Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Wasn't I just in St Louis yesterday?

Okay, now it's Tuesday, and I left St Louis Sunday, so I guess it was technically the day before yesterday. But wasn't I just performing The Golden Ticket on Saturday night? Those were the thoughts running through my head as I made my way out of the converted Monastery and up the cobblestone hill near the clock tower which overlooked the green and rolling hills of northern Italy. What the hell?

After a the crazy travel day (which I'm still editing the video blog about) I arrived in Italy and managed to sleep for about 9 hours last night, and awoke feeling ready for the day. And thank GOD - because what a day it was! I had an hour long session with the harpsichord player which was all in Italian (apparently I do remember how to speak the language), a two hour long session with the conductor where we went through all four of my dacapo arias several times, and then a 3 and a half hour rehearsal with the orchestra. I did pretty well until about the last hour of the orchestra rehearsal when both my brain and my voice gave up on me, and I started making all kinds of mistakes and singing cadenzas that sounded like they had been composed by Schoenberg. But luckily everyone involved in the production is exceedingly nice and supportive, and the orchestra sounds absolutely amazing. I have had such luck to now work with two exceptional baroque bands - first the one in Berlin and now this one - and WOW do I feel grateful. And after all my kvetching and worrying about whether or not I was going to be prepared, the first thing the harpsichordist said to me was "Wow - you really studied everything well!" Typically, I was worried for nothing.

I also had a kind of euphoria walking around Mondovi this morning. It was sunny, I had a perfect italian cappucino, and was wandering among the close pastel colored buildings and old churches and remembering why I fell in love with Italy in the first place. There is just something magical about this country for me - I feel that all is right with the world when I'm here, and it's not just the food. There is just something about the combination of the language that I so often sing in, the warmth of the people, the cultural traditions, and the history of the place that makes me feel a genuine contentment when I'm here. Every time I'm in Italy, I feel like the world is full of possibility.

But honestly, it's not just Italy that's making me feel like this - I'm feeling particularly euphoric these days as the result of something that has occurred recently in my personal life. Not long ago I wrote a post about what it's like being single and trying to find a relationship when you have the crazy life of an opera singer, and how challenging it can be. But I found out recently that when you meet the right person, it doesn't actually feel like a challenge at all - the only challenge is figuring out what time you're going to talk on skype when you're in time zones that are seven hours apart. It's true; sometimes you just know when it's right.

One last thing; I would like to suggest that you listen to at least the first 10 minutes of the most recent episode of this podcast. Not only was it a really fun and entertaining episode, but it will also make why I'm feeling like a a walking Rodgers and Hammerstein lyric abundantly clear.

Monday, June 28, 2010

What a long strange trip

Well, I guess it wasn't THAT strange, although it certainly was LONG! But the good news is that I'm finally here, and I have internet in my hotel room!! I want to write a coherent blog entry about my crazy travel day, plus I'm working on a video blog, but for now I have to sleep, because with the exception of about a 3 hour nap on the plane, I have been awake since 7 AM yesterday, St Louis time.

I did however want to post this video which has now been uploaded to youtube (thanks to the wonderful and generous documentary film maker Nayo Titzin) of me singing Come nube che fugge dal vento from Agrippina, from the production in Berlin this past winter. I will record this role later this summer with the same ensemble, and the recording will be released by Harmonia Mundi at a later date. In the meantime, many of you have requested the opportunity to see me perform as well as hear me, so this is what I have to offer. Nero is some handful of crazy - that's for sure.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I read an interview recently with Anna Netrebko where she said she simply cannot study one role while she's singing another one. She said she can only focus on one thing at a time, so she just has to wait til one is finished til she can study another one. I get that. Let me tell you, singing a 20th century score, and playing a humorous and exaggerated spoiled child while madly studying an italian baroque score in which your character is a heroic man is a real mind-f*%k. It's possible, but there's a good chance I could be going slowly insane as a result. The other thing making me go insane is the fact that this role, in Pergolesi's L'Olimpiade is definitely the largest role I have ever learned in terms of recitative. I have something like 36 pages of recit, and on most of those pages, I sing A LOT. I stare at it and stare at it, I repeat it and repeat it, I sing it over and over, I write it down, I listen to my own coachings that I've recorded, but it still feels ENDLESS. It takes me a full hour to sing through the entire role (most of the roles I sing can get sung straight through in about 30 minutes from beginning to end - including Rosina and even Sesto in Clemenza). It's the kind of challenge that I would prefer to have a month completely free to work on every day with no distractions. But instead I study all day, and go sing "My Golden Ticket, Daddy I want one" at night. I'm certainly not the first singer to deal with this form of Schizophrenia, but I haven't ever been quite this busy. I love challenges, I really do. But I also stress myself way out as a result. The real challenge is to keep from becoming totally overwhelmed. I leave on Sunday.

