An Eclipsing Day off at Work, Day 146

“Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you want to grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig.” – Malcolm Gladwell, The Outliers

When my colleagues and I have almost nonstop work with a happy day off in between, many of us choose to work at home and even go to visit our places of employment to see our friends perform. I have the privilege of working hard in some wonderful and enormously satisfying situations, so when I have some time, I naturally feel drawn to attend an opera at the Metropolitan Opera, for example, before I’ve even had a chance to file away my programs from my own performances last week.

Of course, before I can play, I need to do some work too. So in my first few hours off last night, between watching Firefly and cleaning the apartment, I updated some photos, edited some sound files, ordered new business cards, brainstormed a bit for ideas for my April recital in NJ, responded to comments and emails, and updated my website again. How else can I ensure that I continue to get good performance opportunities unless I keep working in my free time? As a performer, I know no other way. Besides, I don’t exactly “rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year,” and I consider my joyful work well worth the effort.

Tonight, I go to the Metropolitan Opera, one of my favorite places to work, to see Simon Rattle‘s first production there in Pelleas et Melisande with a friend from the extra chorus. Well-received and reportedly well-acted and sung, friends have “warned” that attending this opera still requires quite a commitment, beginning at 8pm and lasting for four hours with some very slow tempi. Hopefully Debussy and my opera companions will keep the evening entertaining. Regardless, my love for music and art far eclipses my desire to sit at home and watch television.

I haven’t yet decided whether I will nap before returning to the cold streets of New York at 3am to watch tonight’s total lunar eclipse. That too, for me, lies somewhere just far enough out of my comfort zone to keep me excited, intrigued, and ready to dance a jig.

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A Wet Blanket Approach, Day 143

As the snow continues to fall in Tri-Cities, Washington (and apparently on WordPress!), gigs and upcoming events pour into my inbox, voicemail, and facebook request list to keep me busy upon return to the city with no time for rest and recovery. With several nonstop weeks of rehearsals, shows, and performances in Richland and Kennewick, I have truly enjoyed my time here and all of the friends and work that have resulted from this trip. Thanks to my dear friend Justin Raffa and all of the connections made, I’ve performed musical theater, a Christmas concert, appeared on television and the front page of the local Tri-City Herald, and look forward to singing as the mezzo soprano soloist for this Friday’s concert of Handel’s Messiah, parts one, two, and three.

Of course, I’ve also had the opportunity to return the favor here and there, conducting part of a chorus rehearsal, waking up for a 5:30am call, shoveling a driveway, and buying a present or two. While I have benefited far more than given, I still find myself feeling a little overwhelmed from time to time trying to live life saying “yes” as often as possible. Occasionally, I have learned things the hard way and this time around, I’ve worked very hard to position myself for success and not an early burial in busyness.

The uncomfortable challenge for today? Saying no. With so many upcoming gigs and the need for a healthy voice and mind to perform at the top of my game, I decided today to sleep in, cancel two scheduled lunches, and abandon the idea of partying hard Sunday night before traveling home first to Philadelphia on Monday and then New York on Tuesday. Does this mean I may miss the opportunity to say goodbye to some incredible people before leaving town? Yes, probably. Unfortunately, I have to play the role of the wet blanket here and there, but hopefully it makes all the difference when I play the roles assigned to me as an artist when I take the stage Friday for the Messiah and again in New York and New Jersey the moment I return to town. Besides, if I sing well now, hopefully I’ll then have the chance to return to do it yet again so that “goodbye” becomes “see you again soon.” Fingers crossed.

Tonight’s Rare Chance to Hear James Joyce, Day 131

Frame from Ulysses Seen by Robert Berry
Frame from Ulysses Seen by Robert Berry

James Joyce follows me. In my high school Honors English class, I fell head over heels for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and his stream of consciousness style of writing. Shockingly, since then I’ve only enhanced my Joyce background with Dubliners and have diverted my attention from reading in general.  Sad, I know. This summer, my friend Josh Levitas piqued my interest once more (arousing international curiosity as well with an iPad application) when he and his colleagues Rob Berry, Mike Barsanti, and Chad Rutkowski created a stunning comic adaptation of Ulysses, designed to aid readers in their exploration of the infamously difficult novel. Although I have delayed my plans to read along with the comic, I hope to reinstate that goal soon after returning from Tri-Cities, WA in December. In the meantime, the creators of Ulysses Seen will visit New York City this Thursday evening at 7:30pm at the Irish Arts Center on the west side at 51st Street to discuss its process and evolution behind the scenes. If you can’t attend but would like to support their endeavors, visit their Kickstarter profile to donate to the completion of their project.

