Friday, January 29, 2010

The Final Countdown

...cue the synthesizer brass.

It's opening night for this, the final chapter in my year of Figaro. Oh, don't get all teary already, I've got twelve, count 'em twelve of these bad boys to do before calling it quits, but it all starts tonight.

I had a moment of panic the other day when I thought, "Holy crap, am I just phoning in this character?" After doing it all year long, it has become quite comfortable, and I was worried that maybe I was mistaking my comfort in the role for listlessness. I don't think that is the case- at least I hope not!

I can tell it is a performance day, because I'm starting to get those pre-show jitters already. It's a good sign. I'm going to savor these twelve performances. Who knows when I'll get a chance to sing this glorious music again? I'm going to let the last 10 months inform my choices on stage and let this run be a celebration- a culmination of all my experiences this year. I couldn't ask for a better place or better colleagues to do it.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Still Crazy After All These Years

Our final dress rehearsal for Marriage of Figaro is tonight. I'm about to open my 10th production of this opera, my 8th as the title character. This opera has been kicking around my consciousness for going on sixteen years now. For as many times as I've sung it, it still teaches me stuff about my singing. For what should be an 'easy sing' by now, it still presents vocal challenges.

I've ranted and gone on and on about how singing too heavy in the middle voice during the first two acts of Nozze have come back to haunt me in the last act. That is true, and I have made some changes to avoid that. But it still amazes me that there are moments of the Act II finale and especially the Act IV aria and duet with Susanna where D4 and Eb4 seem like high Z's. And this is after I sang 12 performances of Rossini's Figaro that was riddled with G's (not to mention Casanova's Homecoming- G's, Ab's, A's oh my! [sidebar: did you know that Casanova was pals with Lorenzo Da Ponte? Legend has it that he actually wrote part of the Don Giovanni libretto]).

I have lots of theories behind this- please let me speculate for a minute (even if you don't let me, I'm going to anyway- hey, it's my blog). The most compelling theory is that singing in a room with a piano just plain sounds and feels different than singing in a hall with an orchestra. I have worked out a lot of the technical aspects of this role in the practice room, many of them to my satisfaction. But execution in the studio and on stage are two different things, especially if I am listening to myself too much (a bad habit, but I'm guilty of it). It's a big signal to me that I need to focus on sensation more in the studio and try to recreate that on stage instead of listening.

Another theory: Muscle memory. This was one of the very first operas I ever learned and when I learned it I had lots of vocal issues. The body has a funny way of remembering stuff, and it is incredibly difficult to re-learn it.

The last theory: I'd like to think that the character choices I have made have crept into the way I sing this role. In the opera, Figaro goes through a bit of an evolution. He definitely has similarities to stock buffo characters, but Mozart gives him distinctly upper class music to sing. He is given accompanied recits- usually reserved for serious characters. When people claim that all the politics are taken out of the libretto of Figaro in Mozart's opera, I point them to the accompanied recits: The Big Fig is a buffo/servant singing serio/master music. There's your politics, people. But I digress. Fig needs to control his temper and suspicion, and govern his actions with his reason. It is only after he goes through this transformation that he is truly able to enter in an equal partnership with Susanna. As a singer, I need to govern my vocal choices with my reason and with what I know to be true about my voice, and not to give in to vocal fits of rage (i.e. yelling, pushing, singing too damn loud, etc). I fight the good fight- sometimes I win. Sometimes I don't. Who knows, maybe that creeps into the characterization. I hope it does, but I have a feeling I just sing too loud. I've got 12 performances to mess with it.

Basically, this is all a bunch of hullabaloo, because out of every role I've sung, this one probably fits me the best. I love it, and I hope I have many more years of Figaro ahead of me (I recently learned that Francesco Benucci, the guy who originated the role, was 41 when he first sang it). I am blessed to be in a great production of it with a wonderfully talented and generous group of friends.

Tonight is our final dress and our first crack at having an audience.


PS- Here is an article Tom Strini did about me. I'm proud to be an 11-year Skylight veteran!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Tech begins

He we are at our first spacing rehearsal in the theatre. Man that went by fast! I don't know why I'm always so surprised when tech rolls around, but I always am. All of the sudden it hits you- "oh, we're puttin' on a show here people."

