E pluribus vocibus unum

It’s a feature unique to opera –  three, four, or even seven characters at odds with each other all singing together. Mozart did it brilliantly in the act two finale of The Marriage of Figaro and Verdi in act two of Falstaff (with five simultaneous texts). A cacophony of personalities joined in perfect harmony.

To be sure, teamwork is key in the performing arts, as it is in sports. But when they say, “there are no small parts, only small actors,” it’s because we must bring everything we are as individuals to the group endeavor. To be homogenous without first being autonomous is to be like sheep.Pirsig quote

Robert M. Pirsig was wise in this regard.  The smallest action, done with intent and care, can be a masterpiece. This is the core of the artisan movement, where, for example, a single cup of coffee is prepared with great precision (and at a precious price point).  Sing a simple song –  but as if your life depends on it.

Opera by definition forges a single work out of many. At San Francisco Opera Guild, our mission “Giving Voice to Potential” suggests that each and every individual has something rare and important to contribute. But contribute we must in the service of a greater whole – in our Summer Conservatory, to the realization of a culminating performance.

Dido and Aeneas, with its ample choruses, group dances, and numerous supporting roles, is fertile ground for individuals to blossom amidst ensemble. Our 24 Conservatory students, who studied and performed Dido this summer, bear witness to this democracy of opera.


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Revel, ye Cupids

We possess amazing faculties – self-awareness, memory, the capacity to imagine the future, the ability to reflect on the past. Yet how extraordinary to cast all these aside and completely lose oneself – for a moment, to really lose one’s self. This can happen in the theatre, and performing artists strive to embody as well as create these experiences in others. Paradoxically, it takes tremendous preparation and discipline.Dido and Aeneas

A highlight of our season at San Francisco Opera Guild has been the annual Summer Conservatory. A group of 24 young people, ages 11 to 18, from around the Bay Area and as far away as San Diego and New York, come seeking a summer program focused on opera. Under the guidance of Caroline Altman, our former Director of Education, students are immersed for three weeks in opera history, singing, acting, and preparing and performing an opera, in this case, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

It’s something very special to Witchsee an ambitious project like this realized by a group of talented young people. Were there ever witches more nefarious, sailors more rowdy, royalty more noble? The level of accomplishment was extraordinary, but what made this production especially moving was to observe the sheer joy of performing, of being in the moment.

Not all these young people arrived here with prior opera experience,  but I wager they all take with them an appreciation of the triumph of beauty that opera, and all the arts, make possible.

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Sheroes after my own heart

I’ve been spending tim6.29.14_SFO_Traviata-6571e with three women this week, cavorting – and catharting – with favorite femmes fatales: Dido, Violetta, and Blanche du Bois.  Hailing from different eras and different cultures, fated in part by society, in part by personal history, each makes a defining moral choice and faces tragic consequences.

I’ve also been visiting with the 24 students in our Summer Conservatory program, who perform Dido and Aeneas this week, and many of whom attended a student dress rehearsal of La Traviata last month.

The SF Opera’s production of La Traviata, beautifully costumed and staged, was notable for Ailyn Perez’s riveting Violetta. Conductor Giuseppe Finzi writes in the program “there is meaning in every single note” as his direction ably demonstrates. The opera spoke forcefully of societal mores and parental control to an audience of 9th graders during a project I led years ago in Connecticut, and evokes similar responses from the teens in our Summer Conservatory.

BlancheMerola Opera’s propulsive Streetcar Named Desire  featured Julie Adams acting up a storm as Blanche. The piece can’t match the power of the original play or iconic film, but the atmospheric production made the most of it and the young singers were superb.

I look forward to what the even younger singers in our Summer Conservatory will make of Dido and Aeneas this Friday. A perfect piece for young performers (Purcell possibly created it for such), with masterful writing and straightforward but deeply-felt emotional content. From what I’ve heard so far, our talented cast, aged 10-18, are more than up to the task, bringing youthful energy and a modern outlook to an ancient classic.

Life may have been short for these operatic heroines, but art, thankfully, remains long for us.

photos: Kristen Loken
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Do people actually still go to the opera?

So asked a twenty-something techie I met one night at dinner (what are the chances of that happening in San Francisco?) A recent Berkeley grad, he was telling me about the job he’d just landed – something to do with big data (or was it big brother?) I went on to explain what I did for a living, and he posed the question above.

SF Opera’s simulcast of La Traviata in the ballpark Saturday attracted a crowd of 26,000. But as reported at the Opera America conference here last month, attendance nationwide has been declining.  Companies have been curtailing schedules or even, in some notable cases, shutting their doors.