I'm feeling really nervous about this gig in Innsbruck. First of all, I have to arrive a day late, and get off the airplane after flying all night from Chicago to Munich to Torino, and go straight to rehearsal that afternoon. That's going to be really horrible probably. Also, the first week of rehearsals for this opera are taking place in Mondovi, Italy, so we can rehearse with the musicians. Which means not only will I be walking off the plane to a rehearsal, but it will be an ORCHESTRA rehearsal. I have never rehearsed with an orchestra before rehearsing a long time with piano first, so that's giving me a stomach ache. Plus, the role is huge, and I just don't feel like I've had adequate time to get it into my blood. But I keep telling myself that every time I sing a new role I have anxiety that I don't know it well enough, and then I arrive and realize I actually know it really well. It'll be fine. It'll be fine. It'll be fine.

OH - and if you're hankering for even more Golden Ticket, check out this new video posted to the Opera Theatre of St Louis website. It's about the creation of the opera itself and the production, and a look into how the composer and librettist created the characters, with lots of onstage footage. Enjoy, and please send me all the good luck vibes you can muster about my next week or so of craziness!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

This is how we know it's the 21st century

So, before last night's second performance of The Golden Ticket, I'm sitting in the green room on a big easy chair with 5 minutes to go before curtain. All dressed up as Veruca, with my blonde banged wig and my pleated lavender skirt, I pull out my iphone and start looking at facebook. As I'm scrolling through my "live feed" of various status updates, I see that NPR, who I follow on facebook, has posted a new story - about the Golden Ticket! The story was about the composer the librettists long journey of about 10 years to get the opera finally premiered, and it already had something like 67 comments. The comments ranged between very positive and excited ("Wow! I wish I could see this - it sounds amazing!") to extremely negative ("What a stupid idea - why would they ruin this beloved story with something as horrible as opera!!!"). I sat there for a minute wondering what to do, but then I went ahead and left my own comment. It said:

Hi everybody on facebook! My name is Jennifer Rivera and I'm writing this from my iPhone backstage where I'm about to sing Veruca Salt in the second performance of The Golden Ticket in St Louis. I'm sorry some of you seem opposed to this idea, but I'm here to tell you that this opera is uttery fantastic, and everyone who has actually seen it loves it! It moves people, makes them laugh and cry, and gives us a beautiful soundtrack to enhance our imaginations. Gotta go - just got called to the stage!!!

I just checked back and not only were there a lot of people defending the opera, including a few who had actually seen it (hello - don't judge something until you've actually seen it!) and even a couple of people who commented on my comment to tell me I did a great job! So that, my friends, is how it goes in this new century of technology everywhere.

And by the way, people DO love it. I just read another excellent review this morning, after the main St Louis paper raved about The Golden Ticket the day following the premiere. And for a bit of fun, and to see what it all looks like, check out this video by Greg Emetaz of the audience reactions from opening night (especially the kids) interspersed with clips from the opera itself here. In a few days, there will be short documentaries about the making of the show which will also be posted on the Opera Theatre website, and which will give you some more shots of the production, and allow you to hear more of the score, plus meet some of the singers.

In the meantime, I've gotta get off this computer and study some baroque music. I leave in 10 days for Europe to begin rehearsals on L'Olimpiade, by Pergolesi, and I gotta get that sucker into the old noodle, and quick.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Being BAD

So last night, at our opening of The Golden Ticket, something wonderful happened. Yes, there was a world premiere of a new opera. Yes, the audience loved it and gave it a standing ovation. Yes, everything finally came together to provide the audience with a very special world of imagination. Blah blah blah.

The real news story from last night is that I, as the evil Veruca Salt, actually got BOOED at my bow!!!! And it wasn't like La Scala booing because I was singing Radames really poorly or something - it was like Cruella deVille, you are the Villianess of this opera, and we must boo your evil ways. It was actually kind of shocking at first because I've never been booed before, but I got into it and gave the audience a dirty look and crossed my arms Veruca style before I stomped back to my place.

