The Windmills of my Mind

You didn’t think I could come to The Netherlands and not have a picture of a windmill on my blog, did you? This is my 6th or 7th trip to Amsterdam-truly, one of my favorite cities. I’ve always enjoyed coming here due to the open skies (even if they are often cloudy), the wonderful walks along the canals, and the EXTREMELY friendly people. I find Holland to be about the most welcoming country that I regularly visit. I felt that warmth once again from the moment I stepped into Schiphol Airport last week when I flew from Vienna via Warsaw.

It’s been a rather slow week with just a bit of rehearsal on “Fidelio”. Certainly, I haven’t been overworked. This is a production by Robert Carsen which I was a part of during its premiere in 2003. It is one of my favorite productions of this opera (or any opera)--so well thought out. It tells the story clearly and cleanly with loads of little touches here and there that just make it a great show to be in. I remember I had this feeling about the Francesca Zambello “Siegfried” production in Washington 18 months ago or so. It’s always a pleasure to be a part of such interpretations.

How nice it is each morning to come out of the bedroom and look out upon the Amstel River and see the boats going by--the water is no more than 50-60 feet from my front door. I feel a long walk coming on later today amidst the fall foliage along the canals. I just hope I don’t get run over by a bicycle. They are EVERYWHERE.

Got Melk

No, it’s not a misprint. I borrowed from the popular U.S. Dairy Association slogan, “Got Milk”, to introduce this entry concerning my day trip yesterday to the absolutely gorgeous baroque town of Melk, Austria. At the strong urging of dear friends (and thanks for that) I took the short train ride (80 minutes) from Vienna. I was a bit disappointed that the day started out dreary and grey. As I arrived in Melk, things started to clear off and by the end of my visit to the incredible burg, I’d seen stunning blue skies and enjoyed a very crisp Fall chill that was in the air.

Often times, one goes on a sightseeing trip and then ends up being a little disappointed in the sights because either things weren’t what your mind’s eye thought they might be or because some external impulse dilutes the effect of what should be a nice excursion (i.e., commercialism, gift shops, lack of access to what you truly want to see). This was not the case in the least yesterday. The tour through the gorgeous Benedictine Abbey and Church was not only eye-boggling but also moving, inspirational, and truly beyond words. The Abbey is over 900 years old and continues to carry out its daily duties in the modern world. The artifacts that fill the complex astound the viewer--I could sit and stare at the ceilings alone for hours upon end. What’s more, in the church, you felt as if you were in the presence of great devotion and worship. The work of the builders and artisans to bring their best in order to lead another’s eye and thoughts towards God was overwhelming. I’m sure that many pilgrims and visitors these past many centuries have been as moved as I was yesterday. Due to the care and quality of the craftsmen’s skills, this edifice will be around for many more generations as well.

After spending time in the church and museum, it was nice to let my eye behold beauty of another kind. I took a nice walk in the abbey’s gardens and feasted on the colors of God’s pallet. The rolling hills are sliced by the beautiful Donau (Danube) River. The spectacular colors of Fall added to the sight with brilliant effect. I was so blessed to be able to have this day to enjoy a true Melk bath. I look forward to hopefully bringing the entire family back here some day in the not too distant future.

Tonight is the second performance of “Salome” here in Vienna. There are only two in this short run and so I’m looking forward to wrapping things upon on a high note. Tomorrow I’m scheduled to head to The Netherlands via Warsaw, Poland (I’ve never been to Poland and look forward to my short stopover there). If all goes well, my next posts will be from another of my favorite cities, Amsterdam.

Coming Together on Stage and in the Church

Any performer, especially opera singers, get excited about performances that really come together on all levels. For a singing actor, that means getting the drama and the music to meld into a performance where each aspect is nourishing the other so that the total presentation becomes a very satisfying creation. Herr Wagner called this Gesamtkunstwerk and I’ve long been an advocate of trying to see this happen in my performances. However, any singer will tell you that it is rare where things do come together so well. Last night’s performance of “Salome” here in Vienna at the Staatsoper was one of those occasions. It may seem strange to know that there are some evenings where you can just feel it in your core that the performance will be “one of those special nights” (Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to have that feeling beforehand more often?). I felt it all during the day yesterday and in my dressing room before the show. Happily, it wasn’t just a feeling--it was real. We had NO orchestra rehearsal, NO time on stage rehearsing (except for 5 minutes or so before I got into make-up in order to check out just where everything was--let’s just say that a lot of improvisation occurred last night), and little time together as a cast--just 4 days of running scenes. What came together last night both musically and dramatically was very special. I will remember the engrossing feeling of performing last night here in Vienna for a long time--and I will cherish the audience response as well. It is because of nights like this that I continue in this art form. It is the hope and goal of having more nights like this that keeps me coming back for more. Does this mean that the night couldn’t be improved upon and that there weren’t things we could do better? Of course not. Singers are never totally happy with a performance--I’m not sure they ever will or should be. But we always have to remember---Perfection is not found on this earth.

