Goodbye to New Orleans

April 27, 2015

Dear Friends,

Today I taught my very last class at Xavier University of Louisiana. I am pulling up my proverbial stakes and heading back up north, where I look forward to spending more time with my wife and family and more time writing music.

I don’t need to tell you that living in New Orleans has been a real adventure for a kid from suburban Pennsylvania. I was a witness to my very first shooting here, I had a knife pulled on me outside my apartment, and I was almost—almost!—the victim of a carjacking. But I accepted this as the price I had to pay for the privilege of living in one of the most magical cities in the world, a city which also showered me with a tremendous amount of love. You let me march in a Mardi Gras parade leading a drumline. You and your mayor cheered me on during my very first road race, the UNCF 5K, despite my utterly abysmal time (38:20, just ten seconds faster than the winning speedwalker). You have played and sung my music all over the city, including performances at French Quarter Fest, at Bach Around the Clock, on the breathtaking grounds of Longue Vue House and Gardens, at Roussel Hall, and at the astonishing new Marigny Opera House, where Dave Hurlbert presented me with one of my most prized possessions, my very own set of keys. Those of you in the press and media have been unbelievably kind and generous to me, and I thank all of you not only for me, but also for my mother, who has read your reviews, interviews, and articles aloud to everyone in Allentown. One week I actually made the New Orleans Times-Picayune three times: once in a feature article by Chris Waddington, once in Nell Nolan’s society pages (!), and once in the police blotter for having had my phone and wallet stolen.

I will miss most of all my students at Xavier, who have taught me so much more about life than I could ever teach them about music. You are some of the warmest, brightest, funniest, most unflinchingly honest, and most enormously talented young men and women I have ever known, and certainly the best group of students any teacher anywhere could ever hope to have in a classroom. In one of our last classes, some of you remarked that you had never once seen me get angry in all of my years of teaching. But the truth is, I enjoyed having you in class and in rehearsal too much to ever get angry at you for anything. Besides, I needed to save my anger for my daily commute on the I-10.

And of course I will miss just as much those of you who collaborated with me on Freedom Ride, including the quintessential gentleman Wilfred Delphin, who has the uncanny gift of always doing and saying the absolute right thing at the right place and the right time, and my dear friend Dara Rahming, my favorite soprano in a world of favorite sopranos, one of the world’s most truly beautiful people, who has been the heart and soul of this project and without whom I would have left the city of New Orleans many years ago.

Although An Embarrassing Position will forever remain my love letter to the old New Orleans, Freedom Ride is my true love letter to the people living in the Crescent City today. So many of you have supported and encouraged this opera from the very beginning, and I still would like to premiere it here—somehow, some way!— in the near future. It is an opera about New Orleans, set in New Orleans, based on historical events that took place in New Orleans, with characters from New Orleans, featuring the music and language of New Orleans, and of course written in New Orleans. So if any of you has any brilliant fundraising ideas, please let me know. And of course if I miraculously win the lottery, I will let YOU know.

My deepest regret is that Xavier is not hiring a replacement for me, which means the already overworked music department faculty will have to find some way to cover the twelve or thirteen courses I teach each year and the nine or ten students on average that I accompany for performances and juries. This, I fear, is only the first step in the eventual elimination of the music department, something I have worried about ever since the academic restructuring of the university. Xavier has been training young African American singers and presenting opera to the New Orleans community for eighty years.    It has been an honor to help keep that distinguished tradition alive, and I am sorry to see that it is in such imminent peril. You are a city that prides itself on its music and culture, and you deserve a university that values music and culture as well. I can only hope that the arrival of a new president and a new provost in the fall will signal a revival of the school’s original mission and St. Katharine Drexel’s original commitment to the arts and humanities.

Thank you to all of you, and please do keep in touch! I’ll be here for another week and a half, long enough to see one last class of seniors graduate, and barely long enough for one last walk along the Mississippi, one last burrito at Felipe’s, one last run through City Park, one last plate of red beans and rice at Napoleon House, one last browse through Crescent City Books, and one last time hearing someone playing “Second Line” on the trumpet as I order one last café au lait at Café du Monde. Then, like the wandering musician I have always been, I will toss my suitcase in my car, drive one last time over Lake Pontchartrain, and finally, after all these years, know what it means to miss New Orleans.

Best wishes, and thank you all again,

Dan

A Score of Beautiful Bridegrooms

Something incredible is happening this week—the twentieth production of my opera The Beautiful Bridegroom. And then, a few days later, the twenty-first. With double-casting, that means over 150, and maybe even 200 women have performed in this comedy, many of them making their operatic debut. I’ve been asked a few times to talk about the history of this bizarre little piece, most recently by a student in Chicago (sorry it’s taken me so long, Kacey!), so I thought maybe now it was finally time to put it down on paper.

In 2002-2003, I spent a year in Denmark on a Fulbright grant, studying with the fantastic composer Andy Pape, attending the composition seminar at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, and eating some of the worst food known to mankind. We can talk about the lack of sunlight later.

In the process of completing my Fulbright application and preparing for the trip, I read—literally—absolutely everything Danish in the circulating collection of the Boston Public Library. Well, at least those books that had been translated into English. (Although to be brutally honest, I just skimmed the Kierkegaard.) In a collection of one-act plays by the playwright Ludvig Holberg, I ran across The Changed Bridegroom, the last play Holberg ever wrote. What struck me immediately was the cast—six women! There had only been five women in the company Holberg was writing for, so one of the parts had originally been played by a man in drag.

Now, if you know anything about the opera world, you know that for every ten young singers, one is a tenor, one is a baritone, two are mezzos, and the other forty-seven are sopranos. So when you see a story that features a lot of female roles, you get pretty excited.

