Friday, July 29, 2011

Fached Up - Opera in Chicago

I had a coaching with Maestro Joe Mechavich yesterday.  I was pretty excited and went in warmed up.  Confidently, I sang "Dies Bildniss" from Mozart's Magic my slightly new technique.  It went well, there were some small mistakes, but I felt like it went fine.  Well, the maestro was not too impressed.  He normally is a very funny person, however very sarcastic - that's what makes him funny.  He noticed some pitch problems - something I have embarrassingly have had problems with.  It's not that I sang the wrong note, it's that I am singing the correct note slightly flat or sharp.  It is difficult for me to hear the differences since to me my voice, when it is full, sounds a lot different than what it appears to others in the audience.  I have had to rely on feeling, as do many opera singers.  Well, I just wasn't concentrating enough, and I should have been more careful.

We talked for a long time about careers in opera and what I should be doing and what I should be singing for auditions.  It was a welcome talk in that regard because he was saying things that I have been considering for awhile.  My voice right now with this technique fits into the leggiero fach, that is what I feel most comfortable with, and that is the type of stuff that I should be offering in my auditions - not the tenor favorites of Verdi and Puccini - even though I love them.  

A fach (rhymes with Bach) is a German word that describes the categories that opera singers use to classify their voices.  Even though I'm a tenor, there are many types of tenors, and opera roles are separated by these types.  Generally, opera companies will hire singers who fit that role.  Obviously it sounds funny in English - the plural of fach is Fächer (the umlaut a sounds like the e in bet).  In the opera world, when a singer is singing in the wrong fach (singing something too high or heavy for their voice) we say that they are "fached up".  Obviously making light of a common saying...but it's true - it can be the end of your career if you sing things that your body isn't intended to sing.

Besides looking funny here's the rundown on the types of tenor voice fächer, some characteristics, and an audio example - and by the way, all the audio examples are awesome!


Leggiero Tenor - (Leh-djeh-ro) light voice, agile, capable of performing difficult acrobatic passages

Example: Count Almaviva from The Barber of Seville

Lyric Tenor - bright and full, but not heavy

Example: Rodolfo from La Boheme

Spinto Tenor - (speen-toh) full, rich, and bright, but allows the voice to be pushed louder in dramatic parts

Example: Cavaradossi from Tosca

Dramatic Tenor - powerful, ringing, and heroic with baritone-like qualities

Example: Canio from Pagliacci

Heldentenor - richest, darkest, most powerful voice needed to sing over a large orchestra

Example: Lohengrin from Lohengrin

I feel at times that my previous technical thoughts have been taking me toward a heavier fach - so I have been putting heavier arias in my audition package.  However, the maestro thought that was just crazy.  Especially moving towards a brighter sound, I should be only offering material that I could possible sing professionally.  For goodness sake, I will never be hired to sing a Wagner opera.

Of course over time, many voices will change fachs as their voice matures.  But for right now, I think I will just stay really close to Mozart and sing the light stuff.


Anyway, as for the next couple of days, I will be singing the tenor favorite O Sole Mio tomorrow in a concert.  That should be a lot of fun!  Also, I know that I promised to write about the opera business this time, but as I am at the library, I forgot to bring my note pad that has a lot of the information that I was going to use.  So, I will save that for the next post...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mental Health, Drill Sergeants, & Squillo - Opera in Chicago

Well, the week has been very eventful so far.  I sang on a publicity concert earlier today, which went relatively well.  The entire cast is now on site and we met the conductors and all the production staff.  The conductor of our opera, The Daughter of the Regiment, Joe Mechavich - who has conducted at Washington National Opera, Berlin, New York City Opera, and several other very prominent houses - is an incredibly funny person.  He has a vernacular all his own.

We have started staging as well - in a mental health center of all places...oddly appropriate for opera.  On the second day of staging upon arrival at the mental health center, we were informed that there would be a publicity event.  Because the opera is about a French Army regiment, we were to be instructed on appropriate military actions by two drill sergeants.  That was not necessarily what we came here to do, but it was for news coverage - so we had no choice.  It is somewhat funny because some of us are somewhat effeminate - especially in military terms - and two in our "regiment" had pink polos on.  It had the ingredients for a very funny publicity stunt.