It doesn’t hurt that I was singing one of my favorite roles, Jockanaan (John the Baptist). I never tire of singing the role of the great Prophet and rendering the wonderful aria that he sings to Salome in the middle of the opera. In this moment, he evangelizes to her and begs of her to seek Christ, kneel before the Lord, and confess her sins. The music is extraordinarily beautiful. Strauss wrote very well for baritones (happily, not so great for tenors). I truly felt that the soprano, Catherine Naglestad, and I were able to forget about the audience during our scene and experienced real theater (well, as real as it can get when you’re singing along with the incredible Vienna Philharmonic). It also was exciting to know that the performance was being broadcast on a large screen (pictured above) in the square next to the Staatsoper. I hope the folks (or is it Volks) outside on this cool October evening could feel the heat being created inside the historic and gorgeous theater.

Perhaps it was partially because I was on a high over this experience but sleep wasn’t easy to be had last night. In addition, I knew I had wanted to get up this morning to go to Mass at the St. Augustiner Kirche. The music was to be from Gounod’s great St. Cecilia Mass. (I might add that St. Cecilia is my wife’s patron Saint and the Patron Saint of Music.) When I first got out of bed, I thought that maybe I’d just go to Mass at the nearby church (Karlskirche) instead as it was a shorter walk and the weather also didn’t look so nice (it’s raining here in Wien). However, the music from the Gounod Mass is some of favorite music and I truly felt lead to get into Central Vienna. I’m so glad I took the longer stroll.

I truly didn’t expect to see the crowd at St. Augustine that was there. It was PACKED--and then some. People were standing everywhere (and this is a pretty large church) as all the seats were taken. Once again, it was so obvious how powerful the expression of something precious, meaningful, and Holy can be if all the elements come together and work as one unit. The choir was extraordinary as was the orchestra (The timpani strikes are still resounding in my chest). To have this incredible music presented in the context of the Holy liturgy nearly blew me away. Of course, the Mass was longer than normal with the size of the crowd and the longer musical selections---but the nearly two hours flew by (even as I had to stand through most of the Liturgy). Receiving the Eucharist is always blessed and special--but today, I nearly floated to the Feast as the sounds of Gounod lifted me so thoroughly.

I first heard the “Sanctus” from this Mass back in my early teens. My parents had a recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing it along with other famous choruses. I played it over and over and over--and I believe we even sang it one time as a choir when I was a sophomore in High School. I’ve not sung it since but have enjoyed hearing the “Sanctus” on recordings since then--never live for some reason (or at least that I can recall). It was possibly hearing this incredible music that lead me to a closer relationship with Christ---surely, this is the music of angels and indicative of how things will be sung in heaven. It was possibly this music that lead me towards the Catholic Church as well. It is indeed powerful stuff (even if it does traditionally have a major solo for tenor). I’m attaching two links to recordings of Gounod’s “Sanctus” from his St. Cecilia Mass. One is with the great Jessye Norman from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and the other is from a far more modest location in New Jersey with the wonderful young tenor, Michael Fabiano.


Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord,
God of power and might,
Heaven and Earth are full of Your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the Highest.

Text from the Ordinary of The Mass--seemingly based on Isaiah 6:3, Matthew 21:9, and Revelation 4:8

Only in Vienna

Greetings from Wien. I arrived here this past Sunday morning for yet another round of “Salome” performances. This is a wonderful, traditional production that I last did back in the Fall of 2001. Although the many modern productions I’ve done as of late all have merits, it is nice to return to a production such as this to ground yourself once again in the opera and the basic plot. It also allows for singing to be a bit easier to accomplish. I’m scheduled for two performances here before heading to Amsterdam later in the month for a return to a wonderful production of “Fidelio” that we premiered in 2003. I’m looking forward to that and to returning to Pizarro who I haven’t brought out in about two years.

I so enjoy being in Vienna. It is truly a beautiful city--the arts abound. I did see this sign outside the public toilet in the U-Bahn station last night. Music is blaring out of the doors as well. It brings a sense of frivolity to this toilet underneath the square outside of the theater. As I wrote above, “only in Vienna”.

I’ve had some time off these past several weeks (since returning from Japan). I was able to spend a lot of time with the family and friends, do some singing at church, and just help get things organized for the Fall and beyond. When you travel as much as I do, you attempt to stay a step or two ahead most of the time. Sometimes I fail at this. But I’ll keep trying.

It has been moving to watch the miners in Chile rescued today. What a beautiful country (sang there in 1993) and what great people. The emotions they are all feeling must be overwhelming.

Opera season is underway around the globe. I’m happy to be a part of it and I hope it is a successful one wherever you may be.