It never ceases to amaze me how significant a concert can be, especially in an intimate environment away from the urban hurly-burly. When we make music in Orient—way out at the eastern end of Long Island’s North Forth—we feel the immediate reward of feeding people who are clearly hungry for song, hungry for artistic stimulation, hungry to be addressed with kindness, humor, and intelligence. Almost every time we musicians face the public, we feel we are auditioning. This gig could lead to the next gig if Person X thinks we did well. This gig could also dampen our chances of the next gig if Person X doesn’t go for us—for any reason, including our shoes. For two blessed hours yesterday, we offered our songs with a freedom that is unique in our lives. And the sold-out house went crazy for the concert.
I have had a few insights over the last couple of days. At dress rehearsal, we hosted a couple whom I have known very slightly for a number of years. They live on the street where the hall is located, so I run into them and make polite conversation six or seven times each summer. She has never been able to attend our concerts because she has to leave for New York in the late afternoon on Sunday. As a kindness (and to ease us into performance mode) I invited her to the dress rehearsal. She and her husband were our only listeners—a command performance. The cast and I did our thing, and at intermission she was in a state of rapture. “Oh, Steve! They’re…wonderful! I mean, these singers…oh lord, I had no idea! This is…amazing!” “You’ll stay to the end, then?” “Are you kidding? Of COURSE!” After the encore, still more euphoric enthusiasm. “Oh Steve, we can’t thank you enough.”
I wasn’t surprised that she and her hubby enjoyed the music. I was surprised that they were surprised by the high level of sophistication we offered them—vocal, programmatic, theatrical. It was all news to them. My wheels started turning.
At the performance we play to many people who have come to hear the NYFOS@North Fork show year after year—“It’s the highlight of our summer!”—but there are always first-timers. Among them was the nephew of some close friends, along with his girlfriend. Being something of a senior myself, I am not judgmental about playing to older audiences. After all, we elders grew up going to hear music in a pre-cell phone, pre-Instagram era and we know how to listen, absorb, and appreciate unamplified music. But I admit that it’s gratifying to have at least a few twenty-somethings in the crowd, and I’d welcome a passel more of them.
At intermission, my friend (the young man’s aunt) came up to me. “My nephew is LOVING it.” “Oh, how nice.” “You know what he said?” “Um, no…” “He couldn’t believe how much he and his girlfriend were enjoying it.” “You mean…he thought he was being led to the slaughter?” “Well, I think he assumed he’d be bored and restless.” “Ah! How nice! Another satisfied customer.”
Getting that reaction two days in a row has made me think a lot about building audiences these days. Unless you know from experience that you’re likely to hear something memorable, there seems to be an assumption that (1) a song recital is about as dreary as a gluten-free cracker, and (2) “young artists” means fledgling amateurs who will need a lot of patience from the audience. How can you convey that Johnathan is knockin’ ‘em dead in opera companies on two continents, that Amanda is about to sing a Bernstein concert at Carnegie Hall, that Philippe just received raves in Opera News for his performance in “La Cenerentola,” or that Maria simply has one of the most free and colorful soprano voices they’re ever likely to hear? Or that a playlist where the only two composers you know are Leonard Bernstein and the Kinks could transport and heal your spirit?
I have friends in town who conveniently duck the annual recital for those exact reasons. Yes, it pisses me off. A lot. But it points to a larger issue: how do you preview a performance so that people give you their time and their ticket money?
I’ve been discussing this with a new board member, a brilliant young man named Philip Kalikman. Social media (duh) seems to be the answer. If everyone is indeed glued to Instagram and The Book Of Face, that’s where you have to go. “And you need promotional videos.” “About how long? Like, two and a half minutes?” Pause. “No, Steve. No one in my generation—” I winced. I hate that “generation stuff” when it’s turned against me. He continued—“will look at anything longer than forty-five seconds.” “WHAT CAN YOU SHOW IN FORTY-FIVE SECONDS?” “Plenty. Enough. A good videographer will know what to do.”
I am sure Philip is right. I’ve watched a ton of 45-second videos and I find them extremely frustrating, but also tantalizing—and, wanting more, I buy a ticket.
As far as the show went yesterday: everyone was in superb voice and the work we did all week flowered in a very satisfying way. Tenoch and I nailed our Debussy duet, and my solo piece (Rob Schwimmer’s “Holding You in My Arms”) came in for a smooth landing. After the last song, David Krane’s arrangement of “How Can I Keep From Singing,” I literally heard people weeping. I too was moved—more than I realized. To introduce the encore, I started by thanking the cast. “I’m grateful to these four artists.” I searched for words. “You just don’t hear beauty like that every day.” Someone in the audience actually said “Amen,” and there was a round of applause. Lucky, because I too was suddenly choked up with tears.