Well, the drill sergeants arrived twenty minutes late.  And, yet another shocker.  The drill sergeants were retired veterans...from World War II.  Easily in their 80s, they were asked by our staging director if they could teach us how to march, salute, stand at attention, etc.  They said, "All they need to know is their left foot from their right foot".  Immediately, he yelled, "Uh-ten...uh!", and we stood at what we assumed was attention..."Leh...hace!", and we made a wobbly turn to the left....still no instruction.  "Foa!" "Aaah!"...and we marched in a circle in single file for about five minutes - taking a couple breaks for our drill sergeant to lean against the stool when he was tired of saying "eh,, ah, eh".  That was it.  The conductors, stage directors, and production staff were trying to hold in huge bellied laughs the entire time - some near tears.  It was hilarious - most especially us marching in a circle for so long in a mental health facility.

The staging has been going is very active.  There are bombs that will evidently explode and we must fly through the air, we march around all over the place, and I even have to pick up and carry the soprano lead at the end of her famous aria with another person.  I didn't think I would be picked to do that - arm strength is not one of my specialties.

Personally, this program has been incredibly beneficial for me.  I had another private coaching, and my recent vocal change has widely impressed the director of the program.  She said that I sound so much better than she remembered me in my audition last December...which is a good thing I suppose.  I have made a significant change.  My voice is now very very resonant with significant squillo.  It has lift, and I have eliminated much of the covering space that I had been singing with, as recently as a few weeks ago.  The high notes are easier, have spin, and a piercing ring.  I am very very happy with how it is developing.  Essentially, I am taking the baritone qualities out of my higher register.

Anyway, my coachings went so well, that I have now been able to get a private coaching tomorrow morning with Bruce Stasyna, who is in charge of the young artist program at Palm Beach Opera and Green Mountain Opera.  He was in charge of Minnesota Opera for seven years, and he conducted at Wolf Trap Opera - one of the most revered programs for young artists. I hope that it will go very well and perhaps something good will come of it.  I am very confident at this point, so I can only hope good things.

Beyond that, I will be hard at work again, but on Friday I will go through some specifics of "the business" and how this program fits in the whole scheme of things in the world of opera today.  It may be a little depressing - especially if the debt ceiling isn't raised - since a lot of companies are barely surviving the recession, but the future still looks bright...I'll explain why later.


July 20-August 7 - Sugar Creek Opera - Daughter of the Regiment - August 4, 5, 7 - Watseka, IL (near Chicago)
August 8 - Audition - Kansas City Symphony Chorus

Monday, July 25, 2011

When in Rome - Opera in Chicago

Finally!  It feels as if I have been waiting forever for all the gears to begin turning on this opera production.  The last several days have been quite relaxing...and for anyone who knows me at least a little bit would know how difficult this is for me.  I am a self-diagnosed work-a-holic.  As is normal with productions, we receive the next day's schedule a few hours before midnight, which would be horrible for my social life if I had one, but since all of my friends up here near the Windy City are in the opera, today's schedule graced us all.  I'm busy from 11am-10pm straight, with a few minutes free for meals...ah...(breathing a great healthy sigh)...I will have a fulfilled and happy soul tomorrow.  It will consist of a career coaching - that's probably a question and answer session with other professionals - and the first full musical run-through with the entire cast and we will stage the first numbers in the opera.

Up to this point, it frankly has been horrifically relaxing.  We have coachings and rehearsals, but then what?  My homestay is way out in a beautiful and quiet part of the country near a small town that actually had a locomotive coal powered passenger train pump through town.  Did I go back in time?  All the TV's in their house all change to the same channel, so whatever they want to watch, I have to watch it as well, even if I am using a different TV.  Unfortunately for me, it is stuck on the Hallmark Channel - Golden Girls marathon.  So, I haven't been watching TV.  The internet is only slightly better than dial-up.  (not to mention that the company has warned us not to drink the local tap water because it may be unsafe)  Besides these things, I'm certainly not the only one with stircraziness problems.  Many of us are over-workers who just can't seem to find a way to live at a slower pace.  So, us opera folk have figured out a few ways to enjoy our down time.

