Thursday, July 30, 2009

Creative Performing & Getting an Audience

[This is partially an x-post from a discussion I've been having on another blog and multiple private conversations with a variety of people.]

Lately I've been going to a lot of experimental or avant-guard theatre in a variety of genres -- straight plays, musical theatre, dance, etc. And each time, I am struck by how absolutely retarded classical music is in its evolution. The most "radical" or "experimental" thing related to classical music or opera that I can think of here in NYC recently was maybe the production of Die Soldaten at the Armory and La Didone by the Wooster Group that I saw some months back.

Part of it is the old guard audience who are constantly reactionary to anything that could even be mildly perceived to be "new." See: the bitter anger, reactionary comments, and expressed desire to kill Mary Zimmerman over her recent Sonnambula production (and boy, that bit of reactionary nonsense still has my dander up).

However, I also think that that sort of conservative, "we must preserve this as a museum piece" attitude in the audience has been (at least in part) fostered and encouraged by the classical music industry, itself.

When media/technology began to change in the 70's, instead of adapting and embracing, the classical music community held on, kicking and screaming, to the "Good Old Days" and tried to sell itself as an elitist, separatist sport. I.E., only SPECIAL, really INTELLIGENT and DISCERNING people go to the opera, or whatever.

Which, of course, is death for an art form. The Met/Gelb has understood this, I think, and is trying to move forward without alienating the Old Guard, but even his very conservative movements forward receive such fury!

What it boils down to is this: this stuffy, we-must-hold-on-to-the-past attitude makes it extremely hard to get an audience for any sort of recital program here (the only exception being if you're a huge name doing it at Carnegie Hall, and then, it's still hard). Recitals are only attended out of a sense of duty, and the impression outsiders get is that recitals are dull and boring and a relic of the past. There's so many other art forms in NYC that are vibrant and exciting and forward thinking, so why WOULD someone want to come to a boring, snooze-fest of Schubert lieder?

So, even if you try (and I do!) to make something new and innovative, etc, it's nearly impossible to get an audience (outside of your friends, family and colleagues).

I was speaking about this with someone the other day -- I never do the "normal" concert or recital format, other than 2 acts and an intermission. I theme the recitals, use a combination of new, old, familiar, unfamiliar music, group them so that the concert has a story, or an arc, or SOMETHING other than me just standing there, aloof from the audience, parked and barked. And the people who do attend always tell me, oh, it was a great time! that was interesting music! this was fun!

And yet, I can't seem to move this out into the wider community. I don't know how to drag my art form kicking and screaming into this century. I don't know how to create something with my art that will grab people, grab an audience, like other experimental theatre does.

I have been thinking about this a lot. I am trying new things each time, learning from the experience, etc, but it's just me behind this effort. I don't have the resources to make a huge splash or rent out Zankel Hall or create splashy ads, currently.

I do perceive that this is two problems -- one of image and one of content.

Content is important. That's the foundation of anything. Still, you can have all the great content in the world, but image is what gets butts in seats. The days of people coming to your show just because it's there have long since past. You can't, as so many do, ignore marketing, image -- all the tedious promotion work. There are so many choices to fill our free time these days, you have to stand out from the herd to get peoples' interest.

So, what to do?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lo and Behold! She lives!

FYI, I have been on hiatus for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is trying to get a lot done during the summer so my fall season is a little bit easier. I will be returning, and soon, to write on such fascinating topics (ha!) as "what rap and baroque counterpoint have in common," "making music interactive," and more!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Adieu, Villazon?

It's general opinion that Rolando Villazon has, with his inability to perform the upcoming production of Elisir at the Met due to vocal troubles, has probably come to an end of his career, or at least his career as a superstar.

I hope this is not true, and I certainly wish him all the best, but even should he rebuild himself and continue, there is nothing more devastating to a singer than the decline or complete loss of their instrument. Regardless of why it happens, regardless of whether it happens to someone who sings at the Met, or someone who sings at the Back-Ass-of-Nowhere Light Opera, it's a tragedy.

As a singer, your voice is you and you are your voice. Without it, you feel rather like Ariadne -- not precisely dead, but not precisely alive either. And rebuilding isn't an overnight job, either. Our voice is not just an instrument for music, it's integral to our body's survival system. When your voice is injured, your body starts doing all sorts of "helpful" things to try to preserve the voice. After all, your body reasons, if something I happens, I need to be able to scream, to communicate! I must help! Only, the problem is that what your body does to help simply makes it worse.

There are some in the opera community who treasure being blasé and make comments along the lines of "Too bad! Next!" But even if it were solely his fault (and it rarely is -- there's a whole money making machine behind a singer, deaf to anything that might take a little money from them), I submit to you that this is a tragedy for him, not just as an artist, but as a human being. If an olympic athlete were completely crippled in an accident, we'd mourn his or her lose, no? This is no less than that, and I should know...I've been there.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review to Follow: La Didone

I was just informed that I have, in fact, gotten a discounted ticket to see a, well, for lack of better words, something that promises to be an unusual performance.

The publicity materials say:

The Wooster Group returns to St. Ann's Warehouse with Cavalli / Busenello's baroque opera La Didone (1641), in which Aeneas, prince of Troy, lands on the shores of Africa after a violent sea storm. There he falls in love with Dido, queen of Carthage, and becomes entangled in a web of love, deception, power and madness. In Mario Bava's 1965 cult movie Terrore nello spazio, the spaceship Argos crashes on the planet Aura, and its crew becomes locked in a desperate battle with zombies over the all-important "meteor rejector."

