Flawless On Day One!!!

This post is dedicated to the hard working administrators who are often confronted with issues that they know they must address and correct; and to their credit, eventually do.  We artists thank you!

Before we arrive to our first day of rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera, we receive a very polite and professional letter of welcome from the Administration.  This letter, among other things, makes it very clear to us that we are expected to arrive for rehearsals on time, and with our music learned in “note perfect” fashion.  In other words, we are expected to be reasonably “flawless on day one”.  Matters of interpretation and style, of course, are subject to nuance when we begin working with the music staff and conductor.  One cannot really delve into those areas unless the music is firmly in our brains, bodies, and voices.  Therefore, the “flawless on day one” expectation does not seem at all unreasonable to me.  I, for one, am usually petrified with respect to my own musical acumen and therefore often over-prepare the music.  I have to make everyone believe that I have sung the particular music that is before us for years and years in order to feel comfortable.  This stems from my late entry into the language and study of music.  I did not begin formal study until I was almost in college, with a smattering of harmony and theory in High School.  I progressed to become rather accomplished on the piano, trumpet, flute, and guitar, just because I had a thirst for knowledge.  While I must admit that the active playing of the aforementioned instruments has waned over the decades due to my concentration on the voice, it was nevertheless incumbent upon my sense of accomplishment to learn, and do well, all that was put in front of me.

Now we will come to the downside of such an anal-retentive personality, where everything has a place, and must be there, in order for me to be satisfied: While I am a very kind and patient man, and give every benefit of doubt to others as a matter of course; I have simply run out of patience for those who do not dispatch their duties as they promise they will.  If I am expected by any organization to be “flawless on day one”, shouldn’t I expect close to the same from every department of that same organization…whether it is the MET, or Paris Opera, or the Los Angeles Philharmonic, or whomever???  The reasonable answer would be YES, wouldn’t it??

Now it will get really stupid because of the nit picky nature of my grumbling; because in the big scheme of this great and glorious world that is filled with beauty and life challenges, this complaint will sound bratty, self-serving, petty, and every other self-flagellating adjective that I can muster–but I just cannot help myself: Is it too much to ask the greatest opera house on the planet to publish the correct photo of me in the Season Book that is sold in the gift shop (with complimentary copies given to all artists on the roster)??

Five years ago I submitted a new photo to replace the very old, very outdated head-shot that was taken in the early 1990’s.  Somehow the media/publicity department, despite my repeated attempts to correct the issue still seems to somehow use the old photo.  Last year I was assured that this error would not happen again, but ‘voila’, same mistake again this year!  The Assistant Editor of Metropolitan Opera publications finally unraveled what keeps going wrong, and has instructed his Marketing Services Director to change certain office procedures to ensure that this does not happen again to me, or any other artist.

So what’s the big deal???: Two things.  We artists spend literally thousands of dollars on photo shoots and digital photo services in an effort to keep current with respect to our “look”.  Opera companies and symphony orchestras demand it, our agents and management offices stress it non-stop, and our followers/fans (even though for some of us they are admittedly small in number) make a big deal out of it.  The Met Season Book is a cherished keepsake for many of us who never know when, or if, we will sing again at the Met; so the publishing of outdated photos as our current representation, when newer ones are readily available, becomes a source of real angst.  It makes us look out of step, out of touch, and unprofessional to use a 20 year old head-shot.  Plus, this book is a collectible for others, to be sure, so accuracy is important.

Secondly, if we artists were possibly ‘cut a break’ by management for missing a rehearsal, or (God-Forbid) a performance; or were told to prepare our music better next time, and we failed to do so the following year, after promising the problem would be fixed….we would be ushered out the door in a ‘New York Minute’.  Now I am not advocating that anyone be fired over an administrative screw-up that involves a photo, for goodness sakes; but I can best sum up my feelings by quoting from an the email that I wrote to Assistant Editor:

I am no star, no big name; but I am expected to do my job almost flawlessly on “day one”.  Therefore, I would expect to be treated with the same basic respect as all others.  I am not asking for special treatment, just better attention to this type of administrative detail from those under your authority. I was assured last year that this would not happen again…and yet it has.