The play told the story of the aging widow Terentia, who, when trying to arrange a marriage for her elder daughter, decides that she herself should take a husband. A young husband. A very young husband. The dialogue was brisk and funny, the characters were sharply drawn, the action was clear, and the story itself took on the nature of a parody—it was like the age-old commedia dell’arte plot of the old man chasing the young girl, but with the genders reversed! Wouldn’t that make a great opera?

The problem was the ending. Holberg’s play was an eighteenth-century “comedy of character,” where the personality flaw of the main character is exaggerated to the point of ridicule. For that reason, Terentia, looking for love, was utterly humiliated at the end of The Changed Bridegroom, while the other five women stood by and laughed. Sexist ­and ageist? What a horrible ending for a comedy!

I photocopied the play and put it in the back of my filing cabinet. But six women! If only there were a way to solve the problem of the ending…

A few years later I ran into the fabulous Patricia Weinmann, one of the directors of the opera department at the New England Conservatory. The conservatory had produced my opera Works of Mercy when I was a student in 2002, and I still kept in touch with everyone there. Trish and I were at a performance of Mark Adamo’s extremely successful Little Women. Mark’s genius, I argued, was taking an unworkable story like Little Women and finding a way to make it dramatically effective on stage. All of those sopranos! And a strong libretto to boot! No wonder it was so wildly popular with opera companies, and good for him to have accomplished the impossible. “Well, Dan,” Trish asked me, “when are you going to write us an opera for that many women?”

I went back home, dug the Holberg play out of the back of my filing cabinet—easier said than done, I might add—and looked at it again. Terentia was punished at the end. But what was her crime? That she was lonely and wanted to get married? It seemed like a perfectly reasonable desire. Although I agreed with Holberg that it was selfish for her to steal her daughter’s groom, I knew that she deserved one of her own. One who really loved her. After all, if there’s no happy ending, it’s not really a comedy, is it? I did make sure never to bring the man onstage. If Holberg could keep his cast all-female, then dang it, so could I.

I rewrote the story, making sure that all of the problems faced by the six characters were solved relatively adequately by the end. One of the many things I learned writing children’s musicals (ooh, that’s another blog post right there) is that for a show to be successful, every person on the stage has to feel that she is vitally important to the action, with a series of genuine needs that have to be pursued and ultimately either met or not met. This is how actors think of their craft, and it’s the responsibility of the playwright and composer to give them some raw material to work with.

The music itself ended up being the easy part. Partly to reflect the time period, the 1750s, but mostly to indulge my fancy for pastiche, I conceived of the score as an homage to Mozart, the greatest of comic opera composers. My work method was very simple: I took out all of my Mozart scores and stacked them up on my desk. I never opened them, but there they were, winking at me all the time as I banged on the piano and scribbled on my oversized green paper. By the time I was done there was a minuet scene and the entire work was sprinkled with dozens of references and allusions to his operas. There was no effort to try for pure Mozart, obviously—who could possibly presume to do that? This was Mozart filtered through the lens of Prokofiev, that wittiest of all neoclassical composers and a constant source of inspiration to me. If the “Classical” Symphony was Prokofiev pretending to be Haydn, then The Beautiful Bridegroom would be me pretending to be Prokofiev pretending to be Mozart. And let the harmonic chips fall where they may.

Trish handed the reins to director Greg Smucker and music director Dan Wyneken, who had been the pianist and coach for Works of Mercy and who remains one of the most brilliant musicians I have ever had the pleasure to work with. (Side note: although I often complain that there are a lot of composers and librettists out there who have no idea how opera works, there is a large group of people who really do. They are called coaches. They work at your college or university and they are worth their weight in freaking gold.) Greg was filled with brilliant ideas and probing questions from day one, and among other things talked me into completely rewriting the beginning of the third scene, which I’m pretty sure singlehandedly saved the entire opera from being incomprehensible. And Dan suggested so many tiny changes and details that it’s impossible for me to remember after all this time precisely which ones, but suffice it to say that absolutely everything he touched he vastly and miraculously improved. Dan is one of two people I know about whom I can say that when he and I disagree, I simply assume that I am wrong. The other one, of course, is my wife.

And the rest is just a long stream of amazing luck. I was lucky to have, in addition to Trish, Greg, and Dan, a great cast and a great premiere. I was lucky to have Elaine Craine produce it later for Worcester Opera Works with Rebecca Grimes directing, and I was lucky to have received such fantastic publicity from them and the local media. I was lucky to have won the National Opera Association Chamber Opera Competition, which allowed the opera to be seen by even more singers, directors, and voice teachers. And I was lucky that so many schools, workshops, and companies decided to program the opera and that so many musicians worked so hard to perform it so beautifully. Most of all, I’ve been lucky to have been invited to meet and work with so many students across the country. The Beautiful Bridegroom is more than anything a piece for young singers, something I hope will be fun for them to study and something that will help them learn their craft and grow.

Because if there is a secret to the opera’s success, it is undoubtedly that so many opera workshop directors have thought it to be an effective teaching piece. Well, that and luck. And some very old jokes. And an enormous sword. And possibly some lesbians. And you know, putting six talented women on stage doesn’t hurt, either.

Let Me Sing and I’m Happy

A little while ago I received an email from my friend Stacey Mastrian.  She was giving a presentation on writing for singers, and she wrote, “I was wondering if there is anything that you wish you’d known earlier or that you have learned through all of your work with them.”

Well, of course there are plenty of things I had wish I had known earlier, and plenty of things I’ve learned working with so many singers over the years.  And I thought I would share all of that here, in case it’s useful to anyone else.

(By the way, this is November 2013; I’m sure if you ask me again in a year, or five years, or fifty years, I’ll have something else to say then…)

So here we go:

(1) If you don’t love singers, and you don’t want them to sound their best, DO NOT WRITE FOR THE VOICE.  EVER.  Vocal music is not about the composer, it’s about the singer.

