The Story That I’m Telling

Fifteen years ago, my composition teacher put an idea in my head. He said it almost to himself and in passing: “There was an incident in New Orleans where Italian immigrants were lynched. Nobody really knows about it, but it would make a powerful opera subject.”  That was it. He only said it once. 

My studies were going in a million directions, and the seed of writing opera (long since planted by my father, who, on most Sundays, sat in his recliner and wept to the Met Radio Broadcast) lay dormant. In the decade following graduation, I forged a path to opera via choral music, art song, chamber scores, and orchestral writing. My first few opera subjects were serendipitous adaptations that went just deep enough to tell the story that they were telling and little more. I researched the incident my teacher referenced, but it was too hot. A clumsy treatment would do more harm than good, and I felt (naively, perhaps) that I’d only get one shot at getting it right.

Since then (and thanks to the late Dr. See), I have come to embrace that my operas must be comprised of both the story that I’m telling as well as The Story That I’m Telling. For my teacher’s suggestion, the former was easy – it had been extensively researched and written about.  The latter aspect took much longer to recognize, and longer still before I knew what to do with it.

In December 2016 I sat down to write the first treatment.  The stark rhetoric of the 2016 election was jarring, and it still rung in my years. What really stuck was the unbridled vitriol toward immigrants.

My daughter – an American born and being raised in a foreign land – comes from immigrant lineage on both sides of her family.  Living as a foreigner (with privileges, admittedly – I’ve creepily been told on more than one occasion that I’m the “good kind of foreigner”) has made me keenly aware of the transition anti-immigrant rhetoric makes to become government policy and societal norm. I watch it happening in my own country from afar, and I see it happening not only in the country in which I live, but in the surrounding nations as well.   

I danced around this ugliness in that first draft, and my grasp on the idea tightened through the revision process.  This is The Story I’m Telling.

This sentiment was echoed on April 12, 2019, when LaToya Cantrell, Mayor of New Orleans, publicly issued an apology on behalf of the City Government, which – by any interpretation of the history – was complicit in the lynching.  In the course of her apology, she said, “I ask you to continue to stand with me against anti-immigrant violence, against division, and to stand up for what I have coined a ‘City of Yes.’”

Last week, I completed the fourth rewrite, after consulting with dramaturges, directors, conductors, composers, singers, and collaborative partners in the US and Europe.  As the work continues, it progress of the opera – THE STRANGERS – can be viewed HERE.

Life Goes On

We were sitting on a high wall under a concrete walkway that led to the main building of my high school. To the best of my recollection, it was springtime of our junior year – 1991. We were talking, in very serious tones, about the nature of improvisation, and were trying to work out a definition, after which we could surely attack the thing with bared teeth. Our result: “Improvisation is the spontaneous creation of a melody.” Not bad for 16 going on 17, but I still didn’t have the faintest idea of how to do it.

The other boy on the wall with me that day was Coleman Mellett. At that time, he was simply the best musician I had ever known. Self-effacing, handsome, kind, generous and ingratiatingly goofy under a mop of unruly curls, he was the kind of friend that I felt lucky to have. We understood music the best we could, and we talked unabashedly about what it meant to us. I wasn’t on his level, but we still played jazz together and he took me to shows large and small. With him and his girlfriend, we sat (in seats!) at Wolftrap and watched a frail, diminutive Ella Fitzgerald shuffle onstage to sing “a-tisket, a-tasket.” I think about that now, and I’m amazed that I was present.

After high school, we kept in touch, then lost touch, then kept in touch again.  He was excelling at university, then continuing into professional life as an honest-to-God working guitarist. Pre-internet, I followed his career via fleeting phone conversations, or updates through the grapevine. It seemed distant – his career, I mean. I didn’t have a clue about what professional musicians did until I became one much later.

Chuck Mangione, a legendary figure in late-20th century Jazz, spoke at Coley’s funeral. Through copious tears, he told of the 15 minute audition wherein he hired my friend on the spot, which surprised me not in the least. He finished by saying “Coleman was the son I never had,” and played “Amazing Grace” on his famous flugelhorn.

