Monday, February 27, 2012

This Is Not Working

Thank you to everyone who came to my Doctoral Recital last week.  I hope to provide some recordings at a later date, but in general, I thought it went very well.  My voice was in good shape and I remembered the words!  Last week, I put together a video and wrote a little bit about the uniqueness of this concert.  CLICK HERE TO CHECK IT OUT!

Also, I was informed at half-time of the recital that the audience didn't receive the translation pages.  I was upset because it was a very complex and meaningful program - none of which would have been received by the audience unless they were fluent in German and French.  It turns out that they were left on a metal cabinet in their brown Kinko's bag back stage near where I gave them to the usher.  CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE TRANSLATION PAGE.


I have a production of La Tragedie de Carmen next month at the Conservatory.  Today, I had a costume fitting, and had to run back home to get some un-holey underwear...good thing I remembered!  And all this opera work and my recital has had me thinking about education.  

I have had people tell me many times that as a professional musician, you shouldn't get higher degrees - they're worthless.  I have had people tell me to not get married, not wear glasses, not sing this or that, all for the sake of being a great musician.  I was even pointed-out in a room full of opera singers, as being the only one trying to get a Doctorate, and told that I am a fool for doing that.   I must say that the person who said that was a Canadian, and didn't have a Doctorate, but I certainly never thought that I would have to defend being educated.

A few things recently have sent my mind into a frenzy; the predominant cause being that our culture is anti-elite.  Being "elite" in politics is a negative thing.  Whatever is perceived as "elite" is somehow hated by many Americans.

The Simpsons recently showed their 500th episode.  The townspeople were voting to kick the Simpsons out of town because of all the trouble they have caused, and one person suggested that they reject their subscription to the opera.  Homer quickly replied, "but I hate the opera".  It was an obvious joke at the ridiculousness of owning season opera tickets, and Homer - with the stereotype of a stupid person - obviously hates the opera because it is opposite of the character that he portrays.

The TV show An Idiot Abroad also had a new episode last week, where Karl, the British "idiot", was sent on a road trip down Route 66.  The producers of the show make him dance in a show choir, because that was an American tradition (I suppose).  Ideally, the show tries to find experiences that Karl will hate, because it is funny to watch.  Karl dances and sings like a fool, and he feels embarrassed.

Finally, at the Academy Awards last night, the winner of my favorite category, Ludovic Bource won for Best Original Score with his 1920s silent film accompaniment of The Artist.  He beat two John Williams' scores and Howard Shore to take the prize.  As he walked up to the podium to claim the Oscar, the announcer bragged that he had no formal music training.

Amazingly, all three of these glorify an ideal that rejects art and education.  I am not necessarily complaining, but it is an observation that I hate to see.  Homer hates opera, Carl hates the performing arts, the Academy Awards idolizes Bource's lack of music education.

It is sad to see so much hate toward something that provides so much meaning and progress for the world.  If you think it is just an anomaly, I recently fielded questions from several hundred students.  One never had voice lessons, and asked if you could make it professionally without lessons.  I sighed, and said, "well, if you expect to make it 'big' in music, you should learn as much as you can about music".  I didn't expect it to be a negative response, rather it was pretty generic.  Another speaker followed me by saying that with respect to me, he had never had formal lessons, and he was a performer in a very popular singing group.  That response was followed by great applause.  It was absolutely incredible.  I later offered kids free voice lessons through KCVI, and everyone who applied from that event received free lessons.

I think that America's problem with education is not in the quality, but in our culture; it is so difficult to love learning.  America's education system requires students to perform specific tasks - this creates a perception that "learning" is reaching a goal.  Why can't learning be open-ended?  I think that when people are successful without "being educated", the public shows admiration because they also know that learning should be open-ended - they know that reaching a goal isn't learning.  Unfortunately, it would take a lot of work to change this culture, but I'm glad that I'm a musician.  Imagine how a scientist feels about the "evolution debate" - Evolution is universally accepted by scientists (near 100%) but by only 32% of the public - less than 48% of whom can even define evolution correctly...(according to a 2009 Pew Research Poll)

I try not to get too political on this blog, but I must post these clips from John Stewart's new episode tonight.  It is speaking about this same anti-education stigma:

On a lighter note, the Colbert Report featured one of the greatest living singers last week:

I'm off to Dallas this week.  I hope you all spend the week learning something new!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Doctoral Recital - The Volga German Genocide

I have had an amazing and heartbreaking week.  There are many stories that I would love to share, but alas this is a very public forum.  Unfortunately, I will wait a few years to tell some of the lessons that I have learned this week - not all good things, but great life lessons and professional lessons.

