Happy "World Opera Day"

Happy “World Opera Day”!!!

This is for me, indeed, a day to celebrate. Opera has been such a huge part of my life for so long. I am now in my 34th year as a professional opera singer. Tonight, in Montreal, I will sing another performance of my most offered opera, Beethoven’s “Fidelio”. And what a celebratory opera it is. This opera, known as a “rescue opera”, takes us out of our daily lives, into hardships, and then rescues us with some of the greatest expression of joy in all of the operatic canon. I never get tired of this piece and am thrilled to be a part of this extraordinary cast.

Today, also brought the release of a new CD. “Der Freisch
ütz” occupied so much of my schedule in 2018. Late in the year, a great cast assembled in Frankfurt to record the opera on the Pentatone label. What a great time that was (I blogged about this last November 25). It takes awhile for these recordings to be released...but, today is the day. Enjoy!!!

Finally, and I should have posted about this last month, I celebrated my 1,000th opera performance on September 27th on the stage of the Vienna State Opera as Jochanaan in “Salome”. I never would have dreamed I’d perform in this many performances...and, this doesn’t include all of the concerts and recitals in which I’ve been a part. I’ve been extremely blessed with a long career on stage. Opera singing is just one of my jobs...but, it is a job that is a treasure. Here’s to more great days of singing ahead!

Go out and enjoy an opera. It’s our day!!!

Back to the keyboard

Happy May Day!

I can’t believe it’s been nearly over 5 months since my last post. It’s time I got back to the keyboard.

My last post was from Frankfurt, Germany where I was active performing concerts and making a recording of “Der Freisch
ütz”. That recording won’t be released until later this year but I am excited to hear the results. The concerts went very well and were a lot of fun to complete.

The past several months have been busy on many fronts. As some of you know, I was named the Artistic Director at The Wichita Grand Opera this past January 2. This is a company with major financial issues but hopes of getting things back on the boards and moving towards the future. I have many plans for the company but the first item must be to get the house in order. More on that, hopefully soon.

The work at Wichita State University has been very time consuming but productive over the last few months. Academic work brings many challenges (many of them are unnecessary) but rewarding experiences as we see our students grow and become better singers and performers. I was so pleased with the presentation of our annual “Opera Scenes” program in February. And then, on a short amount of rehearsal, the students gave outstanding performances of our double bill, “L’enfant et les Sortil
èges/Gianni Schicchi”. Most of the roles were double cast. I was honored to serve as the director of these operas as well to have prepared the casts on their music.

I also performed one of my favorite works, the Beethoven 9th Symphony, with colleagues and the Wichita Symphony. This is the “home town band”. They played so well. It was a joy to serve as one of the four soloists along with two of my other faculty members at Wichita State and one of our students. Many of our other faculty members are members of this fine symphony orchestra. Singing this piece is always uplifting and a joy.

However, right now, I’m back out on the road as we are preparing “Tosca” with my favorite opera company, The Washington National Opera. I’ve written about my long relationship with this company (dating back to 1987) several times on my blog. My affection for this city is evident. My loyalty for the company has long been established. I basically began my career here and owe a great amount of gratitude to all those who have been so supportive to me (over so many administration changes).

Singing the role of Scarpia is always a great assignment (and a tough one). He is the ultimate bad guy...perhaps the most malevolent in all of opera. One has to learn that a flick of the eye brow can be just as intimidating as a large gesture of the hand. One has to learn to never try to “sound angry”...just let the colors of the music and what Puccini put on the page handle all of that. Sing technically even though the line may suggest getting off the voice. LISTEN!!! This is the most important tool for any opera singer...learn how to listen to your colleagues and to the story as it evolves. Don’t anticipate the story...let it unfold. And have a blast.

The coming months are going to be more hectic than I had planned. I had actually looked forward to an easy summer but things, as usual, have changed. I’ll be headed to Rome and Lucca, Italy, and then head to Miami, Florida and Sydney, Australia. I will also be planning and working on the operas for the coming season both on campus and in my own singing career. It seems that things just keep on rolling along...I have few complaints on that front. I don’t think I expected to still be singing after 33 years as a professional. But, I’m grateful that this is indeed the case. And on we go.

Balance---And I remember this place!

As I write this journal entry, I’m in Frankfurt, Germany for rehearsals, concerts, and a recording of “Der Freischütz”. Back in the 90’s, I spent a LOT of time in this Hessen city when I appeared often at the Oper Frankfurt. Here, I sang in productions of “Aus einem Totenhaus”, “Das Rheingold”, and “Don Giovanni”. I also sang on January 1, 1994, in my debut in Germany, the role of Faust in Robert Schumann’s “Szenen aus Goethes Faust” here in Frankfurt. And, later that year, I toured to Frankfurt with the Metropolitan Opera for a concert at the Alte Oper of Wagner Scenes.

However, I have not been back to the city (except for whizzing through the airport) in over two decades. Facing jet lag head on, I went for a long walk yesterday and repeated that same exercise today. I’m having the strangest sense of deja-vu. So much looks EXACTLY the same as over two decades ago...and so much is so very different. What is really interesting, is how certain feelings or observations seem at home.

