When our vocal band does a show, I’m not sure what part of the experience we love the most. It’s probably the spontaneous combustion of heart and soul that occurs when a song achieves its truest and most platonic form and is shared in a joyous communion between the singers and the audience. I love that.
I sit in the back of the halls we perform in, and am moved by the sight of the audience being transported by music that is moving them. Sometimes, and I live for these moments, there is the slightest of pauses between the song and the applause–a silence that falls upon the venue when it is as if no one even takes a breath before the eruption of wild applause. Yep. That’s the best. It’s not about us. It’s about the music. It’s about conveying the truth of a feeling, a thought, or happiness.
I do like to see people happy. And our music raises the water table of joy at every concert. People jump to their feet not because they are ready to go home, but because they don’t want the magic to end. That’s when we often sing “Home” by Marc Broussard, a song that Sir Charles Ponder delivers with his powerful stage presence in a manner that captures the depth and breadth of the Delta and its collective soul.
After a concert we try to find a place that is still serving food–it’s hard to grab much more than a snack between the sound check and the performance–and the fellas are hungry. So after last night’s performance at Theatre Memphis we gathered at Pacific Rim and ordered, for the first time, a sushi roll that we dreamed up at a previous dinner.
The DeltaCappella Roll is a Double roll with Eel, Lobster Tempura, and Avocado. I’m not sure if another acronomic sushi roll exists or not–but this one is double-delicious. It comes with twelve slices–since there are twelve fellas. Of course there’s me, but I am the DeltaCaMomma, and it is rare that everyone can make it to the after rehearsal or concert nosh fest.
We’d like to thank everyone at the restaurant for humoring us and creating yet another one of their sushi masterpieces to our D-E-L-T-A specifications–and we hope it soon makes its way onto the next printing of the menu.
After polishing off some ice cream and tempura cheesecake (everyone shared), we all gazed around contentedly.
Life has its twists and turns—and every now and then, there is even a surprising U-turn that takes you back to somewhere you have been once before. Much like my recent experience with our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
My first public foray into opera was more of a quick dip than an immersion, yet it still resulted in a full scale conversion. I was hooked—by Mozart, in fact, and his frothy, whipped cream-topped, caramel brulee frappuccino of an opera, The Marriage of Figaro.
Indeed, what’s not to love? But that’s a question we’ll come back to.
Meanwhile, back to my whippersnapper years. After losing my virgin status (operatically speaking, of course) to Figaro, I felt compelled to compose a letter and send it to the Birmingham News, commenting on the parallels between the then- current soap opera shenanigans of General Hospital’s Luke and Laura and the equally far-fetched schemes portrayed in the opera.
I wondered then, and have often wondered since– why would an afternoon soap opera command the media, while the Marriage of Figaro generally winds up being a wedding attended by only close family and friends of the ah-per-rah.
You could posit that it rests with the music. But I know lots of people who truly do love all kinds of music, from reggae to Gregorian. What’s stopping them from enjoying an opera?
It’s often chalked up to the unintelligible words—but that hazard has been eliminated with subtitles strung over the stage.
Here’s an incoming thought. Maybe it’s not the medium itself, but about the FEELING. Or the lack there of–so much focus is often on what is written on the staff, and the big picture of what the story is all about gets lost in the shuffle.
I don’t speak Spanish, but sometimes I turn on a Latino radio station precisely
because I can’t understand the words. Not knowing what the heck they are saying allows me to take in and absorb the joy, the happiness, or the sadness of the music so that the song stretches to fit my own joy, happiness, or sadness.
Why shouldn’t opera simply be enjoyed–why should the audience be made to feel that they are the second cousin twice removed from the characters? Why shouldn’t we see ourselves in the refraction of their portrayal?
Art is supposed to be about expression. It’s a lousy precept that wants to tell us our emotions are less than—or even separate from our spirits and our minds and the manner in which we appreciate art. Even physicality matters.
Art is an expression that is presented in such a way that we can grasp a corner of the universe and hold it and know it and feel it in such a way that we understand it.
This is why I have such admiration for director Gary John LaRosa, who jumped into the driver’s seat of the premier production of our Midsummer Operapella and took us for a glory ride. Gary John’s intelligent and sensitive direction has humanized the story/opera of A Midsummer Night’s Dream so that audiences can connect with it. Gary John supplied humanity– the missing link–that has been lacking from way too many opera productions.
It is very true that the humanity of this opera comes from many sources , including a gorgeous set and wonderful costumes and makeup, as well as the voicing of a voicestra that offers up not just words, but sounds, sighs, hums and thrums that echo the activities and the thoughts taking place on stage.