Tonight, I will be singing in the Conservatory's production of Carmina Burana.  I know you all know it - CLICK HERE TO SEE IF YOU DO.  We will also be performing some exciting world premiere pieces including one by the current Pulitzer Prize winner in music, Zhou Long, who is an instructor at the Conservatory here in Kansas City.  You can watch it live on the internet here at 7:30:

I have to say that all the time I've spent this weekend in Helzberg Hall has been absolutely incredible.  If you are a choral music person, there is no better place on earth to sing than Helzberg.  I guarantee it will be a religious experience - it's the perfect place for singers.  It's no wonder why many of the greatest singers in the world have scheduled performances here in the coming year.  For example, Juan Diego Florez, the most famous tenor in the world, sang a recital here yesterday.  He only scheduled recitals for Paris, Salzburg, Vienna, and Kansas City!  This place is for real...if you are living in the area, and haven't seen it, you are missing one of the world's greatest performing venues.

But, the biggest event for me this week is certainly my Doctoral Recital:

"Wir wollen Deutsche bleiben"
7:30 PM
February, 25, 2011
White Recital Hall
Kansas City, Missouri

It should be, hopefully, one of the most unique recitals that you have heard in a long time.  I have waited several years to put this particular recital together.  Watch the video below and I'll explain some of the really unique things that I will be doing.

The phrase "wir wollen Deustche bleiben" or "we want to remain German", was a phrase that the Volga Germans used to solidify the importance of their ancestry in the face of this horrific slaughter.  They were influenced by many cultures and governments but they desired to peacefully live in their agricultural society with a simple but vibrant Germanic society.  Knowing their sacrifice and that their struggle, known as the Forgotten Genocide, completely obliterated their world, I too feel that it is important to keep at least this small portion of their story and culture alive.

I will begin the concert with "Ach, wenn Mutter Wolga" by Cui.  Cui was a famous Russian composer and this is a patriotic hymn to the Tsar.  It was originally written in Russian, but I will sing it in German.  The Volga Germans were forced to sing these in the early 20th century.  It sounds very "Russian" with a somber mode, but if you understand that the point of this concert is to celebrate the Volga Germans, you should know that this is about the darkest and saddest of all songs.  Tsar Nicholas II initiated the genocide on the Volga Germans, so to sing a patriotic song in German, would be the equivalent of Jews in Poland being forced to sing a song praising Hitler in Polish.  It is gut-wrenching.

Then I will sing some songs that highlight the many cultures of their part of the world.  They lived in an area that was filled with many cultures because of the trade routes between Asia and Europe.  They were influenced by India, China, Persia, Russia, and Western Europe.  So, I will sing the first movement from Ravel's Scheherazade.  Scheherazade is a famous Persian tale, and the first movement is called "Asie" or Asia.  It talks about China, India, and all the wonders and dangers in the Orient.  It is normally sung by a mezzo, but is written for high voice and clearly with tenor in mind.  However, I will be making one of the only tenor Scheherazade recordings that I know of existing, so it should be very unique.  I will follow that by singing an aria from the Russian composer, Rimsky-Korsakov, called "Chanson Indoue" or The Song of India.  Both of these selections are in French.  How perfectly multicultural!

Then I will sing Respighi's "Nebbie" - a tenor favorite.  Respighi was an Italian composer, and this piece is in Italian describing the fog rising and setting, a very spooky allegory to life and death.  Respighi was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and was the principal violinist of the Russian Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg.

I will also include some selections that highlight the cultural history of the Volga Germans, which obviously includes German music - so, I will sing a short lied by Brahms and a tenor favorite by Wolf, both German/Austrian composers.

Then I will sing Lenski's Aria from Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin.  It is in Russian and certainly one of the most famous Russian arias of all time.

Lastly, I will sing the World Premiere of John Mueter's "Three Volga German Folk Songs".  I contacted the library at the conservatory in Salzburg where they have a massive collection of folk songs of Germanic peoples.  They were very kind to allow me to search high and low for songs with their origin in the lower Volga river region.  I found about 30 and they sent them to me over the internet and I sent some of them to John, who was very eager to work on the project.

He composed three songs "Abschied", which is a beautiful song of farewell, then "Soldatentod", which tells the story of a soldier's death on the battlefield with gruesome depictions of the dead scattered under the moonlight, and finally "Der Zecher", which is about a drunk that is sitting at home drinking when Death shows up at his door.  The drunk offers Death a drink, but Death pours it out as a toast to his cousin, Plague's, health.  Death then asks "do you think I can be sold with a drink?" but the drunk pleads, "I'm trying to become a doctor, and if you let me live, I'll give you half my patients."  Death agrees to let the drunk live as long as he is his obedient servant.  So, the piece ends with the drunk, drunkenly singing the joys of living forever because of his deal with Death.  All of these are in German, natürlich.