When Coley and I spoke around 2000 about him winning the job in Mangione’s band, I honestly didn’t know what to say. It was an immense accomplishment, I knew, but one for which I had no reference point, so I congratulated him and listened as he spoke. He was still in a daze about the whole thing. He told me that he would look around at Mangione, and Chris Vadala on sax and think about how he had, in a way, come full circle. Vadala was a fixture at my high school when we were there, teaching all the saxophone students (including myself) and occasionally coaching the jazz bands and combos. He was an early mentor and taught me lessons about the intersection of music, work ethic, and reality that stick with me to this day. Thinking on it now, it was an embarrassment of riches to have such an accomplished professional dragging my clueless teenage self through preparations for All-Diocesan Honor Band auditions. My nephew studied under his tutelage at the University of Maryland, by which time, Vadala was a household name for my family.

Chris Vadala died last month, apparently after a long battle with cancer. I never got to see he and Coley play together, and my search for possible recordings of the two with Mangione’s band have yielded no results. But I have come across his 2008 disc, Out of the Shadows, on which his effortless playing is fully on display.  I only had sporadic contact with Mr. Vadala (I couldn’t call him anything else) after bumping into him at a conference of the now defunct (and apparently reborn under a different name) association of Jazz Educators – probably springtime 2004. My college big band played my arrangement of a Paquito D’Rivera tune and he was an adjudicator. His comment tape was mostly him busting my balls for switching from saxophone to guitar, which of course, was no help to my college big band.

This week marked the 10th anniversary of Coley’s death. His sudden passing hit me hard, and marked the beginning of a period of sometimes intense upheaval both personally and professionally.  For a long time – and of no benefit to myself, I understand now –  I compared where I was in my life to where he was at the end of his (he was about 4 – 1/2 months older than me).  Regardless of circumstances, I crept along in his shadow, which I had made myself by shining such a bright light on him and his life. This, of course, sullied my accomplishments and prevented me from taking honest steps along a path constructed of my unique developments and experiences.

I’m not sure when all that changed; probably slowly. This week, I was able to observe the anniversary from a more detached position – respectful as opposed to reverent – like observing a distant planet, still visible, that I had passed on my travels. Coinciding with this milestone in his memory, the Coleman Mellett Music and Film Project has started releasing completed and remastered recordings of an album’s worth of material that he left behind, and a documentary is forthcoming. Here’s the first one, entitled “Life Goes On.”

I can’t precicely describe the feeling of hearing his voice again. It’s a little like sitting on a wall in springtime, talking about music and experiencing terror, elation, and impatience as we sought to feel it in our hands, and see what we could make of it.

Let’s put on a SHOW!

My friend’s email came out of the blue, as most things do. She was going to be in Europe, she wanted a premiere performance, she wanted to sing my songs. Sure! Why not?  Further discussions about programming led her to flatly state, “Why don’t we just do a whole program of your songs?” OK…

At the end of the summer, I had had a good feelings about a few competitions, a university residency was in the works, and workshops of the new opera were lined up.  All of that unceremoniously went away (for various reasons) and I was left with the prospect of an empty season.  It wasn’t the first time, but the simultaneous bottom dropping out, and the back-to-the-drawingboard-ness of the residual reckoning was something I was naively hoping to avoid.

Back in the day, when my wife’s career was just starting – and we were juggling a new marriage, life in a new city, and her doctorate – one of the mantras we told each other was “take every audition.” And she did take EVERY audition, no matter how bad a fit it was, no matter what shitty comments she wound up getting, no matter that she was afraid and uncertain. Eventually, someone said “yes” and the rest is history, but before that it was unclear how it would all pan out. I had faith, though.

Later, when trying to apply the mantra to my own fledgling career out of the admin marketplace, I translated “take every audition” to mean “apply for every shitty competition you can find” and, above all “CREATE YOUR OWN OPPORTUNITIES.”  This was a way for me to think that I was “putting myself out there,” but I wasn’t, really.

The truth, for me,  is that competitions and “opportunities” take a back seat to relationships and professional interaction at every level, even if it means sending a letter of admiration to a composer whose work I admire, without any expectation of return (as Dr. See taught me).