A little picture gallery today:
Orient doesn’t have much of a business district. There’s a post office and a general store. One art gallery. And…a pie shop. We were given a gift certificate there, a Brooklyn outfit called 4 and 20 Blackbirds. I don’t eat pie, but everybody else does. Johnathan McCullough is a gifted photographer, and he captured the essence of the place:
Down the road we have a restaurant called Orient By The Sea. If you know what to order—and that would mean tuna or lobster—you can have a very satisfying, no-frills meal. Even at peak season with a farm stand half a mile away, they are not big on vegetables or side dishes. What they do have is a view of the harbor that encapsulates everything you love about the summer. You’ll carry that sense memory with you all year long. Here’s the gang, photographed by the woman at the next table. My blue-and-white hat is getting quite a workout this season—it’s making its stage debut tomorrow in “Humphrey Bogart.” I doubt Bogie would have worn something so foofy, but any port in a storm. The smiles in this picture are the real deal.
As far as the music goes, we’re making good progress. I’ve taught Maria, an amazingly talented young woman, how to be kittenish. She has a propensity to veer into dark tragedy. It’s her auto-pilot setting. I feel as if I am photoshopping her songs and adding “Brilliance,” which she has in abundance. And I am surprised by how much I know about being kittenish. (This shot is by Johnathan.)
Philippe is learning how to stop time when he sings, finding his true eloquence. It’s so moving to watch him emerge as an artist. I described this later to my housemates, who are not musicians. Most of them just went on eating their salads, but one of them (Charles McKinney) pursued the subject. “Now, how does he manifest that?” “Well, actually, with his VOICE. With his words. With his timing. With his timbre With his being.” Charles, like everyone else with whom I share my summer house, is more visually oriented than aurally. Since he is the man who photographs the concert (and done it superbly), he is keenly aware of how previous casts have handled themselves physically, often giving me notes on how the artists look when they are singing. So I added, “Charles, I am not 100% sure you’ll be able to capture the magic in a picture…but it’ll be in his sound, it’ll be in the room.” Actually, I think Charles is going to get some stunning shots of Philippe. (Johnathan did.)
Amanda’s voice has become something I crave on a daily basis. It’s a mysterious sound—colorful but not heavy, room-filling but not edgy, emotional but not pressured. Its beauty is unique, which will ultimately make her invaluable in the operatic world. It’s tricky: those folks claim to want one-of-a-kind voices, but they are comforted by hearing singers who remind them of other singers. That makes it easy to categorize and cast them. Amanda’s timbre is exotic, flexible, and soulful. I cannot get enough of it. What a gift to hear her sing Eduardo Toldrà and Michael John LaChiusa and Leonard Bernstein. (Johnathan’s picture again.)
As for Johnathan, he’s been a rock of support all week. He’s mastered the art of what Greg Feldmann calls the “Steve-Ho”: lifting me in and out of the wheelchair and getting me to the piano. He is always there when I need him—tea-time, gluten-free cracker time (when others are eating pie), closing up the hall time. I also named him ad hoc stage director/manager, since he’d done the show before. Not only has he done a beautiful job but he has managed not to piss anyone else off. (This is a very harmonious group, thank God.) All of this is icing on the cake. The cake itself? His performance. I love the way Johnathan rehearses. He always gives a connected, engaged performance, he’s always developing the music and the character, he’s always THERE. His voice doesn’t seem to have any limits, and he’s got as much imagination as any singer I’ve ever worked with (a very high bar). It came out yesterday that Johnathan didn’t know some rather basic things about making a document on the computer. “I never write. I haven’t written anything since high school. I’ve been in operas all that time.” It came as a shock—how could someone so articulate and finely tuned not know about “Search and Replace” on a Word program? Mysteries, mysteries.
As for me, I once again had a lopsided day, beginning decently and ending with the Three Stooges attached to my wrists. At least Mo, Larry, and Curly were having a less clumsy day than the one before. I guess I’ll know if I can nail the end of the show when I only have to play everything once—at the performance.
When I first did “The Art of Pleasure” at Wolf Trap I shared piano duties with a man I treasure, both as a musical partner and friend—Joseph Li. He’s an almost intimidatingly beautiful artist, versatile and virtuosic. In Orient, alas, I am going it alone, which makes “The Art of Pleasure” a lot more art but somewhat less pleasure for me. Joey and I played some of the songs together and our duetting made me giddy with joy. We started our version of the program with a duo-piano overture, the wild “Libertango” by Astor Piazzolla. It was the second time we’d collaborated on a Piazzolla barnburner, and again it was in a transformative experience. Playing Piazzolla morphs me into a totally different person for the piece’s five-minute duration. I become a tough, hard-drinking, belligerent, two-pack-a-day straight guy with a five-o’clock shadow, aching for a barroom brawl. Attacking the piano like a weed-whacker, I play with a gleeful aggressiveness I’ve never experienced in my entire life. And I am in heaven.
