Singing at Home

This weekend, I’m singing two concerts with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and the Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus at Century 2 here in Wichita (of course). On the program is quite a bit of Wagner but also some Puccini, Bizet, Borodin, and Verdi. It’s a huge, meaty, and thrilling concert full of repertoire that tickles the ears and ignites the soul. It is also dog gone difficult to sing.

I am absolutely thrilled with how wonderful the Wichita Symphony, under the baton of Music Director, Maestro Daniel Hege, are playing this great music. What a wonderful full sound. And the chorus has blazed through their great choruses as well (under the direction of Dr. Michael Hanawalt, my colleague at Wichita State University.

So many in the orchestra are colleagues of mine at WSU. It has been great to see them dive into this music--much of it new to them. Several of the pieces we are presenting in Wichita are being programmed for the first time in Wichita. I am greatly enjoying bringing a bit of what I do on the road to the audiences here in Wichita. And, I have to say, it is wonderful to only have to commute around 20 minutes from our house to the concert hall.

This city, the arts in this city, its’ musicians, and its’ incredible talent, mean so much to me. As you know, I received my Masters Degree from WSU. I have, over the last nearly 35 years, stayed in contact with the university during my performing career and always enjoyed every trip back to Kansas for a recital, concert, or master class. But, nearly 3 years ago, we decided to make Wichita our home once again. I don’t know that I fully expected to see such professionalism in my colleagues...such a dedication to their craft. Our faculty is young, vibrant, and incredibly talented. They are helping to enrich the lives of their students, their orchestral members, and the entire South Central Kansas region. This is a QUALITY orchestra of great skill. I am honored to have sung with them last night and look forward to our second concert in just a few hours.

After today’s concert, I’ll have a week of teaching (happy to only wear one hat for the week) before flying to D.C. next week for a concert of Beethoven’s “Leonore”, the early version of what was to become one of my most performed operas, “Fidelio”. I’ll be performing with the Washington Concert Opera, a company I haven’t performed with since 1989. I’m so looking forward to being back in Foggy Bottom--a place that has been near the center of my career for so many years.

The concerts are challenging and fulfilling, the weather has been gorgeous, and the best time of year, college basketball season, is upon us (and going well for the Shockers). Despite all the discord and angst in our lives, it is great to know that so much can be surpassed by the beauty of music, the dedication and discipline of fine artists and colleagues, and the desire to enrich others through our talents. May that long be the goal and standard.

Happy New Year/Looking back/Looking ahead

I’m a bit late with my New Year’s greetings but they are as heartfelt as always. May 2017 be a year of great blessing, full of wonderful music, and a time of peace and joy. We can use all the peace we can get!

As I write this, I’m in Vienna, Austria for performances of “Salome”. This is the fourth time I’ve visited Vienna just for this fabulous production which dates back to the early 1970’s (Leonie Rysanek was the first Salome in this production). I first performed in this production during the 2001-2002 season. Since then, I’ve returned to work with 3 different sopranos. It is so interesting to see how different each revival has been due to the different protagonists involved. I’m scheduled to be back here in November for more performances of this production. I know that my soprano will be one that I’ve worked with already. Can’t wait!!!

Vienna is one of the most beautiful and easiest to be in cities in the world. The opera company is one of the dream companies. They put on so many performances each season of approximately 50 different operas. No other company has that kind of output. Yes, revivals are put together very quickly. But this helps add to the excitement. I can vividly recall my debut with the company in “Das Rheingold” (2001). I had only 3 days of rehearsal before having to come on stage as Wotan. When the curtain ascended, all I remember seeing was the phenomenal Vienna Philharmonic staring up at me and seemingly saying, “Let’s see what you’ve got, kid”. Scared me to death. But, it was a great experience and a wonderful debut.

I always remember those days when I’m rehearsing here...and I’ve learned how to think on my feet very quickly due to experiences like that. The audiences here are some of the most educated (regarding opera) anywhere in the world. You have to be on your toes and ready for anything. Most of the time, things run smoothly. It is a difficult, at times, theater to sing in. The orchestra sits much higher and is more exposed than in most other opera houses. This can lead to balance issues. But, they are one of the finest orchestras anywhere and play so incredibly. A singer has to be careful to not get too caught up in the music making and remember that there is theater involved as well.

