Thursday, November 20, 2014

Adventures at Loft Opera

This past week or so, I've had the privilege of being part of the team working on Loft Opera's production of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia.  I was just a volunteer, doing little jobs here and there to help the production crew along, but I had such a blast working with the team.  While there, I got to hang out with tons of super cool people, including two other volunteers (and bloggers!) Maayan and Michael.  I also got to meet soprano Michelle Trovato, who I've been tweeting with for a while now.  She was so sweet and she sang the role of Berta like no one's business.

I had so much fun meeting people passionate about opera and getting the inside scoop on Loft Opera's mission and origins.  It's amazing to think that such a successful company (they were sold out!) has started from two guys who love opera saying "Let's start an opera company" and then working hard to make it happen.  Every person working on the production had the same passion and genuine interest in the art.  And, to make things even better, they were all sweet and fun people.  I have worked with quite a few smaller opera companies in the past and I am glad to report that Loft Opera is one of my favorites.  They are some of the best, and hardest working, people you can find in NY.  They always made me feel right at home and appreciated.  It was exhilarating to be part of such a dedicated group.

They made the mistake of giving me free reign in decorating the bathroom.

After all the nay-saying about opera and the future of the art form, it is such a breath of fresh air to find that something like Loft Opera is happening.  It's making opera fun, relevant, and accessible.  They told me that 70% of their audience are first-time opera goers.  That is fantastic!  And they let you drink beer during the show.  What else can you ask for?  The space itself (The Green Building in Brooklyn) was really cozy and the production remained up-close-and-personal to the audience, utilizing the space economically and creatively.

Outdoor bar

The other exciting aspect of the experience, for me, was being able to be a part of the opera community again.  It's crazy to think that a year ago today, I was too weak to even cut up my own dinner.  But this week I was building sets and barbacking without any trouble.  It was so fantastic to be useful again and to just be able to physically do things without worrying about collapsing.  Recovery is a beautiful thing and it was so great to have it happening in tandem with opera-related activities.

I am just so grateful to live in a place where opera is happening and I can be a part of it.  I can't thank Loft Opera enough for the opportunity and I can't wait to get even more involved this year in opera in all different places.

Dress Rehearsal, Act I

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Year Without Singing

Before I became ill in September 2013, the longest I'd gone without singing was two weeks.  And what a torturous two weeks they were!  I've been singing for as long as I can remember and the loss of that most basic activity had much more of an effect on me than I could have ever anticipated.

As I explained in an earlier blog post, not being able to sing severely cramped my usual form of self-expression.  I felt bottled up and hindered, maybe even less, because I couldn't sing.  I had to find new ways to be creative.  In general, I turned to writing.  But another hurdle that I had to overcome was the fact that when I'm upset, I turn to singing as a stress reliever and as a way to lift my spirits.  The illness brought with it a lot of disappointment and sadness, and without singing, I had to find new ways to cope with those emotions.

But beyond all that, the loss brought with it its own set of unforeseen emotions.  I will try and describe, as best I can, the feeling of being a singer without a voice.

I believe it is most akin to having a lover, a soul mate, who has gone on an extended trip to a far-off country with limited communication and no set return date.  In their absence, your life is forced into an unhealthy limbo.  There is a sort of grief that emerges, as though the person has died even though they haven't, and it pulses in your bones, coloring every day.  And, yet, you tell yourself that the separation is for a good cause, so you power through, trying to find some normalcy in this new, unsettling rhythm of things.

I know that this might sound dramatic, and I am generally not a dramatic person, but the feeling was that strong and I've been pressed to dramatics to accurately describe the depth of it.

Thankfully, that time is now over.  After an unending plethora of doctor visits, supplements, treatments, and physical therapy, I am able to sing again.  It's different, and still a struggle, but I can sing and that is a blessing.

Even though this time has been "really not fun" (as I like to say), I have tried to glean good things from it.  For one, I have improved my piano skills.  Because of the costochondritis, I couldn't sing or play my cello, so I was pushed toward my tertiary instrument: the piano.  These new skills will definitely be a help to me in all my musical endeavors.  Secondly, I have spent a lot of time writing and I feel that I'm able to be more articulate and polished in my poetry, fiction, and non-fiction writing.  And, thirdly, I have watched so many operas.  I don't even have to explain how helpful that will be.

But, most importantly, this time of separation from my voice has only increased my passion for singing.  Before I became ill, I always felt this fire inside me for singing and for opera.  Left without an outlet, this fire has only grown stronger and hotter.  I feel like I'm going to positively burst from its intensity.  This can only be a good thing.

I feel like I'm ready to take over the world -- I am so excited for all that's to come.  I intend on returning to Bard in January for the Spring semester and finishing my final year of graduate school.  Then, who knows what's in store!  I'm just looking forward to it, whatever it may be.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


A little while ago, an OperaRox reader asked me a really tough question.  I figured it would be timely and beneficial to post it here.

Q: How do you stay motivated and on track when you feel like you've hit rock bottom?