In Orient we don’t have two pianos. No Piazzolla, then. But I still wanted an overture. Since the first group of songs is about the seashore in beautiful southern Europe vacation spots, I got the idea of doing Debussy’s gentle “En bateau,” a piece WQXR used to use as theme music for some 6 PM show when I was a kid. The melody functions like Proust’s madeleine, taking me back to a long-ago era in my life. But who would partner me?
An inspiration came to me. I have a good friend out here in Orient, Tenoch Esparza, who studied piano seriously when he was younger. He even attended the Moscow Conservatory—he must have had some serious chops. These days he’s involved with another branch of music altogether, an advanced electronic drum system called Sunhouse that he developed with his brother. He hasn’t played in public for some time, but he accepted my invitation as duet partner. I was delighted.
Today was our first rehearsal. It took us a little while to get used to, well, everything—our physical positions at the piano, the timing of the music, the angle of our arms, even the edition of the score we were using. (Mine had better page-turns, but his made it a lot easier to keep the ensemble together.) And we were a bit nervous around each other. It’s always like that when you collaborate with another pianist. This is someone who can see all the good and the bad, the talent and the shortcuts, the real and the fake, the agony and the ecstasy. Let me add that giving up the pedal to someone else is an act of intimacy, trust, and Lenten renunciation.
Making music is a beautiful way to bond with someone you like. Tenoch is a soft-spoken polymath: a very brilliant tech-guy with an MBA, a degree in Slavic languages, and musical training from the school where Tchaikovsky taught. But he put all that artillery aside to bring a delicate, transparent piece of Impressionism to life in Orient. It took each of us a while to shed our clumsiness and our self-consciousness, but soon we were sailing. Tenoch made my heart sing.
Thursday is the first day the cast goes off-book, and with that added pressure some of the progress we made backslid a touch. The tiny out-of-tune note that was fixed was sharp again; the smooth line of another song got a bit choppy; the shimmering spin turned a little metallic. I gave gentle, patient reminders. I understood what was happening and was thrilled everyone knew their material. Even their 85% was damn good.
I would have loved to be at 85% myself, but I didn’t think I was even close. It was my own screw-up: I started the day with a two hour and forty minute session, too long a sit for me. In those 160 minutes I felt myself slipping from exquisite artistic collaborator to slobby rehearsal drudge. I recovered a little bit after tea break—“Get an effing grip,” I exhorted myself—but I admit I’d become a little demoralized hearing myself dissolve, devolve, and descend as the first half of the afternoon passed.
Pianist: heal thyself.
Wednesday is pretty much the last day I can work intimately with each singer. From here on in, we need to put a show together, bash away at memorization, and fit each song into the longer arc of the program. So I scheduled a bunch of individual sessions to talk through big ideas and correct small errors. An almost-negligible flaw in a phrase sometimes reveals a larger, more important issue, something worth discussing. And it always takes me by surprise, the tiny blip that leads to big progress.
My forty-minute session with tenor Philippe L’Espérance was especially significant. I met him just three days ago. No doubt about it, he’s got a very special voice and a heart of gold. His songs were going fine, but they were still a bit neutral. I could see there was more there, but how to get at it quickly? I’d been trying to lead him through his material by playing it super-expressively, with almost exaggerated musical gestures. My signals weren’t paying off the way I wanted them to, so I took a risk and said, “Do you mind—I never do this—if I play you ‘Freundliche Vision’ the way I hear it?” I then did a supersaturated rendition of the Strauss piece as a solo, big dynamic contrasts, bar-lines the width of the Colorado River, the whole ecstatic nine yards. I practically needed a shower when I was done.
“Got that? Wanna try it…?” I ventured. “Sure,” said Philippe. And then a surprising thing happened: he replicated almost all of my musical gestures—I was amazed that he’d absorbed them—and what had been lovely but prosaic was suddenly beautiful and poetic. It was all there inside him, latent, ready to go. He just needed to step into the picture. And we were finally making music together as a team, not merel executing a musical score in parallel play.