Finally, I would like to truly thank the Assistant Editor for taking more immediate and long lasting steps to see that even these SMALL, but so very important, issues that we (self-centered) artists complain about are dealt with.  The MET is a big place with a fast tempo of operations, so to receive such a sincere apology as I did (from a number of people in the administration) makes things a lot better.  There are always really great employees in any organization; and sometimes you just have to be persistent and find them, as they are the ones who usually solve the problems permanently!

Just don’t make fun of that old picture again this year folks.  I answered enough emails about it last year!!!


Pat who?? Pat COOPER, that’s who!!!!

As many of you know, my life in the performing arts, before settling into the operatic repertoire, was spent in the night club business:  The Catskills, The Poconos, Atlantic City, Miami Beach, and other showrooms up and down the Eastern Seaboard….when such showrooms and night clubs still existed and thrived.  Fortunately, I caught the last few years of a glorious era that was quickly coming to an end.  60’s Retro acts, Philadelphia Rock bands, and a new brand of comedian were being courted by the grand hotels, resorts, and casinos that once housed acts like mine, but were now trying to attract the “young crowd”, or “yuppies”, as they referred to them back then.  I knew my days (and that of many of my colleagues) were numbered; as I performed the classic songs of yesteryear that would have been attributed to Sinatra, Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr, and the other great singers of that era.  Dance sets, live orchestras on-stage, and classic entertainers were becoming a thing of the past.

Last week (Tuesday August 14) here in New York City, I was fortunate to attend a benefit at Caroline’s Comedy Club on Broadway, the proceeds of which went to support fighting autism.  The headliner was one of the truly great comedians of the ‘generation/era past’ to which I referred above.  Pat Cooper, at the age of 81 is still going strong and delivered a blistering 1/2 hour set that left the audience virtually destroyed!!  So hilarious (in his own caustic way) was he, that he left my ribs hurting…one audience member was laughing so hard that I thought he would require a hernia operation when Mr. Cooper was finished.

Cut from the mold of Don Rickles (still performing at 84), Shecky Greene, Joe Mauro, Jackie Mason, and others of his generation; Pat Cooper’s comedy last night remained as relevant as ever.  Why or How, you may ask??  The answer is simple…he basically tells the absolute truth about what he sees, the way he sees it.  He had jokes about Lady Gaga, popular restaurants and restaurateurs, his Italian heritage as it relates to modern day 2010, the nature of show-business, his own hearing loss, and so much more.  The wit was sharp, biting, and lickity split.  There isn’t a comic around who can deliver it faster…believe me, I have seen hundreds of them–right up to current day.

I worked with Pat Cooper in the Catskills more than a few times in my day; he was hilarious then, and he is hilarious now.  He said something to me over 22 years ago at Kutsher’s Hotel and Resort that I had never heard before then, and will never forget; he said: “Kid, just remember this….you’re only as good as your last performance.”  If that is the case then; Pat, you’re still worth your weight in gold!!

Don’t, however, think for a minute that Mr. Cooper didn’t move along with the times in other ways.  He has appeared several times on Letterman, was featured in a very famous Seinfeld episode, appeared in films such as Analyze This and Analyze That (with another one of the great comics of our time, Billy Crystal), and was a regular guest on Howard Stern’s radio program.  I spoke with him after his show, and he was most cordial and very thankful.  We took a brief trip down my version of memory lane, took a photo together and then I left.  As I walked out of the club, I found myself walking out with Frank Pellegrino of the famed Rao’s Restaurant here in New York.  Cooper skewered him for about 7 minutes of his 30 minute act (referring to “$36 plates of pasta that we can all make at home for 36 cents!!”).  I said to Mr. Pellegrino (whose generous auction gift of dinner and drinks for a table of four at his New York City location garnered an auction high bid of $4,000), “I didn’t realize that you were going to be the butt of so many jokes tonight!”  For the record, he took them all in great stride, and I do daresay that he laughed among the hardest; but he did reply, “Neither did I!!”  (Mr. Pellegrino and I continued talking about the old days of show-business as we stepped out onto Broadway together, as he has known Pat Cooper for decades, but I didn’t get an offer come to visit his restaurant!!–most people wait over a year to get a reservation–something else Mr. Cooper riffed about with great enthusiasm.)

