Archive for May, 2010

Tobias Picker spotted dining at Applebee’s

Tobias Picker is kinda a big deal. It’s safe to say that any composer who gets an opera commission from the Met is kinda a big deal. Any composer who gets an opera produced more than once is kinda a big deal. You can count the number of living composers who have had multiple operas professionally produced more than once in their lifetime on one hand. (John Adams, Jake Heggie, uhh… help me out here…)

I would venture a guess that this weekend marked the first time in his life that Mr Picker celebrated the opening night of one of his operas at Applebee’s.

We opened Emmeline this weekend at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, and the production is proving to be quite a success. Mr. Picker himself has been incredibly generous with his time, making himself available for consultation during tech week and participating in several Q&A sessions after the performances. And he’s had nothing but wonderful things to say about our modest production (certainly modest by Metropolitan Opera standards). He’s particularly smitten by our own Emmeline, Carrie Hennessey, and with good reason. Her performance is nothing short of breathtaking, certainly worth the price of admission and a two hour drive alone. The remarkable girl’s chorus from Cinnabar’s Young Rep program also garners special praise. Never before has this very difficult music been performed by a group of girls aged 13-16, and they sound great.

But for all his gracious words and generosity of spirit, I think none of the cast or crew expected Mr Picker to actually join us for our post show celebrations at the local Applebee’s. But join us he did, as we all enjoyed some celebratory spinach artichoke dip and deep fried mozzarella sticks (compliments of the house, thanks Applebee’s!)

Here’s photographic evidence of a table consisting of teen age girls, spinach dip, and one of the most successful opera composers alive.  At the Applebee’s off of the Old Redwood Highway in Petaluma, California. This is made entirely of win.

Guggenheim Fellowship winner Tobias Picker dining at Applebee's (with Cinnabar Artistic Director Elly Lichenstein)

A Picker-eye view of post opening Applebee's festivities (with spinach dip)


May 2010

Woot! Tech Week!

Yep. It’s tech week here in MvT world. We’re in hunker down mode in preparation for this Friday’s opening night performance of Emmeline at Cinnabar Opera Theater up in Petaluma, CA.

It takes fifty minutes to get from my house to Cinnabar. And that’s without traffic. That should give you a sense of how much I enjoy working with this company. Lord knows I wouldn’t make that drive otherwise.

Cinnabar is an absolute gem, producing professional productions of operas that are often contemporary and always in english. I’ve performed in their productions of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West and Menotti’s The Consul. They were also the first company to commission a piece from me (I wrote the music for their adaptation of Alice in Wonderland a few years ago). The converted barn that serves as their theater is my favorite performance space in the Bay Area: comfortable, intimate, and unassuming. As an extra bonus it’s right next to a goat farm. And goats are cute! The residents of Petaluma better appreciate how few small towns have their own opera house, much less an opera house capable of staging the West Coast premiere of a fairly significant addition to the repertoire.

Tobias Picker’s Emmeline had its world premiere at the Santa Fe opera in 1996 and was then picked up by the New York City Opera in 1998. It’s unabashedly tonal (with some notable exceptions during moments of emotional stress and turmoil), unspeakably tragic, and deeply moving. We haven’t managed to get through the piece without breaking into tears yet.  (I’m using the royal we.)

The vast majority of the heavy lifting is handled by Carrie Hennessey in the title role. If the curtain is up, you can be sure that she’s on the stage. The rest of us all are largely supporting players. In a particularly awkward turn of events, I get to play Carrie’s father (umm, I am older than Carrie, but not THAT much older) and Will Hart Meyer’s GRANDFATHER (ummm…Will is roughly the same age as Carrie… soo… uhhh… do the math).  I suppose those sorts of casting problems are bound to crop up when 20 years pass between the first and second act.

Anyways, Tobias Picker himself is going to be at the first dress rehearsal tonight. So I should, you know, probably make sure I actually know my part. Ya know. Like a professional and all that.


May 2010

Arts funding as psychological torture

Sad monkey. No grants for you.

Does arts funding do more harm than good?