But praise be to Gary John LaRosa for not robbing the audience of the human experience that so frequently is the toll exacted from us when the curtain opens on an opera. I hope to goodness that the vitality of his direction of this lively opera will continue to energize future productions by Opera Memphis.
While I am still in the thrall of my original conversion that took place decades ago, let me offer up thanks with my praise to the cast members who enlivened their characters with not only music, but heart and soul and humanity.
It’s been my utter joy to run through the woods with Midsummer’s mixed-up posse for the past three weeks. Like my first opera experience in Birmingham, Alabama, I will carry this production in my heart and my head forever.
And it will be easy to do–not because the production was a larger than life extravaganza–but because of its “human-sized” dimensions.
Thus sings Kyle Huey, the capricious and sometimes reckless Puck, predicting the wild goose chase that he plans to lead the confused lovers of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream on until they literally drop to the stage for one last slumber.
Lysander, played by John Dooley, sings early in the operapella, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Indeed. God bless the broken road that eventually leads us straight.
As engaging as the ups and downs played out at stage level, there are some enthralling things taking place in that invisible netherworld of the orchestra pit.
In fact, it has given a new cachet to seats in the balcony, where at least some of the singers can be observed. Unfortunately, Dan Beard, that other-worldly bass that
provides the deep, vibrating underpinning of the voicestra is seated toward the far right side of the pit–as is the remarkable vocal percussionist, Paul Koziel. They are situated so that the members who need to get over to the stairs won’t have to trip over them. It’s crowded down there.
This has led a few folks (I have been inveterate and unabashed about eavesdropping) to wonder if the sound is realllllly all natural. I want to tell them, “Yep, it’s their real musical hair–you can tug on these notes to your hearts content.” Dan Beard and Paul Koziel–and every other guy in DeltaCappella and the women in RIVA are the real deal. No musical toupees in the voicestra!
Some have also wondered how they stay on pitch. No slight of hand there–although it does involve a pair of them, and they belong to Stephen Carey, who sits at a keyboard and gives the singers pitches from time to time via those headsets they wear. Two hours is a long time to go without a pitch pipe.
Not only must the singers trust each other, but they must trust their conductor. This is especially important since the members of DeltaCappella and RIVA do not rehearse or perform with a director. That would be very chorally. It would be like Dave Matthews turning around to conduct the band. Like Future Man and players in a rock band, singers in a vocal band tune and play with each other. It’s way jazzier than a choral ensemble. It forces the members to pay attention to each other, and not lean on a director.
But of course, in this case, there is well, a three ring circus! There are singers up and down! And not just up and down, they are all around, too, because several members of the voicestra, must move from the pit up the stairs and onto the stage when they perform their roles as the “mechanicals” who put on the play within a play.
Like an air traffic controller, or in this case, a sound traffic controller, Curt listens and communicates to the singers on stage and to the singers in the pit so that they can blend as one. Being blendy is what a cappella is all about, and Curt has assumed a hero’s status among the singers for his style of conducting and his sensitivity to their needs.
The singers in the pit include eight members of RIVA,a newly formed women’s a cappella group, and DeltaCappella, a twelve-man vocal band that was the inspiration to composer Michael Ching to explore the idea of an a cappella opera.In fact, Ching dedicated his score to the founder of DeltaCappella, Jay Mednikow.
Rounding out the ups and downs of the music and how it gets into the ears of the
audience is Noah Glenn, the sound guru for Playhouse on the Square. Noah has performed not just a Herculean task, but all seven of them by combining almost that many different sources of sound that emanate from the pit and onstage, and that even combines and includes crrrrrrazy sounds like bird calls, wolf
howls, kick drums, cymbals, as well as that sublime blendiness that you can’t put your finger on….
Noah Glenn takes these sonic elements and like an artist, organizes them so that they can be enjoyed not only by the audience–but importantly, by the singers, because you have people down below who have to hear everything, since they are tuning not only to each other, but to the singers up above and on stage.
The production of the show has had some minor up and down moments–the course of art, like love, does not always run smooth, but the blessed union of arts organizations that this production has fostered has created a lot of new friendships, new ideas, and greater understanding. And that’s beautiful music for all of us.
As Memphians, we embrace our dreams, whether they are those expressed by Shakespeare, or more recent ones expounded upon by Reverend King. In Memphis we know how important a dream can be. We believe in the words of poet Langston Hughes:
Hold fast to dreams/ For if dreams die/ Life is a broken winged bird/ That cannot fly.
