News: Jennifer now available for private lessons in NYC

Hi everyone! Just a note to say that with my son starting school this year I will be in town a bit more than usual and am in the process of accepting a few students to my growing voice studio. For information about voice  lessons or career consultations and current availability, please email me directly at jr@conopera.org.

 Jennifer recently appeared as a musical guest on A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor from Galveston TX. This is an image of her singing "Una Voce Poco Fa". 

Jennifer recently appeared as a musical guest on A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor from Galveston TX. This is an image of her singing "Una Voce Poco Fa". 

 

 

Jennifer Wins Grant from N.E.A. for Center for Contemporary Opera

After joining the Center for Contemporary Opera as Director of Artistic Development in 2015, one of my first assignments was applying for a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, or N.E.A. for one of CCO's Fall productions: A Louis Andriessen double bill of Odysseus' Women and Anais Nin. We are happy to announce that we have been awarded the grant, which as I wrote about in this article in The Huffington Post last year, is an important honor for any company. Below is the press release from Center for Contemporary Opera:

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu has approved more than $82 million to fund local arts projects and partnerships in the NEA’s second major funding announcement for fiscal year 2016. Included in this announcement are Art Works awards of $14,000 to the Center for Contemporary Opera

The Art Works category supports the creation of work and presentation of both new and existing work, lifelong learning in the arts, and public engagement with the arts through 13 arts disciplines or fields.

This grant will specifically support our October 2016 production of two works by the esteemed Dutch composer Louis Andriessen; Anais Nin and Odysseus’ Women conducted by Neal Goren and directed by Jorinde Keesmat.

We are very appreciative to the National Endowment of the Arts for their generous support.

Can Artists Procreate Without Going Bankrupt?

This was originally published on the Huffington Post

I'm a member of two different Facebook groups that have frequent postings; one of them is a group for moms, many of whom also happen to be artists. The other one is a forum for classical singers, a few of whom happen to be parents. There isn't a lot of crossover topics between the two groups -- but this week, unrelated to one another, I read a post on my classical singer group asking whether people who had kids felt that it affected their careers as singers, and another post on my mom's page asking whether any artists that were also parents were managing to keep their artistic careers going while still staying afloat financially. Where the crossover between these two queries occurred was mostly in the comments section, where people who were artists and parents explained how they managed to keep from moving their families into cardboard boxes, and what sacrifices they had made in order to add children to their lives. Everyone said that whatever sacrifices they had made were worth it, and they wouldn't change a thing. But almost all of the commenters with kids mentioned that either they or their spouses had moved into some sort of academia or other work in order to pay the bills and remain at least somewhat financially stable. The number of people who had moved in different directions than their original artistic intentions was almost everybody. Most people said they were content with where their choices had led them, but it lead my mom's group to start a discussion about why it's next to impossible to be an artist --- and especially a couple in which both people are artists and self employed -- and make a go of having a family. 

For opera singing parents, the challenges are quite extraordinary. Because not only are there all the challenges of being a self-employed artist, whose income is sporadic and difficult to predict, and who has no health or retirement benefits from their job, but we must factor in the concern that our jobs require constant travel, which makes adding a child into the mix pretty insane. Not only do we have to arrange extra plane tickets and different accommodations than may be provided by the company for whom we are working -- usually at our own expense -- but we have to arrange childcare in a strange place, ahead of time, without even having a chance to meet with the candidates. So a mother must bring her child with her to a strange place, and the very next day leave them with a strange person while they go to rehearsal. Or we leave our child with someone back home for a long period of time. The fees of opera singers have notoriously dwindled in recent years, and the competition has made jobs less available and less frequent. After a singer pays a coach to help them learn their role, and lives in a strange city for several weeks without pay, they then get a lump sum for their performances, of which 10-20 percent gets paid to an agent, and another 15-30 percent should be set aside for taxes. After deducting the costs of monthly health insurance (probably at least $700-1000 per month for the singer and child) and any retirement that could be set aside (ha ha -- we wish) that doesn't leave the singer a lot to work with. And I'm not only talking about struggling singers, I'm talking about singers who sing in the major opera houses around the world. And if you're adding onto that the extra expense of travel, accommodations and possibly childcare, you are left wondering why you bothered to leave your house in the first place. And while other types of artists have different challenges, almost all of them face rising expenses and dwindling profits, and share similar concerns to we opera singing parents. 

Which leads me to the question; should artists even bother to procreate? Is it fair to our children that we lead such financially itinerant lifestyles? If someone wants to have a family, shouldn't they just do the responsible thing and get a "real" job? 

The problem with this line of questioning (which so many artists face from friends, family and strangers sitting next to us on airplanes and in coffee shops on a daily basis) is that it really does question whether being an artist is of value to a society at all. Because if having children is so impossible for someone who works as an artist -- and I'm not even talking about a struggling "wannabe" artist, but someone who actually makes a living as one -- then it suggests that it is not a career worth being compensated for, but merely an avocation for a young and untethered person who doesn't mind living la vie boheme, using old chairs for firewood and eating sardine sandwiches. 

I bring this up because there are other countries who consider these problems. There are countries who provide health care and education to all their citizens (Sweden, Denmark, Norway -- most of Europe actually), who provide paid maternity leave to expecting mothers (and fathers) even if their jobs don't (Canada), who give stipends to every family for each child they have (Germany), and who even have government sponsored excellent childcare as well as insurance for artists who are between jobs (France). Many of these countries also have state sponsored arts funding, coincidentally. So artists are paid pretty well, and don't have to go around worrying all the time about how they are going to make ends meet. Artists are acknowledged as being participating, contributing members of society, and their worth isn't taken for granted. Yes, the citizens of these countries also pay higher taxes -- but not that much higher considering all the benefits they are offered. 

So we're back to the same question I ask so often in my blog posts -- why doesn't America value artists more and allow for them to continue to contribute without constantly worrying about financial collapse? I'm not talking about handouts -- I'm talking about extensive tax breaks for childcare, and access to truly affordable health care, and community support to the organizations that create art so that they can pay artists fair wages. I'm talking about wage earning that is commensurate with education, and acknowledgement that arts organizations enrich communities both fiscally and socially. 

Coming full circle back to my Facebook forums and where they intersect -- parents all over this country are struggling to make ends meet because of things like childcare and healthcare. Artists all over this country are struggling because of lack of income, lack of jobs and lack of government support. In a way, artists are prepared to make excellent parents because they are used to finding creative solutions to financial hurdles, something most parents have to do many times in their child's lives, regardless of their occupation. But this isn't the only thing that can make artists great parents. Artistic parents can't help but encourage artistically minded children, whether that means artists or merely arts supporters. And we desperately need more people who believe that creativity is a vital arm to our society. So we need artists to keep procreating so we can make a new generation of people who are willing to think creatively and who think of artists as necessary members of their community. 

So I say to all artists; go forth and procreate. You are creative. You will figure out a way around the financial and logistical hurdles which you will encounter. And you will hopefully become part of the village so essential to other artists in your community also raising families. 

And also; nothing inspires creativity quite like trying to have a conversation with a toddler.

Can Operatic Zombies Cause You To Question Your Life Choices?

(this post was published on the Huffington Post)

I've written several articles that were apparently controversial about why Opera doesn't suck. Lately, there have been a lot of people posting things about how opera singers are hot now, so shut up about them only being fat and boring, but that's all been said and done. No, I want to talk to you about how you're wasting your $12.50 going to see Tom Hanks talk to a volleyball (okay, that is a really old reference to Castaway but I still want my money back) when there is this art form out there that you might think is totally bogus, but could actually change your life.

Yes, I'm biased. I'm an opera singer, so of course I think you should like it. If I were a golfer I would tell you that you should like golf, but then again I probably wouldn't need to because there are enough people out there who are obsessed with golf, and they frankly don't need your pity. Opera is a different story. It gets such a bad rap in this country that people constantly use it as the butt of jokes. Like how to torture your husband or how to break glass or how to be so bored you want to kill yourself. But then people will buy self help books like The Secret in the billions in order to try to find some sort of transformative experience in their lives (full disclosure; I totally bought The Secret when it came out and thought it was awesome until I realized it was not going to make me a million dollars after all).

So here's what prompted me to write this article at this moment. Right now, I'm spending the summer at Central City Opera in Colorado singing in an opera called The Barber of Seville. You know, Figaro, Figaro, FEEE-GAAA-ROOOO (think Bugs Bunny). The Barber of Seville is like the Golf of the operatic cannon -- it doesn't need you to like it because anyone who knows boo about opera has heard of it and most regular opera goers will flock to it anywhere it's playing. I mean, it's a masterpiece, so there's that, but we don't NEED you to come to our production. You can if you want, it's super funny and I'm wearing old timey underwear, but The Barber of Seville will continue to thrive whether or not you, oh Huffington Post reader, come see it.

But here in Central City, they are also producing another opera this summer; Our Town, composed by Ned Rorem, which is based on the Thornton Wilder play by the same name. And Our Town, like many operas that have been composed in the last century or so, is more like the Chess Boxing (yes, it exists, google it) of opera. The general complaint about opera is that regular people just won't "get it" and that's probably because they think opera is only from the olden days and only in foreign languages. That's not actually a legitimate excuse, but that's a whole other article. In the meantime, there's a whole bunch of operas that were written by American composers during the past generation that opera companies are afraid to produce because they fear nobody will want to see them. It's really a catch 22 situation -- without modern works that modern audiences can relate to directly, the art form suffers, but the opera companies have to sell tickets, and many regular opera goers just want to see the classics. Central City Opera, however, isn't afraid, and produces modern American operas very frequently.

But (as usual), I digress. Since I'm here at the festival, I had the good fortune to see a performance of Our Town. You may or may not know the play, or you may have just heard a monologue recited from it in your 8th grade drama class (hint; if you've heard of Grover's Corners, you've probably heard said monologue). For those of you who don't know the play, I'll give you a brief rundown of the events. Act One: Boy Next Door and Girl Next Door fall in love. Act Two: They get married. Act Three: She dies and comes back as a zombie only to realize that people just aren't capable of appreciating how amazing every moment in life is while they're living it. Okay, she's not exactly a zombie, she's just a dead person who talks to other dead people, but I really wanted to include the word zombie in the title of my article. What can I say; Zombies sell.

Anyway, I was sitting through the opera and really enjoying everything about it. I was appreciating the things about the play that moved me; the representation of love both young and old, the simplicity of life in a small town at the turn of the century, and of course the idea that we cannot comprehend all the magic that is contained in every single person's regular life every day. So why not just go to a play or watch the movie version of the play on Netflix and be done with it?

Well, there's something kind of indescribable about having these themes set to music, and not only acted but sung both purely and thrillingly by a group of incredibly well trained singers. Yes, these themes are relevant and moving to anyone who is alive, but seeing them enacted by voices that soar directly to your ears with no filter (because opera voices are totally unamplified) pulls on your emotions in ways you didn't realize were possible. When you hear Emily, the main character, talk about all the things she will miss about being alive as spoken text, it certainly moves you to think about those things in your own life. But when you hear her sing that speech, the agony and ecstasy of life seem to pour out of her soul and directly into yours. Yes, maybe I'm a little soft because I have a six month old baby, and maybe I'm more attuned to beautiful singing because I studied it my whole life, but emotions are emotions, and I believe that the unamplified singing voice can move a person in a way nothing else can. I'm not going to lie to you, I cried harder than my little baby does when I try to feed him green vegetables.

