Monday
Dec082014

An Exclusive Interview With The Man Now In Charge Of Reviving New York City Opera

Exclusive Interview With The Man Now In Charge of Reviving New York City Opera

On Friday, an article in the New York Times announced that the Board of the currently defunct New York City Opera had decided to sell its remaining assets to one of the various investor groups who had been vying for the right to revive the company. Working under the radar for the past year, asset manager and former board member Roy Niederhoffer, after pledging $1 million of his own money and raising a total of over $2.5 million to date, has now won the right (pending court approval) to revive and reinvent the company we all thought had left us forever.

I first met Roy when we both played on the New York City Opera league softball team, the Baroque-n-Bats (Yes, we had one. Yes, I was terrible--he was pretty good). Because opera board members don’t generally don funky blue uniforms and slide into 3rd base with the staff and artists, I could tell Roy was not a typical “money guy.” So when he contacted me nearly a year ago with his plan to revive New York City Opera, I was thrilled at the potential. With this recent announcement that his group, aptly titled NYCO Renaissance, will now take on the challenging but exciting task of reviving the beloved New York institution, I thought it was time for everyone to learn a little bit more about this dedicated philanthropist’s plans.

I conducted an interview him over the weekend via email and phone, asking some of the burning questions I have about the next chapter in the life of the company that started my career:

Jennifer Rivera: Can you tell everyone a little about you?

Roy Niederhoffer: I am a 48-year-old New York City investment manager and philanthropist, and for decades I have been a strong supporter and fan of City Opera. I served on the Board of the opera until recently, and I have had the pleasure of getting to know well the staff, management, and artists over the years. I live on the Upper West Side, and in my spare time I play violin in the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony and spend a lot of time with my wife and four kids.

When City Opera declared bankruptcy in 2013, I was hoping a white knight would arrive with a well-thought-out, financially and artistically sound plan to revive the company. None surfaced. But in late 2013, I received a call from Michael Capasso, the founder and General Director of the Dicapo Opera, who for 30 years has been an innovative impresario and producer. He sketched out a plan to not only revive the company, but to return it to its historic home – Lincoln Center – and do it in an efficient, entrepreneurial manner.

I realized that in order to succeed, Michael’s artistic and production vision and decades of experience must be combined with a strong business team and a solid financial foundation. I made a seven-digit pledge to this effort, and agreed to lead it. For the last year, Michael and I and our staff and Board have been working closely with the Board of the former City Opera to create an exciting and well-structured revival plan. In addition to opera presentations, our plan includes broad education programming, the return of the VOX contemporary opera festival and many other exciting components.

JR: Your plans mention a return to Lincoln Center as well as producing some operas in the smaller Dicapo Opera Theater on the East Side. Can you tell us about the Lincoln Center venue?

RN: Our first performance is already planned at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the technologically state-of-the-art 1100-seat venue in the Time Warner Center. This theater -- which many don’t even know exists and most have never seen in a “proscenium” configuration -- is perfectly suited for opera. It has a huge orchestra pit, wings, fly space, lots of dressing rooms, and excellent acoustics. And audiences will be able to take advantage of the many amenities: restaurants, bars, shopping, the Mandarin hotel, and fantastic transportation options.

JR: Can you tell us more about Michael Capasso (who has been named General Director) as well as addressing the fact that Dicapo Opera, his previous company, had its own financial difficulties?

RN: Like so many other opera companies, Dicapo Opera faced enormous financial pressure following the economic downturn of 2008. After more than 25 years in which the company grew and thrived, gaining worldwide recognition and spectacular notices from the press, the economic downturn had a pronounced impact of the financial health of the company.

However, unlike many opera companies, Dicapo did not declare bankruptcy. In fact, in 2014 it produced several fully staged touring productions at the 2200-seat Tilles Center and extensive educational opera programming for thousands of children. After negotiation of a delayed payment plan, Local 802, one of Dicapo’s largest creditors, continued to perform for Dicapo as recently as November 2014 and wrote a strong letter of support for Michael and NYCO Renaissance.

JR:  Can you explain Michael Capasso’s role at City Opera in more detail?

RN: Michael’s responsibilities at NYCO will be to oversee the day-to-day operations of the organization and oversee with the eminent directors, conductors, designers and staff that will create, produce and perform our shows. Michael’s decades of hands-on experience with every facet of opera production from the details of set construction to the mechanics of profitable international opera touring will be an enormous asset to our company.

NYCO will be a collaborative effort, not a one-man show, and Michael will report directly to the Board of Directors. The strategy, business and financial side will be managed by the Board, and that’s been a large part of our efforts so far. We also have engaged a development and marketing team.

JR:  So just to be clear, this isn't a merger with or continuation of Dicapo?

RN:  Not at all. Dicapo is being wound down.

JR:  Do you have pending agreements with the local 802? What about AGMA? Do you plan on using any of the former staff or artists from the previous New York City Opera?

RN: I am able to say that we have an excellent five-year agreement in place with Local 802 (the City Opera orchestra), who have been our partners in this process the entire way. Some former City Opera staff are already working with the new company on a consulting basis, such as former NYCO (and current Glyndebourne) dramaturge Cori Ellison who has been instrumental in helping us craft our artistic plans. We’ll definitely keep you posted on further relationships as we get closer to our first performance.

JR:  How will this time be different from before, when the company was on shaky ground for years leading up to the bankruptcy?

RN: We will combine an exciting artistic plan with sound business practices, have a much higher percentage earned income, and require far less outside fundraising than the prior company did. Making the company financially successful, revitalizing and retaining the opera audience, and engaging financial supporters will only come through striking a balance between novelty and nostalgia, between innovation and tradition. During its most successful years, NYCO continually broke new ground with innovative productions and new repertoire while at the same time presenting compelling versions of the standard repertoire, all in an attractive, consistent venue and at affordable ticket prices. We plan to do exactly this – in a new venue that audiences will love. New York City Opera should be a place where people go to learn to love opera. And it will thrive if this is the case.