Every now and then there is a moment of intergalactic-super-whammo-karmacitic-God-is-surely-watching-with-a grin moment–and that moment came this week when genuinely kind and gentle and uber talented Sir Charles Ponder–our friend, colleague, co-worker and outstanding human being appeared–within the same week, in the pages of the Commercial Appeal and the Wall Street Journal.
Why is this so extraordinary? Because Charles is not the star of our Playhouse on the Square/Opera Memphis operapella production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
However, Charles might very well have the juiciest role of the play, for he portrays “Bottom the Weeeeeaver” (as Charles sings) that arch typical character, the actor a la Ted Baxter who is so darn full of himself and his “gift” for the theee-ahhhhhh-tahhhh that he is downright comical. I just love Shakespeare. And boy, would Shakespeare have loved Sir Charles.
In fact, it would seem that EVERYONE loves Sir Charles–at least from the reviews. In addition to singing, Charles can flat out act. It’s a gift. Add to that the fact that he has a knack for interpreting the physicality of his character. This is no small feat. Charles has no small feet. Charles is really tall– and takes up a lot of stage–and to demonstrate the control of his space, as well as to emote the details, it is downright awesome.
Someone asked me what Sir Charles Ponder was doing here in Memphis. “Why isn’t he in New York?” she asked.
I dunno. He could be. But that is not the way fate has played its hand. Instead, he is here, with us, blessing Memphis with his talent and his kindness.
In addition to portraying the role of one of the “mechanicals”, the rustic group of tradesmen who decide to construct a play for the Duke’s entertainment, Charles sings tenor in the voicestra down in the pit with the rest of his fellow members of DeltaCappella. Amazingly, when he is not acting, he also fronts a get-down-and-have-fun funk band. And he sings on a regular basis with the Opera Memphis Chorus.And works at our store. And he is a gifted home chef.
We could not be happier to see Charles, who is Mr. Congeniality, get all of the well-deserved recognition. The only problem is that you might not recognize him though, if you saw him on the street, since in all of the photos, in all of these various newspapers and blogs, he is shown post -“translation”–in donkey form.
So allow me to share a photo of Sir Charles, sans ears, and looking very elegant and handsome in his tuxedo at the 2010 Stone Awards.
Gosh, we are so proud of him and for him. I’m sure he is happy about his success, but it just may be that we feel even more joy than he does.
I don’t like to let go of people. This could possibly pose a bit of minor aggravation to some folks, but so far, no one –at least to my knowledge –has ever objected. I don’t hover. I just continue to allow the edges of their lives to touch mine, like watercolors bound by water.
For this reason, you might think I’d be all over and all about social networking, but I am not. As I told my boss, who thinks I should be, I already FEEL connected. “Maybe someday….”, I tell him, as if he has asked for a pony.
Facebook does not take into account that there are people who exist at the farthest margins of your life, who have long forgotten their place in your universe, but who, at least for you, have great value.
Such a person for me is Michael Ching, the composer of the operapella that we are performing at Playhouse on the Square in partnership with Opera Memphis.Michael has of course no notion nor should he that he has been blooming like a Texas bluebonnet along the roadway of my life, but in truth, he has.
I first came upon Michael in the mid-eighties, when he was the super-charged young executive director of Opera Memphis. More than likely, his interest was in ginning up some patron dollars from my late husband and me. We were new in town, and I am not sure if I was already working at the Dixon then or not. In fact, all I remember is thinking that MC had the kind of smarts and drive and creativity to do whatever he wanted to do, and I admire that in a person.
Amazing, but decades come, and decades go. And OM and MC flourished, and not just me, but Memphis as well, came to enjoy the flowering of his talent.
And then, one day, DeltaCappella knew it needed a vocal coach who would have the ability to interact with a cappella singers. Coaching a cappella is very different from dealing with an ensemble, because much is accomplished through an interactive collaboration of the singers. There is no director. We needed someone to help us learn the notes–and troubleshoot.
I suggested MC, and with his usual intellectual curiosity, and the sense of fun and discovery that pervades his approach to life and music, he said, “Yes!”
The rest is of course, history. Literally. The world’s first a cappella opera has been written, and by Michael Ching.
His operapella is a thing of great beauty and of good humor, for the libretto comes straight from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the music is as close to the heart as music can get, bubbling like a spring from the voices of the singers, with nothing man-made to get in the way of its soul.
I miss Sunday. It is a day of the week that seems to have vanished into a smokey haze of busy-ness. Like Scarlet, peering into the fog after a Rhett who no longer gives a damn, I won’t weep over my lost Sunday’s.