(2) Write the kind of music a voice teacher would assign to her students, not the kind of music your composition teacher wants you to write.  So, yes to the 24 Italian Songs and Arias, yes to Mozart, yes to Menotti, yes to Schubert, yes to Schumann.  No to Schoenberg, no to Berio, no to Crumb.  I’m not saying this isn’t great music; I’m just saying these are not good models for composers.  In fact, they are TERRIBLE models for composers.*

(3) If it’s a long piece, like an opera, make sure you warm the singer up properly in the beginning.

(4) Nobody wants to sing those big, stupid leaps.  Nobody wants to hear them.  Stop writing them.

(5) Don’t ask your singer to sing anything that you can’t sing yourself, accurately.

(6) The vocal line has to be supported by the harmony.  Make sure your singer can always find her pitches in the accompaniment.  She has enough to worry about onstage without trying to figure out where her note is.

(7) There is a difference between range and tessitura.  (This is one that I’m STILL learning.)  Just because she CAN hit those notes doesn’t mean she wants to hit so many of them over and over again.

(8) A singer needs to be able to connect to your piece musically and emotionally.  And ultimately you the composer have to take responsibility for that.  If she can’t understand it after she’s been working on it for a while, YOU are doing it wrong.  Composers who complain about singers will never write good music for them.

(9) Always write for a specific voice.  Does she have a great high Bb?  Make that the climax.  Does she have trouble around an F or F#?  Don’t give her a long note there.  Even if the person you write the piece for doesn’t end up singing it, it’s always better in the long run to have written it for someone in particular.  If you’re really living on a desert island, imagine you’re writing for your favorite singer.

(10) On a related note, the best compliment you can ever get from a singer is “This is perfect for my voice.”  The best compliment you can ever get from an audience member is “She sounded fabulous.”  Remember, it’s not about you; it’s about the singer.

(11) Pay very, very close attention to stresses, accents, how words and phrases are pronounced, and what you want them to mean.  The music needs first of all to clarify the text.  A lot of that is rhythm, but a lot of that is also range and harmony.  Try speaking the words aloud the way you want them to sound, and then compose an appropriate setting.  If your text is in English, study the songs of Irving Berlin, who is one of the absolute masters of this.

(12) Sometimes the words are more important, and sometimes the music is more important.  Decide which it is from measure to measure.  If you want her to float a high B pianissimo, don’t expect anyone to understand what she’s saying at that point.

(13) Your accompaniment tells the singer a lot, including how free she can be in terms of rhythm.

(14) I said this before, but it really is the most important thing: There is only one reason to write for the voice, and that is because you love singers and you want them to sound their best.  There is only one reason why a singer will want to sing your music, and that is because it makes HER sound her best.

Finally, if there were a way to sum up absolutely everything I’ve learned about writing opera and vocal music in one sentence, it would be this: Find some good singers and make them happy.  It may not be easy, but it really is that simple.

———————————————————

*Note from November 24, 2013:

I’ve received a lot of comments about this over the weekend, so I’d like to clarify something:

I deliberately brought up Schoenberg, Berio, and Crumb because they are three excellent and highly regarded composers who have written a lot of excellent and highly regarded music for the voice.  I actually had the privilege of being in Crumb’s last composition seminar at the University of Pennsylvania in 1997, and I remain a huge fan of his work.  Night of the Four Moons in particular is, I think, one of the most beautiful pieces in the repertory.

But when we young composers set out to compose our first pieces for singers, we are given these 20th-century works—and often ONLY these 20th-century works, as models, which I think is dangerous and misleading.  And considering the extremely conservative nature of his own Models for Beginners in Composition, I’m pretty sure Schoenberg would agree.

Drum Roll, Please…

At this very moment there is a snare drum sitting in the middle of my apartment.  I’m a little scared of it.  My cat is a little scared of it.  And perhaps you should be scared of it too, because I’ll be playing it this weekend.

Now before you jump to the conclusion that I have no experience whatsoever in this department, let me just say that I was the cowbell soloist for the world premiere of Josh Feltman’s “An Old American Dream.”  So, there’s that.  Also rumors of a stint in the pit band for my high school’s production of Into the Woods, which my lawyer advises me neither to confirm nor deny.

The presence of the drum can be traced back—like so much of my life—to burritos.  In this case the burritos were accompanied by drinks with Eve Budnick at the Sunset Cantina over seven years ago.  Eve and Rebecca Grimes were starting a small opera company, and they were wondering if there was anything useful that I could do to help them.  I believe my exact words were, “Yes, I can turn pages and drive singers to rehearsals.”

Now in my eighth season with Opera del West, I am still proud to hold the title of Resident Page Turner, a position whose job description includes a large number of varied, random, and unnoticed tasks, which include everything from accompanying rehearsals to shoveling snow to finding stage directors for our productions.  I may also be Vice President of the Board, which I casually mention to the tenure committee at Xavier on a fairly regular basis.  Oh, and sometimes I buy Eve orange soda.

In the absence of a full stage crew, I also end up doing a lot of the backstage work, much to the dismay of the genuine professionals.  While I was painting some flats olive green last summer, the carpenter’s assistant muttered, “Well, THAT’S a technique I’ve never seen before.”  And although my first trip to Home Depot for the lighting designer was perfectly legitimate, I’m pretty sure he only sent me to the store the second time to minimize the time I was up on the ladder manhandling his electrical equipment.  Luckily the theater where we perform, The Center for Arts in Natick, is a converted firehouse.

Being a “shoestring budget” company, we at Opera del West have no money.  We pay our singers a pittance for “transportation,” which doesn’t even begin to cover transportation.  (Unless, of course, they’re hitching a ride with me, which I still consider to be an important part of my job, and one of my favorites.)  We pay our directors so little it would almost be less insulting to pay them nothing.  And I’m pretty sure the most expensive prop or costume piece ever employed was a bonsai tree for our production of The Magic Flute two years ago.  Our stage manager still sends me pictures of bonsai trees when she encounters them in real life.

