Today is an extremely exciting day for my colleagues at Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago
and I, as tonight is the very first concert of our first ever Collaborative Works Festival - our new, annual Festival devoted to the art of song and vocal chamber music. My colleagues at CAIC and I have actually been dreaming of this Festival since 2005, long before CAIC as an organization was even an idea. We have had this vision of building a showcase for the art of song and promoting this incredibly rich repertoire that we are so passionate about - from that vision, CAIC was born, and now, the pinnacle of that vision - the Collaborative Works Festival
, is about to begin. Below, you can read more about my thoughts on our vision for this annual series of concerts in my Artistic Director's note reprinted from this weekend's program. Tonight is a major milestone for us at CAIC, and there will be much to celebrate.
Unfortunately, the life of the traveling artist forces one to miss many important milestones - it's the one aspect of this life in music that I find most difficult. Tonight is one of those nights in which I have wished in vain that I could clone myself or divide myself in two, and somehow pull off the impossible feat of being able to be in two places at once. When the opportunity arose to be able to present Martin Katz and Jesse Blumberg as our inaugural festival artists, we at CAIC knew that this was not a chance to be missed. Unfortunately, though, due to the complexity of calendars, I wasn't able to coordinate my own schedule to match with theirs in order to be there for this momentous event. So, while I will be singing Bach with David Robertson and the Saint Louis Symphony this weekend, Jesse and Martin will be launching this Festival which has become so close to my heart and has become one of my primary passions. My heart is with them and my colleagues at CAIC this weekend, and I am forever grateful for their integral part in getting this vision of ours off the ground in such classy and spectacular style.
Tickets are still available
for both concerts of the Festival, which are both at the the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago, and there are still spaces available for tomorrow night's Master Class on Schubert songs with Martin Katz, which will be held at the Pianoforte Salon of the FIne Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. If you are in Chicago, please be sure to catch both of these amazing artists perform these all too rarely performed masterpieces, and celebrate the launch of this new Chicago tradition with us. I will be celebrating with you all in spirit. - NPA NOTE FROM THE ARTISTIC DIRECTORThe simple act of a human voice telling a story through song has a way of piercing to the core of our hearts, inciting reactions from laughter to tears. Something aboutadding music to text makes the story a universal one: Music's universal language draws us together, allowing us to hear someone sing their story and feel, "Oh my gosh - that's me...I've lived that, too..."While the grand forms of musical theater and opera are incredibly powerful and moving, they can feel like blockbuster movies, sweeping up their audience with the staggering weight and momentum of the many dramatic elements involved: orchestras, soloists, choruses, sets, costumes, wigs, make-up, imaginary fourth walls, and gigantic theaters make for a big show. When it comes to songs, there are only the performers and the audience, and the atmosphere created is one of direct communication and personal expression. For me, a song is a special type of conversation that gives me the opportunity to see inside the performers' heart and soul. Because of its direct nature, the art song has an unlimited potential for real vulnerability and intimacy in the relationship created between performers and audience.As powerful as the song is, it is an art form in peril. There are so few that present performances of song, and even fewer that seek to preserve the art form and cultivate an audience for it. Part of the mission of Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago is to promote the art of song and vocal chamber music. It is our passion for this niche of the vocal repertoire that inspired Shannon, Nicholas, and me to pursue lives in music. We have experienced the transforming power of song as both performers and as listeners, and our lives have been forever changed for it. CAIC has created the Collaborative Works Festival to be Chicago's showcase for this repertoire, and we are excited to be pursuing this part of our mission with such fervor. This music is too powerful to be ignored or forgotten, to be left unplayed and unsung. It is music that is truly for everyone, and it should be enjoyed by all. It just needs more opportunities to shine!I cannot imagine a more fitting way to kick off this annual Festival than with performances of Franz Schubert's song cycles. Schubert truly is the 'father of the German Lied', and his virtuosic song settings have inspired song composers of every generation and every nationality. This combination of performers is perfectly apt, as well. Martin Katz has mentored countless musicians in the performance and study of song, as well has having accompanied some of the world's most famous singers for nearly half a century. Jesse Blumberg has established himself as a leader of his generation in championing the art of song, both as a performer and a presenter; in 2007 Jesse founded the Five Boroughs Music Festival in New York City, which has become impressive platform for song and chamber music.I sincerely hope you enjoy the 2012 Collaborative Works Festival's 'Epic Journeys'. We're excited to have you with us on the beginning of our own epic journey, as we inaugurate a new Chicago tradition!