I always spend my last post of the year looking back at the performances of the preceding 12 months. As I’m late to do this for 2016, I’ll let my first post of 2017 handle the festivities. I like to pick one performance of the previous year as my favorite. Sometimes, it’s hard to make a pick---this year, it wasn’t too difficult. It was a year full of Wagner. I sang The Wanderer in “Siegfried’ in Toronto, all three Wotans in the incredible Ring Cycles in Washington, a concert as The Wanderer in Boston, concerts at Wolf Trap, Bluebeard in Portland, Maine, and Orest in “Elektra” in Barcelona. The “Elektra” run was one of the most consistent runs of opera that I’ve ever been a part of. Each performance was solid and enthusiastically received. However, the performance of “Die Walk
üre” on May 2 (First Cycle) will always stand out in my mind as one of the greatest nights in my career. It is my 2016 favorite.

That night, my great friend, Christine Goerke, jumped into the role of Br
ünnhilde on short notice for our opening cycle. We had got the cycle rolling a few nights earlier with “Das Rheingold”. But, when the curtain rose on act 2 of “Die Walküre”, the act when Wotan and Brünnhilde first appear together, I knew we were all in for a special night. The energy was incredible. The emotion was overwhelming. The critical acclaim was enormous, and the response from the audience was like nothing I’ve ever heard in the Kennedy Center. One critic wrote that the second act scene between father and daughter “forever colored my understanding of the opera”. You hope to bring your own interpretations to performances and have an impact that will be remembered. It’s a strong performance when the audience feels that way--and the performers as well.

I was fortunate, in those cycles in DC, to have four different Brünnhildes, including the dress rehearsals. Due to an injury to one of the sopranos, the understudy had to go on during our final dress. For the three cycles, we then had three different sopranos play the warrior maiden. I so enjoyed the spontaneity that this brought...the new energy...again, I had to be a quick thinker and on my toes. I LOVE performing that way. And, I think the audience knows when they are seeing something special as well. We create art together--from both sides of the pit.

And, at this time, I look ahead to what 2017 brings. The energy of performing will continue to be sharpened and polished on the state as well as in the studio and classroom. After these performances of “Salome” here in Vienna, I’ll sing a concert with the Wichita Symphony of opera highlights (including Wagner and Puccini). I’ll sing with the Washington Concert Opera (first time since 1989) in “Leonore” (the predecessor to “Fidelio”). I’ll also sing one of my favorite roles with one of my favorite orchestras---“Der Fliegender Holl
änder” with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. I”ll return to Vienna later in the year for performances of “Elektra” and “Salome”. And, I am very excited to be returning to the Cleveland Symphony for a VERY exciting project--one I can’t announce just yet. That one is going to have me traveling a bit with the orchestra--truly one of the world’s finest who will be celebrating their centennial. It’s going to be an exciting year.

BUT, it doesn’t all take place in the opera house or on a concert stage. Recently, I’ve been named as the Director of Opera at Wichita State University. I’ll take over those duties in the Fall. However, I am already actively making plans for our coming season(s). This is a job that I’ve sort of hoped to have for a very long time---since my days as a student at WSU over 30 years ago. I’ll be wearing a lot of hats in 2017---opera singer/concert artist/voice teacher/opera director---and, oh, did I forget...HUSBAND AND DAD. I didn’t forget at all--those are my two most important jobs. But, all of this will require a lot of fast thinking on my feet--just like in the performances here in Vienna. It’s good that I wear comfortable shoes.

Go Shockers!!!

Back again in Barcelona

I can’t believe it has been so long since I’ve made an entry into this journal. In many years, during the summer and early Fall, I have had a long break in order to catch up on life and my career. It seems, in many ways, that I’ve been chasing too many things all at the same time over the past six months. And now, here we are in the early throes of December and the end of the year is quickly approaching. It’s time to look back, at least a bit, at what all has been going on.