I didn’t tell Philippe about the last time I played this song. It was in 1999—I remember because my mom was still alive—and the singer was Jessye Norman. During a period when she was on the outs with her regular pianist (a sensational musician named Mark Markham), she engaged me for an out-of-town recital to try out my wares. We had about three rehearsals, two up at her place in Croton-on-Hudson, one at mine. I enjoyed her company very much—Jessye can be extremely charming. Playing for her was more of a challenge, particularly at that later stage of her career. She had a very idiosyncratic sense of tempo that I would call Extreme Rubato. I pride myself on being able to fall in with most singers’ phrasing, but for the life of me I could not figure out what Jessye was up to. Ever. I simply did not know when the next eighth-note was going to fall. Sometimes I kick myself for not being as prepared as I should have been for those rehearsals, but there was no way to be ready for those one-of-a-kind swerves and swoops. They made sense to her but I could not catch onto them.
I did my best on concert night, but it’s hard to make a good impression when you literally don’t know when to depress the next key. And I did not get re-engaged. Jessye told the mutual friend who introduced us, “Steve is lovely, but he plays in the modern way, and I need someone who plays in the old-fashioned Romantic style.” I wish I’d been able to find the kind of release Jessye wanted, but that sort of musical freedom needs two partners who play off of one another by listening and collaborating. Your gesture leads to my gesture, which leads back to yours. And that was NOT the gig.
So I thought of Jessye Norman as I tried to lift Philippe into the “old-fashioned Romantic style.” I couldn’t get there with Norman, but Philippe got there with me. He provided a balm to an old wound.
Later in the day I cracked another problem. Maria was not quite letting herself go the distance in her cabaret song “Humphrey Bogart” (by the great songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller). I could see she saw what the piece needed, but couldn’t quite find the inner release. What to do?
Flash of inspiration. Give her an actual Humphrey Bogart to sing to. “Um, Johnathan, can you put my hat on, sit in that chair, and be Bogart for a few minutes?” “Sure. Wait a second.” He reaches into his bag and pulls out a vape cigarette. In life, Johnathan is caring and gentle, a generous and tender human being. Onstage, he is uninhibited and fearless, with loose hips and a rapid-fire imagination. Wearing white jeans, he settled into the chair, dangled the cigarette on the corner of his lower lip, assumed a low-wattage sneer, and crossed his legs. Voilà, a deliciously indifferent, insolent Bogart for Maria to sing about. I was afraid that Johnathan might upstage Maria, but Amanda told me, “No—I couldn’t take y eyes off her.” And I worried that the song was really about the fantasy of Bogart, not a real live onstage sexy beast
I threw my scruples aside. The kid stays in the picture. The fake cigarette sealed the deal, not to mention Maria’s captivating, wild rendition.
My NYFOS residencies are intense, but they’re also short—just a week long. We have a practical task in front of us: getting an intricate concert on its feet, memorized, staged as necessary, and absorbed artistically. But I also want to give something new to the very talented singers: an even higher level of expression, a sense of style in genres that may be new to them, a glimpse of my unconventional artistic process. It’s a delicate endeavor, kind of like musical laser-surgery or whipping up a soufflé. Every second counts, but the week also needs to feel warm and relaxed. To put it simply: I need to say the right thing at the right time. Don’t dump all the tapioca into the sauce at once.
This cast had done very good preparatory work before they got here, and I’m grateful for that. The women are singing in Catalan for the first time and they have certainly put their time in on a tricky new language. Philippe is miles away from his usual repertoire—Rossini and Mozart and Britten—and is taking on a classic Tom Lehrer song that his audience will know by heart, but which is entirely new to him. As for Johnathan, well, he’s got it easy—he just did this program. So I’ve made him the ad hoc stage director, with the permission (maybe even gratitude?) of everyone else.
It’s been especially interesting working with Maria Lacey. She’s a student of my dear friend Amy Burton, and she seems to have acquired an impressive technical arsenal. Maria can do anything she likes with her voice. She’s petite, but she puts out an imposing sound up and down her range. High climaxes? Easy. Soft high notes? Duh, of course. Nebbishy mid-range lines that need strong projection? Bring ‘em on. Five-hour rehearsal? She’s as fresh at 6 PM as she was at 1:30.
So what am I working on with this paragon? Well, I have a maxim, something I learned from a director friend named Ted Altschuler: when you’re onstage you have to say what you’re saying and do what you’re doing. This is harder than it sounds, and it benefits from a six-week rehearsal period. (And, I should add, it gets much harder six months into the run of a play.) I’ve been leaning on Maria not just to own what she’s saying, but make that ownership manifest to her listeners. It’s not enough to know your lyrics, or just feel them in your guts. You have to say them with passion. They have to become your own words—urgent ones.