A few years ago, I was rehearsing with a pianist for an upcoming concert, and I couldn’t remember what the rule was regarding whether to approach a trill from above or directly on the note when singing a certain composer’s music. I asked her if she remembered the rule, and she said to me, “I don’t do rules.”
While her response seemed hilariously rebellious at first, I came to see a lot of logic to her point. Much like Italian cuisine, which varies so much from region to region, so do people’s ideas of “rules” in music. Encounter an Italian from one region of Italy, they will tell you that unequivocally you do not use garlic when preparing a certain sauce. Travel just an hour south, and ask an Italian from that region about said sauce, and they will tell you unequivocally that you MUST use garlic when preparing that sauce. Both are equally convinced that they are telling you the rules, despite the fact that they are telling you the opposite.
Much the same thing happens in music, particularly when musicians speak of the music of the dead. After my pianist friend’s comment above, this strikes me as also hilarious, because let’s be reasonable – how can we really know? I always want to say, show me your time machine and let’s go talk to those composers.
Now I understand that we do know some information about how this music was performed – most composers that are in the standard canon of performed classical music have left writing and documented evidence of their tastes. Rossini wrote often of his distaste for his singers ornamenting his music, and he is documented as being highly critical of what has become the standard, modern-day technique of tenors to carry our chest voices up to the very tops of our ranges. Nevertheless, when was the last time you heard Una voce poco fa without any ornamentation or a tenor singing Count Almaviva without heroic high notes? These things are generally accepted as “rules” today and are expected in performance.
Then again – these dead composers were once flawed, imperfect human beings, too, and often contradicted themselves. Handel was also a bit critical of singers overly ornamenting his arias, but then again, you look at some of the ornaments he himself wrote, and you get a mixed message in terms of “performance practice”. My colleague, Ann Hallenberg, showed me some of the ornaments he wrote for her arias in Ariodante while we were on a concert tour of the opera this summer, and I tell you, they are crazy. Sure, they are beautiful and exciting to listen to, but they look slightly insane at first glance.
Handel’s Messiah is one of these pieces that is often subject to “rules”, yet interpretations of it widely differ. To say that the piece is performed in a wide variety of styles is an understatement, and it is performed in many different versions with different cuts and different singers singing different arias. Just to give you a taste of the wide range of possibilities, here are two examples of the many ways the first tenor aria can be performed:
The first time a younger version of myself encountered a version of Messiah
that didn’t conform to my expectations or the set of rules of the piece that I had in my hot-headed, young noggin, I reacted initially with a very closed mind. But what I quickly noticed is that whether a particular style or version is to my taste or not, each one, when performed with conviction, brings out something new in the piece that I have never heard before. I’ve sung the piece in so-called “authentic, period-style” performance with period instruments, and I’ve sung performances of the piece with modern-instrument orchestras that approach the piece with more of a romantic flair, and what I can say is that the piece is never the same for me. This weekend with the Baltimore Symphony, I experienced yet another interpretation, and yet again, there were new aspects of the drama of the piece that the conductor brought out that I had never heard in the piece before. The piece was yet again kept fresh for me – this is part of what I find so amazing about this music. There is so much in it to be brought forth and emphasized, and there are so many ways to interpret it. In the end, whichever "set of rules" the performers choose to subscribe to, the performer has to decide what is to their taste and commit to it. The point isn’t the rules, but what it is that you want to say.- NP (reprinted from Nick P's blog, grecchinois)
PS Just for fun, here's a video of one of my favorite moments in the piece:
Myra warming up for our concert on Friday
After an entire year of wandering through airports alone, I slogged through the airport security for the umpteenth time on Thursday, only this time to be met by a very welcome sight after having all of my body and luggage scanned by strangers – my frequent recital-ing colleague and good friend, Myra Huang
, was sitting very calmly, reading an email on her phone while she waited for me at the gate. She saw me and smiled as I sat down next to her, and we marveled at the fact that an entire year had passed since our last recital tour. About a half and hour later, our gate agent shuffled us on the plane, and we were off to our first recital of the 2011 – 2012 season, this one in the small town of Tryon, North Carolina.
