Vann Vocal Institute, 2012 (Trying to keep our sanity…)

As some of you know, in addition to my operatic performance career, I have spent the last five 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 March 1-4 (with the bulk of the hands-on work being done on March 2/3) is certain to be intense, with coaching talent from the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and artists with an international-experience platform 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, 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 over 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.  This year we are pleased to announce that substantial cash prizes will be awarded at the finale of our Emerging Artists recital.   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, ground transportation sorted; 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 yet again!!! 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 the past few fiscal years.  I am also proud to have brought aboard another major foundation donor which, along with grant dollars from the State (determined annually, but getting difficult to secure), 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 occasional 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 locally 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 this year!

So thank you Charlie, Helen, Tom, Michael, Gene, Pamela, Mary, 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….

As a matter of good order, I insist that all students send the music they will present to me onstage in the master-class portion of the weekend.  It is unfortunate that my “Chief of Staff” (Helen) must often light fires underneath some students to get their music submitted to us on time; while others are professionally prompt.  The reason I ask for these materials is because I have such little time with each student (30 minutes), I often pre-mark the music for what I believe are matters that I will potentially have to address.  But additionally, I sit at my piano for one solid week ahead of time and sing through each and every piece that will be presented to me…(singing some better than others, to be sure!!).  It is important, I believe, to know what each student is going through, especially in repertoire that might not be my specialty.  So make no mistake…it is work, work, work, leading up to, and right through the entire weekend!!!

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”!


COC’s “Love from Afar”: The joys and challenges of contemporary opera!

This past weekend, a friend and I attended the other current offering at Canadian Opera Company; Kaija Saariaho’s Love from Afar, based on the 12th century poetic text La Vida breve by Jaufre Rudel, with modern libretto by Amin Maalouf, and stage direction by Daniele Finzi Pasca.  As the “Hollywood-ization”–or in this case the “Cirque du Soleil-ization”–of opera continues, there is much to herald and much to ponder regarding its continuing challenges.

First off, this opera–as fashioned from its original source–clings to a very simple and thin storyline:  Troubadour Jaufre Rudel, bored with his life of excess in France, dreams of the perfect love.  Such love (in the form of the character Clemence) is to be found in far off Tripoli thanks to critical information provided by a frequenting Pilgrim.  The two are made aware of one another, and the longing begins.  The troubadour travels to Tripoli, and en-route becomes shattered by anxiety like an eggshell underfoot; remaining intact, but by only the thinnest of membranes.  He becomes ill, and although the couple never consummate their love physically, they do so spiritually before he expires, leaving Clemence to end the opera in a sort of Isolde-esque state of being.

To say that COC has provided this opera with a first rate production would be the understatement of the second decade of this new millennium.  On all fronts, this was a stunner: incredible lighting, fantastic costumes, the most inventive of high-tech digital projections, acrobats, dancers, flying silk, 30 hand held mirrors (which I mistook for a bunch of iPads on-stage…well, ‘who knows’ these days???!!!), principal artists in triplicate (2 additional mimes for each character), and a vocal cast that represented the most superb singing that one could hope for!  So what’s the problem???  I am not really sure, to be quite honest!!!

It struck me that such an unaffected storyline, minimal character development (a characteristic of the work itself, not the talent), even less dramatic action, and the somewhat monotonous vocal music would probably need such over-the-top accoutrements to keep it interesting.  But too often, my focus began to wander from the singers themselves in an attempt to unearth the meaning behind the twirling silk, acrobatic back-flips, the very strange presence of a young ‘American Gothic’ couple throughout the production, and everything that is now textbook Cirque du Soleil (in the sense that we understand it as part of the popular lexicon).  At the very same time, however, I was totally mesmerized by a moment of silence where, with backs to the audience, the characters of Rudel and The Pilgrim look out over the expanse of open seas (courtesy of an incredible visual projection over stage scrim) with the brightest of moons in the far distance; as well as their journey through time and space as they walked across a geometric rendering of the galaxy (again, courtesy of suspended aerial artists that were hung on their sides as they “walked”; similar to Loge and Wotan’s descent into Nibelheim in the Met’s new Rheingold).

Ultimately, all I can say with absolute certainty is that the whole of this overall production was certainly greater than the sum of its individual parts.  Much needs to be said about Johannes Debus’ conducting of the incredibly interesting and difficult orchestration, as well as kudos to the musicians themselves who executed it.  An interesting use of a mostly offstage chorus led us to believe that a larger cosmic force was observing all of the worldly action, as they regularly commented on it.  Ultimately, however, opera is about the singers; and COC provided three of the finest: Baritone, Russel Braun (Jaufre Rudel);  Soprano, Erin Wall (Clemence); and Mezzo-Soprano, Krisztina Szabo (a rather ‘Kundry-like’ Pilgrim).  All were nearly flawless in delivering moments of great nuance when provided to them compositionally; and oddly enough, Ms. Szabo was equally compelling when she was simply observing the interactions between the characters of Rudel and Clemence…providing, in a sense, the ‘apex’ of triangulation as the opera’s main protagonist.

Finally, we have seen these big budget, high risk/high reward productions regularly on the opera stage these days:  The Metropolitan Opera’s recent Damnation of Faust and current Ring Cycle; Dallas Opera’s Moby Dick; everything Bregenz Festival, and of course many, many others throughout the world.  Modern audiences seem to expect more and more in the area of stage presentation, and are often left gasping as they leave the opera house; while time-honored opera goers scratch their heads and wonder why??

That’s the best post-performance show in town; and you gotta love it!!!