10-Day artist challenge

The directive was: Every day, select an image from a day in the life of a Performer/Artist—a photo from a day you felt fierce or a memorable moment you’ve had during a performance/show, and post it without a single explanation, then nominate somebody to take the challenge. Thats 10 days, 10 Performance photos, 10 nominations and 0 explanations. Be active, be positive, be passionate. . . Raise Awareness of the Arts.

The hardest part of the 10 Day challenge for me was the inability to comment on the pictures as I posted them. But fear not, I will more than make up for that in this post.

Also, I suppose I could apologize for the fact that some of the images from earlier “fierce” moments are not pictures of me, but rather of programs or scores. For whatever reason, I never had photographs of myself from many early shows, which took place before the ubiquitous smart-phones we all carry now.

Day One: Leo Nestor

I have already blogged at some length about Leo Nestor and the importance he has in my musical and personal life. This photo is of the amazing group of musicians who assembled in October to sing his funeral Mass in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Monday, October 28, 2019. The reason many of us felt “fierce” as artists that day has to do with being able to put together such a challenging collection of music together with a single rehearsal the night before. It speaks not only to the skill level of the musicians involved, but more importantly for the occasion, to the “shared musical DNA” that enabled us to coalesce as an ensemble, at some point near the beginning of hour two of the three and a half hours of rehearsal for an impossible amount of music.

October 28, 2019 – Funeral Mass for Leo Nestor, Crypt Church, The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC

The picture-within-the-picture is the entry from Dr. Nestor’s calendar that marks my audition, Saturday, July 28, 1990. I sang “Love bade me welcome” from the Vaughan-Williams Five Mystical Songs, followed by a recit. and aria from Messiah, “Thus saith the Lord/But who may abide.” (Yes, that aria is properly sung by altos, but in my old Schirmer score it’s listed as a bass aria.) He not only hired me—after complaining about having to emulate those fast string tremolos on the piano in the Handel—but also gave me a cassette of the Shrine choir’s Christmas album, “A Child Is Born.” I listened to that on the drive back to Hampton Roads, Virginia—I hadn’t moved back to the DC area yet—and truly thought I had died and gone to heaven; I hadn’t known such choirs existed in actual churches, and the thought that I would be singing with them was overwhelming.

The two images serve as bookends to an entire era, I might say. That era has ended in one sense, but in a very real sense, the values we all took to heart ensure that it will perdure.

Day Two: The Secret Garden

The larger image is from a production of The Secret Garden with the Theatre Lab, in April of 2015. In that production I had the privilege of singing the role of Archibald Craven. In the smaller image, I am singing Neville Craven, with Dan Alexander as Archibald, in The Arlington Players’ production of the same show in October of 1996. I suppose I’m cheating by including two “fierce” moments almost nineteen years apart. Both productions were thoroughly enjoyable in every way, but what made the second one particularly rewarding for me was that I was singing a role it had never occurred to me that I could do. Mandy Patinkin’s iconic portrayal of Archibald in the original Broadway production has always made the role sound (to me, at least) like it lies much higher than it actually does. Also, in my part-time performing career I have rarely had the opportunity to repeat shows, so it was a special treat to return to a story that had been so enjoyable to tell years before, this time from a different perspective.

Insert: Neville Craven, The Arlington Players, October 1996 – Larger picture: Archibald Craven, The Theatre Lab, April 2015

I cannot say enough wonderful things about the Theatre Lab, and what its directors Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro do for those who participate in their programs. In both The Secret Garden and Jane Eyre in 2009, I was invited to participate as a Guest Professional Artist in productions in which the rest of the cast were students in the “Creating a Music Theatre Role” class. The idea is that the students would learn from working not only with the Theatre Lab instructors, but from a cast-mate who was a working professional. But in both cases I had the opportunity to learn so much, not only about myself as a performer, but from the generous teaching methods of Deb and Buzz as they worked with the entire cast to bring together “from scratch” a polished performance. The rehearsal periods offered so much more freedom to experiment and try new things than is usually possible in professional engagements.