How now has James Joyce happily haunted my days? In my participation in the U.S. premiere this Wednesday night (tonight, in essence) at Carnegie Hall in the cantata by Mátyás Seiber, a Hungarian-born composer who brilliantly set his text to music. Taken from the section entitled “Ithaca” from Joyce’s Ulysses, these words create both unspeakable inspiration and challenge for a composer to undertake. Sieber has risen to the challenge, and this piece excites me as both a professional and a lover of choral and orchestral music. I have already waited too long to promote this performance, but if you have the time in your schedule and can make it to Carnegie on October 6 (tonight, for most reading this), go. A rare treat, you will miss out by staying at home for the premiere of this setting which I could never, without having heard it, ever have imagined. Either way, enjoy the text, as I have during every rehearsal with the American Symphony Orchestra and Collegiate Chorale.

From Ulysses, as set by Mátyás Seiber…
What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rear of the house into the penumbra of the garden?

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

With what meditations did he accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?

Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way: of Sirius, 10 lightyears (57 million billion miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules… ever-moving from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, three-score and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.

Were there obverse meditations of involution increasingly less vast?

Of the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, its universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible component bodies, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached.

Which various features of the constellations were in turn considered?

The attendant phenomena of eclipses, solar and lunar, from immersion to emersion, abatement of wind, transit of shadow, taciturnity of winged creatures, emergence of nocturnal or crepuscular animals, persistence of infernal light, obscurity of terrestrial waters, pallor of human beings.
His logical conclusion, having weighed the matter and allowing for possible error?
That it was not a heaventree, not a heavengrot, not a heavenbeast, not a heavenman. That it was a Utopia, there being no known method from the known to the unknown: an infinity, renderable equally finite by the suppositions probable apposition of one or more bodies equally of the same and of different magnitudes: a mobility of illusory forms immobilised in space, remobilised in air: a past which possibly had ceased to exist as a present before its future spectators had entered actual present existence.

Improv Everywhere Tonight in NYC

For more than a year now, I’ve followed Improv Everywhere and their fantastic antics online, wishing to get involved. Here’s a great example of one of my favorite recent skits in NYC, The Tourist Lane:

Other recent feats of brilliance include a Star Wars recreation on the subway and a hilarious tribute to Ghostbusters at the New York Public Library. TODAY, they have a new experiment that could use you. Yes, you. If you live in NYC, have time to be in midtown near 42nd Street at 6:00pm and a device that plays mp3s, consider joining them. Find all the instructions you need to participate here. Want to RSVP (optional)? Check out their Facebook event page. They may take pictures and video of you. You will likely interact with strangers and do something strange. Out of your comfort zone? Exactly.

Sadly, I admit that I may not attend. I have only today off in a whirlwind of days that began earlier this month and doesn’t end until I leave for Washington State in nine short days. Still, if I find myself magically downtown at 6:00pm with a roll of toilet paper and their mp3 file, I may yet participate (Did you read their instructions yet?). Perhaps I will see you there.

The Inestimable Value of Vulnerability (A Tableau Vivant), Day 128

Powerhouse Arena

The Powerhouse Arena fills with people, their chatter and curious glances, and a subtle scent of wine and excitement amidst the still few but consistent camera flashes. On Saturday at the DUMBO Arts Festival, I make my final dash to the restroom in my green satin robe, take one last gulp of water, and join the line of clothed and nude models waiting to take our places. Leah, Morgan, and I excitedly wish each other luck, and as we descend the wide cement stairs to our places and static poses, I feel equally vulnerable without my water bottle as without my robe. Listening to Kamala Sankaran sing “Caro Nome,” I feel the defiant but calm confidence that comes from a performance that teeters on an edge with other talented and committed actors. My hands behind my head, resting on the column behind me with a frozen but intentional look of shock across my face with bit lip, I know Christina wraps elegantly around the column behind me, Liliana stretches her tattooed body back to a casual but beautifully dressed and supportive Donna, Des and Dragonfly kiss, Dashiell stands looking dapper in an early century suit, and CJ Boyd keeps me company to my right, as the only other disrobed musician, clothed only by his upright bass.

Kamala ends “Caro Nome” stunningly mid-aria after sensing the arrival of all of the other players and for a few minutes, we hold our charged but quiet poses to the din of flashes and growing whispers. Six plucked notes on the cello signal the singing of a Bulgarian folk quartet by members of Black Sea Hotel dressed in traditional wool attire, adorned with flowers in their hair. Half of their song about awaiting death and love ends as every model continues to carry the key to a single drowned pitch. The first pulsating and repetitive melody begins, one cycle of keys completes. The cello enters, another cycle finishes. My turn. Each group of models enters on their soli lines to add a layer to the now undulating round and at the height of our crescendo, our inspiration stands and enters the tableau to interact with hers.

