Saturday, December 31, 2011


I love New Year's Resolutions. It is very much the style to dis them, or to talk about making "real" ones so that you avoid disappointment and failure. I have read several articles on this topic over the last few days. Don't set those big, unbounded goals, like losing weight or quitting smoking, because you are bound to disappoint yourself. Make it manageable, some simple daily goal that you know you can achieve.

Now this is very sensible, to choose something you can and will actually DO. In fact, are not the small daily steps the road to the big, unbounded goal? Seems kind of...obvious...but in any case, yes, bravo, set the easy-to-meet criteria and get going, put one foot in front of the other und so weiter.

But can I just raise my hand and say a few words in defense - nay, in FAVOR - of disappointment and failure (sigh. Are we really grown so afraid of these things)?

I'm an unabashed believer in the big dream, and I believe not on faith but on evidence. Brothers and sisters, I have seen people reinvent their lives over and over again. People start businesses. People quit drinking. People get married, have children, create art, move to new cities, speak in foreign tongues, and then they throw everything in their life up in the air and try something new. They set their sights on a prize far off, and then they move.

And yes, small daily steps are part of that journey. But so are the long vision, the dare, the jump off the cliff into the unknown. And so are failure and disappointment.

One of the many great things that performing can teach you is this: error is part of learning. We spend all kinds of time in practice rooms learning our music. And then, when we start staging rehearsals, all kinds of musical mistakes get made. As new information comes in, and as new skills are put together, details get temporarily dropped. It's not a clean process. The messiness is part of the learning - it IS the learning.

Performers screw up. Parents do too, children, friends, colleagues, everybody. You resolve to do something and then you don't do it. But are you maybe just in the middle of learning how?

It's a new, shiny year, which is of course just a made-up boundary. Make yourself some promises and dream yourself some dreams, and don't misunderstand success to be something so small that a little momentary heartbreak can kill it. Get out there and mess something up, cry over the spilled milk. There is such reward waiting over there, past whatever boundary you've made up, wherever you imagine is too far.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Kinds of Blue

Freezing fog, gorgeous from my window, shrouds the glowing city. The Stefansdom spire lost in the mist, the unlit Christmas lights strung over the Kärntnerstrasse, the steps to the Albertina painted like the Monet waterlilies, everything blurs in the watery air. People are wrapped in down coats with furry hoods, or maybe they didn't plan and so hurry by with their hands shoved in their pockets and their scarves wrapped high over their ears. I was in the latter group last winter, but now I'm strolling with the former, on my way home through the cold night, snacking on the icy air and still tasting the horn solos Paul dished out in the warm little club.

He played the blues tonight, a group of guys joyously rocking the tunes, laughing and smiling and joking the sad lyrics. "Glück im Unglück", said my colleague a few days ago, not speaking of the blues. She was talking about a friend jumping into the last opera in our Ring cycle. Too bad about the friend who had to cancel, but oh how glorious the substitute. She brought down the house (a little opera pun there for my geek friends). The orchestra was detailed and monumental, grand under the famous conductor, one of the best in the world, and we were all in the Loge to weep at the beauty of it and to cheer.

And since then I have felt a little sad. Not the scary sadness, but, well, blue. I met the beautiful substitute ten years ago, at another opera house. There was also a great orchestra there, under the leadership of a great conductor. The Rings I had the pleasure of working on there were life-changing for me. The first ones came when we were newish in New York, still missing Seattle but starting to get the hang of things. The community aspect of working on the Ring (Wagnerians are a clannish bunch) was such a part of becoming rooted in the city and in my job. That house, and that conductor, were an arrival point for me, a seminal part of my professional life. Now that era is coming to an end, as all eras must. But that's been just an idea to me. Something about being in the presence of another truly great Ring this week made the penny drop for me: the first important era of my grownup professional life is past.

Digging a bit deeper, past work, it's simpler: those people are still incredibly important to me, and I miss them. There's the second shade of blue tonight, passing my subway stop, turning onto my street, past the Apotheke, the Altwaren shop, the Mittelschule, in other words, my neighborhood.

Home. A complex little word, that.

It's easy to identify the stresses of moving. Everything's new: the job, the apartment, the people, the language, the habits. Learning all the new info is hard. But there's another part. I believe some of that first year suffering is your whole self dragging its feet as you try to adjust, denying and refusing the whole way, because it knows better than you that you're about to lose something.

My new Ring family made me long for the old one. Jazzland tonight made me miss the OK Hotel. Siggy's guitar playing makes me hear Ken. Glasergasse in the cold is so far away from the warm nights on Thornton Road.

Vienna is full of friends and familiarity and warmth now, but that means that another set of relationships and loves has receded. I've done this before, and I know that I get to keep more than I lose. But tonight, turning my key in the lock of my door, entering my home at the end of a day filled with people and music, I hope it does no disservice to anyone here if I allow myself a cup of tea and a slightly melancholy blogpost. So much other music and so many other people are on my heart.


Thursday, November 10, 2011


That side of the house is cold because of the sun. It shines on the roses out back. In the kitchen you can stand on your toes and see him in the the garden, gently pruning, turning the blossoms this way and that. Otherwise they won't grow, she says, or at least not be so pretty. I don't really understand how it works, she says, and takes the warm bread out of the oven.

The electric blanket is because of the bedroom on the cold side. You have to shut the door because of her snoring, so the rest of the house can't share the warmth. In the city they didn't have the extra space, but now we can take turns visiting. There is a strange odor when the blanket heats up in the cold room, but it isn't dangerous.

Don't we take care of you, he says. He is not afraid of bees. I don't go near the roses. They are fragrant in the light, tied to their stakes.

In the living room we watch TV, the Clancy Brothers on Johnny Carson. Past bedtime, she says. Don't tell your folks, he says. The room is warm and rich, bread and whiskey and pipe tobacco. His smile, her gentle early dozing. The song from the old country. The national anthem.

I don't know how to refuse the electric blanket's oppressive, heavy spell. I unplug it in the dark, secretly, to spare their feelings, but of course by then it is too late.


Thursday, November 3, 2011


Tonight I sat in the dark as Stephen Gould, Christian Thielemann, and the Vienna Phil brought the Forging Song to brilliant life. Fire flamed up and flickered in the orchestra, metal glared, the maestro coolly held the forces in hand so that the tenor could ride the waves with gusto. "Ho hei!" sings the tenor, while hammering away at the newly forged Nothung, the sheer joy and effort of his work taking him beyond language into pure music.

Wagner brings out the hammers when there's work to be done. Rheingold's Donner (Thor, really, but in this story a much less awesome god than Wotan), eager to dispel the confusion left by Alberich's curse, gathers the winds to him with a "Heda, hedo" before he deals his thunderous Schlag. In the second act of Meistersinger, Hans Sachs  is also moved to nonsense syllables and hammer blows as he tries to take care of business. "Jerum, jerum, hallo hallo he!" he cries, whatever that means, slogging away over a pair of shoes and drowning out a troublesome rival. 

The act of working itself lifts the characters out of their lengthy Wagnerian discussions into an act rhythmic, repetitive, and purely melodic, unbound by syntax and meaning. The exertions of labor seek and find their release. Some of Wagner's characters are part magical, pure expressions of nature, and their voices leave human hammerstrikes behind to dwell in a deep world of mysterious meanings. Their syllables bear no explanation, nor do they need one. The Rheinmaidens in the water, the Valkyries in the air call to us as the birds or the wind called to us in childhood, when we could still understand everything. Weia, wala, heia, hoyotoho. Siegfried will later drink dragon's blood and understand the woodbird's speech, but in the Forging Song he is on his way, a lumbering, powerful bird himself with his wordless song. 

