Backstage with Bubbles and Lucia

My favorite experience with a Donizetti opera involves my wife, several of my dearest friends, and soprano Beverly Sills backstage at Seattle Opera. Sills acquired her nickname, “Bubbles”, when as a teenager, she sang in a television soap commercial.

There are no shortcuts to any place worth going. — Beverly Sills

Beverly SillsOnce upon a time, many years ago, I mentioned to my friend Hans Wolf, associate conductor at Seattle Opera, and with whom I had gone backstage during performances many times, that since the show was sold out, my wife and I would not be able to hear Beverly Sills sing Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” that season. He called me a few days later and said that he had asked the stage manager if it would be all right for me and my wife to sit backstage during a performance, and amazingly, she had given permission.

I have a history of going backstage during or after performances (even at Royal Albert Hall to introduce myself to Leopold Stokowski), but my wife has never gone with me. She just knows that we will be tossed out. OK, I admit it: I have been tossed out of backstage during performances at some pretty classy places, including Seattle Opera, but I also have gotten away with it many times, including at Royal Albert Hall.

Singing opposite Sills in that 1972 production were baritone Robert
Peterson
as the bad guy Lord Ashton, and tenor Gerald Thorsen (Jerry) as the good guy Sir Edgardo. I’d known Bob for several years, because I studied with his wife, Phyllis Peterson. During intermission Bob introduced me to Jerry, and the two of them have remained close friends. (After retiring from opera, Jerry sang in my choir for about 15 years.) Later that evening, Jerry gave us a personal introduction to Beverly Sills.

During the performance, we were sitting in the dark, on stage right. The great Sills wandered over and sat next to my wife while waiting for her cue. Later, just before the “mad scene”, we were standing outside the dressing rooms when Sills walked up to us and smiled. My wife said, “Listening to you makes me wish I could sing.” Bubbles chuckled and said with a Yiddish accent, “Count your blessings!”

You can still find the program for that production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at Seattle Opera.

© 2015 by Michael Kysar

Posted in Memoir, Opera | 1 Comment

Bob Webb: My Mentor in the Family

Robert Paul Webb II was my sister’s husband, and he and their family spent several wonderful summers with us when I was a kid. He was a teacher and assistant principal in Oklahoma, and also a bit of an academic nerd, which I found particularly endearing about him. I think he spent more than a decade working on his doctorate in clinical psychology, and later became a professor at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma.

Dad was an iron worker who built dams and other “big iron” projects around the west. Oklahoma teachers, even assistant principals, didn’t earn much money for a growing family, so for several summers their family would join us wherever we were so Bob could find a summer job. They visited us in Colorado, California, and Washington; and maybe some other states as well.

Dad was working on building the power plant at Wanapum Dam on the Columbia River in Washington State when I was in my junior year of high school. I spent the school year living with my maternal grandmother (“Ptomaine Joe”) near the Canadian border, and that summer stayed with my dad and mom (step-mom, but she raised me, so she was Mom) in Quincy, Washington.

My sister Delores, Bob, and their three kids, Bobby, Mary, and Brent, all moved in with us for the summer. The kids and I always had a great time. Bob and I enjoyed talking about all kinds of things, such as schizophrenia, multiple personalities, hypnosis,  or even music and drama. Bob and I found jobs at the local pea vinery, spreading the spent vines on a huge silage stack during the night shift. In between the arrival of harvest trucks, we talked, and talked, and talked. That time with him was a treasure.

Near the end of the pea season, we spent even more time talking while the trucks became more and more infrequent. One moonlit night, Bob decided to take a walk. The rest of us workers sat on the silage stack. In the moonlight, we could see Bob very clearly, and we saw him walking closer toward what at night looked like a path worn into the dirt around the silage stack.

In reality, the “path” was a drainage ditch containing the dust-covered rotten juices that seeped out of the silage stack. He was deep in thought and was going to step in it! We yelled, he heard us and waved back, then he walked right in, waist deep. We who watched him recoiled in both disgust and laughter. Bob spent the rest of the night rinsing his pants in an irrigation ditch.