Most of the opera singers are actually staying in a rented house...a gigantic rented house.  The situation is very similar to any number of reality tv shows like Real World, Big Brother, or a much more tired and less tan version of Jersey Shore.  Perhaps it is like our own little Frat/Sorority House without hazing, toga parties, and anything mentioned in Animal House unfortunately.  Nevertheless, we did find a nearby bar/restaurant that has become a spot to relax after we are through, and don't forget McDonald's - they have free wifi for all of us that have internet unfriendly homestays.

As for the highlights of the last several days, I had another coaching.  It did not go so well, and I was a little embarrassed.  I usually pride myself in working my hardest all the time, and I was obsessively prepared for this program, the opera, and the special music for the opening night gala concert.  I'm not sure if there's an old adage about it, but demonstrating success is much more meaningful than appearing successful.  Because of my preparation, I have had almost no anxiety or stress, and consequently have been very confident.  But then there was this.

In addition to the Agony Duet and the Romeo and Juliet Duet to be performed for the gala concert, I was asked to perform a trio from A Little Night Music called "Soon" just a couple of days ago.  Well, I received the music only then, I have never heard it before. When I went in for the coaching, it was apparent that the director expected me to have the music already memorized.  Now, for those who don't know the song, it is freekin' tricky to memorize.  Well, they made me sing it until I memorized it in front of the director, coach, and the two other singers.  It was a little humiliating, but thanks to some great teachers in my undergrad and graduate days, I was able to memorize it in about 4 tries.  I'm not sure if they were impressed or upset about the whole thing, but I definitely learned about their expectations very quickly.  If I had known beforehand, I definitely would have had the piece memorized before the coaching.

At some point I will talk about learning French, but that has comprised most of our chorus rehearsals to this point.  Many of the vowels in French are unique (and ugly) but we have been doing incredibly well in this area in my opinion.  This is one of the funnest and certainly the most musically talented group of singers that I have ever been able to sing with before.  It is quite spectacular.

As I mentioned we have been very stir crazy, so what should we do?

I have witnessed some beautiful things out here in Illinois - some of the most beautiful natural sights that I have ever seen in my life, very honestly - and many of the others out here have said and witnessed the same.  I just have to mention yet another odd but fascinating thing being out here on a farm.  With the hundreds of wind turbines in the middle of many acres of corn, a bright yellow bi-wing crop duster was flying within a few feet of the ground and making high arcing loops up and around and between all of the turbines.  It was something spectacular, first because it appears incredibly difficult, and second because the turbines were so tall that it made the plane seem like a toy or a fly or better yet, a swallow eating mosquitoes - flying low to the ground and swooping back up before making another dive.


July 20-August 7 - Sugar Creek Opera - Daughter of the Regiment - August 4, 5, 7 - Watseka, IL (near Chicago)
August 8 - Audition - Kansas City Symphony Chorus

Friday, July 22, 2011

Night Brilliant Tone - Opera in Chicago

Well, reality has hit like a ton of bricks - in a good way.  I have had several coachings already.  They have gone somewhat well.  One that I had yesterday really has helped in many ways.  Helen Todd, the director of the opera program at Sugar Creek, had me sing through some things.  She was very blunt and honest, which is sometimes a tough thing for people to hear, especially for me.  But, I have made some small but radical changes as of late.  People have always complained to me that I have sounded thin in the past, and so I created a more robust sound, but other things have suffered for that - most noticeably the squillo of my high notes.  Squillo refers to the brilliance of the tone.  Well, with one small change, I have been able to sing so easily with great depth.  I have had to make myself not be so athletic...I can overdo it sometimes with force.  Ever since that ego check, my voice has been in great shape.  I am very excited for some other performing opportunities coming up to show this new sound off, and get used to the feeling of it all.  That is the only way that this will become habitual.  Very honestly, I feel like a tenor for once.  With my voice, there was always something that was too baritone-y or too young, but now I feel like it is in a great high, ringy place.  I am excited to show it off this fall at the Conservatory.

