Vann Vocal Institute: The Ramp Up

As some of you know, in addition to my operatic performance career, I have spent the last four years establishing (by invitation) a small but growing vocal institute in Montgomery, Alabama; a city with which I have had a decades-long association.  As the Artistic Director of the Vann Vocal Institute (named after deceased philanthropist and classical voice enthusiast Roy D. Vann of Montgomery, AL), it is my mission to bring some of the finest coaches, singers, directors, conductors, artist managers, and artistic administrators to the fine Capital City of Alabama.  The Institute caters to students from the State of Alabama, and takes place on the beautiful campus of Huntingdon College.  The upcoming weekend of February 24-27 (with the bulk of the hands-on work being done on Feb 25/26) is certain to be intensive, with coaching talent from the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Northwestern University at the forefront.  ‘Yours truly’ (as I regularly refer to myself) will also play a large part in the festivities by providing a continuous main-stage masterclass over the course of our weekend.

Students pay only a modest application fee of $25, but receive first class instruction and lectures from our Artistic Staff and Advisory Board (most of whom are active educators and performers themselves).  Due to popular demand we have had to add additional coaches and lecturers to accommodate the near 50 students that are accepted via submitted audition CD’s.  The weekend culminates in an on-the-spot “Emerging Artists” public recital program; the participants of which are chosen via consensus by myself and the rest of the Artistic Staff.  Long before the students arrive, however, is the planning process–which is nothing short of daunting!  Without the dedicated assistance of the Administrative and support staff of the Montgomery Symphony, the VVI Advisory Board, and the cooperation of Huntingdon College, this event would never take place.

Audition CD’s must be screened, participants chosen and contacted, additional accompanists contracted, schedule matrices developed, programming determined, housing and meals arranged, social events planned, novelties ordered, photographers organized, etc, etc, etc.  All of this, and more, must be accomplished on a tick-tight budget that allows for very little error.  We have been fortunate that another local enthusiast of our program will dispatch his very first-class, (right out of the movies) private jet to NYC and Chicago in order to fly our staff and ‘yours truly’ down to Montgomery for a second straight time.  This same donor (name purposely withheld) has also arranged for housing at the local Country Club for our coaches and visiting dignitaries, while still others open their homes for dinners and parties in this oh-so hospitable southern town.  These high end donations are true cost-savers and have enabled us to meet our budget for this fiscal year.  I am also proud to have brought aboard another major foundation donor which, along with grant dollars from the State (determined annually), will allow us to operate uninterrupted for several “out years”.  (More on this major donor at a later date, but suffice it to say that it’s Executive Administrator will be joining us for this year’s installment.)

The core of our instruction is in the classical art of singing (opera and song), with some Broadway included, as we have students who range from the mid/late teens through to University-level age groups.  Students travel many miles to access this program, while some come from the local area; with students from Alabama State and Huntingdon College itself also represented.  If the past is any harbinger of the future, then this year will surely be something to look forward to.  In all, these students arrive extremely well prepared, respectfully dressed and behaved, and ready to learn.  They hang on every word, take notes, ask great questions, and have obviously learned well from their local area instructors.  This program is popular because most of these well deserving students rarely come into contact with the type of first-rate, international level instruction that we provide.  In short, we bring the program to them, instead of them having to get to a program (ie. Tanglewood, Interlochen, Aspen, etc.).

To be clear, I am not in any way trying to compare the Vann Vocal Institute with the above mentioned music programs/festivals overall.  But I am absolutely confident that if we were not able to provide what we do for these truly excellent students, then many of them would never get the accelerated stewardship that they will receive in Montgomery, Alabama less than one week from today!

So thank you Charlie, Helen, Tom, Michael, Gene, Pamela, Mary, Cordelia, President West, and of course, Miss Bettie!!  And so many others that I have not mentioned; or, for contractual reasons, cannot mention at this time….

My musical staff and I are Montgomery bound, and simply cannot wait to once again spend some time in what I have dubbed the “friendliest city on earth”!