But somehow, beyond all comprehension, we still manage to get amazing artists to work for us.  And the casts get stronger and stronger every year.  Auditions for this summer’s production of Così fan tutte were jaw-dropping; we turned away literally dozens of sopranos who in any other world audiences would have been thrilled to hear in a leading role.  We had a never-ending stream of brilliant mezzo-sopranos for the role of Dorabella, and it was heartbreaking that we could only cast two of them and one cover.  The only major concern we had was the traditional one of finding tenors, but the two tenors we have now are so spectacular, I can’t even believe they are here…I’m considering it a modern Mozart miracle.

Boston is remarkable in that we have not one but FOUR major graduate opera training programs: New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, Boston University, and just across the river in Cambridge, Longy.  Not even New York can boast the dense population of phenomenal young singers that we have here.  And when we hold auditions, they all show up and bring their A game.  So opera singers, you should know that just because you didn’t end up getting the part doesn’t mean that you didn’t blow us away with your audition—we just don’t have enough performances to hire you all!  Believe me, if we did, we certainly would.  And audiences, you should know that when you pay ten dollars for a seat in a rusty folding chair to an opera in a YMCA or a public library or a firehouse with minimal sets, minimal costumes, one bonsai tree, and a cast of people you’ve never heard of, you may still be getting a world-class performance.

And I LOVE these performances.  I am not what you would call an “opera buff.”  There is only one recording of Tosca on my shelf, and I don’t remember the name of a single performer in the cast.  I haven’t been to the Met in over six years, and it’s been well over ten since I’ve been to the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  I’m a member of no listservs or chat rooms, and although Opera News keeps showing up in my mailbox every month, I couldn’t tell you the last time I read through an article.  But I love seeing these opera productions—cheap, raw, young, intimate, and thrilling.  Maybe there’s a small orchestra, but usually just a piano.  Someone in the cast is singing in an opera for the first time, and almost everyone in the cast is singing that role for the first time.  They have worked and suffered and sweated and made any number of personal sacrifices for the opportunity to get on that stage.  And in the audience are a small number of friends and family, but mostly complete strangers who for one reason or another showed up for the novelty of a great story told through singing in a venue small enough that you can see (or feel) the spit flying out of the baritone’s mouth.

As an opera composer, I can tell you that I have learned far more in these rehearsals than I have learned anywhere else.  Freed from the trappings of a million-dollar production, and forced to deal with nothing but a piano and a bare stage, you get to see firsthand what works in the theater and what doesn’t.  What scenes are quick and easy to stage, and what scenes leave a director scratching his or her head, wondering what on earth the characters should be doing.  What information only needs to be communicated once, and what information needs to be repeated two or three times.  What lines instantly make perfect sense, and what lines require a thirty-minute discussion before a singer can try to sing them with some semblance of truth and dramatic intention.  What arias can be sung early on in the first act, and what arias need to wait for the singers to be warmed up first.  What ensemble passages sound terrific at the first rehearsal, and what ensemble passages still need to be run through two or three times on opening night to prevent a train wreck during the performance.  What jokes are never funny, and what would-be serious moments always are.

The great opera composers understood all of these things.  That’s what makes truly them great, not just the ability to come up with a good tune here and there.  And they were practical, too: Così fan tutte, our current production, requires several costume changes during the course of the show.  And incredibly, Mozart has written in just enough time between exits and entrances for those characters to get out of their old outfits and into their new ones.  IT’S LIKE HE KNEW WHAT HE WAS DOING.

Which reminds me, I should probably get ready for rehearsal.  There are singers to drive, pages to turn, and drum rolls to mangle.  And who knows what I’ll learn tonight.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

(by Dan Shore, age 38)

 

Wyoming road

 

“Doesn’t this look like fun?”

Now, as readers of this blog may surmise, although I am the one who kills the spiders in this household, I am definitely not the one who makes the decisions.  So when Meredeth looked up from her computer and asked, “Doesn’t this look like fun?” I already felt an acute tightening in my stomach.

And, as it turns out, for good reason.  She had stumbled upon the website of an outfit called Blue Sky Sage, which promised “horseback adventure vacations” on an extremely remote site in the mountains of Wyoming.  As part of her early-onset midlife crisis, Meredeth had been taking horseback riding lessons for almost two years, and I knew from a glance at the website that the target audience here was women over 35.  In my mind, I imagined a remake of City Slickers, maybe with Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and…let’s see…how about Andrea Martin?

I was welcome, Blue Sky Sage assured me, as a “Non-Riding Traveling Companion.”  Now I have been on a horse before—a short trail ride, appropriate for an eight-year old (though taken only last year), during which I was treated to the angry barking of our Australian-born guide “Johnny,” who seemed convinced that it was somehow due to my supreme arrogance as a horseman that little Paprika, or Coriander, or whatever-his-name-was refused to follow the other horses on the trail.  But the Wyoming adventure promised several full days of riding, far beyond my minimal capacity, and it was agreed that I could spend the time breathing in the crisp mountain air and indulging in that traditional frontier activity, orchestrating an opera.

If all this sounds idyllic to you, let me point out that we would be CAMPING.  In a TENT.  And the Shores are not, have never been, and never will be a camping people.  Meredeth had done some camping as part of her Basic Training, but the letters she wrote home did not indicate any particular fondness for the experience.  My last stint in a sleeping bag was about nineteen years ago, when a much-younger me left the music conservatory for a semester to live in a 23-foot sailboat for a few months.  Now, almost two decades later, I found myself pulling my old gear out of the closet: the thick sweatpants and sweatshirt, the green rubber raincoat and pants, and the battered, grizzly “Viking hat,” which would indeed have kept my head warm in Medieval Iceland.  Who knew I still even had these mementos of a wayward youth?  But there they were, stuffed into a purple suitcase, all so Meredeth, the English horn soloist for the top-ranked band in the United States Army, could live in a tent and ride horses all day in the middle of nowhere.  This was, without a doubt, the single stupidest thing we had ever done.

