Friday, November 21, 2014

Striving for Excellence: By Director James Marvel

Every great sports movie has one thing in common: a story of personal and collective achievement against odds that are seemingly insurmountable. If you play a game with the stated goal of winning, you may win or you may loose. If you play a game with the goal of having the highest scoring game in the history of the sport, you are going to play the game very differently than if your goal is simply to win. If you play every game with that goal in mind, you are on the path to becoming a legend. That having been said, I want every show I direct to be the best show that anyone has ever seen. I don’t just want it to be the best production of that show that has ever been seen, I want it to be the best production of any show that anyone has ever seen. That’s my stated goal. On any given production, I will either achieve that goal or I won’t, but I am playing the game with that goal in mind.

As a director, I am always looking for collaborators who push themselves. I am also only interested in working with collaborators who push me to be my best, who challenge me beyond mere complacency to achieve artistic greatness. Whether I am working with a singer or a designer, my firm belief is that we are obligated to expect and demand excellence from each other for the good of the production, for the good of the art form we love to practice, and for the delight of the audience who has entrusted us with the mere task of taking their breath away. At the end of the day, our only job is to give the audience an evening they will remember for the rest of their lives. Anything short of that is a waste of everyone’s time.

    The type of singer that intrigues me most is one who has a strong command of their artistry and technique, a fearless spirit, and an open willingness to try anything. For singers, trusting a director whom you don’t know or haven’t worked with before can be a daunting proposition. Several years ago, I received a phone call from a tenor friend of mine who was doing a production in Germany in which the director wanted all of the characters in the opera to be zombies, devoid of facial of physical expression. The tenor mentioned that the director had never directed an opera before and complained that he felt the concept was antithetical to everything the opera’s music demanded. I replied by saying, “I know why you are calling me. You want me to give you permission to do the role the way you would prefer, but you can’t be in a different show than the rest of the cast. You can choose never to work with this director again, but you will do yourself and the production a disservice if you don’t do your best to realize the director’s vision.” A month later, the singer wrote to me and thanked me for the advice, forwarding an outstanding review, which he claimed was the best review of his entire career. Furthermore, the director specifically requested him on two future projects, which he willingly accepted.

A Tale of Two Cities:
Several years ago, I directed two productions of Tosca in different cities with different casts. I had some ideas that I wanted to explore with the character Scarpia. In the first city, the baritone, who remains my favorite Scarpia of all time, was not only open to the ideas, but he was ravenously voracious when incorporating the ideas into the character. The result was stunning. The audience, the press, and the board members of the company were ecstatic about his performance, and I knew that we had uncovered something truly special. I never asked the singer why he was so willing to embrace the ideas. Was it that he had a long track record of working with excellent directors who never let him down?  Was it that the ideas were appealing to him? Or was it that he was an artist…someone who believes in being audacious, daring, fearless, and collaborative in his pursuit of excellence?

Two months later, I encountered my second Scarpia. We had many friends in common, so I was expecting a certain amount of trust and a similar success. From the moment I began discussing the ideas I wanted to explore, the singer was closed. Immediately and indefinitely. It became clear that he wanted to perform Scarpia exactly as he had done it for years without a single deviation or variance from his staid, stock, and conventional portrayal. After many frustrating rehearsals, we decided to go out for a drink. After several hours of conversation, the only logical reasoning he provided for performing Scarpia the same way he always had was that “he had a brand to protect.” The resulting performance was unoriginal, formulaic, and predictable. Was it good? Sure, it was good, but anyone who aspires to be merely good is not someone any of us should aspire work with or be.

Everybody gets into the business for a different reason. The decision to be a world-class artist is both a journey and a goal that we must dedicate ourselves to on a daily basis. We must be honest with ourselves about our strengths and our weaknesses. Once we identify our weaknesses, we can address them directly and without compromise. Friends or colleagues who distract us from this goal are not our friends. Fortunately, there are many wonderful people in the world who help us to achieve excellence everyday.  Make sure to thank them. Make sure to inspire yourself so that you may inspire others because being an excellent colleague is just as important as being an excellent artist.

Image courtesy of Idea Go at 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Rise of the House Concert

While there’s nothing specifically in my lease that bars me from belting out Puccini’s greatest hits at the top of my lungs in my apartment, I tend to be uncharacteristically shy about singing in my own living room. But I love singing in other people’s.

