I am currently working on the supertitles for Union Avenue Opera’s 20th anniversary season. For those unfamiliar, supertitles are the live version of subtitles. The opera’s words/English translations are projected above or next to the stage so the audience can more specifically understand what’s going on during the performance. Creating PowerPoint presentations of these lengthy libretti (the words of an opera) can be tedious, but sometimes I get to do Google searches to inform my titles. Today’s search started because Blanche and Mitch are quoting something in the 3rd scene of Act I of A Streetcar Named Desire by André Previn. “And, if God choose, I shall but love you better after Death.” Sounds familiar, but what is it?
And for a moment, I am transported back to English class and am looking at a poem I’ve heard a million times. Today, however, I’m reading it at my own pace and because I want to read it. Sometimes we all need a poetry break.
I spent this February working on a production of “The Marriage of Figaro” in Quincy, IL. I usually hate February, but this year, stepping into little Cherubino’s shoes, his many costumes, and his thoughts about ladies…well, I had a hard time hating anything. Even February.
When I left to study German in Bamberg, Germany for a month in 2005, I couldn’t even count to 10 in German. I had studied German diction in grad school and had sung in German, but I didn’t actually know how to say anything beyond memorized text. As a result, the teachers in the language program I attended were a little taken aback when, with my extraordinarily elementary communication skills, I would pull out the German word for “sorrow” or “weeping” or “trout” or “brook.” To a singer, there’s nothing surprising in knowing those words. You learn them the first time you sing a Bach aria or Schubert art song. To a language instructor who is accustomed to working with the average business man or tourist, well, it’s unexpected.
I remember learning words in elementary and high school in a similar, indirect way. I had already been exposed to terms like “dynamics” in children’s choir before learning about “static vs dynamic” in science class. When I learned “tiempo” and “fuerte” in Spanish 1, they sounded like and shared similar definitions to “tempo” and “forte,” common music terms I had been hearing for years. Concepts reappeared as well. Turns out, time signatures are little math equations. The labels used for musical forms are similar to those used in analyzing poetry. Organizing and understanding musical sections of a piece is just like outlining a research paper.
Community theatre productions taught me a great deal, too. My director explained what “polysyllabic” meant when I was part of the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland when I was 10. The Caterpillar sings about using “a polysyllabic word, or two.” I remember when that word showed up on a standardized test. The stage taught me about Hans Christian Anderson, the French Revolution and Cervantes, about reading dialogue, developing characters, thinking empathetically and understanding conflict and resolution. In the meantime, technical theatre nerds like my fiancé were spending hours learning and applying geometry and physics by hanging lights, considering color temperatures, and designing and building sets. They were managing people, props and scene changes. They were developing leadership skills.
I started thinking about this while spacing out in bed this morning. I am recovering from pneumonia, so my job is currently to do just that, space out in bed. Really, I was thinking about pneumonia, about the pains in my back and side, most likely some form of pleurisy, and then it occurred to me why I already knew that word when it was first mentioned as a possible cause of my pain. I said a version of that word night after night when playing Laura in “The Glass Menagerie” a couple of years ago. Laura is a girl who suffered from pleurosis in high school, which was mistakenly heard as “blue roses” at the time by her present day gentleman caller. “Blue Roses,” he nicknamed her, melting her heart and solidifying her lifelong crush on him. I looked up the word when prepping the role, and still it sits, like so many other learned concepts, somewhere in the back of my mind, ready to be pulled up at a moment’s notice. You see, the learning never stops, and it never gets old.
I arrive at my point.
Dear Principals who doubt the value of artistic study, you are wrong. I, like so many choir and theatre kids, began my education with music and theatre. I, like so many professional and socially conscious adults, continue my daily education through music and theatre. I cannot think of a single reason why your kids should not do the same.
My friend who is pregnant for the first time excitedly told me a few weeks ago that she’s experiencing everything in a new way. I was kind of jealous. It’s fun to experience life differently. I think it wards off complacency. With the coming Spring and my artistic pursuits, though, I guess I shouldn’t be jealous. As it turns out, I’ve been noticing things too.
Actors and directors are always talking about listening, which is funny because half the time conductors are telling you NOT to listen. If you do, you’re likely to fall behind the orchestra and the music falls apart and the conductor makes faces. In non-singing theatre, in order to really engage on stage, you need to be listening to your scene partners and let your lines fall naturally. Acting 101. Well, I swear I’ve been listening, but every once in a while, I hear something I’ve heard a million times in a completely new way. Like a pregnant lady, I guess, without the expectation.
We performed The Glass Menagerie last Friday for about 100 high school students. I’m playing Laura. As a few of the lines came out of our mouths, I felt the profundity of them for the first time: “Say, you finished high school?” my Gentleman Caller asked. “I made bad grades on my final exams,” I said. “You mean you dropped out?” I stopped, “I never went back.” Wham. Tennessee Williams wants you all to stay in school. Did you hear that, students? Oh, I hope they heard it the way I did that day.
I’ve been listening differently, too, in the context of the various projects I’ve been working on simultaneously. Some Union Avenue Opera folks and I were at an elementary school performing Little Red Riding Hood the other day, and as we started singing, I realized that Little Red’s mother says a lot of the same things that Laura’s mom says in The Glass Menagerie. Fortunately for her, Little Red makes out better than poor Laura. And every time the Gentleman Caller tells Laura that “being different is nothing to be ashamed of,” I think of sweet, sweet Ferdinand who discovers the very same thing in UAO’s other children’s opera, Carmen and the Bull. He makes out better than her, too.
My parents heard my brother sing with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus last weekend. It was Bach. They found it fascinating that Bach would write an aria that lasts 8 minutes, but only has 2 lines of text. Why sing the same 2 lines over and over again for 8 minutes?
Maybe Bach wants us to sing and hear the same words in a new way each time, too.
We’ve performed this show a couple of times now, once at Old Warson Country Club, and once as a house concert for 60 Union Avenue Opera patrons. Our little story has taken on a life of its own, and we’re ready to share it again and again and again.
What’s not to love about 5 completely different Cinderellas? One is sassy, the next a little dumb (actually, a lot dumb). There’s the overthinker, the mopey one (she’s French, of course) and let’s not forget the most important–the romantic Cinderella (she had her wedding planned long, long ago).
Oh, sweet Prince, what to do with this bevy of beautiful maidens?
I think it’s funny when a thought or an idea keeps appearing once it’s first recognized. Take my recent post on “Carmen and the Bull” as an example. The show synopsis that I ended up using reads thusly:
Join in the fun as a singing, dancing, traveling gypsy befriends a little bull, his mom and most unlikely of all—a bullfighter! Using the music from the opera Carmen, and loosely based on the beloved story Ferdinand the Bull,Union Avenue Opera’s education team delights young and old audiences alike with a new depiction of a timeless theme: Be True To Yourself. As it turns out, when Ferdinand is the best version of himself, good things happen to everyone involved!
I flipped open the most recent Runner’s World a day after writing about the children’s opera. Literally the first thing I saw was an ad for the new book, “To Be a Runner.” I almost laughed when I read the book description:
Dave Davies interviewed journalist and author Pete Hamill on Fresh Air yesterday, and I think I actually DID laugh out loud when Hamill replied to Davies’ question about the author’s changed drinking habits (and not, incidentally, because drinking habits are funny):
But from the professional and personal standpoint, a lot of it was about trying to find out what was there as a writer because my ambition was not to be better than Faulkner or Hemingway or anything like that. It was tobe the best version of myself that I could conceivably bein the time I had on the planet.
I guess we’re all trying to figure out how to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be. A timeless theme? Yes, indeed. It’s showing up everywhere.