The good news is that we are ready. Or will be ready.

We have a spacing call all night tonight, and are back for a big 10 hour call tomorrow. It's not a super tech-heavy show, so I don't foresee huge problems other than the normal tech tedium. The challenge (for me) is to stay in the game and try to use the rehearsal as much as possible instead of simply going through the motions because it's [only] tech.

Our poor Susanna is ill tonight and not with us, making for a really interesting show. It's kind of the "Das Konzept" version, where Susanna isn't there- just a ghost in the room that everyone still talks to. Don't laugh- it's been done in Germany, I just know it.

Sextet time.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Closing Wolski's

We had our sitz last night. The band sounded great- we're using piano/wind quintet arrangement, and it's surprising how quickly I accepted the absence of strings. After a few numbers, I didn't even notice. Hats off to our maestro who is also the pianist, and mostly conducting with his head, eyebrows, pony tail, whatever it takes.

Most of us reconnoitered at a place called Cafe Hollander for a post-sitz libation. It is essential to have nights like this once in a while where the cast can just blow off a little steam (the fact that they have Hennepin on tap is also a plus!). Afterwards, I took my Susanetta to go through a true Milwaukee rite of passage: closing Wolski's.

For the uninitiated, Wolski's is a dirty, smoky bar with bad lighting and wood paneling. It's next to impossible to find (which makes going there even more triumphant), and looks more like an old house than a commercial establishment. But once you're there and you're seduced by the free popcorn and the $10 pitchers of Pilsner Urquell, well, my friends, you have ignited a flame that is eternal. And to make public your love, the good people of Wolski's pass out "I closed Wolski's" bumper stickers at closing time. You've got to earn them, but the earning is so delicious.

Tomorrow we start tech, so I'm going to prepare by hanging out with friends and maybe seeing that Crazy Heart movie with Jeff Bridges.

Peace and bacon grease

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What killed Mozart?

This from a blog I found on NPR. I hope the answer isn't tacky baritones.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

we're on our feet.

My hair returned to my zip code today, and we finished staging this crazy beast. There are some really nice moments. We have a lot of work to do, but it is nice to have the skeleton in place. My cold is basically gone and it's nice to finally be able to make a vocal contribution again. We're so fragile as people, and singers. It is hard to have the equilibrium thrown off by anything, even a stupid trivial cold.

Tomorrow we have a big review and our first stumble-through of the whole show. The best thing about a first run-through? You should know by now- I've said it four times. You never have to have the first run-through again.

It's crazy to think that this Figgy ride will be done soon. Still lots of tales to be told. Stay tuned.


Friday, January 15, 2010

as promised

Am I right? Or......

my hair is.....AWESOME

We had a photo shoot today with full costume and hair. The costumes, designed by Carol Blanchard, are really stunning late 18th-century clothes. They look like something right out of Masterpiece Theatre. But my hair (all my own, I might add, with the exception of some glued-on sideburns) is something to behold, and should really have its own show (or at least its own aria). As our makeup artist was styling it, I looked in the mirror and thought, "Holy smokes, I look like Tom Baker-era Doctor Who."

Who's that, you ask?

When I get a look at the actual photos, I'll post 'em.

After the shoot, we had a review of Act III, and tonight we forged ahead into Act IV. I'm having a hard time letting go of the R & T translation on my Act IV aria. I actually like the Porter translation better, but heck if that catchy Martin translation isn't stuck to the roof of my brain like a goll dang wad of peanut butter. What's cool, though, is I storm on stage with the Count's hunting rifle during the accompanied recit before my aria. It is pretty badass. I may have to throw it into my bag of tricks to steal for next time (hoping there is a next time....yikes. I keep forgetting this is the last Fig in my 'year').

