Today’s blog post is less about a particular song and rather what I have been experiencing as of late after having made the move from New York City to Los Angeles, where I just joined the young artist program at LA Opera. It has been such a beautiful move in so many ways. Exploring new places is always a perk of this job, but even more so now that I have the ability to drive, which I haven’t for the past 23 years. I love LA’s stark polar-oppositeness to New York. Of course, I have inklings of missing Manhattan, but The West has a wonderful, strange mysticism that I am enjoying thoroughly. To have a brand new home base for the next few years is a very special thing, and I’m very pleased (and relieved) to say that it is a great fit.
My first production here at the LA Opera is Verdi’s Macbeth, with Placido Domingo singing the title role, and a cast of some of the most brilliantly produced voices I’ve ever been around. Even the covers for the leading roles are absolutely world-class. This being said, I feel totally inadequate and out of my element in a Verdi rehearsal room. Firstly, I was not born with a Verdian instrument, so the music hasn’t been on my performance radar whatsoever. Secondly, there is something about the darkness and brutality of the Verdi vibe that just doesn’t lend itself to what I love so much about the creation of this art form. Steven Blier and I were in San Fransisco to perform a recital together, and we went to go see Don Carlo at SFO. It was a stellar cast, and there were incredible moments, but I walked out feeling strangely disconnected, a feeling I do not usually experience leaving the opera. Steve turned to me and basically said, “you know that was a very good Don Carlo, right?” I thought about it, and he was absolutely right. I could not pinpoint what I did not relate to about the piece, but I suppose it was just that. I simply did not relate to a 4-hour epic about the Spanish Inquisition.
This is not to say I don’t love Verdi’s incredible scores. Macbeth is filled with some of Verdi’s most epically haunting music. Take the curse music from Rigoletto (even though Macbeth precedes it) and essentially expand it across four acts. My favorite part of the entire piece (although it is a very hard call) is Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. Maybe I’m biased, because this is the scene in which I make my humble debut with the company as the Doctor, who bears witness to the madness of Lady Macbeth. This scene has quickly become one of my favorite mad scenes in opera. Am I a huge fan of Verdi’s setting of the works of Shakespeare? Eh. Not in the long run. However, under a microscope, each of the key moments in the plot are set with the type of intensity that only Verdi can supply. We are left with some absolutely incredible pieces of musical drama.
If I felt strange and out of place in the rehearsal room, my discomforts were quelled when we got into the theater. It turns out Verdi didn’t write Macbeth for a rehearsal room, and it is certainly something exhilarating to be onstage in a gorgeous 3000+ seat house hearing these singers do what they do (and doing a bit of it myself), learning from the dark, majestic sect of this art form called Verdi. Here for your listening pleasure is Maria Callas singing Lady Macbeth’s final grand scena, the Sleepwalking Scene, from Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth.
We had a beautiful show last night in Maryland. As always, I want to steal that Gildenhorn Hall at University of Maryland; it’s a perfect place to do song and New York unfortunately doesn’t have anything like it. We had a very good house and they seemed utterly fascinated with the program. Pretty good laughers: superlative listeners.
I have such powerful feelings about Manning the Canon and the four guys in the cast. I’ve known each of them for a while now and I feel as if I’ve watched them step into in their adulthood before my very eyes. We all know each other’s strengths and passions, we are gently aware of each other’s fears and vulnerabilities. I really love those guys with all my heart.
My favorite moment—among many—was the big laugh we got in “You’re the Top” on “You’re Camembert!” I took a little stretch in the tempo so Jesse could really lean into Scott’s armpit and ostentatiously demonstrate his ecstasy to the audience. As I mentioned…I invented that bit of ‘ography. (I am good with an armpit.)
I always wonder if Manning the Canon will work its magic on straight people. Wonder no longer, Steve: it did last night. There were a few enclaves of gay guys (and a few gay women) in the audience but we were not preaching to the choir in Maryland. At the end of the show, two elderly ladies made a beeline for me. “We just wanted to say… that…. was…. AMAZING. I’ve never seen your group before….and that was….one of the most AMAZING evenings of song I ever heard.” Two more satisfied customers, and not the ones I was expecting.
It sounds simple: you leave town to make music in another locale, and then you come home. But touring is seldom a bed of roses, and this bed was unusually thorny. Dramas abounded. When we got to Union Station in Washington on Friday night, our specially pre-ordered cab (with a ramp for my wheelchair) had blithely loaded another passenger (without a wheelchair). Off they went, leaving us stranded at the train station. The driver worked for Royal Cabs, who seem to have gotten their idea of Royalty from Henry the Eighth, i.e. they screw whomever they want. After some heated negotiation, the dispatcher condescended to send the driver back after he had dropped off the interloper; two hours later, he showed up. We drove into town in silence as he took us to the wrong address. Finally disgorging two very tired angry guys at the Westin Georgetown, he burst out with, “You’re LUCKY I came back for you! I wasn’t GOING to!” Just as I was about to lace him with some choice Big Apple invective, I managed to locate what I call my Inner Flicka (Frederica von Stade’s nickname). Flicka is among the gentlest and most forgiving people I know, and if I can summon up her spirit in time, I manage to avoid epic pissing matches that I cannot win. What would Flicka do? She’d say a prayer for him. I couldn’t quite summon that up, but at least I kept my mouth shut.
The people that ran the performance space were the exact opposite of my cab driver the day before: meticulous about their jobs. The hall was one of those black-boxy places where the crew always tells you within the first 45 seconds, “Oh, it’s a bit dry for the performer but we assure you the sound out front is crystal clear.” This is a bit like telling someone that no one else will feel their bee sting—comforting, but irrelevant in the moment. Michael’s piano had a big, brave sound. Mine was more like a Wellesley sophomore: sweet, elegant, not forceful, cultured. I quietly gave up the idea of colorful climactic phrases and geared myself to the Barricini version of my songs.
We all had our meet-your-maker moments Saturday night, and I was in a fine lather by the end of the performance. I have one need before I walk onstage: I must play through all of my songs. But between one thing and another (including the need to tune two pianos, a Q&A session with four very bright voice students, and the auspices’s decision to open the house 45 minutes before showtime), I didn’t get my warmup. I had gotten caught between extremes of callous incompetence on Friday and OCD-ish efficiency on Saturday. The good news? In spite of it all, it was crystal clear that “In the Memory Palace” is a first-rate NYFOS show, great songs, great performers, great sequencing. Gabe Kahane’s cycle grabbed the audience’s heart. Frank Bridge astonished, Granados detonated, Villa-Lobos seduced. On the way to the restaurant after the show a guy drove up, came to a screeching halt in front of us, jumped out of his car, and yelled, “I LOVE THOSE GABE KAHANE SONGS! THEY’RE GREAT! THANK YOU!”
Mission accomplished. Glad to be out of the space capsule and back on the earth again.
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