Advance Casting is Killing Opera

“The staging was fantastic, but that tenor was horrendous!” This is something that is now commonplace to overhear at the opera.

This wouldn’t be surprising if it were happening at your local community theatre. . . but it isn’t. It’s happening at the Met, La Scala, Chicago Lyric. Why would so many A-list houses have this same issue? Is there some commonality that someone might identify? Turns out, there is!

One might think that major opera houses run auditions just like everywhere else: at the end of the last season, there are huge auditions and all the roles for next season are filled from that pool. Right? Wrong.

Many opera houses contract their lead roles years in advance, and lots of times there is no audition. (I wonder when the last time Netrebko actually auditioned for something.) Some bigger houses cast half a decade in advance. A lot can happen in those 2-5 years. A singer could develop nodes, they could have a baby, they could overbook themself. . . and the list goes on.

This strategy is lucrative for the well-established, well-managed singers, but not so well for the majority of others. I assert that this concept of “advanced casting” is what is ruining the experience of opera for so many.

As late as the 1960’s Rudolph Bing used to plan the next season of the Met as he was on the spring tour for the last season. His pool of talent was smaller and more local. He didn’t have the luxury of pulling in the big shot tenor from the Ukraine. In those days, operatic casting was more fluid. If a singer couldn’t perform, they got fired. Point blank.

Now, opera houses scramble to book a shriveling pool of “world class” singers three, four, or five years in advance. These are the singers that are so famous that they dictate the terms of their contract, and those terms are tight. Meanwhile, the “not so world class but damned fine” singers are hung out to dry. The only way to make your big debut at many of these houses is to land an understudy gig and step in at the last minute for the ailing superstar.

The issue is that now, a superstar singer can overbook themselves, show up in less than stellar form, and it is increasingly hard to fire them. The contracts have become bulletproof. Even if the whole show sags because of their performance, the only way to nix them and pull in a ringer is to pay out the original singers contract AND pay the new artist’s fees.

So, instead of firing them, the show just goes on, much to the chagrin of the rest of the cast and the beleaguered audience. In this flawed system, the hard working “middle class” of singers aren’t afforded their fair chance at fame, and the audience leaves in a huff, feeling used.

And the superstar moves on. . . absolutely oblivious.


Genderfucked Drag: Serving Bearded Lady Realness

Genderfucked Drag: Serving Bearded Lady Realness

Mathu  By Michael J. Davis

If you haven’t heard of RuPaul’s Drag Race by now, then you must have been living under a rock – or maybe in Russia – for the last 6 years. LogoTV’s runaway hit has skyrocketed drag culture into the global limelight, but what we have seen on the show is a very specific kind of drag; it’s the kind that can be served up with a bow – and honey, the bigger the better – and digested easily by the public. Until very recently, it has been divas, dolls, clowns, and not much else. That is, until now.

Last week, the shows eager viewers were given a glimpse into the darker – and hairier – aspects of drag with the runway challenge “Bearded Lady Realness.” Since then, the show’s following has been all atwitter, reeling from the shock of seeing bearded queens on the mainstage. Suddenly, there is confusion about what makes a drag queen. Does the presence of facial hair or chest hair suddenly retract the title of drag queen, no matter how big the wig or high the heel? Of course it doesn’t! In fact, it’s not even new.

‘Genderfucked’ queens have been around since the infancy of drag in the club scenes of the 80’s in New York City. These queens revel in blurring the gender binary and provoking people to look deeper. The strongest bastion of these queens now resides in the Pacific Northwest cities of San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, where burly, bearded, gown-clad boys abound. Beauty is not the primary – or even the secondary – objective of this faction of the world of drag. It’s more about the performance, the expression of self, and the ability to precipitate emotional reactions. SF queens like Grace Towers, Ruby-Blue Gender-Bender, and Effervescence Jackson all lip-sync “the house down” while rocking beards and chest hair.

Effervescence Jackson, or Effy, as her close friends call her, spoke about her drag, “My drag is deliberately gender-ambiguous. For me, it’s not about being fishy or making people think I’m a woman. It’s about making them think. I want a reaction. I want to change their perception of something on some primal level. I want to change how people think about gender, how they think about drag, and how they think about art. That’s why I do what I do.” This is the effect many queens in this genre of drag wish to achieve; they want to challenge your preconceived notions of the world around you.

