Wednesday, October 1, 2014

I just know that something good is gonna happen!

Before the Dawn: Hammersmith Apollo
In case you weren’t aware, Kate Bush took to the stage this year in London, 35 years after stepping off it last. Tonight is the last of those 22 shows. I had the great pleasure of seeing it.


There are enough accounts out there of how the evening unfolded, yet it seems a shame to let such an experience go by without comment. Although I don’t have the dedication to or love for Kate Bush’s art required to call myself a huge fan, I took so many shared experiences home with me. Without a doubt, my love for her work grew after those two nights. And I can’t help but to draw some parallels between my own coming of age as a singer/artist and the things I saw on that stage.

Just like an opera production, the show was the same every evening -- a well-rehearsed, planned sequence of events and music, intertwined with lighting effects, choreographed moves, a story line, and other theatrical elements. I really like the trend that the two opposing worlds have taken. Pop concerts move toward the theatrical (not just a band playing their songs one after the other on stage), while theater moves toward rock concerts (it’s been a long journey on Broadway from “South Pacific” and “The King and I” to “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” or “Passing Strange,” for example). Kate Bush songs are inherently operatic - content as interesting and convoluted as any dramma per musica, based on literature or real-life events. Her lyrical palette fluctuates from tender soprano to strident, almost desperate crying (or some other type of noisemaking). There goes another tenor (heh heh).

The concert series has been called a comeback “residency” instead of “tour”, since all the performances took place in the same venue. But this was no comeback. This was a continuation -- albeit with a large gap. Comeback implies failure; depending on how you look at it, Kate Bush consistently failed throughout her career. That doesn’t seem to have stopped her.

Despite the fact that she was the first woman to have a number one hit in the UK with a self-penned song (“Wuthering Heights”), the bulk of her output didn’t make it into the Top Ten, if onto the charts at all. That was the fascinating thing about the event for me. So many people from all over the planet, from all walks of life (well, there was a certain congruence, which my sister and I tried to identify in fellow fans during pre-show ale-drinking at the Swan), came from the farthest reaches of the globe to see this happen. People not interested in charts or flashes in the pan; people who have kept this ardent adoration burning for decades.

The theater holds about 3700 people (mostly seated). Multiply that by 22, and you’ve got over 80,000 tickets sold. Sold out. And procuring a ticket was not for the faint-hearted. My sister, the fervid fan, and I did as many people did -- inserted the concert into a wee London vacation. Ours was, admittedly, mostly Kate-oriented. My sister went to the concert three times. 

Three times.

We also visited a small gallery where the most famous images of Kate Bush were on display. The photographers were present and very approachable. My sister had a book signed by one of them (Guido Harari) while I spoke with the other (Gered Mankowitz). He said, incidentally, that classical musicians are the most difficult to capture. 

With that thought in my mind, I’ve spent a lot of time since wondering what that veil is that singers put in front of themselves. What is that costume or role that we try to fit in when going on stage, or presenting our art to others? There is always speculation when a performer withdraws from the public eye for an extended period. I have nothing new to say about Kate Bush’s oeuvre or her absence from the stage. Tracey Thorn, of Everything But the Girl took the stigma out of the speculation by summing it up thusly:

“If we still ask, where has Kate Bush been all these years and why has she not done this before, my answer would be that I think she has been living the life that made this show possible.”
It’s so much smarter and fulfilling to present something when the time is right, and when you as an artist are ready. Maybe record labels or managers pressure performers in doing more than they’re prepared to handle. It is important, for me at least, to remember that we don’t necessarily have to play by anybody else’s rules but our own. I really appreciated the apparent autonomy that Kate Bush had on that night. Unquestionably, she had help and resources from her entire team. But they were there to help her realize her vision, not the other way around.