As I write this, I’m in Barcelona, Spain once again. I haven’t been here in over three years--it doesn’t seem that it has been that long ago. I’ve spent a lot of time here over the course of my career..it’s one of my favorite cities. The weather has been warm and mostly beautiful (a nice change from the cold and snow that is hitting the midwest). I’m here for performances of “Elektra”. It is an outstanding production by the late Patrice Ch
éreau (his last production before he passed away in 2013). What a strong and wonderful cast!!!! Excellent singing and acting all around. And what a treat to get to perform once again with Franz Mazura who is now 92 years old. Franz was in my Metropolitan Opera debut way back in 1989. I’ve always enjoyed working with him on various projects. He still commands the stage...you can’t take your eyes off of him.

This run of performances goes through December 23rd. I’m looking forward to getting home for the celebration of the great Feast of Christmas. This will be our third Christmas in Wichita, a place that truly has become home for us. With all of the traveling and busy nature of the lat 6 months, each landing back in Kansas has been most welcome. I had several trips to Wolf Trap this summer and did a little performing there amongst all my activities as the Artist in Residence at Wolf Trap Opera. I also had a trip to Miami to teach and perform (along with Christine Goerke) as part of the Wagner Institute at the Miami Music Festival (Boy, was it hot). I’ll be returning to Miami in the summer of 2017 to help lead the program.

I also made my annual trip to Yale in October to work with the singers of Yale Opera. I think the current group of singers in the program are some of the most solid singers I’ve heard there. Excellent! Such amazing talent.

I also had a trip to Portland, Maine to sing “Bluebeard’s Castle” alongside Michelle DeYoung with Robert Moody leading the Portland Symphony Orchestra. What a great night that was! It’s always nice to be back in beautiful Maine.

The Fall semester at Wichita State University has been exhausting in some respects but so rewarding in others. We quickly kicked off the year with auditions for our Fall opera, “B
éatrice et Bénédict”. I have been teaching a bit of an overloaded studio as well. And, this Fall, WSU hosted the Regional National Association of Teachers of Singing convention and auditions. I helped serve as a Co-Registrar which required a lot of time and energy. I was pleased that my students did so well in the auditions. Multiple other auditions, performances, and recitals have filled the calendar in Wichita...and on it goes.

Things will get even more hectic at WSU in the future. Beginning in the Fall of 2017, I will be heading up the Opera program. I’ve got a lot of ideas and hopes for the program. It will be a challenge (but lots of fun) to see all of that unfold.

Challenges and busy days are all fine...but they don’t mean much if you don’t have a purpose for it all. So what is my purpose? I ask myself this kind of question often. I will always try to do the best that I can with the talents I’ve been given to enrich others. Only with that goal can I find that I’m fulfilled as an artist, teacher, and man. OH, I will never say that music is the most important thing in my life. Faith and Family come far before a career as a musician. For me, it has happily always been this way. One must always keep what is important at the forefront and then everything else will find its order in the sorting of life. When the activities become too numerous, the stress of a singing engagement a bit heavy, the fatigue from travel a bit overbearing, and the doubts as to what the importance of it all become troubling, I have to remember that I have been blessed with certain talents and abilities that allow me to “just do it” and the perseverance (and stubbornness) to not give up. I’m thankful for that. Without this, I wouldn’t be fulfilled. Success would not have occurred in any area of my life. One must not give in to the things that keep us from being our best...from best serving others...from best serving ourselves...and, most important, from serving our Great God. Sometimes, it just takes awhile, and the right attitude, to get it all done...but with perseverance, much can be attained. Just look at the Chicago Cubs...it took 108 years...but, obviously, as was shown once again...perseverance, patience, and determination were rewarded---abundantly!

GO SHOCKERS!!!