While many genderfucked queens deliberately avoid looking polished, others take pride in being flawless – from beard to toe. One such queen, who has been around since the days of Paris is Burning, is the creative producer of Drag Race: Mathu Andersen. An original New York club kid, this queen counts the legendary James St. James (whose memoir Disco Bloodbath inspired the 2003 film Party Monster), and the incomparable Mama Ru as their close personal friends. In fact, this self-proclaimed “wig whisperer” has been RuPaul’s personal makeup artist and wig wrangler for years. Andersen also recently made drag “herstory” by participating in the first major fashion show to feature only drag queens and men; presented by the preeminent designer – and go-go boy favorite – Marco Marco.

One glimpse of Mathu Andersen’s instagram will slam the door in the face of anyone who thinks bearded queens aren’t every bit as fierce as their meticulously manscaped counterparts. Andersen sports a Walt Whitman worthy beard that takes almost as many shapes as the queen herself. Mathu’s photos, mostly “selfies”, offer visual commentary on a gamut of topics including vanity, sex and sexual roles, beauty ideals, and ageism. On the first encounter, these photos are startling. On the second, profound. His instagram art has been so well received that it was featured in a show at the World of Wonder art gallery in Los Angeles, which was hosted by RuPaul – of course!

Whether it’s tinted hot pink, painted black, or tightly trimmed into a handlebar moustache, this queens facial hair adds a layer beyond the flawless maquillage that forces the viewer to reevaluate their perception of beauty, femininity and gender identity. Mathu Andersen no doubt brought the “Bearded Lady Realness” challenge on Drag Race to fruition, and it was an ingenious ploy to highlight the facets of drag that have, until now, thrived mostly on the fringe. These highly gender-ambiguous facets of drag are the most provocative and powerful, and therefore exhibit the most potential to drive change; a change that the US is struggling to come to terms with, but is being expertly coached through by Andersen, RuPaul, and the queens of Drag Race.

While Mathu Andersen was puppeteering the television premiere of genderfucked queens in the US, another queen was already garnering multinational attention on the stage of Europe’s biggest talent search. In 2014, Conchita Wurst, a queen with pipes like Christina and looks like Kim K – but with a beard – won the Eurovision Song Competition. If you are not familiar, think a more established and more successful Euro version of American Idol. This bearded bombshell represented the country of Austria, and was broadcasted into 170 million homes worldwide. She won by a landslide margin of 52 points and has since been dubbed the “Queen of Austria.”

Conchita’s participation prompted visceral reactions from all over the EU. There were petitions to edit her out of the telecasts in Russia, Belarus and Armenia (whose contestant offered to help Wurst decide if she was a woman or a man). In fact, some Russians even shaved their beards in protest. Ironically, Wurst wouldn’t have won the competition without the help of those notoriously anti-gay countries; she placed second and third in the polls of Armenia and Russia respectively. From the looks of it, tides are changing even in these staunchly conservative countries. (Much to Putin’s chagrin.)

Conchita was such a hot commodity in 2014 that she was ranked 7th in worldwide Google searches for that year, ranking just above ISIS and just below Flappy Birds. This 25-year-old queen has blown the lid off the world of genderfucked performance, and has inadvertently prompted a wave of acceptance all over Europe. People in Austria may have started to cheer for Wurst to win the competition out of pure nationalism, but soon they were rethinking their notions about drag queens and the LGBT community. Conchita Wurst, despite loathing the idea of being a political figure, has been given a platform to help usher in an era of LGBT acceptance in Europe, and thereby the world. What she will do with it has yet to be seen, but many advocates for LGBT rights are hopeful.

While genderfucked drag has been provoking thought and changing minds for 30+ years, in the past two years it has reached the world stage. With this kind of inertia, it only stands to reason that not only are beards an integral part of drag, but also that bearded beauties might even change the world.




Review- Dead Man Walking: Northwestern University’s powerful take on a Jake Heggie hit.

 By Michael J. Davis

Dead Man Walking has skyrocketed composer Jake Heggie to a position as the most prominent operatic composer of the 21st century. This powerhouse opera, debuted in San Francisco in 2000, is a true story that chronicles Joseph de Rocher, a convicted murderer, on his journey towards death by lethal injection at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. Just as much, it tells the story of Sister Helen Prejean, whose memoir inspired both the opera and the 1995 blockbuster of the same name. Sister Helen has been asked to be Joseph’s spiritual advisor, and her struggle to forgive this murderer and guide him to a peaceful passing give the opera a light that is necessary to balance out the profound darkness of the subject matter. The opera leaves you emotionally wrought: it tears your heart to pieces, but somehow leaves you feeling uplifted and more human than before the curtain went up.

