Monday, November 26, 2007

Working With Raw Material

"Music is not about objects or owning things," explains director Peter Sellars, "and the beauty and profundity of music is that you can't touch it with the human hand. Although it takes a lot of human hands to make music, you can't own it. That's why music has this overwhelming spiritual dimension and is completely, metaphysically immaculate. Human fingerprints can't really touch it the way they can touch your CD box and, if you reduce music to your collection of records -- or to a material object that you own -- then you have betrayed its essence. Nobody owns music. But it takes a long time to figure that out when you've spent years with recordings of the best performances saying that 'So-and-so is better than this or that.' That's all irrelevant. It's not why those artists made those performances!"

One of the strangest aspects of music criticism is that, while most critics are required to review a tremendous amount of product (performances, recordings, books and videotapes) few are given the time or access to learn about the more important process of creating art. While an awful lot of back-seat driving goes on as people debate who should or should not have made a certain recording, been cast in a certain role or changed the phrasing in a particular bar of music, most of this criticism is analysis after the fact. As Brunnehilde remarks in the final scene of Wagner's Gotterdammerung, "All this is like children crying after spilled milk. I hear no cries of true lamentation."

Over the years I have slowly but steadily become more interested in learning and writing about the artistic process rather than adding to the flow of encapsulized reviews of mass-produced products which are marketed with relentless hype to the public. What has made most of my work so personally rewarding is that, instead of seeking vicarious thrills from reading second or third-hand reports about the people who make opera, I've been lucky enough to interact on a first-hand basis with such talents while receiving a tremendous education about the art form I love. At various times I've been taken to task by people who are horrified that, in the act of allowing myself to talk to singers, conductors, directors and arts administrators I have (in their minds) jeopardized all hopes of objectivity. Yet the business of this art form fascinates me. And what better way could there be to learn what makes an artist tick than to go directly to the source?

Most performers will tell you that the most interesting part of their work is the rehearsal process, when they get to stretch, explore, investigate and really delve into the music, the script and their souls. Lately I've been able to sit in on more and more rehearsals (an invaluable experience for anyone who writes about live performances) and, in the past year, have monitored several rehearsals for Philip Glass's The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, Michael Korie & Stewart Wallace's Where's Dick? and Jerome Kern's Show Boat. Most of these sessions involved the final stages of the production process, after most of the experimental work has been done and the fine tuning is being worked on. But without some knowledge of the intensely detailed work and drudge repetition required to polish any production, one can hardly appreciate the finished product.


During the summer months apprentice programs for opera singers are in full swing at places like Aspen, Santa Fe, Lake George, Chautauqua, Wolf Trap, Des Moines and, of course, the San Francisco Opera's Merola program. This year, I was invited to check out the apprentice program supervised by Colin Graham at Canada's Banff Center. Like many other training programs, Banff Center's opera curriculum is aimed at polishing young talents, teaching them how to be good colleagues and working to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Unlike the Merola, Santa Fe or Wolf Trap programs (where singers are constantly aware of agents and other forces in the music business who are watching their progress) the Banff program takes place far from a major center of civilization amidst the isolated grandeur of the Canadian Rockies. As a result, the emphasis for the students is on working, coaching and learning as much about their craft as possible in a fishbowl environment which, for a precious period of time, has been removed from the pressures of the musical marketplace. And, since the Banff Center is located in one of Canada's most beautiful national parks, it is perfectly natural to see an elk wander out of the forest and start devouring the flowers off the potted plants which sit in front of the theatre.

While I was visiting Banff in late July, the apprentices were preparing productions of Auber's Fra Diavolo (under the direction of Elizabeth Bachman) and Massenet's Cendrillon (directed by Colin Graham) with Stephen Lord acting as music director. Most of the singers were young, in remarkably healthy voice, and obviously trying to get a handle on their craft. There was a heavy contingent of singers from the Yale University School of Music and I bumped into a singer I met last summer when he was an apprentice at the Des Moines Metro Opera.


My schedule allowed me to attend several Cendrillon rehearsals which, considering that this production had been triple-cast, proved to be quite fascinating. The curious thing about this Cendrillon was the multi-media approach being tested by designer Neil Peter Jampolis. Using a series of projections on angled screens (which could be reflected into mylar mirrors) Jampolis created an incredibly fluid atmosphere which could embrace the fantasy elements of the Cinderella story without demanding too many physical props onstage. Although the technique requires much less money than traditional approaches (Banff's Cendrillon cost a fraction of the production seen at the San Francisco Opera in 1981) it is infinitely more flexible in the number of effects that can be created and the way it can be moved from one theater to another.

Some of the special effects and visual bleeds created by Jampolis for this production were quite stunning. But, technical rehearsals being what they are, the sequence often had to be interrupted to correct a misplaced slide, check angles, or reposition singers. Being able to sit behind Messrs. Graham and Jampolis as they worked to fine-tune their artistic product offered a rare opportunity to monitor the intense detail work that goes into any opera production. I recommend such experiences as time well spent to any and all professional colleagues.

Needless to say, the culture shock experienced after leaving the purity of Banff's intellectual and physical atmosphere to travel to New York (where I found myself trapped in Sixth Avenue gridlock on a hot, muggy afternoon as various men cursed and urinated in the street) helped to reinforce certain personal priorities.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 28, 1989.

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