So you just keep it up Pat; stay ornery, and keep talking loud…we’ll be listening.  I live by the “last performance” motto you provided for me so many years ago, and I thank you most sincerely for that!  And for those of a younger generation who say may say to me, “Pat Who ?”, when I refer to this evening:  I will say back to them in my loudest voice, “Pat COOPER, damn it…that’s who!!!”


The Sitzprobe…a lost art form!

Once upon a time, during the 20th century’s Golden Age of Singing (roughly the 1950’s and 1960’s, respectively), The Sitzprobe was a hallowed day on the operatic production schedule.  It was a day for the conductor, the singers, the chorus, and especially the orchestra, to all gather in a comfortable work atmosphere and sing through the opera without the distractions that can come with the addition of staging, navigating the intricacies of a set or the use props, and of course, dealing with costumes, wigs, and make-up.  It was a day when the singers had a chance to just sing while looking the conductor straight in the eye.  It was a day when the conductor could look back at the singers and help them through phrases; a day when the orchestra reigned supreme in importance, because it was really their day to get a full feel of the operatic work and actually hear what was going on vocally (before eventually descending into the pit where they cannot see or hear at times!).

What made this day extra special (and this is the “old-school” part of me that is coming out now) was that all of the singers, and in many cases the orchestra also, took extra time to dress well and look (if I may be so bold as to say) rather professional, dapper, and beautiful.  Men wore jackets and ties (which were quickly loosened), women wore stylish clothing and “did” their hair, while the conductor would be just a bit more casual in an effort to conduct all of these forces with more ease (given the fact that they are usually the most buttoned up and constricted during actual performances).  The work was strenuous and focused, but laughs were plentiful and smiles were abundant.  Applause from other cast members, the shuffling of feet, or the “tick, tick, tick” of the bows on music stands from the orchestra were routine after the singer had completed a fine aria, or a duo dispensed with a compelling duet, or the chorus sang with extra passion and strength.  It was a glorious time, whose traditions continued, but ebbed considerably by the 1990’s, and in many ways have now vanished into this, the 21st century.

With the advent of tight labor contracts, fewer overall funds, and the general compression of production schedules; the Sitzprobe (loose German translation: “to sit and probe through”) is in many cases being eliminated, and replaced with an additional “stage-orchestra” rehearsal.  It is also in many ways the result of the “Hollywoodization” of opera, in general.  The productions themselves have become so overwhelming with technical demands, and movie-like sets, that we simply NEED the extra time to rehearse on-stage, thereby relegating the Sitzprobe to a “luxury” that is sometimes just dispensed with.

That is not to say that the Sitzprobe has disappeared completely.  This past Monday (September 13, 2010) at the Metropolitan Opera, we DID have a Sitzprobe for our upcoming production of last year’s new Tales of Hoffmann. This was a bit of a surprise for me, since remounted productions are not always afforded this “luxury”.  I have been involved in several, almost life-changing Sitzprobes–in Chicago, London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Dallas, et al–; where truly magical and heart stopping musical moments were experienced.  It would, however, take much more time to chronicle those events than this blog post will accommodate; so I will save some of those memories for another time.  But in short, I will sum up this most recent Sitzprobe in a few short sentences:

Jackets, ties, and nice slacks for the men have been replaced by black Levi or basic denim jeans (some of them “designer”, but who really cares!), T-shirts, or other basic button shirts, with shirt-tails out.  Stylish shoes have given way to sneakers, or other casual foot wear such as sandals.  The ladies fared a bit better, but in most cases “flats” have replaced higher heels (I know, I know; they are in style, and are more comfortable to sing in), stunning dresses have been replaced with leggings, and jewelry is almost non-existent.  To be fair, two of the ‘Eastern Bloc’ females DID dress “old-school” with full make-up and clothing a-la-mode, replete with fine hand bags that they carried…and I must say, it was a beautiful sight!  What used to be the norm has now become the exception.  (For the record: I wore very nice dress slacks, a new mock turtleneck lightweight sweater, and a much complimented black leather blazer.)