Northwestern University’s production was stunningly executed in all aspects – especially when considering that this is a nonprofessional production. The first scene acts as a jarring prologue: in it we witness the brutal rape and murder of two young teens. From the stunned silence that follows Sister Helen sings the first strains of the spiritual “He Will Gather Us Around.” This melody weaves into the texture throughout the opera to balance the most macabre moments with a melancholic beauty. Even in the confines of Northwestern’s outdated and worn Cahn Auditorium, stage director Michael M. Ehrman’s set transports you to the dank confines of Angola with its layers of jail bars, rusted tin, and chain link. Even in its minimalism, the ether of death row is easily palpable. The chorus of convicts add the frenetic chaos of death row to the sonic atmosphere.

Baritone Alexander York, gives his performance as De Rocher a frightening edge, while maintaining a free and expressive vocal tone. As the show progresses, that edge slowly wears away to show glimpses of the frightened man underneath: glimpses of his guilt and of his shame. His portrayal lent the production much of its darkness, but also much of its poignancy. The scene in which De Roucher finally admits to his terrible deeds reveals a distraught boy, who has made a horrible drug-induced decision, and who must now pay the ultimate price. York toes this line between hardened criminal and scared boy with surprising agility.

Quinn Middleman, as Sister Helen, is simply magnificent. She acts with a fire whose intensity is unmatched in the show. Her doubt and confusion, coupled with her steely resolve to fulfill her duty, give her portrayal of Prejean a 3-dimensional quality that allows the audience to join her on her journey to forgiveness. Without this, the show would falter. Throughout the show she reaches out to De Roucher emotionally many times, but never physically. Because of this her most powerful moment comes in the final scene, after Joe’s death, where she finally gathers the strength to touch the condemned man, singing the same a capella spiritual that began the show as the curtain falls.

Mezzo Stephanie Feigenbaum gives a stand out performance as Mrs. De Roucher, Joseph’s Mother. In her act one aria, she pleads for her son’s life to the parole board, pouring a mother’s grief onto the stage with such gut-wrenching conviction that it leaves the audience sobbing. Her final farewell to her ill-fated son similarly rips your heart out: after taking a final family portrait, she insists on no goodbyes and only smiles, recalling her boy as the innocent child he once was. Only when her poor Joe gets dragged out does she lose herself, gutturally screaming after him “JOEY!” then exasperatedly whispering, “I just wanted to see his face one more time.” Even recalling it brings chills to the spine.

Kyle Sackett, Regina Ceragioli, Michael Powell, and Chelsea Betz lend gravity as the parents of the deceased teens. The sextet towards the end of act one, “You don’t know what it’s like…” with the parents of the deceased, Sister Helen, and Mrs. De Roucher illuminates the emotional struggle of everyone effected by this horrible crime. The parents sing of their last words to their children: “comb your hair,” “fix your blouse,” “clean your room,” “shut the door.” Simultaneously, Mrs. De Roucher sings of her guilt for not bringing her boy up right, and Prejean just keeps apologizing for the way things are.

The Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Michael Sakir, brings Heggie’s modern yet pleasingly melodic score to life. The orchestra is supplely lead, although there are moment’s where the orchestra overpowers the singers. This may be due to the acoustics of the space, but it also speaks to the young conductors inexperience.

With the professional level of execution in this production, Northwestern University’s Opera department has solidified its place at the forefront of operatic training. Any money spent on a ticket to their productions will be money well spent.

Blowout on the Mainstage

Blowout on the Mainstage

Michael J. Davis

Picture this: You’ve just paid $340 for a 3rd row center ticket to see the new production of Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC. Now imagine the excitement as the curtain floats up and the orchestra plays the first strains of that oh-so-familiar overture. You and everyone else in the house are ecstatic to be able to witness this time-tested 145-year-old warhorse of an opera. Even if this is your first time at the opera, the music of this piece has permeated your life even without your knowledge. Commercials, movie soundtracks, kids cartoons, it’s everywhere and you know it well. Then everything starts sliding downhill, excitement gives way to heartbreak as you realize you may have just wasted half this month’s rent to listen to people massacre some of the most beautiful music in the Operatic cannon. Don José is wailing at fortissimo when he could be gingerly breaking your heart with the softer dynamics written in the score, and every time Escamillo comes out of the wings you are terrified you might actually witness someone hemorrhage their vocal chords right there on stage. As you sit there mortified, you think, “Why? Why is this happening? Why the hell did I pay so much money for this swill? AND WHY ARE THEY YELLING AT ME?”