The singer cast as Emily in the production here in Central City happens to be a well-known and absolutely stunning soprano by the name of Anna Christy. The production is perfectly conceived with the simplicity of small town life bursting out into the cozy historical Central City Opera House. The singers are all first class singing actors and the orchestra plays beautifully and precisely. But none of these are reasons why you should see the production. You should see it because the combination of all the elements will remind you in the deepest recesses of your heart that life is precious and fleeting, and we need to experience it as deeply as we possibly can. And how can we access that immediacy of appreciating all life has to offer? Through art.

You see what I did there?

So even if you aren't near Colorado, just try to see an opera. It 's not Golf or even Chess Boxing, and it almost certainly won't have zombies. But it will probably make you feel something. And that's worth way more than $12.50. (Tickets to Central City Opera start at $20 and are available for all performances).

It's been more than awhile

So......yeah. Blogging. I kind of dropped the ball there, eh folks? I mean, I didn't even write a single entry to tell you what it was like being a singer and a mom after my first gig. I am now into tech week of my second gig (Barber of Seville with Central City Opera), the baby is napping (for now) and I'm finally getting around to writing something. So that should tell you a little something about how much free time you have once you have a baby and you go back go work. 

My first gig back was a revival of Agrippina in Berlin at the Staatsoper, beginning when Jackson three and a half months old. The hardest part about it was probably the fact that it was in another country, which meant a lot more complications with a baby than a domestic gig would have posed. Even though I felt like I had very little time to prepare vocally, my voice, miraculously was fine. The biggest problem with my singing was the lack of sleep, because once we changed time zones by six hours, Jax's clock got all messed up and he woke up every two hours all night long for the entire time we were in Europe. And since I'm breastfeeding him, I was the one who had to get up with him for all those wakings. Plus I traveled to Europe with 18 bags of frozen breast milk that I had laboriously pumped in the middle of the night leading up to the trip, and they all spoiled once we got there because the freezer wasn't cold enough, making my pumping and feeding him when I went to rehearsal more stressful than it already was going to be. It was interesting however, I have to say, discovering that after all these years of being absolutely crazy about making sure I got enough sleep, I could still function and perform well even on very little sleep. I'm not saying it wasn't difficult, and that I didn't feel like taking a nap in the middle of my arias sometimes, but I managed. It was almost like a natural beta blocker - the fatigue combined with the adrenaline of performance kind of balanced out. 

We had three performances in Berlin and then a concert performance in Paris. My mom came with me to Berlin, and then at the end my husband met us there and came with us to Paris. It was very interesting doing this job that had always previously been the most important thing in my life when there was now something else that was far more important. In some ways it made singing easier because I felt less neurotic about it. If I didn't get the applause I wanted, I would forget about it immediately when I would go home and play with my baby. However, singing requires a great deal from a person, and I definitely found that finding the focus and energy you need to perform is much more challenging when there is a person who depends on you to keep him alive. 

Now that I'm on my second gig, I can say that in some ways it definitely gets easier as the baby gets older. First of all, you become more confident as a mother, a job which you began as a complete amateur. After years of striving to be the absolute best at your job, becoming a parent and having no idea what you're doing is a strange experience. Now that he's a little older, it has become much easier and more manageable, and I'm better at focusing at what I'm doing in rehearsal (although I must admit that the first week of rehearsals here in Colorado I was far more discombobulated than I ever was as a non-mommy. Plus the altitude and the lack of humidity combined with the breast feeding and the lack of sleep (with this time change Jackson is now waking up at 5:30 AM every morning) was making singing more of a challenge than I ever recall it being). But it's seeming more and more possible to be a good singer and a good mother. I do, however, have a better support system than most people in that BOTH of my parents are here with me all summer long, not only looking after my baby when I'm at rehearsal, but also taking care of ME. My hat is off to anyone who does it without a LOT of help - that, to me, would be impossible. 

So, now I have to go because my baby will wake up any minute. I need to feed him, feed myself, warm up, and go to our first sitzprobe, come home, eat dinner, give the baby his bath, nurse him to sleep, and then go to a tech rehearsal. But I'm going to make an effort to keep you more informed as we go along!

And baby makes three (or four if you include Max the cat)

Hmmm.... let's see - what could have happened between now and November 4th (my last post) that prevented me from blogging? I guess the suspense of this first sentence was probably ruined by the title of this post, so I'll get right to it. I HAD A BABY! 

Here's the birth story for those of you who like these kinds of things. My baby's due date was always December 25th, which we thought was kind of neat, but hoped wouldn't happen so we wouldn't have to name him Jesus and put his all his birthday presents under the Christmas tree for his entire life. Apparently he agreed, because he waited until 1 AM on December 26th - an hour after I'd gone to bed on Christmas night - to kick hard enough to cause my water to break. What actually happened is that Michael came into the room and woke me up because he wanted to play me the most recent edition of the podcast "White Dad Problems" on which he had appeared as a guest. It's a group of very funny Dads, so Michael fits right in, and as he was playing me his part of the podcast where he talked about our birth plans, my water broke. Very apropos. 

I should back up a bit here and say that I had intended to have a completely natural, drug free childbirth. I went to extreme lengths in order to do this because it was important to me for a variety of reasons. Michael and I took a natural childbirth class called the Bradley Method every sunday for 3 hours for 8 weeks in order to prepare ourselves. I decided not to give birth in the hospitals here in Manhattan and instead found a hollistic birthing center attached to a hospital in Rhinebeck, up near where my parents live. I read books, did yoga for my entire pregnancy, and spent the last month of my pregnancy either traveling up to Rhinebeck weekly to have my appointments with the midwives, or living at my parents house for the last two weeks waiting for the baby's arrival. One of the reasons I was so adamant about having a natural birth in a hollistic place is that hospitals in Manhattan are known to have very high rates of Cesarian sections because they don't have time to let women go through long labors, and because they don't want to get sued, so they choose to just get the baby out quickly. And I really didn't want a C section. 

So here we were in the Hudson Valley for Christmas, and my water broke. If you've watched movies, you would probably assume we would dash off to the hospital, but actually if you are having a natural birth, you just wait until labor starts naturually, which can sometimes take 24 - 48 hours. Again, the hospitals and doctors don't want you to do that, because they are worried about complications, but the midwives believe it will be just fine. We went in and got checked by the midwife at about 3 PM the next day, after I'd been having sporadic contractions since the water breaking, but they weren't consistent yet, so we went back to my parent's house. Then as soon as we got there, the contractions came on hard and strong, so we went back to the birthing center and when we arrived, I was already at 8 centimeters dilated. For those of you who might not know, that's really dilated. Most women arrive at the hospital when they are 3 - 5 centimeters, and you're done at 10, so I was really in labor. 

I quickly reached 10 centimeters, and I labored, unmedicated until about 2 in the morning. In fact, from about 10 PM til about 2 AM, I was completely dilated and was pushing. Finally, after no movement during those 4 hours, a doctor was consulted, and it was determined that I needed a C section. After 24 hours of Natural Childbirth classes, I couldn't really miss the irony, even amidst drug-free contractions.  I did all that preparation and then all that labor and then a C section??? But the baby's head was stuck in my pelvis and wouldn't budge. Sometimes C sections are very necessary, and this was one of those times. Childbirth is kind of like performances - you can prepare all you want, but what happens in the moment is what happens in the moment. So after 23 hours of unmedicated labor, I was rolled into the operating room and out he came at 2:40 AM on December 27th, perfectly healthy at 8 pounds, 3 ounces, 21 inches, and looking just like his Dad. We named him Jackson Collins Rice and he is without a doubt, the single cutest baby ever to be born. I mean, I guess I'm a little biased, but I've included pictures below so you can judge for yourselves. 

I really hope to keep blogging about my life as a singer, especially about what it's like to sing, travel and have a child. In fact today we have to hop on over to the post office to apply for his passport. I will do my best to keep up my blogging duties as we navigate this whole new world, however, I do ask you to bear in mind that having a child is sort of time consuming. Especially my child, who a few days short of his 8 week birthday is already in the 95th percentile for height and weight, which means he eats  A LOT and keeps me very occupied. I go back to work in April when I return to Berlin for a revival of Agrippina with baby and my mom in tow. I will do my best to keep you posted. In the meantime, here are those photos I promised.

 

Voting

There are a couple of elections I would like to let you know are happening. First there's a little tiny thing called the presidential election. I know I have a lot of international blog readers, but if any of you American citizens haven't seen my editorial in the Huffington Post, please read, digest, and hopefully vote accordingly. 

But I wouldn't be me if I was ONLY telling you who you should vote for in the presidential election. There is another election going on almost simultaneously, and it's also very important to me that you vote for my candidate in that election. It is the Podcast Awards - and guess who is nominated? That's right, my dear husband for his podcast OperaNow! So please click the link for the Podcast Awards, find the Culture / Arts catergory, select OperaNow!, and scroll down and give them your name, email, and click submit. Michael's podcast is the only one of it's kind, and he has been doing it for the benefit of all you opera fans for years now, totally for free and out of his passion for the subject matter. I would love to see he and his co-hosts rewarded for their effort week after week to give you guys something of quality and with humor and intelligence. And best of all, you can vote once per day, every day, until the voting closes on November 15th. Let's bring this baby home!! 

Oh - and in case you are wondering about me; I am very pregnant. I'm in Nashville at the moment, still working, and rolling my big basketball belly around the stage. Even though it's getting to be more of a challenge (I'm over 8 months pregnant at this point) I'm actually very grateful to still have the opportunity to work, and luckily this particular production doesn't require me to run all over the stage or swing any swords. After the performances in a week, I get to go home and just hang around while I wait for the big operababy's entrance in December. Wish me luck - for all of it! 

Now go exercise your right to vote - for my husband. And also, you know, for that other guy, whose hair may be a lot grayer than four years ago, but who I still believe in. 

Remember me?

2012 has been a bizarre year for blogging. First I was all gung-ho about it because I entered that blogging competition and it got my creative writing juices flowing. But the week I won that competition was also the week I found out I was pregnant. And when you first find out you're pregnant, you're just waiting around to see if everything will be okay with the pregnancy, and you can't tell anybody that you're pregnant, so you almost don't feel like telling anybody anything (if you're me anyway - I tend to say everything or nothing, that's just my style). And then I went off to Innsbruck, and managed to eek out one measly blog post, which really only happened, I admit, because Innsbruck asked me to write something for their newsletter, which I also repurposed as a blog entry. And then I came back from Innsbruck and I got married (!!!). And now I'm about to start rehearsals for a fundraiser production for the Gotham Chamber Opera which will perform next week at Le Poisson Rouge here in New York, before heading off to Nashville to perform a modern opera called "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.". And here we are. 

