Those two lovers

Tonight is the opening night of “Tristan und Isolde” at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. I’m very excited to open this run of a very interesting and quite extraordinary production. I blogged about my feelings concerning this particular opera way back on July 27, 2011. That entry can be found in the archives of this journal. The opera can have such an incredible impact on the audience. Feelings about the piece can vary greatly from listener to listener. But much depends on how the opera is presented and how well the director, conductor, singers, orchestra, and production staff pull it off. Of course, this could be said of many operas, but, I think, in a music drama like “T&I”, it’s even more so the case. I have sung this opera often in the past 13 years. My first crack at Kurwenal was in Chicago in 2000. Since the, I have gone on to sing the role in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Munich, and Bilbao. Every production has been incredibly different. But it was the “production” in L.A. that has the most to do with what we are doing here in Toronto.

Back in late 2004, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, along with the genius director, Peter Sellars and the videographer, Bill Viola, began “The Tristan Project”. I was so happy to be a part of the cast when this debuted at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. In that series of concerts, we performed over three nights (one act each night) this opera accompanied by other relatable music to the Tristan saga. Incorporated into these concerts was unbelievably striking video shot by Mr. Viola. Singers were stationed around the auditorium in various places. Augmented brass players were high in balconies as was the chorus. Audience members sat riveted as they were sounded by sound and viewed the incredible visual images. We had minimal costumes and the lighting was kept low to enhance the video. I don’t know that I’ve ever been part of a “production” that was more focused and illuminating to the inner attitudes of one’s mind.

Over the years, the project moved into opera houses. While keeping the videos themselves, more developed costumes were added. As there was more space for the singers with the orchestra now in the pit rather than onstage, more acting could be applied amongst small areas of light. I wasn’t involved in these performances in Paris (although I watched the production from the side of the stage when I was performing in another work), Tokyo, or New York. The various locales used numerous other singers who all gave what they could to this unique presentation. However, I’m thrilled to now be back with the project and am moved to see how it has grown and developed over the years. Some productions of various operas travel from locale to locale but don’t always hold together the intent of the director or even resemble, other than via the sets, the original intent. This one does--and more so.

There is far more character development here in Toronto than I remember from the earlier presentations. The lighting, although in some ways constraining, allows us to focus even more on each character. I am having to perform, in act 3, in a manner that is totally different than I ever have before. In stillness, there can be wonderful drama and I’ve enjoyed finding this out even more in this rehearsal period. Everything comes together to create an extraordinary experience. The audience at the final dress rehearsal was greatly moved by what they witnessed---you can’t just say what they “saw” or what they “heard”---it’s both. Perhaps it would be better to say “what they sensed”. It’s that kind of experience.

And what an ensemble we have here in Toronto! I am pleased to be working again with Peter Sellars. It is a joy to work with Maestro Debus. The orchestra is fantastic. The hall is simply one of the best anywhere---visually and acoustically gorgeous. After being here last spring for the double bill, I have come to appreciate the great production team as well. And the singers---how great to work with so many friends who are singing so wonderfully. This is a very warm treat in a very chilly time of year here in Toronto. I’m so pleased to be a part of this ongoing production. This production breathes and develops. It’ll be exciting to see how it continues to grow.

Closer to opening

We’ve moved a bit closer to opening night, January 29, of “Tristan und Isolde” here in Toronto (Canadian Opera Company). It has been a great rehearsal period. The stress for the artists has been, in my opinion, much lower than is often the case when presenting an epic Wagner musical drama. It’s been a wonderful way to get this production together.

I have, of course, sung the role of Kurwenal many times. It is one of my most performed roles. However, it’s not a role that gets any easier. No, it’s not my most difficult or longest role. However, the character and the range present their own problems. So far, this production agrees wonderfully with how I want to present the role on all levels. It’s a different interpretation, to be sure (especially in Act 3). But it is allowing me to concentrate vocally and do the best on that front that I can. I’m pleased.

