A Wagnerian Birthday

RWuHxZToday is Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday!

To celebrate, I just uploaded my rendition of his song Traüme (“Dreams,” Op. 91, no. V) along with a slideshow of original photographs of Cape Point, South Africa. I hope you enjoy it.

And please stay tuned for more posts about Southern Africa… coming soon!

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Our Little Tswana Singers

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When I close my eyes, I can still see their little faces.

It was hard to tear myself away from St. Peter’s Anglican Day Care Centre this morning, after three days of leading music workshops for AIDS affected pre-schoolers.

They waved good-bye as we pulled out of the lot, still clutching the stickers and candy we had given them.

Thanks to some generous donors, we were also able to give the children dozens of new music toys (claves, jingles, triangles, tiny cymbals, rhythm sticks, resonator bells, and colorful streamers for dancing).  The kids were thrilled with their new instruments. When we have a faster internet connection, I’ll upload a video of the St. Peter’s Pre-School Band!  (YES, Carolyn got it all on film!) These kids really know how to make a joyful noise!

Earlier in the week, we also got to visit a very special pre-school in the village of Kanye.  We sang praise songs with them, and played Vivaldi for them, and taught them to dance the hokey-pokey.  They loved it.sing

So we taught master classes (for adults) in the evening, but we spent our mornings singing and dancing with children between the ages of 2 and 6 years old!

Both pre-schools are specifically for children who are affected by AIDS. Botswana has the second highest HIV infection rate in the world (behind Swaziland), and more than one-third of the adult population is HIV positive. There are sixty-four kids at the school in Kanye and seventy-six kids at the centre Gaborone, so we played with 140 pre-schoolers this week!

Some of these little ones are HIV+, and others have parents who are sick (or have already passed away).  And some of the children are not directly involved with AIDS, but they have been victims of abuse or neglect. They are all hungry for love and attention.  And they all love to sing and dance!

Once again, I was so proud of my team.  Nani and I kept the kids busy with all kinds of (highly active!) music games.  Nani is an inspired teacher, and Bogdan was very creative with his spontaneous accompaniment to all of our songs! (There was no keyboard in Kanye, but he got to play an upright piano at St Peters, and he also hammered out a mean boogie-woogie on the resonator bells.)

I also had a lot of support from my family! My sister and brother-in-law and their two daughters drove up to Botswana on Tuesday, after completing a service project in Swaziland.  They came to help with the music workshops at the pre-school, and I was so excited to have them with us!

You should have seen the Tswana kids’ faces when they saw my two nieces (ages 6 and 11) come into their classroom.  It’s an amazing thing to watch kids from vastly different cultures trading their favorite songs and dances.  Such fun!

My mom helped coordinate the entire effort at both pre-schools. She located both facilities, and she interviewed several local experts on AIDS, because she is currently researching the response of the African Church to the orphan crisis. We met several people who inspired us – they are passionate about caring for at-risk kids, and they have dedicated their lives to serving these precious little ones.

By the end of the week, the kids were clinging to us like Velcro! We were getting innendated with hugs.  But it was wonderful, because they are adorable and huggable kids.  We’ll miss them.

Meanwhile, we have had many other adventures here in Botswana, and I just haven’t had time to tell you all of the wonderful (and crazy) things that have happened to us. So once again, I will direct you to Nani’s blog and Bogdan’s blog because they’re both touching and hilarious.

Please stay tuned for more news about our final concerts!  I just can’t believe the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera festival is almost over.  It’s been unforgettable.

the Voices of Botswana

botsicons_bots2_tshenolobatshogileThere are some sounds that knock you sideways.

The vocal talent in Botswana is simply phenomenal. For someone who craves the sound of rich and resonant voices, Gaborone is like a candy shop.

As you can imagine, the master classes that we are teaching are just as much fun for us as they are for our students!  Our young singers are very modest and unassuming; sometimes, they are so shy that it is hard to coax them to sing.  But when they open their mouths, the music just pours out of them!  More than a few times, Nani and Bogdan and I have been left a little breathless by the quality of the sounds we hear.

We have even met a few voices that (if they get the proper training) might someday sing in the great opera houses of the world. But like all young opera singers, they need rigorous training in order to make that dream a reality. And it is hard to get the necessary education in a country without a single music conservatory. Despite the enthusiasm of the singers themselves, Botswana’s audience for classical singing is still fairly small.

On Wednesday evening, we opened the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival with a 5JmTMIconcert on the theme of “powerful women in opera.” Four dozen classical music lovers filed into Baobab School Hall, curious to hear an opera concert in Gaborone.  There has been no opera here since December, when the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House was forced to close because they lost their lease.