The answer is because those singers are about to burn out. The sad fact is that those singers have stepped beyond the bounds of their voice type and their training to sing bigger roles before they were ready. They put the proverbial cart before the horse and now they are crashing, in super slo-mo, right before your very eyes and ears. Singing opera is a sport and an art. It is dancing with your voice, and just like a poised ballerina, singers have to undergo rigorous training to balance and coordinate all the musculature that goes into singing: the abs, the chest, the back, the knees, even the balls of your feet – all of these and more – play into Operatic singing.

Now, let’s think about how much force (via air pressure) you could produce with all of those muscle groups combined. Now put all that force behind two tiny pieces of membrane no bigger than your thumbnail (your vocal chords) and try to make a beautiful, balanced, easy, and above all musical sound. This might illuminate why so many young singers are blowing out their voice, even before they even reach the prime years of an Operatic career. Those years, for the uninducted, are from about 30 years old (35 in bigger voices) all the way to the mid 50’s in a well-coordinated, judicious singer. Many great singers, both past and present, have gone on to sing successfully well after those years. Giuseppe Taddei, an Italian baritone, sang a glorious Falstaff at the Met at the ripe old age of 70! Birgit Nilsson, the acclaimed Swedish soprano, was singing the most rigorous trials of Wagner well into her 60’s. The history of opera is brimming with these examples. But will the history written tomorrow be the same as the history of yesteryear? I wager it won’t be. Why? The answer is complicated, but it boils down to two things: poor training and unrealistic staging demands.

In years past, promising young singers were hand-selected early on and groomed for the trials of an Operatic career. They received daily lessons and those lessons started from the very beginning: first the breath, then one note, then scales, then more scales, then even more scales, and then – maybe – an art song or two, but always with the firm grounding of routine; a routine that builds up slowly over time, not in one heroic burst. This routine builds technique, and technique is the toolbox that singers use to undergo the increasingly demanding schedule of flying all over the world, and laying your heart out on the stage. It allows them to hold up through the passions, exhaustions, and exhilarations of public performance. Solid technique is what is missing in so many singers of today. Opera is a marathon in singing. Would you run a marathon without first learning how to walk? I think not.

In today’s world, opera is viewed more and more in the fanatical way that the Hollywood movie industry is viewed. The industry is flooded with singers who think, “My friends and family tell me I should be in opera, and if I try real hard I might just get my big break.” After finishing a degree in Vocal Performance – and sometimes even before – they dive right into the deep end and start into the biggest composers: Puccini, Verdi and Wagner, and all before the age of 28. They are bolstered by a community of voice teachers – most of which are burnt out singers themselves – who are eager to have that one student who makes it big. Many voice teachers today have sacrificed the old Italianate way of singing, where clear tone, regular vibrato, smooth legato lines, connection to appoggio, and a capacity with florid coloratura were key. Those essential building blocks have all been put on the back burner while the teachers push for more power, more range and more stamina. Singers have begun to forego mastering the virtues of singing a simple clean scale in order to take the fast track to more overt “emotional” expression. As a young singer in the money-sucking world of Classical conservatories I can say for certain that one thing is true: opera, and the training that goes with it, has become big business, and the nuances of proper training are slipping through our grubby little fingers.

The world of opera, is filled to the point of bursting with young hopefuls who are all paying out the nose for graduate-level educations, auditions, summer opera programs, and young artist programs; all vying for that one shot – their big break. Now, with such an immense talent pool, why would it be fact, in 2015, that the most common gripe in the reviews of shows at the world’s best opera houses is that the singers are overblowing, pushing, and singing well beyond the scope of their fach (A specific categorization system related to size, color, timbre and flexibility of a voice)? Why wouldn’t the singers with the soundest technique be the ones who are chosen for the big leagues?

I believe that lies in a shift in the way opera is viewed by the public. This shift was marked by the meteoric rise of Maria Callas in the mid 1940’s. Callas, or as her adoring public dubbed her “La Divina,” has since become the archetype of the diva, known for being difficult to work with, but a beast on stage. Callas was the first of her kind, not only because she broke through the stuffy confines of the opera house to become a household name, but also because she was flawed. Moreover, she was vocally flawed, a fact that has been hotly debated since her debut. Her voice has been said to have been frayed and uncontrollable, but it is argued by the majority that this was all for the sake of the drama. On stage, she was visceral, raw, magnetic. You simply couldn’t take your eyes off her, and the flaws suddenly became incidental. She was able to sacrifice even tone, pushing the boundaries of her voice in order to better convey the raw emotion that was more present in the subtext of the drama and less in the score. She, nearly single-handedly, killed the old tradition of “park and bark” singing. Suddenly, opera had to engage you on a new level; it had to be a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.