                                                      ******************

I, for one, am very excited about this new development and the resurgence of a company that I feared was gone forever. And I’m very glad that there are philanthropists who, despite the tenuous nature of the arts in our culture at the moment, are still willing to play ball with us artists, both literally and figuratively. To read the full press release and see more about their effort, and to join in the discussion and participate, you can visit their website at www.nycorenaissance.com . 

Wednesday
Jul102013

Can Operatic Zombies Cause You To Question Your Life Choices?

(this post was published on the Huffington Post)

I've written several articles that were apparently controversial about why Opera doesn't suck. Lately, there have been a lot of people posting things about how opera singers are hot now, so shut up about them only being fat and boring, but that's all been said and done. No, I want to talk to you about how you're wasting your $12.50 going to see Tom Hanks talk to a volleyball (okay, that is a really old reference to Castaway but I still want my money back) when there is this art form out there that you might think is totally bogus, but could actually change your life.

Yes, I'm biased. I'm an opera singer, so of course I think you should like it. If I were a golfer I would tell you that you should like golf, but then again I probably wouldn't need to because there are enough people out there who are obsessed with golf, and they frankly don't need your pity. Opera is a different story. It gets such a bad rap in this country that people constantly use it as the butt of jokes. Like how to torture your husband or how to break glass or how to be so bored you want to kill yourself. But then people will buy self help books like The Secret in the billions in order to try to find some sort of transformative experience in their lives (full disclosure; I totally bought The Secret when it came out and thought it was awesome until I realized it was not going to make me a million dollars after all).

So here's what prompted me to write this article at this moment. Right now, I'm spending the summer at Central City Opera in Colorado singing in an opera called The Barber of Seville. You know, Figaro, Figaro, FEEE-GAAA-ROOOO (think Bugs Bunny). The Barber of Seville is like the Golf of the operatic cannon -- it doesn't need you to like it because anyone who knows boo about opera has heard of it and most regular opera goers will flock to it anywhere it's playing. I mean, it's a masterpiece, so there's that, but we don't NEED you to come to our production. You can if you want, it's super funny and I'm wearing old timey underwear, but The Barber of Seville will continue to thrive whether or not you, oh Huffington Post reader, come see it.

But here in Central City, they are also producing another opera this summer; Our Town, composed by Ned Rorem, which is based on the Thornton Wilder play by the same name. And Our Town, like many operas that have been composed in the last century or so, is more like the Chess Boxing (yes, it exists, google it) of opera. The general complaint about opera is that regular people just won't "get it" and that's probably because they think opera is only from the olden days and only in foreign languages. That's not actually a legitimate excuse, but that's a whole other article. In the meantime, there's a whole bunch of operas that were written by American composers during the past generation that opera companies are afraid to produce because they fear nobody will want to see them. It's really a catch 22 situation -- without modern works that modern audiences can relate to directly, the art form suffers, but the opera companies have to sell tickets, and many regular opera goers just want to see the classics. Central City Opera, however, isn't afraid, and produces modern American operas very frequently.

But (as usual), I digress. Since I'm here at the festival, I had the good fortune to see a performance of Our Town. You may or may not know the play, or you may have just heard a monologue recited from it in your 8th grade drama class (hint; if you've heard of Grover's Corners, you've probably heard said monologue). For those of you who don't know the play, I'll give you a brief rundown of the events. Act One: Boy Next Door and Girl Next Door fall in love. Act Two: They get married. Act Three: She dies and comes back as a zombie only to realize that people just aren't capable of appreciating how amazing every moment in life is while they're living it. Okay, she's not exactly a zombie, she's just a dead person who talks to other dead people, but I really wanted to include the word zombie in the title of my article. What can I say; Zombies sell.

Anyway, I was sitting through the opera and really enjoying everything about it. I was appreciating the things about the play that moved me; the representation of love both young and old, the simplicity of life in a small town at the turn of the century, and of course the idea that we cannot comprehend all the magic that is contained in every single person's regular life every day. So why not just go to a play or watch the movie version of the play on Netflix and be done with it?

Well, there's something kind of indescribable about having these themes set to music, and not only acted but sung both purely and thrillingly by a group of incredibly well trained singers. Yes, these themes are relevant and moving to anyone who is alive, but seeing them enacted by voices that soar directly to your ears with no filter (because opera voices are totally unamplified) pulls on your emotions in ways you didn't realize were possible. When you hear Emily, the main character, talk about all the things she will miss about being alive as spoken text, it certainly moves you to think about those things in your own life. But when you hear her sing that speech, the agony and ecstasy of life seem to pour out of her soul and directly into yours. Yes, maybe I'm a little soft because I have a six month old baby, and maybe I'm more attuned to beautiful singing because I studied it my whole life, but emotions are emotions, and I believe that the unamplified singing voice can move a person in a way nothing else can. I'm not going to lie to you, I cried harder than my little baby does when I try to feed him green vegetables.

The singer cast as Emily in the production here in Central City happens to be a well-known and absolutely stunning soprano by the name of Anna Christy. The production is perfectly conceived with the simplicity of small town life bursting out into the cozy historical Central City Opera House. The singers are all first class singing actors and the orchestra plays beautifully and precisely. But none of these are reasons why you should see the production. You should see it because the combination of all the elements will remind you in the deepest recesses of your heart that life is precious and fleeting, and we need to experience it as deeply as we possibly can. And how can we access that immediacy of appreciating all life has to offer? Through art.

You see what I did there?

So even if you aren't near Colorado, just try to see an opera. It 's not Golf or even Chess Boxing, and it almost certainly won't have zombies. But it will probably make you feel something. And that's worth way more than $12.50. (Tickets to Central City Opera start at $20 and are available for all performances).