Kuwaiti Holiday

As the city of Chicago sustains the crippling “Blizzard of 2011” (replete with thunder and lightning) on this February 1st, and I watch with delight from my large bank of living room windows in this truly Windy City tonight; my mind is wandering back to the sunny mid 70 degree temperatures I was enjoying just yesterday on what I am terming my “Kuwaiti Holiday”.  Now I am no ‘Gregory Peck’ (that’s for sure); I traveled alone, so there was no ‘Audrey Hepburn’ with whom I kept company; and Kuwait is no ‘Rome’ (that’s also for sure!); but nonetheless it was still somewhat of a holiday.

With a few days off in between performances of La Fanciulla del West here at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, I decided to treat myself to a brief but interesting trip to Kuwait (hey, doesn’t everybody do that for fun!).  The backdrop of this trip was characterized by the earthquake of unrest, and political/social contagion that has rattled the very foundation up which the ‘Fertile Crescent’ rests.  I knew that I was flying to a region of the world whereupon I was to be witness at a nexus of history as events continued to develop in Cairo, Egypt.  Kuwait itself, however, is a city whose underpinnings of confidence are directly related to the fact that there is a large U.S. military presence (by way of permanent base installations well outside of city confines) nearby.  This small country of about 3 million people is perhaps the size of Rhode Island, and they now know for certain that while they are small, the mighty U.S. military enables them to proceed with their lives without fear of ever being invaded as they were in 1990 by the Iraqis.  And so they go about their lives…which in truth means basically doing not much!  The driver I hired during my visit basically said that Kuwaitis (meaning, the men) are interested in two things….”foooot (food), and f-ck” (am sure you figured it out).  The hard labor force is brought in from China, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc., with Kuwaiti store owners, small restaurateurs, and some service employees rounding out the labor pool.  The city, while not much of a real tourist destination, does have some daring skyscrapers, the visionary Kuwaiti Towers, and some nice (but dirty) beachfront to boast about, along with some gold-souks and other novelty and food marketplace locations.  Most of these sights can be easily seen in a day and a half, so don’t plan a 5 day vacation!  I must say that I did enjoy a sumptuous meal of grilled fish, fresh (and I mean FRESH) vegetables, and the best oven baked flat bread I have ever tasted (in unlimited amounts) at the local open-air market eatery.  But it was the people that really made the experience worthwhile in this oil rich, business oriented city….and not just the Kuwaiti people….so read on and you will better understand.

In their Monday January 31st edition, the Kuwait Times dissected the Cairo affair from every angle (socially, economically, politically, geo-politically, academically, religiously, and attitudinally); and so I began to think about the people that I have come across in my world travels–sojourns that have allowed me to see the greatest wonders of the world, to walk where Christ had walked, and be humbled where so many have died and been laid to rest–and one observation is constant:  Basically speaking, adults simply want to raise their children in peace and relative prosperity (not necessarily full-out opulence).  This has, for a long time, NOT existed in Cairo as I witnessed myself about 5 years ago.  Eventually something has to give, and voila, you have a revolution (peaceful or violent) on your hands.  I strolled about the Kuwaiti seaside park and watched families picnicking on blankets as their children climbed and squealed with delight on Jungle Jim play stations and swing sets.  Men walked arm in arm, women walked arm in arm (men and women do not walk arm in arm in most Muslim intensive nations), the citizenry responded to the evening call-to-prayer as the day drifted by, and as I moseyed about, everyone was excessively polite and smiled readily.  The bread baker, the fish monger, the old men in the cafes, Said–the restaurateur, the stylishly dressed ladies who marveled cautiously at my long hair, the young Kuwaiti motorcycle enthusiast; all of them welcoming, loving, and friendly–as if indicating that I was now a member of their family just as a result of engaging in conversation!  Their clothing was an equal mix of national dress, or modern Western style dress with never a glance of disapproval one way or the other from anyone.  Sultan (my driver) assured me that there is no real rush to go to work, or to work too hard for that matter; that may be the reason I observed so many folks sitting out in the middle of a Monday afternoon enjoying cup after cup of hot tea and honey.  One thing was clear…even with the large Western presence by way of automobiles (Fords, Chevrolets, Cadillacs, Mercedes’, BMWs, etc, etc), clothing, and shopping malls packed with every big marquee label…this was no U.S.A., or London, or Paris.