To try to get rid of the residual gunk from my cold, I paid my first visit to an acupuncturist. She was fantastic. The treatment was wild- needles in my face, the bridge of my nose, my hands and arms, plus some herbal supplements. I felt some instant, well, something as soon as the needles went in. I don't know if it was relief, chi, or what, but it was something. We'll see how it goes. I may go in for a followup. She also told me to try to limit mucus-producing foods, the biggest three being Dairy (not a problem, oh wait, cheese...d'oh!), Sugar (not a problem except for the revolving door of sweets that go through our green room.... d'oh!), and Gluten (pasta, bread, beer, basically everything I love.... D'OH). I'm going to try to go gluten-free (or at least gluten-lite) for a bit and see what happens. Let me know if you know any yummy gluten-free foods.

Tomorrow we finish staging this little skit. heaven help us. It's a long song.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

waxing nostalgic, pt. II

One thing that's different this time around is that I find myself giving my opinion about stuff. And the funny thing is, people have actually been asking for it. In school they pound into your head that it's not your job to worry about what your colleagues are doing, just focus on what you are doing. And that is totally true. But now that I'm doing this for the 8th time, I find myself in the unique position of having some perspective on this show and on this role, for whatever it's worth. And that maybe, just maybe my experience (and the experience of others in the cast who are repeat offenders of Nozze) might help our cause here and there. It's a big step for me. Normally I would shut my mouth and just do my job, but I find myself offering more of my own ideas this time around. I hope it's not annoying. I don't think it is. It sort of reminds me of a Chekhov class I took at CCM. We had this exercise we did for months where started each class by standing in a circle and throwing balls to each other. it was an exercise of focus, openness, and radiating. We sometimes got 5 or 6 going before anyone dropped one. Part of being successful in the exercise was taking care of yourself on one level, but also taking care of the group. You take more responsibility when you take care of the group. That's what I'm finding here. Or maybe I'm just being an ass. Either way, it says a lot about the atmosphere at The Skylight that I can even think about this collaborative spirit.

I've told a few of my Figaro war stories, from playing guitar during the accompanied recit of 'se vuol ballare' (I am a golden god!!) to Opera Workshop way back at UMD (hug & twirl extrodinaire), but this one has got to be my favorite. The reason it comes to mind is that it was sort of the opposite of what I was talking about in the previous paragraph. In this show, I basically only focused on myself because, well, that's all I could do.

It was long about the summer of 1999. I was doing a music/language program in Lucca, Italy in conjunction with CCM, which was where I was going to grad school. We took Italian class every day and put on concerts, operas, etc. I was cast as Figaro in the workshop production of Nozze. 'Workshop' means there was no budget, no set, no costumes, no nuttin. No orchestra either- we used the wind quintet arrangement (which I later repeated in Cleveland, and here again in Milwaukee).

How can I say this next part diplomatically? Let's just say the level of preparation between cast members was, um, uneven. Hey- I get it. We're in Italy, who wants to study a score? But this was scary. I was mortified and to help deal with my stress I studied the crap out of my score. I figured if people didn't know their stuff I would know it extra well. It sort of helped, but my dear friend Tanya told me later that I was a total weirdo all summer long and had a crazy look in my eye. She was right. Did I mention that one of our cast members was mentally challenged? That's not documented, but I'm positive of it. Positive.

Argh. So we trudge through rehearsal. The director is incredibly good-humored and patient. The Maestro is mostly out to lunch. I mean literally- he would show up an hour late to rehearsals sometimes. And, speaking of uneven prep. Yikes! He was all over the place- but that's another blog post (probably not a good career move to trash talk a conductor in your blog). As we inch toward putting this show on, it slowly and miraculously comes together and all parties become more or less comfy with their respective parts. We're ready to open.

We have two scheduled performances. The first is outside of town at Villa Bellosguardo, the estate belonging to the Enrico Caruso family. Meanwhile, we have been rehearsing our show at an outdoor venue inside of Lucca proper. But we get in a bus early in the morning, drive to Bellosguardo, get a tour of the estate, and start talking about the show. It is so surreal, because my Italian is so crappy I can hardly understand what our hosts are telling us. For a few minutes, I wondered if anyone had told them that we were planning to do an opera that night. It seemed when we got there that we were just going to maybe have a tour and some prosciutto and be on our merry way. I mean, it's Italy- these things happen. But no, indeed, we were scheduled to perform.