It’s no secret that arts funding is scarce, especially for smaller, unproven, “emerging” artists. I wrote a post a couple of months ago about how competitive it is to become eligible to apply for most grants, let alone to actually win any of those grants. The organizations that evaluate applications are doing their best with the limited resources they have, but they’ll be the first to admit that there are many, many worthwhile projects asking for funding that they have to reject.

As a result, the emerging artist applying for funding is subjected to an awful lot of unpredictable and arbitrary rejection, largely unrelated to the quality of the work they’re making. Imagine a caged monkey subjected to electric shocks at random. Sad monkey. Very sad monkey.

Grant decisions are one of the few bits of concrete feedback an artist gets. It’s hard to intellectualize away such a clear yes/no rejection. Even though your brain knows not to take it personally, it grates at the soul. It takes a resilient, determined, self confident artist to keep producing work in the face of such explicit rejection. Meanwhile, the less assured artist will take it all to heart and their output will suffer.

For any grant awarded, hundreds of rejections go out. That’s an awful lot of bad mojo being spread out. It seems unlikely that the positive effect of the grant outweighs the psychological damage of the many rejections, especially if you look at the relatively meager amounts of the grants (sometimes under four figures.)

That’s a pretty tough conclusion. It seems wrong headed to tell these small grant makers to close up shop, that they’re doing more harm than good. Artists should just suck it up, know the lay of their land, and produce art only if the fire inside of them is strong enough to endure the occasional (or frequent) bucket of cold water.

Anyone got a better idea?


May 2010

Channeling my inner Merman

In the great canon of musical theater and opera roles, there are a few numbers that every actor/actress aspires to perform. Show stopping, scenery chewing, career making moments that put all of your talents on display for the world to see. The finale of Cabaret, Ya Got Trouble from the Music Man, and my personal aspiration, Sweeney Todd’s Epiphany.

This Saturday night, I’m going to be performing the big one.  The great grand daddy of all musical theater show stoppers.

I’m performing Rose’s Turn.

That’s right. Me. In Ethel Merman’s shoes. Belting away, strutting my stuff in that triumphant nervous breakdown of the hopelessly abandoned, desperate, and deluded.

But this isn’t a production of Gypsy.  Oh no. Not at all. What we have here is a genre mash-up of Gypsy and the Exodus. Called, (of course) “Everything’s Coming Up Moses.” That’s right. Moses.  And I’m playing Moses. And it’s pretty damn inspired. It originated from the pen of New York author and playwright Rachel Shukert and had it’s first reading last Passover in NY. It went over well so they’re bringing it out to San Francisco this Saturday as part of the Dawn Festival. It’s a staged reading, so the whole affair will be pretty loose, but still. I can’t wait to sing this music. It’s a welcome relief from rehearsals for an opera about a miserable New England teenaged girl who gets raped before intermission. (And the second act is even sadder.)

So, come on out to the California Academy of Science this Saturday night. The tickets are advance purchase only. Hope to see you there…

Oh…and here’s Bernadette Peters doing Rose’s Turn at the Tony Awards in 2003. (fast forward to 0:51 to skip the intro talking)


May 2010

Richard Foreman bails on theater

Looks like Richard Foreman was serious this time. He’s not doing anymore theater productions. I’m damn glad I caught Idiot Savant last year at Joe’s Pub. I’ve been a big fan of Foreman’s work since I went to see Lumberjack Messiah on a complete whim five years ago. Now I see whatever is playing at Ontological-Hysteric whenever I’m in NYC.

Foreman’s own pieces were surreal, lyric, highly stylized, fetishistic affairs. I had long imagined a kind of theater that was more music than narrative, using phrases, gestures and situations as motifs and melodies and his pieces were the first I had seen that realized that vision.

I’ve found his film and video work much less compelling. I’ve only seen a few pieces, but what I’ve seen is pretty damn boring: non-actors standing in a room, staring at a camera, repeating a phrase or two, making a gesture… hohum. I don’t get it. I’m sad to hear that this is where he plans to spend his effort from now on. Maybe they’ll get more interesting…


May 2010

#operaplot winners announced (irony and post-modernism are shut out)

The judge has spoken and the winners have been announced. (I was kinda hoping that Jonas Kaufmann would record this momentous announcement in rich Wagnerian tenor in a full orchestral setting).