When the pea harvest ended, we both got jobs at a mint farm for the mint harvest. He ran the distillery, and I became a special scout for a specific kind of invasive weed and earned $1.10 per hour. He had a book of short articles on psychology research, so he could read while waiting for the next mint harvest truck. The trucks would pull into the loading dock, Bob would lower and attach a lid onto the bed of the truck, then attach a steam hose to the bottom. The steam would rise through the mint, and out through a pipe in the lid to the still where the steam was condensed and separated into water and mint oil.

Part of Bob’s job at the distillery, was to man the boiler that created the steam. Once, he had just bent over to close the door to the furnace. While he was bent over, suddenly there was a small explosion which knocked the door back open over his head with a fiery blast. If his head was a little higher, it would have killed him, but as it was, the blast only removed his eyebrows and all the hair on top of his head.

Dr. Robert Paul Webb II died in Oklahoma on Sunday night, at age 87. He is the one who inspired me to go to college and convinced me that I should become a teacher. Delores taught me to sing, and was the only person from our family who ever went to college. I had never even thought about it. He also inspired me to keep learning and to be curious about everything, which served me well during my years at Microsoft.

Webb FamilyBob’s dynasty includes a Robert Paul Webb III and IV, and includes several doctors, dentists, pharmacists, builders, and a jazz musician. There are also a few dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but I may be exaggerating the numbers.  They don’t hear from me often, but they are all very dear people, and my life is blessed because of Bob, Delores, and their extended family.

© 2015 by Michael Kysar

Posted in Family, Memoir | 4 Comments

Anna Bolena at Puget Sound Concert Opera

AnnaBolenaMy favorite opera this week is “Anna Bolena” by Gaetano Donizetti. And my list of favorite singers this week begins with soprano Jennifer Bromagen, who sang the title role with Puget Sound Concert Opera on Sunday afternoon, September 27, 2015.

Frequently over the years, in working with young singers, I have found myself saying something like, “If you sing a sad song and don’t break my heart, then you aren’t doing it right.” Jennifer’s “mad scene” aria was, on the whole, heartbreakingly beautiful. I apologized to her for being unable to wait for the end of the opera to blow my nose.

Other favorite singers this week are mezzo soprano Nerys Jones who, aside from singing consistently beautifully throughout, wins my prize for having the most precise and musical Italian diction. More favorites: bass Jonathan Silvia, soprano Regina Thomas, tenor Tim Janecke, baritone Ryan Christopher Bede, and tenor Colin Ward.

The tight rehearsal schedule for this production gave everyone a pretty hard workout. Several of the singers were fighting fatigue, but everyone rose above their fatigue to deliver the music faithfully and well. Some delivered superwoman performances, such as Jennifer, who also sang two other gigs the same weekend, and Nerys, who went for a long hike that morning, and Ryan, who has both a three-year-old and a pregnant wife at home.

Conductor Bernard Kwiram arranged the orchestra parts for strings, flute and piano. His score could be invaluable in a university setting for students of singing and conducting to work through scenes from this opera without marshaling the entire department to get some mileage on operatic literature.

Puget Sound Concert Opera fills an important role in the Puget Sound region. Each year PSCO produces two or three full operas performed in concert, plus one or two opera revues. Each event features a solid core of professional singers. The selected operas may be rarely performed gems, or standard grand operas that young singers would have a hard time competing for major roles in a large production company. The next opera will be “La Rondine” by Puccini.

For more information about PSCO, go to pugetsoundconcertopera.org. You can also see bios of each of the artists. You might also enjoy this fun description of “How to Listen to Bel Canto” by Jonathan Dean (Seattle Opera Blog from 2010).

© 2015 by Michael Kysar

Posted in Opera, Performances | 2 Comments

Puppy Wrestling or Bullying?

Puppies WrestlingAll puppies wrestle. Baby elephants wrestle. Lion cubs wrestle. Young gorillas wrestle. It is a mammal thing; a biological imperative. People puppies must wrestle, too.

About.com says that this kind of play is where they learn the language of dominance and submission. Young puppies “practice being both the top dog and the bottom-of-the-heap.” This is where they learn how to communicate with each other. For people puppies, it is where they can learn a lot about winning and losing.