Standing near the entrance during intermission, we noticed people leaving. Some were trying to go out and have a smoke or catch some fresh air, although there was a no re-entry policy being somewhat strictly enforced. Others had simply decided to leave the concert. The friendly usher said they were complaining that she wasn’t playing enough of her older stuff. Sure, it was fun to sing along with “Running Up That Hill” and “Hounds of Love,” but what are you here for? 

Even before the intermission, Kate Bush and her band of, well, band members, backup singers and puppeteers (yup, puppets) offered an amuse bouche of what would follow in the second half. A brand new thing, never, ever, ever seen before. You knew the music, but not in this context -- it was like when a stage director comes up with a new concept for a classic opera. You’re going so you can see the ‘now’, not so you can hear the ‘then’. I was really baffled that people could just give up halfway, especially after all the trouble they must’ve gone through to get those dang tickets!
We as artists have to play to our own instincts, and for those who stick with us all the way to the end, those who want to hear the Whole Story. The rest are scalpers, touts, or crooks trying to peddle an intangible worth.

As I write this, Kate Bush fans are spilling out into the street in Hammersmith, trying to get their order in for just a couple more real ales at the Swan, or catch the last Tube to wherever. I’ve only scratched the surface of what I have to say about what this night entailed and what it moved within me. I can say, however that my favorite part was watching my sister with “the child in her eyes”, tears fogging up the binoculars at the wonder of it all.

It was wondrous indeed. Something 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Now how much would you pay?

Not too long ago in Germany, Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi were arrested and convicted for forging and selling works of art in the style of Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk, Kees van Dongen and other famous painters. In the documentary film “Beltracchi - The Art of Forgery,” just released a few weeks ago, I was struck by a scene which showed an auction in progress at Sotheby’s. Art collectors and enthusiasts were bidding over $13,000,000 -- thirteen million dollars! -- on one painting. And that’s not even one-tenth the price of the most expensive work of art ever auctioned. Francis Bacon’s triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” was sold at Christie’s auction house last November for $142.2 Million. It turns out, we’ve been wasting our energy trying to convince people opera is as valuable as, say, sports or blockbuster movies. Apparently, the discrepancy exists within the art world itself. What is the value of opera? What is the value of art?

This question comes to mind in light of the forthcoming closure of San Diego Opera, announced last week. Immediately after the surprising news, criticisms of the $500,000 salary of General Director Ian Campbell (also wearing the hat of Artistic Director who, by the way, employed his wife as Director of Strategic Planning, whatever that is, for $200,000) began to surface. Incidentally, their combined salaries equalled roughly the cost of one Campendonk painting. Campbell’s snide remark about only hiring big names, because doing otherwise would “be like putting water in the beer,” ruffled enough feathers to put Papageno on edge. Hey, let me offer up a forgery of Diana Damrau for a tenth of the price! I really don’t think Mozart would mind.

As fishy as the story of San Diego Opera’s folding may sound -- after all, this is not a company on the brink of bankruptcy, at least not more of a brink than anyone else’s -- hearing about opera houses closing hardly makes for shocking news any more. A quick Google search reminded me of Connecticut Opera, Orlando Opera and Baltimore Opera going belly up in 2009, and New York City Opera shutting down last fall (about the same time that the Francis Bacon triptych was sold down the street, be it duly noted). 

And what would an opera be without an orchestra? Minnesota Orchestra’s famous lockout lasted 15 months before the Board and the musicians could come to an agreement about money. Recently the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (for which Mrs. Ian Campbell used to serve as Director of Development, by the way; oh, the irony) had to raise $5 Million in a last minute “emergency” fundraising campaign to stay afloat -- and then, only under the stipulation that they reduce the size of their ensemble by about 10 members. Is that an orchestral gesture akin to Van Gogh cutting off his ear? A measly $5 Million? Heck, I’d pay that for a Picasso doodle on a napkin.