The Wooster Group stirs these two Italian cultural artifacts together, dropping Aeneas' ships onto a forbidding planetary landscape, setting the lute alongside live electric guitar, blending acoustic and electronic space, and finding an unexpected synergy between early baroque opera and pre-moon landing sci-fi: A 21st-century retelling of an ancient tale about the destructive (and redemptive) power of erotic ­passion and the sheer tenacity of human nature in the face of annihilation.

I heard about this on NPR, and was intrigued, to put it mildly. This has all the potential to be hilariously awful, or, who knows, astonishingly good. With this sort of thing, one never knows until one tries it, I suppose. I will freely admit, however, that my tastes in this sort of thing are quite possibly more liberal than average. (One of the benefits, I suppose, of having grown up in the isolated manner in which I was raised is that one comes less expectation of what something should be, leaving one more open to enjoying what simply is. Of course, it also means a deficit of learning that also has to be filled, but it's easier to learn than it is to resist a habit, I find.)

The performance is next week, and I am anticipating it quite keenly. I will, of course, make a full report!

(For anyone who may be interested in the performance, it's currently running and will continue to run for a bit -- more details are available here: )

Friday, March 13, 2009

Un scandalo, un disordine!

In NYC, and in the opera circuit, the talk of the town lately has been the new production at the Met of La Sonnambula, by Mary Zimmerman. The reaction of the traditionalists is nothing short of absolutely furious, and interaction between the various factions has been heated -- dare I say operatic in its furvor?

As to the qualities of the production, I can't comment. I haven't seen it yet, and having had a fluctuating state of personal finance, I won't be able to until the cheap seats are available.

The lastest On dit regarding the production, and what I wish to address, is the suggestion that the starring soprano, Natalie Dessay, was responsible for some of the changes in the staging -- particularly the things that the dissenters found the most objectional. (Ms. Dessay, if you believe the loggionisti, is also personally responsible for the coming goetterdaemmerung of opera. I am amazed at how one soprano has managed to accomplish so much!)

If Ms. Dessay was indeed responsible, then criticizing her choices is fair, if perhaps overly zealous. With artistic freedom comes the possibility of criticism. But! (And what a big but!) There is also a common complaint among opera fans and opera singers as well, that singers are no longer allowed much artistic input in most productions. The common agreement seems to be that opera has suffered for this. In light of that, one would assume that Ms. Dessay's taking charge would be welcomed, even if the results weren't perfect.

What bothers me, therefore, is the reaction to Dessay's input. The general response has been, if one puts it succinctly, "shut up and sing." Cognitive dissonance, anyone? If opera has suffered from singers being told to "shut up and sing" by companies and directors, this (over)reaction is doing nothing to encourage other directors/companies to involve their singers in the artistic process.

As a singer, we have little enough control over many aspects of our performance. We control the voice, the words, the person -- but we rarely control the costumes (often unflattering and hindering), the staging (frequently unhelpful for either good acting or good singing), and so on.

So I have to ask: what is it fans really want? More artistic freedom, and possibly (probably) more things one may find objectionable, as well as more things one finds enjoyable -- or back to the "shut up and sing" and the same-old same old?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

O fortune, like the moon, you are changeable...

Today, on a whim, I popped in a recording of the Carmina Burana, and was reminded of how wonderful (some) of the music is.

Back when I was just a baby cow, a calf even, in my days as a professional chorister with a fairly well-known symphony, this was one of the first major works I ever sang, and I recall just how much fun singing it was. (Granted, there were movements that I disliked even then and still do, but the majority of the piece was amazing.)

The huge BOOM that starts the piece, getting to wail your lungs out, railing against fate, then later, singing the beauty of love -- there's very little music in the world that is just so satisfying to perform.

And, I must admit, it reminds of the days when singing was just pure joy. No stress about who is in the audience, no worrying about this high note, or that pitch...just singing innocently for sheer joy and love. I love what I do, truly, but sometimes, like today, I remember how wonderful and unencumbered singing was back then, and I wish I could get that back.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Life is Fantastic

Sometimes, the little musical wonders you run across in New York make life that much better.

Last night's gems?
  • Beethoven being played on steel drums...with a calypso swing. He was having the time of his life. I wonder if anyone else actually recognized what it was he was playing.
  • A man playing the piano -- a real piano -- in the subway. (It was a rather large spinet. He'd take pieces off of it, and mounted it on a rolling platform, but still. A real piano.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Che faro senza Eurydice?

After complaining publicly about how I can't afford to go to the opera, the Deities in their Wisdom let my name come up in the Met's drawing this weekend. Thus, I will be seeing the ever-so-(in)famous Mark Morris/Izaac Mizrahi production of Orfeo Saturday evening.

I'm not really sure what to expect. I've found some lovely moments in the works of Gluck, Lully, et al, but the thought of 2+ hours of French Rococco has, I must admit, filled me somewhat with trepidation.

I do love a lot of the instrumental music of the period -- I use it as the appropriate iPod filler for visiting art exhibits of the same time period, or going through places like Versailles, but not so much in the way of attending full length concerts of it. Oh well, I guess I shall be having my horizons expanded.

(Of course, all that said, I often really don't care for operas when I am introduced to them via sound recordings, but then fall in love when I see them on stage and it all makes sense.)