Such an Honor

What an honor it is for me to be back at Wolf Trap and to be the Artist in Residence for the 2016 Wolf Trap Opera Company. I have had a LONG affiliation with Wolf Trap (dating back to 1987) and always enjoy my return trips to the beautiful Wolf Trap Park for the Performing Arts in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

This year, the unbelievably dedicated and gifted Senior Director of the program, Kim Witman (who has been affiliated with the company even longer) has assembled a remarkable group of Filene Young Artists and outstanding studio artists as well. This month, I have had the pleasure of teaching/coaching these young singers, watch them rehearse, and even perform with them a bit. A few weeks ago, the young artists gave outstanding performances of Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia”. The studio artists have been giving concerts as well as performing various opera scenes.

Remaining to be performed is a wonderful treat for the audiences---Florian Leopold Gassman’s “
L’Opera Seria” (you won’t see this one at your local opera company very often) and Puccini’s masterpiece “La Boheme”. There is also a concert this coming Friday night with these great singers, the National Symphony Orchestra, and yours truly. It will be a concert of American compositions and patriotic music in the Filene Center. Don’t miss out on these performances.

I have always found the Wolf Trap Opera Program to be one of the finest, if not THE finest, young artist training programs in the country. The singers are given real performance opportunities and have the chance to work with outstanding conductors and directors. They are nourished and nurtured and deliver so much to the audiences at such a critical point in their careers. I am grateful for this company, for Mrs. Katherine Shouse (who founded Wolf Trap so long ago) and all who support this great organization. The company gave me my start and will always hold a very special place in my heart.

Today, the young artists presented an “Aria Jukebox” concert where audience members voted on which aria, out of a choice of 4 or 5, that they wished to hear each singer perform. The results were outstanding. With short notice as to which aria they would sing, each young artist sang superbly and with great communication, artistic style, and well developed voice. These are the voices of the future of opera. These are the voices that will continue to foster our 400+ year old art form. We are in good hands. Don’t miss them and also your chance to be able to say, a few years down the road, that you remember hearing this or that singer when they were just starting out. You’ll be glad that you did.

Leb wohl! (Well, almost!)

My association with the Washington National Opera has dominated a great percentage of my career. I first came to this company in 1987 after a summer as an apprentice with the nearby Wolf Trap Opera Company. The Kennedy Center has been my operatic home for so very long. I can’t imagine not having this wonderful edifice in Foggy Bottom as my musical base.

My history in the theater, however, goes back even farther--15 years earlier to June 17, 1972. I was a 12 year old tuba player in the Junior High School Band of America. We came to Washington to give a concert at the Lincoln Memorial. This was such a privilege and honor for such a young boy. I remember, however, being too nervous to actually walk up the steps of the Memorial to view the incredible statue of Abraham Lincoln as he sits staring out over the Mall. It was so intimidating for a fellow citizen of Illinois as nobody else seemed excited to make the climb.

After the concert, the leaders of our organization decided to treat us all to a performance at the newly opened Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The dedication had only occurred a few months before. I remember we went to see a concert opera (I don’t recall what it was--possibly Rossini?) but I do remember the red motif, the bust of JFK, the long central grand hallway and the Halls of States and Nations with their incredible display of hanging flags. I also remember how fatigued I was from our journey and falling asleep on the shoulder of the complete stranger that I was seated next to. I’m sure he didn’t expect to have this young, pre-adolescent farm town kid from Illinois spoiling his evening at the opera--thankfully, he never complained. I remember him being very nice.

Oh, but one other important aspect to that evening..remember, it was June 17, 1972. At the very same time that I was “enjoying” that concert, a little nefarious activity was going on right next door at a pretty significant office complex called...The Watergate. Sometimes, I feel like my life is like that of Forrest Gump.

I only bring up these events to show how long I have been associated with this company and The Kennedy Center. I have sung over 30 productions in the D.C. area over these decades in hundreds of performances. One project, however, that has occupied so much of my time has been the preparation and presentation of Richard Wagner’s
“Ring off the Nibelung”. We started this project in 2003 with “Die Walküre” at Constitution Hall as the Opera House in the Kennedy Center was under renovation. It was an extremely interesting concept by Francesca Zambello that was magical to the artists and the audience. Because of the space, the orchestra, led by the late, GREAT, Heinz Fricke, was behind a scrim and behind the singers. We were thrust well into the audience, surrounded on all four sides by either opera patrons or musicians. It was magnificent and so very intimate. Placido Domingo played my son, Siegmund. Try having him die in your arms and not feel just a bit tinged by emotion. (We worked together, for the first time, with this company back in 1988.) It was decided during that run that Washington should attempt to complete an entire Ring production....exciting times lay ahead.

