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.