With Bogdan at the piano, Nani and I sang some of the great operatic showstoppers by Mozart, Bellini, Rossini, Bizet, Verdi and Wagner. And it was a success! At the reception that followed the concert, the audience showered us with compliments, calling the show “spectacular” and “immensely enjoyable.” We heard so many kind words from local music teachers, music enthusiasts, tourists, and even from a representative of the United States Embassy! We felt honored to be able to perform for such an appreciative public.

DSCN0885But that was just the beginning.  After the reception, we invited the young opera singers back into the theater, where I taught a master class in vocal technique.   The students were brimming with energy: they studied my powerpoint slides about the lungs and the vocal cords, and they listened carefully to my sound clips of great singers, and they immediately integrated my vocal exercises for breathing and support.

Then, one by one, they came up to the front and sang for us.  Many of them actually seemed quite nervous about this, but with the DSCN0889support of their friends, they gathered enough courage to come forward.  They tentatively handed Bogdan their music and introduced themselves.  Some of them were so shy that they actually hid their faces behind their hands. But then they blew us away with soulful renditions of “Un bel di vedremo” and “Nessun dorma!”  It was the most amazing experience.

The very next night, they all returned to hear Nani’s master class on acting DSCN0914and audition skills (and vocal technique, too!). For me, it was such a joy to sit back and watch Nani teach – it is just so gratifying to watch her give these singers the tools they need to improve. And I can’t wait to see Bogdan’s master class on Tuesday! These students are so hungry to know more about singing.

Then last night, I gave a short presentation on the history of opera, and challenged them to think about Botswana’s place in the FUTURE of opera. They smiled thoughtfully, and then they went right back to work, singing their hearts out.

Our evening workshops will continue all next week, hosted by David Slater at his studio.  Mr. Slater is both a conductor and a masterful voice teacher, but like his students, he is incredibly humble. It is quite evident that he has already taught his singers a great deal about technique, phrasing, languages, librettos, and the architecture of sound. But if you ask him, he will tell you that his students’ impressive sound is primarily due to their own “lovely voices” and “raw talent.”

We are hoping that our festival will bring some national and international attention to these marvelous singers.  We will be featuring these voices in YouTube clips.  There are some Tswana voices that you will want to hear.

Meanwhile, be sure to check out Bogdan’s blog and Nani’s blog for more about our exciting adventures in Botswana!

Into Africa

images-1And we’re off!

After eleven months of planning, the NO. 1 LADIES’ OPERA FESTIVAL is about to begin.

My music team is more than a little excited. Our flight to Johannesburg (via Amsterdam) departs in just a few short hours.

We can’t wait to experience the sights and sounds of Southern Africa.  And we’re especially excited to meet the singers of the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House in Gaborone, Botswana.  We’ll also have the chance to share our music with some AIDS-affected kids. And we’ll be visiting some friends along the way.

Stay tuned for photos, stories, audio and video clips of our adventures!

Where can you find these updates on our progress?  Right here!  This is where I’ll be posting my news.  And if you’re still hungry for more festival news, read Nani’s updates and Bogdan’s updates!

And of course, you can join our festival Facebook page!

Are you ready? It’s time to get launched!

Traveling by Ear

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It was a warm, humid Thursday in Vienna and I was having a stressful day. I rushed onto a subway train (the U-3 line) and absent-mindedly picked up a glossy magazine. As I slid into the nearest plastic seat, a magazine insert fell into my lap. There was a picture of two little ears carrying suitcases and jumping off a railroad track. The German text above the picture read, “Schicken Sie Ihre Ohren auf Entdeckungsreise.” Send your ears on a journey of discovery. And for the first time all day, I started to smile.

The tiny ears were advertising the Haus der Musik museum in Vienna, but for me, the message had a different meaning. The reason I was feeling stressed that day was because I needed to decide whether or not to move to Italy for a post-grad certificate in opera studies. (I know that sounds like an easy decision, but it was complicated.) After completing two performance degrees in voice, I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to embark on yet another academic journey. Did I want to stay in school? Part of me just wanted to get onstage that very instant and SING!

But every budding opera singer has a unique path to follow, and my path included several years of intensive ear-education! By studying in Salzburg, I had already absorbed a distinctly Austrian Klangvorstellung (concept of sound). Moving to Italy helped me listen to music with a more Mediterranean worldview, and that was a good challenge for my German-American ears. It influenced my music forever.

Being a musician has changed the way that I travel. Ever since that moment on the U-3, every little trip has become a journey of discovery. My ears are always getting new stamps in their passport. They were happy to soak up Slavic sounds in Moscow and Hindustani vibrations in Kathmandu. And now as I prepare to spend April in Southern Africa, my ears are already tingling with… READ MORE

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Surfing the Imagination

179078_10150390036720004_249716_nSome people think that creativity cannot be taught. “You either have it or you don’t,” they say.  But I happen to know that this is total bunk.

