Well friends, it's been a while. My goal was to do a post twice a month, and seeing that were almost three months between posts, it's about time we catch up. I've started performing Cinderella en España and completed a modern production of La traviata for Seattle Opera. It was an interesting experience doing very unconventional staging in Trav, but I enjoyed working with the artists and stage director. I'm looking forward to more performances of Cinderella, especially since the kids seem to really enjoy it. There will be some public ones, and I will post those soon in case you are interested in seeing them. They are in Kirkland, Marysville, and Seattle.
My production of Figaro was a smash hit! It was sold out, the singing and storytelling was wonderful, and we received a lot of positive feedback. We had many who were interested in participating either as a host or performer. I guess following your gut works out sometimes. We have a few more in the works, so check out our facebook page for more info on that and future productions. Our goal is to do a fall, winter, and summer show.
I also debuted my Love in the Time of Tinder recital for The Exposition Concert Series in Moscow, Idaho. The recital takes classic songs and puts modern interpretations on them, while also being approached more like a comedy show than a typical recital. It went well and it was a great opportunity to get the first draft out there. Now I can refine the jokes and figure out what rep to change/add. Ultimately, I want to do this for festivals and have up to 90 minutes of material.
I also have two other shows in the next few months, which you can get more information about by visiting the calendar part of the site. As you probably have surmised, it's been a crazy busy time, but full of good things.
It's been over a month since my last post, but I've been busy at work preparing for the craziness that almost every singer faces this time of year. December can be an extremely challenging and busy for singers between added church work, professional caroling and other holiday performances, Messiah gigs, etc.... I find myself with all of those things, plus rehearsals for Seattle Opera's Cinderella en España (which has been too much fun so far, but that's for a whole different post) and SO's production of Traviata, which was a last second contract I wasn't expecting. On top of all of this, I finally finished Figaro, sent to my singers and booked our first gig (https://www.groupmuse.com/events/4374-figaro-at-phinney-farrm?source=weekly-email). It was quite a process, but we are stoked to get this show on its feet. It also is just the beginning of a series I'm starting with Groupmuse called Operamuse, where we take operas and condense them to an hour, plus put them in English. With the Groupmuse format we are giving them opera Live in HD without having to go to an opera house or movie theater. It has the potential to be a huge thing, and I hope people enjoy it.
I'm also in the process of writing a song cycle about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens with a composer friend of mine, Spencer Arias (www.spencerariasmusic.com). I'm writing the words and he will write the music, which will be for string quartet, piano, and myself. We're looking to premiere it next May in Seattle, but it's in the baby stages at the moment.
More will come in the future, so stay tuned!
As I mentioned in a previous post, my fall initially wasn't as busy as I would have liked. It turns out that it was a great thing for me. 2016 prior to the end of August was the busiest I've ever been since graduating with my master's, which was wonderful, but it was 8 months of little free time and opportunities to wind down from the constant work. After taking a few weeks to relax and regroup, I found myself with some opportunities to explore other parts of my art that I haven't had time to in the past, and one that might lead me to figure out if it is where I will be the most impactful in this business.
Before going into the opportunity, allow me to get on my soapbox about arguably the thing that I am most passionate about in regards to the state of opera. Due to having a vested interest in the continuation of opera, of course I want it to not only survive, but start to truly thrive in the United States. I understand the power of opera and how it can be transformative in a way that other performing arts fail to come close to. In my head I think, "what kind of person wouldn't like this? I mean, c'mon? It's amazing!!!!" At the same time, I understand why the average person wouldn't give it a chance, due to misconceptions that are perpetuated by media and other entertainment industries, and it is on us as performers to "operavangelize" to as many people as we can to it. It is on us, not the public, to adapt to the audience that surrounds us.
Often those who are unfamiliar or who think they hate opera have many excuses as to why they won't give it a shot. For my money, the most common excuses are the following - cost, language barrier, dress code, and perceived social status. Let's tackle each of these and bring some perspective and information to our future opera friends.