Since then, opera companies have become a battleground. On one side well-intentioned singers who know what they are capable and incapable of onstage, while singing and still producing a beautiful legato line. On the other, sanguine stage directors who, for the sake of the drama, are pushing singers to jump through flaming hoops of vocal prowess while running across a steeply raked stage and wearing a corset. Singers are increasingly being pushed to do things on stage that would be unspeakable to directors of the late 19th century. A tragically funny example of this was LA Opera’s 2010 production of Wagner’s massive cycle of four operas Der Ring des Nibelungen. In this production, Achim Freyer, a German visual artist turned director, put the singers on stage in comically large costumes complete with huge face-masks that sometimes limited their vision and their hearing. Those not wearing masks wore clown paint that utterly expunged any expression given by the singers face. So the singers were left to give any emotion they could with only their voice.

Now, the orchestration for the Ring is 120 pieces at the very minimum (including SIX harps). Someone that is singing over an orchestra that big is already at the end of their vocal tether in the bigger phrases. So, pushing past that would obviously do some real harm. Oh, and did I mention the whole production was on a 45-degree raked stage with a moving turntable in the middle which was striped with fluorescent light bulbs, which spun to represent the passing of time. It was also performed entirely from behind a scrim (a curtain of thin material that can have images projected onto it, but that also plays double duty as a sponge for sound). Celebrated Wagnerian soprano, Linda Watson, who has sung the ill-fated Brünnhilde with great success at A-level houses around the world, spoke of the production calling it the “the most dangerous stage I’ve been on in my entire career… Your whole neck is tipped wrong. It’s very painful to do it for hours.” She also spoke of Freyer’s focus on the visual aspects as opposed to the music and the vocal artistry, “It takes years to be able to sing a Ring, and to just toss this all away – he doesn’t say it in words, but his gestures speak louder than words. To have that not be important to him is very insulting.” A member of the chorus and a close personal friend of mine reported enthusiastically that Ms. Watson at one point stormed out of rehearsal after stepping on a fluorescent light and nearly tumbling off stage. So you see, opera has become so much about the spectacle of the thing and so little about the art that it has become life threatening; both literally and vocally.

Gone is the era where a singer can simply object from singing a particularly trying passage from all the way upstage – let alone with a mask on that blurs your vision and hearing. Now, if you aren’t prepared to give the directors anything they want, they will simply find someone who will. Even more unfortunate is that those directors are usually the ones making the casting decisions. So naturally, the sly singers have learned to play to their audience, sacrificing good, even tone for the sake of grabbing a listener’s attention. Pushing a voice beyond its natural limit has become “exciting” instead of “dangerous.” Singers who get on stage for an audition and push the boundaries of what was once considered musical, can now catch the director’s eye and are getting placed in those most sought after positions, many times well before they are ready for the strain of such a large role. The young hopefuls who sidestepped the foundation of natural, healthy singing in order to gain size, power and range have been given a place in the spotlight, while the methodical well-intentioned singer is still back in the practice room singing scales. Not to say that those diligent singers won’t have brilliant careers of their own, but in time, they may also find themselves having to sacrifice healthy vocalism to be heard over an orchestra in an outlandish “post-modern” reboot of a classic opera.

The unfortunate side effect of this new wave of staging opera as visual art with music, or as a movie might be staged, is a dramatic cut in vocal longevity and quality to singers who aren’t vigilant. It is now commonplace for an Operatic career to go down in flames before the age of 40. Wide wobbles are endured by audiences the world over. The most gut-wrenching moments of barely audible beauty are bowled over, sung at a dynamic of loud and louder, because the art of singing softly was left somewhere in a dark practice room, collecting dust with the scales.

In light of all of this, there is hope. A movement, led mostly by the Italians, to return opera to its former glory, allowing the singers to shine, with the set and staging working as supporters of the music, has been born – or reborn, rather . Proponents of this school argue what I have always known to be true, that opera is the highest form of singing; first and foremost. All the other elements of the production should serve to better convey the beauty of that art, not to alienate it in the name of something “new” or “exciting.” My most exciting moments at the opera have been the moments where an expertly executed vocal line rips into my soul, sending chills to my core. I cannot recall a single moment where I got chills from the staging, and the smoke and mirrors that might go along with it. Opera is supposed showcase the art of singing, not the art of staging. My sincere hope is that the rest of the opera community comes to realize this sooner rather than later, preferably before we have destroyed some of the most promising singing artists of our generation. But until that fateful moment, here we are, back at the Met, actually paying to be subjected to what can only be referred to as caterwauling in costume. Is this really what’s exciting? Or is this actually what’s terrifying? I’ll let you be the judge, but try not to pay too much for the tickets.