I have been wanting to do a program like this for several years, and I am very excited to present it this Saturday.  It means so much to me because this is my ancestry, its culture is dying very fast, and it is the 70th anniversary of the mass deportation of the Volga Germans to the GULAG labor camps.  After the genocide, most of the Volga Germans either fled to the United States or Germany or were assimilated into USSR, losing their language and with it, much of their culture.  Today, the most vibrant culture is in the middle of the United States where they still cook, speak, dance, and drink like they did in the Volga region.  However, with the loss of their language in recent generations, there just aren't enough decedents to promulgate their culture further.  Sadly, it all was irreversibly destroyed in the genocide.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Opera Singer Critiques the Grammy's, KC Lyric Opera Audition, & COOL NEW GIG

Hello, America. Why do you enjoy singers yelling so much?  Seriously, this isn't just my opinion - technically these singers are yelling and belting all the time, even to the point of hoarseness!  My overall impression from the Grammy's this year is that I'm astonished that people aren't bored with people yelling all the dang time.  Leave the musical genres out of the picture; the pop singers, country singers, rock singers all have the same technique.  You should expect more from your favorite singers.

So let's take a technical look at the talent.  Remember, my profession analyzes the technical skills of singers; that does not mean the entertainment value.  I must first mention that it is nearly pointless to do this, because popular music is intended to feed off of raw emotion.  Needless to say, presenting awards in music is equally ridiculous - it's personal and individual for everyone.  BUT, in the music biz, there are technical standards that we are judged by and that is what my life is from dawn to dusk.

This idea of belting/yelling has damaged our nation's singing culture.  Why?  It is exciting isn't it?  You do get all emotional with Adele's music don't you?  Don't you love Whitney Houston's high notes?  You are right; they are exciting, but it is very damaging and painful.  Essentially, our culture will be raising singers in this style and they will be so inept in cultivating a healthy and artistic voice that they will all fall silent with vocal injuries at very young ages.  Too, we are pushing our ideas of beauty and perfection.  Just as people criticize unhealthy, super-skinny models as ruining our self-perception of physical beauty, so too is this belting technique - surely we can find a more healthy and less strident sound than belting and yelling to call beautiful.  When did it become a bad thing to sing with freedom and good technique?  Why would we rather be child prodigies with "natural talent" and not want to be a hard worker or a great student?  I can't change our culture, but I certainly can observe it - and how backwards it can be.

Back to the topic, the big Grammy winner of the night just recovered from vocal surgery several months ago because she sang her way into vocal damage.  This is actually very common.  That singer, Adele, is only 23 years old! She is lucky that she will get another shot at it, but many singers never fully recover - like Whitney Houston.  With that said, everyone loves Adele's music, even I do, but as to her singing technique, it is the perfect example of the yeller/belter...where did the singers go?

I was fascinated that as the singers went by, they all had nearly identical techniques: Bruno Mars even screamed into a megaphone holding it in front of the microphone, Kelly Clarkson yelled the highest note she could over and over slowly going hoarse.

Some tried singing in other styles than what they were used to.  Alicia Keys couldn't get through the first 20 seconds of her Etta James tribute before she painfully wrenched up to the highest note of the melody.  This pop singing style inhibits singers' ability to relax enough to sing even the simplest melody - there is a reason why so many sing so poorly on Christmas Albums and National Anthems. This is stuff that your grandmother could sing better - probably because her culture growing up actually sang instead of screamed.

Nevertheless, there were some great performances.  The best vocal performance of the night was certainly Jennifer Hudson's Whitney Houston tribute.  It was sung, and sung beautifully and emotionally.  She had a Whitney-like belt on the high notes, but kept it free the rest of the time.  The softest parts were the best.  Young singers should pay attention to that.

Foster the People sang the Beach Boys better than the Beach Boys ever did.  They sang with ease, clarity, and great technique - the complete opposite of Adam Levine, who butchered his rendition looking scared and in pain.

Of course, Paul McCartney was great.  I think his new Valentines song would better suit an R&B singer, but he certainly sang better than many of his younger counterparts on the Grammy stage.  I expect that most of these young singers will have long since ruined their voices by the time they're Paul's age.

One of the most charming parts was Tony Bennett and Carrie Underwood singing "It Had to Be You".  Bennett's timeless voice was easier to listen to than Underwood, but even though they had completely different voices, they both were committed to singing with freedom and dare I say, intelligence.  It was brilliantly simple and gorgeous.