When I first came here to sing at the end of 1993, my second son had just been born less than 3 weeks earlier. I had to fly here the day after Christmas. Leaving home was horribly difficult as my wife and young family were staying back in Connecticut (where we lived at the time) while I went to Europe for 2.5 months. Thankfully, they were to join me about six weeks later. But, I think this was the beginning of a very hard “face the music” period time of my life.

I wasn’t sure, at that time, how I’d ever be able to continue in this business with the strong desire to be with my family. I remember, during this time, that I started to set necessary timeline achievement goals. In other words, I put up artificial check points where I would need to reach certain goals or else decide that perhaps it wasn’t best for me to continue as a singer. There were many things I was interested in...singing was only one of them. Family was the most important item on the list.

As time progressed, a lot of successes came my way. Many of them were right here in Frankfurt. The Jancek production was haunting and sticks with me. A poster of that production still hangs on my wall of my studio at Wichita State University. The “Rheingold” was part of the re-creation of Ring Cycles we had done in Brussels a few years earlier...but worked SO much better here in Frankfurt. The “Don Giovanni” production was a major success and gave me a strong European foothold. Frankfurt, for a few years, became a base of opera production and a home away from home...although, it would never match being at home with the family.

Putting those check points into place was a good decision. Oper Frankfurt provided a lot of work during those days. It provided some stability. And, it was a special place as well since it was where my teacher in the States had worked for 20 years when he was a resident member of the opera company during his career. I just felt that this was a good place for me to learn my craft (even though I was already a decade into my singing career). So much of my career had buzzed by so fast. After my professional debut in 1986, I hadn’t had a lot of time to really stop and evaluate what I had going for me, what I’d done, what I was doing, and just where I wanted to go with this business.
I had already been singing at The Met since 1989. I had debuted in Chicago and San Francisco as well. Important engagement were just ahead of me at the Royal Opera House in London.

But where was I going? I didn’t want to be one of those singers that just bopped from house to house, city to city, and from airport to airport. I wanted to be a singer who could have the time to develop a real career of commitment to the dramatic and vocal production. And, I craved and needed balance. Without having what was important to me in balance with a career, I wouldn’t have been able to sing near the performances I was able to do. And, with a career taking over my life, I wouldn’t have been happy as a man. I wouldn’t have been the husband I could be or the father I knew I should be. Balance is important.

My first check point would come in the middle of 1997. I knew, that the time period of three years was an artificial barrier...but, I also knew it was a good amount of time to see whether I wanted to put a check point further into the career or whether, once I reached the middle of 1997, if I wanted to walk away from performing and find a new career. 1995 and 1996 came with some excellent success with a highly regarded debut at the ROH. They offered a great amount of work over the next few years. Some of those productions were successful...one wasn’t. The Bavarian State Opera in Munich offered a lot of work as well...all of that lead to one success there after another. And, The Metropolitan Opera kept offering work with larger and larger roles in the offing.

My repertoire, over those years, started to broaden as well. Roles became increasingly large as I moved more and more into the Heldenbariton repertoire. Wotans were sung in San Francisco. Amfortas debuted in Washington. Jochanaan sang forth in England. The Villains in Hoffmann seemed to pop up everywhere. But was I enjoying all this?

There was a time period in 1996 where I knew I just couldn’t continue. I worried about a lot of things and truly became homesick. I remember singing in Rio de Janeiro (Fidelio) and knowing that my health was being altered by all the stress (not to mention allergies). But, I didn’t need to worry about all that...I had a year before I needed to make decisions based upon the checkpoints not yet being reached. I, at least, had that freedom of thinking. However, each trip out the door brought a battle with “separation anxiety” that was strongly felt. My family was doing great...I just wanted to be with them all the time. My job wouldn’t allow that as I was spending more than half the year living out of a suitcase.

So, mid 1997 came and it was time to evaluate. I looked at the previous years, compared that to what was ahead in the next three years, consulted with my family, and then prayed. I needed guidance as to what my next steps would be. I trusted my agents to find the work (and there was much on the calendar well into the future). I trusted God far more to let me know if I should continue to travel and perform.

God gives answers. No, they aren’t always answers where you feel clobbered over the head. But, He gives guidance and situations that help you to see where you need to go. He has never guided me down the wrong path. He never would...or could. In the Fall of 1997, I felt that the path was clear. It was time to set up a new checkpoint a few years down the road. It was time to take the lessons learned in the previous 11 years of professional singing and apply them. It was time to pay forward any knowledge that I had gained and to help support younger artists in their journeys. I have had NUMEROUS colleagues who went through much the same indecision and worry that I had gone through...and, I knew I could help them out.

I also started to see more opportunities to share my passions. I sought out teaching opportunities in master classes and residencies. I gave more concerts rather than having to go away for such long time periods on opera commitments. My family travelled with me when they could and saw so many incredible things that remain in their memories.