Cold weather is moving in. Along with that usually comes the nemesis of all singers--very dry air. The humidifiers are running full time and care is being taken to keep the body hydrated. One has to be so careful to avoid the horrible flu season that is upon us--not to mention the normal colds and other bugs. So far, our cast has got through this month well. I hope that continues to be the case.

I’m surprised at how little snow there has been in Toronto this month. I expected much more. With record warm temperatures last week, the several inches that we had disappeared. We are only getting little accumulations here and there. However, this has not been, so far, the winter that I feared in Ontario. I hope it stays that way.

With opening night slowly approaching, we are on a very steady and productive schedule. As a singer, you try and occupy your spare time with other things. In the back of your mind, though, is the thought that you must get back on the stage in a few hours and you never completely lose your focus. Over the years, I’ve never really learned to totally compartmentalize during these times. As singing and acting are such a part of what you are doing (and is so personal), you have to keep it all in perspective and not let the performing overtake your days. On the other hand, you don’t want to get your mind so far off of performing that you have a hard time kicking back into gear come rehearsal or showtime. Maybe it’s good that winter is here and that other activities are a bit restricted. All I know is that I’m ready to head back to the theater fairly quickly upon leaving. Maybe, for an artist, that’s the way it is supposed to be.

A look back and a glance ahead

I had planned on writing this year-end summary a few days ago but had the unexpected pleasure of getting to buzz home for a few days and celebrated New Year’s with my family. The rehearsal schedule here in Toronto lightened up a bit which allowed the quick round trip--and I’m grateful for that. But now, I’m back in Canada and enjoying working with a fine cast, director, and conductor. Although we still have most of the month to rehearse, I’m looking forward to the performances of “Tristan und Isolde” with the Canadian Opera Company.

It was nice to have dinner tonight with one of the young artists, a former student at Yale. It has been such a pleasure seeing so many of these young singers go on to outstanding careers. I have very few doubts that the young man I dined with tonight will have a very impressive career. Go get ‘em!!!

I mentioned in my last post that I like to look back on the year and recall my favorite performances from the previous 12 months. 2012 was a very challenging year. There were some very tough engagements. Of course, some performances became much tougher with the broken foot that I suffered last February in London during the opening night performance of “Rusalka”. The second performance of that run ranks up there as one of my favorites of the year---such great teamwork and a joy of performing radiated across the footlights that night and I’m very grateful to a cast that hung with me and helped me through it.

I also recall fondly the performances in Munich of “The Flying Dutchman” and “Siegfried”. The run of “A Florentine Tragedy” and “Gianni Schicchi” in Toronto was also greatly cherished---what a HARD assignment that was. I also greatly enjoyed being in Seville for “Siegfried”--such a lovely city.

BUT--I have to say that the run of “Elektra” in Chicago was the highlight, vocally and dramatically, for the year. Wow, what a show!!! All of the performances were excellent but #3 in that run stands out in my mind. Everything clicked and the audience response was unlike any other I’ve heard in my years in the business. I also enjoyed, during the Chicago time period, traveling to my alma mater, Millikin University, to teach for a few days. When I have the chance to connect singing and teaching, I’m a pretty happy baritone.

OH--and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my 2nd favorite performance of the year. The performance at Carnegie Hall, on December 18 of Berlioz’ “L’enfance du Christ” with the New York Choral Society, is a night I’ll never forget. What made it even more special is that my wife was able to come in to the city with me for a few days. I sang that concert just about 2 days after arriving home from Spain. I’m not sure how I was able to sing through the jet lag--but oh, what a night!

Now, however, it’s on to a New Year with new engagements and challenges. Singing my first Hans Sachs (Meistersinger) in Tokyo will be the biggest task. This is a mountaintop role if there ever was one. I look forward to the time here in Toronto (3 engagements here this year) and to being in Cincinnati for the May Festival as well. It’ll be interesting to see which performance I write about as my favorite when I’m journaling here next January.

May they all be great performances--engaging and entertaining for all of us on both sides of the stage lights.