Music education is all about training the imagination!  And because I’m passionate about singing well, my own imagination is constantly getting stretched, tweaked and cultivated.

In the classic Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, a little girl named Susan Walker (played by Natalie Wood) has never exercised her imagination. So Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn) coaches her patiently in the art of pretending.

Voice lessons are actually based on the same principle, that a kindly mentor can shape his student’s earliest experiments in creativity.  And by the time she goes onstage to sing a role, a young opera singer needs to be very good at pretending!

Of course, this always includes a lot of discipline and hard work. We tend to assume that creativity is the opposite of discipline, but that could not be further from the truth.  Only a skilled musician has the power to be fully expressive, because she knows so many different ways to sing the same phrase. She can choose from a wide variety of musical tools. Stephen Covey got it right when he said that “only the disciplined are truly free.”

But freedom is hard to control, and maybe that’s why people use so many ocean metaphors when they talk about creativity.  Inspiration is often described as a cresting wave. Well, if creativity is a wave, then artists are imagination surfers! And everyone knows that surfers have to practice.

When I was training for my first triathlon, I attended a swim clinic hosted by the LA Tri Club. It’s for newbies who want to try ocean swimming, and it’s called Ocean 101.

I learned a lot about singing while I was treading water in Santa Monica Bay at 6 o’clock in the morning.  “You can’t control the ocean,” the teacher told us sternly. “But you can control your thoughts.”  He was telling us that ocean swimming is a mental game that requires both concentration and playfulness.  Even a body surfer uses the energy of the wave to arrive at his destination.  He has fun but he plays by the ocean’s rules.

In the same way, a musician might not be able to control a surge of creative energy, but she can train herself to surf it with increasing expertise.  And that’s why the imagination needs to be taken seriously.  After all, it’s a wild and watery thing — it needs to be treated with respect!

Without rigorous training, however, the imagination can shrink and atrophy. But of course it never goes away completely, and it responds very well to the slightest bit of attention. That’s why it’s so important to practice (and to teach!) creativity.

“My imagination needs feeding and exercise,” writes Rev. Elizabeth Nordquist in her blog post, Imagining a Story of Spirit. “Imagination in prayer is a gift of God.” But how can we approach any holy mystery without a powerful, well-trained imagination?

So go ahead and dream. Be an imagination surfer. Follow your creative instinct and imagine your way into something new.  It just requires a little bit of mental yoga.

In the words of Dr. Seuss: “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”

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the Nearsighted Soprano

“Don’t move a muscle,” said the stage director. “Don’t even blink.”

I was standing on a rehearsal stage in Salzburg, staring lifelessly into the auditorium. Mechanically, I lifted one arm, jerking my fan away from face in a single robotic movement. Then I began to sing, “Les oiseux dans la charmille…” I was singing the role of Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, an opera by Jacques Offenbach, and my character was a life-sized doll.  It was my very first role at the Mozarteum and I wanted to prove myself. So I worked hard to control my muscle movements.  By the end of the rehearsal period, I could pop off high E’s without moving … or blinking.

But on the day of the Hauptprobe, I realized that I had made a terrible mistake.  I had never practiced my aria while standing in the spotlight. (I usually love to be in the spotlight. But that’s because I’m usually allowed to blink.) This time, as I gazed out into the auditorium, my vision suddenly went fuzzy.  The spotlight was drying out my contact lenses! But I said nothing and stoically sang my aria… until my right contact lens popped out and landed on my cheek. Now I was singing half-blind and with a piece of plastic stuck to my face.

Fortunately, the role of my ‘father’ and creator, Spalanzani, was sung by my talented colleague, Thorsten Büttner. Without dropping character for a second, Thorsten leaned towards me with all the gentleness of a genuine dollmaker and delicately removed the contact lens from my cheek. He then passed it on his fingertip to another amazing singer, Mathieu Abelli, who dunked the poor shriveled lens into a chalice of water. It was not until we were all safely off-stage that we dissolved into laughter.

After that, I resolved to blink just once, but at the dress rehearsal, the same thing happened again. It became a routine: Lindsay loses contact lens; Thorsten rescues lens from Lindsay’s face; Mathieu rehydrates lens in the nearest stage prop. It was now part of our blocking! But the stage director didn’t like it. So on the night of my first performance… READ MORE

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The No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival

I have never been to Africa. But that’s about to change.

In April, I’ll be heading to Botswana to launch the No. 1 Ladies Opera Festival!

If that title sounds familiar, then you have probably read the best-selling mystery series about the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.  Or maybe you caught the brilliant HBO series by the same name, with superstar Jill Scott in the role of Precious Ramotswe, the best detective in Botswana.