On the other hand, The Civil Wars, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and the Foo Fighters continued the shouting match, clearly showing why we love our entertainment and the thrill of a good beat and a spectacular production.  Even the song writing was horrid (Perry in particular) - so monotonous and nagging, you might as well speak to me the book of Leviticus on a single pitch to the beat of my alarm clock going off.  I was sad that even the country singers fell into this trap, this infectious addiction to belting.

It may sound harsh, but technique and entertainment are two separate things.  I certainly love the big show and emotions and everything else that everyone else enjoys in music and concerts.  I just hope that we will go back to singing well, as a culture.  It wasn't too long ago that little Michael Jackson in the Jackson Five was singing lights out, that Elvis was King, and the Beatles showed how many styles one could sing in AND sing well AND change the world.


Last Saturday, I had an audition for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.  I arrived at about 7:00, and the door monitor recognized me and greeted me by name!  I appreciated that.  I waited around, paced back and forth, getting drinks from the drinking fountain, trying not to listen to the other singers.  Finally, the singer before me went in and didn't do so well with her first aria.  I waited to see if they would ask her to sing another one, otherwise I would be going in.  They asked her to sing a showtune.  So, I went to get another drink down the hall.  By the time I got back, the door moderator and people in the lobby were calling their family, all nearly hysterical.  Whitney Houston died - and news had just reached the opera house.  Of course, I had to enter and sing at the moment that they all found out about Whitney.  I sang Lenski's Aria and Dalla sua pace.  I did ok, I thought.  I just hope that I am remembered and not overlooked because of the Whitney Houston hysteria.  But, I definitely will never forget when and where I was when Whitney Houston died.


I recently got a new gig, and I was very honored to receive it.  The NAIA has asked me to sing the National Anthem at the Men's Basketball Division I National Championship Game!  Here's the email:
"I just listened to your rendition of God Bless America, and I am highly impressed. In addition to being very good, your timing is really good. We have every session scheduled for a National Anthem singer…..except our marquee game --- the National Championship game of the 75th Anniversary. We were looking for a Kansas Citian that is truly special….if you would like to sing at that game, it’s Tuesday, March 20, at 7:00 p.m."
I am very honored and appreciate the nice comments.  In addition to that, I will be singing with the Conservatory's production of Carmina Burana at the Kauffman Center on the 20th.  And, on the 25th, I will have a solo recital to commemorate the 70th  Anniversary of the Soviet Genocide of the Volga Germans - White Recital Hall, UMKC, Kansas City, MO at 7:30.  I will have a lot of information about it starting next week!

Monday, February 6, 2012


What a busy time of the year!  Last week, I sang Mahler's Second Symphony with the Kansas City Symphony.  It was majestic to say the least - certainly the loudest classical concert that I can remember.

I sang a Bach cantata on Friday at the Conservatory.  It was a very interesting setup in that we had bleachers all around us like an arena.  It was packed as well!  These monthly Bach's Lunch concerts are become more and more popular every time.  I will also be a soloist in next month's concert on March 9.

Also last week was our annual NATS contest for the Kansas City area schools.  It was held at Mid-America Nazarene University in a very nice hall.  Expectedly, I lost to same girl that has beaten me in every NATS competition since I have arrived in Kansas City.  She is spectacular, but I'm just waiting around until she retires so I can get a chance to win!  We are both competing at the NATSAA competition in Chicago in March, so I will certainly need some good luck or some visible muscle tone to impress the judges.

I must admit that this week has been a pretty tough week to get through.  I have been very busy, and I have stayed relatively sane throughout it, but like many singers and artists, I have been down in the dumps at times. It seems that I have recently perfected the "adequate performance"...that is to say that besides the random bad audition (St. Louis) I do generally what I need to do, but I haven't impressed myself.  Since artists are judged heavily on single performances, it is so difficult to change a first impression and if you are not impressive, well you will be easily forgotten.  In short, I am very eager for a good showing sometime.  There's always something negative that I'm trying to get past, or a mess-up that I can't take back.  It's all very frustrating, but hopefully I will gain some confidence in my upcoming performances.

I practiced my butt off today and all of the last five or six days in hopes that I can practice my way out of a slump.  We'll see if it works, as I audition for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City on Saturday.  Too, I am starting work on Le Tragedie de Carmen and singing the role of Don Jose.  AND, my recital (which has been rescheduled YET AGAIN) on Saturday, February 25 at 7:30 at White Recital Hall at UMKC is fast approaching.  Until next time, here's is Don Jose's aria from Carmen.  Which one do you like better?

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