We’re all looking for innovative ways to reach new people. The theme of last month’s conference “Audiences Reimagined” invited a record number of opera companies from across the U.S. and Canada to consider ways of increasing civic impact, getting opera out into communities, and engaging new audiences through media and technology.

The internet so often seems an isolating force.  Our ability to access quality audio and video in almost any setting brings the arts to us rather than require we go out to meet it.

But there is nothing like experiencing the arts in public venues for which they were created – the impact it delivers, the focus it enables.  The ephemeral exchange between performers and live audience, the sense of community – we need to relate not only in cyberspace, but in the immediacy of physical space.

Creating audiences of the future is almost always Maxine Greenecited as a main goal for education programs at arts organizations.  I believe our work has a much more significant aim:  to make possible moments of personal discovery and transformation, to “give voice to potential” as the San Francisco Opera Guild’s mission states.  If we can do this, there will always be seekers of great art wherever and however it is to be found.

Audience of the Future

Audience of the Future

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Oh Say, Can You Sing

A friend recently asked me if anyone can learn to sing.  A timely question, given the range of school classrooms we’ve been working in this spring.  My childhood piano teacher thought it a human birthright.  My mother insisted she could not carry a tune, but was always singing snippets of Broadway around the house.

Vanessa Bousay

Vanessa Bousay

This weekend many of us will join in some of our stirring patriotic hymns.  If you attend San Francisco Opera’s Saturday night simulcast of La Traviata at the ballpark here, you’ll have a chance to sing along with the winner of this year’s KDFC national anthem competition Vanessa Bousay, a former student of the great operatic soprano and teacher Phyllis Curtin.

Of course, we were particularly excited by Renée Fleming’s performance at the Super Bowl this year.  While not strictly operatic in style, Fleming’s impeccable technique combined with her deeply-felt emotional nuance was a testament to what opera lovers know – the operatic voice is the pinnacle of vocal art (and you can bet an opera singer isn’t going to flub the words.)

Everyone old enough will recall Whitney Houston’s soaring rendition at the Super Bowl in 1991.   (Were you aware it’s in 4/4 time rather the original 3/4? Can you identify the time signature in Fleming’s version?)

So what’s your favorite performance of the national anthem? Please share!

This Fourth of July, I urge everyone to adopt a declaration of vocal independence.  It’s a miracle to have this capacity and it’s a universal, glorious, spiritual exercise.  Carpe diem et canta!

At a performance by 6th graders in the Guild’s Book to Bravo! program, the entire school joins in singing “God Bless America.”

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The Arc of the Rainbow

IMG_20140624_210336773War in Iraq, persecution of gay citizens in Uganda, shootings in neighborhoods and schools closer to home but safely removed – I often feel isolated by my privilege and insulated by the cotton wool of daily life.

But this is exactly the role of the arts and arts education – to open vistas on alien and disturbing realities, to scrape away at complacency, and, thereby, to build understanding, tolerance, and justice.

I saw three intriguingly-related operas this week:  Opera Parallèle’s  Anya17, San Fransisco Opera’s Madame Butterfly, and San Francisco Symphony’s Peter Grimes. In each, a central character falls victim to social forces with violent and tragic results.  Anya felt something like hearing a term paper delivered while aboard the Coney Island Cyclone, but Cio-Cio San’s final aria never loses its soaring intensity, and Peter Grimes provokes the mind as it haunts the soul.

In the Guild’s Voices for Social Justice program, students take on social issues to create personally relevant music-theatre.  Our 7th grade students at Cathedral School for Boys explored the situation in North Korea.  Not an obvious choice, but they turned out a dynamic portrayal of conscience and political struggle. At MLK, Jr. Junior High School in Pittsburg, the class presented excerpts from King’s ” I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech punctuated by songs, both original and from the civil rights movement.

The young people we work with may not yet be capable of creating great art, but their imagination and willingness to push their own boundaries has its own special power.
They are, in Virginia Woolf’s words, the thing itself.Virginia Woolf Quote

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Singing Stories

If you think opera is too sophisticated to teach our youngest children, think again.

In a roomful of first graders acting out The Magic Flute, it’s hard to resist the urge to sing and dance along (you may hear me in the background of the video).

Young children are natural artists – they eagerly create, dress up, play act, and pretend. They revel in being silly and haven’t yet learned to be embarrassed.

In arts education, we often work to release inhibitions in older students or adults, to reconnect with impulses from early childhood.

sf tattoo

photo courtesy Victor Trujillo

To be sure, San Francisco is the capital of dress up.  People are more inclined here than just about anywhere to let their hair down (literally and figuratively), to play with costumes and personas at the drop  – and the donning – of a hat.  If there were ever a place for a city as opera project, this is it, where people are apt to wear their imagination on their sleeve.

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