I eventually return to the airport outside Kuwait City, paying special attention to the ongoing celebration and recognition of their 50 years of independence from the British (there are banners and lights all over town, as well as giant sized murals of His Highness, the Amir).  I pay my driver handsomely for his attention and for squiring me about town–his adage bearing out, as he didn’t really work too hard himself but was a fine guide.  He refers to me as his brother, kisses me on each cheek as we shake hands, and I evaporate into the crowd of travelers just on the other side of the initial (extensive) security checkpoint of the airport.  A few hour stay in the well appointed business class lounge, with yet more delicious food staring me in the face; but alas no liquor (Muslim nation, remember) to take the edge off of my sore feet that had been walking for some 8 hours non-stop.  We board the Boeing 777 aircraft shortly after midnight and I take my business class seat (no, I do not make that kind of money, but rather utilized my Systemwide Upgrade Certificates that are given to me by the airline for being their highest level elite status flyer), and settle in for what I hope will be a restful return flight to the U.S.

While aboard this 15 hour flight to Washington’s Dulles International Airport, I strike up a pleasant conversation with a young man who would prove to be among the finest representatives of the “younger generation”, and in fact, of our nation’s military, that I have ever met.  Brian C., a 26 year old Air Force command Captain travels frequently to the Middle East for training purposes, but is stationed in Colorado.  He is permitted to travel out of uniform so as to not attract attention, and to further (and preferably) represent a form of “non-military might” when he visits these countries.  His paramount objective is to “respect their way of life, as I always consider myself a guest in their country.”  He further advanced the argument that the U.S. military was fully aware that they must be actively engaged in winning the hearts and minds of the citizens in these municipalities if they are to be successful in their policy missions.  He states: “I am one of many, and I take pride in what I do.  I am very blessed, I really am, and absolutely love my job!  It’s awesome; I can’t explain it in any other way….I truly believe that I am doing the right thing.”  This fine young man, who has a soft spot for playing the euphonium (one of perhaps three musicians I have known in my lifetime that actively played this instrument), spoke movingly and with deep emotion about his Marine brothers who died in service as a result of an IED (improvised explosive device), thus enabling him to continue living his young life which he shares with his wife (who is studying nursing in order to provide care for those in need).  He continues to honor his fallen brothers in a variety of ways, which will include running a marathon in their memory.  (Naturally, I gave him some marathon running tips, in that I have run many of them myself in the past….although I hardly think he needs my advice!)

Readers can decide for themselves how they actually feel about our military presence and policies world-wide, but there should be little doubt as to the dedication of soldiers such as Brian C.  When I pushed him about how he responds to the avalanche of criticism our armed forces sometimes receive, he confidently responded: “Doing the right thing always feels good, regardless of the criticism we get…and I feel that I really am doing the right thing.”  So when I talk about “the people that made the experience worthwhile” earlier in this post and, in this case, “heroes” of a non-public stature; I include this young man who was so very humble about who he is, and so very sincere about that in which he is engaged.  Then I began to wonder: Where do these “people” (people like Brian C.) come from??

The answer is Peoria, Illinois; Youngstown, Ohio; Corpus Christie, Texas; Lehigh Acres, Florida; Des Moines, Iowa; Brooklyn, New York; Seattle, Washington; Bakersfield, California; and every other conceivable community, in every single state of our great union.  If you come across one of these wonderful young souls; male or female; Black, White, Asian, or Hispanic; Jew, Christian, Muslim, Agnostic, or Atheist; do yourself a favor…listen to them, speak with them, and if you are as convinced as I was….Please Thank Them!!