A: Wow, that is a very relevant question to my life right now!

I’m going to be real with you and tell you that it’s really hard.  This is the most difficult season that I’ve ever walked through.  I fight every day to stay positive, because I think that having negative thoughts and saying negative things about yourself/your situation is not helpful.  Sometimes, the situation just totally sucks and you’re like, “How can I be positive about this?”  Well, first you have to be realistic.  You have to acknowledge something for what it is.  I let myself think, “Ok, this is happening and it’s the worst.”  But I don’t dwell on it.  I start to think of ways to profit from it, ways to turn it around.  Peter Sellars said something that really spoke to me.  He said, “One thing that’s not allowed in opera, or in life, is self-pity.”  Self-pity is paralyzing and destructive.  So, you find another way around it.

This works generally, but there are some days that are so bad that I can’t be positive.  Sometimes I am just too exhausted to be positive.  That’s when I turn to my friends.  They help lift me up; they encourage me and say the positive things for me.  Or, they just let me rant and then say “That sucks” and that helps immensely.  Or, they do silly things and make me laugh.  Friends are the best ammunition against a bad day.  Find these people and then don’t be afraid to rely on them, to share with them.  If they’re your real friends, they’ll want to be there for you.  They’ll want to help you and support you when you can’t support yourself.  It’s important to remember that these times make you feel alone, but you’re not really alone.  There’s always someone who can help you carry the burden.

So, my main silver lining thought is this: when I come out of this, I’m going to be stronger, wiser, and more well-rounded.  This situation is changing me so much and I’m trying my best to make sure that all the changes are for the better.  I want to come out of this with something.  All of these experiences are feeding my future art, too.  Peter Sellars (he’s a genius) also said: "The light exits through the wound."  In other words, all the truly thrilling and beautiful things about us come out of the painful times.  It might seem like a platitude, but it’s not.  It’s really true.  So I think, “Damn, there’s going to be a lot of light, because I have a lot of wounds.”

On the more practical level, I’ve worked hard to find ways to cope with stress and fight off bad feelings.  I’ve taken up meditating (this website has been a godsend) and I listen to uplifting music as much as I can.  I surround myself with beautiful things — books, poetry, movies….  Also, I’ve been writing to a friend who is going through something similar and this has been an incredible solace.  I’m writing for myself a lot (poetry, blog stuff, fiction) and I’m keeping in touch with the opera world that I love so much.  I go to the theater/opera when I can and soak up as much live music as possible.  I’ve been watching operas on YouTube that I don’t know and studying others that I do know.  I’m trying to learn as much as I can.  Also, I always wear a yellow ribbon around my wrist to remind myself that the sun is always there, even if I can’t see it.

I’m sorry if you yourself are going through something difficult.  Just know that I’m always here to talk, if you need it.  :)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

OperaRox in NYC

It's been an exciting couple of weeks for me and my OperaRox gang!

On April 25, a bunch of us got together at the Metropolitan Opera for a performance of Rossini's La Cenerentola starring Joyce DiDonato, Javier Camarena, and Luca Pisaroni.  The show was fun, moving, and beautifully sung.  Mr. Camarena's singing was so compelling that he received an encore in the middle of the opera! 

Joyce DiDonato was kind enough to come out to talk with us after the show.  She must have been exhausted after all that coloratura, but she took her time with all of us, signing autographs and taking pictures.  She even took a selfie with all of us!

Joyce DiDonato and some of the OperaRox gang
Then, Ms. DiDonato did us another huge favor and gave OperaRox a shout-out in her OperaNews Singer Studio masterclass and interview.  We are so lucky to have such a wonderful and successful advocate!  She also mentioned my other project, Opera21, which I edit with founder Jen Choi.  Opera is alive and well in the 21st Century.

In other news, one of my favorite NYC opera companies, New York Opera Exchange, is opening their new production of La Traviata this week.  I conducted interviews with leads soprano Samantha Guevrekian (Violetta) and tenor Kyle Van Schoonhoven (Alfredo).  They talk about their own artistry and their opinions on these characters.  I love talking with singers and learning about their personalities and how they prepare a role.

I hate how people are always inferring that opera is a "dying" art form.  I disagree completely.  I think opera speaks to us now, just as it always has, and there is nothing less accessible about it than any other art form.  We just need to learn how to overcome the stigmas that society has put on it and improve opera education.  Because, OperaRox!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Kim, the Cheerleader

Vincent Festa, Lucy Fitz Gibbon, and Laura Soto-Bayomi in Turn of the Screw
If you knew me in high school, you'd know that the last thing I would likely be, or want to be, was a cheerleader.  I was the nerdy, honors type who only went to homecoming for the cotton candy.

But this week, I've willingly taken on the role of cheerleader for my fellow singers in Bard College's Vocal Arts Program production of Payne Hollow and Turn of the Screw.  Since I'm on medical leave, I was planning on coming up for the performances this weekend.  But, then I realized that it would be beneficial to everyone, myself included, if I came up for tech week.  So I've spent this entire week with my lovely and talented colleagues, watching as they create great art.  They've welcomed me with open arms, allowing me to contribute wherever I can.  I've pinned lots of costumes and taken tons of notes.