Tryon is a beautiful little town nestled in the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina, with a quaint little downtown filled with small, independently owned businesses (not a chain in sight!), and beautiful views of the tree-covered mountainsides that were just starting to turn from summer green to autumn red, orange and gold. We were excited to bring our Carnegie Hall-Purcell/Britten program from last fall that is filled with so much beautiful music to this little town also filled with so much beauty.
After an entire year of slogging through airports alone, I slogged through the airport security for the umpteenth time on Thursday, only this time to be met by a very welcome sight after having all of my body and luggage scanned by strangers – Myra was sitting very calmly, reading her phone at the gate where our flight was to take off. She saw me and smiled as I sat down next to her, and we marveled at the fact that an entire year had passed since our last recital tour. About a half and hour later, our gate agent shuffled us on the plane, and we were off to our first recital of the 2011 – 2012 season, this one in the small town of Tryon, North Carolina.
Tryon is a beautiful little town nestled in the North Carolina Appalacian mountains, with a quaint little downtown filled with small, independently owned businesses (not a chain in sight!), and beautiful views of the tree-covered mountainsides that were just starting to turn from summer green to autumn red, orange and gold. We were excited to bring our Carnegie Hall Purcell/Britten program from last fall filled with so much beautiful music to this little town also filled with so much beauty.
Between our confident feelings about the program, and the isolated, quiet nature of this adorable little town, we found ourselves almost feeling like were on a mini-vacation to the country. I turned to Myra at one point as we were warming up for the evening’s recital and said, “I almost feel too relaxed…this is really strange…”
After our warm-up in the hall, I went out to the lobby to get a program, when suddenly that very relaxed feeling evaporated into thin-air. I picked one up, only to discover that the presenters had not been able to print out our texts and translations in the program. I panicked - How will the audience know what these songs are about? How will they understand this music now?!
The omission turned out to be a bit of blessing in disguise – having toured the program last year and recorded it now, we both felt incredibly comfortable going into Tryon. Perhaps a bit too comfortable…Knowing that there were no translations for the audience to follow provided a bit of an edge to our concentration throughout the recital Friday. We were reminded with extra urgency that no musical nuance, no consonant, no vowel was to be taken for granted, and we felt an urgency to communicate each and every moment with the utmost clarity. It forced us to sharpen our message, and it forced us to refine our music-making. It forced us to stay on our toes.
I'm always grateful for the little reminders not to take anything for granted - It’s always a good thing to be kept on one’s toes, after all... - NP
As Nick H reminded us last week
, the audition season (and the classical music season, in general!), is about to begin. Labor day is past, and it's Back-To-School time for us. As a result, I thought it would be a good time to repost this entry from my blog, grecchinois
, written when I was singing Barber of Seville in Portland, Oregon last May. It's about why we do what we do - I think there is no time like the beginning of the season to reconnect with that mission as we launch into the new year of work. - NPMISSION
"Portland Opera exists to inspire
our audiences by creating productions of high artistic quality that CELEBRATE the beauty and breadth of opera." – Portland Opera Mission
As we began our first rehearsal for Barbiere
on Monday, right before I sang my first notes in the opera, I looked up and saw that the mission of the Portland Opera was displayed prominently in the center of the wall, right above the conductor's head.
Never before have I seen an opera's mission statement, let alone seen it displayed in a rehearsal room. It wasn't even something that I had ever thought of. I mean, an opera company's mission is to produce opera, plain and simple, right? As I've gotten to know the building during this first week of rehearsal, I've noticed that the mission is displayed almost ubiquitously, serving as a constant reminder of everyone's purpose at the company.