I’ve been singing in living rooms quite a bit over the past year, part of a classical house concert trend that’s been gaining some traction in my corner of the world and several other urban areas. It is, of course, no new innovation. We all learned about Schubert’s Liederabends in music history and they’ve been happening in various iterations (from the most formal to the totally casual with all manner of repertoire) ever since.
The current trend is being capitalized on by individuals and organizations alike, but none so well as Groupmuse, a movement that you are likely familiar with if you live in San Francisco, Boston or New York. They also have chapters coming soon to Boulder and Denver, Colorado as well as Atlanta and Seattle. And their mission says it very, very well:

A groupmuse is not just a chamber music house concert. It’s an experience that’s as social as it is musical and as convivial as it is stimulating. Moreover, it’s not a one-and-done thing. It’s a building block of a larger community of people who seek beauty and depth in a world where neither is particularly forthcoming. The purpose of a groupmuse is, in part, to relay moments of musical expression that have inspired people for hundreds of years, but it’s also to make you want to come back for more, because when the faces become familiar and your neighbors become your friends is when art is realizing its ultimate potential and reminding us all of our common humanity.

Powerful stuff that you’d (frankly) be silly not to get behind. So how do you make it work for you, intrepid soprano? If you’re looking to find your own host, plan your own program and marshal your own resources, here are some tricks of the trade:

Recruit your friends.
You know other people who play music, right? Get them onboard ASAP because a varied program is a good program. If you are as lucky as I have been, you’ll be able to find a pianist who is a brilliant and generous collaborator; someone who is hungry to learn new repertoire or pull out old favorites and really dig into them in collaboration with a vocalist or instrumentalist (or both!).

Put on your programming hat.
I don’t know about you, but I could spend years researching and assembling recital programs. It was one of my most favorite things to do in school. And the awesome thing now is that you don’t have those pesky graduation requirements sucking all the fun out of it. The world is your musical oyster. This is your program. Stretch yourself. Try new things. Take risks. Align poetic themes or highlight vocal fireworks. Develop a program with variety and something to say.

Find a willing host.
Start a list of people you know with pianos in their houses and start asking. The real piano thing is important. No matter how state of the art your keyboard is, it doesn’t replace the music making capabilities of a real live acoustic piano. Once you’ve confirmed the piano’s existence, the sell really isn’t all that hard—free beautiful music, in their home, that they can invite all of their friends to and meet some of yours as well!

This is the time to work for free.
I should mention here that this is one of the few times that I put my capitalist singer self aside and try to create a performance situation that is just about making great art with and for people that I really like. This is one of the most enjoyable forms of performance expression that I have found, and I think part of it is that no one owes anyone anything. We’re all there to serve the music and have a damn good time doing it.

Extend unexpected invitations.
This is a really cool place to introduce a classical newbie to the music you’re dedicating your life to. They can kick off their shoes, have a glass of wine in hand and hear you sing from 10 feet away. Intimate and accessible doesn’t begin to cover it. And it’s these types of “gateway” experiences that can help us with the sizeable task of winning over the next generation of classical music and opera patrons.

Make it BYOF, BYOB and BOYC, if need be.
A potluck-style affair keeps this event feeling properly communal (and realistically cost-efficient). Ask your guests to bring a bottle of wine or munchies to share. And if your host doesn’t have seating for 20, the audience can be encouraged to engage in some good old-fashioned criss-cross applesauce on a comfy carpet.

Involve the audience.
Are you singing in a foreign language? Don’t just pass out translations, have different audience members read the English poetry aloud for the group. By all means, tell them what you’re singing about, thinking about, the work that you and your collaborators have done to prepare for this performance. Pull back the curtain and let them see how this process works. You’re going to be singing in their personal space, so be ready to give a real-time, close-up interpretation of this repertoire. No need for the grand operatic gesture.  They are interested in having a real live person sing to them. The same person they’ll socialize with as you enjoy a well-deserved glass of the wine they brought. Full disclosure: I usually start drinking sooner, depending on the rep for the night!