Saturday
Jun222013

It's been more than awhile

So......yeah. Blogging. I kind of dropped the ball there, eh folks? I mean, I didn't even write a single entry to tell you what it was like being a singer and a mom after my first gig. I am now into tech week of my second gig (Barber of Seville with Central City Opera), the baby is napping (for now) and I'm finally getting around to writing something. So that should tell you a little something about how much free time you have once you have a baby and you go back go work. 

My first gig back was a revival of Agrippina in Berlin at the Staatsoper, beginning when Jackson three and a half months old. The hardest part about it was probably the fact that it was in another country, which meant a lot more complications with a baby than a domestic gig would have posed. Even though I felt like I had very little time to prepare vocally, my voice, miraculously was fine. The biggest problem with my singing was the lack of sleep, because once we changed time zones by six hours, Jax's clock got all messed up and he woke up every two hours all night long for the entire time we were in Europe. And since I'm breastfeeding him, I was the one who had to get up with him for all those wakings. Plus I traveled to Europe with 18 bags of frozen breast milk that I had laboriously pumped in the middle of the night leading up to the trip, and they all spoiled once we got there because the freezer wasn't cold enough, making my pumping and feeding him when I went to rehearsal more stressful than it already was going to be. It was interesting however, I have to say, discovering that after all these years of being absolutely crazy about making sure I got enough sleep, I could still function and perform well even on very little sleep. I'm not saying it wasn't difficult, and that I didn't feel like taking a nap in the middle of my arias sometimes, but I managed. It was almost like a natural beta blocker - the fatigue combined with the adrenaline of performance kind of balanced out. 

We had three performances in Berlin and then a concert performance in Paris. My mom came with me to Berlin, and then at the end my husband met us there and came with us to Paris. It was very interesting doing this job that had always previously been the most important thing in my life when there was now something else that was far more important. In some ways it made singing easier because I felt less neurotic about it. If I didn't get the applause I wanted, I would forget about it immediately when I would go home and play with my baby. However, singing requires a great deal from a person, and I definitely found that finding the focus and energy you need to perform is much more challenging when there is a person who depends on you to keep him alive. 

Now that I'm on my second gig, I can say that in some ways it definitely gets easier as the baby gets older. First of all, you become more confident as a mother, a job which you began as a complete amateur. After years of striving to be the absolute best at your job, becoming a parent and having no idea what you're doing is a strange experience. Now that he's a little older, it has become much easier and more manageable, and I'm better at focusing at what I'm doing in rehearsal (although I must admit that the first week of rehearsals here in Colorado I was far more discombobulated than I ever was as a non-mommy. Plus the altitude and the lack of humidity combined with the breast feeding and the lack of sleep (with this time change Jackson is now waking up at 5:30 AM every morning) was making singing more of a challenge than I ever recall it being). But it's seeming more and more possible to be a good singer and a good mother. I do, however, have a better support system than most people in that BOTH of my parents are here with me all summer long, not only looking after my baby when I'm at rehearsal, but also taking care of ME. My hat is off to anyone who does it without a LOT of help - that, to me, would be impossible. 

So, now I have to go because my baby will wake up any minute. I need to feed him, feed myself, warm up, and go to our first sitzprobe, come home, eat dinner, give the baby his bath, nurse him to sleep, and then go to a tech rehearsal. But I'm going to make an effort to keep you more informed as we go along!

Wednesday
Feb202013

And baby makes three (or four if you include Max the cat)

Hmmm.... let's see - what could have happened between now and November 4th (my last post) that prevented me from blogging? I guess the suspense of this first sentence was probably ruined by the title of this post, so I'll get right to it. I HAD A BABY! 

Here's the birth story for those of you who like these kinds of things. My baby's due date was always December 25th, which we thought was kind of neat, but hoped wouldn't happen so we wouldn't have to name him Jesus and put his all his birthday presents under the Christmas tree for his entire life. Apparently he agreed, because he waited until 1 AM on December 26th - an hour after I'd gone to bed on Christmas night - to kick hard enough to cause my water to break. What actually happened is that Michael came into the room and woke me up because he wanted to play me the most recent edition of the podcast "White Dad Problems" on which he had appeared as a guest. It's a group of very funny Dads, so Michael fits right in, and as he was playing me his part of the podcast where he talked about our birth plans, my water broke. Very apropos. 

I should back up a bit here and say that I had intended to have a completely natural, drug free childbirth. I went to extreme lengths in order to do this because it was important to me for a variety of reasons. Michael and I took a natural childbirth class called the Bradley Method every sunday for 3 hours for 8 weeks in order to prepare ourselves. I decided not to give birth in the hospitals here in Manhattan and instead found a hollistic birthing center attached to a hospital in Rhinebeck, up near where my parents live. I read books, did yoga for my entire pregnancy, and spent the last month of my pregnancy either traveling up to Rhinebeck weekly to have my appointments with the midwives, or living at my parents house for the last two weeks waiting for the baby's arrival. One of the reasons I was so adamant about having a natural birth in a hollistic place is that hospitals in Manhattan are known to have very high rates of Cesarian sections because they don't have time to let women go through long labors, and because they don't want to get sued, so they choose to just get the baby out quickly. And I really didn't want a C section. 

So here we were in the Hudson Valley for Christmas, and my water broke. If you've watched movies, you would probably assume we would dash off to the hospital, but actually if you are having a natural birth, you just wait until labor starts naturually, which can sometimes take 24 - 48 hours. Again, the hospitals and doctors don't want you to do that, because they are worried about complications, but the midwives believe it will be just fine. We went in and got checked by the midwife at about 3 PM the next day, after I'd been having sporadic contractions since the water breaking, but they weren't consistent yet, so we went back to my parent's house. Then as soon as we got there, the contractions came on hard and strong, so we went back to the birthing center and when we arrived, I was already at 8 centimeters dilated. For those of you who might not know, that's really dilated. Most women arrive at the hospital when they are 3 - 5 centimeters, and you're done at 10, so I was really in labor. 