Good, honest, simple work, the way to bliss, one seamlessly connected to the other. It is that easy...until the neighbors spill out into the chaotic street, until you put in on the wrong shore. Because, legends teach us, beauty and peril dwell together, the search will lead you astray, and dark oblivion will mask itself in a friend's chalice or a sweet song. The pull of desire, the gleam of the gold - are these the real treasure, found at last? Is it your true love calling to you, or is it Lorelei?

Where is your wisdom? 

The strong work of rowing the boat slows and calms to a gentle rocking. It feels so like the good release after honest exertion. Is it not the same, have you not earned it? You notice your own face reflected in the waves, more beautiful than ever.

Stay with me. Whose voice calls you?

The oars are idle at your side. Can you still decide to pick them up again? 

Halb zog sie ihn, halb sank er hin. 

Oh, Lorelei will take you down to the bottom of the river, and you will want to go.

Wehe, wehe. 

Nights like these, in the darkened theater, the Rhein swirls up at me from out of the orchestra pit, takes me, drowns me. I know it's not Lorelei, because I know her song. I'll never take the journey without sharpening my gaze into the blackness, scanning the shore for danger. But the journey, yes, absolutely, above all things: for the navigation, for the work, for the wordless joy.

Weia, leia, hei ha. 

3 years

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ring, November 1

Vollendet das ewige Werk.

Now that we are building our own little Valhalla out in Texas, I have a moment of kinship with Wotan as he intones these words tonight. I hear his sentence mundane and literal for the first time, the stress and strain and hope and ambition involved in creating a castle. Of course, the giants are the ones doing the labor, and there arises the complicated question of ownership. What did you do, and what do you believe you have earned? Wotan and the giants each demand, offer, and accept unreasonable reward, reward that is not theirs to give or receive - a beautiful goddess, youth, and the gold they've heard about from the Rhein. So the story begins in theft and deception, every god for himself.  Wotan wants power, Fricka wants Wotan, and they imagine that Valhalla will bind these things to them, or the gold will, or surely something will - but their doubt runs through the whole piece. Give it up, they say to each other, the gold or the girl, but that is the hardest thing to do.

Herrliche Wohnung, wonniger Hausrat, sollten dich binden zu säumender Rast.

Outside the theater, it is All Saints', and people are buying flowers and taking the trams to the cemeteries. There are the former citizens of Wien, Vienna, Vinobodna, in houses no more permanent than any built on earth or in the clouds. It's different in death, though, when the hands have opened and have had to let go. No one fights over the house. Flowers are brought, and poems, and balloons, and toys, and they say, this space belongs to us still.

Was mächtig der Furcht mein Mut mir erfand.

This morning, over coffee, I did some more work on my family tree, pages of my dead. I love the narrative of my immigrant ancestors. Piecing together the patchy stories left to us, I can build a sense of what these people gave to me - of course, that's not what they imagined they were doing. They did unreasonable things, crazy things, in the service of acquiring something bigger, grander, different. The terrible crossing, the backbreaking labor, the foreign language, the scarcity: when plenty began to arrive, it felt earned, deserved. Then the questions. What have you done, what do you imagine you have earned? Often they fought and broke off relations forever, over gold, over the goddess. 

Denn was nur lebt, will lieben.

My own dead are near me today. Grandma Alice, you've been gone almost a year. You helped me build my house. Little Halen, you gave us so much in such a brief time, you floored me with the devastating generosity you brought out in your family. I know where you are, under the tree in Northfield, next to Ralph at Ft. Snelling, in the beautiful Valhallas of my beloveds' hearts and minds. 

Alles, was ist, endet. 

Inside the theater, a beautiful woman rises out of the earth, her daughters call from the depths of the Rhein. Give us back what is ours. 

The treasure does not belong to you.

Open your eyes. Both of them.


Monday, September 26, 2011


I ran from Alcina rehearsal to the small club in the eighteenth district. T. was only in town for one night. We had so many great nights when we were all together in New York, but our ties go back to college in Arizona. As T. blisters through his horn, I am in touch with both of those lives at once. New York always feels close, Arizona much less so. 

"Did you guys hear about L.?"T. likes to play Old Home Week with us, which is funny because he is kind of famous. We love it, the updates on gigs and breakups and kids.

We hadn't heard about L. "He's in jail."

Third floor Coke machine, L holding court as usual with a brace of other saxophone players. I cut through the cigarette haze with my 35 cents, looking for my mid-morning caffeine. They are laughing insiders, I'm embarrassed and shy surrounded by these older guys. L is drawing a robot-man in RayBans, holding a soprano saxophone, mouth open in horror: the senior recital poster of the silent long-haired person who is not yet MtMn. 

At home later, I begin a Google search that ends far too quickly; the name and the city instantly yield pages of gut-freezing print and video documentation. The internet spreads the small story over endless sites, a tornado blowing a house across an entire county: Former band teacher sentenced to fifteen years.

The music in my day is all Alcina, keeping our house covers in form. This is athletic music that one has to train regularly. The hours of fine-tuning pitch, coloratura, rhythm, and text are difficult and rewarding. A long line of music geek friendships extends behind this day of Handel. I remember rehearsing with L. A great musician, personally strange, like so many of the people I have known. Like me.  

I have not thought about him in so long. We both stayed in college for an age. We were never friends, but we saw each other nearly every day for eight years. We played music together on multiple occasions. He has a wife and children of his own. A tornado, a house blown apart.

Hey, I say to my sister, I think I know your student band teacher. She clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth, the universal junior high expression of dismissal. 
Mr. L? He's weird. I don't like band anyway. 

"You know the sabbatical semester when L. taught the studio?" T. drinks water these days, like me, graying hair around his strong dark face. "He made the most crazy-ass technical exercises for me, broken sixths all up and down the horn and shit like that. It was all because he couldn't stand my sound, but I tell you...he pushed me. I do all kinds of stuff on the horn because of him." T laughed, short and dry, and we all looked at each other.

Alcina is a sorceress that turns her lovers into beasts. A courageous wife rescues her enchanted husband from Alcina. There is the magic of a certain kind of love, and it is an illusion. The hero, Ruggiero, has a hard time understanding what is illusion and what is real. 

We walk home through the streets of Vienna and talk about how he always seemed like a big kid. Later, the stooped shoulders under the prison uniform, the small angry eyes. I search them far too long for evidence of someone I never knew. And yet his constant presence through our Arizona days brings them back more sharply in my mind than many more familiar triggers.

L. and I are buying Buster Bars at the DQ across the street from the music school. We try to eat them before they melt as we walk down Mill Avenue to his new studio. He and a friend are renting teaching space and doing instrument repair. I'm accompanying a small recital of his students, and he is also playing. MtMn and I will soon leave for Germany for my Fulbright year. I imagine that these days of study, of learning, of trying things out, will somehow never end. We finish our ice cream and rehearse his piece, a piece I heard MtMn play in my first week of college, a piece I accompanied T. on as he forced himself through his required classical recital. Tomorrow we will play it for L's students, for the kids who want to play as well as he does. 

I want to weep, for him, for his family, for his kids, and above all for the four other children. In fifteen years, they will be as old as we were when we played music, went to the DQ, drew recital posters, extended our childlike pursuits toward adulthood and wondered what would happen.

Ruggiero looks around the stage and sings,
Green meadows, pleasant groves, you will lose your beauty.
You will see loveliness changed to horror. 


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Philip Levine, brand new Poet Laureate

(congratulations to the writer)


We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who's not beside you or behind or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you're too young or too dumb,
not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don't know what work is.


There is a small group of elementary schoolchildren practicing unison drumming in the playground across the street from this small apartment. MtMn practices Robert Johnson in the living room as I look back into the magic Web (did all my friends have fun at play?); my eyes, filled with a week´s worth of mountain and sea and sky, are dazzled again by pictures and stories that happened without their knowing. The seagulls cry in the setting sun, the salt air wafts in through the windows of our friend´s childhood bedroom.

