Alan's Blog...It's all Gesamtkunstwerk to me!

Thoughts from nearly 40 years on the professional stage

Parsifal in's not just for tuba players

In the “Stone Age” of my existence, nearly 40 years ago, I was a budding musician who never dreamed of being an opera singer. My musical training had been solely as a pianist and as a tuba player (the tuba, of course, being the King of Instruments---there are some who think of it more as the jester of bands--but what do they know?). I had wonderful teachers who trained me well and encouraged me so much in my early musical endeavors. Before I turned 13, I was a member of the Junior High School Band of America and toured with the band on a trip to Washington, D.C. This was a pretty major deal for a young boy from rural Illinois. It was very much an eye opening experience into the world outside of the comforts of corn fields and Little League baseball diamonds. I remember on that tour visiting the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to see a concert. Oh, how beautiful I thought that hall was. Never did I dream that in just a little over 15 years, I’d be appearing in performances in that very center (as well as in over 125 performances since then). An interesting side note---that very weekend, in June 1972, a little burglary was carried out next door to the Kennedy Center at a complex called “Watergate”. I swear, I had nothing to do with it--but I digress.

The tuba occupied a great deal of my time in the 1970s. I was a member of the Central Illinois Youth Symphony and attended several music festivals in the state as well while playing that big horn. Alternating playing the tuba with being active in sports kept me busy, to say the least. In the summer of 1974, I attended The Western Illinois University Summer Band Camp and was placed in the “Purple Band”, the most advanced band at the camp. I learned so much and enjoyed the repertoire that we played during that week. One piece, however, stands out in my memory. That selection was called “Procession of the Knights of the Holy Grail”. In that piece, I remember I had this wonderful quasi-obligato tuba solo. It was a majestic and stunning composition that contrasted so greatly with much of the other repertoire we played for the concert at the end of the week. It truly caught my attention.

My parents came on the final day of the music camp in order to hear the concert and to bring me home (I was only 14 at the time and still nearly two years away from terrorizing my fellow Illinois drivers). I can still, to this day, generally remember my Dad’s comments in the car on the way home. He talked of how that piece, “Procession of the Knights of the Holy Grail”, really “got to him”. He said he could just picture the knights walking in the days of Arthur or in some other mythological journey. I was always happy to know that music I played had a special impact on him or anyone else. I tucked that memory away and didn’t think much about it until....some time later.

As things developed in my music career, I became a Wagnerian baritone (otherwise known in German as a “Heldenbariton”---a “heroic baritone”---how convenient). My repertoire covers the epic works of Wagner and Strauss. I first started working on the opera “Parsifal” when I was asked to understudy (cover) the role of Amfortas for The Metropolitan Opera 1991-1992 season. In 2000, I sang it for the first time at the Kennedy Center in Washington and have also sung the opera in Munich in 2002. Those performances of the opera in Munich were the last time I sang the role of Amfortas in “Parsifal” until now. We open a new and interesting production here in Barcelona, Spain tonight.

Now, as Paul Harvey would have said, “The Rest of the Story”. I had no way of knowing back in 1974 when playing “Procession of the Knights” on the tuba that the music was really the powerful music of Richard Wagner adapted for concert band. It is the same incredible music played by the orchestra and sung by the Knights as they begin the “Grail Scene” in the opera “Parsifal”. I had no way of knowing that I would someday be singing the role of the anguished Amfortas, the head of the Knights of the Grail in this opera and, in Barcelona, which is only about an hour’s train ride away from Montserrat (the setting of this opera). I didn’t know how this story would touch me so much, just as it did my Dad way back in the 70s. And I didn’t know that the last performances of “Parsifal” that I sang before now, would be the last opera I would sing before my Dad passed away less than a month later in April of 2002. Less than three months after his passing, I was in Barcelona to sing “Tristan und Isolde” and went with friends to Montserrat ---what an incredible spiritual and artistic experience to visit this Benedictine Monastery tucked into a stunning rock formation. This music drama that is “Parsifal” is overwhelming--from it’s incredible score to it’s message of redemption, to the impact on all who hear it. Sometimes, it is very difficult to listen to the chorus scenes that are truly angelic. The over 5 hour experience spent with this masterpiece is nearly beyond description---I am so moved during each performance and I am thankful there are no more notes to sing after the last chord fades and the maestro rests his baton.

But shortly before those final chords, I sing a very moving portion of the opera that is a prayer--a prayer to Titurel, my father in the opera who has just passed away, to intercede for me to God for peace and rest. It is a touching and near paralyzing scene at times--perhaps even more heartfelt, for me here in Barcelona, as so many things come together in my journey on stage and in life.

And I will think, during this run, of each of these experiences that goes into making up any human but particularly a performing artist. We carry things around in us that come out at different times during our performances over the years. I will hold onto each bit of spiritual fulfillment, each bit of emotion, each incredible beat of music, and every memory of how a piece that featured the tuba touched my Dad--and touches so many others in its operatic form. This will all then be released through the notes and text of a Heldenbariton who is simply attempting to tell a story on stage and to once again continue the tradition of performance that Wagner lit in my heart nearly 40 years ago. Oh, I am blessed.

Here’s a link to our show here in Barcelona where you can see a few pictures and a short publicity video. It’s more of a tease than anything else but it will at least give you an idea of what it’s like.

Gran Teatre de Liceu - Barcelona: Detall Obra

One other thought---my youngest son was chosen this year to play in The Archdiocese of Philadelphia Junior High School Honor Band. They had their second rehearsal this weekend. What thrills await him as he discovers new music and sounds. Oh--and his instrument? Of course, the tuba.