I quickly reached 10 centimeters, and I labored, unmedicated until about 2 in the morning. In fact, from about 10 PM til about 2 AM, I was completely dilated and was pushing. Finally, after no movement during those 4 hours, a doctor was consulted, and it was determined that I needed a C section. After 24 hours of Natural Childbirth classes, I couldn't really miss the irony, even amidst drug-free contractions.  I did all that preparation and then all that labor and then a C section??? But the baby's head was stuck in my pelvis and wouldn't budge. Sometimes C sections are very necessary, and this was one of those times. Childbirth is kind of like performances - you can prepare all you want, but what happens in the moment is what happens in the moment. So after 23 hours of unmedicated labor, I was rolled into the operating room and out he came at 2:40 AM on December 27th, perfectly healthy at 8 pounds, 3 ounces, 21 inches, and looking just like his Dad. We named him Jackson Collins Rice and he is without a doubt, the single cutest baby ever to be born. I mean, I guess I'm a little biased, but I've included pictures below so you can judge for yourselves. 

I really hope to keep blogging about my life as a singer, especially about what it's like to sing, travel and have a child. In fact today we have to hop on over to the post office to apply for his passport. I will do my best to keep up my blogging duties as we navigate this whole new world, however, I do ask you to bear in mind that having a child is sort of time consuming. Especially my child, who a few days short of his 8 week birthday is already in the 95th percentile for height and weight, which means he eats  A LOT and keeps me very occupied. I go back to work in April when I return to Berlin for a revival of Agrippina with baby and my mom in tow. I will do my best to keep you posted. In the meantime, here are those photos I promised.

 

Sunday
Nov042012

Voting

There are a couple of elections I would like to let you know are happening. First there's a little tiny thing called the presidential election. I know I have a lot of international blog readers, but if any of you American citizens haven't seen my editorial in the Huffington Post, please read, digest, and hopefully vote accordingly. 

But I wouldn't be me if I was ONLY telling you who you should vote for in the presidential election. There is another election going on almost simultaneously, and it's also very important to me that you vote for my candidate in that election. It is the Podcast Awards - and guess who is nominated? That's right, my dear husband for his podcast OperaNow! So please click the link for the Podcast Awards, find the Culture / Arts catergory, select OperaNow!, and scroll down and give them your name, email, and click submit. Michael's podcast is the only one of it's kind, and he has been doing it for the benefit of all you opera fans for years now, totally for free and out of his passion for the subject matter. I would love to see he and his co-hosts rewarded for their effort week after week to give you guys something of quality and with humor and intelligence. And best of all, you can vote once per day, every day, until the voting closes on November 15th. Let's bring this baby home!! 

Oh - and in case you are wondering about me; I am very pregnant. I'm in Nashville at the moment, still working, and rolling my big basketball belly around the stage. Even though it's getting to be more of a challenge (I'm over 8 months pregnant at this point) I'm actually very grateful to still have the opportunity to work, and luckily this particular production doesn't require me to run all over the stage or swing any swords. After the performances in a week, I get to go home and just hang around while I wait for the big operababy's entrance in December. Wish me luck - for all of it! 

Now go exercise your right to vote - for my husband. And also, you know, for that other guy, whose hair may be a lot grayer than four years ago, but who I still believe in. 

Monday
Sep242012

Remember me?

2012 has been a bizarre year for blogging. First I was all gung-ho about it because I entered that blogging competition and it got my creative writing juices flowing. But the week I won that competition was also the week I found out I was pregnant. And when you first find out you're pregnant, you're just waiting around to see if everything will be okay with the pregnancy, and you can't tell anybody that you're pregnant, so you almost don't feel like telling anybody anything (if you're me anyway - I tend to say everything or nothing, that's just my style). And then I went off to Innsbruck, and managed to eek out one measly blog post, which really only happened, I admit, because Innsbruck asked me to write something for their newsletter, which I also repurposed as a blog entry. And then I came back from Innsbruck and I got married (!!!). And now I'm about to start rehearsals for a fundraiser production for the Gotham Chamber Opera which will perform next week at Le Poisson Rouge here in New York, before heading off to Nashville to perform a modern opera called "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.". And here we are. 

I've gone through periods where I literally blogged every day, and then we have 2012, where I wrote 4 blog posts that I worked very carefully on, a few after that, and then basically nada. It's partially because I sort of tend to become fascinated with one thing at at time, and everything else falls by the wayside. I think I talked about this tendency of mine before in another blog post, but it's been so long, I can't even remember. And the thing I'm pretty fascinated with these days is the fact that my personal life has been changing at warp speed, and how that is affecting the life I've known for all these years previous. It's funny how being pregnant is one of those things that happens to other people, and you think "Oh wow, how fun - good for them!" but when it happens to you it's like "OOOOOOHHHHHH MMMMMMYYYYYY GOOOODDDDDDD THIS IS THE MOST ENORMOUS THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED TO ANY HUMAN ON EARTH!!" And that's before the baby is even born! Or again, maybe that's just me. But regardless, I've been focused on this REALLY BIG DEAL, to the peril, I'm afraid, of my writing hobby. 

But yesterday my father-in-law (oh yes, I have one of those now (BIG DEAL BIG DEAL BIG DEAL!!!)) asked me when I was going to start blogging again and I had that realization that I've written about 7 blog posts this whole year, and it's really not adequate. So since my new husband is going back to recording his podcast OperaNow! tonight, after a summer hiatus, I figured today would be a good day to get back to my old friend, The Blog, and say hello to all of you and tell you what's been going on. 