It´s the usual time of rediscovery, loosed briefly from the sweet obligations of music-making, time-keeping, story-telling. What is rediscovered: music, time, story. Parts of life endure and others do not, strangers will take you in, words are everything and nothing in the same moment.

Sometime in the last weeks of hospitality, I got properly lost again. It was the food in our kitchen or the food in a family´s kitchen, or a friend´s, or a stranger´s. It was our bed or another´s. It was the familiar road or the unknown trail, the rain or the brilliant sun, the eloquence or the struggle for a single word. Non importa, Wurscht, whatever. Mountain, sea, sky.

The trick now is to come back home, magic mirror in hand, and stay lost.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

northfield july 12

at some point, the suitcase,
the old car packed blind,
the headlong tumble out of the tree
before the updraft and the sky.

after this, all glory, all beauty,
boredom of days and the heart's unease,
the long ballad written in blood.

the nest remains on the branch,
the old house on the same street.
you think you know that place,
but you can not discover it
in ten thousand things.


Friday, July 8, 2011

lake orion july 5

What is up with the purple martins?
One stands before their tall house and dances a funky circuit:
tail twitch, head left, wing shrug, repeat.
While his neighbors begin their raucous commute,
three silent geese converge on the dock.
The weightless sparrows blown aloft
chatter and panic in the still-black oak.
Waves lap the spreading warmth;
a distant boat whines low across the water.
The small island you swam to with your brothers is sinking:
the westernmost tree uprooted in the weekend storm
hangs tilted, a feast below its swinging roots,
a dogeared page in the lake's long history.
The soft air exhales its soft breath.
Queenly light advances on the water's face, on the trees,
edgeless grey sharpens to yellow-green, ice-blue,
promising purple and scarlet,
a guarantee of night.


Saturday, July 2, 2011

the world is, the world is

48 hours ago, entering the Staatsoper for the final Katja.
36 hours ago, sleepy in a cab following the canal south toward the airport.
24 hours ago, somewhere over the icebergs, in between the Heathrow layover and the long drive out of Chicago.
12 hours ago, laughter and embraces in MtMn's childhood home.
Just now, in the truck driving to Starbucks in search of caffeine and Internet.

I parked among the other shoppers, who were laden with beer and hot dogs and chips and everything for the fireworks display tonight. People glanced up at the heavy skies, hoping the storms would pass quickly. I put the truck in park and the radio was saying,

"No his mind is not for rent
To any god or government
Always hopeful, discontent,
He knows the changes aren't permanent"

But change is.


Thursday, June 30, 2011

Out of Office Reply

I wanted to take a picture of it in the fading light as I looked back through the open door. Computer screen installing updates, strangely clean desk, a few demure scores on the piano. My camera battery was used up in Budapest, though, and my arms were full of presents and my black suit jackets and a few folders of music and my bag. So I locked the door and walked across the plaza, looking up at my windows.

Last show, goodbyes, hugs, giddiness. I am no longer new. Screw you, Everest, I'm standing on you.

And of course, the boundary is false. Other transitions continue all around me. A wedding, a funeral, the first words of a foreign language, an anniversary, breakfast, lunch, haircut, Tuesday The wide, wide world.

There's so much more to tell, but the office is closed.

Schönen Sommer wünsch ich euch allen!


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

signs and portents

In the last 48 hours I have

- helped a cashier to her feet after she was shoved to the ground by a shoplifter, after helping another person keep said shoplifter from exiting the store,
- spent a weird five minutes during a first meeting with a new colleague trying to get the PIGEON that had flown through my open windows to fly back out again,
- had my sleep disturbed by extremely bizarre dreams, waking sure that there was someone in my room speaking to me, which of course was not the case.
What's up, universe?


Monday, June 6, 2011

Die Frist ist darn near um

Exactly one year ago today, freshly arrived in Vienna for an apartment-hunting visit,  I had brunch with new acquaintances FB and MStMB. We had been introduced on Facebook by a mutual pal (KGB, one of the world's nodal people, known and loved by all and with a talent for connection) and had never met face-to-face. I bought flowers on the street and just went right over to their house. Since then, I've spent a lot of time there, and so has MtMn, eating and drinking, listening to music, talking about film and music and TV and politics and language, laughing, crying, and then usually eating again.

One year ago this week, I was having meetings with strangers about an overwhelming amount of work in a language whose most primary colors were barely under my fingers. Since then, I've learned to be grateful every day for the generosity and energy - and talent to spare - of these colleagues. We have made a year of opera together in a very dramatic time of transition. We had a few triumphs, a few disasters, and many nights that ranged from undistinguished to excellent. A season like any other.

One year ago next week, I walked into this apartment. Here, I thought, which began a whole education in a variety of subjects including (but not limited to) banking, government, and how to talk to the cable guy auf Deutsch. We learned our new words for cleaning supplies, we learned to shop before Sunday, and we were happy to find out that IKEA is just about the same everywhere.

It hasn't quite been a year in Vienna, but one year ago today it all started to become real.

Last night I watched the third act of Walkuere out on the plaza, shoulder to shoulder with the crowd of people who stood silent and rapt as the music boiled down at them off the screen. I walked home in the warm night down the main street of the old city. In the Graben a solo cellist was playing Bach, and a small oasis had formed around him. A gelato parlor stayed open late, and people were eating cones and cups in the sticky summer air, listening quietly. I walked up the canal the rest of the way home, and the breeze was cool coming down the water from the north.

One year ago we didn't live here yet.

I wonder what June 2012 will be like.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

death and the matron

I have wanted to go to the Zentralfriedhof since before I got to Vienna. The way it's shot in The Third Man is so beautiful, and it is even more beautiful in real, um, life. Even the cemetery here is elegant.

Life, of course, intervened after I got here. More than once this year I've thought that the new job would be the death of me, but of course that's typical human hyperbole as I continue to be relentlessly alive and have failed to make the time to get to the outskirts of town and walk among the former Wieners. But today - today was perfect, sunny and mild, weather begging for a bike ride and body begging for distraction.

See, this week, these weeks, are full of news from friends all over, news of turmoil and upheaval. Some of it is joyous: marriage, new jobs, babies on the way, surprising endeavors. Some of it is frightening: changes in health, in employment, in the idea and picture of the future. Is it an especially stormy spring, or does the current constant glut of information make it seem so? The picture of the flood, the ruin, is ever before our eyes. I wanted to go walking in the cool green, lots of people, no conversation, imagining myself (as one always does in a new neighborhood) living in one of the newer homes.

This here is the Trusty Steed, which multiplied its daily commute by a factor of 4.5 today for this trip. She was a champ. Lord, it's a pleasure to ride the bikeways of Vienna, although I'm still a little tense on the busy streets where cars are closer than I'm used to. But most of the way even as far out as Simmering is designated bike paths, pleasant and safe. You can ride your bike around in the cemetery too, but I locked mine up at the entrance.

The entire place smelled incredible after the last two days of rain, fresh and green. It also smells often of roses, and there are bushes and vines of wild and cultivated roses on many graves. Some are totally overgrown with ivy, some of the statuary is falling down, some graves are hand-washed and carefully tended with new flowers and white rocks. There are Eastern European tombstones with photographs of people and cars. There is a section for babies with toys and pinwheels. I saw a family spading up earth there, and I could not take a photo of that. I remember my own family gathering around a small place in my hometown's soil, just large enough for the tiny box. So many things fell apart after that, so many things fell together. When I think of my own dead, the shades that seem closest, I still think of that day, of our angel.