I've gone through periods where I literally blogged every day, and then we have 2012, where I wrote 4 blog posts that I worked very carefully on, a few after that, and then basically nada. It's partially because I sort of tend to become fascinated with one thing at at time, and everything else falls by the wayside. I think I talked about this tendency of mine before in another blog post, but it's been so long, I can't even remember. And the thing I'm pretty fascinated with these days is the fact that my personal life has been changing at warp speed, and how that is affecting the life I've known for all these years previous. It's funny how being pregnant is one of those things that happens to other people, and you think "Oh wow, how fun - good for them!" but when it happens to you it's like "OOOOOOHHHHHH MMMMMMYYYYYY GOOOODDDDDDD THIS IS THE MOST ENORMOUS THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED TO ANY HUMAN ON EARTH!!" And that's before the baby is even born! Or again, maybe that's just me. But regardless, I've been focused on this REALLY BIG DEAL, to the peril, I'm afraid, of my writing hobby. 

But yesterday my father-in-law (oh yes, I have one of those now (BIG DEAL BIG DEAL BIG DEAL!!!)) asked me when I was going to start blogging again and I had that realization that I've written about 7 blog posts this whole year, and it's really not adequate. So since my new husband is going back to recording his podcast OperaNow! tonight, after a summer hiatus, I figured today would be a good day to get back to my old friend, The Blog, and say hello to all of you and tell you what's been going on. 

Innsbruck actually came and went so quickly! I thought a lot about what it would be like to do such a large and demanding role while I had this BIG DEAL going on inside my belly, but in the end, it was actually no big deal. I mean, the show was a fantastic experience, a terrific production and a chance to learn a score that has been totally ignored, but should be heard by a lot more people. I had really nothing but good feelings about the entire experience, and aside from the costume team, who managed some remarkable feats of completely hiding my baby bump without putting me in mumus, it was just not a big deal that I was pregnant. I mean, people were nice to me about it, making sure I wasn't getting too tired, and doing thoughtful things like bringing me chocolate bars, but it really didn't affect my singing at all, nor did I have to modify any of my staging. And then I read this blog post by Susanne Mentzer (which I believe was inspired by her learning that I was pregnant) and realized that while I was sitting around contemplating what a big deal this all was, she had, in her 9 months of pregnancy, quietly been singing a gazillion operas at every major opera house around the world - and this was at a time before the internet, when she couldn't even call her mother on skype every day to ask her things like "is it normal that I fell asleep on a set piece today in the middle of rehearsal while there was a tenor singing 3 feet from me?" So in the end maybe it is just me that makes this all into a REALLY BIG DEAL, when actually, it's just a part of life. 

Michael, my husband (yup, I got to work calling him that into the blog post not once, but twice) says that my voice actually sounds better than ever since I've been pregnant. I talked to a good friend of mine who is also a voice teacher, and he told me that especially for skinny girls, he often sees a nice increase in vocal heft or a richness of tone when they get pregnant because the baby actually gives them the same feeling that a layer of fat can give other singers and allows them to support better. He told me that as long as I pay attention to why it's different I should have no trouble keeping that feeling even after the baby has made his escape and I don't have him to push on my diaphram any longer. I also think that for me personally, because I'm such an energetic (read; hyper) person, having the baby in my belly keeps me grounded in a way that is also very good for my support and my singing. So I've been enjoying the fact that I have had reasons to keep singing through my pregnancy. However, I had an audition the other day, and finding a dress that still fit me is starting to become a bit of a challenge. Plus my natural tendency to make bad jokes in odd situations came flying out when I entered the audition room and tapped my belly, saying "just ignore this and pretend I'm a boy." I think the guy listening to me was far enough away from me that he probably couldn't even see what I was pointing at and thought I was asking him to ignore the fact that I'd had a big lunch or something. He just looked perplexed. 

So the baby is due in the end of December, and then I have about two and a half months before I go back to work. And my first gig back is in, of all places, Berlin. And I'm singing, of all roles, Nerone in Agrippina, so I have to fit into those skin tight Christian LaCroix leggings that make up one of my beautiful costumes in that production. All this while caring for a 3 month old infant, who may or may not decide he enjoys sleeping at night. And again, I find myself contemplating what a BIG DEAL this is going to be. But I should probably just take a page out of Susanne Mentzer's book, and realize that a LOT of women before me and around me have done this and are doing this and somehow, no one has keeled over from the shock of what a BIG DEAL it all is. They just go from breast pumps to downbeats and get on with it. And so shall I.

I just may be the person looking over my shoulder and saying "I'm DOING it!! Can you believe I'm DOING THIS!!!??" I mean you can't un-become a drama queen overnight, right?

Photo credit: Jennifer Strader

The Perils of being a Preggo Performer

Everyone knows that when you get pregnant, you need to take your vitamins, get lots of sleep, and take care not to overexert yourself. But what if your job requires you to fly to another country, acclimate to a different time zone and a totally different environment, eat completely different foods, and run around wielding a sword, or fall to the ground, swooning, all while wearing a corset? Well - then you just do it. 

I found out in March that I was pregnant. It was thrilling news - but of course, required a good deal of planning. Would this or that company care if I was pregnant? How soon after giving birth could I safely go back to work? Who would travel with me and the baby to my engagements? But first - what would it be like to run around the stage with another being inside of me???

I was very lucky that my first major opera engagement into the pregnancy was here in Innsbruck for a couple of reasons. First, the festival was extremely supportive and accommodating about any adjustments that would need to be made (mostly in the costuming, although possibly in the staging - there was no way to know ahead of time). And I was also lucky that the role I was singing was a female role. Since I spend a great deal of my career singing trouser roles, I was very fortunate that I wasn't required to jump around the stage and roll around on the ground wearing short pants while pregnant. Playing a woman meant that it would be easier to hide the pregnancy in the costume, and that the role would likely be less demanding physically - or so I thought. 

Then I began to discover the role of Stellidaura in Francisco Provenzale's underperformed gem La Stellidaura Vendicante, and realized that this was no ordinary female role. Instead of pining away for her lover or dying of consumption, Stellidaura takes matters into her own hands - literally - and grabs the first sword she can find in an attempt to avenge her wounded lover. And she doesn't stop there - in the third act, she dresses up as a man and attempts to murder her rival, is put in jail and sentenced to death, and takes a poison and is presumed dead. All while singing 10 arias and 2 duets. So much for sitting around in a loose dress and clutching my breast. 

Luckily, all that time spent playing boys has prepared me for pretty much anything physically. As a performer, I like to feel that I am completely free of physical limitations, and I even usually request that directors put me in strange positions like lying on the floor or draping myself over the set while I'm singing my arias. Of course, carrying this little guy around in my belly means I have to be a bit more careful, and I can't fling myself around with my usual abandon, but I've been very pleased to discover that it hasn't hindered my movement too much at all. I can still burst out of the door brandishing a sword and swing it around, and my little bundle of joy on the inside doesn't seem to mind at all. The only thing I can't do is lay on my stomach - and if you can't imagine an opera singer laying on her stomach while singing, you'll just have to trust me when I tell you it seems to happen to me. Frequently. But thankfully, not this time.

I'm also very lucky that this production happened to fall in the stage of the pregnancy that it did. I am currently in my second trimester, which is the best part of the pregnancy. I have passed the nausea and horrible fatigue from the first 14 weeks (and since I had several concerts and recitals during that time, and almost passed out once in a rehearsal from nausea, I can tell you that singing a demanding operatic role during that time would have been something of a challenge), but haven't yet reached the swollen ankles and difficulty getting around phase. And although my belly has grown, and I have noticed a few concerned glances from the costumer at it's ever expanding size, it is still luckily small enough that we can cover it with costumes and no one will know that I'm carrying a passenger for all the performances. Except of course, for all of you. 

And how does this opera baby feel about all this singing I'm doing? So far, he doesn't seem to mind. And my voice feels better than ever. He might even be helping me with my diaphragmatic support! And I have to say, I think this little baby is quite lucky to get the chance to hear this sublime score day after day in his formative days. Not that many people in the world have even had the opportunity to hear Stellidaura, as it has inexplicably been ignored from the repertoire, and my son will practically have it memorized when he finally makes his appearance in December. I have a feeling that the beautiful lullaby-like aria at the end of the second Act is something I will be able to sing to him in his cradle, and his memory of the music will soothe him and remind him of his time "on the inside." 

Or maybe it will turn out that he only likes Heavy Metal. But as this music will be surrounding him from his earliest formative days, I like to imagine that he won't be able to keep himself from having a soft spot for baroque music from Italy, just like his mother.

Writer's block or limited brain space?

I'm really not sure why I'm one of those people who either seems to write 4 posts in a week or none for a month. It's like I have creative spurts in various parts of my life, but can only focus on one at a time. Plus, because I'm so honest and like to tell the absolute truth about what's going on with me in my blog, I tend to avoid writing too much when either a) I'm gainfully unemployed ("Wow. That episode of the Mad Men last night was crazy, right?" Not good blog material), or b) when I have a project or event happening that for whatever reason I can't yet share with the public at large ("I'm busy learning a new aria for my big Met audition! Update; I didn't get it." Also poor blog material and just plain embarrassing (that is not a real example by the way - I haven't auditioned for the Met in a long time)). 

But comments will occassionally trickle in on old posts, and after reading things about how much people look forward to my entries, I'll kick my own butt and realize that even if I'm not feeling particularly writerly, I need to just put something down and stay connected with all the people who have bothered to follow me for all this time. I was having a coaching yesterday, and when the singer after me arrived at her coaching she said, "love your blog, by the way!" which reminded me I needed to get cracking. Then I saw that my last entry was over a month ago! Jenny Jenny Jenny!!!

I can't tell you everything that's happening and is in the works just yet, but I can tell you that at the moment I'm knee deep in memorizing a new role. I leave in about a week and a half for Europe - first Italy for a week, then on to Innsbruck, where I'll be singing the title role in "La Stellidaura Vendicante" by Francisco Provenzale. You've never heard of it, you say? Don't worry - few people have. It's one of those baroque operas that is rarely done, there is no recording in existence, and few people have even heard of the composer. But the Innsbruck Festival for Early Music loves to rediscover and reintroduce forgotten works from within the baroque repertory to the public, and present them in lovely productions with a fabulous baroque orchestra. 

At the Festival's Website you can find a bit of interesting information about the opera (along with a big picture of my face from a few headshots ago) and why the company has chosen it as their opera this summer. It's the earliest baroque opera I've sung thus far because it's pre 1700's, so I'm facing the challenges of making it exciting and visceral without the flashy arias I'm used to with Handel and even Pergolesi. But there is some achingly beautiful music with that complex simplicity that you only find in baroque music, along with a pretty awesome character who says things like "I'm going to avenge you with this sword because I've been wronged, I'm a woman, and I'm your lover!" before she runs off to try to kill someone who beat up her boyfriend. She's seriously badass - and all the way back in the 1600's! I'm used to avenging people with my sword when I play all those pants roles, but it will be very nice to be playing a strong woman instead of someone just lying around dying of lovesickeness or something. 