Our 'stage' for Acts I, II, and III was a grassy hill. There was a stone wall with stone stairs going down to a lower terrace. The staircase was our only entrance on or off 'stage.' PS- there was no stage, only grass. To get back'stage' from the house (where our dressing area was), you had to walk behind the audience, all the way to the bottom of the hill, around the stone wall, and up the stairs. So what I'm saying is that you had to plan for it. Well....we may have had a mishap with that. One or more cast members may have missed an entrance because of that crazy stone wall. One person just chose to creep in through the audience. Not a bad move- pretty smart, actually, especially considering he was the mentally challenged guy. The other entrance was completely missed and our poor Susanna had to sing the "Aprite presto aprite" duet as a solo number.

Basically, our show just completely unraveled before our director's eyes. We made up for it (or tried) in Act IV, which took place in the Bellosguardo gardens. There is not a more perfect place to do Act IV. There were statues, topiaries, trees, and ample hiding places for all the Finale mischief. Act IV hung together really well, and I think we ended strong. And the audience seemed to be really into it (I have no idea who these people were or how they knew we were doing this show).

I forgot to mention the best part!!! Our 'lights' for this outdoor extravaganza was a huge glowing balloon that floated in midair above us. Seriously. Missed entrances, glowing balls, cats and dogs, living together. Mass hysteria!

Speaking of dogs, something they fed us for dinner that evening did NOT sit well with about 70% of the cast. I think (I hope) it was rabbit. Anyway, it was a rough few days for me after that. My stomach was a MESS.

Blah blah- anyway, our director was so disheartened he left town before our second performance. That was a tough blow for us. I mean, what did he expect? We rehearse a show for 4 weeks at one venue, and then travel to a completely new place and try to restage it in an afternoon? When people have only recently memorized their parts? It's a recipe for disaster. And it was. Except for Act IV.

So we get back to Lucca and get ready for our closing show. And it went superbly. I mean, everything that went wrong in the first one went right in the second one, and we were vindicated. It was a great night.

Thanks for sticking with me this far. That was all a preamble for this, the real story. The morning after our closing show, my friend and roomate Brad was leaving town to do some traveling around Europe. I had had a great summer with him and wanted to see him off, so I got up early to walk him to the train station. So here we are, on the cobblestone streets of Tuscany, early on a gorgeous Sunday morning, not a soul in sight except the two of us. Then some random guy on a rickety old bike scoots by us and as he passes he looks at me and says, "Ehi Figaro!"

Brad turns to me and says, "You gotta admit, that's pretty cool."

Pretty cool? Pretty cool? It put an amazingly poignant cap on what was a crazy summer of ups and downs. I felt like all the extra time I spent studying and going through my staging on my own, and worrying about our show, and bitching about it with my colleagues, and stressing were all rewarded by one crazy Italian dude. It was one of the best ovations I've ever gotten.

I can't talk about Lucca without mentioning one other thing. Every day between Italian class and rehearsal, I would walk by a little jewelry shop and look in the window. There was a modest little white gold ring in the window that caught my eye, and kept me coming back. One day I asked my good friend Tanya if she would go there with me to look at it because I was thinking of buying it for my other good friend Erika. Tan had this crazy notion that if the ring fit on her pinky, then it would probably fit on Erika's ring finger- she was totally right! I thought maybe I would buy the ring and propose to Erika at Christmas time or something. Tanya said I would never last that long. She was right about that too. I asked her as soon as I got off the plane.

So that was Lucca for me: Figaro, Figaro, and more Figaro, tiramisu on the wall, studying like a fiend, acting like a weirdo, tearing up my intestines with a rabbit, disappointing directors, winning over audience members, and buying an engagement ring for my best friend, partner, and confidant. Not too shabby.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

il chittarino le suonerò

Finished staging Act III this afternoon and spent most of the evening session reviewing the Act II Finale. Through some sort of miracle, Susanna and I managed to get out of the wedding dance. Blasphemy, you say? Not really. In my experience, the wedding dance can range from really cool, to 'Ography 101 to way overcomplicated. Usually I'm a disaster because I'm trying to count out my vocal line (even after doing it a million times, I still have to count like a fiend since that whole section all sounds the same!!! You hack Mozart!), and so my mad dance skillz get hindered. In our production, Susie and I are enjoying a post-nuptial cuddle while the wedding party dances. It gives us a good vantage point to peep the Count's note business. Also, it's a nice tie-in to last fall's Barber- the wedding party is doing a slo-mo dance - a little homage to our zany and madcap Act I finale.