On my walks to work this week, crossing the Willamette River, I've found myself still pondering the idea of approaching this profession as one of service. As a music student, I often felt selfish for pursuing a career in music. I watched as my closest childhood friends grew into adults and took their places in the world community, and marveled at their accomplishments. One dedicated her 20s to an organization called Operation Smile
, traveling throughout the developing world helping children in need connect with doctors to get the treatment they were so desperately in need of. Another has chosen a career in promoting cancer awareness and educating communities how to better take care of their health. One is now a Psychiatric resident in New York at Cornell, caring for many mentally ill patients and researching the mysteries of how the brain works. One is a college professor who has dedicated much of his research to education policy. One used her law degree to provide legal aid to youth in need in New England. One is finishing her Ph.D. in anthropology, researching many of the mysteries of how we evolved to be as we are today. Educators, researchers, doctors, volunteer coordinators – it was easy to see how these people who have inspired me my whole life are giving back to society, each trying in their own way to make the world a better place.
As a young musician, it's really easy to forget why what we do is important. It's a tough world out there to get established, and we have to devote much of our focus to figuring out a way of paying the bills, carving out careers for ourselves. I'm not sure that many of us as young musicians ask this question of ourselves, but it is a topic that I have pondered much of my adult life. Over the years, I have come to feel that my personal mission is one close to what my colleagues and hosts here at the Portland Opera maintain. Music really does inspire, it really does challenge, and it really has the power to uplift us. In an increasingly secular, scientific, stress-filled, capitalist world, music feeds the soul, and I've really begun to feel that to be a musician is to choose a career of service – service to the human spirit. Each time I walk on stage, I hope to entertain, to move, to create a little beauty, and to help people ponder and revel in the richness of human experience.
I've looked up at that mission statement everyday this week in rehearsal and been so grateful to have that constant reminder of what is really important in our work. In a day where many are intimidated by the elitist aura that surrounds classical music and opera, it's refreshing to work at a place where we are reminded that reason we strive for excellence is not simply to be good or the "best", but because we want to give the best to the community we serve, and the community we live in, even if (as in my and my fellow castmates' instances) only as temporary guests.
“You are always a student, never a master. You have to keep moving forward.”
- Conrad Hall
This quote came to my mind frequently as I was doing some guest coaching in Chicago at CAIC last week. It’s not often that I am in the position of coach or teacher. Most of the time I am out on the road, performing and rehearsing, and when I am home I try to catch as many lessons with my voice teacher as possible, and in these ways I am mostly focused on forging my own path of musical growth – I am the perpetual student. The closest I ever feel I come to that position of “master” is the rare occasion that I am asked to give a Master Class or (like last week) work privately as a guest coach/teacher.
Earlier in the week before flying out to Chicago, I had a two-hour lesson of my own with my teacher in New York. After having spent most of the summer away from her in Europe, hopping from one performance to another, I found it a bit jarring to put my student hat back on. I was impatient with myself, and easily frustrated – it felt like banging my head against a brick wall. I left the lesson feeling fussy that I hadn’t made as much progress through all the upcoming repertoire that I wanted to touch on with my teacher. Having not seen each other in so long, we decided to go for a drink to catch up, and I forgot my frustrations as we chatted over a glass of wine on 7th Avenue.
A couple of days later in Chicago, the thing that struck me so much about my guest coaching sessions was how working with the singers who came in last week was actually a lesson for me in being a student. I was struck by how open they were to try my suggestions and how inquisitive they were in trying to understand the numerous concepts that I was throwing them. Listening to them grapple with and digest these new ideas as they took giant strides forward was fascinating. It made me realize how much I can get in my own way in my own moments of study – jumping straight from the stage to the studio can be a very tricky transition. Being on stage requires an ownership of knowledge and experience in order to find the confidence and trust in oneself to stand up and perform for an audience. Being in the studio, donning the disciple’s robes requires a different kind of mindset – that open and inquisitive one that the singers who were working with me in the CAIC studios had.
When I returned to New York over the weekend, I met up with my teacher for one more two hour extravaganza. This time, though, I came with that open mindset and did my best to set all the knowledge and experience I already had aside, quieting the impatient voices in my head, and only calling on all that experience when it related to something she was saying. The lesson was incredible, and perhaps one of the most productive I’ve had all year. We made tremendous progress, and I left feeling a sense of accomplishment and focus.