But that brings me back to the fact that I have to memorize this entire role that I had never even heard a note of before I received the score a couple of months ago. And it's not like I could listen to a couple of recordings to get a feel for the harmonies and the flow of the piece. Or read through an already translated libretto to get the ins and outs of the story. In fact my first introduction to the piece was a giant package I received from Innsbruck, which contained a photocopy of the manuscript. And let me tell you, I could NOT always read Provenzale's handwriting! 

Luckily, since then, they have put the whole score into the computer and I have learned it all and know what's happening in the story (thank god I have an excellent coach who can sight read a full score and can figure out the harmonies and stuff. She is absolutely indispensable to me when I learn these unknown baroque pieces). But I still need to get the whole thing memorized before I arrive. We do have nearly a week of musical rehearsals in Italy before moving on to begin the staging in Innsbruck, but I always have been and always will be an over preparer. Honestly, this doesn't come from my outstanding work ethic, but rather from my desire not to be horribly embarrassed. I'm totally serious. I have never understood how people arrive for the first musical rehearsal not knowing their music and don't die of shame right there. I would just melt into a puddle of goo on the floor beneath my music stand. So I learn my music, always. 

But that doesn't mean I don't spend the few weeks before I arrive banging my head against my music stand in the hopes the music will just GET IN THERE ALREADY DAMNIT!! There's that point where you know it, but when you try to look away from the score you are suddenly hopelessly lost, and you think - well, I may have memorized every single score for the past 15 years, but this is the one I just can't remember. My brain is officially full. There is apparently no more room. Then one day, miraculously, you just know it. I'm still waiting for that miraculous moment with this score - or at least with the third act. And I'm going to ignore those voices in my head telling me that there is only so much Italian recitative one person can hold in their brain and I'm officially at capacity, and keep cramming it in there until it sticks. 

And I get to go to a gorgeous town in Northern Italy for a week, followed by almost 5 weeks in Innsbruck, which is just such a special place. So that music is going to GET IN THERE so I can spend my free time when I arrive eating and climbing mountains and not pounding my head against any music stands. 

Can't we all just get along?

I don't think I've written this many blog posts in one week since I was trying to write one for every day of an entire month a couple of years back. I would like to say it's because I'm feeling excessively creative this week, but the truth is probably more that I'm procrastinating learning texts and music. I have a lot of music to learn and memorize at the moment, and while I adore rehearsing it, I hate the drudgery of making it all stick in my head, and my brain often rebels, either putting me to sleep or sending me to the computer. 

But I've also had some frustrating interactions this week with people online that have started me thinking about why it is that so many people feel the need to tear other people down. The week started with a complaint from someone I didn't know that was tweeted to me about the fact that even though I was the *winner* (yes, they put it in asterisks) of the Spring for Music Blogger competition, I didn't attend and blog about each concert separately. It frustrated me for many reasons, but one of them is that I never claimed to be a reviewer - I don't write about concerts and operas that I see except in passing - I am an essayist who writes about my own personal experiences performing and auditioning and such, and never claimed to be qualified to write musical reviews, nor do I want to. Plus I was sick, and I didn't think the Spring for Music people would appreciate me throwing up on their audience, so I had to miss a few concerts. Plus I only happen to live in New York - I'm not sure every one of the entrants would have come to New York on their own dime just to see and write about the concerts, had they won. So that little exchange got me kind of steamed.

Then, one of my facebook friends posted my last Huffington Post article, and one of his friends left a tiradey comment about how I had missed the point, didn't know what I was talking about, and proceeded to take apart my article sentence by sentence and spell out everything I did wrong. Since the article was published two weeks ago, I'm still unsure what she was trying to accomplish except to make me feel bad, which congratulations to her - she succeeded in doing! 

And then just now, I was looking at my blog's "stats" to see how many visitors I had and which blogs had referred to me and noticed that some referrals had come from a blog called Ionarts. I was first made aware of this blog when the writer was also one of the entrants into the Spring for Music challenge, but was eliminated in one of the earlier rounds. Then after the competition was over, he tweeted this: "In the great circle jerk of PR, opera singer who averages two posts per month is crowned "best arts blogger."" I sort of chalked this up to sour grapes, but when I saw that his blog had a reference to mine, I had to see why. I discovered in one recent post where he lists things to listen to and look at on the web, a sentence that said "See what the recently named "best arts blogger" has to say about the aforementioned concerts. As of this posting, nothing yet. " And that was just so snarky and mean spirited against me directly that I felt like I wanted to respond. 

First of all, I can't figure out why he's so mad at me, personally. When in the past, someone else beat me in a singing competition, or now, when someone else gets chosen for a job I audition for, I certainly can be frustrated if I think they didn't deserve it, or that I was better for the part or something. And I might even say to my boyfriend or my mom, "It's not fair! I'm so much better than so-and-so! Why did she get picked over me?" But then I realize that this is coming from a very small place of jealousy and frustration, and that in fact, the person that got picked did have talent and drive and actually doesn't deserve any wrath from me for winning something. I would certainly never try to publicly humiliate them on the internet, as this blogger was clearly trying to do to me. It just seems unnecessary and cruel. 

I'm not saying I've never said anything about anyone in a public way that might have been critical. I regularly participate in my boyfriend's podcast, Operanow!, and because it is a live show and not scripted, I occasionally say something that I later regret because I fear it might have sounded mean or harsh or hurt someone's feelings. I hate the idea of hurting someone's feelings, because since I am in the public eye,  I certainly know what it feels like to have my feelings hurt. 

Because yes - when you put anything out into the world, you have to willing to be a subject of criticism. You have to strong enough to accept that if you succeed in any way, people will be out there who want take you down a peg, or who think what you're doing sucks and aren't afraid to tell you. And I'm certainly way too sensitive about it all. I should just shrug it off and not worry about it, but that's just not who I am.

I like to think that my experiences being criticized have made me a more sensitive person towards others, but I'm sure I slip up and say things that hurt people's feeling occasionally. But I can tell you that if I do, it is certainly not intentional. I would never say anything or write anything that would be intended to hurt another person, because I believe the whole "do onto others" business. Unless someone does something or says something mean about someone I care about - then I can hardly help myself and my inner lioness comes out and starts roaring. I should probably work on that. 

I love the internet, but it certainly has sped up the demise of courtesy and respect. 50 years ago people used to have so much more respect for celebrities and politicians, and they would never consider saying horrible things about them in public forums. Now we have entire blogs devoted to making fun of everything they do. I'm not saying we should unnaturally revere people and that people in the public eye shouldn't be criticized. I know that it's a part of life, but I don't know - I guess I'm just a softie at heart. I wish people had more kindness in them, and got less joy out of being cruel. 

Especially those of us who reside in this classical music world together. We are all so lucky to have had something happen in our lives that exposed us to this world and drew us in. There's only a small percentage of people in this country that have been regularly exposed to classical music and the arts in a way that allows us to take full advantage of the depth of these art forms, and we are damn lucky to be in that minority. I often try to be funny on this blog and make light of things, but I truly believe that anyone who has had a life surrounded by the arts, whether they have chosen to pursue them as a career or not, should realize that they have been given an incredible gift. There is no need to be small and petty when we have had the chance to hear and understand a Mozart opera. 

I guess I must have needed to be reminded of this myself, which is why all this happened to me. I needed to be reminded not to squander the gift of being an artist by complaining about people complaining about or criticizing me. So with this blog post, I officially let it all go. 

Which brings me back to memorizing song texts. Which I LOVE by the way. Did I mention that earlier? Yup. Love it. Couldn't be luckier. I would certainly rather be doing that than about a million other jobs. So thanks, Mr. Ionarts and the all rest of you who found fault with me this week . You just reminded me of how lucky I am to be doing this. I sincerely appreciate it. 

What does an opera career look like?

I received a question in my "Ask Jenny" section of the blog this morning that I thought a lot of people might be interested in, so I decided to go ahead and reprint it and answer it here. This is for all the young people out there considering pursuing a career in this crazy world of opera. Here's the question:

I found a post online and I was wondering what your thoughts are. I'd love to know if you believe any of this is true or not, from your experience. I am turning 25 and considering a career change. I understand that it will take a hard work and time but I'm willing to listen to my heart and give it a try. I have always sung alto in choirs. My choir class had a guest professor who works in Musical Theater and opera earlier this year. Ever since, I have had opera on the mind! This article honestly intimidated me. http://auditioningforcollege.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/what-does-an-operatic-career-look-like/

If you don't have time to click the link and read this person's post about the opera circuit, I'll just tell you, it's quite bleak. Basically they maintain that you may have to participate in Young Artist Programs until you are 37 and then you can expect gigs that only pay you $1000 per performance, and those are the good ones. There's a whole section about home stays when you are on low paying gigs where you may very well have to help around the house to earn your keep, and a section that talks about how much you have to budget for auditions, which according to the writer, is quite a lot.

What I can say is that the person who wrote this post (it doesn't give a name that I noticed) obviously has personal experience pursuing this career, so for some people, these are possibly exactly the difficulties and struggles that they will also experience. I can only speak from my own experience however, and this was not what I experienced coming up in this field. I will say that each person's path varies wildly, and it's very difficult to predict who will succeed and who won't early on. I will also say that this is probably the most difficult time to attempt to have a career in the arts, and specifically opera in the United States, and that even people who have been working at a very high level sometimes struggle to make ends meet (including yours truly). Without going into specifics, if this calendar year continues as it has so far, I will probably only make about 40% of the income I have made for the past four or five years. It never seems to get easier or more predictable for anyone except a very small minority of singers that reach that level of fame that allows you to relax a little, and even then, some singers still seem to fall off the face of the earth, often for no explainable reason.

One thing that the writer of this blog post talked about was fees to audition for opera companies. I can tell you that in all my years auditioning, the only fees I can recall paying are the auditions I did for young artist program applications. I did end up working at New York City Opera straight out of school, and got an agent by the time I was 24 or 25 (I can't recall exactly), so was doing regular house auditions - maybe there are types of auditions that I was never aware of. But other than the young artist summer program auditions that I did, I'm not sure which companies charge audition fees. 

Another thing I've never done is had a separate job, but I know a LOT of singers who have worked temp jobs and/or waited tables over the years in between singing gigs. That is becoming even more of a reality in today's very saturated market. I also think that some young singers tend to stay involved in Young Artist Programs for too long - if you are well into your thirties and have been doing young artist programs since you were 25, you might discover you have a few large challenges ahead of you when trying to make it to the next level. I also think we are entering a new era, where singers are being forced to think outside the box in order to even be able to exist creatively - singers are forming companies and festivals, becoming not just performers but impresarios in order to create performance opportunities for themselves and their colleagues. 