With CJ David, and composer Sean McArdle Pflueger (hiding)

Day Three: A World Première

Do Not Disturb is a one-act comic opera written by librettist Laura Wehrmeyer-Fuentes and composer Sean McArdle-Pflueger, given its world-première at the Capital Fringe Festival in July 2016. This delightful work was the first collaboration of Laura and Sean, who have gone on to write two more operas since. This was only the second time I had the opportunity to participate in the first performances of a new opera: the first was Dominick Argento’s The Dream of Valentino with the Washington Opera in 1994.

Day Four: The Ring

The Washington National Opera’s 2016 production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) marked my last performances with the company, so the final performance of Götterdämmerung was my 400th performance as a chorister, spanning 45 operas beginning in 1988. Since Wagner’s monumental work—four operas, and about 15 hours of music, give or take—was largely responsible for sparking my interest in opera when I was in my early teens, it seemed fitting to cap my time with The Washington [National] Opera by performing it. The chorus sings only in the fourth opera, The Twilight of the Gods, or Götterdämmerung, but those of us involved in the production were given the opportunity to attend performances of the three earlier operas. I took advantage of that opportunity, but had also purchased a pair of tickets to the third cycle more than a year before, since I couldn’t be guaranteed I’d be given a contract to sing in Götterdämmerung and didn’t want to miss out.

The Washington National Opera’s Götterdämmerung, culmination of the 2016 Ring Cycle

Day Five: Don Giovanni

The Forgotten Opera Company’s updated production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in November 2005. This was memorable not only because I had the thrill of singing the title role. The Forgotten Opera Company (FOC) also created our own new English translation of the opera; it was a collaborative effort, with each of the singers playing a large part in translating their characters’ text. I also had the fun of creating a logo for the production, and fake magazine covers for the lobby display. In our version, Senator Don Giovanni was a presidential candidate, so there was a campaign bumper sticker. I suppose this marked the high point of my career as a graphic designer. Again, this was before everyone had high-resolution digital cameras in their smartphones, so I honestly don’t remember seeing any production photos.

Day Six: A Winter Journey

My sister Margaret gave me a book of the three song-cycles of Franz Schubert as a high school graduation gift in 1977. I immediately became obsessed with one of these, his Winterreise, or Winter Journey. Though I worked on some of the songs from the cycle in college, I did not have an opportunity to perform the whole thing until 2002, with James Siranovich as pianist, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington. I was reasonably satisfied with that performance, but our second performance about a month later, as part of James’ requirements for a Master of Music degree at The Catholic University of America (CUA), was far less than ideal from my perspective. The only time we could get into Ward Hall for a run-through was the evening before the performance; to make matters worse, it had to be after a three-hour opera chorus rehearsal I had, which was the culmination of musical preparation for the upcoming Japan tour, so from 7 to 10pm that Sunday evening, I sang Puccini’s Tosca (a fairly short sing for the chorus), Verdi’s Otello, and Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly, before heading to CUA to sing Schubert from 11pm until past midnight. I suppose the performance began well enough, but it wasn’t long into the 24 songs that the previous day’s vocal exertions caught up with me; I finished only through sheer will-power, and I suppose, technique.

Fortunately, James and I had another go at it about a year later, at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, where Jon Kalbfleisch is the Music Director and has a “Musical Mondays” recital series.

The following year, my sister Margaret suggested we perform the cycle at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), where she was on the piano faculty. She had been doing research into the cycle and was fascinated by the idea of performing the songs in the order in which Wilhelm Müller originally published them, rather than the order in which Schubert composed them. Having done it three times in Schubert’s order, I welcomed the opportunity to try it a different way, and I have to say, there are many things that I prefer in Müller’s ordering. (The details might be fodder for a subsequent post.) In one of those “full-circle” circumstance, it felt appropriate to be singing Schubert’s work with my sister who had introduced me to it, in the town where we grew up, with our father and step-mother attending, and our childhood piano teacher also in the audience.