Luckily the orchestra played magnificently, and the singers (including yours truly) sang very well.  The courtesy applause is far less these days, the comfort breaks have become a few minutes longer, and the orchestra room at the MET, with its four white ceiling fans (of which only one seems to work), has forty years of collected dust all over it–including the dust on those ceiling fans!  But the room itself reminds me of the old Beatles studio that I walked through on Abbey Road in London (now EMI Classics) where I recorded the soundtrack and C.D. of Tosca for the 2001 feature film Tosca–a simple wooden box–wood floors, wood walls, and multi-holed ceiling board (like most of us had in our school classrooms).  I sat in this large orchestra/rehearsal room and listened to all of my colleagues for the entire Sitzprobe; I marveled at the quality of the orchestra, and appreciated the competence of our conductor.  I thought about inviting (and did) a few friends over to my place, post rehearsal, for pizza and chat….but I must admit that my mind kept wandering back to a time now long ago, and the artists that the Orchestra Room on C level had hosted; and also to that time where much more glamor accompanied the entire event!

So now I must ask:  Is “Old-School” really too “Old Fashioned” in this new millennium???


From the Santa Fe frying pan, into the New York fire!

Seemingly as quickly as it began, the Santa Fe Opera 2010 summer season has ended.  On August 28,  the final performance of the somewhat controversial Tales of Hoffmann was rendered; an overwhelming standing ovation followed; a very nice end-of-season party was enjoyed by all (courtesy of the management); and the next day we were all gone!

From the low humidity, high Southwestern desert heat of Santa Fe, I drove to the Albuquerque Sunport at 5:30 a.m., and boarded a plane bound for New York City.  With a connection in Denver, and passing through Chicago, I finally arrived in a steaming hot Manhattan some 11 to 12 hours later, and headed straight to my apartment.  With some unpacking to do, I thought longingly of getting into my over-sized bed to get some sleep, as I only slumbered for two hours the previous night.  I did experience a deep comfortable sleep, but in the back of my mind, as I drifted off, was the fact that I had rehearsal the following day at the MET.  We were to do a musical run-thru of the first Act of La Fanciulla del West.

The ‘first day of rehearsal‘ can be likened to ‘the first day of school‘ for children…only this is the adult version!  I am not sure what it is, but the first day of rehearsal at the MET always makes me feel as if I am going to a branding ceremony; and we singers are the cattle!  The tension is usually high, anxiety levels are generally up, and so I feel as if I am jumping into the fire.  Santa Fe rehearsals are serious, to be sure; we have a short amount of time to get major operatic works onto the stage.  But those first rehearsal moments at the MET can seem very, VERY serious and always no-nonsense.  This is not because the MET staff makes us feel in any way uncomfortable or unwelcome; quite the contrary.  But there is a sort of ‘corporate culture’ that one feels as we walk through the door that bespeaks “We are REALLY going to get to work now….forget where you were just were working for the summer….the REAL work is about to begin”  ((((Ominous))))

As the many singers filed into the rehearsal room, I found that my fears did not disappoint.  Although there were some pleasantries exchanged between the many singers who have likely known one another for years (I myself saw someone that I had not seen for 15 years!),  I felt that the tension in the room could only be cut with the sharpest of knives.  The Maestri enter; the rehearsal begins exactly on time; the singing commences……

Before we know it, the Maestro has smiled often, corrections are indicated, mistakes are made, and nervous laughter eventually gives way to the ‘fear’.  Similar to ‘the first day of school‘ for children, we adults also still leave ‘class’ and ‘the school day’ behind, as we say to ourselves…..”I guess that wasn’t so bad after all!  I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring when the second day of school begins.”

Here’s to a good school year….I, I, I mean….a good season at the MET.