The sum total of my knowledge of Wyoming came from a single source—the old western Shane.  If you don’t remember Shane, it’s the one where the young boy runs after Alan Ladd, the original metrosexual cowboy, piteously wailing “SHANE!  SHANE!  COME BACK!”  But I also knew that people there were tough.  My friend Lance Horne, a brilliant songwriter, grew up on a ranch in Wyoming.  Once a gang of hoodlums in New York brandished a baseball bat and demanded his wallet.  Lance—a classically trained pianist and Juilliard graduate—grabbed the bat, swung it around a few times, and then, when the kids ran away in terror, threw it after them in disgust.  All in all, a good guy to have on your production team.

And I had once before looked at a map of Wyoming, when my sister, driving across the country to San Francisco, had been told by the police that I-80 was closed up ahead due to snow and that she would have to stay in Laramie for a week until it was cleared.  She called me to ask if I could check the map to see if there were another road she could take.  The answer, of course, which you can easily verify with a Rand McNally Road Atlas, was no.

Our trip began, as all trips inevitably do, with some massive flight delays and a 90-minute, hysterical phone call with the airline.  But after many hours, a new itinerary on a different airline, and a whirlwind tour of the Salt Lake City airport, we made it, very late, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  (Oh, and did I mention that the “bling” on the back packets of Meredeth’s brand-new “Q-Baby” Wrangler jeans set off the metal detectors?  Always a good sign.)  If you’re a drunken, twenty-something college dropout with wealthy parents and desperately trying to prove your manliness by growing a feeble beard, you may know the town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  If not, let me just say that if your idea of Heaven is an overpriced motel and several blocks of Western-themed souvenir stores selling all conceivable moose-themed tchotchkes, then Heaven is indeed a place on earth, elevation 6200 feet.

But the culture shock going from the east coast to Jackson Hole was nothing compared to the culture shock going from Jackson Hole to the Blue Sky Sage campground.  We were picked up—me, Meredeth, and an affable, denim-clad nurse named Rebecca from South Carolina—by Mike Wade, who was to be our guide for the week.  Mike was precisely the type of guy you’d imagine would run a horseback adventure outfit in Wyoming, only more so.  He leaped off the pages of cowboy history with his hat and bandanna, his dark black hair and beard, and his bright Western shirts, which we later discovered were specifically tailored to fit impeccably his lean, trim build.  It was obvious after about five seconds of conversation that there was little he hadn’t seen, and even less that he wouldn’t know how to handle.  In the event of the apocalypse, you definitely wanted Mike around (along with Alberto, the handyman who fixed our apartment door, and Suzy, who runs the Herrera’s burrito stand at the food court in Boston).

After driving a half an hour or so in the van, we stopped at a little outpost called Hoback Market.  Mike advised us that if there were any snacks or liquor we wanted to pick up for the trip, this would be our last chance.  And when a man like Mike says “last chance,” by god he’s not lying.  We loaded up on nuts and trail mix, and supplemented our collection of tiny plastic bottles of Bailey’s with a much larger, glass bottle of red wine.  Rebecca purchased a cup of coffee and a 24-pack of cans of PBR.  Okay, so now we knew, she was a force to be reckoned with as well.  A little over an hour later, after passing through the two thrilling blocks of Pinedale, we reached the town of Boulder, population 75.  Boulder consisted of a motel, a post office (!), and a gas pump outside of “Boulder Store,” so named because, really, it was THE store in Boulder.  We turned left and still had a very slow 42 miles to go on what it would be a gross exaggeration to call “the road.”

By the time we pulled into our new home after passing absolutely nothing else for over an hour, we might as well have been on a different planet.  We saw two campers and a small number of tepee tents: one for me and Meredeth, one for Rebecca, one to hang the small plastic bag of creek water optimistically called a “sun shower,” and—in a generous concession to those of us roughing it for the first time, not one but TWO “toilet tents.”  If you’re interested, you can make your own toilet tent at home: dig a hole, and put up a tent around it.

But we were met by the kind and reassuring presence of Mike’s lovely wife Bobbi, who seemed as much the quintessential frontierswoman as he did the quintessential frontiersman, and who also quickly revealed herself to be an indispensable member of the post-apocalypse survival team .  Also on hand was the third member of the team, the bubbly cook Julie, who had perhaps the most incredible Minnesota accent I have ever had the pleasure to hear.  (And yes, gentle reader, she even used the L-word: “lutefisk.”)  And finally there was Julie’s extraordinarily energetic and hungry dog, Sweetie, who promised to protect us from any ne’er-do-well scraps of food that might threaten our little community.

The first evening consisted mainly of dinner (“Dan, I know you’re a vegetarian, but this is BUFFALO meat!”) and a long orientation and discussion of Mike and Bobbi’s philosophy and riding style for Meredeth and Rebecca.  I pulled up a little blue canvas chair and settled in to a strict work regimen of reading Owen Wister’s The Virginian and trying to remember all of the verses to “Trail to Mexico.”  I might add that, although I’m not a particularly visual person, this was far and away the most breathtaking country I’d ever seen; even more incredible than it looked in glorious CinemaScope.

The evening being over, and the sun setting around 9:30, Meredeth and I brushed our teeth with water from our canteens (labeled “F” and “G,” or as we referred to them, Fred and Ginger) and snuggled together in our little tent.  All was peaceful and perhaps even a little romantic.  And despite the tell-tale droppings a mere stone’s throw away, nary an elk disturbed our slumber.

But then the temperature dropped to the low 30s.  And my bad back, a generous and thoughtful inheritance from both my mother’s and my father’s side, began to notice that not only was it literally freezing, but it had been lying on dirt for eight hours.  And I could not move.  As in, I could not move.  Lest this be at all unclear—I WAS LYING IMMOBILE IN THE FREEZING COLD IN A TENT IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE IN WYOMING SO MEREDETH COULD RIDE A [long string of expletives deleted] HORSE.  Friends, although the poet once wrote, “Seldom is heard a discouraging word,” let me assure you that the Lord’s name was taken in vain—loudly—a goodly number of times.