See where the night takes you.
Hands down, my favorite events have been those where the planned program wrapped up and the music went on into the night. There are truly few things I love more than drunken party arias and musical theater belt-alongs. And the spirit of democratic music-making demands that all in attendance who want to participate should, in whatever way presents itself.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Zen and the Art of Singing

Zen and the Art of Singing

These days, it’s hard to walk two blocks without passing a yoga studio, or open a magazine without seeing some reference to “mindfulness”. It might seem like wacky mumbo-jumbo to some, but the benefits of mindfulness, meditation, and similar practices are extensive and backed by science. I’m hardly a Zen guru, but in my explorations of these topics, I’ve found them to be very applicable to singing, too.

Be In the Moment – But what does that mean?
You’re as likely to find “Be in the moment” on a greeting card than in a Buddhist temple, but it’s actually one of the foremost tenets of mindfulness practices. What does it mean, to “be in the moment,” and how can it help singers?
I consider being mindful to simply mean focusing your attention on the moment you’re in. In other words, you’re not thinking about what you’re having for lunch unless you’re making your lunch at that moment. You’re not thinking about the talk you need to have with your mom unless you’re talking to her. You’re focused on what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling at that exact moment, not what’s happened in the past or what you think might happen in the future.
I had a coach once tell me that when he asked Susan Graham what she thought about when she sang, she replied, “Whatever note I’m on.” I found this answer brilliant. It seems obvious, but think about it: how many times are you thinking about something other than the note you’re on when you’re singing?
What makes this tricky is that

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How to Deal with Inappropriate Advances

Why is this even a topic? Some of you may have never dealt with a professional colleague coming on to you when you were not interested, but some of you have and some of you will. This may be a shock to the naive few, but to be naive, however sweet and innocent you are, doesn’t necessarily help you in your future career. So, here are a few tips for dealing with unwanted advances.
Let’s discuss two scenarios:

  1. You are attractive. You dress attractively. You are friendly and nice; you have a good sense of humor, laugh at most people’s jokes, and smile a lot of the time. You’re not doing anything abnormal or strange for a human being, yet somehow men are still coming on to you.

  1. You’re wearing a tight mini skirt, and a low cut top and touching, hugging and sitting on people’s laps! You’re laughing and flirting and merely having a good innocent time!

In the first scenario, it’s as if you were walking down the street minding your own business yet being cat-called by random men on the street. (However, this can be used for a Musetta role study – I suggest carrying hat boxes next time.) It’s still inappropriate and uncalled for. You’re not doing anything but walking, and yet you’re being objectified.

So I hate to say it, but scenario two is an entirely different matter and is most likely going to get you hit on whether you’re meaning for it to or not! I mean, seriously. I would think that you wanted me if that’s how you were acting towards me. Words and actions mean something.

As singers and actors, we should know this, but sometimes we are painfully unaware of the personal signals that we are giving off. So, all I’m saying is don’t be ignorant. If you’re single and looking for a good time and are working with other single people looking for a good time, signal away. But, please don’t hang all over your married co-workers when getting notes from the director.

On the other hand, if you fall into category number 1, my sincerest apologies.  I don’t know why people feel the need to impose (or expose) themselves on you. The best advice is to try not to put yourself into a situation that could lead to any inappropriate behavior. Don’t be alone with a conductor who keeps giving you eyes in rehearsal in the back stairwell. Always walk to your car in groups. Don’t leave rehearsal by yourself. Carpool with trusted colleagues.  If you still find yourself caught off-guard because you were just too sweet to see that anyone was flirting with you, let them down gently. (Push if you have to.) Say, “I’m so sorry if I gave you the wrong impression.” Make sure that if you mean “no”, they understand you mean “no.” But be kind; there’s no need to make things more awkward than they are already going to be.

If you are constantly being subjected to unwanted advances, then you can always try pretending you’re shy!  

Bottom line:  Be smart.  Be respectful of other people’s boundaries. Be aware of yourself and others.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Naked High C’s: What I learned from stripping down onstage

Naked High C’s
What I learned from stripping down onstage

Almost 5 years ago, I got a bizarre phone call from the producer of a new opera I had signed on to several months prior. She was testing the waters of how naked I would be willing to get onstage. The language was a little vague;maybe we’d use body suits or body paint.
I had run out from my receptionist job to take the call and as I returned to my desk I could feel myself blushing just thinking about it. What would my parents say? What would my boyfriend say? I certainly couldn’t tell anyone at work. Wasn’t there a high C in this score? I had never sung a high C onstage before, let alone naked! In front of an audience!