The family grew as well...we were up to three children and a fourth arrived not all that many years later. It was possible to have the balance...it just needed to be worked for...and worked on diligently. Careers, of any kind, don’t just happen. They take shepherding and tending. They require vigilance and patience. They are never completely revealed to you at any one time. You have to set your checkpoints and evaluate often. But crave, covet, and seek balance. One can be the small town farm boy singing on the world’s stages as well as the family man that you were meant to be. One can be the teacher who shares what you’ve learned and experienced with the next generations of singers. One can be truly happy in this business, have roots, and new experiences with each engagement. One can bring their personal self to the audience...all of the lessons learned and all of the notes in his pocket...notes that have been burnished through decades of development.

Frankfurt is the city where I learned to set checkpoints. As I walked today, I saw so many of the street corners where I pondered just what was ahead. Oh, I won’t claim that I’ve figured anything out. But, I know, from returning to this great city, that I have no reason to fear any of the corners on my map. Find the street at the crossroad where you feel God is calling you...then go down it.

Catching up and Retiring

I’ve been so remiss in getting posts made to this journal but am happy to take a bit of time tonight to catch everyone up on what’s been happening over the last few months. Perhaps I got a bit fatigued with the hectic Spring and early Summer. Perhaps I just got a bit lazy when things calmed down. Most of all, I’m grateful that my favorite “nudge” in Chicago has said, “Hey, it’s been awhile since you made a post to your online journal”. Thanks, T-Rex.

So, here goes...

Since I last wrote, I’ve had performances in Vienna, Miami, and just outside Washington, D.C. (Wolf Trap). So much travel has occurred but I’ve been very happy to have had the last few months mostly at home as I’ve been teaching and directing at Wichita State. We have an outstanding group of students this year. And, on top of that, our enrollment has skyrocketed--especially in the Opera Program. Next week, we will open “Street Scene” in a semi-staged performance. What a wonderful piece...full of heart, humor, drama, and real life. The piece, although written in 1946, is as relevant now as it was all those many decades ago.

Lots of travel is coming over the next month or so. Lots of challenges await. But, I know that I wouldn’t be where I am in my career without the influence of a lot of people. I’d like to mention some incredible influences who have greatly touched me. Last week, I travelled to New Haven, CT, where I’ve travelled nearly every year since 2002, to once again present a master class and to give private coaching sessions to the students at Yale Opera. During this entire time period (and for so many years before), Yale Opera has been Directed by Doris Yarick-Cross. Her husband, Richard, has been on the voice faculty during this time and has been my own voice teacher for over 30 years. During my trip to Connecticut last week, it was announced to me that they have decided to retire. This is an end of an era at Yale. The lives they have touched, the singers they have guided, the influence they have had on so many (and upon the opera world)....there is no way to measure it all. There support has been felt in so many ways. Their knowledge has been passed along. And their spirit will always fill the halls of this great institution. I am most grateful and send them my deepest thanks...and so much love.

Another great influence has also decided to retire. Kim Pensinger-Witman has decided to retire from her position as Vice President of Opera and Classical Programming at Wolf Trap. Kim came to Wolf Trap shortly before my arrival there in 1987. She started as a coach/accompanist and worked her up to be one of the most important women in the opera business. She has nurtured so many careers. She has discovered and fostered talent. She has accompanied me in recital and encouraged my career for a very long time. I am grateful for all she has given to this business, the long hours she has sacrificed, and the incredible work she has done.

These are giants who are retiring. Their shoes will be hard to fill. There is so much talent on the horizon. May we always have people who are willing to shape and encourage that talent and continue to bring beauty to our world.

Busiest months of my career

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the past couple of months have been the most busy of my career. Holding down multiple jobs (singer, teacher, director, guest clinician) can sometimes all come together at one time to make an overwhelming experience. However, all has come out well on the other side. Over the last several weeks, I directed “Le Nozze di Figaro” in a very fine production, with outstanding young singing actors, at Wichita State University. In the very same week that we were finishing the rehearsals and opening that run of performances, I was commuting daily back and forth between Wichita and Cleveland where I was singing Kurwenal in “Tristan und Isolde” with the amazing Cleveland Orchestra. They are truly one of the world’s greatest orchestras. What great performances those evenings brought!!!

At the same time I was handling all of those duties, I was learning a new opera (to me). “Der Freisch
ütz” has now brought me to Vienna where we are well into our second week of rehearsals. I am playing the role of the another bad guy, Kaspar. So far, this looks to be a VERY interesting production. But, learning a new opera on top of everything else was taxing on the mind. It’s nice, now, to be able to concentrate only one hat that I’m wearing rather than juggling three at once.

I love being in Vienna. It is such a beautiful and historic city. Culture abounds on nearly every corner. The only drawback is that the pollen is horrendous at this time of year, but,
This too shall pass. I have never been one who has needed a lot of time off each year. Keeping busy has never been a problem. However, I do have to admit that I’m looking forward to a little rest and relaxation with my family this summer. After the past few months, it will be most welcome.