Well, perhaps not entirely in vain, for after a long, profane, and excruciatingly painful struggle, during which time I might have moaned “I think I’m going to pass out” two or even thirty times, I managed to sit up a little.  After more prolonged struggle, I managed to totter out of the tent, leaning heavily on the aforementioned Meredeth, who was undoubtedly counting the seconds until she could saddle up her horse and ride as far away from me as possible.

So began Day One.  Now, had we been back in Boston, or Washington, or New Orleans, or really anywhere else in between, I probably would have gone straight to the hospital, or at the very least a vaguely reputable massage parlor.  But this was Wyoming, and as previously stated, we were over an hour away from the nearest “town,” population 75.  Bobbi floated the idea of taking me to the horse chiropractor, and when it became apparent that this was not in fact a joke, my back became sufficiently terrified to begin moving—slowly—again.

But this was, of course, only the beginning of the day’s trials.  As the sun came up, and I was able to stagger around on my own a little bit, it was suggested that I lie down on my back, prop my feet up on the beer cooler, and “stretch the psoas muscles.”  You might think to be suspicious of any medical advice that contained the phrase “beer cooler,” but my options were limited.  Besides, Julie had started mentioned the horse acupuncturist, who apparently was not the same individual as the horse chiropractor, and all of a sudden I was envisioning a dreadful assemblage of horse exorcists, horse witch doctors, and most frightening of all, horse aromatherapists.

So I awkwardly lowered myself down on the ground, put my feet up on the beer cooler, and prayed to salvation.  What I got instead was Julie’s dog Sweetie, who, possessed by the spirit of Satan, came charging towards me.  Now I have been attacked before, but always by angry ex-girlfriends, for whom the behavior was possibly—POSSIBLY I say—ever-so-slightly justified.  And snide remarks aside, none of these has been a dog.  But here I was, lying on the ground, unable to move, getting bitten.  In the face.  Yes, I flew to Wyoming and slept in a tent so that a crazed, buffalo meat-eating dog could bite me in the face.

Maybe it was the 8000-feet altitude, or maybe it was the two aspirin I had taken, or maybe it was the fact that A LARGE DOG BIT ME IN THE FACE, but the blood just poured and poured out of me.  And all over my flannel shirt.  Which reminds me, you want your flannel shirts to be red, in case you spill salsa on yourself, or tomato sauce, or YOU GET BITTEN IN THE FACE BY A DOG.

All in all, things were going well.  And it’s such a cliché, I won’t even go into the story of How My Glasses Were Broken.  But, you know, my glasses were broken.  Like you even had to ask.

As always, though, the human body and the human spirit prove remarkably resilient to anything the world has to throw at them.  My back got used to the cold, hard, frosty ground.  My facial hair started covering up the gash on my face.  And it turns out I can still see pretty well without my glasses—well enough to spot the occasional elk as I tramped up and down the long dirt road that led across the Little Sandy Creek (here pronounced “crick”).   A passing bicyclist, riding from Portland through Missoula and down to Mexico, casually mentioned to me that I was, in fact, hiking along the Continental Divide.  And the wooden post Bobbi told me I would find along “the two-track path, after you pass a big ditch with water in it” showed me that I was standing right on the Lander Cutoff of the Oregon Trail.

And as I stood there, my hands on that post, and nothing but mountains, blue sky, sagebrush, and an occasional red flower for miles and miles in any direction, I thought of those pioneers, who had come through this very spot with their covered wagons and livestock and sickly children and nothing but some flour, some beans, and the hope of a brighter future to sustain them.  They suffered much worse than a stiff back and a playful bite from a domesticated, fully vaccinated dog.  They did not tread this road as part of their summer vacation; this was life or death to them and their future generations.  So much of American history is the story of these migrations—migrations compelled by either external force or an internal spirit of promise.  And all who traveled bear witness to the astonishing power of human beings to endure any trials, once they have decided that they have no choice but to persevere.

I think that moment on the Oregon Trail made my trip to Wyoming worthwhile.  Or maybe it was sitting around the campfire in the morning as the sun came up, listening to Mike tell stories and drinking from a pot of black coffee so delicious it would put Starbucks out of business if even a single Brooklyn hipster tried a sip.  Or maybe it was listening to Bobbi softly strum the guitar and sing, “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.”  Or maybe it was the huge plate of nachos with freshly made guacamole that Julie magically produced out of the kitchen camper by way of apology for Sweetie’s aggressive play.

We experienced the most acute culture shock of all when we drove back to Jackson Hole, although with a sunburn, a new beard, and a gash on my face, I probably fit in a little better than before.  I bought a pencil with some moose on it, which I’ve been using for the past few hours to write this.  Meredeth is already planning next year’s trip to Blue Sky Sage.  And although I could swear up and down that there is no way on God’s green earth that I will ever spend another night in a tent again, I was sure I could make out a faint, lamenting voice calling after me as I boarded the plane home: “SHANE!  SHANE!  COME BACK!”

 

Oregon Trail post

How the Opera Got Its Director

I just got finished with three weeks of Freedom Ride rehearsals and performances at the Marigny Opera House, and there are so many things I want to share with you: working with all of my colleagues and students again after so many months; how beautifully the entire cast sang over the weekend; the new Taco Bell on Bonnabel and Veterans.  But something happened to me on my last day in New Orleans that genuinely ranks as one of the single most incredible moments of my entire life.  A Very Special Person said three Very Special Words to me.  And this, O my Best Beloved, is that story—a new and a wonderful story—a story quite different from the other stories.

But first I should back up a little bit, to the saga of St. Mary’s AcademyLongue Vue’s intrepid Hilairie Shackai had been trying for some time to arrange a visit so Dara and Wilfred could perform a little bit of music for the students and all three of us could talk about the experience of working on an opera.  The scheduling was not going well, and after a huge number of phone calls, emails, and text messages, Hilairie suggested in angst-ridden tones that maybe we should just cancel the whole thing.