Each of us has the potential for being a bully and a victim. Puppy wrestling, which is essentially creating and resolving conflicts, is where we first learn how to work with each other.

I don’t remember how this came about, but when I was in the 8th grade, I found myself on the playground standing face to face with a bigger boy who wanted to fight me. As I remember, we were in the middle of a group of students who wanted to see us fight.

As a skinny kid, I may have been terrified, but I also kind of remember a feeling of resolve, that I would take whatever came, but there was no way I would be a doormat for the other kid. (This is similar to the feeling I often have before I walk out as a singer for a performance.)

I remember telling him that I wasn’t going to fight him. He was bigger, and I knew I had no chance of “winning”, and that if he really needed to pound on me, go ahead, but he would look pretty ridiculous if he did, since I was so much smaller. He shook his head and kinda laughed. The other kids were disappointed and moved on. He was friendly with me after that.


In terms of puppy-wrestling play, he was playing the role of the bully, and he expected me either to meet him as another bully or to be a victim. I changed the game by not playing either role. Had he not played that role and confronted me, neither of us would have learned our lesson for that day. The lesson I learned was probably different from the lesson he learned, but that’s OK. A lesson like this is seldom a one-time, or one-facet, lesson. Where did I learn how to diffuse this situation? I’m not sure, but I do remember wrestling with my cousins and older brother as a young boy.

If young children, particularly boys, are denied the opportunity to take turns playing the bully and the victim and experiencing and resolving conflicts, they may not develop the knowledge and perspective they will need to deal with conflict as they grow older. They may feel they are forced to be amiable above all, with being a victim as their only alternative, unable to resolve conflicts with others. The stress of unresolved conflicts build up with no release, and then they snap.

Those who try to oversimplify relationships between children and between people by attempting to eliminate bullying at all ages and at all costs, may actually be creating more bullying as the children get older. Because it is part of us, it is not possible to eliminate this behavior from our species. However, humans can be trained and guided toward a healthy life. In any case, each person must somehow learn how to deal with what is already within them.

In the 1983 film, “War Games,” a Department of Defense computer is intent on destroying the world, except, in the exciting ending, it plays a game of Tic Tac Toe with itself and learns that some games cannot be “won”, particularly games of thermonuclear war. Parents can help their children develop a personal definition of “winning” that is more nuanced, compassionate, and real than that portrayed in video games and many action movies.

What is your experience with triumphing over bullying?

For some interesting perspectives, also see:

© 2015 by Michael Kysar

Posted in Life Lessons | Leave a comment

Go Ahead, Try Not to Do Something

To modify the direction of our lives, our executive mind sets goals. Then our more primitive and subconscious inner brain motivates us to achieve them.

This inner brain is sometimes called the “lizard” brain because it is a brain structure also found in more primitive animals. It is collectively named the Limbic System, and although it is very useful, it is also very literal and can sometimes lead you in odd directions.

A goal is like a mental itch that your brain motivates you to scratch. Having a goal automatically creates a desire to satisfy the goal, and the limbic system uses that desire as a guide to gather information and generate the motivation to achieve it.

What happens when you set a goal to NOT DO something? You have a goal, isn’t that enough? The limbic part of the brain is very literal and kinda dumb; it can’t tell the difference between DO and NOT DO. They both sort of look alike, so you may want to NOT DO something, but all the limbic system sees is DO that thing. It doesn’t know what direction you really want to go, and physically it can only go in a positive direction. This, by the way, is a practical definition of “positive thinking”.

Tightrope-PettitGo ahead, set a goal to not stand still. The only way to satisfy that goal is to do something else, but what? The way the goal is stated, doing almost anything will satisfy the goal or scratch the mental itch. Falling over will satisfy the goal, but it isn’t what you really want.

You can’t predict how the brain will lead you to satisfy this goal, which is why it can give you some surprising results, and probably not in a good way. For example, a tightrope walker who sets a goal of “Don’t fall!”, or a singer who sets a goal of “Don’t choke on the high note!” could both have a bad experience that would strangely still satisfy the goal. (Remember, the limbic system is kinda dumb.)