And I think of Alice, of course, of my grandmother, who also tended roses in her own garden. I was mentally planning my summer trip and was looking for a good day to visit her when I remembered that of course, I wouldn't. She came to mind often as I saw the many tombstones that referred to "seine lieben Bergen" - his beloved mountains. That's a fairly common theme, city transplants calling up the memory of their Alpine homes at their place of final rest. Alice loved to be outside, and she loved to go back to New Ulm, to "the farm", or to be out on the lake.

This particular monument made me smile, knowing this town of literature, of learning, of law, of analysis. Was it the dead man who had trouble letting go of this world, his work, his opinions? Was it family? An admirer? patron? pushy engraver? Talk about getting the last word! There are so many fascinating works of art here, languid goddesses and strange busts and eerie death masks and oddly/brilliantly judged abstractions, along with plenty of grandiose religious statuary.

I spent a peaceful and inspiring few hours here, strolling on the dappled paths and thinking of the shifting sands everywhere. Then I hopped back on the Steed and headed home. Riding up the queenly broad path along the canal, the main artery that leaves town to the south hummed with cars to my left as trains and trams crossed the bridges over my head. My way was no less busy, packed with bikes and joggers, dogs and inline skater, strolling lovers and immoveable packs of tourists. Every artery of the city was flowing with its life's blood, its people, and we were all on our way in and out of Vienna's heart.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers

Today is supposed to be the Rapture, according to a particularly enthusiastic group of weirdos. There were billboards in Houston advertising this at the end of April, but I'm sure no one in Vienna was aware of this prediction when they programmed Mahler's Ninth Symphony for this past Wednesday. That was the hundredth anniversary of his passing, a day of remembrance significant to this town, and so the music of the end of his life, of the end of life, sounded in our hall 72 hours in advance of the purported end of time. Even if I do start seeing empty piles of clothing around me today, I'm not sure it would feel more monumental.

The last week anyway has been all about future and past, and the exquisite catching in between. Sometimes planning forward or remembering back can keep me from living in the present moment, but sometimes those activities are mirrors that throw light back upon the now, and I find myself there, or at least closer to there than usual. I've been meeting with all my colleagues making plans for next year, who plays what, when we start coaching the new things, when the old, who never needs a Solostunde for Sciarrone again and who should always have one, on and on. It is the beautiful, rolling story of a repertoire house, musicians with thirty years of triumphs and failures folding the new people in. I had to do an interview one day in a break from all this, and as I invited the interviewer through the door and said, "welcome to my office", I turned toward my desk, my pianos, the tall windows, the three roses, and found myself folded.

This comes right at a time when other professional/personal shifts feel seismic, historic endings and soon-to-be endings at Lincoln Center. So many days, I walked up Broadway from the Columbus Circle station and crossed that plaza into a certain community and tradition. So many nights, I walked through the doors on all sides of that square to hear friends make music. Nothing stays, that's true. But still.

There was a long symposium on Mahler in Vienna on Wednesday afternoon, at the end of which a colleague and I performed three songs. They happened to be exactly the same three I performed with a different beloved mezzo in NYC four years ago, a time monumental for other reasons. It was extraordinary to return to these pieces with a different mind and body. How trapped I was in mine then. How extraordinary now to touch this same music in a room that called us all away from ourselves, a room named for the man we were honoring, a man who once ran this house. His picture was everywhere in the room, chubby and bearded in youth, seated in an uncomfortable approximation of authority later, out in the recognizable streets of the city with his daughter.

The thoughts in your head that no one ever knows about! The chatter of life that I think Strauss tried to put into his operas, the dumb and present sound that Mahler writes as screaming winds or dirty strings. How many people are in the audience oh there's my boss does it matter that our dresses are different lengths I have absolutely got to get moth traps today and then it's time to begin. And then, mostly, somehow, you're gone, until you're not. As we began "Urlicht", an elderly lady in the front row loudly unwrapped a candy, then got up and walked out, etwas derb, perfect.

I had just enough time to nap before the concert, but the phone was ringing as I entered my office (my office).  He'd been at the symposium and loved the songs, he was at the stage door, could he meet me? He dropped the name of a singer I know, the one I had lunch with after the recital I almost slept through. The elderly man is the son of the architect who presided over the restoration of the Staatsoper after the war. We had a coffee and I listened to him talk about Vienna in rubble, the rebuilding of the city, his life as a lover of music. Then it was time for us to go hear the orchestra.

I gave a quick call to a sick colleague who will come back to work next week after a long illness. He lives, incidentally, in Bruno Walter's old apartment. The piano rehearsals for the original Mahler 8 soloists were held there, and Walter was living there when he conducted the premiere of the Ninth Symphony. I've eaten an omelette there, where those singers once made mistakes. I turned off my phone and walked through Mahler's halls, sat in the Loge next to my friend, a friendship that stretches back through Houston to a living City Opera, looked down on the stage as the Philharmonic walked out, their faces and habits now familiar. The concert would be dedicated to the tsunami victims, and it ended in silence after all that noise and suspension.

Lord, does it take courage to play the Ninth. The end of several movements are spun out forever, long and slow, very quiet, and often just a few people are playing. A little woodwind duet here, a single brass note there, a quiet string chord. These quiet notes are often sustained for a very long time. I can't describe to you the courage it takes to keep your breathing calm enough to just do that, play a super quiet long tone in the middle of all that music. There are also shatteringly loud and fast passages, and the sounds Mahler calls for range from exquisitely warm and beautiful to downright hillbillified. The piece has, is, everything. When it was over, my friend and I walked back to our offices without speaking, partly because we couldn't, and partly because there was nothing to say.

Outside on the plaza named for another Staatsoper director (a whole different set of ties to the rubble, the rebuilding, the orchestra, my oldest colleagues) there was music and chatter and traffic, the smells of the sausage stands, people licking at the first ice creams of the year and running for the tram. The world is coming to an end. Yes, always. I took a deep breath and stepped into the Ring.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

and we'll all go together

I am not at the movies. I thought about going because it might be a historic night, but I cleaned my apartment instead, and now I'm hanging out with mineral water, olives, and YouTube. I love spending leisure time looking through the endless offerings on that site, put up lovingly by fans who want to share whatever it is they love. It's the Internet at its finest, all this performance available and findable.

My latest jones is for American ethnic popular music. MtMn's Viennese forays into blues sparked this. Of course he's met a variety of echte Wiener with impenetrable accents who know more about American blues than both of us put together, and he spent hours on YT listening to rough. tangy gospel and blues from the 20s and 30s in preparation for his gigs. I learned about a time when Texas and Alabama sounded wildly different, and how eventually some of those people would follow the trains and the money up to Chicago and Detroit, bringing their music with them to be shared and changed. Somehow John Lee Hooker leads to Aretha leads to Jay-Z.

My grandfather was born in Ireland. I remember him actually singing "Kathleen Mavourneen" to me once, and "I'll Take you Home Again, Kathleen" (I was well into adulthood before I thought that those songs were not really about me or my name but about the grief and cost of leaving home). There were Clancy Brothers recordings in the house, music from the old country sung for the new country, but largely for the emigres or those with ties to them. I'm fascinated with that era around the great wars, Connie Francis singing in Italian and Lou Monte in dialect, Fanny Brice with her Yiddishisms, all those Irish bands, all the poor people's music becoming popular. These stories pale in comparison to the story of black Americans' musics, their popularization, co-opting, and metamorphosis, but all the stories are damn interesting.

Here I am in opera's old country, avoiding the HD screen and the things I long and dread to see. Instead I use technology to listen to the music of the Kellys, joyous and drunken and sad and nostalgic. No, it's me that's nostalgic - the music is still vibrant and full of information about a people and a way of life. Humorous, raw, tough, irreverent, pious, it still speaks to me.

Across the ocean wild and wide, a father is parting from his daughter forever. I'm reaching through the screen for something that has not yet disappeared.