Innsbruck actually came and went so quickly! I thought a lot about what it would be like to do such a large and demanding role while I had this BIG DEAL going on inside my belly, but in the end, it was actually no big deal. I mean, the show was a fantastic experience, a terrific production and a chance to learn a score that has been totally ignored, but should be heard by a lot more people. I had really nothing but good feelings about the entire experience, and aside from the costume team, who managed some remarkable feats of completely hiding my baby bump without putting me in mumus, it was just not a big deal that I was pregnant. I mean, people were nice to me about it, making sure I wasn't getting too tired, and doing thoughtful things like bringing me chocolate bars, but it really didn't affect my singing at all, nor did I have to modify any of my staging. And then I read this blog post by Susanne Mentzer (which I believe was inspired by her learning that I was pregnant) and realized that while I was sitting around contemplating what a big deal this all was, she had, in her 9 months of pregnancy, quietly been singing a gazillion operas at every major opera house around the world - and this was at a time before the internet, when she couldn't even call her mother on skype every day to ask her things like "is it normal that I fell asleep on a set piece today in the middle of rehearsal while there was a tenor singing 3 feet from me?" So in the end maybe it is just me that makes this all into a REALLY BIG DEAL, when actually, it's just a part of life. 

Michael, my husband (yup, I got to work calling him that into the blog post not once, but twice) says that my voice actually sounds better than ever since I've been pregnant. I talked to a good friend of mine who is also a voice teacher, and he told me that especially for skinny girls, he often sees a nice increase in vocal heft or a richness of tone when they get pregnant because the baby actually gives them the same feeling that a layer of fat can give other singers and allows them to support better. He told me that as long as I pay attention to why it's different I should have no trouble keeping that feeling even after the baby has made his escape and I don't have him to push on my diaphram any longer. I also think that for me personally, because I'm such an energetic (read; hyper) person, having the baby in my belly keeps me grounded in a way that is also very good for my support and my singing. So I've been enjoying the fact that I have had reasons to keep singing through my pregnancy. However, I had an audition the other day, and finding a dress that still fit me is starting to become a bit of a challenge. Plus my natural tendency to make bad jokes in odd situations came flying out when I entered the audition room and tapped my belly, saying "just ignore this and pretend I'm a boy." I think the guy listening to me was far enough away from me that he probably couldn't even see what I was pointing at and thought I was asking him to ignore the fact that I'd had a big lunch or something. He just looked perplexed. 

So the baby is due in the end of December, and then I have about two and a half months before I go back to work. And my first gig back is in, of all places, Berlin. And I'm singing, of all roles, Nerone in Agrippina, so I have to fit into those skin tight Christian LaCroix leggings that make up one of my beautiful costumes in that production. All this while caring for a 3 month old infant, who may or may not decide he enjoys sleeping at night. And again, I find myself contemplating what a BIG DEAL this is going to be. But I should probably just take a page out of Susanne Mentzer's book, and realize that a LOT of women before me and around me have done this and are doing this and somehow, no one has keeled over from the shock of what a BIG DEAL it all is. They just go from breast pumps to downbeats and get on with it. And so shall I.

I just may be the person looking over my shoulder and saying "I'm DOING it!! Can you believe I'm DOING THIS!!!??" I mean you can't un-become a drama queen overnight, right?

Photo credit: Jennifer Strader

Thursday
Jul262012

The Perils of being a Preggo Performer

Everyone knows that when you get pregnant, you need to take your vitamins, get lots of sleep, and take care not to overexert yourself. But what if your job requires you to fly to another country, acclimate to a different time zone and a totally different environment, eat completely different foods, and run around wielding a sword, or fall to the ground, swooning, all while wearing a corset? Well - then you just do it. 

I found out in March that I was pregnant. It was thrilling news - but of course, required a good deal of planning. Would this or that company care if I was pregnant? How soon after giving birth could I safely go back to work? Who would travel with me and the baby to my engagements? But first - what would it be like to run around the stage with another being inside of me???

I was very lucky that my first major opera engagement into the pregnancy was here in Innsbruck for a couple of reasons. First, the festival was extremely supportive and accommodating about any adjustments that would need to be made (mostly in the costuming, although possibly in the staging - there was no way to know ahead of time). And I was also lucky that the role I was singing was a female role. Since I spend a great deal of my career singing trouser roles, I was very fortunate that I wasn't required to jump around the stage and roll around on the ground wearing short pants while pregnant. Playing a woman meant that it would be easier to hide the pregnancy in the costume, and that the role would likely be less demanding physically - or so I thought. 

Then I began to discover the role of Stellidaura in Francisco Provenzale's underperformed gem La Stellidaura Vendicante, and realized that this was no ordinary female role. Instead of pining away for her lover or dying of consumption, Stellidaura takes matters into her own hands - literally - and grabs the first sword she can find in an attempt to avenge her wounded lover. And she doesn't stop there - in the third act, she dresses up as a man and attempts to murder her rival, is put in jail and sentenced to death, and takes a poison and is presumed dead. All while singing 10 arias and 2 duets. So much for sitting around in a loose dress and clutching my breast. 

Luckily, all that time spent playing boys has prepared me for pretty much anything physically. As a performer, I like to feel that I am completely free of physical limitations, and I even usually request that directors put me in strange positions like lying on the floor or draping myself over the set while I'm singing my arias. Of course, carrying this little guy around in my belly means I have to be a bit more careful, and I can't fling myself around with my usual abandon, but I've been very pleased to discover that it hasn't hindered my movement too much at all. I can still burst out of the door brandishing a sword and swing it around, and my little bundle of joy on the inside doesn't seem to mind at all. The only thing I can't do is lay on my stomach - and if you can't imagine an opera singer laying on her stomach while singing, you'll just have to trust me when I tell you it seems to happen to me. Frequently. But thankfully, not this time.