I won't sugarcoat anything for you - this is a very challenging career in which to find true success, and it's only getting harder. I went to see a performance at the Manhattan School of Music a few weeks ago of The Ghosts of Versailles, and I found the performances from most of the students to be extremely impressive. I was left wondering, however, where all of them would possibly find work after they graduated.  I remembered that when I first finished school here in NYC, New York City Opera was still a large scale company which employed as many as 100 solo singers at any given time. Now, with the company producing four small operas per year, and not even having a theater in which to hold regular auditions, most of those opportunities for singers freshly out of school have vanished. Most of the good agents that I know feel that their roster of singers is already filled to bursting, and have to carefully consider whether to add a single new client. It's good to be in New York since it's where many of the companies come to hear auditions, but if you're not working at the Met, that means you're not working as a singer while you're here for the most part. And unfortunately, the United States, unlike Canada and Europe, for example, doesn't help with any cushion for self employed artists by giving us things like free health care, or unemployment insurance, or maternity leave when we're not attached to a specific employer. 

Having said all that, I think it's important to follow your dreams and your heart. Some people are talented and successful, and they think they want to be singers, but they realize the life isn't for them, and they change their minds and change their careers completely at some point. We are allowed to do that - we are allowed to reinvent ourselves and take a new path if the one we are on isn't working. The thing that is important is how to decide when the path we are pursuing isn't working out. For some people, being artistic is more important than making a lot of money, so they are satisfied with working odd jobs just so they have the chance to express themselves creatively. Other people need more stability and even if they are getting paid to sing, don't find enough regularity in the type of work that may or may not come up. With opera singing, it's a personal decision for each individual. If I had done some of the gigs that the person who wrote the post obviously had to do, like staying at someone's home who expected me to change their cat litter just so I could get paid $100 per week to sing some educational programs, I can tell you I would have given up a long time ago. I love doing this, but I love doing it at a level that challenges and inspires me. I still consider quitting on a regular basis because I hate not having a fixed income that I can count on, and I hate that a few people deciding whether sing at House X can end up affecting the entire path of my career. However, I have also been incredibly lucky to have had the experiences I've had, and am grateful and humbled by the opportunities and support I've found along the way.

So to answer your question - yes - for some people, the stuggles and obstacles will be enormous. For others not. The question is, do you want it bad enough to go ahead and give it a try anyway? 

 

Spring for Music

This week was a crazy week. My plan was to go to all but one of the Spring for Music concerts here in New York City, but unfortunately I ended up being under the weather for the middle of the week, and was only able to attend the first and last of the concerts. But even just seeing the bookends was enough for me to get a sense of what the festival is all about, and why it is such a wonderful addition to the cultural offerings in New York City. 

I've been thinking a lot this week about pressure - in my case, the pressure I put on myself to try to be all things to all people. I have always been like this - an only child overachiever, who thinks that I have to be perfect at everything and loved by everyone or I am a failure. I bring this up because sitting in the audience at Spring for Music, I was noticing how even though we were in Carnegie Hall, in New York City, listening to classical symphonic literature, the normal pretense that often pervades concerts like this seemed absent. There was no pressure to act like a classical music audience and nod to each other politely over the bridges of our noses.

When the concerts began, they almost seemed more like sporting events. Whatever orchestra was playing had a huge "hometown crowd" present in the audience, and they were given colored scarves to wave in the air, while hooting their support for their orchestra. The audience was made up of people of all ages and walks of life, dressed in everything from suits to jeans. People seemed relaxed - there was no sense that anyone needed to act with a specific sense of decorum, or to understand everything that was being played on the first hearing, or to refrain from boisterous shouting during the applause. In just the two concerts I attended, there was a Russian bass who hid behind a podium so he could change into different disguises while he sang, and a concert that contained both a piece that required 5 different conductors and another piece written for solo electric violin. There were no "rules" - just exuberant music making. The pieces certainly weren't always "easy" - the Houston Symphony played all Shostakovich, and the Nashville Symphony played all 20th century American music, including Ives' unfinished 5th symphony, which was very difficult for me - a musician myself - to comprehend and internalize on my first hearing. But with each concert being preceded by an unstuffy explanation of what was about to be played and why it was chosen, and with the environment itself - the warmth and enthusiasm of the conductors and the musicians for the music they were playing, combined with the encouragement for the audience to enjoy themselves with abandon, I personally experienced two very joyous and fulfilling evenings of musical adventure. 

So often, what keeps people from enjoying classical music is that they think they won't feel comfortable in the environment, or they think they won't understand the music. And certainly, classical musicians and presenters often take themselves too seriously, and encourage the kind of attitude that only the cultured intellectuals belong in this world. It becomes a vicious circle and keeps ordinary people from discovering what the many genres of so called "serious" music have to offer. But Spring for Music is onto something. They really thought outside the box in terms of marketing, holding blogging and programming competitions via their website before the music making even began. They encouraged these symphonies to bring as many of their hometown fans as possible, giving the orchestras and their regular listeners the opportunity to have a shared experience outside their normal sphere, and enjoy and be inspired by what New York has to offer. They encouraged this all important "come one, come all" idea that is often absent, by making the tickets remarkably affordable and making the concert environment one of unbridled enthusiasm as opposed to quiet thumb twiddling. But the best part is that instead of combining all of this with "classical music's greatest hits" they allowed the audience to still be challenged by presenting works that were very likely new to many of the listeners, but infusing those new works with the absolute passion and commitment required to make them resonate. 

This is the big thing - how to make classical music more accessible without dumbing it down or distilling it to it's most basic famous pieces and nothing more. I think Spring for Music has found one answer to that question, and I hope that after their second, successful season, they become a model for more presenters and arts organizations down the road. And I'm not just saying that because they wrote me a check. I already cashed my check - at this point I could say whatever I wanted. And what I want is for people to know that this is a really good idea.

More like this, please. 

My year for going viral

I don't know what I did to please the internet gods before 2012 began (hopefully it wasn't the same thing I must have done to apparently piss off the jobs-a-plenty in classical music gods), but somehow I seem to be having a lot of my internet action get a lot of attention. It started with the video I made that I thought 20 people would watch, which now has over 100,000 views, followed by the shock of winning the Spring for Music Blogger Challenge, and culminating in my most recent article for the Huffington Post spreading like wildfire. Eeee-aaaa-saaaa-naaaa-oooooooohhh. (I don't know what language the internet gods speak, so I'll just offer up a random vocal exercise and hope they like it. Or maybe that's a line from the Mikado. I can't be sure.)

The thing that inspired me to write "Shouldn't You Be Fatter (and other opera singer myths)" last week was simple. I flew to Columbus to sing some Chausson and Durufle with the excellent Columbus Symphony, and when I checked into the hotel, the very friendly desk clerk asked me, "So - you're here with the symphony? What do you play?" and when I answered that I was a singer, she replied, "Oh! I didn't know they had singers at the symphony!" It made me realize how the average person has absolutely no idea whatsoever what it is that we opera singers do, and so I started forming some sentences to explain it. I kept having to duck down to the Starbucks across the street from the hotel because I refuse to pay $12.99 a day for the privelage of having the internet in my room (Why do hotels DO THAT? Don't answer that, I know, I know. But ARGH!!) so that I could publish and edit the essay on the Huff Post website, and I was shocked when it started to go viral. But it reminded me of just how many people out there either are either professional opera singers or studying to become them, and how passionate we are about what we do. However, based on some of the less supportive comments on my article, I think we may have to all band together and start a revolution to educate people about why what we do deserves more attention and yes, even admiration! 

The funniest thing that happened to me in Columbus happened while I was waiting to go onstage before the second half of the final concert. I had spent the day following the progress of my article, and enjoying watching it fly around the world at record speed. I was feeling pretty confident about myself, although nervous for the second half of the concert to begin when a gentleman from the chorus approached me and said "Boy, with a voice like that, shouldn't you be fatter?" At first I thought he must have read my article and was having fun with me, so I asked, "Do you read the Huffington Post?" But he responded "What's that? A paper here in town?" So it was purely a coincidence that he asked me the exact question that was the title of my article the day after it was published. It really made me laugh and cut the tension I was feeling before I walked out onstage, so for that, I thank him. 

And now that I'm back in New York, I'm headed to the first of the Spring for Music concerts at Carnegie Hall tonight. I will very much enjoy being at a concert where I don't have to worry about remembering the words or projecting into the hall. And where I bet noboby will comment on my weight. :)

Public Relations for Dummies

My friend and former roommate Will was always teasing me about my collection of those yellow "For Dummies" books. "Have you drawn anything lately?" He would ask, grinning. "Hey - have you trained for your marathon this week?" No, Will. I have not drawn anything (except my Draw Something doodles, and those are not helped by that damn book) and I certainly haven't run any marathons. However, I do like learning new things, which is why I am prone to keep buying those books. And one of these days I'm going to learn how to write in HTML, I swear.  

 

But in the meantime, one of the books I wished those Dummies people would write was the one about PR in the classical music industry. Instead of being one of those people that is convinced that PR is ruining the industry by foisting less talented but more beautiful people onto audiences, I think it can be used very creatively to bring in new audiences and to promote talented but under exposed artists . Plus, I'm always having some "great idea!!!!" but when using myself as a guinea pig, have had some mixed results. 

Some years ago, I had this burning desire to appear in Opera News Magazine. It just seemed like that was the big thing that happened to you when you were a young singer, and I wanted them to feature me in their "Sound Bites" section where they profile a singer at the beginning(ish) stages of their career. But I wanted to try to think of some angle that would make me stand out and appeal to them, and I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea. My best friend Georgia and I had been singing together since we were freshmen in college, when I was a mezzo and she was a soprano. We then swapped voice types for the rest of college, and ended up swapping back in grad school (precipiated by the fact that I heard her singing Chi il bel sogno one day in our living room when she was supposedely a mezzo and I was supposedly a soprano, and I knew that she shouldn't be able to decrescendo the high C that well, especially when I definitely couldn't). We had the same voice teacher all through college, moved to NY together and were roommates, had the same agent, and had even managed to sing opposite each other at the Caramoor Festival, at NYCO, and at Lake George Opera. I thought we had a cute story, and that it would be neat if we appeared together as the "Sound Bite." I wrote up a little article, had my agents pitch it to Opera News, and they were interested! They said they just needed to hear recordings of both of us to approve us for the magazine. 

Our agent sent what they had - for her, it was a professionally made recording of her singing La Sonnambula amazingly, and for me it was a mini disc recording my dad made from the 4th row when I sang Cenerentola. After they had listened to the recordings, they called our agent and said they wanted to proceed - but just with Georgia. Her initial reaction was that she would refuse the article because she felt terrible, but I forced her to do it - I wanted at least one of us to benefit from the whole ordeal! 

I was excited that my idea had, to some degree worked - it had gotten Georgia in front of Opera News, and had gotten them to pay attention to her. I was also, however, obviously crestfallen that they hadn't chosen me. But it taught me a few important lessons about creating your own PR;

1. The idea is important, but so is the execution. If you have an idea to get someone's attention, don't follow it up with a shoddy product (in this case, it was a non-professional recording of me).

2. Journalism is based on subjective judgement, and you have to be able to accept rejection if you're willing to put yourself out there. I really took it to heart when they "rejected" me, but in the end it didn't hurt my career that I wasn't in there - it was just one article. I should have used that enthusiasm to pursue other ideas, but instead, it really soured me towards thinking about PR for awhile. 