Friday, May 13, 2011

smooth move

My week began at 9:36 am on Sunday. It isn't normal for me to remember such a thing with precision, but the moment I rolled over and looked at my cell phone that morning remains just a little bit seared into my brain. There is nothing quite so bracing as waking 24 minutes before a sound check.

The kicker is that I somehow knew I was going to oversleep. I'd been one week back in Vienna post-Texas, truly worn out from teaching, socializing, staying up until all hours, and finally getting sick just in time for my flight home. Then came catching up at work, rehearsing for said recital, still recovering from illness, and jet lag. I hadn't slept well in many days. On Saturday night, I knew I was exhausted enough to crash. I went to bed early, I chose a new alarm tone, I upped the number of repetitions of said tone. And when I opened my eyes, that little electronic salsa tune was two full hours in the past.

I was at the Staatsoper at 10:05. Juliette and Norbert and I proceeded to have our sound check and then do a very beautiful concert to end our series in the Mahlersaal.

Lessons learned:
1. still alive in this middle-aged body is the sleek young thing who could make a morning church gig in ten minutes, thanks to short hair, perfume, gum, and plenty of dark clothing.
2. No one in NYC will stare at you for applying makeup on the subway, which is different than in my current location.
3. I could probably kick my caffeine habit if I just got up really late for everything. Exciting.

What a stroke of luck that dear pal JB was in town that day, and that we could have a leisurely breakfast after the recital. Spring rain fell and the sun dried the streets off while we caught up with each other. The week's been full of beauty like that, cafe visits with old friends, good performances, good rehearsals. A family visit draws closer (and with it some needed time off), summer plans come into focus. My bike carries me around the Ring, we're ending our season and organizing the next.

I can almost say: done. I can almost see what actually happened, past and above the noise of opinion and worry. The great adventure, the big risk, the drama - it all continues to smooth out into a normal, bumpy, silly, beautiful life.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

from Mary Oliver

Why I wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety –

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.


Monday, April 25, 2011

deep in the heart

It is just before seven on a sticky Gulf Coast morning, My dear friends' teenage son has just piled Tupperware full of Easter leftovers into his groaning backpack and waved a quick goodbye, out the door with his dad into the windy early light. The kitchen table bears my breakfast, the missed native pleasures of brewed coffee and peanut butter toast. I sit in this familiar chair, my quilt on my bed upstairs in their guest room, a whole life still available and vibrant. Nothing stopped while we were away, we step back onto this moving band effortlessly through the open door of our friends' grace. 

I doubt there will be another chance for me to write this week given the pressures of both work and social schedules, so this is it, the coffee in the favorite cup, the heavy air outside the cool window, the cat walking across the piano keys. I shiver in the air conditioning and bristle at the freeway, my ears rejoice in remembered rhythms and I rush into long-awaited embraces. Home, still, never, and always.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Admit it, Americans, you laughed just now.

I bike the whole Ring these days, that grand circular collection of streets that marks, in spots, the location of the old city battlements. Mornings, I ride south along the canal to the observatory and come back up the hill, turning onto the Schubertring (different parts of the Ring are named for different people or locations, and the great Lied composer gets a chunk to himself). The walls along the canal are filled with graffiti and art, and the city is setting up the decks and roofs of the summer cafes and stages that will open along the water next week. After breakfast this morning with a friend at a small konditorei, we walked along the cobblestones and promised to meet in May at one of these cafes.

I hop on my trusty steed and head south, then west. The Schubertring is the less direct way to work from my house, but in the morning it's less crowded, fewer tourists and therefore fewer people who aren't used to bike traffic. I can cruise relatively uninterrupted with other people on their way to work. We all tend to ride quickly but not enough to get s serious sweat going. A canopy of trees arches over our heads, dark green leaves bursting from the branches and still surprising us.

If I'm lucky, there's a space to lock my bike at the racks outside the Operngasse stage entrance; otherwise I take it to my office in the freight elevator. People greet me as I lock up. All of us are different now that the sun is out. Next February, if I forget, please tell me just to wait a little while, until April when everyone will come outside. The pedestrian street that snakes away from the opera house is filled with chairs and tables, people drinking coffee and eating ice cream in the bright air. Where did they all come from? Like the leaves on the trees, it seems they all just arrived.

After the evening coachings with the windows wide open, I unlock my bike and pedal off on the other half of the Ring, past all the monumental buildings, the former palace and the art museums, Parliament and City Hall and the University. Here's where the combination of visitors, students, and people waiting at tram stops can make maneuvering a challenge, and it's easier at night. The Rathaus is a riot of spires and lights, but the architectural bloat is nothing but an impressive backdrop for the story on the ground, strolling and laughing, drinking and gossiping, observing and keeping track.

The sun is just setting these days at 8:45 as I turn north along the canal. Joggers, dogs, lovers, stoners share the route with me. Upstairs is my jetlagged MtMn on Skype, dishes to be done, a suitcase to pack, sleep to cherish.

Tomorrow goes around the circle again.


Saturday, April 16, 2011


I got prompted to blog today by a dear friend who I will be seeing in a week. It felt great to be reminded to write when in no time we'll be chatting in person, so nice for my ego! I was buoyed by her nudge but couldn't get started, so I read some of my old posts, just to see where I'd been.

I can tell you what I've been. Ridiculous.

Back the day before I started work at the STOP, I was all about how there'd be very little work in this blog, nope, this is going to be my outlet to talk about life. Except my life has been nothing but my job, and this space has revolved around the Haus am Ring. It was disappointing to clock how little of life in Vienna I've shared apart from the drama of my first year at a tough company.

OK, it has been a struggle, a real one, but still. I'm sitting here in my apartment after the opening of Faust, which was everything from terrific to disastrous: gorgeous orchestral playing with a couple of big clams, two incredible moments of feedback during the miking of the offstage chorus and organ, some singing that I hope goes viral (well, opera viral) on YouTube and some that was more like Meditations on Themes By Gounod. At the end, the ovation was rapturous. Did the audience miss the imperfections? Not likely. But they thanked us and then thanked us some more.

Then I rode my bike home, the Ring still full of strolling people, and filled a glass with MtMn's homemade ginger ale. He and his horn are somewhere being awesome tonight. Tomorrow morning we sleep in and have no plans.

What I mean is: I forgot to say, many times, how good this is.

I want to copy for you something from a friend's recent journal post. He is a beautiful writer and a rather remarkable person. When I read this post today, part of my brain was thinking, "my friend is such a wise person, and his advice applies so beautifully to me! In this incredible journey of my transition, I would do well to remember his insightful words." The other part of my brain was saying, "hello, I think my friend is talking about his catastrophic bicycle accident that left him a quadriplegic, and MAYBE these words are about a bigger journey than I have ever been on in my lucky, ridiculous life."

1.    Things in your life happen for a reason. Something good can come from your injury experience that will be beneficial. If your faith tradition undergirds this insight, you are fortunate. If not, try to believe it anyway. In either case, be attentive to discover the beneficial reason.
2.    You will be surprised how helpful and courteous people are prepared to be to you. You are going to need help. Accept it gratefully.
3.    If you strive, you are likely to accomplish much more physically than your doctors have said. The human body and nervous system have way more capacity than science gives them credit. In the early going, you can expect to be tired and weak. Stay engaged; it will pay off.
4.    We know that some people are by nature emotionally positive and others are naturally less so. If you are in the positive group, congratulations, go with it. If you are in the second group, consider carefully points two and three above. It is in your power to maintain the goodwill so many offer to you. For the sake of those others and their important future contributions to you, fake it if necessary. Real misery awaits those who repel their helpers. When you make the effort, a virtuous cycle of improvement in care and attitude will result.