Day Seven: Billy Budd

I couldn’t possibly include only one production of WNO! And the September 2004 Billy Budd, in Francesca Zambello’s justifiably famous production was a mountain-top mountain moment for me and many of my colleagues. The men’s chorus in Britten’s opera is nearly as important a character as any of the principal soloists. From the opening scene on board the HMS Indomitable to the moment when Billy is hanged on deck in full view of the audience, the ship’s crew were an integral part of the action. The late Sir Richard Hickox, noted Britten interpreter, conducted a cast headed by Dwayne Croft in the title role, Robin Leggate as Captain Vere, and Samuel Ramey as John Claggart.

Washington National Opera – Billy Budd – 2004

This production also kicked off the only season in my years at WNO in which I sang in four operas: Billy Budd, Il Trovatore, Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans, and Samson et Dalilah. The June before this season, I commuted to Harrisburg, PA for Capitol Opera’s production of Puccini’s Turandot, for which I was recruited to sing the role of Ping, but also ended up as the Mandarin and one of the Wise Sages, in addition to singing most of the chorus music when I wasn’t singing one of the above roles. Then in July, the Forgotten Opera Company produced The Marriage of Figaro at the Lyceum in Alexandria, with me as Count Almaviva. Fall of 2004 was particularly busy, since between Billy Budd and Trovatore, I also performed in the Forgotten Opera Company’s Halloween offering, “Opera Goes to Hell,” in which I got to play Don Giovanni in the Act II finale (he goes to Hell at the end), John Proctor in the duet with Abigail from The Crucible, Dapertutto in the Venice act of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, “Epiphany” and “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd, and then after Trovatore, in our November revival of The Marriage of Figaro, followed a couple of weeks later by the Winterreise with my sister. And I was working full-time at the Supreme Court.

Day Eight: One-Night-Only

In the summer of 1995 I first sang the title role of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. As wonderful as those twelve performances were—and they are the most performances I have ever given of any role—they were eclipsed slightly by adrenalin-rush of the “one-night-only” performance I gave of the role in February 1998.

But before that happened, I was excited when The Arlington Players announced the show for its Fall 1997 slot. I auditioned and was called back for both the title role and Judge Turpin, but was not cast. After some moping I moved on, only to get a call from the director about two weeks before opening, saying that he wanted to replace the Judge, and wanted to offer me the role. Loving a challenge of this sort, I of course said yes and began cramming to memorize the role. This is less daunting than it might seem, since much of the Judge’s music is in ensemble with Sweeney, and so having learned the latter, I had to pretty well know the former. What was more challenging was creating this not-very-nice character in such a short time. I think I did a credible job, but during the first weekend of performances, I didn’t want to go out with my fellow cast members afterward so much as to go home and take a shower. I have played villains before and since, but over a longer rehearsal period one has opportunity to integrate—or perhaps, compartmentalize—the nastier aspects of the character so you can walk away unscathed afterward. By the second weekend I was feeling better about it.

Fast forward to February 1998: I was sitting at home on a Saturday afternoon, probably listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast, when I got a call from the director of a production of Sweeney at 2nd Star Theatre in Bowie, MD, to say that their Sweeney was indisposed and didn’t think he could sing the Sunday matinee, and asking if I thought I’d be able to watch the Saturday evening performance and go on Sunday. (The director had called Signature Theatre in Arlington; the person who answered the phone was married to the man who had sung Archibald Craven with me in The Secret Garden more than a year before, and remembered that I had sung Sweeney previously—small world!) Of all the roles I have performed, Sweeney is probably the only one that has stayed with me to the extent that I could have dreamed of pulling this off. I drove to Bowie that night, tried to take notes in the darkened theatre while watching the show, went backstage and asked a few questions, went home to study, slept some (probably fitfully), got up and sang two Masses at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and drove like the wind to Bowie, where I met the cast members I hadn’t met the night before, walked through a bit of stage business: [SPOILER ALERT!] stuffing Pirelli into the trunk, tossing customers down the chute from the barber chair, and throwing Mrs. Lovett into the oven. Then it was curtain time! I have probably never felt so excited to be onstage, doing a role that—for whatever strange psychological reasons—has always felt such a part of me, with scarcely a care for details of staging that I couldn’t possibly have mastered anyway, but with colleagues ready to steer me in the right direction should I wander too far astray. Fortunately, Braxton Peters, whom I was replacing, is left-handed like me, so it was easy for me to operate the custom-made razor that spurted blood when it came in contact with the throats of hapless customers. I don’t remember a lot of details, but I distinctly remember the feeling of relief when I had thrown Mrs. Lovett into the oven in the final scene, and didn’t have to worry about injuring any colleagues, but only had to crawl to my [SPOILER ALERT!] dead wife and sing a few lines before having my throat slit. My dear friend Jane Petkofsky was the only person who was able to come see the performance on such short notice, and we joined her now-husband Kevin Adams at Carlyle Grand for a meal afterward; I probably drank a fair amount.