Cost - "But opera tickets are so expensive!" I won't lie, I think they are too at times. Though I don't want to hear that excuse from people who won't go to an opera yet will drop hundreds, possibly over a thousand dollars on a professional sporting event or Beyoncé tickets. While I don't know all the ins and outs of trying to make a profit at large opera companies, I do know that if we want to grow our audiences and get some buzz about our work, making the experience more affordable wouldn't hurt. If butts are in the seats, they are likely going to talk about it. Wouldn't it be amazing if we had most of our performances sold out or near capacity? Isn't that more profitable in the long run than selling all the cheap seats and hoping the expensive ones make the difference?
Language Barrier - Opera started as an Italian art form and now is done in a myriad of languages. Most companies are not interested in the time and energy it takes to translate all the operas they perform into English if one isn't already available and actually is good. From a singer's perspective, some translations are terrible and doesn't flow or have the same impact as it does in the original language. That said, every opera company worth the money to go to will have surtitles in English so you can follow along. Hopefully the acting and singing will give you enough information to not have to be constantly reading the surtitles, but if not they are there.
Dress code - To my knowledge, in the United States there is no official dress code for an opera. I've gone in jeans and a shirt, as well as dressed up. If you've paid for a ticket they really can't turn you away unless you're going au natural. Others may be super dressed up, but that's their choice, not a requirement.
Social Status - It's often thought that opera is for rich, white people. NOT. TRUE. First of all, opera was originally written for the average person. Second, our art form is becoming more and more ethnically diverse every day, which is a wonderful thing. In fact, one of the first famous black opera singers Marian Anderson will be on the $5 bill in the future. Plus the stories we tell are relatable to all people, regardless of race, social status, gender, religion, and any other category you want to put in there. We expose life in all its shades, the good, bad, ugly, disturbing, and redemptive.
Steps off Soapbox
I know you're thinking, "ok Mike, where are you going with this?"
One of my passions is creating new audiences. This is why I do recitals and why I have a rule that at least 50% of the rep has to be in English. Groupmuse has allowed me to do this in an impactful way, which is why I'm excited to announce I will be launching Operamuse, a series which takes the best operas in the repertoire and makes them more accessible to the average person in the hope that they will give it a shot. We will take full operas and condense them to under an hour and put them into modern English. You'll get the basic story line of the opera, the musical highlights, and experience it in an inexpensive way. This format breaks down all the issues I previously mentioned, plus it's much shorter than going to the real thing (which is another excuse thrown out there. If a person after a performance like this still doesn't like opera, then it is clearly not for them. We can't win them all, but we can do a lot better if we meet them where they are.
My first show will be Mozart's iconic Marriage of Figaro to be debuted in Seattle before Valentine's Day (date TBA). I just finished the first draft of the libretto today, basically have the team set, and am looking forward to bringing possibly my favorite opera to life. This is what I've been doing with my extra time and it's been fun doing a project from this side of it instead of the performing side.
Stay tuned for more details!
I'm sure this is not an uncommon thing people have said after interacting with me. It's fine. I'm me, and at the end of the day I at least can laugh at my own jokes, right? haha
All kidding aside, I DO HAVE ISSUES, as we all do. While I'm not going divulge the things that might put me in a shrink's office, I would like to focus on some problems I've had ever since my second year of grad school, but it's progressively gotten worse over time. One of my favorite people in the world happens to also be an emerging artist. Her name is Courtney Ruckman. Check her out. She's fabulous. I met her at my first real opera gig, Opera Coeur d'Alene's outreach tour of Seymour Barab's The Toy Shop. It's a wonderful show and we had a great time driving all over Northern Idaho bringing a story about a guy who makes toys who come to life. That's literal actually. My first aria is me singing to dolls and after my exit Courtney and the tenor came out of the boxes and sang.