I guess we just have to constantly keep adding to the pot of knowledge and experience – it’s bottomless, really, and never full.
While I was in Florence last month - I spent a lot of time browsing the TED talks online, and among the ones that really got my wheels turning was the below talk by Benjamin Zander about why classical music is not just for a small sub-niche of the world's populace, but for everyone. I know that I'm not the only person to post this as of late (Joyce DiDonato also recently posted it on her blog
among a list of other inspiring tidbits about the importance of the arts), but I loved this talk so much that I felt the need to post it here, as well. What struck me as so moving about this talk was how Zander shows us why all the detail-work we do is so important. It's not just crossing t's and dotting i's, it's about leading the audience into worlds of intense beauty, emotion, and possibility, and making sure that we making all those pairs of eyes in the audience shine. - NP
The ceiling of the Théatre des Champs-Elysées
During my first semester of Opera Workshop at the University of Michigan, our director and teacher’s mantra was “remember your breathing”. At the time, I remember thinking that such advice was so obvious that it bordered on the obtuse. “Of course I’m breathing! How could I sing otherwise?!” I thought. It didn’t take long to dawn on me that he wasn’t asking me to remember what my voice teacher was trying to teach me – he was trying to get me to slow down my perception of time and root myself in the present moment.
As my yoga practice has intensified over the past few years, I’ve been thinking a lot of that seemingly simple advice from my Opera Workshop class at University. Just about every yoga teacher tells their students to focus on their breathing – it’s integral to the whole moving-meditation aspect of yoga. As I flow through my practice, I do my best to make sure that my feet are grounded, my knees in line with my middle toes, and my sacrum properly aligned all while I try to twist my body and my arms in all sorts of directions – it's a lot that one has to be mindful of as one flows from one pose to the next. I’ve found that in the midst of trying to achieve these crazy contortions, it’s been that focus on the breath that allows my panic and frustration fade way to clear-headed mindfulness, allowing me to ease my way into deeper realizations of the poses.
While I was touring Handel’s Ariodante
with Il Complesso Barocco
last month, I found myself in a rather extraordinary situation in which I was making three major debuts in three very famous venues in three different countries within the space of a week. People often ask me if I ever get nervous – I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t that week. While I was excited about all of those concerts, I think that the one I was most excited about was our performance at the Théatre de Champs-Élysées, which marked my Paris debut. After dreaming for so many years of getting the chance to sing in Paris, I found myself making my debut there with some of the most fantastic colleagues I have ever had the pleasure of working with on the very stage where Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
premiered 98 years earlier. Getting ready for the concert, I kept marveling at how incredible it was that I getting to make a debut in Paris in such style.
Sitting on stage as patiently as I could until the end of Act I, waiting to sing my first aria, I felt my excitement turn slowly into nerves, the voices in my head starting to shout out thoughts of unworthiness and painting out scenarios in vivid detail in which everything went awry. As my mind would start to wander off into some alternate universe of doubt, I found myself constantly coming back to my breathing, letting the sensation of the inhalations and exhalations carry me back to the present moment, which was in reality, one to savor and enjoy. When I finally got up to sing my first notes of the night, it was that focus on the breath that allowed me to completely clear my mind of its crazy inner dialogue and open myself up to letting Lurcanio’s story flow through me. My breathing didn’t just help me sing well, leading my expressions and emotions, but it also helped channel my thoughts to the present moment and focus on the task at hand. Funnily enough, the advice that I initially thought was so silly in college proved to be the one thing that enabled me to enjoy our performance that night.
I’ve been watching a lot of the archived TED talks lately in my free time here in Florence, and I stumbled across this one given by the soprano, Claron McFadden, last year, in which she sings a cool piece by John Cage – Aria.