Day Nine: Beethoven

For all of the praise heaped upon his music, it should be said the man really hadn’t a clue how to write for the human voice. Fidelio (his only opera), his Ninth Symphony (the “Choral” symphony featuring the “Ode to Joy”) and perhaps especially his monumental Missa Solemnis all present challenges for the mere mortals attempting to scale the heights, whether soloists or choristers. Perhaps, due to his increasing deafness, he heard only idealized vocal instruments in his mind, capable of executing all the notes within their range with equal ease. Perhaps, as many have written, because he wrote for the voice like any other instrument, he didn’t give much consideration to such pedestrian concerns as tessitura, passagios, etc.

Since posting the picture of this score I have been reminded that many of my musician friends do not much care for this massive work. Having been of that camp before spending time working on it, I am curious to know if this is primarily true for those who have not ever sung it. There are myriad details of word-painting, perhaps most of all in the very lengthy Credo movement, which may go by too quickly in the context of a performance to be absorbed at a single hearing.

At any rate, singing the Missa Solemnis with the late, great Robert Shaw conducting was an eye-opening experience for my 22-year old self in January of 1982. The man was a stickler for detail: prior to our first rehearsal with him, we were given a lengthy hand-out (probably mimeographed, back in those days) of markings we were all expected to write in our scores, on practically every page. The vast majority of these had to do with articulation, not only of textual details, but to make clear lines that could easily turn to mush with a large chorus. Others concerned doubling of certain parts. One that remains in my mind is the reassigning of the tenor solo line beginning at measure 125 of the Credo (we had to number the measures), “Et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto ex Maria virgine” to a small group of tenors and baritones; this gave it an ethereal sense of wonder that a solo voice would lack. These housekeeping details attended to in advance, Maestro Shaw was able to spend our time together inspiring us to elevate a perhaps sometimes-clunky work into a compelling testament of musical and religious fervor.

For reasons that weren’t clear to me even then, the Austin Symphony Choral Union, bolstered by the University of Texas Chamber Singers of which I was a member, was selected as the chorus for these performances of the Beethoven with the Dallas Symphony; perhaps their usual chorus was otherwise engaged. Anyway, we had a fair number of rehearsals in Austin with our director, Dr. Morris J. Beachy, more about whom in Day Ten. Robert Shaw attended one of these, and seemed quite impressed at the intensity of the sound we produced. He also said he wondered if we could sustain that for the length of the work; I should have taken that to heart!

The week of the performances, we van- and car-pooled up to Dallas on a Wednesday afternoon, in time for a box dinner before a three-hour rehearsal in the hall. On Thursday there was an afternoon rehearsal with the orchestra, dinner break, and evening’s final dress rehearsal with orchestra and the excellent soloists, Esther Hinds, Elizabeth Mannion, Michael Forrest, and David Evitts. Then we gave performances Friday and Saturday evenings, and a Sunday matinee before driving back to Austin. The audiences were very enthusiastic, and the whole wonderful week gave me what I thought was a glimpse into what the life of a performer might be like.

The singers reading this can guess what happened next: I showed up Monday or Tuesday for a coaching of a scene I had been assigned in Opera Workshop and could scarcely phonate. My poor vocal cords had been worked to the limit and beyond by Beethoven’s music, and my own inability to pace myself in order to get through a very demanding schedule of rehearsals and performances. In a panic, I went to my voice teacher, who assessed the situation and advised a few days’ vocal rest, after which all was well. Despite the scare, that week in Dallas remains a favorite musical memory. Perhaps my desire to sing the piece again stems from a wish to see whether I’ve learned anything in the intervening thirty-eight years about husbanding my resources!