Photographer and creator of this Tableau Vivant, Sarah Small ascends each cement stair and signals to various groups and individuals to activate their poses and more fully interact. Christina and I embrace and separate in a repetitive motion that somehow enhances our already connected singing until Sarah comes around once more to return us to our (connected) solitude and decrescendo the action and vocal dynamic.

As Sarah takes her position amidst us to sing her solo within the Bulgarian folk tune, I thank God that I remain as one of the few voices to support her in the background. I enjoy few things in life as much as supporting, literally and figuratively, an artist as talented and a human being as sensitive and creatively giving as she. Despite a week-long cold and directing rehearsal alongside Adam J. Thompson since 8:30 that morning, Sarah Small sings fully and with a clear, beautiful tone above the drone and few softer solo voices. As she fades away, the drone diminishes to nothing throughout the final section of the Bulgarian folk quartet who hauntingly and skillfully end the piece with the word “umre,” meaning death.

“Umre” resonates through the spacious arena as each model intones the word for death and passes it along to a neighbor while finding an audience member upon whom to rest his or her gaze. I sing the final “umre,” and we all relax our positions, standing straight toward the audience, with whom we interact for the first time as a group. For a heart-pounding minute and a half, we remain in silence this way as the noise-level amongst the non-performers in the room begins to rise. Unable to decide if waiting longer would make me more or less nervous, I end the standstill. “Vois sous l’archet frémissant…” I perform Massenet‘s passionate plea to the poet from Les Contes d’Hoffmann, and the models and other singers begin to exit the stairs.

With the refrain and a final return of the chorus remaining as I stand alone on the top step, vulnerable, unclothed, and with only a bass player to my right and the cellist and violist (diversely talented and skilled music director Rima Fand) far to the left, everything stops in a moment of surreal suspension. In the span of one short second, I see a friend or two and strangers packed into the large space from each wall all the way to the door, watching, snapping photos, taking videos, and ordering wine. I remember the long rehearsal day of singing and interacting with incredible and emotionally available people, from the models to the musicians, to the makeup artist who donated her time and cosmetics in part to “glam me up” with big hair, hot pink lipstick, and pretty little flowers in my hair.

Considering the lyrics, I share a deeply held belief of mine with the audience of strangers and friends, that music and love do heal and console all of us. For one brief moment, I allow all of them to see all of me, as I share my voice in a way I have never done and transcend a lifetime of countless barriers in performance. This, and the interactions shared in time spent with the creative team and models, makes every second of preparation and performance worth my time, talent, energy, and heart.

When I receive the video of Saturday evening’s Tableau Vivant of the Delirium Constructions: Part II, I will post the link here as well. Having learned so much about vulnerability and nudity, I have at least one more post to contribute on the subject from this experience. In the meantime, I can only say thank you. My most loving thanks to my dear friends Rima Fand, Charlene Jaszewski, John Rose, and Leat Klingman for your sincere and supportive presence on Saturday. Sarah, you inspire me to no end. Adam, thank you for your clear direction and kind friendship. I hope to work with both of you again soon and often. To all of the other performers, I feel so blessed to have met you and your beautiful spirits. May we all embrace the giving and vulnerable energy we shared on Saturday throughout our lives together and apart. Until our next meeting, all my love and gratefulness…

Stylist Melanie Randolph's Concept Rendering of Tableau Vivant
Stylist Melanie Randolph's Concept Rendering of Tableau Vivant

A First Lesson in Bearing All, Day 121

Photo by David Michael

“You shouldn’t have sung opera to me.  Now I want to see you nude.”

Many months ago, a friend read my post on Sally Golan’s Naked Painting Party and passed along a harmless link to Spencer Tunick‘s website, offering me yet another potential prospect for my newly redesigned, open-minded life. A project involving a sea of bodies might make for a profoundly interesting but somewhat anonymous experience. Hoping to learn another lesson, I signed up to receive updates for future dates in the area and opened an unexpected window overlooking a beautifully unique landscape of expression.

Enter Sarah Small.  A master of fusing unexpected combinations of subjects and emotions into her art, she breathes thought and vitality into an incredibly unusual exploration of life.  Thankfully, Spencer Tunick’s email list informed me of her need for models, musicians, artists, and actors for an upcoming project appropriately named Tableau Vivant.  While at Bard this summer, I sent in the application form to participate as a clothed singer in this mixed concept involving nudity. I rode my bike downtown to the audition, not at all knowing what to expect last Friday afternoon.