I'm also very lucky that this production happened to fall in the stage of the pregnancy that it did. I am currently in my second trimester, which is the best part of the pregnancy. I have passed the nausea and horrible fatigue from the first 14 weeks (and since I had several concerts and recitals during that time, and almost passed out once in a rehearsal from nausea, I can tell you that singing a demanding operatic role during that time would have been something of a challenge), but haven't yet reached the swollen ankles and difficulty getting around phase. And although my belly has grown, and I have noticed a few concerned glances from the costumer at it's ever expanding size, it is still luckily small enough that we can cover it with costumes and no one will know that I'm carrying a passenger for all the performances. Except of course, for all of you. 

And how does this opera baby feel about all this singing I'm doing? So far, he doesn't seem to mind. And my voice feels better than ever. He might even be helping me with my diaphragmatic support! And I have to say, I think this little baby is quite lucky to get the chance to hear this sublime score day after day in his formative days. Not that many people in the world have even had the opportunity to hear Stellidaura, as it has inexplicably been ignored from the repertoire, and my son will practically have it memorized when he finally makes his appearance in December. I have a feeling that the beautiful lullaby-like aria at the end of the second Act is something I will be able to sing to him in his cradle, and his memory of the music will soothe him and remind him of his time "on the inside." 

Or maybe it will turn out that he only likes Heavy Metal. But as this music will be surrounding him from his earliest formative days, I like to imagine that he won't be able to keep himself from having a soft spot for baroque music from Italy, just like his mother.

Friday
Jun222012

Writer's block or limited brain space?

I'm really not sure why I'm one of those people who either seems to write 4 posts in a week or none for a month. It's like I have creative spurts in various parts of my life, but can only focus on one at a time. Plus, because I'm so honest and like to tell the absolute truth about what's going on with me in my blog, I tend to avoid writing too much when either a) I'm gainfully unemployed ("Wow. That episode of the Mad Men last night was crazy, right?" Not good blog material), or b) when I have a project or event happening that for whatever reason I can't yet share with the public at large ("I'm busy learning a new aria for my big Met audition! Update; I didn't get it." Also poor blog material and just plain embarrassing (that is not a real example by the way - I haven't auditioned for the Met in a long time)). 

But comments will occassionally trickle in on old posts, and after reading things about how much people look forward to my entries, I'll kick my own butt and realize that even if I'm not feeling particularly writerly, I need to just put something down and stay connected with all the people who have bothered to follow me for all this time. I was having a coaching yesterday, and when the singer after me arrived at her coaching she said, "love your blog, by the way!" which reminded me I needed to get cracking. Then I saw that my last entry was over a month ago! Jenny Jenny Jenny!!!

I can't tell you everything that's happening and is in the works just yet, but I can tell you that at the moment I'm knee deep in memorizing a new role. I leave in about a week and a half for Europe - first Italy for a week, then on to Innsbruck, where I'll be singing the title role in "La Stellidaura Vendicante" by Francisco Provenzale. You've never heard of it, you say? Don't worry - few people have. It's one of those baroque operas that is rarely done, there is no recording in existence, and few people have even heard of the composer. But the Innsbruck Festival for Early Music loves to rediscover and reintroduce forgotten works from within the baroque repertory to the public, and present them in lovely productions with a fabulous baroque orchestra. 

At the Festival's Website you can find a bit of interesting information about the opera (along with a big picture of my face from a few headshots ago) and why the company has chosen it as their opera this summer. It's the earliest baroque opera I've sung thus far because it's pre 1700's, so I'm facing the challenges of making it exciting and visceral without the flashy arias I'm used to with Handel and even Pergolesi. But there is some achingly beautiful music with that complex simplicity that you only find in baroque music, along with a pretty awesome character who says things like "I'm going to avenge you with this sword because I've been wronged, I'm a woman, and I'm your lover!" before she runs off to try to kill someone who beat up her boyfriend. She's seriously badass - and all the way back in the 1600's! I'm used to avenging people with my sword when I play all those pants roles, but it will be very nice to be playing a strong woman instead of someone just lying around dying of lovesickeness or something. 

But that brings me back to the fact that I have to memorize this entire role that I had never even heard a note of before I received the score a couple of months ago. And it's not like I could listen to a couple of recordings to get a feel for the harmonies and the flow of the piece. Or read through an already translated libretto to get the ins and outs of the story. In fact my first introduction to the piece was a giant package I received from Innsbruck, which contained a photocopy of the manuscript. And let me tell you, I could NOT always read Provenzale's handwriting! 

Luckily, since then, they have put the whole score into the computer and I have learned it all and know what's happening in the story (thank god I have an excellent coach who can sight read a full score and can figure out the harmonies and stuff. She is absolutely indispensable to me when I learn these unknown baroque pieces). But I still need to get the whole thing memorized before I arrive. We do have nearly a week of musical rehearsals in Italy before moving on to begin the staging in Innsbruck, but I always have been and always will be an over preparer. Honestly, this doesn't come from my outstanding work ethic, but rather from my desire not to be horribly embarrassed. I'm totally serious. I have never understood how people arrive for the first musical rehearsal not knowing their music and don't die of shame right there. I would just melt into a puddle of goo on the floor beneath my music stand. So I learn my music, always. 

But that doesn't mean I don't spend the few weeks before I arrive banging my head against my music stand in the hopes the music will just GET IN THERE ALREADY DAMNIT!! There's that point where you know it, but when you try to look away from the score you are suddenly hopelessly lost, and you think - well, I may have memorized every single score for the past 15 years, but this is the one I just can't remember. My brain is officially full. There is apparently no more room. Then one day, miraculously, you just know it. I'm still waiting for that miraculous moment with this score - or at least with the third act. And I'm going to ignore those voices in my head telling me that there is only so much Italian recitative one person can hold in their brain and I'm officially at capacity, and keep cramming it in there until it sticks. 

