On Friday, March 22 and Saturday, March 23, we will offer two showcase performances at the beautiful Marigny Opera House, featuring some brand-new scenes from the opera. The cast includes Dara Rahming, Valerie Francis, Tyrone Chambers II, and Ivan Griffin, with a number of student soloists from Xavier University of Louisiana, the entire concert choir directed by John Ware, and Wilfred Delphin on piano.
We will be opening our dress rehearsal on Wednesday night, March 20, to students, so please talk to your school or university if you are a student and would like to attend this rehearsal for free!
I am very pleased to announce that our April showcase of Freedom Ride at the French Quarter Festival has been nominated for a Big Easy Award under the category of “Best Performance of New Classical Music.” Part of that nomination was for our performance on that same program of my (still unfinished) song cycle Catharine Cole’s Correspondence, when I was thrilled to share the stage with two of my favorite people, Dara Rahming and Meredeth Rouse.
The awards banquet will take place on Monday, January 7 at 11:00am at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. This annual “Tribute to the Classical Arts” will feature selections from a number of the nominees, and yes, Dara will be singing something from Freedom Ride, too!
I am, as always, grateful to Longue Vue House and Gardens for their support of this project, and honored to represent the music department at Xavier University of Louisiana, especially all of my students and colleagues who worked so hard and performed so brilliantly at the French Quarter Festival.
In a little under two months I will run my second marathon.
Before I go any further, let me state unhesitatingly and emphatically that I hate running. I really, really, REALLY hate it. But as anyone who has experienced marriage, or a domestic partnership, or a long-term relationship of any kind knows, there are some decisions that are simply not yours to make.
Running began in this family when Meredeth won the oboe/English horn audition for the United States Army Band, “Pershing’s Own.” She was advised at the audition that in addition to everything else that is required of a classical musician going through basic training (including—but not limited to—crawling under a barbed-wire fence while bullets fly overhead, lobbing a live hand grenade, and jumping off a moving truck with a loaded rifle), she was going to have to RUN. Two miles. TWO MILES!!!
And of course, if she had to do it, I had to do it. So the next day we went to the famed Huntington Avenue YMCA, just around the corner from our apartment in Boston. Inside the YMCA are these strange machines called treadmills, which apparently are the large-scale versions of hamster wheels. We had agreed that we would build up to the two miles gradually, starting with a very modest run of half a mile. HALF A MILE!
Perhaps never in the history of the YMCA has there ever been a more pathetic sight. We huffed, we puffed, we panted, we sweated, we turned bright red, we sobbed, we drooled, we may have vomited just a little bit, and we fell off the treadmill violently, in a steaming burst of fluids, tumbling onto the putrid floor just as we made the incredible journey of 0.5 miles. And as we slowly, painfully, carefully pulled each other off of the ground, holding onto each other for dear life as we stumbled towards the glass exit door, people stared, open-mouthed. We had been at the gym for a total of six minutes.
But it turns out that the human body is surprisingly resilient. The half a mile eventually became a mile, which eventually became two miles, which eventually became fast enough for minimum Army standards. And then, of course, it was only a matter of time before she decided that we had to run a half marathon. I believe it happened like this: “I just saw ___________. She said she and ___________ were running a half marathon. Well, if THEY can do it, WE can do it, [long string of expletives deleted].”
And once you’ve done something called a “half” marathon, there’s no getting around the thought that you need to do the “whole” marathon. Now a whole marathon is 26.2 miles, and if that seems like a lot of miles when you’re reading about them, I assure you it’s even worse when you’re actually training to do them. And I say training because you really do need to train, which is a euphemism for “run a lot.” There are many, many different training plans, but since they all involve a ridiculous amount of running, it doesn’t seem to matter which one you use. We went with the one Kara Goucher outlines in her book Running for Women. Meredeth liked the fact that it only made you run three times a week; I liked…well, I like Kara Goucher. (And yes, there are photographs in the book.)
But here is the remarkable part of the story, and the real reason why I’m writing about this in what is ostensibly a journal about composing an opera. In all of the books, articles, websites, conversations with friends, and entire issues of this bizarre publication called Runner’s World that seems to show up every two days in my mailbox despite its being a monthly magazine, a great deal of emphasis is placed on mental preparation, and mental training. Long discussions on motivation. Goals. Maintaining focus. Inspiration. “Sticking to it.” And tricks, gimmicks, and mantras designed to take your mind off of how miserable you are and fool it into continuing to run and train appropriately for the marathon. Because running a marathon has nothing to do with talent, skill, or physical ability—believe me, if it did, I wouldn’t have had a chance in the world. It has everything to do with persistence, determination, grit, and mental toughness. And we were shocked to discover that, as musicians, we had all of these things.
If Kara Goucher said we had to run five miles, we ran five miles. If she said we had to run twelve miles, we ran twelve miles. If she said we had to run sixteen miles, we ran sixteen miles. Of COURSE we did. If it was too hot, we slowed down and drank extra water. If it was too cold, we wore long sleeves and sweat pants. If it was raining, we got wet. (Special thanks to my friend and longtime marathoner Heather Laurel who reminded me, “What are you going to do if it rains on the day of the marathon? NOT do it, just because it’s raining?”) We had been assured that if we followed the training plan religiously, we would be able to make it through the marathon in one piece. And having told all of our friends and family that we were going to do it, we most assuredly WERE going to do it.
As a musician, you know you have to practice. All the time. Regardless of whether or not you feel like it. If you’re tired, you practice. If you’re sick, you practice. If you feel like you have no reason to live and you’re a complete and utter failure as a human being, you practice a little more. Then you have a cup of coffee and start practicing again. If you have rehearsal on Tuesday, you learn your music by Tuesday. Period. If you have to be at the concert hall at 5:45, you make sure you can be there by 4:45, then wait around for an hour going over your music. All professional musicians know this; they also know that if they slip up once or twice, they will be replaced. Permanently. So they tend not to slip up. It’s perhaps the most important part of your education, aside from learning how to read music and play your instrument. We have a reputation for being flighty (especially sopranos and flutists), but really, a classical musician is just about the most dependable, focused, and detail-oriented person you’ll ever meet.
As a composer, it’s pretty much the same thing. If the singer needs her music by Thursday, you get her the music by Thursday. If the orchestra needs their parts by the end of the month, you get them their parts by the end of the month. Error free. Sometimes the writing goes well, sometimes it goes badly, and sometimes it doesn’t go at all, but you trust that it if you plug away at it day by day, eventually it will get done, and in the back of your mind you know that you WILL make a deadline. The same way you WILL run those 26.2 miles. As Nike says, you just do it.
So, after four months of training? Aside from the godawful running itself, I have to say that our first marathon was actually a great experience. We ran the St. Jude Memphis Marathon, in honor of our friends Nick and Rachel Ciraldo and their heroic two-year-old son Luca, who was being treated at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital at the time. We didn’t break any speed records (for my age group, I finished 246 out of 257), but we did raise over a thousand dollars for the hospital. We ran past Sun Studios. We ran past a huge group of patients at St. Jude, smiling, waving, and holding up signs. We ran past a group of young girls belly dancing. We ran past the NICEST MAN IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, who gave me a doughnut. (Whoever you are, good sir, I shall never forget thee or thy kindness.) And of course after five hours and forty-six minutes, we ran across the finish line.
And now it seems we are doing this again.
And I still hate running.
P.S. If you want to know more about Meredeth’s experience with basic training, please check out her interview with NPR’s Michele Siegel on Studio 360. The segment is entitled “G.I. Oboe,” which pretty much says it all. http://www.studio360.org/2010/jan/22/gi-oboe/
I have finally gotten around to editing and uploading this video of Dara Rahming and Chauncey Packer singing with the Xavier University Concert Choir, from our showcase of Freedom Ride at Xavier on March 13, 2012. Enjoy!