Her story about her experience at a meditation retreat in Thailand is what really struck me about her talk – I loved how her host compared singing to a meditation. My experiences over the past few weeks have made me think of singing the same way lately.-NP
(reposted from his blog, grecchinois
Let’s start this entry off with a few statistics. In these first 5 months of the year, I have given 28 performances of repertoire ranging from Bach to Britten. In those 28 performances, I performed 2 operas (Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia
and Handel’s Ariodante
), 6 oratorios (Carmina Burana,
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Bach’s St. John and St. Matthew Passions, Bach’s B minor Mass, Mendelssohn’s Elijah
), a ballet (Stravinsky’s Pulcinella
), an orchestral song cycle (Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings
), and a song cycle for harp and tenor (Britten’s Birthday Hansel
). It’s been a very exciting first half of the year so far, filled with incredible music and music-making colleagues.
The main reason I list all of these statistics is simply to give you a snapshot of how intense my musical life has been like since New Year’s. With so much wide-ranging, diverse repertoire, it’s been quite challenging to keep abreast of it all without tying my throat in knots. The most intense period was when I found myself singing 8 concerts in 3 different cities in the first 9 days of April. At the beginning of week, I found myself wailing at the extreme heights of my range for Carmina Buranas
in Denver, only then to fly back East to jump back and forth between Stravinsky’s arrangements of Pergolesi’s delicate vocal music for concerts in Philadelphia and the intricate twists and turns of Britten’s last song cycle for recitals in New York. In those 8 days alone, my vocal cords musically spanned 250 years.
In my efforts to stay on top of all of this diverse music and the packed schedule of the past few months, I’ve spent as much time as possible checking in with my voice teacher in New York during my days off between concerts. In our lessons over the past five months, I’ve noticed her asking me a musical question with increased frequency that has rarely been posed to me: “What do you want to do?”
Every time she has asked me that question in a lesson lately, it has inevitably been because I had no idea what I wanted to do in that particular place. It was a spot that I had glossed over or taken for granted. It was a phrase for with I had no specific plan. The best part is that each time she has asked that question, it has forced me to find an answer. It’s forced me to make choices. Both the grueling schedule and my teacher’s insistence on decision-making have forced me to take even more ownership of my musicianship.
In so much of our training as singers, we are taught how to sing by our teachers, taught musical styles and phrasings by our coaches, taught how to enunciate text by our diction coaches. Then after all of that preparation, we begin to rehearse with conductors who show us with their batons how they want the music to be sung and directors who shape our performances through their stage direction. But in the midst of all of that, it’s important not to become too passive. It’s important to keep thinking about how all of this information allows us to enhance what we are already trying to do. Both the grueling schedule and my teacher’s insistence on decision-making have forced me to take even more ownership of my musicianship.
Going back to my blog post
a few weeks ago about – I have been finding that so many young singers are incredibly focused on trying to plan out their careers. Lately, I’ve found myself musing again on what I wrote back then – career plans are important, but it is our musical plans that are of the highest priority. When it comes to the music – do you know what you want to do?-NP
In the February issue of Details
magazine, there is an article that talks about the rise in entrepreneurial culture in the US recently. They write: “The act of striking out on your own is hardly a new phenomenon – it’s in the DNA of the American Dream, after all – but it might well be today’s savviest career move.”
Back in 2005, writing about the current system through which most singers rise, Anne Midgette wrote in a New York Times article
“A baseball-like farm system has developed in American opera in recent decades, as more and more young-artist programs have sprouted up around the country. Aspiring singers now follow a career path from a music degree and graduate school to a residency with a smaller house to, ideally, a place in one of the top programs for young artists: the Metropolitan Opera's Lindeman program, the Chicago Lyric Opera's center for American artists, San Francisco's Merola program or the Houston Grand Opera Studio. From there they are theoretically ready for the big leagues.” (NY Times, 11/13/2005)
When I enrolled in the voice program at the University of Michigan as an 18 year-old freshman, I quickly ascertained that this was a smart path to follow, and set my sights on following it as closely as possible. When home for holiday dinners, talking about my aspirations with my parents' friends, I would say, “Well, my plan is to get a master’s degree, and then hopefully join one of the major young artist programs, and from there hopefully find an agent and start building my career from there.” I was convinced it was a sure road to a big career, and I naively thought that if I could make it into one of these “top programs for Young Artists”, I was sure to find instant success. I knew with great certainty that I would be "ready for the big leagues".