Some other cool tie-ins include shaving Cherubino (it's my new favorite bit- I've stole it unabashedly ever since the Green Mountain Figaro last July - Ellen, you still never told me who you stole it from?!?!?!), and of course, playing the guitar. I have accompanied my own recit for Se vuol ballare before on guitar (which was a ball!), but this time, I'm just strumming along with the band for a few measures. It's a fun moment- it totally works with the aria, and I don't have to worry about my chops like I did for Barber last fall! Just a couple of chords to punctuate my rage. That's really what power chords are all about no?

In other news, I had a cup of joe at the Plaza Café this morning and saw my favorite waitress Edna. My eyes lit up for a moment when I saw her limping, but, alas, no cast on her foot. I would hate for her to slip and hurt her foot again, but she just doesn't look totally put together without the cast. I may have to go back tomorrow and get some greasy eggs.

In other other news, my mucous has almost completely left the building. I have been persuaded by some cast members to get poked by needles (aka Acupuncture) to help alleviate my remaining symptoms. That should be a gas- I'll let you know how it goes. Maybe I can post a pic w/ needles hanging out of my nose.

All right, enough blather. I'm going to watch Conan stick it to NBC. Cheers, big ears.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Resting on Laurels, Hardily

Ha! So all that crap I wrote about me learning the Figaro sextet way back when I was a teenager came back to bite me in the butt tonight. As we were staging it, I couldn't get the Ruth & Thomas Martin translation out of my head (I've done the R&T translation 4 times now- it's kind of hard to shake). It was mostly on the line in the recit where Fig tells the story about how he was stolen as a baby and he was wrapped in linens and surrounded by gold and jewels. Here's how our version is supposed to go:

"The gold, the jewels, the rich embroidered blankets in which I was wrapped, they were found by the robbers when they stole me. These are certain proof of my noble lineage."

The Ruth and Thomas version:

"The gold and precious jewels my abductors found near me, the fine embroidered linen I was wearing are confirmation of my noble extraction."

My version tonight:

"The gold, the jewels, the fine embroidered linen...blankets I which...@#$% in which I was wrapped in...the....@#$% Sorry. What is it? They were found, the robbers....@#$%%!!!"

Ah well. This entire show is kind of a highwire act- will I teeter on the R&T side, or over to the Porter side. It's kind of exciting. And terrifying. It is sort of nice- it keeps me on my toes after having sung 3 of these already this season. It adds a new dimension to the character. Sure, that dimension might be fear, but that's interesting to watch, right?

For all I trash talked the R&T translation earlier this season, it definitely gets the job done. Any translation is going to have some klunky moments. Some of my favorites from this one:

"Out you come you imp of Satan, out you come and out you go" (Count to Cherubino)
"Love alone inspired the blow" (Figaro, Bartolo, Marcellina in reference to Susanna)
"O joy to feel you beating me!" (Fig to Susanna)
"I, the Vulcan for our century will catch them in my net" (Fig...channeling Spock?)

Good times. It struck me as we were working tonight that this is my last Figaro in this little run. I need to savor it- who knows when I'll get to do it again?


waxing nostalgic

We're scheduled to stage the Act III sextet tonight- always a highlight. It's such gorgeous music and it's always a hoot.

The sextet was the very first chunk of opera I ever learned. I was 18 years old and in Opera Workshop class at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Needless to say I didn't know shinola from, well, you know, but I had a blast, and the fun I had in that scene was the best intro to opera I ever could have had. I realized that Opera and Musical Theatre were two sides of the same coin, and that Opera could be (and often is) mired in fun and silliness. I still remember rehearsing the Susanna/Figaro hug & twirl at the end of the number about a million times, trying desperately not to make it look lame and stagey, which, ultimately, it did.