During that 2003 run, my wife and I were blessed to have our baby girl, Lydia arrive from South Korea. She arrived on a Thursday evening. Our family met her at the airport in Newark but then I had to drive directly back to D.C. for a performance the next night. Talk about a little “Leb Wohl”! I had another week of performances before I could get back home and spend time with my three boys and Lydia. I had a completely different outlook on singing Wotan now that I had a daughter.

In 2006, a new production of
“Das Rheingold” premiered. I was not in this initial run as I was already committed to Pizarro in “Fidelio” at The Met. The wonderful Robert Hale was the Wotan for that first installment of the Ring. I did, however, make it back for “Die Walkure” in 2007. Then, our project started to face some headwinds. “Siegfried” was delayed until 2009 (“Der Fliegende Holländer” filled its spot in 2008). And, because of financial difficulties facing the company as well as the country, Götterdämmerung, was presented in concert rather than in a full production. Still, those concerts were outstanding. They were also lead by our current wonderful Maestro, Philip Auguin. What an impression he has made on us all.

The Fall of 2009 was to be when the complete cycles were to be given for the first time. Unfortunately, the continued economic downturn cancelled those runs. When I first heard the news, I was devastated. We had poured so much into presenting these cycles that were not to be.

In 2011, the San Francisco Opera took up the charge and did present complete cycles--including a fully staged
Götterdämmerung. How I hated sitting on the east coast knowing they were doing “my” Ring!!! But, not all that long after that, we started hearing rumblings that perhaps complete cycles might actually occur in Washington. The big questions were when, where, and who. Would it be all new artists? Would it be at a time when I was still actively singing? Would I want to reserve so much time yet again and then perhaps not see it all come to fruition?

It was worth the wait. This past February, we all gathered to proceed with our journey. No two cycles are ever the same due to personnel, interpretation, dedication, execution, and so many other things. Many, who have been involved with the project for some time, returned. The rehearsal period was so rewarding and well handled. I don’t recall Ring Cycles ever coming together with less rancor. It has been a joy. I have been involved in something like 12-13 different Ring Cycles around the world. This one is VERY special.

And, three weeks ago, the task that inspired “Vollendet das ewige Werk” was accomplished here at The Kennedy Center with the Washington National Opera. Two Ring Cycles have now been completed and we are half way through #3. What a success it has been despite battles with allergies, injured sopranos (I’ve had four different Br
ünnhildes in the last four weeks due to cast changes and injuries). The audiences have been amazing in their attention and response. I’ve never heard such disciplined and receptive audiences. The orchestra playing has been beyond anything I’ve ever heard the Kennedy Center Orchestra achieve. The staging is compelling and meaningful. The singing? Gorgeous!!! It has been an honor to be a part of all this. A 13 year journey is almost complete.

And, how do I feel about that? Well, I have to say that saying “Leb wohl” is going to be difficult tomorrow night as I sing my last performance in the project. There will still be one more performance following my last
“Siegfried”---“Götterdämmerung” awaits on Sunday. By that time, I’ll be home in Kansas to celebrate my youngest son saying “Leb wohl” to his high school career. I will greatly miss my colleagues, this production, the staff, the orchestra, and everything about being a part of this incredible saga. It has been an amazing journey--a fulfilling and rewarding ride with the valkyries, dwarves, gods, and mortals. And it has been an honor to perform once again at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts--my operatic and theatrical home.

I always like to remember the words of John F. Kennedy that are engraved on the exterior west facing wall at the Kennedy Center. May they remembered, and treasured:

I am certain that after the dust of centuries
has passed over our cities,
we, too, will be remembered not for our victories or defeats
in battle or in politics,
but for our contribution to the
human spirit.