I was one of the lucky few to be able to follow the institutional path that I set out in front of myself, quite closely – but was surprised to learn that even though I was lucky enough to have been afforded the opportunities I was, none of it meant that I was going to make my dreams come true by just proverbially adding some water and stirring. There was a long path of hard work still ahead of me, and there were still basic skills that I had to hone and keep working on that had been glossed over in my haste to get to where I thought I needed to be.
There is a lot of talk amongst young artist programs and training programs in schools today about the “Business of Singing”. American singers of the generation that graduated with me in 2001 (as well as further back) lament never having learned while in school the important lesson that when you choose to be a professional musician, you are running your own business. It is my impression that educational systems and young artist programs are now trying to remedy that, and teaching young singers that they need to start thinking of themselves as "Young Singer X, Inc." Now, there is an abundance of resources helping students and young artists alike choose the right 5 audition arias, choose the right audition outfits and headshots, and format their resumes so that they can fit themselves into the right boxes (fachs) to be most marketable to opera companies and opera administrators around the country.
In an economic age where opera companies, symphonies, and other presenting organizations are folding or downsizing left, right and center – it’s all the more important to be thinking creatively and embracing that spirit of entrepreneurship that was featured in that recent issue of Details. But I pose this: As young musicians, when we are thinking creatively about creating work for ourselves and how to market ourselves, thinking about our music and our music-making should be of the highest priority. In order for us to open the creative flood gates, we have to come back down to basics and meditate on what is at the core of what we do – music itself. How can we best hone our skills? What music is it that makes our hearts beat faster? How can we be the best that we can be in order to serve our communities in the most meaningful way possible?
The arts are definitely in a period of upheaval and cultural shift right now. There is a lack of money, and many institutions are struggling (for instance, the Detroit Symphony recently canceled the rest of it's 2010/2011 season recently as a result of its unsuccessful labor negotiations due to the orchestra's financial struggles), and signs seem to indicate that it is not going to get significantly better any time soon. Many bloggers and administrators are tossing around various ideas about how to market classical music and opera to wider and wider audiences. Many institutions are attempting to draw in audiences by crossing over. The Metropolitan Opera, for instance, presented Andrea Bocelli in a solo recital this year. But when I think back to what drew me into classical music, and what has drawn core classical-music lovers to the artform, it was not watered-down, crossover classical experiences – it was the core repertoire. Most classical-music lovers I know fell in love with the classical repertoire listening to Mahler symphonies, or hearing a phenomenally personal and beautifully-sung performance of something as simple as “Caro mio ben”, or seeing an exciting performance of the Dvořák Cello Concerto. This fear that the classical arts are “in trouble” is causing people to panic, and in the desperate search for people to fill the seats in our concert halls and opera houses, our focus is becoming diffuse, and therefore losing its impact. Rather than trying to energize and empower our core audience, we are leaving them by the wayside and scrambling for this nebulous idea of “wider audiences” and wondering why we are feeling like the classical arts are losing their cultural impact. Which culture are we trying to impact? Who are we trying to talk to?
At a Q & A session I conducted recently at a University with a very well-respected vocal program, students’ questions primarily centered on these things. Their questions were along the lines of “how do I get myself into the best young artist program possible?”, “what should I wear to my auditions?”, “do I need a website?”, “which competitions should I apply for?”, “which programs should I sing for?”. Curiously enough, though, not one question I was asked was related to music or the art of singing. Instead – the questions were all basically asking about different aspects of the same thing: “how can I best market myself as a commodity that can be bought and sold by an opera company?”
Like this larger debate that looms around the classical music community, the students at that Q & A session a few months ago seem like a smaller part of what is going on in our artistic macrocosm. In a way, while the questions they posed are important ones to be asking, they are of secondary importance. It’s important not to put the cart before the horse. What does this mean for us as young musicians and performers? It means that we must prioritize digging even deeper, pushing our technical boundaries even farther, and searching inside ourselves for more openness of hearts in order to give the most layered and expressive performances we can to our audiences.
Here’s another way to think about it: It’s a basic fundamental of any business: if you want people to buy a product, the first thing you have to be absolutely sure of is that your product is of the highest quality.