Beltracchi and his wife would comb the flea markets looking for canvasses already yellowed by the passage of time to make their forgeries that much more authentic. Like visual art, opera reflects the time in which it was created, yet it can also be relevant for the contemporary observer. In a way, opera paints on an old canvas, too. Unlike visual arts, however, a new production of a 400-year-old piece by Monteverdi is never considered “fake.”  Maybe that is what is so elusive about performing art. It’s not something that you can keep all to yourself. You can’t bet on the outcome like you would with the World Series or the Superbowl -- in opera, it’s already written who will die in the end. You can’t ‘own’ a symphony or hang a ballet on the wall. Even if the music stays constant, no two productions will be alike. That, to me, is exciting. 

It is at this point where I almost sympathize with Beltracchi, because he allowed these dead artists to live again by creating the works that they never got to create while they were living. He allowed Ernst and Campendonk to live in a time when their art was not condemned by the Nazis as entartet (degenerate), rather celebrated, auctioned and fought over for exorbitant prices. Why is it that painters in their days of creating have to struggle, only to become “rich” after their deaths? Why not support them while they live and breathe? What better opportunity than opera (or other performing arts) do patrons of the arts and cultural institutions have to support living artists?

Beltracchi made us question the worth of art. One person who unwittingly bought one of his forgeries asked to have the painting back after the investigation because it’s one of the best "Max Ernsts" he’d ever seen. It's a bit like that saying, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like," and that from someone who paid millions for a pretty picture to hang above his couch.  So it comes down to this -- anything is only worth as much as we are willing to pay for it. 

*painting: Cheryl Graham
p.s. the painting above my couch is priceless, and not for sale!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Who's the last person who gave you a Daybreak?

The first big break i got in Show Biz was when my high school choir director allowed me to choreograph our jazz choral arrangement of Barry Manilow’s “Daybreak.”

(I am not kidding.)

I don’t know what came over me, but one evening after dinner, I just took a pencil and my spiral notebook and worked it up.  I came to class the next morning and presented it to my teacher. He said, “Yeah, let’s it try it out.” It was that easy. My classmates might have been annoyed, but everyone cooperated, executed the jazz hands with show-choir precision on “Shine, shine, shine...” and we performed it on our next concert. 

(Remind me to add that choreo credit to my résumé!)

It was this same choir director who let me accompany one song on our Christmas concert -- “Do You Hear What I Hear” -- even though I wasn’t officially our accompanist.  I had just been practicing it in the classroom; he must’ve heard it and offered me the chance.

One of my classmates and I sang the Papageno/Papagena duet from “The Magic Flute” for our local solo and ensemble competition. My duet partner, coming from a musical family, suggested that I sing the Queen of the Night aria. My high school choir director said, “Well, if you can sing it and sing it well, go for it!” Despite his support, I think I took the lazy way out and sang “Caro Mio Ben” instead, perhaps heeding his warning of messing up something that might be too difficult. I remember having a cassette tape accompaniment, and that my boombox ran low on battery in the middle of the audition, making for a very interesting atonal version of the classical Italian air.

I also remember forgetting my concert dress for our mixed choir performance in this same competition a year or two earlier. This was before the day and age of the Soccer Mom, when kids tended to fend for themselves. Somehow we were split up into two groups, and my classmate Phaedra lent me her dress for my portion of the competition. I gave it back to her, apologizing for it being sweaty in the pits, and she just shook it off, said it was no problem, and put it on for her performance. We were sweat-sisters! That was the same year I showed up to march in a football game having forgotten my clarinet. The band director scrounged up an E-flat clarinet -- I couldn’t play it, but I could take my position on the field and fake it.

At any rate, later on in high school, my choir director entrusted me with a lot, including the lead role of Sandy in our production of “Grease”. I placed first chair in regional and all-state choir, and sang the national anthem at our graduation.

This sent me off into the so-called real world with a great deal of confidence because someone out there had confidence in me. There have been times when I have let this go to my head, and I’ve come off as cocky or at best over-confident, but I don’t think I’ve ever over-stepped my boundaries (thanks to that early lesson: if you can do it and do it well, go for it!). 