I responded, “No.  Don’t worry, we WILL make this happen.”  Because the truth of the matter is, I love visiting schools.  And I love talking to students.  Some people don’t, and that’s fine.  And some people don’t mind it, but they figure it’s part of their obligation as artists.  That’s fine, too.  But I love it, for the simple reason that I remember vividly the few times from my childhood when I was able to talk with professional actors and musicians.  And one time in particular.

At nine years old, I had already received my very first paycheck for working in the theater.  It was for fifty dollars, which I considered to be a tremendous amount of money, and, come to think of it, which I still consider to be a tremendous amount of money.  I had performed as part of the children’s chorus for the Muhlenberg College Summer Theatre production of Oliver!, and I’m sorry to say that in the past thirty years neither my singing nor my fake British accent has much improved.  At the audition, however, I told director Charlie Richter and musical director Jeremy Slavin that what I really wanted was to write operas, and there has been at least a little bit of progress on that front.

So when we were told at school that there was room on an optional field trip to see a new musical downtown at the Pennsylvania Stage Company, I was fairly drooling with excitement.  It was based on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, which book I with my innate nerdiness eagerly devoured in anticipation.  And the performance was thrilling to me, as just about every performance I ever saw always was.   (Including Bill Harley singing “Monsters in the Bathroom,” but not including the clown who visited our school and refused to answer seriously the questions that this still-resentful editor of the elementary school newspaper put forth with true journalistic dignity.)  There were professional actors onstage!  They sang!  They danced!  They changed costumes!  And this was no hobby or after-school program—this was their life.  They were living the dream.

Afterwards, the actors had an audience talk-back for us little ones, and I moved up a few rows to get closer to the stage.  After chatting a little bit about the show and rehearsals, they took questions from the audience.  And one boy—no, not me, I’m STILL too nervous to open my mouth at these things—asked the age-old question: “I want to be an actor when I grow up.  What do I have to do?”

One of the cast members gave this reply:

“If there is anything else—anything at all—that you can imagine yourself doing, you should do that instead.  Don’t go into the theater unless there is absolutely nothing else that you can see yourself doing.”

Wow.  I mean, WOW.

That was probably meant to discourage us from frittering our lives away in the immature and senseless pursuit of a lousy career choice.  But for me it was a seminal—and perhaps the defining—moment of my childhood.  If the voice of God had come down to me from the heavens it couldn’t have been any louder or clearer.  No, of course there was nothing else I could possibly do.  Yes, of course I was going to do this for a living.  I wasn’t just going to write music.  I was going to be a COMPOSER.

Thirty years later, here I am, working on Freedom Ride.  And yes, we were able juggle some things around and get over to St. Mary’s Academy, thanks to the willingness of Assistant Principal Cheryl Brown and choir director Irene Young to accommodate our tight and wacky schedule.  Dara’s singing made opera fans out of about a hundred schoolgirls packed in a room so tightly I was sure the fire marshal was going to kick us out any minute.  And we learned that Sylvie’s aria from the end of Act I, in which she throws herself desperately and passionately at a non-reciprocating Clayton, goes over REALLY WELL in an all-girls Catholic middle school.

But that’s not the story I wanted to tell you today.

My story is about Larry Marshall.  Larry Marshall who sang Sportin’ Life on the Houston Grand Opera recording of Porgy and Bess, Larry Marshall who played Cab Calloway in The Cotton Club and Simon Zealotes in the film of Jesus Christ Superstar, and Larry Marshall who was sweet-talked by Dara into flying down from New York to see our performances of Freedom Ride at the Marigny Opera House last weekend.

Now I do have some experience dealing with celebrities.  I once bumped into Kaija Saariaho at the Prudential Center in Boston.  And let’s not even talk about the time I MADE EYE CONTACT WITH MIKE LOWELL during the 2007 Red Sox parade.  But a weekend with Larry Marshall?  This was intense.  This was not only  a legitimate star, but a legitimate star whose work I knew well and had known well since I was just a kid and—oh day of sweet innocence!—saw Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time.  He comes to the performance.  Then we go out to dinner.  The next day we go out to lunch.  The next morning I pick him up at his hotel (who needs a limo when you can ride shotgun in my 2007 silver Honda Civic!), and we have a meeting with Longue Vue.  And needless to add, the soundtrack running through my mind each and every minute is my own voice repeating, “Don’t say anything stupid.  Don’t say anything stupid.  Don’t say anything stupid.”

So by Monday afternoon I’m in a pretty delicate emotional state, and it is only my seatbelt that keeps me from literally floating out of the car and up into the ether.  But nothing, absolutely nothing, can prepare me for the Three Very Special Words he spoke and that I promised you at the beginning of this blog post.

As we’re driving from Longue Vue to a coffee shop for another meeting, with Karel Sloane-Boekbinder from JPAS, Larry casually asks me where I’m from, and I tell him, Allentown, Pennsylvania.

“Oh, I’ve been to Allentown,” he says.

“Really?” I reply awkwardly.  Because, let’s face it, Allentown is not the world’s number-one tourist destination, despite our having a replica of the Liberty Bell.  (Not the actual Liberty Bell, which is sixty miles away in Philadelphia.  A replica.)

“Yes, I did a show there.  It was a new musical that was in development, called Just So, based on the Rudyard Kipling stories.”

“Oh my god!”  I gushed.  “I SAW THAT!  It must have been thirty years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Now he was the one to ask, “Really?”

“Yes!  I remember it so well because I went to see it on a school trip, and after the performance, the actors came out and talked to us.”  And then I proceeded to recount the story as I did above.  As I have done dozens of times to dozens of people.  Including, inevitably, all of my students, one at a time, most recently the night before this meeting when one of them asked me point-blank if I thought he could make a living as a musician.  And I told Larry how my life was forever changed by the actor who told us that we shouldn’t go into the theater unless there was absolutely nothing else we could do.