No no, the real story is the World Premiere, and that it was a success. You never know with a new opera, how the audience will like it, whether they will experience it as viscerally as you have begun to after weeks of living with the piece. But in this case, I can say that it felt from stage as if the audience was with us every step of the way. They laughed in all the right moments, and even in some new moments where we hadn't necessarily anticipated the laughs. It was a triumph for the composer and the librettist, who have had this piece in the works for 10 years, and it was also a great pleasure to get to meet Felicity Dahl, Roald Dahl's widow (Dahl is the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - in case you were living under a rock, or are one my readers who is a non-native english speaker).

In regard to my own performance last night, I found it interesting to be singing a role like this one, that felt like more of an acting role than a singing one. Yes, I certainly sang a great deal, but it wasn't the kind of singing I've been doing lately - bel canto, or Mozart, or baroque - all of which requires a certain type of vocal precision and flexibility which is very different from the requirements of a modern piece in your native language. Plus, from a totally psychological standpoint, the fact that I don't have a set ARIA, means that I don't have a set place to get NERVOUS, and so I just didn't have those "Una voce poco fa" panic nerves. I was backstage emailing people pictures of me in my costume and hanging out in the green room eating cookies until just before we went onstage. Not my normal pre-show ritual, for sure.

I know I haven't written as many blog entries during this time in St Louis, but I've actually been excessively busy. Between having a great number of rehearsals (Veruca is the last bad child to get disposed of, so I was onstage pretty much the whole time), and having a lot of socializing to do (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis knows how to par-TAY!), and trying to learn my next project (which has enough baroque italian recit to make me want to break down into tears), I've been pretty overwhelmed. But I'm certainly not complaining - busy is definitely best for me. And playing evil apparently comes extremely naturally to me. But it's not because I was a bad kid myself - it's because I was bullied a lot as a pre-teen, and I remember how mean and awful those people were, so it's easy to re-create them. And even I'm satisfied when I get shoved down the garbage shoot - I mean how satisfying would it have been to see some of those awful mean girls from junior high, who used to pull my hair and even spit on me, getting attacked by giant squirrels and thrown in the trash!!???!!

So very satisfying.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The world of imagination

As you can imagine, inhabiting the world of Willy Wonka for over a month inspires a lot of imagination and creativity. The show opens Sunday, and tomorrow is our final dress rehearsal. We have been working very hard this tech week to get the brand new opera and production off the ground, and it hasn't always been easy. As you can also imagine, bringing a fantastical Chocolate Factory to life on the opera stage requires a great deal of technical magic, and we've been piecing all that together this week, while trying to bring a rather challenging 20th century score to musical fruition. But in the meantime, I had a little epiphany that was pretty moving.

We had a lot of rehearsals all week, including a "piano dress rehearsal" which was also our last technical rehearsal before we were joined again by the orchestra. The rehearsal itself was 5 hours long, plus we had wig and make-up calls as many as two hours before curtain, so it was quite a long day. Towards the end of the day, almost everybody was tired and cranky, and wondering just how all the technical aspects were going to work. Yes, but HOW is he going to come floating down from the ceiling? How exactly is he going to jump through the television screen? What fantastical projection are we supposed to be reacting to there? We'd all had our hot costumes and our tight wigs on for hours and people were really dragging, including me.

I plopped down on a cube on the stage during one of them many times we were stopped to fix a technical issue, and sitting next to me was Michael Meo, the rather amazing 11 year old kid who is singing the role of Charlie. "How're you holding up?" I asked him. "This is SO COOL!" he answered, his eyes wide. "What's cool? This scene? This rehearsal?" I asked almost incredulously. "This scene! This rehearsal! This whole show!!!" he answered me enthusiastically with a big grin on his face.

And at that moment I remembered why this story is so incredibly powerful and why so many people have been touched by it for all these years - because it expresses beautifully the ability of a child to dream and to imagine. While the rest of us adults were skeptically looking at what was still missing from the rehearsal process, eleven year old Mike was able to imagine the finished product quite easily in his child's mind's eye - and it was COOL! He had been at the rehearsal just as long as the rest of us, but he was still seeing the Chocolate Factory the way Charlie saw it - with a sense of wonder and awe. He was still able to dream, even in the middle of a long, difficult, stressful rehearsal. It was a sort of profound moment of understanding for me about all the things we so easily forget when we become adults. And it also made me realize the service we're going to be able to provide to people when they see the opera - they will be given the rare opportunity to rediscover their own imaginations.