So What?: It isn’t practical to set goals or objectives with negative words in them. State your goals in specific terms of what you DO want, so that all of your subconscious brain activity directs you toward the result you really want. Occasionally evaluate your progress, and refocus your goals and objectives when necessary.

This article adds detail to Stage 1: Goal Setting of The Five Stages of Performing.

© 2015 by Michael Kysar

Posted in Goals, Performing Mind | 2 Comments

Madness or a Moment of Clarity?

GiovanniAndCherubino

In “The Marriage of Figaro”, the Count sends an adolescent page boy, Cherubino, off to military service because he is a horny little toad. The Count has caught him attempting to canoodle with every woman in the palace, including his wife, the Countess.

“The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro” are the first two of three plays by Pierre Beaumarchais. Although the third play, “The Guilty Wife”, has been set to music several times, it has never received the same level of acceptance as the first two (as set by Rossini and Mozart, respectively).

In the third play, twenty years have passed and an older and hornier Cherubin returns and has a full-blown affair with the Countess. Ach!

Maybe he also inherited a title from some long lost uncle and became… Don Juan (or in Italian, Don Giovanni).

Hmm…?  Nah!

© 2015 by Michael Kysar
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Posted in Opera | Leave a comment

‘Nozze di Figaro’ is Alive and Well

This opera almost never disappoints. It isn’t that it is never performed by people who don’t know what they are doing, but it provides such a marvelous opportunity that it tends to draw some good performers, and in this Bellevue City Opera production on August 23, 2015, the cast was delightful from beginning to end.

MarriageOfFigaro01

Soprano Tess Altiveros was Susanna, and with her Figaro, baritone Gabriel Preisser, they had a blast. Soprano Jennifer Bromagen as the Countess, along with baritone Ryan Bede as the Count provided gravitas as well as adding to the depth of conflict in the story. This quartet is the core of the opera cast, and they held their own both musically and dramatically.

Mezzo soprano Laurel Semerdjian in the “pants role” of page boy, Cherubino (meaning “little cherub”), appropriately did her best to steal every scene she was in.  After the performance, I told her that before the show began, I was most worried about her. She looked startled, and of course asked why. “Cherubino has to maintain a careful balance between being charming and being a foolish romantic with a stupid adolescent look on his face.” She nailed it, and the audience often laughed out loud.

Mezzo soprano Ibidunni Ojikutu as Marcellina was absolutely charming. In the story, she turns out to be Figaro’s long-lost mother (yes, shades of Gilbert & Sullivan), to the surprise of everyone except veteran opera-goers in the audience. She had a sparkle, no… a spice, in her eye and in her step that resonated from her African-American roots. She delivered the Mozart phrases with all appropriate delivery, but it would also be fun to hear her sing a program that included a wide spectrum of cultural and stylistic repertoire. I bet she could do it.

Bass Joshua Vander Plaats as Dr. Bartolo doesn’t get enough to sing in this show. Neither does soprano Lisa Prina as Barbarina. Both sang their solo work nicely, but their next show will hopefully give them a better workout. Lisa later told me to ignore the rumors that she was descended from mermaids. Good idea.  Tenor Anthony James as Don Curzio was fun and appropriately smarmy as the local gossip.

An excellent full orchestra conducted by Philip Tschopp provided just the right foundation for a substantial and nourishing musical meal.

Performed in the round, the audience was virtually within reach of the performers at all times. The director, Robert Neu with assistant director Davida Kagen did a masterful job of making the show work in the round, which is my favorite format for opera. I got a kick out of cast members coming out before the show to ask audience members if they were friends of the bride or the groom.

The word “opera” is the plural form of “opus”, which means a work of art. An opera is a lot of different works of art all put together: musical composition, singing, acting, orchestra, costumes, chorus, and a host of theatre arts and crafts.

I guess it was technically a community theatre production, but when using professionals of this caliber, it was much more than that, and then there was Mozart at the core.

© 2015 by Michael Kysar

Posted in Opera, Performances | 1 Comment