I still experience these bouts of genius from time to time -- like when I arranged “The Magic Saxophone” for a Mozart celebration, taking five pieces from Die Zauberflöte and interspersing them with popular songs of modern times; or when I was fortunate enough to perform my version of The Police’s “King of Pain” (also dreamt up in one night) in the context of an 80’s night on the same stage and with the same colleagues who supported me in the Mozart venture.

It sounds silly, maybe even cocky, but if an idea is good, people will have your back. Case in point: non-music related, I was able to put another idea of mine into practice during a camping trip. We were 30 people on an 8-day trip rafting down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. It was Mexican-food night, and there was a gigantic bowl of guacamole in the center of the table. Needless to say, 30 people vying for a scoop of this precious green glop was the cause of much chaos. Somehow, my suggestion to take a scoop of guac on the chip, walk around the table while chewing, and come back for the next scoop caught on. Everyone got their chance to dip their chip equally. I single-handedly had 30 people prancing around a bowl of guacamole at my whim. It's a stretch, but that must be what being a choir director is like.

Sometimes we don’t trust the extent of our own power, but if we’re lucky, we have well-meaning people to influence us and help us use it. Like Barry Manilow. Looking at this video, it seems he could’ve used my choreographic support, but listening to his story, it wasn’t always easy for him either. I, for one, am thankful for the people who have been on my side all these years, starting with Craig Plotner, my high school choir director, who knew that the most important thing was to give someone a break!


Thursday, January 30, 2014

At Super Bowl XLVIII, Team Opera Needs Strong Defense

As soon as it was announced that an opera singer would be singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, journalists from around the country were met with the task of outwitting each other, coming up with headlines like, “National Anthem will be longer than usual,” (, “Will Super Bowl Fans Reject Renee Fleming as National Anthem Singer?” (, or my favorite, “Who is Renee Fleming? Opera Singer to Belt National Anthem at Super Bowl.” (

Ummm... no. She won’t “belt”. Opera singers don’t belt. That’s a technique used in pop and musical theater. 

So, yeah, you can see what comes next --  so-called professional opera singers get all up in arms about people scoffing at their art. Because we’re so sensitive. It’s what makes us who we are. Coming to Ms. Fleming’s, yea verily, to the entire opera world’s defense are experts like Richard Scheinin from San Jose Mercury News, mezzo-soprano/HuffPo-blogger Jennifer Rivera, and now me. But I have some bones to pick even with someone on our side, in this case, Ms. Rivera’s rather popular article. This blog post is in a way a response to hers. 

Her approach to the issue is an educating one: “5 Things You Need to Know About Opera Before This Super Bowl.” She informs the layman of opera’s vast history, its tolerant casting policies, and she attempts to shoot down the elitist reputation falsely imposed on the art form. All that was very enlightening, even to an experienced singer  like myself. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to start off by saying that opera singers’ voices are louder. They’re not necessarily louder - their voices carry better in appropriate acoustic environments. Don’t be led to believe that Renee Fleming will sing on Sunday without a microphone! 

I had a colleague who used to stand up on the bar at the Irish Pub after a few too many Guinness and sing “Old Man River” to an adoring crowd. When I tried to do something similar, my voice wouldn’t carry, even though in the opera hall our voices were equally as audible. His wife, also a singer, astutely explained to the disappointed drunkard audience that her man’s voice had a spectrum more like that of a spotlight, whereas mine was more of a laser. Well put!