What a brilliant idea the composer, Peter Ash had when he decided to create the roles of all the naughty children for adult opera singers, while juxtaposing the role of Charlie for a boy soprano. At the end of the opera, we bad kids all reappear after having been disposed of in our various scenes, and we sing "We didn't really dream at all, and so we got our just reward, for being greedy, spoiled and bored." We didn't really dream at all - and how often is that true of adults - we lose our abilities to dream and make believe, and we live in a world full of disdain, suspicion, and sarcasm. But "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" allows us all to go back to that moment when anything was possible, when even our wildest dreams had a place to live. It's a gift to be able to inhabit that world again, especially through the eyes of an eleven year old child.

Oh - and I also learned that since chocolate comes from the cacao plant, it is technically a vegetable. So be sure to eat your vegetables!

Monday, June 7, 2010

A sneak peek

Creating a world premiere opera is fun - but it's REALLY fantastical when the action takes place in a Chocolate Factory. Here is a sneak peek into the rehearsals for "The Golden Ticket," which opens June 13th at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. And this is without all the fabulous sets and costumes! I made this little "trailer", with permission from my lovely colleagues to appear in it. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Getting the word out

I just returned from a brief little interview with the local Fox news affiliate here in St Louis. It was the local morning news show, and David Kravitz, (the baritone singing my dad) and I were interviewed by the human interest reporter for about 3 minutes to talk about The Golden Ticket. Except we barely got a chance to plug the opera because the thrust of the segment ended up being us giving the reporter a "voice lesson" and him making opera-like sounds into the camera. I'm sure it probably made a good morning tv moment, but I wonder if anybody will come to the opera as a result of that interview.

When we arrived at the studio, we entered the lobby to find a pair of clowns from the circus (one of whom tooted a trumpet upon our arrival), a pair of blue grass musicians strumming their guitars, and a pair of racing greyhounds wearing vests with numbers on them. We were ushered back to the studio, where, as we waited for our interview to begin, we watched the reporter who was about to interview us get down on all fours in the hallway and "race" with the greyhounds. How can you possibly follow up a human versus dog race with anything particularly serious? You can't, which is why he wanted us to give him a little singing lesson to keep the mood light. Each of us tried to plug something about the Opera - David managed to mention the special effects which will be required, and I mumbled something about how having adult opera singers playing naughty children is funny, but we mostly showed the interviewer how to breathe like an opera singer, and listened to his "opera voice" which happened to be falsetto. After the interview was over, I was kicking myself for not mentioning some facts that might get novices interested in coming to an opera - like the fact that we don't use microphones, but still can reach as many as 4000 people with our natural voices, but it all passed by in a blur, much like the previous greyhound race. The clowns were warming up to the side, and before we knew it, our mikes were being yanked off and we were back in the car on our way home.

So how do we publicize opera to the public who may have absolutely no exposure to the art form? The easiest way is to try to be funny, but then we run into the issue of reinforcing the stereotypes instead of breaking them. This reporter did have a pretty good falsetto, and even a little bit of vibrato, but watching a non opera singer try to sing like an opera singer is probably not going to entice anybody to come to the opera. It's exactly that idea people have about what opera voices sound like that repels them. But how do we educate the general public without talking down to them? How do we make them want to come to the opera within a 3 minute segment on a local morning news show?

Obviously, any press is better than no press, even if we don't have the opportunity to tell them everything we think is wonderful about this particular opera and production. And while it's the opera company's responsibility to get us on tv, and it's the reporters job to do something to entertain the public, I, as an opera singer, feel I that it's my responsibility to find ways to talk about my art form to people who haven't been exposed to it, hoping to get them excited about it. I wish I would have done a better job with that this morning (I have to give props to my "Dad" David - he had much more coherent thoughts to share than I did), but it was a learning experience. Next time I do a tv interview, even if it's short, I'm going to prepare some points I want to make ahead of time, and find a way to work them into the conversation. 1. Opera as theater (combining all the elements in one - music, drama, stagecraft, choreography, sets, costumes - better than the circus!!!) 2. Opera as a sport (the only place you can hear the human voice un-amplified!!!) 3. Opera as emotion (ever notice how when the soundtrack comes into a movie you suddenly feel something - now imagine if the characters were actually singing the soundtrack!!!!). I didn't manage today, but there will be more chances I'm sure.

Hopefully next time I'll even be able to compete with sporting dogs and circus clowns.

UPDATE - The clip is already on youtube: