Ensemble casts are an amazing thing. They don’t occur naturally or frequently in this opera jet age, rife with double- and triple-cast productions and box office stars flying in at the last minute. This cast of 17 soloists and 11 supporting singers in Rossini’s Journey to Reims is a rare and wonderful phenomenon. All the more so, as these young professionals are creating relationships that will last through their careers. (I used to sense this intuitively, but Facebook has now proven to me that Wolf Trap friendships last decades:))
Enjoy the photos below, and get your tickets to revel (dare I say “wallow”) in the chemistry that these singers will create onstage starting June 21.
The Studio Artists are here, and all is right with the world.
Our Studio program is only in its 7th season, but I really can’t remember a time without it. These generous and talented undergraduates and beginning graduate students amp up the already significant vitality and energy around here. (And that’s saying something, for a company in which the average age of the principal artists is 27…)
This morning, they braved the initiation rite that is Death By Aria. One by one, they strutted their stuff for each other and for the artistic staff who run the program. To put this exercise in perspective: It’s kind of like doing a high-stakes oral presentation for your entire department on the second day of your new job. First impression jitters coupled with performance anxiety doubled by jet lag and disorientation. Welcome to Wolf Trap!
They did more than survive; they conquered. Now the real work begins, as they jump into staging rehearsals of an opera that’s already 10 days underway and dig into their scenes assignments. I look forward to getting to know them and sharing their work with you over the next few months.
This summer, our 16 Studio Artists represent 16 different universities, colleges and conservatories!
California State University Long Beach
Florida State University
Michigan State University
University of California Los Angeles
University of Colorado
University of Houston
University of Missouri Kansas City
University of North Texas
This post was born at the intersection of two things at which I do not excel.
First, I am terrible at keeping up with trade magazines. They pile up on my desk and mock me, and every few months I give in and take them home and dig through them.
Second, I too infrequently boast of our contribution to the careers of high-profile singers who started out in our company. We’re proud of them, to be sure. But we are proud of the way hundreds of artists who cut their teeth in our program take their Wolf Trap experience out into their professional lives, whether they have thriving regional careers, European careers, concert and teaching careers, or high-profile international profiles.
But as I was leafing through the April Opera News, the impact that our alumni have on the most visible part of our industry was newly undeniable. The issue featured the five 2013 Opera News Award Winners, two of whom – Eric Owens and Dawn Upshaw – are Trappers. The profiles of artists featured in that month’s Met broadcasts included Wolf Trap alums Stephanie Blythe, Erin Morley, Richard Paul Fink, Mark Delavan and Simon O’Neill. And closer to home, a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing WNO’s Showboat, which featured beautiful performances by Alyson Cambridge and Morris Robinson years after their Wolf Trap debuts. On it goes, on every major stage in this country and most abroad, in every month of every year.
The ON article on soprano Dawn Upshaw started thus: “There have been many memorable Susannas, Ilias and Paminas in the history of opera, but for those of us who heard the young Dawn Upshaw in these roles, it’s impossible to think of them without conjuring up her inimitable sound…” And if you were at a Wolf Trap Opera performance of Magic Flute in 1985 or Marriage of Figaro in 1989, you would have been one of those lucky opera-goers who heard her in those roles.
Which of our new artists are the next Dawn Upshaw or Eric Owens? No one knows. And truly, it doesn’t matter. There are dozens of ways to make an important, thriving career, and singing at the Met is just one of them. What does matter is that the work that Dawn, Eric, Stephanie, Erin, Richard Paul, Mark, Alyson, Morris and so many others did at Wolf Trap was as fine as it comes. Exciting, inspiring, entertaining, and full of promise. The lucky music lovers who catch one of our performances this summer will be in on the ground floor of careers that will shape our art form for decades.
Is that enough bragging for you? :)
It’s a little random, I admit, seeing photos from Boheme with music from Traviata. But lawn tickets to Traviata are on sale this Memorial Day weekend for only $10, and if you’ve never seen an Operascape production at the Filene Center, spending 30 seconds with the clip below might whet your appetite.
If you read this blog, you are probably more likely to sit in the house than on the lawn. But perhaps you know some potential opera lover who hasn’t yet taken the plunge…
My Dear Blog,
I miss you. It would be hubris to believe that you miss me, with all of the other fantastical things going on out there in the internet. But ’tis true that I am poorer without you.
My recent silence is almost unprecedented, and it’s past time to break it. The perennial dilemma is whether to do the work or write about it. Historically, I’ve managed both. Lately, I’ve had to choose.
Tomorrow, our fulltime administrative staff doubles. (From 2 to 4.) And next week, we welcome 44 artists, staff and interns. Our scenic and costume shops are up and running. Many truly and honestly exciting things will come from our corner of the musical world in the next few months; stay here, and I swear I will tell you about them.
Recently, it has taken all of my recent time and psychic energy to prepare for them, and as a producer, that is my prime responsibility. Actually, my only responsibility. If I don’t properly lay the groundwork – even for a good reason like this blog – the actual product suffers. People aren’t supported, the work isn’t fluid, communication is compromised, and the music-making shows the strain.
I spend all summer every summer exhausted and exhilarated, but it’s almost impossible to describe what I do. Depending on the day or the hour, I am a whack-a-mole expert, a traffic cop, a mediator, a cheerleader, a bean counter. I listen, cajole, pray, pontificate, stew, and listen some more. On the face of it, you might not think that Lorne Michaels’ life on SNL might not appear to intersect with mine. But in that, you would be wrong. He provides my current inspiration on being a producer, via Here’s the Thing.
Producing is an invisible art: if you’re any good at it, you leave no fingerprints.
The only way you can manage creative people is with very loose reins.
Help people do their best work. Help when somebody’s in trouble. Otherwise, stay out of the way.
You have to be bad before you can be good.
And, my favorite: “If you look around the room, and you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.”
My two children grew up with two musician parents. They became who they are through music, theatre and art, and they are carving out their adult lives in completely different arenas. Relieved? You bet I am. But had they chosen to live the artist’s life, I would’ve said the same thing I say to anyone making that decision: If there’s anything else that would make you as happy, then go do it. If not, give it all you’ve got.
If a young person you know and love is a talented musician, you may be torn. You may (not unjustifiably) see the pursuit of a musical career as an exercise in heartbreak. Although there may be big decisions to be made when that precociously gifted child gets to be an adult, there’s a good chance that things may naturally sort themselves out by then. In the meantime, embrace it. There are few better places for a young person to find out what she’s made of.
This blog entry from the Denver Post is spot on.
“What can we say about our years of careful parenting if the ultimate message to our children is “I know you love your music, sweetie, but you’d better not try to pursue it as a career – you might fail”?… Let the kid study music, already… The young musician will find his way, or hers, and get stronger and more resilient all the time. The kid will learn to listen to an inner voice that isn’t yours, or mine, but the kid’s own heart. Isn’t that the channel we want our children tuned into, after all?”
Thanks to my colleague Lee Anne for pointing me to this article – Seven Rules for Managing Creative-But-Difficult People – in the Harvard Business Review. It’s not long; linking through should only cost you a minute or two. (And if you have more time, don’t forget to read the hundreds of comments…)
What the What???
Not surprisingly, there’s been a lot of response, more than I can wade through. And although I knew immediately that I had to respond, it took a while to sort out how. A turn-the-tables parody on how to manage supercilious MBAs or ivory-tower academics? An explanation of how I expected more from (and gave more credit to) my own toddlers than this approach deigns to give its “creatives”? (Oh, and I hate that word, despite the fact that people I respect tend to use it.) And does the author acknowledge that “creative-but-difficult” is not an inevitable combination?
I spend a significant amount of my time surrounded by – actually, exponentially outnumbered by – highly creative people. And most of those are young creative people; folks who are just figuring out how to ply their talents in the real world. Part of what my company does is make a contribution to their process of figuring out how to shape their professional adult lives while being good stewards of their unique gifts. My response (and please forgive today’s post length) is neither clever nor catchy (nor creative:)), but it is honest, heart-felt, and born of experience.
The HBR article essentially asks “What are the keys to engaging and retaining creative employees?” Quotes below shown in italics.
1. Spoil them and let them fail: Like parents who celebrate their children’s mess: show your creatives unconditional support and encourage them to do the absurd and fail… Creative people are the natural experimenters, so let them try and test and play.
Is unconditional support the same as “spoiling?” Everyone (and I don’t believe anyone is truly and completely “non-creative”) needs unconditional support under-girding the individual successes and failures of daily life. We should celebrate the mess always. But truly creative people don’t stop there, and HBR doesn’t get that. As far as “letting them fail”… no one can live well who lives in constant fear of making a single mistake.
2. Surround them by semi-boring people: The worst thing you can do to a creative employee is to force them to work with someone like them — they would compete for ideas, brainstorm eternally, or simply ignore each other… The solution, then, is to support your creatives with colleagues who are too conventional to challenge their ideas, but unconventional enough to collaborate with them.
Putting a stereotypical high-strung “diva” in a hierarchy with a team of “semi-boring” colleagues. Now that’s a recipe for success. Truth is that we all need competition – the healthiest kind. Surrounding creative people only with folks who will never challenge them is a recipe for disaster from any perspective I can think of.
3. Only involve them in meaningful work: This all-or-nothing approach to work mirrors the bipolar temperament of creative artists, who perform well only when inspired — and inspiration is fueled by meaning.
The article does go on to say that this should be applied to all employees, so that’s reassuring. But artists “perform well only when inspired?” Seriously? Has the author never met a writer or painter or musician who cranks out endless just-show-up-and-work hours so that the cream can rise to the top? “Bipolar temperament?” The gent’s exposure to “creatives” must be serious whacked.
4. Don’t pressure them: Creativity is usually enhanced by giving people more freedom and flexibility at work. If you like structure, order and predictability, you are probably not creative. Don’t constrain your creative employees; don’t force them to follow processes or structures… don’t ask where they are, what they are doing or how they do it.
The artists I know have a healthy craving for structure and order in many parts of their lives. In the best scenario, structure in one area frees up imagination for other arenas. If the author handles “creatives” by letting them do whatever they want, whenever or however… well, how do I sign up for some of that? Sounds like a good way to bypass adulthood completely.
5. Don’t overpay them: There is a longstanding debate about the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Over the past two decades, psychologists have provided compelling evidence for the so-called “over-justification” effect, namely the process whereby higher external rewards impair performance by depressing a person’s genuine or intrinsic interest…The moral of the story? The more you pay people to do what they love, the less they will love it.
Wow. OK, I know all about how we’ve discovered that token external awards sometimes actually debase the work they’re meant to reward. (What’s better? Having your child play well for the love of the game or getting a trophy for showing up?) But this goes beyond that. At the heart of this statement is a belief that creative people are actually paid enough to live. In the business world the subject of “overpayment” barely starts at six figures. In the real world of “creatives,” it means cobbling together enough honest work to pay rent. Artists have plenty of intrinsic motivation, and paying them enough to live on won’t “impair” their performance.
6. Surprise them: Few things are as aggravating to creatives as boredom. Indeed, creative people are prewired to seek constant change, even when it’s counterproductive. Creatives love complexity and enjoy making simple things complex rather than vice-versa… You should at least let them create enough chaos to make their own lives less predictable.
The most creative thing in the world? Making a complex thing simple. And if you don’t understand that, you should just be quiet. As for letting artists “create chaos?” They are not undisciplined children. (Oh, and BTW, unpredictability ? chaos.)
7. Make them feel important: As T.S. Eliot noted, “most of the trouble in this world is caused by people wanting to be important”. And the reason is that others fail to recognize them. Fairness is not treating everyone the same, but like they deserve.
Well, sure, every single one of us wants to be important – in the best sense of the word. To know that what we do has meaning. But you see, artists already know that their work is important. Trust me; it’s too hard to make your way in the world as an artist, and if you don’t believe in the work, you’ll give up pretty quickly. They don’t need to be treated in with artificial patronizing VIP handling; all they want is for those around them to respect the work they’re engaged in enough not to dismiss it. Pandering ?respect.
The author finishes with a discussion about keeping “creatives” in their own little isolated orbit, neither allowing them to manage other people nor truly lead. For “natural innovators are rarely gifted with leadership skills.” Yes, I will agree that the nature of some creative people’s gifts means that they are not suited to inspire and lead other people. But you see, the same thing applies to the poor folks that the author would consider “semi-boring” or non-creative. We are not all suited to lead. But some amazingly creative people are the best leaders we could ever wish for.
