Make That An Order of Opera–Human, Not Biggie Sized!

Gary John LaRosa's inventive and fresh direction allowed the audience to connect with the play's characters.

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

In the right hands, silk flowers become magical.

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.

These garlands are worn to the wedding, a reminder of the magical flower that creates unquestioning love in the heart of the beholder.

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.


A Cartful of Soy

My first stop at the grocery store was the "organic" aisle.

Maybe my trip to the grocery store was generated by a desire to be at one with my fellow Memphians. There is a sort of cohesiveness in the parking lot, an esprit de corps in the bread aisle.

Having never lived where snow is not an everyday occurrence–until now, of course, without having even moved–I don’t know if other peoples in places like New England run to the store everytime the weather person predicts snow. Probably not.

I did buy bread, but only its distant cousin–Ezekiel bread. Ezekiel bread is made from sprouted grains–somehow. In my opinion it only serves to prove that you can make a batter out of just about anything, bake it, and call it bread. But it does serve the same purpose as bread, in that its slices can be the outside of some middle inside, like tuna fish, or tah tah tah tah tah dah tahhhh–a soy or black bean burger.

(Tah tah tah tah tah dah tahhhh is a line from the operapella that the voicestra sings whenever the nobles enter–it is permanently in my noggin now.)

Inspired by Bianca’s taste tests I decided to buy different brands of tofu and decide which I preferred. One seems to have vitamins added, and I am prejudiced against that one because I can take my own vitamins, thank you very much.

The various  soy-based foods purporting to be imaginary hamburgers and cheeses sort of reminded me of when I was a little girl and  I would make pretend cupcakes out of sand, and cookies out of the overgrown squashes that daddy would bring home in a basket from the garden for me to play with–yes, I know, it sounds odd, but with a dull knife, I had ten kinds of fun “cooking” with them.

I went home with a basketful of soy–and a very large salmon, that I guess I will poach and then freeze in segments. Mr. Wu does not cook salmon, and it is something I would like to have from time to time.

Total cost was not too bad either. By the time I bought some more things, like cilantro and some nuts, and with savings of $16, I only spent $125–and I even went home with a small crock pot that was on sale!

The Sound of Midsummer

Curt Tucker conducts the voicestra and has earned their gratitude and admiration for his insightful and sensible direction.

“Up and down, up and down–

I will lead them up and down!”

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

There's up-and then there's down. This sign helped the singers in the voicestra to find their way when rehearsals began in earnest at POTS.

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.

Members of the voicestra sit in a cement pit below the stage.

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.

The carpenters of POTS built a special set of stairs for the pit.

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

Noah Glenn (left), standing, with composer, Michael Ching, and Curt (sitting) is the phenomenal sound guru who works for POTS.

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.

Up and down we go.

But mostly we keep going  up.

God bless Memphis.

We have a dream.

We’re All Ears for Sir Charles Ponder

The donkey ears are really rather exquisitely created, an example of the imaginative and finely crafted costumes and stage props that were prepared for this production of a Midsummer Night's Dream by Playhouse on the Square and Opera Memphis.

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.

Sir Charles with our 2010 Stone Award for Best Recording Group in Memphis

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.

Here’s to you, Sir Charles.

You honor Memphis  with your presence.

A Dream Blooms in Memphis

Michael Ching looks down into the orchestra pit where the a cappella vocal bands are singing. DeltaCappella and RIVA form the voicestra for his Midsummer Night's Dream operapella.

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.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is playing at Playhouse on the Square through February 13.

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.

Some things are simply meant to be.

And people?

They are meant to bloom.

Love Looks with the Mind

This is a model that was created by Playhouse on the Square to illustrate the stage set for the production of a Midsummer Night's Dream.

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.”

–William Shakespeare

That pretty much summarizes a Midsummer Night’s  Dream, the dream of an a cappella opera that  our vocal band has been dreaming since the fall of 2010.

Our first vision of the operapella  came to us via composer, Michael Ching,  when we prepared to sing a snippet  for So-Jam at Duke University, an annual college a cappella convention of sorts,  drawing singers from the Eastern side of the U. S. and featuring some outstanding touring a cappella vocal bands.  The  Contemporary A Cappella League, a group of post graduate singers from all over the country, has piggybacked its own conference  onto in the last couple of years.