But you may not be aware that Alexander McCall Smith also founded an opera house in Botswana’s capital city, Gaborone, called the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House.  He established the opera house together with his friend David Slater, a marvelous musician who has been at the center of Gaborone’s classical music scene for more than thirty years. They assembled some talented singers and began to sell tickets.

My connection to Botswana is through my friend Karen Torjesen, professor of Women’s Studies at Claremont Graduate School, who is also a frequent guest professor at the University of Botswana.  One day last year,  Karen was filling out paperwork at the university when she suddenly heard a beautiful soprano voice singing classical music! It turned out that the young woman handling Karen’s work permit was an opera singer, a student of David Slater’s. Karen told her about the workshops I teach for young professional singers and my recent festival in Nepal. The young soprano was delighted, and several e-mails later, I was asking David Slater if his singers would like to have their own opera festival. He said yes.
And that’s how the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival was born.

Over the next few months, this captivating little idea began to gain momentum with breathtaking speed. I was delighted when the award-winning pianist Bogdan Dulu accepted my invitation to perform with me in Gaborone. And then the fabulous mezzo-soprano Nandani Maria Sinha told me she was available to go to Africa, as well! In fact, we are planning to give concerts on the theme of “Powerful Women in Opera” in Namibia and South Africa as well as Botswana! We will also teach workshops for the singers in Gaborone, and organize some exciting concerts for them.

So the festival will feature performances by both local and international artists, as well as workshops in vocal technique and operatic repertoire.  It will culminate in an energetic closing ceremony including both classical and traditional music. By a happy coincidence, we will be there at the time of the Maitisong Festival, Botswana’s largest arts festival, so we’ll get to experience Southern African music like never before!

And we’ll get it all on film. I’ve asked the filmmaker Heidi Burkey to create a special documentary about this festival.  These young singers are already following their dream of being professional opera singers, but they face enormous odds.  It is hard to sustain an opera career in any part of the world, but it’s even harder in Botswana, and it would be so easy for these talented artists to feel isolated and discouraged. So we want to help them use media channels to gain real traction for their careers. We’ll be spreading their music across the world.

The goal of the festival is to equip and inspire emerging artists in Southern Africa while bringing attention to women’s issues through musical performance. We also hope to cultivate sustainable funding sources for local arts programs in Botswana. We are thrilled to collaborate with Claremont Graduate School, David Slater Music, the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House and the Maitisong Festival to create an exciting new cultural event in Gaborone.

To raise money for this exciting event, I’ll be organizing a series of benefit concerts and one complete opera production in Los Angeles, so stay tuned for more details! In future blog posts, I’ll tell you even more about this wonderful group of singers in Botswana.

We do need help to fund this festival, so if you are able to make a donation, please donate here.  Every little bit helps!  Let’s make this happen.

Please Vote for Me in the SymphoNet Competition

Exciting news! I am competing in the SymphoNet Competition, a YouTube contest for young professional singers ages 18-35. Four Grand Prize winners, one from each voice type (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone), will each receive a soloist contract to perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the New West Symphony as part of its 2012-2013 Masterpiece Series season.

To vote for my submission:
JUST CLICK HERE, enjoy the show, and press your “like” button on YouTube. The singer in each voice type with the most “likes” by January 4, 2013 will automatically move on to the final round of judging!

If you read this blog, you know that German Romantic music is very close to my heart. One of my goals in life is to sing a glorious, heart-pumping rendition of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with a brilliant orchestra! This could be my chance… Will you help me?

the Art of Listening

Opera doesn’t always prepare you for real-life situations. My education in stagecraft did not include many “practical skills,” unless you include sword-fighting and swooning.  I certainly know how to: a) fall in love with a tenor b) go insane c) die of grief or d) slay an enemy. But if there are no tenors or enemies in my general vicinity, I sometimes feel unprepared.

Baby photo from hearos.com

On the other hand, opera does teach you how to listen well, and that turns out to be a very important life skill.

Listening has become a lost art. Our world is full of wonderful distractions like smartphones and nanospeakers. Multi-tasking is the norm; we need laws to prevent people from texting and driving at the same time! We communicate with everybody, but it’s hard to give anybody our full attention. We’re talking more… but listening less.

Musicians have one key advantage in this situation: we already know how to focus our attention on sound. We’ve learned to identify pitches, intervals, melodies, chords, and rhythms without any visual cues. We’ve analyzed thousands of hours of music. We take our “ear training” very seriously!

Just think of a concert violinist, alone in her practice room, drawing her bow across a string.  The intensity of her concentration is absolute.  If she notices the tiniest inconsistency in the vibration… READ MORE
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