One of the things that is wonderful and also extremely terrible about being a touring musician, especially a singer, is the show "process" in many ways is like a summer camp. You often go to a place you've never been to before, meet people from all over the place of varying backgrounds, you're only there for a short time, and then you more than likely never will see each other again or for a very long time. Inevitably through your shared experience, you bond with those at camp. Some potentially strange alliances are made, but nonetheless, you forge relationships that can potentially last a very long time. The only saving grace of being in 2016 is you can still keep in contact through social media. Courtney and I stayed in contact after the show and even though years have passed, and both of us have moved around after our stay in CDA, we regularly text each other.
Our conversations mostly revolve around singing, music, how to navigate this bitch of a career, working out, and making fun of her dogs, especially Baker. While I don't have the actual data, I would have to say (and I'm pretty sure she would agree) that the thing I most often say to her is something to the effect "Courtney, I have this amazing idea..." and then I spew about the idea du jour for me. Thankfully, she's one of my levelheaded and practical friends and gives me advice with my best interest in mind. I'm an idea guy. I think big. I really think some of my ideas could help classical music and especially opera gain the place in our culture it deserves. Maybe even convert the whole world to it. Did I just operavangelize? Yes, I did. And yes, I'm pretty sure I'm the first person to use that term. Sometimes I wonder why I'm blessed with this brain. ;)
This is not meant to be an egotistical statement, because as Courtney can attest, it's an issue. I have so many ideas, not all good but most are fairly decent or better, that I can't sit down and do just one. This is why I do so many recitals, aside from making a little money on the side. It's an outlet for me to use that creative intuition and have it come to fruition. It allows me to check some of the boxes off on the to-do list. I have other ideas in there/on the table that take more than myself to make happen, and thankfully I have some friends who see my vision and want to help me bring it to the world. Hopefully those ideas will work. If not, there are definitely worse things.
Another issue I have is a common one for singers at some point. When does one finally say, "enough. I'm just going to be me and let the chips fall where they fall." Throughout our training we learn what is right and wrong. Then we go to a different source (teacher, coach, director, conductor, etc...) and they give their thoughts which may contradict what you had previously learned. Some days I ask the question, "who am I actually performing this for?" Depending on your performance and interpretation, that can vary dramatically.
For example, if you take a more academic approach, often the result is a stale performance, but it was technically what was on the page and in theory what the composer wanted (if the markings are the actual composer's markings). If you go off of the conductor and/or director's vision, that may not speak/make sense to you, be what the composer wanted, or what is traditionally done. If you do it solely to sell tickets, you can find yourself way off base from the tradition/composer's ideas if you're not careful, and the production can take away from the power of a piece. If you do it strictly based on yourself and your interpretation it will be satisfying to you, but possibly only you. On top of all of this, I really wonder how much the composer's really care are about how it's done or rather that there music is still performed and appreciated well after their death and compositional trademarks have faded.
So I wrestle with all of these things any time I am in a show, whether or not it's a solo or group performance. While there's a lot to be said about all of that, one thing I've learned is that Bill Shakespeare guy got it right - "To thine own self, be true". If you can't feel truth speaking from you in your performance, it will only be satisfying to you and the audience to a certain degree. Did I mess with a rhythm there? Yes. Did I affect the text a certain way you weren't expecting? Yes. Was I a little flat/slurpy with some of the pitches? Yes. Were my gestures clear "artistic choices"? Yes. Were you moved by the performance and/or felt what my character was trying to portray? ......
If you answered yes to all of the above, then I've done my job.
So yes, I have issues and that's ok. There are always worse things, but these issues lead to a life full of wonderful adventures, introspection, and giving people a gift that only art can provide.
As singers, we have many mental things to deal with and prepare for in everything we do. Each rehearsal, audition, performance for the public (regardless of the amount of payment), has a particular mindset depending on what we are doing. One thing singers of all levels hear, but especially in school and in the beginning of their careers, is to make big choices. Stage directors and teachers will say, "take it farther than you think it should go and I'll tell you whether it's too much." Spoiler alert - the percentage of times one is told their efforts were too much is on the same level as a dog actually catching its tail when chasing it. This principle can also be used in other parts of the career as well.