I don’t like shortcuts, but there is a trick for this. Most people think that singing legato means singing long vowels and very short consonants: “Viiiiiiiiiiissiiiiiiiiii d’aaaaaaaaarteeeeeee…” as Tosca purrs in Act II. Sure, great for certain phrases, usually in opera where the vowel is king. But I think the better technique—at least for song—is to make the consonants slow and liquid. Squishy. Personal. Sexy. It transformed the way Maria sang Jonathan Dove’s “Between your sheets,” a love song from one woman to another. (I always like to have something explicitly Sapphic on my Orient shows, since our town has a long tradition as a hub for the lesbian community.) Maria’s first rendition was crisp and clean and a bit clinical, a committee report. The second, hot, a confession of hidden desire. Now she knows how to cast the spell. May she continue to do so for another 40 years or so.
We had a visitation in the middle of the afternoon from three women, grandmotherly types full of kindness and curiosity. When we invited them to the concert they demurred, saying they wouldn’t be here on Sunday. “OK, then, we’ll serenade you now. Guys: the Rossini quartet for the ladies.” The cast piled into the a cappella first-act ender called “Toast pour le novel an” and pretty much nailed it. Our listeners were thrilled. “Oh, you have WONDERFUL voices! We wish you good luck! Thank you!” We discovered later that they located a fish bowl near the entry door with a sign that said “Contributions to Poquatuck Hall,” and they’d left us a $5 tip. No one had the heart to remove it.
Today was the much-anticipated first day of NYFOS@North Fork, our sixth annual project in Orient, NY. The town is at the very east end of Long Island’s north fork (hence the name). If you kept going, the next piece of land you’d see would be….Europe. Our concert has become quite a tradition out here and the town is excited. People rush up to me—well, rush is a slight exaggeration, but they saunter up to me purposefully and tell me that the NYFOS show is always the highlight of their summer. It will be on the last Sunday of August—the 26th—right before we start to gird up for the fall season.
I did a clever thing this year: I decided to remount the show I did at Wolf Trap in late May. It was called “The Art of Pleasure” and it was a big hit. The normally-cool Arvind Manocha, president and CEO of Wolf Trap, came up to me goggle-eyed. “Steve, I LOVED this! It was great! My favorite one so far! It was so…full of surprises!” I had a feeling that the show seemed more modern, more alive, more à propos to him than previous ones. Everyone, in fact, seemed to vibrate to the span of the theme, from seaside vacations to louche romances on the down-low, from peaceful dreams to obsessive-compulsive tics.
One of the Wolf Trap performers was available to come to Orient and repeat his role: Johnathan McCullough. Normally my work ethic would push me to look for a new singer who would start from scratch. But Johnathan performed his material so brilliantly in May that I wanted to give him a chance to deepen and solidify it. And he is also an artist with whom I wanted to create a bond. He’s got the grace to sing Catalan art song, the manic, creative energy to bring Gabriel Kahane’s Craigslistlieder to life, and the chutzpah to cover a classic song by the Kinks (“Lola”—the one about falling in love with a drag queen) with total authority. He sings freely and easily—a warm, soulful sound perfect for Leoncavallo and (oddly) classic rock.
I did another not-normal thing: I invited Amanda Lynn Bottoms back to Orient. She’d sung here four years ago, and she’s done a MainStage show with me since then. I have a rule—well, a guideline—not to give singers a spot in my Emerging Artists programs once they’ve hit NYFOS’ Big Time. But it’s been so hard to book Amanda since she went off to study at Curtis, and I longed for her. She’s a superb singer and a person I treasure. And Lord, did she sing beautifully today.
I broke another rule and hired two people I’d never met at all: soprano Maria Lacey and tenor Philippe L’Espérance. They came highly recommended by people I trust, and I checked them out on YouTube (another no-no converted to a yes-yes for expediency). I met them Sunday and heard them Monday for the very first time. Beautiful, beautiful voices, both of them, and good people. I lucked out.
One lovely thing about today: I have had a long tradition of bad piano-weeks in Orient. No matter how much I’ve practiced, I start playing out here and my hands turn into The Three Stooges, all rubber chickens and pratfalls. When I sit down at the piano, I feel as if I am on the downward part of a roller-coaster hanging on for dear life. I’ve never been able to figure out if it was the room, or the piano, or the time of year. Let’s face it, part of me would prefer to be eating bonbons on a divan right now, not rehearsing five hours a day. But today, I played really decently for the first three hours or so. I got tired for the last bit, and then things got random and rough. But oh, the sweet feeling of competence. Sure, the work I did on the show in May paid off. But this felt like a sea-change. I’ve been doing some of that positive-mantra stuff, and the exercises athletes are taught to do—you know, envisioning yourself as coordinated and not making a total mess of things. And it kind of worked…!