Luckily, the whole cast was going to be asked to do it too- at least three other singers would be joining me in my potential nakedness. When I logged onto Facebook I already had a message from the other woman in the cast. Had I gotten that call too? What did I say? I let her know that I’d told the producer that I would entertain anything the director felt was necessary for the storytelling. In my heart of hearts, though, I never thought that the venue we were using would let all of us be totally naked. She agreed and we decided not to stress about it until we knew for sure.

Fast forward a month, and the venue had given nudity the green light and we were all assembled for the first staging rehearsal with a big naked elephant in the room. For some reason the thing that the mezzo and I were fixating on was how we were to be styling the hair…down there. There were plenty of other things we could have been worrying about, but that ended up being our way to start talking about the very touchy topic of really truly exposing ourselves onstage.

The rehearsal process itself was one of the most collaborative, transformative experiences I have ever been through. The director helped us build trust in our castmates, our score, and ourselves. We developed a language as a small ensemble that led seamlessly to the inevitable day when the clothes came off in the rehearsal room. The opera’s difficult music and weighty subject matter were already laying us bare and the disrobing simply became an extension of that.

The final staging involved the use of white body paint, so in the end we weren’t technically naked. Our one communal dressing room was a sight to behold. Singers tend not to be super modest after a lifetime of quick changes, but this cast was extra shameless, helping each other reach hard-to-paint places, all the while making sure we didn’t mix up our paintbrushes.

I had long been convinced that I would need to crash diet to ever feel comfortable to bare it all (or even bare some of it) onstage. In the end, I was coming off of a whole season full of back to back to back productions and marathon sessions at the gym were just not in the cards. I came into the production looking how I looked. The nudity wasn’t sexual. It wasn’t about looking like a centerfold. It was about exposing what we all look like underneath. In the course of the production process, even with (especially with) all of my perceived flaws, , I became empowered, potent and far more aware of my body’s dramatic potential than ever before.  My legs were no longer concealed beneath layers of petticoats. My waist was not nipped, nor was my cleavage aided, by a corset. You could see the work of our singing and there was nowhere to hide.

Adding an audience to the mix certainly increased the adrenaline, but by the time they joined us the nudity was old hat. The piece challenged audiences musically, ethically, and in a host of other ways. Our musical community is small so I knew at least half of each house. And it was amusing in the months that followed to be introduced to people I didn’t know yet only to have them say, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen your boobs.”

The cast’s post-show ritual remains a highlight of my performing memory. We couldn’t very well ride the bus home covered head to toe in white paint, so the whole group piled into the facility’s group shower and helped wash off what we had helped paint on. It was a similar to the relief we all feel when washing off the layers of Ben Nye, but far more immersive. And with just the cast involved, after having gone to hell and back onstage together, it was the most bizarrely bonding activity you could imagine.
Nudity isn’t for every singer and it certainly isn’t for every show, but in retrospect, I am profoundly grateful that I was offered the opportunity to take the risk and that I said yes. I proved to myself (and to those who would go on to hire me) that I was a soprano who didn’t back down from a challenge. Heck, if I could sing that high C without a stitch of clothing on, I could certainly do it again under more conventional circumstances. And I have gone on to do just that.

Epilogue: Almost five years on and stills from the archival video still haven’t leaked to the Internet. I do hold out hope that someday I’ll be famous enough that someone can sell them for a pretty penny.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014



Big hair. Diana Ross had it, Dolly Parton had it, Cher had it. Even Renée and Susie had it.
Since the days of Mozart, divas have been using big hair to boost their appeal (and carry secrets). Love it or hate it, it is an essential part of a polished audition look. But how to begin? Ladies I’ve sung with say their hair is too fine, too thick, too straight to get the face-framing volume they need. They splurge on salon blowouts only to step into the New York audition-season wind and have their hair fall flat. Next time, make the best of your assets by giving your hair the lift it needs, lift that will last. My secret? TEASE IT TO THE MOON. (And yes, you can tease your hair without damaging it.)
Here are some tips from my grandma, 1960s bouffant-extraordinaire, to get your biggest hair ever.