So tonight I guess I am grateful for the luxury of being ridiculous, for the dizzying examples of strength, beauty, power, and absurdity available in each hour of each day, and for the tendency of life, friendship, tolerance, and love to look ever forward. And I raise a glass of ginger ale to the virtuous cycle of improvement.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

ring am ring

"Vollendet das ewige Werk" sings Wotan as he views Valhalla - the endless work is finished. A perfect moment of very human hubris for the god, for two reasons: he didn't do any of the work, and of course the work is only beginning. Irony stirs in this 19th-century sentence, also a joke on the beginning of the tetralogy (the "ewige Werk" has, at that point, about 17 hours to go).

Last night I gasped when the Rheingold was revealed, a stack of tall, thick gold bars sort of melted together. The daughters of the great river swam in panic as the dwarf renounced love and everyone started talking about real estate, payback, eternal youth. The brass thundered out at the end, glorious, terrible, empty. As always, this piece brings global and personal associations all together, the slow poisoning of the ocean, the loss of my own family's home. Hubris, the small and dangerous death of "there, I'm finished".

We lost our maestro and one of our giants at the last minute, but here in miraculous Europe great replacements can get on a train and step into the show like nothing happened. It wasn't a performance for the ages on ten days of rehearsal (and none, really, for the Phillies), but it was thrilling all the same. And there were my hardworking colleagues, Rheinmaidens who will be Valkyries tonight, Flower Maidens next week, Siebel in Faust or Gianetta in Elisir as well. Fasolt, dead at his brother's hand, has time to swing over to Nabucco, and of course there's the Volkoper Fledermaus and Japan benefit concert this weekend for some others.

There's hubris, and then there is the glory of human work.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011


"Das ist das Gift Wiens" he said with that cold little smile, and my bilingual (actually it feels more unlingual these days, master of no tongues) brain took his comment positively at first. I caught myself, though, and I'm sure I managed some version of a polite but grammatically incorrect reply before this conversation faded into another jampacked day of meetings, rehearsals, schedules, and practicing. It resurfaced, however, this morning as I strolled to work. Now that the sun is out and the air grows warmer, I let the D-Bahn go by and strolled down the Liechtensteinstrasse on my own two feet. I turned right on Hörlgasse (where yes, my inner Butthead always gives a tiny heh heh) and I saw this:
Das Gift Wiens. Aber nein, das Geschenk.

I smiled then at the gulf between my two languages. Present, poison. I continued down the Herrengasse, chariots and angels bursting from the tops of the old palaces on either side of me, fake Greeks in marble and real Austrians in too-warm winter coats for my company. Churches of six centuries, students on bikes in their impossibly cool t-shirts, stylish professionals in good shoes, the gold paint that was the emperor's favorite color, flower shops, bakeries, birds, babies. All of this was there, is there every day, simply available to me if I will just look.

But not every gift is easy like that. Sometimes the great prize comes at a great price. Just because the apple was poisoned doesn't mean it wasn't a gift (does the prince ever show up if Snow White never takes a bite?).

Poison, of course, is a real topic in these weeks. None of this is simple.

Geschenk, related to schenken, which can mean to pour out, as water, or wine, or whatever antidote seems right. In the story, the piece of poisoned apple is jostled from our heroine's throat when the cart carrying her casket goes over a rough bit of road. The Fiaker clatter by me on the Herrengasse, the horses from the Riding School are led across the street.

Perhaps the Gift is given so that we may pour out...our voices? Ourselves?


Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Every night for the past four I have opened this page and waited in vain for the words to come. A great sorrow is upon the earth and every syllable withers in its wake. Maybe there isn't actually greater sorrow than usual, but something seems to be breaking inexorably apart. Or maybe that's just the song of my selfish mind, dressing its own griefs up in concern for the strangers suffering unspeakably in the videos on my screen. On any case, I can't dare to type a word about what I see and think, I don't trust a thought in my head.

Fortunately, there are so many people and so many available words.

Henry Miller...
We clutter the earth with our inventions, never dreaming that possibly they are unnecessary - or disadvantageous. We devise astounding means of communication, but do we communicate with one another? We move our bodies to and fro at incredible speeds, but do we really leave the spot we started from? Mentally, morally, spiritually, we are fettered. What have we achieved in mowing down mountain ranges, harnessing the energy of mighty rivers, or moving whole populations about like chess pieces, if we ourselves remain the same restless, miserable, frustrated creatures we were before? To call such activity progress is utter delusion. We may succeed in altering the face of the earth until it is unrecognizable even to the Creator, but if we are unaffected wherein lies the meaning?

John Ashbery...

The blackboard is erased in the attic
And the wind turns up the light of the stars,
Sinewy now. Someone will find out, someone will know.
And if somewhere on this great planet
The truth is discovered, a patch of it, dried, glazed by the sun,
It will just hang on, in its own infamy, humility. No one
Will be better for it, but things can't get any worse.
Just keep playing, mastering as you do the step
Into disorder this one meant. Don't you see
It's all we can do? Meanwhile, great fires
Arise, as of haystacks aflame. The dial has been set
And that's ominous, but all your graciousness in living
Conspires with it, now that this is our home:
A place to be from, and have people ask about.

Mary Oliver...

I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wien ist anders

Staatsoper snapshot, first of March, cold air and bright sunshine. We'll take the top down approach, literally. Up in the tent, on top of the house, we are about to begin rehearsals for the hour-long kiddie version of the Ring Cycle. The Eberhard Waechter rehearsal stage houses the new production of Anna Bolena in its first days of work. Down to the 6th floor: in the Orgelsaal with our poor old organ and the maestro monitor for whoever is playing in the evening, we are rehearsing the hour-long version of the Magic Flute, in which Papageno introduces children to everything about opera - singers, costumes, lights, orchestra. 4th floor, Carlos Kleiber rehearsal stage: Ariadne auf Naxos is in the third of its six total rehearsal days (a strong and stable ensemble makes many amazing feats possible). The babel of the coaching studios echoes from down the hall (where is Elektra/The sacred soil of Egypt/Oh, what a face!).

The second floor, administration, looks normal except for the red bunting hanging from the ceiling, the first clue before you hear the hammering that something is up. Stage level: the transformation of the Opera Ball has begun, workers and tents and gear and fabric and refrigerators and dollies carrying boxes of who knows what. Bacchus, ironically, is about to get pushed into our smallest rehearsal room as the Carlos Kleiber stage gets transformed into a party space, and we'll lose the Orgelsaal as well. Music rehearsals for Sonnambula and Aida will take place in cramped coaching studios as the Philharmonic rehearses for the opening ceremony. And on Thursday, we all get kicked out at 2 pm. Some of us will go home and change for the ball, others will cook comfort food dinners and watch the red carpet parade on TV. The cream of Viennese society and the trashiest elements imaginable (Berlusconi's teenager, really?) will cram themselves onto the dance floor until 4 o'clock Friday morning, then pour outside to get sausage from an all-night street vendor and stumble home.

We will show up to work as usual Friday (rumor has it that there are sometimes guests left over in the opera house that morning, doing the walk of shame past the techies and early-rising music staff). Bolena, Sonnambula, Ariadne, Aida. In the theater, the dance floor still in place, hundreds of children will listen to Papageno and the Vienna Philharmonic explain to them how the house works.

My next door neighbors will go and take their daughter; almost four, she will listen to this shortened Flute for the second time. I can hear her singing in the hallway this morning as they leave for kindergarten.

"Das klinget! So herrlich! das klinget! so schoen!"

She almost remembers the tune correctly. I bet she gets it this time.


Sunday, February 27, 2011


We closed Le nozze di Figaro last night, and it set off a cascade of mixed emotions for me. First and foremost, I'll miss this group of people and this remarkable piece. Every time I have the privilege to be near it, I am grateful. It always teaches me, always challenges me, always brings me gifts of simplicity and joy. And the groups of people who gather to recreate it are invariably wonderful. It's the kind of work that makes us be the best versions of ourselves.