Phew. Thanks for going along on the rant ride. And because there are true artists out there who have said all of these things better than I, let’s close with Hafiz, a Sufi poet from the 14th century. Let the HBR folks build cages in which to put us. We will happily continue to drop keys for those who make our lives beautiful.
The small man
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
This fine Monday morning, I point you to Unfinished No More - a recent blog post by bass-baritone Alan Held. If you’re curious about what a career in opera is like on the ground level, it’s a must-read. (And I mean you, voice students out there.) Alan and I started out together at Wolf Trap many years ago, and he is a consummate musician, colleague and human being. I’m sure it took a good deal of time, care and courage to write this post, and I’m grateful to him for his willingness to tell this honest story of the rewards and risks of a career in our industry.
Permit me an analogy.
Watching a show grow from a glimmer in our eyes during the audition tour to a fully fleshed-out world the next summer has to be one of the most exciting things I can think of. (And yes, I know I need to get out more, but all the same…) The life cycle of a WTOC production is only about six months. And when the roller coaster of conception, birth, growth, maturity and death are all measured in weeks, the ride is both terrifying and gratifying.
The Beginning: November
Whether it’s the birth of an idea or a child, the beginning always sparks our imagination. The possibilities are endless. For us, the process of conception happens while listening to all of the glorious voices we hear every autumn. Everything sparkles with promise, and the only true disappointment is that the number of offspring are limited to three every year :) Once we choose and name our projects, the artistic teams and performers go through their own processes of birth and discovery as they get acquainted with a new story (or approach an old one in a completely new way!)
It’s all about exploration. Dreaming about what could be. At this point there are many parents, all concerned with different aspects of growth. Our offspring is now taking shape in the real world, so hard-and-fast parameters are entering the picture. But there’s still time for brainstorming and what-iffing. The costume sketches above – courtesy of Vita Tzykun, designer for our August Falstaff – come from this early period. The show is still a work in progress, but (as with any child) it bears signs of what will become an undeniable personality and unique life force.
The rubber hits the road. All of the preceding exuberance and extravagance must be harnessed, disciplined and molded into something that has a chance of blossoming into the best possible mature version of itself. Renderings, models, spreadsheets, orchestra parts, dog-eared scores. By this time there are dozens and dozens of people shaping our opera, for it truly does take a village.
Sacrifices have been made, lessons have been learned, and the show blossoms. It makes its mark on the world, on the performers and crew, on the audience, and it benefits from all of the hard work of growing up. It’s time for the parents to be proud, to reflect, to enjoy.
What Comes After: August
For me, here’s where the analog is dearest. Just as a person we loved is never truly gone from our lives, this little slice of inspiration and entertainment we call opera leaves behind palpable traces of itself. We’ve all learned something about ourselves just by being a part of it, and it becomes part of us. Those of us in show business are truly lucky, for the sadness of saying goodbye to these brief but fully-formed new worlds is mitigated by knowing that in a few months, we get to start all over again.
We haven’t done a lovely “period” production at The Barns in a few seasons. Truth be told, such a thing is hard to accomplish well within the limited resources of a small company. But our Falstaff team is doing everything they can to deliver us a beautiful Victorian era design, tinged with some fanciful Shakespeare/Elizabethan accents. Can’t wait.
What is it with the cold temperatures? I should not have to cycle in 27-degree weather in April. In Virginia. Not cool. Or maybe too cool…
Preliminary costume sketches above, for our August 2013 Falstaff, are by designer Vita Tzykun, and are a work in progress!
Vince Lombardi famously said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
Making music – in real time, in front of real people, without a net – takes many things. Skill, preparation, natural talent, dedication. But one thing might trump all those. Courage.
There are more difficult jobs, to be sure. We who traffic in the world of inspiration and ideas are lucky. Most of us manage to pay the bills and are spared true danger and physical exhaustion in our work. We are privileged. Our problems are, as my kids would say, first world problems.
But people get tired. And when they do, they should rest. If they can. For fatigue, as Mr. Lombardi says, robs us of courage. And if we are not courageous, the fire goes out, both for us and for our audience. So tend that energy wisely, folks.
Why is this on my mind? Because I leave today for a week to visit my son on the west coast and my brother in the Rockies. On the road and off the grid. See you again in April, with increasing frequency as we hurtle toward this next wonderful summer of opera.
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