And then Larry Marshall, a Very Special Person, said those three Very Special Words:

“That was me.”

Now I write this blog to help promote Freedom Ride.  We have a lot of work to do in the next year, a lot of hurdles to overcome, and a lot of money to raise.  And I write this blog because every once in a while I think I have a good story to tell, and I think that someone out there might enjoy reading it.  But today I write this blog as a reminder to everyone, especially those of you who are parents, teachers, or artists, that children really do watch, listen, remember, and become influenced by you in ways that you might never dream possible.  So be careful what you say to that little nine-year-old boy in the audience—he might just grow up to write you an opera about the Civil Rights Movement.

After almost passing out on the floor of Royal Blend, I bought two chocolate chip cookies for us (buy one, get one free!) and Larry told me not to worry, because he was on board with the project and was looking forward to directing it next year.

And it was so—just so—a little time ago—on the banks of the 17th Street Canal!

Beware of All Enterprises…

If it were up to me, I would wear jeans and Red Sox T-shirts all the time.  When it gets a little chilly, I can put an old flannel shirt on top of that.  And maybe when I’m visiting my family in Pennsylvania an Iron Pigs T-shirt, but basically just jeans and Red Sox T-shirts.  I’m probably wearing that right now.

So I was filled with tremendous anxiety and consternation when we approached the beginning of January.  I had to fly to Portland, Oregon, for the National Opera Association convention, which would require wearing “nice clothes” all the time.  From there directly to New Orleans for the Tribute to the Classical Arts banquet at the swanky Hotel Monteleone, a surprise visit to our biannual Faculty Institute at Xavier, and a handful of meetings at Longue Vue and the Jefferson Performing Arts Society—all of which would also require wearing “nice clothes.”  An entire week of dressing up.  No jeans, no T-shirts!

Tensions were high.  Shirts were carefully inspected.  Pants were selected cautiously according to rigorous standards.  Meredeth coordinated ties, exhaustively detailing which could be worn with what, for whom, and when.  Contingency plans were crafted for the inevitable dumping of salsa all over myself, which happens even more often than you already think it does.  I purchased some sort of bizarre, clothes-folding, storage contraption at the Container Store, and spent several long hours trying to decipher the mysterious instructions on how to fold a shirt, which seemed to be printed in an elaborate new system of hieroglyphics.  Finally the suitcase was packed, trampled down, and after some intense physical exertion, zipped up.  I was prepared.  I. WAS. PREPARED.

So it will come as no surprise at all to you, gentle reader, that when I arrived in New Orleans late Sunday night after a delightful weekend in Portland (where I first learned of vegan Alaskan reindeer sausage, but that’s another story for another day), my suitcase was nowhere to be found.  The good people at United had apparently felt that where my suitcase REALLY wanted to go was Chicago, where it could stroll down Michigan Avenue, take in the Art Institute, and perhaps enjoy some deep-dish pizza at Giordano’s.

To say I was beside myself would not begin to cover it.  It was now 10:00 at night, and I had to be at the Hotel Monteleone the following morning at 9:30 for the banquet.  How was I possibly going to find a suit and have it fitted by then?

Now, this being New Orleans, the lovely young woman at the airline counter was sweet, warm, sympathetic, and full of valuable advice: “You know, the Walmart on Veteran’s is open until midnight.  If I were you, I’d go on over there, pick me out some real nice clothes, and just return ‘em tomorrow after the banquet.”

Hmmm.

Although I DID in fact go to Walmart, their selection of quality men’s formalwear was surprisingly poor.  I managed to find some shaving cream and a pair of socks, but basically, I told myself as I looked in the smudged and blurry mirror, what you see is what you get.

Incidentally, when I arrived at my hotel around midnight, I asked the clerk if he knew of any place that might be open first thing in the morning and could supply me with something appropriate for an awards banquet—an awards banquet at which I would be presenting an excerpt from my opera in front of the entire arts community of greater New Orleans.  He thought for a moment, then turned to me and said, “You know, the Walmart on Tchoupitoulas is open early…”

In the end, I simply apologized to everyone the next day for being “a little underdressed.”  I had at least shaved, brushed all of my teeth, and I had even combed my hair, thanks to a quick stop at the liquor store on my way to the Monteleone.  Because this is New Orleans, and I knew that the liquor store would be open in the morning.  And sell combs.

The Tribute to the Classical Arts banquet was, as always, a lovely affair, and it was wonderful to see just about everyone I knew in New Orleans there, including my Freedom Ride cast, my colleagues at Xavier, the good folks from Musaica, and my new friend Kathleen Westfall, who will be putting on a production of my opera An Embarrassing Position this summer with the Ninth Ward Opera Company.  Seated at my table were Karen Kern and Joycelyn Reynolds from the Arts Council of New Orleans, who generously sponsored our upcoming showcases, and even more serendipitously, Dave Hurlbert from the Marigny Opera House, who graciously offered the use of this astonishing new venue for our performances.  (Needless to say, we responded immediately and enthusiastically!)  Dennis Assaf from the Jefferson Performing Arts Society announced that he would be presenting the full production of Freedom Ride next year, I took the microphone and gave a quick set-up for the aria we were presenting, and of course Dara and Wilfred performed beautifully.

And…well, probably that’s all that really matters.  I’m not sure if there is a moral to this story.  Maybe it has something to do with bringing a garment bag as a carry-on.  Or maybe it has to do with not judging people on how they look or how they dress. They could be having a rough time, or they could have just flown United.

Our next performances are Friday and Saturday, March 22nd and 23rd, at the Marigny Opera House.   I’ll probably be wearing a suit and tie.  But you—we’ll be very happy to see you in the audience, whatever you have on.  And Red Sox fans are especially welcome!