I was proud of the work we did together, but rather seriously disappointed by it as well. There's a lot we didn't accomplish, and a lot that I think we just got wrong. No dishing here, just straight up evaluation. We could have been a lot better, and even (especially) at the biggest places, that can happen. Being in a position to try and see that it doesn't, I'm unhappy.

Our season is the busiest on the planet, 45 different pieces, and at this pace of preparation and performance, very little of what we do can be at the top end of the quality scale. Most nights are all right, some are quite good. A few are grand, a few truly awful, but it's the many in the middle that feel so...not enough.

I've been thinking a lot about how much rides on every performance in the US, the knife's edge that private funding makes our home. It's important to be disappointed by something that isn't good enough. It's also good, in some ways, to be part of a culture with so much available that the occasional average night won't throw off the whole curve. Art happens every day here. People expect and want it to be excellent, but if it isn't, they won't stay home.

Not yet, anyway.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

what remains

I hadn't seen him in thirteen years, not since the monumental production that changed things for us both. He took the train into Vienna between his performances and we went to eat good old-fashioned American hamburgers. He brought (so considerate, such a dork, the man I remember) the cast list from the old show, and we went through it: who's famous now, who's not famous but working, who's out of the business. That man's kid just graduated from college, that soprano's a lawyer now, that star-in-the-making quit opera and went to California. We tried to avoid growing somber as we realized two from that list had died. We talked about the failing health of the maestro and the invincibility of the director, the sea changes in the house and the business, the incredible fortune of our lives. We parted at the station, each heading back for some sleep before the next performance.

Before I slept, another conversation with another colleague, too much to summarize this morning but full of connection to the dinner over hamburgers. As our generation of performers begins to leave the stage, what are we leaving behind? As performers, as teachers, as mentors, as practitioners of our various crafts, are we emphasizing the things that will sustain our art?

To be continued.


Thursday, February 17, 2011


What joy last night to experience a surfeit of Benjamin Britten. My four years at HGO coincided with the beginning of that company's exploration of this modern master's music. We started with Billy Budd, which was a company milestone in many ways, and performed Midsummer Night's Dream and Turn of the Screw during my tenure. I was lucky enough to perform a good chunk of his extensive song literature as well - Les Illuminations, the second Canticle, a brace of Purcell arrangements. It was invigorating to be part of an entire group of artists exploring this work together.

Last night I had the extreme pleasure of taking all that experience out into the theater to simply enjoy the performances of others. The singing and playing was terrific (an inspiration and joy in itself, only amplified by the fact that I know how much work goes into making Britten's pieces flow easily from the assembled instruments). But I was struck more than ever before by the depth of his work, the ineffable or profound places he can reach. I started my evening in Theater an der Wien with Lucretia and Tarquinius, and made it back to my theater for the end of Billy Budd. I didn't love everything about the Lucretia production and yet it was excellent, leaving me moved and disturbed in ways impossible to articulate. The end of it - Lucretia dead and the Male and Female Chorus (here an alcoholic University professor and his student) in their separate cells, dumb with grief and mumbling platitudes - felt so hopeless, a cry of pure grief, free of the judgment and analysis implied by the professor's great wall of books. I walked out into the damp night shaken, and after that to walk backstage at the Staatsoper just in time for "Look..." - well, there was an equally pure statement of hope, love, redemption. The Philharmonic played Britten's great series of chords (light on the water, the swell and ebb of the heart) with breathtaking color and care as the men of the ensemble gathered for their last entrance. "Ein Meisterwerk", said Mr. Flint to me.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

l'usanza teatrale

There are days when the alchemy of opera produces something particularly heady, and the lines between the worlds on either side of the curtain begin to blur. I'm sure a certain amount of this has to do with what casting agents call "type", but even the fact that certain roles require not only certain voices but certain body types and personalities does not go far enough to explain the transformation, the bleeding of the composition into us and us into the composition. Our current opera is well-cast, so we knew going into it that our Susanna and Figaro are witty and loving, our Countess tenderhearted, our Count charismatic. But add us into this masterwork, and not only do the singers make the characters live - by some supreme magic, the piece itself begins to illuminate the performers. The notes and words written down 225 years ago shine through my friends and I can suddenly see her sharp mind, his compassion, his child's spirit, her deep wounds, with a clarity nothing in my daily existence could match.

This never ceases to amaze me when it happens. There are some operas that seem to create a mood no matter the people gathered to realize them. Carmen is always kind of messy, like the score itself, and just as the score rarely brings its characters together in an interesting musical way, the performers don't tend to bond. Boheme is always moving, even when the singers aren't good, and the tight-knit score seems to bring its casts together. Or are those just the particular versions of those pieces that I've been near? On the other side, I've been moved to tears by a sincere and engaged group of performers even though the piece they sang was second-rate - I found myself coaching it later, wondering when the music leaked out.

Le Nozze di Figaro doesn't play itself - by that I mean the greatness of the work doesn't make its success automatic. We get nervous approaching these holy pages and tend to err either by sentimentalizing our reactions to the music or by forcing ourselves to avoid them entirely in the name of clarity. Into the gulf between falls the piece. Why is it so difficult to begin with the word, the note, to let it teach us instead of the other way round?

Half a lifetime of lessons:
-at an upright piano with cigarette burns on the side in pre-smoking-ban university, puzzling over what to play before "Se vuol ballare" and thinking that Susanna's aria was easy and boring.
-in the chorus room in San Francisco with the other Merola coaches, singing and playing and conducting the finales, those words in my mouth for the first time.
-in the War Memorial, at the Met, holding my breath as they sang, especially as she sang (we will miss you, Flicka!)
-in that dusty hole in the floor surrounded by the greatest orchestra I have ever known, watching his corona of hair in the monitor, when suddenly at the end of the fourth act he stood up out of the chair and corriam tutti a festeggiar.
- in a little jewelbox theater in the mountains where I found out how little conducting people need once this piece is inside them, and how great a collaboration can be.

And now again, a new place, new difficulties, new joys. Tomorrow night we play it again. Look at us, we'll say, we take each other for granted, we assume everything's about us, we fight to win ancient battles, we don't think about how much we hurt each other. What we do is ridiculous, and human, and at any magical moment, out in the garden, we can recognize each other's voices, we can drop the disguise, we can come out of hiding, we can ask for forgiveness and receive it.  We can give it as well.

This can happen every day; we can allow ourselves to be changed. Pace. Perdono. Alle mine date foco. 


Saturday, February 12, 2011

severe clear

Our tired guests have gone, most of them not so much done in by our evening but by the one before, spent at a variety of excessive activities, some at home, some out dancing at one ball or another, or in the case of MtMn, two straight nights of performing. We celebrated his birthday in style. He of course cooked up a storm, a vat of beef-rabbit-vegetable-and-fire chili on the stove, fresh baked bread alongside the cheese and olives. MSMB brought her signature poppyseed cake, which is a thing of heavenly beauty wrought from poppyseeds, chocolate, orange and lemon peel, and I'm sure some kind of magic. Friends brought good wine and champagne, CM brought hard-to-find beer, and on top of everything we found out it was the real birthday of our new friend PR. Conversations ranged from ancient courtships to bullfighting to the weirdest thing you ever ate (winner: a big scoop from the organ bowl after an at-home sheep slaughter in Kosovo) to the use and misuse of status updates. We belly-laughed and skirted some tender emotions, sang for the birthday men and ate too much, and wrapped the evening up on the early side. Just past midnight and the dishwasher hums in the next room, MtMn snores at the other end of the apartment, and I know our friends will sleep well in tomorrow.

