts and prayers. With my own small voice I wish her and her family the strength, comfort and resources they need in this most difficult time.

©Ken Howard

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Contagious pride

Sunday was Gay Pride day across the nation, and while there were numerous remarkable and colorful parades across the land, surely San Francisco takes the prize for all out pride-ness! We had a matinee performance of "Der Rosenkavalier" that afternoon, and let me tell you, there was an ELECTRICITY in the air! I could tell immediately that it would be a fabulous and special show. Trying to stay in the spirit of things and kick things off in a festive way, I invited the Marschallin (the lovely Finnish soprano, Soile Isokowski, singing her final performance of the role here) and the Baron Ochs (the real-live Viking, Kristinn Sigmundsson) for a festive photo-op:

Personally, I had the easiest time of getting into the spirit of things, as not only was I dressed in drag as Octavian, but Octavian himself got to drag it up as Mariandel. I've never been so proud!

In all sincerity, it is an honor to call so many duly proud people my friends.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wigs, Brocades and Canons, Oh my!

I've been shopping! In preparation for my upcoming REAL, LIVE, NO-CELL-PHONE VACATION (my first in over 5 years!), I took the plunge and made the long-anticipated purchase of a coveted SLR camera! I'm in heaven. I've been flirting with photography for awhile now, and even had the nerve to begin boasting that it was my 'hobby'; however it's hard to be taken seriuosly when your lens of choice belongs to a flimsy point-n-shoot camera! (See? One purchase and I'm a camera snob already! Now there will be no talking to me!) I did my homework, got very friendly with the neighborhood pro, Bill at Wolf Camera, and jumped into the world of filters, polarizers, and lenses (oh my!).

Call me "Trigger".

The beautiful thing is that it came just in time for my debut at the San Francisco Opera as Octavian, and I found the distraction of shooting photos backstage to be a beautiful balm to the nerves pulsing through my veins screaming "what have I gotten myself into????"

Up first: my very first powdered wig (in over 8 years of professional opera, that's rather astonishing, actually), with the most stunning roses in the background, sent by my 'adopted parents', Pam and Tom Frame, who, incidently, were my Merola sponsors 10 years ago in this very same city...

And second: for the brocade, a close-up of the stunning detail work hand-crafted on Octavian's "Presentation of the Rose" costume...

Perhaps it's worth mentioning that the costume was based on the original 1911 costume designs, and was originally worn by none-other than the great Frederica von Stade for the debut of this particular production in 1993. Considering that she stopped backstage beforehand to wish me good-luck made me feel that I was truly in the best of hands!

Thirdly, I'll rely on a professional photographer with the real bragging rights to demonstrate 'how it's done', with a shot of both the beautiful costume and wig in action...

A big thank you to Bob Cahen for this photo, who has been shooting opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the San Francisco Opera for over 50 years. Not only does he have the most engaging stories about all the great Opera Stars of the past 50 years from Callas to DiStefano, but he currently has a magnificent exhibition of great photos on at the SFO - what a legacy he is creating!