What has changed in PR in recent years is that artists actually have many more options and much more control over their ability to put themselves in front of people in a variety of ways. Not only can we create websites and write blogs, but we can create fan pages on Facebook and amass great followings on Twitter. I had actually resisted joining Twitter until about three quarters of the way through the Spring For Music competition. I was wondering aloud on facebook how some of the other competitors were able to get the word out and gain votes in the first couple of rounds, and someone in the professional PR industry who I had come to know mentioned that some of the bloggers were popular on Twitter. I felt like a real old lady when I first made a few steps towards setting up my Twitter account, but luckily, I had the help of both my tech savvy boyfriend Michael, and the PR professional I mentioned above, Maura Lafferty. 

Maura is a San Francisco based freelance publicity consultant for artists and arts organzations. I came to know her because she had appeared as a guest on the OperaNow! podcast, and I had already grilled her in that setting about PR within the classical music industry. And when it came to Twitter, she proved that she really knew her stuff - getting me set up with all the proper contacts within the music industry and helping me understand the etiquette of professional Twitterism. I asked her this week to answer a few PR questions for those of you artists who might like some advice on where to get started with your own PR and when a publicist might be able to help you. Here's what she said:

JR: What are a few PR essentials that artists and classical musicians can start thinking about for themselves? What is the best way to use social media (Facebook, twitter) for publicity?

ML:PR and marketing is about building relationships through telling compelling stories. The most important thing that artists can do is determine what makes them special, and figure out who that appeals to (this is what we mean when we talk about “target audience”). Social media is great for lowering how much work and resources it takes to make this happen – the free tools and information available online mean that anyone can build relationships, given some time, careful research, and a clear sense of the story they’re trying to tell. Bonus points if the story is culturally relevant and/or plays up familiar points of entry that will allow new audiences to connect.

JR: When is it time to seek the help of a professional publicist? How are independent publicists paid - by the hour, by the month, or based on how many sources they can get you in? Can you give us some ballpark figures?

ML:Publicists offer a variety of services, and the most important thing is to be clear about what you want when you hire someone. Services like consulting (advice on a project, list-building, etc) are more likely to be billed on an hourly rate, and more comprehensive projects (promoting a show, raising a specific artist or company’s profile, etc) are more likely to be billed on a retainer (monthly or project fee). Hourly fees tend to be more expensive than committing to a retainer or project fee, because the work is more difficult for the publicist, and less reliable. Pricing is generally determined by the current market, how much work the consultant currently has on his/her plate, and the quality of the service & results you can expect.

Performance-based pricing is difficult for PR or marketing consultants, just as it is for an artist. Placing stories is an inexact science, and results are dependent on a variety of factors, from the quality of the product, to the writers’ interests and how their schedule aligns with the production schedule, to how closely and authentically the project ties into to current media trends and stories.

A colleague provided this list of questions for clients to answer before starting a new project, which I think is a really valuable exercise for artists and administrators to be able to answer, as not articulating the answers to these upfront usually leads to problems on a project:

     What are we trying to do?

    Who’s our competition?

    To whom are we talking?

    What do we want to tell them?

    What do we want them to think about/do?

    What do they currently think about us?

    What is critical to our success?

    What are you concerned about?

    What is working currently?

    What do we do better than anyone else?

    How will we know we’ve been successful?

JR: What are some mistakes you see musicians and artists make in regards to their own PR - either things they do themselves or things they do with the help of a publicist?

ML:PR is just personal conversations played out in a grand arena – people join in because they’re intrigued by what’s being said, feel important, have an opinion to share, or want to be part of something larger than themselves. The same best practices apply to PR as you would treat any other relationship – with a friend, colleague, conductor, spouse, roommate, etc.

Most people who make PR blunders are the ones who do something that would be unacceptable in a personal relationship – making it about their ego and getting into some kind of fight, pulling a stunt that is considered out of line with the image we associate them with and therefore expect them to portray, or otherwise upsetting the balance between their personal desires and the expectations of stakeholders, whose trust is key to maintaining the relationships (donors, journalists, colleagues, etc). When it takes place in a public arena, the effect is magnified, and the power of the internet is the increased speed by which everyone is inter-connected, so each decision becomes more important. What we call “blunders” are decisions artists make that will generate a negative result which we can all collectively anticipate.

*******

So there you go. Some valuable information for artists about the role PR can play in our industry. Special thanks to Maura for her help with Twitter and for taking the time to answer these questions. You can find her on Twitter @MLaffs (she has over 3000 followers!!) and her personal website is mauralafferty.com. Now go out and get yourself noticed!

Oh - and you can find me on twitter @jjennymr - Maura would kick my butt if I forgot to mention that after all that work she did on my behalf! 

*edit - I realized after reading this that it looks like Maura is my official publicist and I have retained her, which is not the case. I have never had the occasion to retain a professional publicist - Maura helped me with twitter, and you all with these answers, purely out of the kindness of her heart.

What a blog competition can teach you about mankind

Ooooooooouf. Phew. Hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaammmmmmpppphhhhhhh. 

Sorry. I had to do those noises you make when you're doing yoga or exercising and you suddenly realize you've been holding your breath for the past 5 minutes and you have to let it out. Except instead of five minutes I've been holding my breath (and driving my boyfriend insane) for the past four weeks, and now I can finally exhale. I exaggerate a bit for comic affect, but it has been a rather harrowing but also rejuvenating experience entering and then finally winning (!!!) this Spring for Music Blogger Challenge

In addition to the cash prize (which is always welcome when you are a freelancer and income is sporadic), I gained some interesting insights about myself and other people. First, I was utterly amazed by the support I got from the people in the operatic community, especially during the last round when I finally decided to actually campaign a bit and let people know what I was up to and ask them to vote for me. In the first three rounds I posted about the competition on facebook, and that was about it. By the last round, I had wised up and realized that quasi facebook campaigining wasn't enough, and I needed to be more proactive, so I sent out emails to people, I joined twitter and tried to rapidly gain as many followers as possible, and I asked people on facebook to help me get the word out. And unlike my unsucessful campaign for Student Body Activities Director in 11th grade (my campaign speech consisted of a tap dance - I cannot imagine why I didn't win), it seemed to work. But more than that, I was incredibly moved by the fact that people took a geniuine interest in helping me, and got really involved in campaigining, asking friends and relatives to vote, and making me feel an unbelievable amount of support and friendship from all over the world. I have said before that one of the absolute best parts about having chosen this job is the people I am lucky enough to meet and get to know, and this competition was real evidence of that. I had people from Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, Russia, and all over the U.S, and Canada not only rooting for me, but sending me notes of encouragement, sharing the competition with their friends, and watching each day as the votes were counted. That sense of community, despite the fact that my friends are scattered around the world, was absolutely the best part of this whole experience. 

And while all this was happening, I got contacted by the Huffington Post, asking whether I wanted to be a regular contributor to their Culture section. I said absolutely, sent them one of my articles, they chose it as their lead story the next day - and suddenly I had an even wider audience. This is actually a dream come true scenario for me because one of my passions is the idea of spreading understanding about the arts and culture, and opera in particular (since it's what I know) to a larger audience by showing them that it's not as difficult to understand and appreciate as they've been led to believe. I hope my articles in the Huffington Post will be able to accomplish that in some small measure - and I've already gotten ideas for many more articles based on the comments that have come in from my first article. I'm excited about this new chapter. 

Another interesting by-product of this whole shebang was the things I was able to observe and learn about varying people's attitudes within this industry. First of all there was the whole idea for the competition, which I personally think was brilliant. It drove people in hordes to the Spring for Music website, and got bloggers all over talking about the competition. The fact that there were people bitterly complaining about the existence of this competition and it's merits is laughable to me. That kind of intellectual snobbery is exactly the kind of thing that keeps regular people from possibly gravitating towards these forms of art that might intimidate them already. My whole deal is that yes, there is certailnly a great deal of scholarship involved in the study of classical music and other "fine" art forms, and that is definitely an important element of what we all do. But as this now viral video reminds us, music engages so many different parts of the brain that even people who have become basically non responsive can literally reanimate their brains with the help of an ipod. And shutting people out and looking down on those that are deemed less scholarly is the perfect way to make the fine arts totally inaccessible to a huge swath of the poplulation - which keeps our industries from growing and keeps us from having jobs! How is that doing anyone any good? I really wanted to include some of the specific quotes and tweets complaining about how either the competition or more specifically I lacked "intellectual relevance," but Michael convinced me that it would be "churlish." True dat. 

But the reason I even thought to include those comments and tweets is that, if I feel marginalized by these people, who obviously are worried that their art forms are being corrupted by people less intelligent and intelletual than they are (I mean - come on folks, I'm not Katherine Jenkins or Jackie Evancho - I did go to Juilliard for heaven's sake!), imagine how a regular person who doesn't know Beethoven from Rembrandt must feel! It just doesn't behoove us to shut people out and make this an exclusive club that you can only enter if you qualify for Mensa. It doesn't help our art forms grow and it certainly doesn't help us gain what we desperately need - a wider audience. I understand that you don't want things dumbed down - I don't want people to confuse what Jenkins and Evancho do with what I do either - but you can't expect everyone to know everything that you've had the privelege to learn. Shame on you, you artsy fartsy intellectuals. Don't shut the door on the rest of us - we need high culture just as much as you do - probably more. 

But I would rather not end this post on a sour note, because the people that really matter to me - those of you that were kind enough to support me and encourage me not only during this competition, but since I began blogging - far outnumber the negatives. YOU are why I keep writing and you are what inspires me to keep coming up with new ideas. And you know what? There was one dude complaining about me that had one thing right - I should blog more often. So thank you to him and to you all. It's a great time to be an artist - we have so many challenges, but we therefore have so much purpose! 

And one more thing; if you're in New York - please check out at least one of the Spring for Music concerts - the tickets are only 25 bucks and they've got some cool music programmed. See you there!  

Semantics and scrappiness

Well, I've made it to the final round. Four bloggers still standing. All classical music bloggers. I'm not surprised we're the last ones left - we're scrappy. Music may still be a big part of our society, but classical music has become such a specialty genre (remember when big record labels used to give tons of classical artists their own recording contracts?) that in order to stay afloat, we classical musicians don't just have to learn to swim, we have to Michael Phelps it all the way. So here goes - outta my way - I'm going for the gold!

The final question the Spring for Music folks have chosen is quite a doozey:

"Save the arts? Really? Why do so many people think the arts need saving? Do we need to save the arts, and if so, what does saving them mean?"

I got docked some points in the last entry by Judge #1 for mentioning Nicki Minaj's Grammy performance without much back story, and in hindsight, it did seem kind of random thrown into that post. But the thing is, when I watched her performance, it had a strong effect on me. It was my first time watching the actual Grammy broadcast in ages. I had spent the afternoon watching the webcast of the Classical Grammys - they put the classical nominees in a whole other theater and don't give them any actual TV time, but at least they are watchable somewhere. Anyway, I was really interested in the proceedings because two friends of mine, Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein, were nominees for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for the recording of their Opera Elmer Gantry. I happen to be extremely well acquainted with that opera because I sang in the world premiere in 2007, and knowing both the story of how the opera finally came to fruition, and loving the composition itself, I was really rooting for them.