Since I'm towards the beginning of my career and still clawing my way through like everyone else, one thing I've learned is in order to have success in this business you've got to have, as everyone's "favorite" politician would say, "yuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge" balls. Yes, every single one of those u's were needed. Learning how to be ballsy in your career takes time, is accompanied by some (maybe even a lot more than some) failure, but as you continue to grow, you find your way and purpose a lot faster than sitting around waiting for fortune to show up on your doorstep.
The audition is probably the place where your ballsiness is most often seen, because it takes a great amount of courage and grit to go in front of people who will judge every nit picky detail of you and your performance (even if you're not in great voice for any number of reasons), and compare you with the other 20 (if not more) people who are the same voice type. As a person and singer, you really got to have some gall and cojones to essentially say to them through your performance and how you conduct yourself, "look, I'm what you want. I'm perfect for the role. People will buy tickets because I'm singing in it. You'll be grateful to work with someone like me." Whether or not those things are actually true or just the story you put in your head to amp you up depends on a variety of factors, but the point is it takes guts to have that mindset.
In the last 24 hours two things happened that reiterated this principle to me. Whenever I have a performance I always try my best to be an adult. I went to bed at 10:30 the night before, did the usual melatonin routine, turned on some meaningless TV as per usual and fell asleep. Then around 1:00am my body says, "That's cute... Wakey Wakey" and wouldn't let me fall back asleep. Since the performance was on a Sunday, I also had two masses to sing in the morning, so when I showed up on just under 3 hours sleep you know how "fun" that was. Despite getting through the masses fine, I was stressing about the performance later though due to the highness of one of the arias I was singing. I thought, "whatever, it's fine. I'll take a nap when I get home then get up and run for an hour. It's fine. No really, it's fine." Pretty insane thinking, because in my experience, m0st naps lower my voice, even if the rest of my body feels better.
Fast forward after the non nap, run afternoon, to the performance with Opera on Tap Seattle. The first aria I sang was from Mark Adamo's Little Women entitled "Kennst du das Land", which unless you're a high baritone or can float your high notes well can be a little bit of a beast, but it's one of the most beautiful arias I've ever worked on. Mind you, I haven't sung this since 2014 and at that time only sang the English part of the aria (first part is in German). I could've said to the host I couldn't do it and could sing something else that I had mentioned in the planning process, but then I said to myself, "No, real professionals do this all the time. Rarely does anyone perform when they are 100%. Grow a pair, dude." So I did. I grew a pair and took a chance on me. Now the performance was not perfect. The big high note was definitely better all week before that, but it was passable and I proved to myself that I can "be a man" when it's needed. But this isn't where being ballsy ended that night.
Those who know me and have been to my recitals know I like to not only create interesting and fun programs, but whenever possible I like to make my recitals more palatable to the general public as a way to break down barriers and stereotypes that people have about classical music. One thing I love doing and have had great success with is bringing people onstage to do scenes with me. It's unconventional for the genre and has really a polar opposite potential result (either amazing or completely bomb), but so far I've lucked out. I was singing the infamous Catalogue Aria from Don Giovanni where Leporello tells Elvira she is just a grain of sand in the ocean of people Giovanni has slept with. In the score she doesn't sing anything, but it's an aria that is much more convincing if you have someone else there to play with you.
So the audience member comes up to the stage not knowing what she's getting into, but from all accounts she did great. I also did the aria in English and had preset pictures in my phone to show the audience during the latter half of the aria. There was a lot of moving pieces in this, but I got up there with my ideas and said, "alright let's see how this goes" in front of a paying audience. Normally not having outside feedback prior to performing something is not how I like to roll, but that's what happened this time. The feedback was great and now I have things I can improve on now that it's been on it's feet.
The other ballsy move was asking for money and advertising. I have my Murica recital this Friday and so I've been posting all over the Seattle classical music pages on Facebook to help get the word out. Last weekend on whim I sent a message to Second Inversion, which is affiliated with the classical music station in Seattle and focuses on new music, which there is a fair amount on my recital that is. Today I got a message from them saying they would post about it and if I would have contacted them sooner I could've been in their newsletter that goes out regularly. Exciting news for this weekend and good information for the future, and this was all because I took a chance on me and contacted someone who can help me with my career.
