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.
The first day of a project is always fraught with excitement and fear and questions—how prepared will everyone be? Is this program any good? Will all my practicing hang in there in the heat of the moment, or am I going to be a total klutz? But this year’s NYFOS@North Fork residency had more unknowns than usual because I’d hired two people I didn’t really know. One of them, the tenor Sam Grosby, I had heard in audition at Wolf Trap. He sang Lenski’s aria, which was beautiful, followed by one of the best performances of “Il mio tesoro” that I have heard in decades: Immaculate coloratura, stunning breath control, and a timbre like honey. But I didn’t think about Sam for Orient until I talked to Theo Hoffman the next day, seeking recommendations for this year’s cast. “There is a tenor you’d like,” he said, “named Sam Grosby.” “SAM GROSBY? My god, I just heard him yesterday. He’s fantastic. I want him.”
We were clearly on a roll. “How about baritones?” “There is someone who would do good work for you—Bobby Mellon.” This was not a familiar name, so I went the route I normally don’t approve of, the dreaded YouTube audition. From the clips I saw online, Bobby seemed like a theatrical live-wire and a take-no-hostages singer. Orient is the place to take a flying leap of this kind. Offers were made and accepted, and the casting was done. I hoped I’d made the right choices, but I just had to wait and see.
Today was the day I met Bobby for the first time. His voice is the real deal—a rolling, sonorous baritone with money notes actually worth money. He’s also a sweet man, hard-working, and open to all of my crazy ideas. I scheduled our coaching around the time of the eclipse, so we went out to the pier to get our photo taken in the (slightly) waning light.
Sam also came through today—my God, he sings so easily, and with such sweetness. Both guys are ready to take some bold new steps as interpreters, and Orient is the perfect place to do that kind of experimentation. I could see the wheels turning today. “Do you want to run that again now?” I asked. Silence. “No,” each of them said. “I want to think about what we just did…and bring it in tomorrow.”
They’ll both be fitting partners for Mikaela, whose voice is a kind of aural Godiva chocolate. I have developed an allergy to cocoa in the last few years, but who needs candy when you have Mikaela Bennett to listen to?
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