I’m paying my fare on the Greyhound bus line,
I’m riding the front seat to Jackson this time.
Hallelujah, I’m a-traveling,
Hallelujah, ain’t it fine,
Hallelujah, I’m a-traveling
Down freedom’s main line.
This past weekend, for the first time in over four years, I took the bus from Boston to New York. I was amazed at how bus travel has changed in such a short time. My Greyhound ticket (the new BoltBus and Megabus schedules were sold out) came with a specific time and a boarding number. I didn’t even notice the boarding number until I showed up at South Station and a very friendly and polite employee with a clipboard inspected my number, put me in a special line, and checked my name off a computer-generated list. A list! For the bus!
Things were a little different a few years ago. Before I began teaching at Xavier in the fall of 2008, I rode the bus between Boston and New York at least once a week, usually twice a week. I was living and working in Boston, but also going to school and teaching in Manhattan.
Back then, affordable bus travel meant one of the so-called “Chinatown buses”—Fung Wah, TravelPak, or Lucky Star—which went directly from Chinatown Boston to Chinatown New York, for $20 round-trip. They saved money by avoiding South Station or Port Authority and departing from a floating bus station (think “floating crap game”), which made taking the trip seem vaguely like participating in a criminal activity. As you cautiously approached Harrison Street in Boston on foot with your suitcase, a mysterious, hooded figure in dark sunglasses would hiss, “New York!” wave his or her (it was sometimes impossible to tell) hand, then dart into an alley. You would look around to make sure you weren’t being followed, than take off desperately after him/her. Eventually, like the children of Hamelin, you were one of about forty people running through the back streets of what used to be known for various reasons as the Combat Zone. A bus would emerge screeching from the shadows, two hooded toughs would hop off and shriek, “OKAY! OKAY!” and before you could even take a seat the driver had jolted down the alley, maybe picking up a little bit of the sidewalk on the way, and was running a pair of red lights to get onto the Mass Pike before the police came.
And the police did come.
Usually on the New York side, where they pounded on the windshield of the bus as the driver was trying to leave. Passengers halfway onto the bus would hold on for dear life, the police would try to hold onto the front of the bus, yelling, and the driver would go careening down Chrystie Street amid hysterical screaming in multiple languages.
But, you know, $20 round-trip.
Eventually the Chinatown buses were forced to raise their prices a little, Greyhound and Peter Pan lowered their prices a lot, and it didn’t matter too much which bus line you rode. Your chances of having a bus break down in the middle of the highway were just as good, although Greyhound tended to send a replacement bus within an hour, and Fung Wah preferred to send The Guy With The Wrench who might be able to fix the brakes within three hours. I have actually seen Fung Wah bus passengers hitchhike back to Boston in lieu of waiting so long for The Guy With The Wrench to make it up through rush-hour traffic to the side of the road in East Armpit, Connecticut. Oh, also the Chinatown buses sometimes went up in flames due to the violent and retaliatory nature of the competition between rival companies. Usually no passengers were injured, although more than one driver was found shot to death.
But there was nothing violent about my bus or bus driver Saturday morning on I-84, unless you count the intermittent invective poured at other vehicles or his proud account of beating up a cab driver and bashing his head against the front of his car.
“You know how many Hail Marys I had to say after that?
“A whole mess of ‘em.”
Now that I’m back in the northeast for the year, I imagine I will be spending a lot more time on the bus. When you’re traveling between New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Washington, and you’re living on an artist’s salary, it’s the most cost-effective and efficient way to go. And as all musicians, actors, dancers, and writers know, you simply HAVE to travel between these cities. There are meetings, rehearsals, performances, workshops, classes, and last-but-not-least, auditions, which are always in New York regardless of where the final production may be. I am hoping, however, that my schedule will not be as intense as it was five years ago.