When in doubt everyone, growing a pair won't let you down. Believe in yourself and things will either work out or teach you a valuable lesson, like you can accomplish what you set out to do.
With it being Labor Day, which for many is the official end of the summer, it's a time to look ahead to the Fall and figure out how to finish 2016 strong. This fall I'll be preparing and rehearsing Cinderella en España with Seattle Opera starting in January, and my Cantor/Section Leader position at St. Mary Magdalen ramps back up this Thursday. I also will be debuting an All-American Recital at the end of this month, and have other potential performances after it. Just like my last post, I'm hoping for more, but am anxiously engaged in whatever I'm working on and happy with what I have.
In the arts world we had a little issue last week with a Wells Fargo ad we felt went over the line. Below is the infamous ad that sparked quite an outrage in our community. This issue needs a little unpacking, because perhaps we (the art community) overreacted.
First of all, artists of all kinds are passionate about their art to the point they will often live in poverty, give up many "normal things" of life in pursuit of it, and realize how important it is in every culture. Think about the following for a second if you are a non-arts person. Would you make a career of your 9-5 job knowing it brings constant judgement from both informed and uninformed people (many of which you've never met), a constant influx of income, almost never feeling you've "arrived" and can coast to the end, seeing people on popular talent competitions who haven't gone through the training/ups and downs you have make millions for a few years until they are used up by their agents, having to deal with unending amounts of competition and rejection in your field to the point that it's been said that if you get work from 10% of your auditions that's considered successful? Perspective is important in this issue.
We are often looked down upon, seen as weird, told we should get a real job, and that we should do our art for free because anyone can theoretically do it. I would venture to guess that the vast majority of people having issues with the ad are those who went to college for the arts, and many of them going into decent amounts of debt to have advanced degrees in music, dance, theater, art, etc... Even with that experience and training, we are CONSTANTLY told to do things for free. Would you expect a doctor, dentist, chef, plumber, construction worker (especially one you just met since when we tell people what we do they always ask us to sing) etc... to just do things for free? Good luck with that.
So when we see ads like the one above we are reminded yet again how society doesn't value the arts like they should or at least we feel they should. This isn't the first time a major company does an ad campaign that either flat out or subtly says, "the arts aren't a real career choice, get a real job/back up job". Naturally, when this was discovered, our community took to the Twitterverse and Book of Faces and expressed our anger or at least disappointment at the lack of oversight. Not only that, but every time something like this happens there's the irony that an artist of some sort, whether collegiately trained or not, is the one who made the ad. The fact they didn't say anything might say more about job security as an artist than anything else.
Buuuuuuuuut..... was this the right reaction? At least the anger part? Last year, Wells Fargo contributed $93 Million towards the arts, culture, and education. Who knows what the percentages were between the three categories, but at least we can say there was a significant effort. Due to that, my thought is they weren't likely being malicious on purpose. They clearly are shelling out cash to us or organizations we associate with and we shouldn't bite the hand that helps feeds us, right? Perhaps our knee jerk reaction wasn't the right one.
Was it poorly worded? Yes. Should someone have seen the potential slam to us? Yes, and that's mostly because you have to assume there are artists working on it. Should we be outraged like some of the videos we see of the worldwide atrocities across the globe? I don't know. Is a very poorly worded ad that continues a stereotype that we are sick of dealing with on the same level as for example the human collateral damage of war/terrorism? How about childhood poverty? Or other social injustices? That's for you to decide. I understand everyone has their causes they care deeply about, but perspective is important.
In case you're wondering, Wells Fargo did change the ad and it's message could be seen somewhat the same way if you want to interpret it that way, but it not a slam to the arts at least. The effort was appreciated. Hopefully they and other companies will have better oversight in the future.