And I get to go to a gorgeous town in Northern Italy for a week, followed by almost 5 weeks in Innsbruck, which is just such a special place. So that music is going to GET IN THERE so I can spend my free time when I arrive eating and climbing mountains and not pounding my head against any music stands. 

Friday
May182012

Can't we all just get along?

I don't think I've written this many blog posts in one week since I was trying to write one for every day of an entire month a couple of years back. I would like to say it's because I'm feeling excessively creative this week, but the truth is probably more that I'm procrastinating learning texts and music. I have a lot of music to learn and memorize at the moment, and while I adore rehearsing it, I hate the drudgery of making it all stick in my head, and my brain often rebels, either putting me to sleep or sending me to the computer. 

But I've also had some frustrating interactions this week with people online that have started me thinking about why it is that so many people feel the need to tear other people down. The week started with a complaint from someone I didn't know that was tweeted to me about the fact that even though I was the *winner* (yes, they put it in asterisks) of the Spring for Music Blogger competition, I didn't attend and blog about each concert separately. It frustrated me for many reasons, but one of them is that I never claimed to be a reviewer - I don't write about concerts and operas that I see except in passing - I am an essayist who writes about my own personal experiences performing and auditioning and such, and never claimed to be qualified to write musical reviews, nor do I want to. Plus I was sick, and I didn't think the Spring for Music people would appreciate me throwing up on their audience, so I had to miss a few concerts. Plus I only happen to live in New York - I'm not sure every one of the entrants would have come to New York on their own dime just to see and write about the concerts, had they won. So that little exchange got me kind of steamed.

Then, one of my facebook friends posted my last Huffington Post article, and one of his friends left a tiradey comment about how I had missed the point, didn't know what I was talking about, and proceeded to take apart my article sentence by sentence and spell out everything I did wrong. Since the article was published two weeks ago, I'm still unsure what she was trying to accomplish except to make me feel bad, which congratulations to her - she succeeded in doing! 

And then just now, I was looking at my blog's "stats" to see how many visitors I had and which blogs had referred to me and noticed that some referrals had come from a blog called Ionarts. I was first made aware of this blog when the writer was also one of the entrants into the Spring for Music challenge, but was eliminated in one of the earlier rounds. Then after the competition was over, he tweeted this: "In the great circle jerk of PR, opera singer who averages two posts per month is crowned "best arts blogger."" I sort of chalked this up to sour grapes, but when I saw that his blog had a reference to mine, I had to see why. I discovered in one recent post where he lists things to listen to and look at on the web, a sentence that said "See what the recently named "best arts blogger" has to say about the aforementioned concerts. As of this posting, nothing yet. " And that was just so snarky and mean spirited against me directly that I felt like I wanted to respond. 

First of all, I can't figure out why he's so mad at me, personally. When in the past, someone else beat me in a singing competition, or now, when someone else gets chosen for a job I audition for, I certainly can be frustrated if I think they didn't deserve it, or that I was better for the part or something. And I might even say to my boyfriend or my mom, "It's not fair! I'm so much better than so-and-so! Why did she get picked over me?" But then I realize that this is coming from a very small place of jealousy and frustration, and that in fact, the person that got picked did have talent and drive and actually doesn't deserve any wrath from me for winning something. I would certainly never try to publicly humiliate them on the internet, as this blogger was clearly trying to do to me. It just seems unnecessary and cruel. 

I'm not saying I've never said anything about anyone in a public way that might have been critical. I regularly participate in my boyfriend's podcast, Operanow!, and because it is a live show and not scripted, I occasionally say something that I later regret because I fear it might have sounded mean or harsh or hurt someone's feelings. I hate the idea of hurting someone's feelings, because since I am in the public eye,  I certainly know what it feels like to have my feelings hurt. 

Because yes - when you put anything out into the world, you have to willing to be a subject of criticism. You have to strong enough to accept that if you succeed in any way, people will be out there who want take you down a peg, or who think what you're doing sucks and aren't afraid to tell you. And I'm certainly way too sensitive about it all. I should just shrug it off and not worry about it, but that's just not who I am.

I like to think that my experiences being criticized have made me a more sensitive person towards others, but I'm sure I slip up and say things that hurt people's feeling occasionally. But I can tell you that if I do, it is certainly not intentional. I would never say anything or write anything that would be intended to hurt another person, because I believe the whole "do onto others" business. Unless someone does something or says something mean about someone I care about - then I can hardly help myself and my inner lioness comes out and starts roaring. I should probably work on that. 

I love the internet, but it certainly has sped up the demise of courtesy and respect. 50 years ago people used to have so much more respect for celebrities and politicians, and they would never consider saying horrible things about them in public forums. Now we have entire blogs devoted to making fun of everything they do. I'm not saying we should unnaturally revere people and that people in the public eye shouldn't be criticized. I know that it's a part of life, but I don't know - I guess I'm just a softie at heart. I wish people had more kindness in them, and got less joy out of being cruel. 

Especially those of us who reside in this classical music world together. We are all so lucky to have had something happen in our lives that exposed us to this world and drew us in. There's only a small percentage of people in this country that have been regularly exposed to classical music and the arts in a way that allows us to take full advantage of the depth of these art forms, and we are damn lucky to be in that minority. I often try to be funny on this blog and make light of things, but I truly believe that anyone who has had a life surrounded by the arts, whether they have chosen to pursue them as a career or not, should realize that they have been given an incredible gift. There is no need to be small and petty when we have had the chance to hear and understand a Mozart opera. 

I guess I must have needed to be reminded of this myself, which is why all this happened to me. I needed to be reminded not to squander the gift of being an artist by complaining about people complaining about or criticizing me. So with this blog post, I officially let it all go. 