Back then, on a really bad day, I would take the 12:30am bus from Boston to New York, show up at about 4:30am and have a long, working breakfast at the Westway Diner, walk across town to Baruch College, teach all day, ride the 6 train up to Hunter College for my playwriting workshop with the amazing Tina Howe, take the crosstown bus over to the West Side, browse the now-defunct Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble or the now-defunct Tower Records, then ride the 1/9 train down to Port Authority to catch the 12:30am bus from New York back to Boston.
There are many, many serious reasons why I feel compelled to write this opera and help share the story of the Freedom Rides with a new audience. But somewhere in the back of my head I also hear that little voice reminding me that you should “write what you know.” I can’t ever know, or even begin to know, what went on in the minds and hearts of the heroes who fought for Civil Rights—and perhaps composing this opera is my own way of coming to terms with that. But at the very least, I do know a little something about riding the bus.
I am spending a lot of time here in Arlington, VA, and so I need a place where I can work. I asked my friend Andy, who is a DC theater stalwart, where I could rent a practice room or rehearsal space, and after a few moments of demonic laughter, he patiently explained to me that these things were simply not available in the Washington area.
“So what do YOU do when you rehearse for shows?”
“Me? I go to church.”
Church? I have never been a regular churchgoer, unless you consider the time I dated a girl who was a regular churchgoer, and it’s probably best NOT to consider that time, especially since the woman in the next room subscribes to this blog. I was leery at best.
But Andy persisted, and told me he was sure that the pastor at his church would let me use the choir room, since it was essentially free all week anyway. Then the emails started coming in.
Would I be able to play a church service?
Uh…sure. (That’s, like, hymns and stuff, right?)
Would I be able to play two or three services?
Would I be able to play six, or even eight services?
Um…okay. (Now, I had never actually played a church service before, but it is customary in the music business to say “yes” to anything that even remotely resembles a gig.)
Would I be able to play an African-American lesbian wedding?
Ah, well, I do indeed have some experience with lesbian weddings, which—incidentally—are incredibly similar to non-lesbian weddings.
And so here I am, substitute organist at the beautiful Church of the Pilgrims in our Nation’s Capital, very close to the Dupont Circle Chipotle, and right by the statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. I use the word “organist” (and I use it quite loosely) because in addition to the astonishing series of stained-glass windows, one of the glories of Pilgrims is a fantastic 1928 Skinner pipe organ. Playing the organ is very different than playing the piano, and while I like to consider myself passable at the latter, I am absolutely abominable at the former, as my classmates from two semesters of Donald Teeters’s “Choral Conducting for the Organist” seminar way back when will readily attest to. Also there are these pedals, which apparently real organists can use to make music with their feet.
Fortunately the ability to play the organ here is subsidiary to a general ability to accompany, conduct, arrange simple instrumental parts, rehearse the choir and volunteer musicians, lead an ensemble with the back of your head, sight-read, improvise, pick out appropriate music, deal with a wide variety of musical styles (and a wide variety of singers), and have a good enough sense of theatrical timing to know when to start playing, when to stop, and how fast or slow everything should go at any time. Oh, and of course what Sir William Osler, one of my father’s favorite authors, refers to as “Aequanimitas”—the ability to remain unflappable in any and all circumstances. In other words, it turns out that being a church organist isn’t so terribly different from running an opera workshop. Plus there’s free coffee!
And with enough coffee, I might just make some progress.
At least on this opera. Those pedals are on their own.
A few weeks ago, while giving a presentation at the University of Connecticut, I was asked which composers have influenced my writing. This is an excellent, thoughtful, and revealing question—precisely the kind I try to avoid answering at all costs.
Bob Dylan once wrote,
Open up yer eyes and yer ears an’ you’re influenced,
An’ there’s nothing you can do about it.
It’s the second line of that quotation that’s the real kicker.