Let’s see what happens tomorrow.
Pictured: Johnathan McCullough, baritone and human being. Photo: Amanda Lynn Bottoms
When I planned “Red, White, and Blues” I thought I was making a light summer entertainment: 10 French songs, 10 American songs, encore, done. A pitcher of musical sangria. Then I started working on the program, and got a little carried way with visions of sugarplums. “Wouldn’t it be great to do the aria from Mme Chrysanthème? Gosh, this is the time everyone needs to hear ‘Awaiting You’! Oh, we’re by the water, we should do ‘J’attends un navire’!” The result is that my light repast is more like a five-course meal catered by Lutèce.
This became clear to me when we did our first run of the concert yesterday. Blockbuster number follows blockbuster number. The good news is that Mikaela, Sam, and Bobby are blockbuster types—I actually knew what I was doing. Even though they said they were a little tired, they came through like champs. Mikaela did her emergency brake thing a few times, which always gives me a moment of artistic whiplash. Bobby did a reluctant samba during “Zumba,” after which I was able to relieve him of any actual dancing duties during the concert (I just needed to get him out of park-and-bark mode). The look of relief on his face was a highlight of the week. And Sam is locating the delicate filament of artistic light residing within him. Everything was great except the beginning of Adam Guettel’s “Awaiting You,” so I resorted something I rarely do: I sang it to him the way I thought it should go. I have the voice of an old diva: fragile but hugely expressive. Sam was clever enough to pick up from my scratchy rendition what I wanted, and instantly located the style of the song. (I think that was Jim’s favorite moment—he was taking pictures.)
As for me…well, these North Fork weeks aren’t too easy. I don’t have time to practice and I start to play like a rehearsal pianist, with the full knowledge that at some point I will need to create some beauty of my own. The piano is in a little better shape than last year but it is not an instrument to inspire elegance. Every concert program has about seven spots that my hands don’t like—and I was relieved to learn that this is a common thing among pianists. Three goober-moments can be covered with short cuts that no one will ever know about, though I always feel horribly guilty. (But a famous virtuoso pianist once told me, “Everyone leaves out a note or two, it’s standard practice.”) The other four spots really need some woodshedding, and that is not an option out here. No time. And of course, they are all I think about when I get up to play.
My private agonies are offset by the beauties of Orient and my three young colleagues. Trump is pardoning Joe Arpaio, Venezuela is collapsing, Texas is being pummeled by rain and wind. But out on the east end we have cool, clear weather without a cloud in the sky. My summer house is populated by a group of people I love. And at the intermission break yesterday, we had a blessèd event: our producer, Priscilla Bull, turned up with a homemade pie. “Maine blueberry,” she announced. “So you don’t have to buy pie at the store for eight dollars a slice.”
Now, I don’t eat sugar. I don’t eat wheat. I don’t eat dessert. However, it seems that I eat pie. And this one was sensational. Mikaela cut me a small piece and I wolfed it down as if I had been starving in the wilderness. I sinned again after supper when I brought the pie home to my summer house family. I’m repenting today. But I’m not actually sorry.
Thursday is the last day I can really work on the songs and push the cast to take risks. On Friday our water breaks as we do our first work-through. Reassurance is the name of the game. On Saturday, contractions start as we have our dress rehearsal. We retreat to our corners. And we deliver the baby on Sunday.
So today I had to be firm with the cast. I hate interrupting an artist who is clearly lost in his world of song, giving his all—while, alas, screwing up in some way. I feel as if I am intruding, being bossy, stepping on a tender plant. But I find that my singers this week actually welcome the intrusion. “That’s why I’m here,” said Sam Grosby. “I need to know.”
Bobby Mellon is proving to be a force of nature, a thrilling voice and a geyser of emotional reserves. Our work is mostly about when to let it rip, when to be more objective. (It’s also a mini-seminar in French vowels.) In an effort not to overplay his hand, he can flatten out the big moments—like the second verse of “Le manoir de Rosemonde,” when I told him to go for it. “Lay into that second verse—‘si la course ne te HARASSE!’ “Oh, OK. I was…trying to be a nobleman, like we talked about yesterday.” “A nobleman who is losing his shit! Go.” I am also trying to get him to sell the tango-habanera “Zumba.” “You’re in front of a crowd of 3000 at the Olympia Theater in Paris, and they’ve all come to hear you sing your signature tune so they can tell their grandchildren.” “I am…?” “Yes. So unlock your knees, let your arms go free, and for god’s sake don’t be afraid to shake your booty.” This, by the way, does not seem to be an issue for Sam and Mikaela, who are dancing as they backup Bobby in that song.
