Opera and Alligator

Catchy title eh? Bet you're wondering what comes next. Well, this will be mainly an update post on things me me me, so if that has you grabbing for Mucinex, it's okay to tune out now. 

Hello, Dear Reader. (actually - I'll note with some glee that readership has been slowly climbing here, despite my near total inactivity the past couple of weeks. Granted with the numbers I play with, a large percentage increase isn't exactly difficult to come by, but still, welcome one and all).

As I have publicized a bit on Twitter, I've been busy this week preparing for and then recording the big Mexican scene from my opera The Summer King.  This (the recording of this scene) is a project that's been coming together for some time now. My goal was to record one of the flashier scenes in the opera - one that's more than just a couple of singers or maybe a trio, but instead features chorus, a vocal trio, and - that most essential of opera ingredients - a mariachi band. It is not, in fact, the most elaborate scene in the opera. That honor goes to Act I Scene 4, the scene in Gus Greenlee's Crawford Grill.  In terms of ambition and scope that scene (clocking in at about 22 minutes) trumps anything I've written. It's been completed for two years now, and I haven't heard a note of it (performed by humans) but that's just what this whole process is - a leap of faith and a game of patience. I judged the scene too difficult to attempt to demo (a judgment that received vociferous seconds from the knowledegable vocal faculty at the institution where I teach), but the Mexican scene is a close second. My hope is that it will be sexy enough for, you know, opera companies and funders to say "oh!" Cuz that's what I imagine you need in this racket. 

Anyhoo, Bob Russell, who directs USM's  elite vocal group, the USM Chamber Singers generously agreed to lend me the services of his racehorse ensemble, complete with him at the podium. But this needed to be done before the school term was out, and would have to take place during one 1.5 hour session. This meant getting my mariachi ensemble (2 violins, 2 trumpets, contrabass, nylon string guitar, castanets) and pianist on board for the session. I was fortunate to receive some funding from both the Maine Arts Commission (an Arts Visibility Grant) and my school (a Faculty Senate Research Award), and so I hired professional instrumentalists and principle singers. No principle singers at that first session though. Here's a little clip:

That session was a happy education for me. I'm used to my music being very difficult to put together, and in some respects this is one of the more difficult scenes of the opera. But the musicians I hired came prepared (as pros do), and pretty much handled what I threw them with ease. The small chorus was similarly quick on their feet (we had had the benefit of one rehearsal together two days before). 

That portion completed, my next task was to find singers for the recording sessions in which we'd complete the rest of the scene - which was in fact the lion's share. Because it has been a priority of mine throughout the development of this project to cast African-American singers in the African-American roles (i.e. almost all the roles), I realized it would be essential to venture out of Maine (where there may, or may not, be one professional black opera singer somewhere...we haven't met yet if he or she's here). My friend Tim Steele, who works as a vocal coach at NEC was very helpful in getting me connected with two terrific singers, Laurelle Mathison (Grace) and Christian Figueroa (Señor Alcalde, the mayor of Vera Cruz), and I had already worked with the splendid (and super rhythmically accurate) Ron Williams when he sang for me here in Maine in April.

Herein lie some of the difficulties of being a composer living outside a major arts hub like NYC or Boston.  I engaged Tim as a pianist/vocal coach, and he met once with the singers without me, and then once in the basement of NEC with me there. That's four hours of driving, and two hours of rehearsal - but worth every moment! This was last Sunday. And then the big sessions with no chorus, but three principle singers, two smaller roles (Wendell Smith and Gus Greenlee, wondefully executed by USM students Jesse Wakemen and Jeff Caron), and in the closing moments, a piccolo (played divinely by Nicole Rawding).

I elected to conduct the sessions myself, which was gutsy considering that my string section consisted of Rob Lehmann (director of the USM orchestra) and Jenny Elowitch (director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival and someone who's played under a TON of great conductors!) And it's not exactly an easy scene to conduct - with tempi generally hovering around quarter = 160, frequent time changes, some very fast alternations of half note and quarter note meters, and some rather death defying accels near the end (oh I can't wait for you to hear it!) But I believe in the two sessions we forged, ensemble and I, a rather loving pair, as I never really claimed to be other than what I am, a composer with a slightly broken stick, and they helped me by telling me what they most needed from me! I was also able, being at the helm, to make changes quickly, on the fly, to attempt sections as often as I wanted - to decide exactly what was the priority, and what was good enough. When things weren't working, I had the option of slowing down and figuring out why not. (Not panicking is the thing I'm proudest of this week!) A defter conductor may have pulled off the task with greater finesse, but I think I ended up getting most closely what I wanted this way. 

It is so thrilling to hear a big complex scene come to life after living with it for a year (I wrote this scene last August-September) in midi and my imagination. Just hearing Bridget Convey, my awesome pianist (she just smiles and blazes through the tied-over and syncopated quarter-note triplets in the right hand over straight running eighths in the left...never a hiccup) warming up sections in the down times sent chills through my works. And to finally hear Josh and Grace, stoned, exuberant, singing of "high living" with big, beautiful voices, it was all I could do to suppress the inner Chris Farley ("that was awesome!") demon and wave the stick up and down more or less correctly. 

What remains is the Mariachi vocal trio, who sing intermittently throughout the scene. I was originally planning to do it up here with USM students, who I know would do a fine job of it. But after hearing Christian, a native spanish speaker, give life to the role of Alcalde (exactly as I imagined it all these months) I realized I needed to strive for some greater authenticity. So I am now in the process of putting together a trio of native Spanish speaking tenors in New York City, and I will travel down and book a little studio time to have them do the overdubs there. I am long since out of grant funding and running through what pawltry numbers still exist on the family ledger (i.e. stealing food from the mouths of babes), and running on fumes, eager to get my operatic demo package together and out to opera companies (some of whom are actually waiting for it). But I've also learned to accept the pace of working on such a monstrous project. What's another few weeks, a month, (and another five bills!) when I've been working on this opera for nearly ten years?

And all this time you're wondering, yeah, but what about the alligator? Well here's what. Thursday morning (July 5), after the beautiful 9 foot Steinway was good and tuned up, I found myself alone in the hall, with a bunch of microphones, and my handy little Tascam 4 channel digital recorder. I couldn't resist the opportunity to record my Alligator Song, which is a condensed history of the New York Alligator-in-the-Sewer urban legend. The song tells not only of the events, but also of their ascendence to myth and eternity. The song was actually instigated by my son Pablo, who one day just started singing "The Alligator, The Alligator, The Alligator." I offered to finish the tune and he grudgingly aquiesced, and then I did LOTS of research (no really!) and thus was the Alligator Song born. It's recorded here with just the stereo built-in condensers of my Tascam placed near about five feet from the open lid of the Steinway, and a single Miktech C7 on my vocals. Oh...and some slop thrown on the vocals after the fact in Logic. Forgive me! And enjoy!