I was able to repeat that silliness a few years later in my first full production of Marriage at UMD, and I'm about to do it for the 8th time (10th if you count a stint as Antonio and a Count cover) in Milwaukee.

Have I learned anything in all that time? I'd like to think so. What's different about doing it now as opposed to when I was a teenager? Tons.

Actually, with this stupid cold, there are times when I probably sound like that sucky 18-year-old. Oof.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

I hate singing with a cold

It's like if you went to the office only to find someone had poured maple syrup all over your computer terminal. Sounds delicious I know, but it makes doing your job tedious and sluggish.

I'm feeling a bit less snotty today (nose, not attitude), so I'm hoping that's a sign I'm improving a little.

There's been a lull in my staging, so I've been able to rest, drink tons of tea, and watch Dexter on Netflix on Demand (holy crap is that addictive!).

Enough about my mucus. Time to have a hot toddy with a Nyquil chaser.


Friday, January 8, 2010

...and we're off!

Well, it's Friday and we're well into staging Act II and are having a review of all of Act I tonight. It's quick, but it sort of has to be. It's a long song, as they say (do they say that?), and we don't have a ton of extra time.

I somehow decided it would be a good idea to get a cold, and thus spent all of yesterday chugging tea and cold medicine like it was my job. It least it's early in the process and (hopefully!?!?!) will be gone soon, but damn it is it annoying. I'm not sure who to blame- the temperature fluctuation at the Plaza (from 20 to 350 in the course of a day), or my daughter, who was a total snot machine before I left St. Paul. I don't know- I'm leaning toward the Plaza. My daughter is perfect.

So, an Act I review where I can't really sing. Should be a real hoot. At least the new translation is sticking. So far.

PS- we've got another great group of folks for this one, and I this music never gets old. Never!


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

1st day of school

Getting started is usually the hardest part of putting a show together. We dove in today though and did good work. It helps that I've worked with this Skylight crew a ton of times and so has my Susanna- plus, the atmosphere here at Skylab is so welcoming it's usually pretty easy to break the ice.

It's great to come back here and tell this story in the context of both operas. There are a few subtle (and not-so-subtle) tie-ins to Barber that are really cool.

I'm still really fried from yesterday's drive and whirlwind rehearsals. Today we staged the first scene and I had an hour-and-a-half costume fitting. Yikes. There's nothing like looking into a mirror for that long to remind you of all the Christmas Calories you just consumed. Oof.

On that note, I think I'll head to the gym....or maybe I'll try to scrounge up a beer.

Cheers, big ears.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Once more into the breach...

Well, I'm back at Skylab and it feels like I never left. And I'm back to The Marriage of Figaro. Ditto the feeling like I never left. I've said this before, but I never get tired of this music. It always makes me happy.

We had a recit call this afternoon where we tweaked word changes (there are some hilarious lines in this translation- I'll have to make a greatest hits compilation) and talked cuts. Then a company meeting where the designers got a chance to say a few words about the production and the volunteers and staff graciously brought in delicious eats for us.

Then we sang the whole darn opera tonight. Dag blaggit that Mozart knew what he was doing. I am so grateful that my job allows me to show up, take a seat and sing a totally gorgeous piece of music. It makes the hurt of leaving home slightly more manageable (slightly).

Nothing, however makes the hurt of driving 5 hours and singing two rehearsals go away (esp that stretch between Tomah and Madison- yikes).

On that note, readership, I bid you good night. I may have to visit Edna for a Plaza Pleaser tomorrow morning.


Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

The Skylight Marriage of Figaro begins rehearsal next week. It made a Top 10 list of shows to see at the Journal-Sentinel.

"Baritone Andrew Wilkowske returns to the Skylight Opera Theatre to polish off a rare double Figaro. Earlier this season, he sang the role of opera's greatest wingman in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." Now he's back in Mozart's comic opera."

Opera's Greatest Wingman. Indeed. Good way to start the year!