My task with Sam is to get him to tap into his natural musicality, and to trust his natural musicianship. He’s a warm, spontaneous guy and a class-A singer, but he has a way of getting academic on me. “Sam, the beginning of your Duparc needs more warmth, more persuasiveness.” “Oh, yeah, I know, but I was saving some of that for the second verse…” “No. NO! Grab the audience from the first line, don’t worry about the second verse. Duparc will give you the ammo for the second verse. Cajole, persuade, seduce from the beginning. If you don’t create the atmosphere in the first three lines, the audience won’t care what you do in the second verse.” We did it again and the piece was transformed, suddenly filled with longing, tenderness, and humanity. “What did you do? What did that feel like?” “I felt as if I were just singing a cabaret song.” “Well, it was stylish and alive, not at all vulgar. You were making music. You into that?” “YES!” His Gershwin was similarly transformed when I told him, “OK, Sam, your character has just had sex three times in two hours, you’re practically liquefied, and you’re waiting for the takeout Thai food to arrive.” Bingo. Languor, humor, and the voice of a guy who has just gotten very, very lucky.
Mikaela doesn’t have problems letting herself go, but there are moments when she isn’t sure what she wants to do or what the song is up to, and things come to a sudden stop. As her partner, it is like going from 85 miles an hour on the open road to a screeching dead halt, as if she spotted a slow-moving animal crossing the road. Her questions are perfectly good ones—like, “How do I sing the last page of ‘J’attends un navire’ without spitting up half my larynx?” or “Should I take an optional high Bb or an optional high D at the end of the Saint-Saëns?” or “I can’t find that G-natural on page 2.” Sam and Bobby keep going even when they make mistakes, sometimes giving a gentle wave, the international singer’s signal for “my bad.” Mikaela pulls the emergency brake.
We had a few listeners today, people from the town who have been involved with producing the concert. All of them were blown away by the singing they heard, and with good reason. I decided to pull one of them in to help Bobby with his Kurt Weill song, “Complainte de la Seine,” whose lyric is a long list of all the things at the bottom of the river. Some of them are beautiful, many of them truly gruesome. It’s very mid-century French existentialist—a stance familiar to me from literature courses I’ve taken, but not something that was part of Bobby’s education. “The point is that life has its beauties but it has its dark side. We need to be tough to survive, and not flinch from the truth. Even when it is our own deep loss.” Something was slightly off in his delivery, and I got the idea that he needed to read the translation to someone—to tell them what life was like in the words of the song. So I asked one of our visitors to be a scene partner. “Ask Bobby what’s at the bottom of the Seine.” “Um…what’s at the bottom of the Seine…?” “At the bottom of the Seine, there is gold, there are tears, there are lovers who couldn’t go on living.” “Oh, my…!” “There are feet cut off by propellers, and grey monsters, and vomit, there are white fetuses no one ever loved…” he continued. “Oh god!” Her tanned face was going ashen. Bobby finished and I turned to him and started to say something about the where the objectivity needed to turn to emotion, when I realized that we needed to close the loop with his scene partner who was still standing there aghast. “Um, you understand that those were the lyrics to the song, right?” “Ohhhh…they were? Ohhhh. I get it now.”
But her innocence was exactly what Bobby needed. The song contains both coldness and warmth, a uniquely French combo of sensuality and precision. Bobby shocked our guest, and comforted her, and in the process he began to own the piece for himself.
Unlike some coaches I’ve observed, I don’t tend to start my work by manipulating the surface of the music. Sure, I can be a maniac on the first day about language, because those kinds of errors do need to be nipped in the bud. They take days to repair. But I try not to pick away at musical minutia at the beginning. It just makes singers uptight and passive, waiting to be told what to do. Instead, I look for the basic expressive idea, the character, the style of each song. Who is singing? Why do they need to say this? Where are they? What are they not saying? What happens to them during the song? Every piece turns into a scene, often with a silent, internalized partner. We make up a mental movie, we find the genie in the bottle. I suppose it’s the Talmudic approach to song interpretation—questions, not answers.
But there does come a point where I need to climb down off my High Art Cloud and talk practicalities, and today was that point. Imagination ranks highest on my list, but sometimes singers want to know what sound to make, and how to make it. Two examples: Sam is singing Adam Guettel’s “Awaiting You,” which was written for Billy Porter. Sam is a lyric tenor who sings Mozart without a mic, while Billy sounds like Stevie Wonder on acid—a high, keening near-countertenor, usually amplified. Adam’s song ends with a high falsetto phrase that comes naturally to its first performer, but is tough for almost anyone else to do. Sam tried one thing and another—full voice, disembodied falsetto. Nothing really sounded right. I thought about it and said, “Sam, if you were in an opera rehearsal and you had to mark the high notes”—that’s what singers do when they want to take it easy on their voice—“what would you do?” “I dunno, something like this…” Whereupon he let out the sweetest, gentlest high Bb’s imaginable. Perfect. Easy. Singers have all kinds of sounds kicking around their bodies. Sometimes you just have to ask for them.