Now that the intro to this blog is over, perhaps the most logical step would be to update you on what is going on in my singing career. The 2015-16 season was a whirlwind year with a lot of growth and opportunities I never thought would happen. It lead to me to remember the old stage adage "in the end, it all comes together".
This adage comes from the fact that most shows come together/sort themselves out by the time opening night happens. It's a really odd phenomenon, because I've been in some that we weren't quite sure how some things would go when we had a live, paying audience. Perhaps it's the adrenaline and razor blade focus that we all of sudden have. Maybe it's the fact we've been rehearsing every night for who knows how long and the day off between the last dress and opening night gives our brain some time to process the info without adding more. Could be recurring dumb luck, who knows. Either way, it all works out, and many of us trust in that.
How this relates to my singing (and anyone's life for that matter) is I just have to have faith in the process and work as hard as i can. One year ago I was a little scared. I was in the middle of performing my first chorus show (Nabucco) with Seattle Opera. This was an amazing experience and from an employment perspective, a great way to ease into such a high level company. However, as I looked at my calendar all I had was Anna Bolena with Puget Sound Concert Opera where I was covering the main baritone role and singing in the chorus (which wasn't a paid gig), a war recital in the works with no dates solidified, and assumptions about a potential role with a company I had previously worked for. I was also running guy's sectionals at Ballard High School. All that said, financially not great. I was not very optimistic either, since all of the other companies in the area I auditioned for earlier in the year had cast their season.
As the fall went on, I did my best to get by with temp and odd jobs, but it was rough. Then I got the offer I had the assumption about, which was Northwest Opera in the Schools, Etc...'s production of The Telephone. Great! It didn't start until the beginning of the next year, so it didn't help in the short term, but was definitely something to look forward to. While performing the show with PSCO, I got some info from my singer friends about Seattle Opera's outreach show Our Earth. They gave me the coordinator's email, and shortly thereafter I had a contract with them. Also for the beginning of the next year, but still great.
After over a year of subbing for friends in their church jobs and working once a month at a Christian Science church in Seattle, I landed one as a Section Leader and Cantor in Everett (which is the closest singing job I've ever had) and the director is in the SO Chorus with me. Not only is it great working with him and the choir, it is nice having a person who understands my schedule and how things are in the singing world.
Over the next few months, I was offered three chorus contracts (Maria Stuarda, The Flying Dutchman, and Le comte Ory) for SO, one of which was a last minute fill-in. I was offered a small role in PSCO's La Rondine. I've done multiple recitals with Groupmuse and over the past few weeks I've been offered contracts for Tacoma Opera's La Perichole and SO's outreach show Cinderella in Spain.
"In the end, it all comes together"
This isn't to say that all of a sudden things fell in my lap, or companies had an epiphany about me or whatever. It was only because I was actively trying to make things happen and working towards something that they did. That is the time honored lesson I've learned, yet still need to keep reminding myself from time to time. The thing you're working towards in reality doesn't matter, but the idea of having progress/movement in your life towards a worthy cause is bound to get the ball rolling in other areas, whether or not it's easily seen from the beginning.
"In the end, it all comes together"
Ladies and Gents, I finally decided to join the 21st century world and have a blog with my website. The blog has a variety of purposes like giving you insider information about projects coming up, but that's kind of a given. One thing I'm passionate about as an artist and feel it is one of my missions is breaking down antiquated ideas about what classical music is and/or is not to the general public, thereby giving them a fresh and real experience to develop their opinion of it. In my experience, when classical music is packaged the right way, most people who were unfamiliar or not into it leave with a better (or at least informed) view of it. I realize it's not for everyone, but more people grow to love it than many would expect.
I will also be giving insights on the super "sexy" parts of a working singer are. And by sexy, I mean dealing with rejection, auditioning, running a corporation (for all intents and purposes I'm the CEO of Michael Heitmann, singer), what it's like being onstage, my views about performing, and any other things that come up. I'm open to talking about things that interest you as well. If you choose to comment, make sure it's respectful and civil, even if we are debating a particular topic.
Without any further ado, andiamo!