Because no matter what we like or don’t like, there is no escape from the effects of what we actually hear. And if you’ve ever woken up on a Friday morning with Rebecca Black stuck in your head—or worse, you can remember some of the lyrics to “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah”—you know what I mean.
I would love to be able to say that my most significant musical influences have been the great opera composers through the ages (you know, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Britten…those guys), along with the great American theater composers (Kern, Berlin, Arlen, Rodgers, Loesser, Gershwin, etc.). But the truth is that probably nothing has affected me more than the albums I listened to over and over again when I was a kid: the soundtrack to Clash of the Titans and the hot pink LP of Free to Be…You and Me. (Future graduate students in musicology take note.)
Also when I was a kid, one of my favorite books was a Little Golden Book called Bugs Bunny’s Carrot Machine. Bugs builds himself a machine that will convert absolutely anything to carrots. He and Elmer Fudd throw in some junk, and they do indeed produce the desired vegetables—but they’re green, square, and nothing that you’d really want to eat. Over the course of the book they experiment unsuccessfully with adding different things in an attempt to create the perfect, orange carrot.
In a way, I think all artists are carrot machines. Toss in a childhood, a few dozen trips to the library, a box of old records, and you end up with some sort of something. You can try to tinker with the ingredients (a little more Janáček, a little less Petula Clark?), but you don’t really know what you’re going to get until the carrot flies out of the chute on opening night and you show the world what it’s actually made of. An’ there’s nothing you can do about it.
Incidentally, just when Bugs thinks he’s figured out how to make a carrot that tastes like the real thing, the machine explodes. I’m not sure how far I want to pursue that metaphor.
Declaration of Principles (or, my very first blog post)
Somewhere, at the bottom of a box that is at the bottom of a pile of other boxes, there is a notebook from my opera Works of Mercy. The first page is dated sometime in the summer of 2000, and probably includes the name of the small upstate New York town in whose Pizza Hut I scribbled this initial entry. I described finding a used copy of Pirandello’s play Vestire gli ignudi at the Book Ark in Manhattan and why I thought it would be strong material for an opera libretto, then finished up with a brief synopsis of the plot, and a breakdown of the characters and their voice types.
The rest of the notebook is blank.
Although I do neurotically save every scrap of paper that has a note, a lyric, or anything at all to do with my music, I have never been particularly good at keeping any sort of record of the actual process of writing and producing one of my operas. (For the record, by “producing” I mean “talking a large number of talented and otherwise intelligent people into agreeing to put on one of these things.”)
And so, this blog. I hope it will serve as a journal for “Freedom Ride” as the opera is completed, workshopped, orchestrated, and premiered in New Orleans during the 2013-2014 season by the Jefferson Performing Arts Society. Knowing that this has been posted online for all the world to see just might make me feel accountable enough to update it regularly. Although we are already a year into the project, there is still a long way to go, and undoubtedly there will be some great stories to tell.
I hope as well that it will be a way to talk with all of you freely and honestly about the opera. I often get asked very good questions—How did you come up with the story for Freedom Ride? What comes first: the music or the lyrics? Why do you think anyone wants to hear a new opera?—but of course I never have particularly good answers. Maybe if I’m forced to think about them for a little while, I’ll be able to come up with something worthwhile. MAYBE. But no promises…
So please, take a minute to share, comment, ask questions, make suggestions, and explore the photographs, sketches, ideas, and videos that will be making their way to the www.freedomrideopera.com site over the next few months. And in return, I’ll try to make sure that all of these things—including actual blog posts—do indeed make their way onto the website for you!
Thanks, and best wishes,
Here is the new trio from Act III, with three of our students at Xavier University of Louisiana: Ayanna Hampton, Kapria Joseph, and Crystal Morris. Wilfred Delphin is on the piano, and the video footage was shot at our March 13 showcase by Bill Blanke. Enjoy!