Bobby has the makings of a Verdi voice, and I did not want to start our work by squelching his sound. I imagined that he’d been told over and over again that art song had to be tiny and fragile (and he confirmed my suspicion during our session today). But cutting off the voice cuts off everything else too: expression, musicianship, freedom, passion. I resolved to get him to ease off the voice without shaming him about having such a prodigious amount of it. In the Saint-Saëns duet “Vénus,” which he sings with the lighter-voiced Sam, I simply said: “Boys, sing this piece TOGETHER.” Bobby knew what I was getting at, and made a sound I’d not heard from him before, the sweet timbre of a French horn played by a master. And voilà, the music flowed à la française. I could have sworn both boys had put on berets when I wasn’t looking.
Mikaela had had her own aha-moment working on her Saint-Saens vocalise. At break time she rewarded herself with a piece of pie from our Brooklyn-based, chi-chi pastry/ice cream place called Four and Twenty Blackbirds. A cup of tea costs $4, a slice of pie $8. (Eye roll.) But she was running low on fuel and she had to deal with me for a few more hours, so pie seemed to be her only option. I got a tiny taste of it—apple/maple, and very good indeed—but Bobby gallantly passed. Not without regret, as you can see in the picture.
I slept like a baby last night. And Orient is a great place for sleep—at least it always has been for me.
So when I asked Mikaela how she’d slept, I expected a cheery, enthusiastic “Great!” Instead, she said, “Oh, I slept really badly! I got some bug bites, and…I don’t know, I tossed and turned all night. I’m totally tired today.” She’s sharing a house with Sam, who also slept fitfully. “No bug bites, thank God. But I didn’t get enough rest either.”
Tuesday would normally be a day to lean a bit harder on the artists so that we could coast towards the weekend. But I proceeded with caution. You don’t push singers when they’re tired.
You’d never know Mikaela was sleep-deprived from her singing. She sounded, in fact, as if she’d had nine hours of sleep and a refresher nap. Today we tackled a vocalise by Saint-Saëns, “Le rossignol et la rose,” a coloratura showpiece. Mikaela’s voice is unusual: on the one hand, she has a strong, colorful middle and low range that she can lean on for popular music. But she also has a high soprano’s extension and the clear articulation of a virtuoso. Even at half-strength she read through the Saint-Saëns piece without any trouble. Chromatic scale? Perfect. High D? You call that high? Mikaela has great musical instincts. My job seems to underpin her impulses with information, background, a bit of history, and the confirmation that she is indeed on the right track. She can be a little cautious, but her intuitions are almost always right on the money.
Sam was a bit low-energy, but he didn’t baby himself. He’s a clean musician with an easy, true voice. Cleanliness is next to godliness in the kitchen, but not always in the concert hall. “Your singing needs more sex,” I blurted out today. “It’s a perfect line for Mozart, but Duparc and Chabrier need romance.” “I know,” he said. “Let’s find the dirt.” There followed some lessons in portamento and what must have felt like stylistic slobbery to Sam, as I got him to give up musical Teflon and use some olive oil in his songs. His voice took on a bit of musk and the glimmerings of priapic heat. He’s a very bright guy and he knows what I’m after. And yes, I admit that this hunt we’re on is a lot of fun.
Bobby had a bit of a breakthrough as well. I could see that he easily gets immersed in empathy for the characters in his songs, so that he tends towards the tragic. He is a wellspring of emotion. What he needs is objectivity. “Yes, the guy in Adam Guettel’s ‘There Go I’ is in deep trouble and it’s sad. But…he is choosing this life. Or pretending to choose it. Don’t mourn. Justify yourself. Tell us why it’s OK. Tell us why you need it.” Then something amazing happened. Bobby sang it again and became someone else: a tough, self-destructive young man in search of the next high—drugs, sex, booze, whatever. He became the song. “Wow. Wow! OK, what did you just do?” “Well, I sang the whole song as if it were kind of a joke.” Of course, there was nothing remotely jokey about what he’d just done. In fact, he looked lost and defenseless, desperately need of approval, helpless in his addictions. But not sad.
Two days in and the sands are already shifting. More tomorrow.
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