I sang a recital last night that seemed to go well.  The oddest part was that there was a giant window behind where we were performing that you could look out into a parking lot and the neighborhood.  At one point, a homeless-looking man slowly walked from the far end of the parking lot towards the window at a very slow pace.  Upon reaching the front of the parking lot - now just across the street from our performance - he made a right turn and walked along the sidewalk until he was out of view.  All the while - the entirety of his walk - he was picking his nose!  He had no idea that right across the street 50 people were watching him the entire time while an aria was being sung.

My home stay, as you may know, is way out of town in the middle of a corn field with hundreds of gigantic wind turbines surrounding it.  This has made my living situation incredibly relaxing.  I haven't watched TV since I arrived, which is an amazing feat in itself.  At night, the fields light up neon green with millions of fireflies - it's one of the most incredible things you'll ever see.  The turbines, which rise hundreds of feet into the air, all have a red light that blinks on their top.  These hundreds of turbines all blink in unison.  It is quite a nice place to be...and the stars at night are incredible!

That's all for now, I will be back every other day or so...perhaps with video sometime...but I have been very impressed with the artists here, and the support.  It is great to hear so many positive comments from everyone.  I am very excited for not only the near future but what my voice has in store in the long run.  And all the singers out there can attest, it is awfully difficult to be critical of yourself and enjoy the outcome.  It's one thing to do something right once, and yet another thing to repeat it.  Right now, I am so excited that something has stuck, and it is working well!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Naked Traveler - Opera in Chicago

People have a hard time explaining the little events in life, like why watermelon or the smell of rain are so good.  In the grand scheme of things, these are the things that define how we see the world.  The large events like weddings, birthdays, and vacations are only markers in time.

For months I had known that I would be leaving for Chicago to sing at Sugar Creek Opera.  The weeks leading to it were more indefinite.  I practiced and memorized my music, not truly knowing any expectations that they would have of me.  The days before my trip were intended to be relaxing, as I was making myself more confident in my work with many hours of practice under my belt.  Then a little event changed things.  My wife’s car broke down.

Many have gone through the dilemma before, but we needed a car soon.  We only have two, and I was planning on driving to Chicago.  Her car was great: it had air conditioning (mine does not), it was small and had great gas mileage, and it had a sunroof.  On the other hand, was the fact that we spent about $2,000 on it within the last year, and it was getting up there in car years, and miles.

We decided to get a new one.  And after going to several dealerships, we found the one that we wanted.  It perfectly fits our little family – the Nissan Cube.   Of course it is funny looking, but we think it is beautiful. What we didn’t know was that it would be so difficult for us to get a loan.  We have always lived within our means, and credit was never a good thing in our eyes, especially being on the generational hind end of the stock market crash.  Who could ever have trust in the one thing that has set our generation back so far.  Nevertheless, this unfaithfulness in risk kept us from getting a decent loan.

Hours turned into days and we only had a few left to get a car before I was to leave.  An offer at 18%, an offer at 9.9%, and then the weekend.  On our last effort, we were able to get a miraculous rate of 3.9% and then turned to the dealer and completed the process.  This was all encompassing for several days ranging from great excitement to incredible humiliation that we lived a respectable and financially responsible life, which is evidently a bad thing.

our new car model
But, this meant that I would be driving to Chicago in my car - the car without air conditioning.

"Diane" - my car
It is the middle of summer and it is hot.  One of the hottest times that I can remember.  I left Kansas City at noon, with a half gallon of Gatorade.  All the windows are down in my car, and I have most everything packed in the trunk to keep it from melting or bursting into flames.  Going on the interstate with the sun beating down on the opposite side of the car wasn't too bad for the first few hours.  However, as I went further east, it became muggier and the heat index became horrifically bad - probably the highest that I've ever experienced in my life - 117 degrees.  

Well, what should a person do?  I was sweating through the Gatorade quick, and grabbed a bottle of water and drank it.  The heat was too much, yet I needed to get to Chicago.  So, I did what any man would do.  I drove in my underwear.  I'm not sure if that is indecent, but I had to do it.

I stopped a couple of times to take some allergy medicine since the blowing wind and pollen made my nose run - particularly not enjoyable when it feels like you're at the gates of hell.  Stopping in Hannibal, MO - home of Mark Twain - I threw some shorts on and ran into a gas station.  I bought another half gallon of Gatorade and my brain, with its quirky desires, talked to my stomach and beautifully conjured an idea.  I would buy frozen Pizza Pockets to eat for lunch.