Which brings me back to memorizing song texts. Which I LOVE by the way. Did I mention that earlier? Yup. Love it. Couldn't be luckier. I would certainly rather be doing that than about a million other jobs. So thanks, Mr. Ionarts and the all rest of you who found fault with me this week . You just reminded me of how lucky I am to be doing this. I sincerely appreciate it. 

Wednesday
May162012

What does an opera career look like?

I received a question in my "Ask Jenny" section of the blog this morning that I thought a lot of people might be interested in, so I decided to go ahead and reprint it and answer it here. This is for all the young people out there considering pursuing a career in this crazy world of opera. Here's the question:

I found a post online and I was wondering what your thoughts are. I'd love to know if you believe any of this is true or not, from your experience. I am turning 25 and considering a career change. I understand that it will take a hard work and time but I'm willing to listen to my heart and give it a try. I have always sung alto in choirs. My choir class had a guest professor who works in Musical Theater and opera earlier this year. Ever since, I have had opera on the mind! This article honestly intimidated me. http://auditioningforcollege.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/what-does-an-operatic-career-look-like/

If you don't have time to click the link and read this person's post about the opera circuit, I'll just tell you, it's quite bleak. Basically they maintain that you may have to participate in Young Artist Programs until you are 37 and then you can expect gigs that only pay you $1000 per performance, and those are the good ones. There's a whole section about home stays when you are on low paying gigs where you may very well have to help around the house to earn your keep, and a section that talks about how much you have to budget for auditions, which according to the writer, is quite a lot.

What I can say is that the person who wrote this post (it doesn't give a name that I noticed) obviously has personal experience pursuing this career, so for some people, these are possibly exactly the difficulties and struggles that they will also experience. I can only speak from my own experience however, and this was not what I experienced coming up in this field. I will say that each person's path varies wildly, and it's very difficult to predict who will succeed and who won't early on. I will also say that this is probably the most difficult time to attempt to have a career in the arts, and specifically opera in the United States, and that even people who have been working at a very high level sometimes struggle to make ends meet (including yours truly). Without going into specifics, if this calendar year continues as it has so far, I will probably only make about 40% of the income I have made for the past four or five years. It never seems to get easier or more predictable for anyone except a very small minority of singers that reach that level of fame that allows you to relax a little, and even then, some singers still seem to fall off the face of the earth, often for no explainable reason.

One thing that the writer of this blog post talked about was fees to audition for opera companies. I can tell you that in all my years auditioning, the only fees I can recall paying are the auditions I did for young artist program applications. I did end up working at New York City Opera straight out of school, and got an agent by the time I was 24 or 25 (I can't recall exactly), so was doing regular house auditions - maybe there are types of auditions that I was never aware of. But other than the young artist summer program auditions that I did, I'm not sure which companies charge audition fees. 

Another thing I've never done is had a separate job, but I know a LOT of singers who have worked temp jobs and/or waited tables over the years in between singing gigs. That is becoming even more of a reality in today's very saturated market. I also think that some young singers tend to stay involved in Young Artist Programs for too long - if you are well into your thirties and have been doing young artist programs since you were 25, you might discover you have a few large challenges ahead of you when trying to make it to the next level. I also think we are entering a new era, where singers are being forced to think outside the box in order to even be able to exist creatively - singers are forming companies and festivals, becoming not just performers but impresarios in order to create performance opportunities for themselves and their colleagues. 

I won't sugarcoat anything for you - this is a very challenging career in which to find true success, and it's only getting harder. I went to see a performance at the Manhattan School of Music a few weeks ago of The Ghosts of Versailles, and I found the performances from most of the students to be extremely impressive. I was left wondering, however, where all of them would possibly find work after they graduated.  I remembered that when I first finished school here in NYC, New York City Opera was still a large scale company which employed as many as 100 solo singers at any given time. Now, with the company producing four small operas per year, and not even having a theater in which to hold regular auditions, most of those opportunities for singers freshly out of school have vanished. Most of the good agents that I know feel that their roster of singers is already filled to bursting, and have to carefully consider whether to add a single new client. It's good to be in New York since it's where many of the companies come to hear auditions, but if you're not working at the Met, that means you're not working as a singer while you're here for the most part. And unfortunately, the United States, unlike Canada and Europe, for example, doesn't help with any cushion for self employed artists by giving us things like free health care, or unemployment insurance, or maternity leave when we're not attached to a specific employer. 

Having said all that, I think it's important to follow your dreams and your heart. Some people are talented and successful, and they think they want to be singers, but they realize the life isn't for them, and they change their minds and change their careers completely at some point. We are allowed to do that - we are allowed to reinvent ourselves and take a new path if the one we are on isn't working. The thing that is important is how to decide when the path we are pursuing isn't working out. For some people, being artistic is more important than making a lot of money, so they are satisfied with working odd jobs just so they have the chance to express themselves creatively. Other people need more stability and even if they are getting paid to sing, don't find enough regularity in the type of work that may or may not come up. With opera singing, it's a personal decision for each individual. If I had done some of the gigs that the person who wrote the post obviously had to do, like staying at someone's home who expected me to change their cat litter just so I could get paid $100 per week to sing some educational programs, I can tell you I would have given up a long time ago. I love doing this, but I love doing it at a level that challenges and inspires me. I still consider quitting on a regular basis because I hate not having a fixed income that I can count on, and I hate that a few people deciding whether sing at House X can end up affecting the entire path of my career. However, I have also been incredibly lucky to have had the experiences I've had, and am grateful and humbled by the opportunities and support I've found along the way.

So to answer your question - yes - for some people, the stuggles and obstacles will be enormous. For others not. The question is, do you want it bad enough to go ahead and give it a try anyway?