The short version of their journey (sorry, I know I can be long winded - you should see my agony when trying to compose a tweet) is that after they originally composed the opera, the company slated to perform it changed hands and the new management had other ideas. Bob and Herschel then spent 17 years - SEVENTEEN!!- trying to get someone else to produce it with no luck (here's the whole story in more detail from a New York Times article), until Nashville Opera finally agreed, which led to more sucessful performances, a recording, and this Grammy, which by the way, they ended up winning! The opera is based on the 1927 novel of the same name, which tells the story of a conniving fake Evangelist, and his religious adventures and romantic exploits. It suited itself perfectly to an operatic retelling, and the premiere, when it finally did happen, was an enormous success. And it never would have happened if the composer and the librettist hadn't been scrappy classical musicians who were determined to keep going even in spite of seemilngly insurmountable odds.

So, after I watched the webcast of the Classical Grammys, and cried tears of joy when Bob and Herschel were finally recognized on a national stage for their achievement, I figured I would just go ahead and watch the regular Grammys on TV. Why not? Let's see what the kids are into these days, I figured. After I spent the first hour shouting at the TV (Chris Brown is back? When did that happen?) we came to the grand finale, the Nicki Minaj version of a rapping religious exorcism. I actually hadn't heard of her before that moment and I was personally just plain confused by what was happening on the Grammy stage. I knew she was trying to be shocking and unique - and in fact, there was something vaguely operatic about the performance - all the crazy costumes and sets and singing and dancing, and even the whole idea of "concept" music making. But the thing that made me mad was that literally millions of people were watching this spectacle, compared with the tens (lets be honest here) of people who tuned into the Classical Grammy webcast, and even if they did, there was no excerpt played from the Best Contemporary Classical Composition anyway. All these people were watching an artistic opinion being expressed about the part religion plays in society, complete with singing, dancing and acting, but they had no opportunity whatsoever to even know that there existed another Grammy nominee that was tackling the same topic in a totally different way. I wanted the audience to have the chance to be moved to tears. Or to be scratching their heads in confusion (as I happened to be at her performance). I wanted them to have a choice. Both Minaj and the Gantry composers had overcome various adversities in order to express their message (Minaj made it from Trinidad to the U.S., studied clarinet and drama in high school, and found her way from back-up singing to stardom - no easy feat) . Both deserved to be seen and heard.

Minaj's performance was definitely an artistic one, and the fact that I'm still talking about it means that she obviously had a point of view. And even though I didn't really "get it" I would never suggest that the art she was creating that night is in any way inferior to any opera or other form of classical music making, dance, or visual art (all art is subjective, after all). But the difference between what she's creating, and what my friends Bob and Herschel created is that she currently has this enormous national audience - even international, because pop music and movies are the two biggest artistic exports from the U.S., while my opera composing buddies had to spend 17 years schlepping around their fantastic (grammy winning - did I mention that?) piece of art in order to finally get somebody to show it to people, and even then it was limited to the 2500 people or so who were seeing it in Nashville. A lot of the audiences watching Nicki Minaj probably think they would have no interest in watching Elmer Gantry because it's an opera, I just happen to think they don't have any idea what they're missing.

Elmer Gantry with Keith Phares and Vale Rideout, Nashville Opera

And so when people say art needs saving, I don't think they mean pop music or the movie industry (which is definitely art, no matter how snobby you wanna be about it). I think what they mean is that more people in today's society need to be exposed to other art forms as well, so that we can encourage more diverse and creative thinking among our general population. People tend to praise artists like Minaj and Lady Gaga because they are so unique and creative in their presentation. But Gaga and Minaj have nothing on some experimental theater groups, or the wacky quacky Regie opera productions, or some modern dance companies that use movement in new and astounding ways. So "save" probably isn't the best word - I would say a better word would be "expand." Let's expand the average citizen's knowledge about the existence of all the different art forms with the justification that more exposure to creativity usually leads to a more open mind, and allows for a better dialogue on a variety of subjects. And with all the conflict we have in the world today, I'd say creating any outlet for dialogue is a very valuable thing.

Georgia Jarman in English National Opera's The Tales of HoffmanLady Gaga at Grammys

 

 

 

 

How we expand people's exposure to more art forms is a whole additional blog post (and I did have a few ideas about it in my last post - mostly education, education, education). But there is one topic that is hugely important and unignorable because it is exemplified beautifully by this very competition for which I'm composing this post. Digital technology and social media are tools that should not to be ignored as very potent ways of getting people to pay attention to otherwise marginalized art forms and artistic organizations. A friend of mine who is an English musician living in London had never heard of Spring for Music, but became aquainted with the Festival as a result of going to the website and religiously voting for yours truly in this competition. "But what an intriguing idea for a festival!" He told me "I would totally come if I were in New York!" Now, he happens to be a classical musician himself, but I doubt that every single person who has gone to the S4M website as a result of this competition has that same pedigree, and even if only a small number of people say to themselves "$25 tickets for a concert at Carnegie Hall? I've never been to a symphony concert before, but this sounds really interesting," this competition has done its job. Not to mention all of the arts bloggers and writers who are enflaming the twittersphere and comingling with information about the competition, and therefore the festival itself. It's a brilliant PR move - and one that will actually have some positive consequences not just for the festival, but for the potential audiences, both new and old. Just showing people what's available to them is often half the battle.

So I think we need to look at our vocabulary choices when attempting to promote any form or art. If we swap out "save the arts" for "expand peoples exposure to all types of art," it gives us an entirely more positive and concrete mission on which to focus. When we say we need to "save" symphony music performances, not only does it diminish the participation of the people already actively engaged in loving that type of music, it suggests that there may be a time when people will no longer perform Mozart and will only perform Moby. My instincts tell me that we don't have to fear any kind of crazy dystopian future in which Mozart won't exist, but I do think we need to be constantly vigilant about making sure that as many people as possible are aware that Wolfgang can be one of the many choices on our ipods. And we classical music bloggers are doing our ever loving best to get the word out.

After I found out that I'd passed on to the next round in this competition this morning, I called my parents to let them know, and to tell them what the next question I was answering was. Being a very independent thinker, I didn't want their input, but my mom, being a painter, sculptor and potter herself, couldn't help but weigh in just before she hung up, with, "Don't forget, the arts are irrepressible!!" She has a point. The arts will never need saving, because throughout history, we have proven that we need creativity in order to survive our own humanity and to help understand our own mortality. Art seems to stick around as part of the human condition, and no matter how the society evolves or devolves, creativity remains. Art is irrepressible - we know because it has been created in even the most horrendous and repressed conditions, like the concentration camp in Terezin, whose prisoners produced inumerable pieces of art, including a complete opera; Der Kaiser von Atlantis, which is still being performed in opera houses today. Art is not something that can ever be repressed because within every human being exists the ability to create. We don't need to save art because art saves us. This, at least, can give us some hope for the future.

Thanks Mom.

Voting begins Monday, and this is the final round, so I really need your support if you read my blog. You can vote every day, Monday through Thursday, so please vote early and vote often as the say. Click here or here, and select Trying to Remain Operational and click vote. I was knocked into 4th place at the last minute by ONE VOTE, so yes, every vote counts! Thank you!!

Arts in America

Why am I home right now, staring out the window, attempting to be a brilliant writer instead of wailing my guts out somewhere in an opera? Well, one reason is that I was supposed to have a gig this spring with San Antonio Opera - I was going to sing Rosina in a production of the Barber of Seville. Except San Antonio Opera filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and no longer exists as of a few weeks ago. Too bad for opera lovers in San Antonio, and too bad for opera singers who were supposed to make their living singing there. So instead of singing, I'm sitting in my apartment thinking about how a lack of arts funding in the U.S. really really stinks for someone like me.

I don't like to disparage the U.S. - I really do like it here and choose to make it my home, even though I have almost moved to Italy, France, or Germany about 16 times per country. But in the last three years, almost 70% of my income has come from my gigs abroad, and so I spend a lot of time contemplating why there seems to be so many more opportunities for artists (opera singers, particularly) outside the U.S than here at home (this is not to discount the fabulous network of regional opera companies that have developed here over the years - but there are currently more singers than there are jobs here, and a lot of very talented, but out of work artists). I've had more encounters than I care to recount with seemingly cultured, educated Americans who have thrown questions at me like, "You're an opera singer? Is that like Phantom of the Opera?" or "An Opera Singer?!?! Aren't you too skinny to be an Opera Singer?" compared with the dozens of conversations I've had with Italian taxi drivers and fruit sellers, and Austrian shopkeepers and maitre d's about what repertoire the opera company in town has planned for this year, or what type of mezzo soprano I am, or whether I prefer Mozart or Verdi. Now, this is not the fault of those Americans asking me those less than informed questions (I could have easily been one of them had my path not steered me towards singing) - the problem is that not only is our country young, and our history doesn't intertwine with our cultural heritage for the past bunch of centuries, but we are also not brought up to believe (as they are in other countries) that arts and culture are a human right, one that we all deserve and are entitled to.

Which brings me to this week's question for Round Three of Spring for Music's Blogger Challenge:

Many countries have ministries of culture. Does America need a Secretary of Culture or Secretary of the Arts? Why or why not?

It's a subject I contemplate all the time because of the pull between my "love of homeland," as cheesy as that sounds, and my need to make a living. A couple of years ago I had just finished two great gigs in Berlin, was slated for a few more, and had spent a fair amount of time in Germany having those kinds of fulfilling conversations with shopkeepers and restaurant waiters that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. I was all set to just pack up my life and move over there, where there was lots more work, more respect and admiration for artists by the general population, and government subsidized opera companies who were not likely to go bankrupt and close their doors any time soon. But then life got in the way - I fell in love with an American, if you must know - and I realized that deep down, I really did want to live my life in my own city in my own country, where I didn't feel like an outsider, where my family was nearby, and where I could shop at Target and easily find a decent burger. But it left me wondering why things were always so freaking hard over here for an artistic type like me, and more importantly, what could be done about it.

So, to answer the blogger challenge; YES!! Of course we need a Secretary of Culture or a Secretary of Arts or even an Undersecretary of Anti Reality TV! We need somebody to run naked, wearing nothing but a hat made out of ketchup bottles, up and down the aisles of the televised Grammy awards screaming "WE NEED MORE CULTURE IN THIS COUNTRY -AND I DON'T MEAN NICKI MINAJ DRESSING IN RELIGIOUS ROBES AND PRETENDING TO LEVITIATE!!!" (if you don't know what I'm talking about check youtube - it totally freaked me out, and made me feel about 150 years old when I saw it on TV). But realistically, are we ever going to get one? And the answer to that, I fear, is; Probably not.