What I discovered surprised me in more ways than I can articulate. Sarah’s assistant immediately put me at ease as I awaited my turn to interview and audition. Somehow I hadn’t thought to prepare a song to sing and allowed my thoughts to find a quick solution to my a cappella interview dilemma, resting upon a fairly obscure but wide-ranged song that unfortunately didn’t work so well when started in the wrong key. Hopefully Sarah and her director Adam J. Thompson forgave that awkward-at-best choice and enjoyed the remainder of my tryout.

Interviewing with a talented male model, I had a chance to pose with him clothed while he contorted himself in the nude. We made faces, stretching them into shocked expressions for the camera and thrashed about the room. I sang at him angrily (definitely not a standard audition request) while I repeatedly lost character in my amusement and astonishment from the experience as a whole. My partner dressed, and we continued to interview as Sarah and Adam discovered some extra time for our process. I repeated a Hungarian folk melody in mostly chest voice and then sang an entire Bach recitative and  aria with no accompaniment.

“You shouldn’t have sung opera to me.  Now I want to see you nude,” mentioned Sarah, as I took a short second to decide that I would in fact participate nude for the sake of such a project in which I could believe and find purpose. Feeling a bit nervous as I removed my fabric barriers, I talked and laughed to compensate before standing before creator, director, and interviewee to sing the Habanera from Bizet‘s Carmen. I sang fairly well, and I have to say that this certainly trumps every audition I’ve ever given in terms of vulnerability; yet, the experience gave me a feeling of life and enjoyment that both awakened and stunned me simultaneously.

I don’t know if Sarah Small will use me for her mini tableau in two short weeks, her larger project in 2011, something else entirely, or nothing. In that overall vulnerability I experienced, I opened myself up to their judgment and possible acceptance or rejection (objectively, of course, they may or may not need me – decisions are rarely actually personal in nature). Physically, vocally, and dramatically, I displayed my flaws, mistakes, successes, and strengths together as they presented themselves with no apology. I can only hope they blended together for a successful audition and look forward to the hope of working with such open-minded artists in the future.

In life as in art, honesty hides nothing and can inspire joy, awe, disgust, and pain. What we decide to hide behind our clothing or in conversation frames our lives and the perceptions of strangers in the audience and our dearest friends next door.  As we interact within our society, covering everything next to another of life’s players who perhaps exposes too much, the unexpected will ultimately occur. Sometimes I err on the side of revealing myself inappropriately and must take a step back to judge my own motives.  Today, I awake grateful to the possibilities explored by Sarah Small, who combines the beauty of all extremes with human beings in a safe and somewhat controlled environment. May my study and potential participation only teach me how better to enact my role in the all-enveloping and expansive arena of existence.

You can witness Tableau Vivant live on September 25 at the DUMBO Arts Festival from 7:30pm-9:30pm at the Powerhouse Arena on 37 Main Street in Brooklyn.  Free admission.

Surprised by a German’s Dutchman, Day 74 (14 of 25)

Say what you will about New York and its New Yorkers.  I doubt soprano Lori Phillips could have found a more supportive and enthusiastic audience for her debut than the one at tonight’s Der Fliegende Holländer at The Metropolitan Opera.  The thunderous applause echoed by a million bravas truly made me smile, and our continued encouragement of new artists only adds to my extreme love of the city.

Although generally not a lover of Richard Wagner, I found myself happily surprised by this earlier example of his more succinct and less obviously continuous works.  Although the musicians gave a solid and committed performance both onstage and in the pit, I found myself truly most surprised by my enjoyment of the actual opera itself.  The initial meeting between Senta and the Dutchman, the stuff of fairy tales and first love, seemed so perfectly expansive in that extended tension Wagner does so well.  I absolutely loved the writing for the men’s chorus, who sang brilliantly up to the task.

Thankfully I had an incredibly enjoyable experience overall, though I had a attended primarily to hear and support my own colleague in his Met debut as a tenor in the offstage ghost chorus.  A new addition to the city’s pool of performers, my longtime friend Nicholas Houhoulis adds to the talented and supportive nature of an already amazing artistic environment.  Having attended every school together since the eighth grade, Nick and I seem to follow many of the same paths, and I love that he landed here at the Metropolitan Opera with me.

Congratulations to Lori Phillips, Nick Houhoulis, and the rest of the cast on a truly enjoyable evening at the opera.  In standard fashion, I must force myself to retire to my dreams in order to wake up rested and ready for an early afternoon Bach audition.  Practicing Verdi, auditioning Bach, and attending Wagner.  Not a bad day at all.