I jumped back in to the car, perfectly timing my mid-driving undressing to happen while I was directly over the Mississippi River, opened the box of Pizza Pockets, took out the plastic bag containing the frozen tears of heaven, and set it on the floor mat of the passenger side directly in the sun.

I downed the half gallon of Gatorade and within 30 minutes or so, the Pizza Pockets were nice and warm - just as I was.  Of  course a gallon of anything will make you naturally take some needed breaks at least a few times, but upon the horizon my savior awaited, growing as I approached and whose canopy blocked out the sun right at dinner time.  My savior, the shade of a single thunderstorm, significantly cooled my trip, taking the inside of my car from a 70 mph blast furnace into a more comfortable 70 mph blast furnace.

I passed along the south side of it, and rounded it around to the east.  Beyond that storm lay the prettiest country you can imagine.  I took US highways to my destination, a small farm south of Chicago.  The ditches were filled with purple and yellow wildflowers, miles and miles of corn fields that smelled strongly of sweet corn as I rushed by (I was nearly crying from the pollen, but it was beautiful).  The land is nearly flat, like the Kansas farms I saw growing up, however they were so green - not the golden landscape of my home.  Perfectly white and grey farm houses and barns top the small hills in the middle of a sea of corn - no trees.  The grey-bellied, white-capped thunderstorm stood behind them to my west in the otherwise clear blue sky.  The base having a roll of clouds encircling the storm like a hula hoop with a backdrop of red and yellow rain shafts as the sun set.  And as I approached the farm, hundreds of gigantic wind turbines stood amid the farmland.  It was beautiful.  Beautifully perfect colors, everything so clean.

It was a great way to end the trip.  My host family is very gracious as well.  I immediately took a shower upon arriving.  The storm cooled the air enough to dry all my sweat, which unfortunately makes a person feel really sticky - especially the pit on the opposite side of my elbow oddly enough.  Notwithstanding any of my problems, my new home should be a peaceful place.


Today, after a drive into town, I have my first day of coachings and have been able to meet all the people who I will work with for the next week.  I am somewhat nervous but generally excited to find new friends and to hopefully have an unforgettable experience.  My hopes are high.  I am so thankful, even after 1 gallon of Gatorade and another half gallon of water and the obviously uncomfortable near nude 8 hour journey, that I am able to do what I love.

More to come...My second coaching went really well and I have been asked to perform the agony duet with another tenor in a small concert tomorrow evening...


July 20-August 7 - Sugar Creek Opera - Daughter of the Regiment - August 4, 5, 7 - Watseka, IL (near Chicago)
August 8 - Audition - Kansas City Symphony Chorus

Monday, July 18, 2011

Off to Chicago...

Well, I'm off to Chicago this week.  I will have updates as often as I can find the time to write something - they will be short, or perhaps mostly video or pictures, so I hope you come back to see what I am up to in (or relatively near) the Windy City.  I just found out that the performance weekend for the opera that I'm in, La Fille du Regiment, is the same weekend as Lollapalooza.  For those who don't know what that is, it's a gigantic music festival similar to Woodstock.  So, that may make for some interesting sights.

So, if you have any great ideas of any other things that you think I should do while I'm in Chicago, send me an email at or or better yet, just comment on this post.


July 21-August 7 - Sugar Creek Opera - Daughter of the Regiment - August 4, 5, 7 - Watseka, IL (near Chicago)
August 8 - Audition - Kansas City Symphony Chorus

Monday, July 11, 2011

Funny Pavarotti & How to Memorize an Opera & USA vs. Brazil

Welcome back!  I found this video of Pavarotti explaining his most embarrassing moments.  It's hilarious!!

I'm almost ready for Chicago! I have been memorizing for a while now, and it appears to be going well. Every once in a while I will miss a word, but hopefully after a few hundred more hours, I won't miss a thing.