Americans are a society of self made individuals - we are pioneers who like to make our own living, and putting too much back in the pot for the betterment of society doesn't really jive with our capitalistic spirit. And I don't think we'll ever get a higher tax rate for government subsidised arts organizations like they have in Brazil for example (as discussed here in this droolworthy New York Times article about Brazil's surplus - SURPLUS - of arts funding), especially when we're too busy fighting over things like whether to raise the debt ceiling or whether to tax millionaires. When our elected officials gleefully make disparaging comments about the NEA (okay, it was Sarah Palin on Fox News, but still), it suggests that to even consider adding culture to our list of social responsiblitiies would be a big challenge. And with no government Arts funding, a Secretary of Culture would be sitting in Washington twiddling her thumbs, watching helplessly as one arts organization after another lost funding and had to shut its doors.

So where does that leave us? Adrift in a sea of sinking organizations that can only exist if rich people feel like making charitable contributions that year?

I think what it tells us is that artists have to take more personal responsibility for keeping the arts alive and vibrant. We create art, yes. But we must also, each of us, take responsibility for creating new audiences, and spreading culture to as many people as we can. American artists have the tools to create a better and more diverse environment for ourselves and our communities. Our cultural history is so short that it doesn't stare at us every day in our ancient works of art or our centuries old architechture. But we Americans happen to be great pioneers, entrepreneurs, and critical thinkers. So without a Minister of Culture, artists themselves each need to become Ambassadors of their Art.

Well, duh, you say. But how, exactly?

Let me take you on a bit of a tangent for a second here, but one I swear I will tie in with my whole spiel.

One of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my artistic life was part of an "Arts in Education" course I took while I was a student at Juilliard. The course was designed not to help us become music teachers (an under-appreciated and supremely important component in our society - but that's a whole other tangent - sorry!), but to train us to use our abilities as creative artists to empower students of any age to become engaged in the arts in new ways. As part of this course, I taught two classes twice a week for a semester in the New York City Public Schools. I was assigned a class of lower income first and second graders who couldn't have been more horrified the first day I showed up and sang an aria for them right in their classroom. But not surprisingly, after spending only one semester, a couple of hours per week with them doing interactive activities which gave them a foothold into this art form which initially couldn't have been more foreign to them, they were absolutely hooked on opera. It's difficult for me to explain the joy I felt when I witnessed a class of 6 and 7 year olds begging for me to replay sections of Ravel's Opera L'Enfant et les Sortileges- in french, mind you -over and over, so that they could sing along. Their collective excitement was absolutely unabashed, and I know for a fact that for the rest of their lives they will have a different association with opera than most of their peers, who simply have never been exposed to anything like it.

We could and should be doing so much more to educate young people about the arts in this country. And I'm not just talking about basic music classes, which seem to be diminishing to the point of non-existence, sadly. I'm talking about every university, opera company, symphony, theater, and musem using teaching artists to go into the schools and infect the young minds with their enthusiasm and knowledge about the arts. Every school of music throughout the country should have an "Arts in Education" program like the one we had at Juilliard, where artists learn that it is their social responsibility to share their knowledge, and they learn the tools to do just that, while still maintaining careers as artists. Every dress rehearsal at every concert or opera should be filled with kids - but kids that have been prepared and can understand what they are about to hear. Musicians, actors, artists, and dancers should spend those lean years after they graduate from college or conservatory and before they get their big break in their chosen field - not as waiters and shoe salesmen, but as personal Cultural and Arts Secretaries to their communities, and we should compensate them for it. That's not a tax, that's job creation - and neither side can argue with that!

I'm obviously not the first person to come up with these ideas. In addition to the Julliard program, Carnegie Hall has developed a wonderful program for young musicians, with a residency which is heavy in teaching artist activities. A couple of friends of mine from school created an incredible non-profit foundation called Sing For Hope, which allows artists to use their art for education and to raise money for charitable foundations . Most opera companies, orchestras and museums certainly have outreach departments. But even more than this, I'm talking about instilling a sense of responsibility into each artist as an individual, and encouraging a new outlook among American trained artists that makes us not only creators, but sharers. I know, I know; sharers is not a word - but it should be. We are the most creative people in society for goodness sake, shouldn't we be using that creativity to change the way people think? We already do that with the art we create, but if there aren't enough people left who appreciate the arts as older generations die out, for whom are we even going to be creating it?

So yes - we definitely NEED Secretaries of Culture and Arts, but we shouldn't hold our breaths, waiting around for somebody in politics to suddenly see their value. Instead, we must each take on new responsibilities and blaze a new path for what it means to be an artist AND an artistic ambassador. And the individual spirit that Americans possess makes us particularly qualified to do just that.

I lifted this photo off the NEA website: A Hubbard Street Dance Chicago teaching artist leads a fourth-grade classroom in a movement activity as part of the MIND (Moving In New Directions) residency program. Photo by Todd Rosenberg

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Hey, look at me and my tight pants!

A woman stands backstage wearing a pair of skin tight leggings stretched over a pair of 4 inch stilettos and pulled up to her waist. The look is topped with a shredded men's shirt and a military style bolero jacket, all of which have been designed by the fashion icon Christian Lacroix. She enters the performance area by mounting a set of steep mirrored stairs, and has a very heated, sexually charged exchange involving another woman and an apple that is painted blue, which they hold in their mouths as they slowly dance around one another in a circle. The other woman exits and the woman in the tight pants proceeds to lie down on the floor and stick her crotch in the air, which by the way, I forgot to mention, is covered in a big sparkly codpiece.

Which high cultural art form was this a description of?

Well, what if I would have told you that the stairs being ascended were leading to a platform that extended into the theater of the Berlin Staatsoper, in front of an orchestra pit full of players from the Akademie für Alte Musik and the conductor René Jacobs, and that while said woman was lying on the floor with her crotch thrust in the air, she was simultaneously singing an aria? And also, p.s., that the woman was me? Well then you might have guessed "An Opera," on your first try -but that wouldn't have been nearly as mysterious. Plus, then you would have answered my next question for the Spring for Music Blogger Challenge right away (yup - I made it to round two), without allowing me a couple of paragraphs to convince you first.

I feel kind of bad, because the initial question they asked was about the cultural capital of the U.S., which I said was New York City, where I happen to live. And now they're asking the following question:

We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?

And I feel like I've been asked another question that I am particularly qualified to answer becuase the answer just happens to be my own profession. Maybe I'm biased, but they say if you wanna write, you should write what you know, so sue me, I'm standing by my answers.

I think there are two ways to look at this question - the first would be which art form has been the most affected by contemporary culture, and the second would be which art form is the most likely to be used as a platform to comment on contemporary culture. And my answer to both those questions is still: Opera. Go figure.

First of all, the way Opera as an art form has developed in the 20th and 21st century tells us a lot about this culture in which the image has become such a dominating factor. People in the opera world often point out that this seems to be the era of the director - as compared the previous eras, where impresarios and conductors ruled the roost. Also, beauty of person is coming dangerously close to knocking out beauty of voice for the most important factor in making an opera singer famous. In Europe especially, productions that are visually stunning (or often, shocking) are the norm, and most reviews that you read of operas both here and in Europe go into much more detail about the production itself than the level of music making. Directors often expect singers to do things that never would have been asked of them even 30 years ago, and singers, who are so frequently these days slim and athletic, usually comply. The infamous "Little Black Dress" scandal, where Deborah Voigt, one of the leading Strauss singers of her generation, was fired from a production of Ariadne auf Naxos because she didn't fit into the director's ideal of how she should look in the costume, was an example of how things are changing. Voigt then went on to have weight loss surgery, and the now slim soprano is taking on roles like Salome - a role she probably wouldn't have considered at her previous weight.

Singing opera is really hard. The demands of training this instrument like you would a violin - but one that happens to be inside your throat, combined with learning to amplify your voice so that it can naturally carrry to as many as 4,000 people, and doing so with sure footed technique, taste, and style, and often in a foreign language is in and of itself pretty major. But in today's market, all that stuff I just mentioned is not enough - you should also be really, really pretty. The other day I was watching a video of Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne singing the famous duet from Norma. I'm not sure any two singers will ever sing that duet with more precision, beauty, and such an unbelieveable symbiosis, and it got me thinking about the two most famous singers that might be cast in those roles in a production today. I thought immediately of Netrebko and Garanca, two women who definitely have gorgeous voices, but who are also wrapped up in gorgeous packages. Don't get me wrong, Horne and Sutherland were both gorgeous too, but our standards of beauty have changed so much, I fear that if Marilyn Horne auditioned to sing Adalgisa today for a production at the Met that was going to be broadcast into HD movie theaters, somebody would say she didn't have the right "body type" for the role, and they would tell dame Joan that she was "too tall - and we're also not sure how that jaw of yours will read in a close up."

Of course, focusing on the visual aspect of this amazing art form isn't necessarily a bad thing. The production I was describing in the beginning of this post was Handel's Agrippina that I was lucky enough to be a part of in 2010 in Berlin. I say lucky becuase this was an example of all the elements of opera coming together for a production that highlights the visual beauty, the drama, and the music equally. The conductor was very exacting musically, and the director respected that the drama was IN the music, not IN SPITE OF the music, so we got to have our proverbial cake and eat it too. Plus I got to wear clothes designed specifically for me by Christian Lacroix. I mean, come on - in what universe can that be anything but amazing?

But as for my second reading of the question, that wonders which art form is the most effectively able to comment on our contemporary culture within the frame of the art form itself, I again have to answer that it's opera. Because opera combines all the elements of art - visual art, music, drama, and dance (maybe movement would be more accurate - but my crotch aria that I talked about before felt pretty dance-y to me, frankly), it is very alluring to directors as a platform for creativity. Not only does it combine all the above elements, but it also allows them to comment on questions that have been posed literally for centuries, but in a modern context. Both Peter Sellars and Jonathan Miller have set Italian operas (Cosi Fan Tutte and L'Elisir D'Amore, respectively) in an American Diner. Or more controversially, the director Graham Vick's recent settings of La Clemenza di Tito in the 30's, with Tito as a fascist, and Rossini's Moses in Egypt in contemporary times, where Moses was dressed like Bin Laden and the Jews were terrorists gassing the Egyptians. The list of opera productions that both push the limits and challenge (and often enrage or at least annoy) the audience goes on and on. What other art form not only allows, but encourages those kinds of provacative additions to pieces of art that have already been in existence for hundreds of years?

 

Because of its visual aspect, Opera has the unique ability to move forward with our culture of images, but still present a historical document musically of what has been around for centuries. So I don't think we should automatically poo-poo the current trend towards productions and beauty having their place in our world. I just think we should find the balance between all the elements, and I know it's possible because I've been part of productions that did just that. In fact, I like to think that my sparkly cod-piece and I are helping to keep opera relevant, one baroque thrust at a time.

 

 

 

 

 Just so you know I wasn't exaggerating in my first paragraph: Pictured: Me and Anna Prohaska, Berlin State Opera, 2010. Photo courtesy of Marcos Fink.

(there was one photo with the cod piece, but frankly I found it a little R rated for this highly reputable bunch of bloggers. Look it up on youtube if you want to be shocked) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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