With almost 1000 entries, narrowing the field to 5 winners was surely a daunting task and there was no doubt that many worthy entries would be passed over. The decision was bound to be a highly subjective one, depending largely on the sensibilities of the judge and his/her own sense of humor.

By almost any measure, Kaufmann has shown himself to have very conservative tastes. The winning entries are largely straightforward summarizations with the only the gentlest of twists. The most “modern” opera is Elektra (1909). It appears that Kaufmann had little appreciation for anachronism, post-modernism, or any pop culture references at all (with the exception of Daniel John Kelley’s txt-speak paraphrasing of Eugene Onegin). Based on these selections, I would guess that were Kaufmann to take a Meyers-Briggs test, he would test very high on the Sensing (as opposed to the iNtuiting) axis.

As a result, there are easily dozens of very clever entries that are going unnoticed, and that’s a shame. I’ve done pretty well myself (the extra effort of recording the Oedipus #operaplot paid off with a “Best creative use of an #operaplot” mention and my Gen-Yers misunderstanding of La Boheme was appreciated by the folks over at the English National Orchestra) but many of my favorite entries from other #operaplotters have been tragically overlooked. Regular readers know I have a deep appreciation for the ironic and the post-modern (and a complicated love-hate relationship with genre mashing). I rank so far on the iNtuitive axis that I have a hard time even making conversation with Sensors (my own wife is an N, and problems still pop up because she’s JUST NOT N ENOUGH DAMMIT!) Clearly my list of the five strongest #operaplots would look quite different. In fact, it would look more similar to the five randomly selected #operaplots that received Decca CDs than Kaufmann’s official list!

So, my fellow ironists, satirists, and post-modernists, I solemnly commit myself  to attaining a level of professional fame and notoriety sufficient to  reach the exalted position of #operaplot judge so that your ironic, satirical, and post-modern #operaplot entries can receive the recognition that they deserve!

Owen Pallett rocks my world

Owen Pallett‘s new album Heartland is just fantastic. I was introduced to his work by Sequenza21 and after listening to a couple of tracks I made a special trip to Aquarius Records to pay full price for the CD (hooray for supporting artists and local record stores). It was that compelling.

A month later, the album is still gorgeous. Rhythmically complex, richly textured, an intriguing mix of electronica and acoustic instruments, affecting modal melodies. I’m so happy that this music is being made. Just listen to the opening track “Midnight Directives”

[audio:|titles=01 Midnight Directives]

The snare drum rhythm that kicks in around 0:53 bears more than a passing resemblance to Bjork’s Hunter. After a few listens I became very enamored of the complex pizzicato line at 1:15. Eventually I started searching YouTube to see if there was a video to go along with it. Here’s what I found.

OMG.  Ya see.  I hadn’t realized he was a loop artist. I mean, I remember seeing it mentioned, but hearing the album, the looping aspect of things just didn’t register. The material was too rich, too interesting to just be another looper. Sure, when he’s doing the solo performance bit, the textures aren’t as varied as the fully orchestrated album cuts, but still. He’s completely shattered my previous beliefs about what loop musicians can and can’t do.

I wonder how this piece was conceived. Was it a solo piece first? If that’s the case, than the tape delayed pizzicato line must have been one of the original elements, as opposed to the pretty textural addition that I believed it was after hearing the album track.

If you’re in San Francisco, Owen Pallett is playing at the Independent tomorrow, May 5. Tickets are only $16.  I’m going to try to make it, but I’ve got a rehearsal up in Petaluma that evening. Hopefully I’ll get out in time.

Here’s one more video from Owen Pallett. It feels a wee bit like an underbaked casserole of images and ideas, but it’s still a fun watch. Especially when Alison Pill shows up. Oh my god is she adorable.


May 2010

How to write an #operaplot

Looking through the 900 odd (sometimes very odd) #operaplot entries, I started noticing some distinct trends, a number of “schools” of #operaplot authoring. This isn’t that surprising, there are only so many ways one can distill a multi hour convergence of music and theater into a coherent series of 140 characters (130 excluding the #operaplot hash).

As a service to future #operaplotters, I’ve taken the time to assemble a semi-scholarly taxonomy of the 2010 entries, illustrative examples included.

Read the rest of this entry →


May 2010