From the Grammys to a World Premiere, the weird life of an opera singer.

Dan Kempson 2014Guest Blogger, Dan Kempson

The life of a modern opera singer is weird. We are on the road for months at a time, living out of suitcases, creating a home in a hotel room, and showing up at our first day of work to sing loudly with some strangers, maybe pretend to be in love, and often for myself (as a baritone), pretend to kill someone.

For a long time this has meant a healthy diet of Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi, with a little Bizet or Wagner thrown in to spice things up.  But today’s world of opera seems to encompass two spheres: the previously mentioned circle of Bohemes and Carmens, and another one of freshly created, new works.

While the first sphere contains centuries of history and beautiful music, I find myself drawn to the second.  Here, modern composers and theaters are harnessing the power of opera to tell stories that have a resonance for modern audiences – stories that speak to the world in which we live. Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Somtow Sucharitkul’s The Snow Dragon, itself adapted from a short story written in the 80s, follows a boy named Billy Binder who is struggling against his mother’s physically abusive boyfriend, Stark. Billy’s rage allows him to escape to a fantasy world called The Fallen Country, which is bereft of emotion and ruled by a shadowy figure known as the Ringmaster. In the Fallen Country, Billy meets the Snow Dragon, who guides Billy on his journey to defeat the Ringmaster and to find peace and safety in his own world. I have been given the enormous challenge of playing the dual roles of Stark and the Ringmaster.

I’ve spent a lot of time with new works so far in my young career.  It started with Philip Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox at Fort Worth Opera four years ago, and by the end of this year will have included three world premieres, three American premieres, and two world premiere recordings.

Dan at GrammysOne of these was the first recording of Darius Milhaud’s monumental 20th century masterpiece L’orestie d’Eschyle, on which I sang the title role of Orestes.  110 players in the orchestra, more than 350 in the chorus – it was a huge undertaking and to be involved in any way was a thrill. Then, last December, I got a text from a colleague – the recording had been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Opera Recording category, and I was a named nominee alongside the conductor and other lead soloists!

So, in February, I traveled to Los Angeles to attend the Grammys with some of my cast mates and our conductor. It was a whirlwind weekend of parties, presentations, and ceremonies. I even got to walk the red carpet (Madonna is a very tiny, person, by the way). While we unfortunately did not win, being present at the weekend’s many events gave me the chance to reflect upon a great deal.

At the pre-telecast Grammy Ceremony (where 90% of the awards were handed out), the power of creation and the importance of storytelling were twin themes anchoring the evening. From jazz great Chick Corea collecting his 21st and 22nd Grammys to World Music winner Angélique Kidjo, every winner talked about the creative process, about the experience of being in a room with collaborators and working together to usher into the world a new piece of art.  They talked about inspiration in molding the stories they wished to tell. And because opera is inherently a narrative art, we must put the focus on storytelling even more strongly.

I had a drama teacher who once described the creation process as sculpting, but I think that’s wrong. We don’t chip away at a stone until we have David standing in front of us. Rather, theater is more like building a house. When we are handed the score, we are handed the blueprints. In our music rehearsals, we build the foundation.  With our staging rehearsals, we build upward, floor by floor. We have the full framework, but we still don’t know how the house will look. Then we leave the rehearsal space and enter the theater. The set – drywall. The lighting – a tiled roof. Our costumes are the fixtures, our makeup the paint, our props the furniture. And suddenly, we have built a house.

It’s pretty easy to jump into a role like Figaro in The Barber of Seville.  We already have pictures of what the house looks like. I might decide to paint the shutters blue instead of white, but there isn’t a whole lot of leeway with a 200 year old piece like that. Playing a dual role like Stark/The Ringmaster in The Snow Dragon is entirely different matter.  How do I approach the role of a violent child abuser? If I make Stark a stock villain, he loses power because he isn’t real; conversely, I have to find a place to feel empathy for him, but never sympathy for his actions. Challenges like this are why new opera is so fascinating to me.

Ringmaster 2Putting a new piece of theater on its feet is like forging a trail in the woods – you have to walk over the grass many times before it becomes the expected path.  And sometimes in rehearsal, we discover that we’ve been walking the wrong way for a while. For example, it became clear that a scene change in Act Two required more time than was given in the original score. Somtow obliged by adding 45 seconds of music that covered the scene change.  This is the benefit of working with a living composer – we can’t email Puccini to ask for any edits.

Our amazing director Matthew Ozawa said that with The Snow Dragon, “we are creating and telling a story together with the ultimate goal of making the invisible visible.” The subject matter is difficult, and we have fought to tell this story that faces it head-on, not shying from its realities while also telling a story that is universal and which forces our community to have a dialogue about something which is often swept under the rug. The Snow Dragon, in using fantasy to illuminate and attack the cycle of violence which destroys so many lives, somehow manages to bring it closer to us than a mere story on the news.

Legend says that Mozart finished writing the overture to Don Giovanni just before curtain, and the orchestra played it as the ink was still drying on the page. At that performance, everyone – the orchestra and singers included – was hearing that music for the first time. I can’t wait until our cast gives that first glimpse of something new to Milwaukee audiences.

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