I will latch onto my Sunday’s again someday. If Scarlet’s calculations were correct, and tomorrow is another day, it follows that in seven tomorrows, it will be Sunday again. What I lack in patience, I make up for in relentless determination.
When I try to remember what I can first remember, Sunday mornings come to my mind. Few things are as fascinating to a child as his or her own little feet. Possibly that is why my earliest memories are of Sunday’s, when black patent Mary Janes replaced sneakers,and lace edged socks frilled around my tiny ankles.
My three year old sensibilities informed me that Sunday’s were significant. The ride to the tidy brick Methodist church from our little house on Fifth Avenue, my father in his blue suit, my mother in her hat and gloves was as ceremonious to a young child clutching a diminutive purse containing a dime and a colorful little hanky, as a ride from Buckingham to Windsor.
But the Sunday afternoons of my early adulthood are what I miss the most, because they once allowed for an indulgent rest that might include a visit to a museum, a good book, or a trip to the park with the children. Now it is all busy-ness, making up for “lost time.” As if.
So today was a great blessing, in that business morphed into pleasure, for our vocal band is all about music, and music and song is about as restorative as it gets.
The afternoon was especially relaxing because they performed in the small venue of the Germantown Community Theatre without any sort of sound enhancement or microphones. It was lovely, and they loved singing to an audience in the way that they sing to each other at our weekly rehearsals. And the audience loved it, too, because the performance celebrated something almost sacred, the relationship between an artist and the audience, and the art that connects them.
Outside, the skies were taking on the silvery appearance of an old glass mirror and the wind carried the whiff of the snow that would soon fall. The anticipation of the approaching “wintry mix” added to the connection we all felt, for the people who had dressed in warm sweaters and coats and gathered together to listen to songs on this freezing Sunday afternoon shared a special bond. By simply being there, they were expressing their appreciation in the most profound means of applause.
After the concert, several of us adjourned to Mr. Wu’s for an early supper of steamed sea bass, Peking duck, and shrimp and spinach. Mr. Wu arrived sometime during our dinner, and prepared some of his special jasmine tea for us, a fragrant tea that brought to our noses the scent of a meadow dancing with flowers in the spring.
It was a sweet Sunday afternoon, and as I drove home, the snow arrived, dusting my windshield like Domino sugar.
Yesterday ended with a flourish. At precisely 7 p.m. Daryl Snodgrass of WKNO FM radio introduced the sounds of the world’s first operapella to mid southerners via a live broadcast.
You wouldn’t expect such an endeavor could be so dicey, but sound is far more ephemeral and difficult to capture and transmit than sight and light. It’s impacted by so many things. The shape of the room. The floor. The ceiling. Even the people seated in the room and the chairs they sit in can have an effect. Throw in microphones and sound equipment, add a live broadcast, and you’ve got yourself a real mystery to unravel.
Fortunately, Tennessee Concert Sound, the company that works with Opera Memphis and also with DeltaCappella and Take 6, was there to lend an expert hand–and ear.
When Midsummer Night’s Dream is performed at Playhouse on the Square, the a cappella vocal bands will be sitting in the orchestra pit making like instruments. It will be imperative that they sound all blendy–and that they can hear each other, since they are constantly tuning to each other.
That’s the kind of anxiety-producing situation that can send me chomping, munching, and crunching into a a full blown, frenzied caloric free fall.
Although I was “stress-hungry”, I was still fine because I had managed to swing by Mr. Wu’s between taking down the tree at the Pink Palace, putting some time in the office creating some new ads, tracking down twenty music stands, and looking in on the preparations for the broadcast at the Clark Opera Center. Mr. Wu was not around to choose a dish for me, so I decided to order one of my favorite meals, the Royal Panda shrimp, which gives you shrimp prepared in two different ways–one with a white sauce served with a side of snow peas, and the other one with a spicy red pepper sauce and sauteed spinach. Having a good hot lunch is so helpful for getting through a long day of pulling things from here, there, and yonder.
There are so many different elements that go into a production. A vast number of people are involved in the creation of that one evening’s performance so when anyone sits in a seat and enjoys the play or the concert, it is amazing that the ticket costs so little. That tiny little piece of card stock covers more than just the time and talent of the folks who are performing–just like a doctor bill is not just for the doctor.
And it’s not just people who work as staff members for the arts company who make an arts event “happen”.
Generous people like Chuck and Marcie Goldstein and the volunteers and sponsors who give of their time and treasure make it possible for the rest of us to enlarge our existence with an artistic experience.
So it was indeed a very blendy night. Just as our performance required a perfect blend-the support of many individuals and businesses made the preview party a harmonious, blendy success.