It was good to have a party in our usual style, marking not only the big birthday but the smaller milestone of six months here in Vienna. I rinsed the soap from our motley glassware and thought of so many wonderful gatherings of friends in the many homes we've shared. Ten years ago, in a joint celebration of the big four-oh with two dear friends also hitting that mark, we packed about fifty people into our Manhattan apartment. We stored the beer on the fire escape and heated the place to tropical with the constant cooking in the kitchen and the crowding of the guests. My birthday always came at the end of our Berkshire summers, and our parties at the house there were epic all-day celebrations involving unbelievable amounts of wine and food, poker, and one unforgettable birthday cake courtesy of Madama Butterfly and her best friend. Dinner parties in Seattle, jambalaya and homebrew in Houston, so many nights filled with friends, camaraderie, confessions, tomfoolery, gluttony, and joy.

Now I've straightened our chairs and spooned leftovers into Tupperware, and I've felt the expected pang tonight as the laughter got loud. I felt it later when the conversation fragmented, and I feel it now in the pleasure of remembering celebrations past. I miss Dionysus in this ready guise, loosening the tongue, slipping the bonds of time.  I'll never again float through the walls of an evening, never again enjoy the fragility of a fuzzy head having gladly paid that price to attain a kind of transcendence. But there's a sweetness I savor as I survey our clean rooms, not quite ready to go to bed yet. With a clear mind I can think on the gifts of many years and the gifts of this evening, and I know that what remains will be sharper and stronger. I miss the sensation of being lifted out of myself because it's what I remember most about so many of those grand nights.

And looking at the precious details of this one small night, I know I want to remember them all. Less than that is not enough, never was enough, will never be enough.

That's clear.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A love like that

Fifty years ago tonight, the Beatles played the Cavern Club for the first time. I never knew that before today, but there was an article about the anniversary on Google news when I got home tonight. I have a different fiftieth anniversary on my mind, and reading about the Not-Yet-Fab Four takes me back to an era I don't really remember but which seems just within reach, accessible through a photographic series of memories, the cateye glasses and cigarette-scented coats of our parents. My birthday boy showed up on the scene a few weeks after President Kennedy took office, the diplomatic break with Cuba still fresh and the Berlin Wall just six months in the future. His parents were teaching school in Detroit, having gotten themselves there by sheer dint of bravery, will, and effort. They both left dirt-poor small towns behind them; she rose above a rough family, he navigated his way through the end of WWII, and together they started a young marriage in the shadow of her serious illness. Told never to risk pregnancy, they proceeded to have five children. Mountain Man was born with mountain blood in his veins, ready to get on with it, not much caring what anyone had to say about it, about to live a dramatic life most undramatically.

I didn't know him during the bike rides to Catholic school (he and his brothers claim that they could tie their neckties one-handed while steering), the weeks in 1968 when the neighborhood dads blocked off the street with their cars and watched for looters. I never met the babysitter he drew his first pictures for. I only heard later about the night they crashed the van, the school paper, the jazz band solos, the marching band trips, the late-night gigs in Detroit. I met him backstage at a concert in college, when he said he didn't like Mozart. He irritated me so much I started hanging out in the library when he was there, just to confirm how much he bugged me. He regularly fell asleep there, exhausted from the combination of student teaching, full courseload, and regular performing with a rock band until all hours of the morning. I started studying at the other end of the long table and watching his head. He would wake up, look at me, and go to his next rehearsal. So irritating.

Eventually I got to know the big, crumbling house on the lake that they moved to after the riots. We shared that kind of childhood, scared young parents fleeing change and heading out to the nearest small town where they found safety for their kids and long commutes for themselves. We are probably the last generation to have been left to our own devices as children. I still love roaming his streets and imagining him young, wasting his time there, on his feet or on his bike, hanging out, growing up. We are both lucky enough to return each year to the same little towns where we first tasted that freedom.

Since then we've walked plenty of roads together - through entire mountain ranges, cities, eras, crises, triumphs - and we don't seem to be nearly finished. He has made room for the unexpected in our lives and taught me to do that too. He does goofy things to make me laugh, he reminds me to go outside. He is clearly planning to get very old and prepares to be able to do that every day. He made me think I could walk up a mountain and take a canoe into the backcountry. He has dealt with the moving companies three times in a row now and doesn't remind me how much payback is owed him. Danger is his middle name. He is a huge geek and can recount his dreams, ancient Greek history, the battles of Alexander, the rules of about three dozen games, the plot of Battlestar Galactica, and the entire text of his favorite movies in astonishing detail. He plays more kinds of music than most musicians I know and is currently learning new styles. He is a born teacher. He says he doesn't like the Internet but I often find him digging through Youtube for interesting performances. He is building our house, he does our taxes, he makes me dinner, and he lightens my heart every single day.

Happy birthday, husband. Tell me there's at least fifty more years of you.


Sunday, February 6, 2011


Besides me being sick, it was a perfect weekend. We watched movies, ate soup, took naps, and yesterday when I started feeling better we went for a stroll along the canal in the suspiciously springlike air. Everybody was out, their heavy winter coats open or slung over their arms, soaking up the rare light and enjoying the city in sunshine. Right before MtMn's birthday, we always feel the shift: days get brighter. The weather isn't everything, but its effect is significant. The day's length doesn't vary that much in Texas, and I like thinking that big payback for the dark winter is on the way, that light increases so naturally, without effort.

He has two shows this week, my show goes on stage, it's busy. In between we heat up dinner whenever we get home, geek out on Roman history, see who's on Skype, plan a party, plan a summer. It's all right. It's life as we have often known it. And I can feel how I've resisted this ease from somewhere deep inside, from a place that wants to go home.

Home is shifting.

And, of course, home is not shifting. Roll out the yoga mat, sip the coffee, read the book, do the puzzle, study the score, watch the movie, have the conversation. Years of changing scenery and new stories, a great long dizzying road trip. Huddled on the couch, strolling along the path, entwined in our bed.


Monday, January 31, 2011

past my bedtime

We have officially kicked off the Big-Birthday-Anniversary Celebration, extended version, with the Gonzalo Rubalcaba Trio. They played the Konzerthaus on Sunday night and it was a weird evening. The trio was breathtaking at times - the drummer, technically flawless, did not seem to be inhabiting the same rare space as piano and bass, whose players sighed and struck in symbiosis for two hours. Gonzalo sounded like Alban Berg had gone to Havana and partied until four in the morning, still playing at the club but getting all Mitteleuropaly homesick. Half the audience left in the course of the concert, which was just bizarre, since the playing was world-class and they are usually all about that here in Vienna. Were people expecting his dad? Was it just getting too late on a Sunday night? In any case it was strange, the best playing imaginable in that glorious gilded room, and people walking out in droves.

MtMn and I started our whole sordid affair at a jazz performance, the Art Ensemble of Chicago playing at the Kerr Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. He gave me a ride on his motorcycle at the last minute when my planned ride canceled due to a last minute dating opportunity (I hadn't learned to drive and mooched shamelessly off my friends for a decade until MtMn talk me to drive stick on the hills of Tacoma, Washington, a feat which stands as stubborn proof of his love, or at least tenacity). Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell painted their faces and blew up a storm the night that several of my foundations began to crumble. Seems right that we should begin an extended marking of our path together at another concert, this time so very classical in nature and venue but still marked with misbehavior.

We stayed up late talking about music and Vienna and anything else that kept us talking. Friday night was also too late, wonderful conversation and music at a friend's house that led to more staying up at home. So this morning's Regiesitzung will be a little foggy. In tribute to that February night in 1983 when I stayed up longer than I should have to talk about music and books in the lobby of McClintock Residence Hall, I salute every single sleepy morning of my life that has followed such a lack of judgment. Here's to knowing you should be in bed but not quite going yet, just to make sure you don't miss something good.