Helen Huang, Angela Aida Carducci, and Sara Lemesh in Payne Hollow

As you can probably guess, I was suffering from a bit of opera withdrawal.  If you're used to hearing it every day and being in rehearsal all the time, the sudden cessation of this can be a bit jarring.  So, it was definitely therapeutic to be in rehearsal again.

One of the best parts of being in dress rehearsals, besides watching my colleagues create and learn and explore, was taking photographs of their work (the pictures in this post are mine and the rest can be found here).  There's something so fulfilling about capturing the beauty of what's happening in any given moment.  The director, Nic Muni, has truly created two strong and moving pieces of art.  I'm the lucky one, sitting out in the audience and soaking it all in.

Kameryn Lueng, Helen Huang, Katherine Maysek, and Sarah Tuttle in Turn of the Screw
Opening night has finally arrived and I'm so excited to see the fruits of their labor.  It should be thrilling!  Toi toi toi and much love to all the performers.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Emotional Baggage Check

I've been trying to write this post for three months.

I've started it a thousand times in my head and a few times in writing.  Sometimes, I even got to the middle before my brain sputtered out and lost track of where it was supposed to be going.  Often, though, I'd stop just as I started, because I couldn't figure out how I was supposed to write this down.  How I was supposed to explain this thing that's been happening for six months now.

So, I'll start the explanation here:

I really wanted to continue my "Character Creation" series and show the evolution/process of a character as I was experiencing it.  Unfortunately, I have to cut this series short (and hopefully pick it up at a later date, in a different production) because I cannot participate in Payne Hollow.  My recovery hasn't progressed quickly enough, despite my (and my doctors') best efforts, so I must withdraw from all opera-related activities until the fall.

That's the short of it.  The long of it is that this non-singing, non-exercising, non-progressing, non-being illness is making something new of me.  I am, right now, something that I've never been before and the changing, the transformation, hurts.

First and foremost, I am a go-getter.  I work hard, I make plans, and I do my very best to achieve them.  This illness has kept me from doing everything.  Sure, I've been able to write some and read and watch a ton of opera, but it has kept me bolted to the couch, isolated from the very things and people I love most of all.  So even though a vacation from everything would seem amazing to some people, for me it's a new form of torture.  I know it sounds dramatic, but I'm not sure how else to express it.

Second of all, this illness forced me to turn down opportunities that I was excited about.  Ever since I first heard Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking (the first contemporary opera I ever listened to), I've always dreamed of having an opera role written for me.  I thought that I'd have to wait a long time for this, or that, perhaps, it would never happen.  But this year, at Bard, that dream (inconceivably!) came true.  The music is beautiful and the role is written perfectly for my voice.  But I cannot sing in the world premiere.  This, alone, threatened to crush my spirit.

Third, and most of all, I am not a quitter and I will not let anything bring me down.  This is tough; I have good days and bad days, both physically and emotionally, but overall I am positive and hopeful.  I think it is crucial, in life, to hang on the hardest when the sea is the wildest.  I have my loved ones to anchor me and my faith to keep me grounded.  The rest is the wind and the waves and the thrashing of fate.

Despite everything, this illness has already taught me something extremely important.  It has illuminated, for me, the reason why I sing.  I always believed that I sing because I love to do it.  But now, with no voice for six months, I have discovered the truest, deepest reason for my passion for singing.

Music is a balm for the soul.  It feeds us and moves us and heals us in ways that we cannot see or fully understand.  And I know now that I have sung my entire life, and I will sing my entire life, because it is the best way that I can give to others.  It is the thing I am the best at and the thing that I have found to have the most influence when placed in my hands.  I find fulfillment and joy in giving.  And singing is my giving.

I realized this one night when I was up late, unable to sleep from the pain, and tooling around on Tumblr.  I came across a website called Emotional Baggage Check where people can anonymously leave their problems and strangers can anonymously answer, lending words of encouragement and a song.  I spent hours answering strangers, finding a long-needed fulfillment in helping others in some small way.  Then, it was all so clear to me.  As much as I missed the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of singing, the thing that I missed most was the chance to give, through music, to someone else.

This blog post is my Emotional Baggage Check.  I'm leaving here all the hurt and frustration and disappointment of the last six months.  I'm checking it, releasing it, because only then can I move forward.  The illness isn't over and the emotions will still keep coming, but everything that has built up is now here, in perfect Arial 12.

I want it to be known that I have made it through many a bad day only because of my loving friends and family.  People have taken time to give encouragement, send me cards, make me care packages, and even mail me opera DVDs to watch.  They have given so much and I can't wait to recover so that I can give back.

I know that I called this a speed bump.  It's one heck of a speed bump and it's not over yet, but I'm hopeful and confident that it will be.  And I will be even more focused, more energetic, and more ready to do what I love to do.  And I will be all the more grateful for it.