Back to the Huffington Post, Ms. Rivera first made strikes at two sources, the first being, which reported that French Montana said, “F**k that sh*t” when he heard the news of Renee Fleming’s Super Bowl debut. Well, much like the headline I mentioned above from “Who’s French Montana?” The story from Bleacher Report, in all fairness, was meant to be tongue in cheek, comparing the lengths of past anthem interpretations in order to place bets. Ms. Rivera was correct to make the remark about the author being “full of it” when he claimed (albeit probably sarcastically) that it will be longer because opera singers “like the sound of their own voices”. The fact is, the longest recorded Super Bowl version in recent years goes to Alicia Keys at 2 minutes and 35 seconds. This trend of over-melismaticizing (sic, because I made it up) was parodied by a character on The Simpson’s, Bleeding Gums Murphy, who played a 26-minute version of the song, while Springfield Isotopes fans gradually lost interest and/or fell asleep. (I’m unable to link it here because ze Germans won’t let me watch

Agreeing with Mr. Scheinin of Mercury News, I think Renee Fleming is a great choice. Not only is she one of America’s most established opera stars whose career spans over a quarter of a century, but she has also embraced other forms of popular culture, for example by appearing on the David Letterman show, or recording an album of rock covers

And props to the Super Bowl people for picking an actual opera singer instead of some pseudo-opera star like Katherine Jenkins (fabulous piece here about her and opera’s “elitism” on the Oberto blog by Alexandra Wilson).

This may be the first time it’s happening at the Super Bowl per se, but plenty of professional opera singers have sung the national anthem at plenty of other professional ball games and everything has turned out just fine. Here are just a few examples:

My old buddy Brandon Jovanovich who used to sing bass with me in college choir, now a leading international tenor.

Rob McPherson who competed with me in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, also singing all over the world.

David Adam Moore (who I don’t know yet, but whose acquaintance I would like to make as soon as possible) sang the anthem so well that you can see one of the Chicago Cubs saying “That’s awesome!” at 1:40.

Yours truly - perhaps someone out there has a VHS or Super 8 recording of me at the Catalina High School graduation ceremony.

<-> <-> <->

Composed in the early 1800’s, on the brink of opera’s “golden age,”  The Star-Spangled Banner is, not surprisingly, quite difficult to sing. It can be a rude awakening to an unexperienced singer who has started too high when he finally gets to “... the rockets’ red gla-a-a-are”, so one has to choose their key wisely. Ms. Rivera was right in purporting that opera singers have a wider developed range than many pop singers, but I think we can all agree that even theirs is a bit more expansive than just eight notes. The song in question spans an octave and a fifth.

One thing the opera singers do better, in my humble opinion, compared to most of their pop music counterparts when singing the national anthem is deliver the text in a straightforward way. An opera singer is less likely to take a breath in the middle of a word or phrase. In listening to several versions, I noticed that most all singers get applause and cheers after “ .... the land of the free...”, but the opera singers stir up the audiences already after “...rockets’ red glare...”, or even in anticipation of the final phrase, because the fans know what’s coming. (A ball game, that’s what’s coming!). And in watching all these variations on YouTube in preparation for this post, I must say, I’ve been getting quite emotional -- call it homesickness, call it nostalgia, or call it listening to a great song being sung by great artists, it's a moving composition!

I did not, however, get emotional when listening to, for example, the excruciating version by 11-year old Harper Gruzin. One of her idols is Christina Aguilera, who famously botched the text at the Super Bowl three years ago (which didn’t bother me bit, as is it barely noticeable and she handled it with class, unlike Michael Bolton looking at his cheat sheet). But hmmm... how’s that working out for poor Harper? This is one of those cases where I would actually advocate classical voice lessons for children (I’m usually against it, but that’s another story).

Depending on how the singer executes them, melismas don’t always add to a performance. They can indeed embellish a melodic line, but not every pop singer manages to stay “on the voice" or achieve a meaningful phrase while singing them. Not every one is Whitney Houston (or Christina Aguilera, for that matter). It’s the voce completa -- the successful application of the classically trained, i.e. opera voice -- that has moved audiences for, as Jennifer Rivera reminded us, over 400 years.

Toi! Toi! Toi! to Renee Fleming, and Go Seahawks!!