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

Thoughts from nearly 40 years on the professional stage

November 2018

Frankfurt...Recording Time in an old haunt

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 Janacek 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 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 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.