The cast received the schedule today, and I am somewhat confused with it. But in general, we will be in rehearsal from 2-10 pm most days. The reason for the late practice is that as singers, we are really grumpy people if we have to sing in the morning. For some reason, churches haven't caught on to this yet! Also, it takes a while for singers to properly warm up. We have to do some pretty taxing things, so we have to always take great care of our instrument.

As far as memorizing goes, many people ask me how I memorize my music.


1. Well, first thing's first - I have to have the music.

2. Then I go through the music and highlight all of my parts.

3. If I'm not familiar with the opera, I will listen to a recording and follow along in my music.

4. The next part is the most tedious. I pick out just a couple of pages and and try to sight sing my music. I intentionally don't use the piano in this step because I will memorize it much faster if I'm sight singing. Singers get used to the help of the piano, and if nothing is there to help me except my brain, then I will quickly learn it. Of course the piano is always there to help if I am having trouble.

5. Once a few pages are learned, I go to a recording, play just that section and sing along.

6. I repeat steps 4 & 5, but when I play the recording, I end up playing everything that I've learned up to that point, so by the time I've learned the last part of the opera, I have already sung the beginning 20 or 30 times and have memorized a lot of it.

7. I run the whole opera twice a day and just softly sing along so I don't hurt myself and eventually I have it memorized.

As for myself, I have a lot of training in several languages, so I don't have much trouble there, but that may be an extra step for someone else. Also, I photographically memorize music, so remembering isn't necessarily the hardest part. Honestly, the hardest part is not to get bored after you've sung it 100 times. I start to daydream and forget to come in. Nevertheless, I've learned from my many mistakes and have a pretty regimented process for memorizing.

So how long does it take? Well, a normal three hour opera, for me, assuming that I sing at least half of the time, will take only about two weeks. However, if it involves recitative or some very weird music, it may take a little longer. That's just memorizing however, there is a lot of preparation involved outside of that including acting, artistic elements, translations, etc.


This last week I was in Oklahoma and didn't get to watch my normal regimen of soccer games, like the US women's game at the Women's World Cup.  If you are not a soccer fan, you may not know that the US team is ranked #1 in the world.  So, when I got home, I watched the replay of the game on ESPN2 at 11pm...I kept rewinding it and replaying portions because it was completely incredible and didn't get to bed until 2:30 - it was one of the most exciting games I have ever seen - and I have seen maybe thousands of soccer matches.  It was so incredible that I want to tell all you Americans about it, whether you appreciate it or not (kind of like opera in a way).  In any case, it is one of the biggest stories in the rest of the world.

So at the Women's World Cup in Germany, the US (#1 in the world) and Brazil (#3) played in the Quarterfinals.  You must win to advance.  The US scored first when a Brazilian accidentally kicked the ball into their own goal in the 2nd minute.

As the game wore on, it appeared like the US was going to be in great position to win until the referee gave a penalty kick to Brazil late in the game, and on top of that, kicked a US player out of the game with a red card.    Players almost always make their penalty kicks and it is very unlikely to win a game playing down a person - the US had to now deal with both of these issues.  When the US goalie saved the penalty kick (one of the hardest things in sports) the referee said that it must be retaken (this is a very rare thing and still we have no idea why this happened; it either was an huge error on her part or perhaps the ref took some bribes to help Brazil win).  You have to watch it to believe it...

With a score of 1-1, the game ended.  So they went to 30 minutes of overtime; keep in mind that the US was a person short because of the red card.  Brazil scored early, after the referee blew another call and it looked nearly impossible for the US to come back, but then in extra time of the overtime, in the 122nd minute, literally with seconds left in the game, the US scored a miraculous goal to tie it at 2-2.

Then the game went to penalty kicks where the US won (skip ahead to 5:00 in the video below to see the end of the shootout).  So, the US advanced to the Semifinals on Wednesday and will play #7 ranked France.

This was the most exciting game since Landon Donovan's miraculous goal in the World Cup last year, allowing the US to advance with a goal in extra time at the end of regulation - seconds before the game would have ended.  It was called "the shot heard around the world".


July 21-August 7 - Sugar Creek Opera - Daughter of the Regiment - August 4, 5, 7 - Watseka, IL (near Chicago)
August 8 - Audition - Kansas City Symphony Chorus

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