Day Ten: Brazil

In November of 1979, just after Iranian extremists seized the American Embassy in Tehran, the University of Texas at Austin Chamber Singers flew to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to compete in the International Villa-Lobos Festival and Contest. We were one of four choirs slated to compete: the others were from Brazil, Uruguay, and the Soviet Union, though the last ensemble failed to appear (we later guessed it was because of preparations for the invasion of Afghanistan the following month).

Preparing the large list of repertoire was challenging and educational. Some of Villa-Lobos’ choral music, certainly the sacred pieces we sang, is very much in the Western European classical tradition. But much of his music and that of other composers we performed borrowed from folk idioms—much as Brahms, Liszt, and Dvorak had done—and we had to learn to swing!

We performed the entire program in Austin, and shortly after took a bus from Austin to Houston, where we boarded a Pan Am flight to Miami, changing planes for an overnight flight to Rio, arriving on my 20th birthday. For those who have only flown on today’s airlines, you cannot imagine what a luxury an international flight on Pan-Am was in those days: linen tablecloths and napkins, real cutlery, and honest-to-goodness meals with wine included with the airfare, and seemingly served every two hours or so. Once the pilot announced we had crossed the equator, some of us ran to the restroom to observe the water circling down the drain in the opposite direction from what we were used to north of the equator, only to realize we couldn’t actually remember which direction that was.

For the ten-day festival, we were put up in the Hotel Argentina, an old, comfortable hotel that was walking distance from Copacabana Beach. Our meals were included at the hotel restaurant, which is where I first developed a taste for rare steaks; it didn’t matter how I asked for them, they always came out rare, and I discovered how delicious a good cut of beef was prepared that way! And the coffee was a religious experience.

The competition was in three rounds; in the first we performed a program of music of Brazilian composers, lots of Villa-Lobos, but not exclusively. The second round included some required repertoire, of which Villa-Lobos’ “Bendita Sabedoria” was part; it’s a choral suite in six movements, on texts from the Old Testament. The final round consisted of a single piece, “Noneto,” a 15-minute showpiece for wind, percussion, harp, piano, and chorus, depicting a fast train ride through Brazil. This was an exciting piece to sing, sounding like the soundtrack of an adventure movie, and using the chorus as part of the instrumental texture; really a virtuosic sing! This first link is to a video of a performance, which is interesting to watch. But I think this is the better performance, especially since it displays the full score to follow along. Funny how I hadn’t really thought of this piece for forty years, but seeing the score now, I can remember singing, “Zango! Zizambango! Dangozangorangotango!” quickly, over and over in one section. Anyone who thinks Bachianas Brasileiras is all there is to Villa-Lobos should listen to this. It’s much shorter, but to my ears reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps both rhythmically and tonally. And for those who find music like this jarring and unlistenable, I would suggest that if it were the soundtrack to a documentary of a trip through the Amazon, they wouldn’t give it a second thought.

And we won the Premio Villa-Lobos Prize, consisting of a cash award and gold medal! As the winners, we got to give a performance of all our repertoire, and the record jacket of that live concert recording was my Day 10 picture. I recently found a copy of it on sale online somewhere, and I think I’ll have to get it.
Day Eleven: When I first started seeing everyone’s 10-Day challenge posts, I wasn’t sure I could find ten moments where I felt “fierce.” I soon realized the problem was not finding them, but choosing between them—and also, finding photographic documentation of some of them.

Those I listed are not necessarily the absolute Top Ten, and there are far more than ten that I considered and ruled out for one reason or another. All in all, having reached the age of sixty, and having been singing or otherwise performing for more than forty of those years, it seemed a good opportunity to take stock and reminisce about some of the highlights. There are far too many friends and colleagues who contributed greatly to these highlights to be able to name them all. In my nominations of others, I mostly picked people who had something to do with a particular day’s photo.

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