The hummable, memorable tune that we performed at the conference  could be called, “I Do Not Lie”, and is a lyrical and spirited duet in which the guy, Lysander, and the girl, Hermia,  discuss the evening’s sleeping arrangements–he sure sounds sincere, but still,  she wonders, is he? Either way, she decides that if he is being truthful, then he can simply cool his jets a little while longer and be a proper gentleman, to which  he gently agrees, although he is sticking to his guns all the while, repeating earnestly, “I do not lie.”

Since this fall, and especially this month,  the production of the opera has overtaken all of our lives. To be truthful, we had a notion of what it would be like, but even so, none of us realized how much of our time would be usurped in the vortex of rehearsals and performances.

Another view of the stage set.

Everyone has put everything they have into this production of a Midsummer’s Night Dream, from the folks at Opera Memphis, to the talented people at Playhouse on the Square, and of course DeltaCappella and RIVA.

Milton Foley was my  college English  professor who  made the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare assume such a  moral vitality that they  rearranged my mental  molecules–as well as my spirit. Shakespeare  changed my life then, and made me a better person. I saw things differently after I took that course.

And now, here comes old Will, again. He’d like that line.

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.”

Midsummer in Memphis

The mysterious maestro of IRIS and a midsummerly masked me wearing masks that I created for a GPAC Masked Ball.

I dream of you, to wake: would that I might

Dream of you and not wake but slumber on;

Nor find with dreams the dear companion gone,

As, Summer ended, Summer birds take flight.

In happy dreams I hold you full in night.

–from a poem by Christina Rossetti

This fall and winter we are in a for a long run of midsummer–or at least the dream of it.

He whose prose was always rightly seasoned,  wrote in one of his sunnier sonnets that summer’s lease was all too short. Maybe in merry old England, but not here in Memphis. Like the object of his sonnet, Memphis will have an almost endless run of midsummer, somehow, somewhere, and some way–almost until the March winds blow.

The first breath of midsummer was voiced by the Tennessee Shakespeare Company. Dan MeCleary dreamed up a unique presentation that put the REM into the words of MSND.

That was back in 2009, and now in 2010, we wake to dream again, this time with a production by Ballet Memphis that embodies the dream with a vivacious joy.

Ever had a dream that was so good that you wanted to go back to sleep just so you could dream it all over again? This is how their production made me  feel. I am kicking myself up and down Poplar for not having worked this into my schedule sooner. With any luck I will get to see it again on Sunday. Stunning. Magical. I don’t think I will ever ever forget it. If you read this before it ends, go go go see this production.

Man in the Moon Masque: Hand made Papier Mache with gold leaf stars and a crescent moon eye brow. I made this mask for the husband of a friend.

Of course, dreams rarely recur or unfold the same way, and 2011 will give Memphis yet  another chance to experience midsummer–this time with Michael Ching’s own version of the play, supported by  the combined production efforts  and considerable talents of Opera Memphis, Playhouse on the Square, and DeltaCappella and RIVA, the two powerhouse contemporary vocal bands who will make this dream a dream never dreamed before.

Ching’s operapella performed at POTS will be the world’s first opera performed with vocal bands in the orchestra pit instead of instruments. If you think this will be music as usual, check out the sound of DeltaCappella on i-tunes or on their website.An opera with beat boxing and vocal percussion! In a way the operapella is Ching’s own love letter to an art form that he discovered by hanging out with the twelve guys in DeltaCappella,  who have been happy participants in the genesis of Ching’s project.

From January 21 until February 13, Ching will be dishing up a midsummer that is a heady blend of beauty, humor, and confusion that all ends well; which pretty much sums up any real love story.

Our final chance to dream will come when we settle into the comfy seats of GPAC with conductor Michael Stern and IRIS. In addition to themes based on MSND composed by Gandolfi,  the goodly actors of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company will kiss the dream goodbye on February 26.

It bears examination, this  city’s preoccupation with a  Shakespearean dream had in midsummer, in which so much confusion ensues, and in which love is, seems, is not, and is. It makes me believe  that there  is a lot of love in Memphis. And a lot of beautiful  dreamers.