What I am constantly reminding myself of now, is that the “opportunities” I was seeking to create for myself was the smokescreen of “value.” The topic of “value” in the artistic endeavors being way to big for one blog post (spoiler alert: there is no intrinsic value to artistic endeavor; it is also invaluable), suffice to say that an opportunity (if you’ll pardon the word) to work with people with whom you have tried to forge a personal relationship is in itself better than not, and better than never having tried at all, while under the banner of “Artistic Value.”

So, of course, I said “yes” to my friend and her wacky idea of trying to put a show on in less than three months when a third of the music had not yet been written, but THAT is another story for another blog post (which will be coming shortly).

If only it weren’t so scary

My kid has rolling obsessions with movies. There’s a repertoire of about a dozen films that she cycles through, focusing on two or so at a time and bouncing back and forth between them for weeks before we introduce her to something new, after which the cycle begins again.

The current pair are The Nightmare before Christmas and Monsters University. Sidebar: both are fantastic films with great scores, and they should be known and appreciated by everyone. Sidebar, sidebar: I’m convinced that we’re raising our daughter right.

In Monsters, there’s a scene where the lead takes his rag-tag group of miscreants on a field trip for inspiration. They cut through a fence and gain access to the factory of Monsters Inc. – the “big leagues,” as he describes it. As they peer through the windows of the factory, observing living legends of their field do their work, he asks the group if they can identify a single common characteristic among the professionals whose ranks they all seek to join. No one can. He tells the group – who has repeatedly been told that they lack the qualities needed to be successful – that there are no magic prerequisites, that these professionals bring their own unique strengths to do their best job.

This, of course, is a bit of a Disney-fied reduction, but it made me think – as I observed this film for the 86,000th time – of more relevant professional assumptions.

A variation of the “Starving Artist” trope is that the Artist is always “on,” meaning that who they are “on stage” is who they are in real life, and vice versa.  The show never ends. This is perpetuated from the top down and reinforced by the need in the artistic economy to be noticed.

One must stay in the game to win it (and, incidentally, to effect change from within). It can be an exhausting cycle and a delicate balancing act.  I’ve found, however, that while the experience of Art (capital A) is immense and overwhelming, the practice of art (lowercase a) is a normal exercise rooted in technique and discipline. The surface drama, while occasionally useful in advancing one’s own efforts, is superficial.

There are no magic prerequisites; all the monsters have their strengths.

Living “The Dream”

One afternoon, maybe eight or nine years ago, I was sitting in the office of a particularly sullen performing arts organization Executive Director who had been (I found out later) actively looking for ways to fire me. Our non-profit was in a tough stretch – the fallout from the 2008 crash was the new normal, and public support was waning.  She was feeling it from all sides – hence the sullenness.  Also – full disclosure – I had fucked something up. It was not great, but it was not the end of the world.

My ED, however, thought that I was a liability. She laid it out, saying, “Your heart’s just not in this.” If she had been referring to the admin work, she would have been right, but it wasn’t that my heart wasn’t in the work itself. Trying to implement change that would make the organization work better and ramming repeatedly into the brick wall of defensive and resentful colleagues and superiors was the thing which my heart was not “in.”

I remember getting the impression, however, that she was going much wider than normal, petty administrative foibles, or the fuck up that landed me in her office. I took her comment to mean that my heart wasn’t “in” the work of the organization, the mission. This could not have been farther from the truth, but I was less than articulate in my response (I actually don’t think I said anything, I was doubting myself and tumbling in her statement as she sulked). Something was happening in those moments, though, as I cared less and less about the thunder clouds in her cramped office.  I know now that I was at the beginning of understanding about Profession (capital P), which would take a while to gel into an understanding of my profession (lowercase p).

At that time, I was (in addition to working as a multi-hatted admin) teaching private lessons and group classes, singing professionally, filling in to conduct and lead rehearsals at my church job, and composing, self-publishing and producing performances of my pieces. Every waking hour of my existence was fervently devoted to the creation, performance, and education of the musical arts.

None of that mattered to her, but the question’s asking was providential. If I – in that fraught moment – had been asked what my true heart’s desire was (and had I had the wherewithal to fearlessly answer such a question, which I most surely did not), I would have painted a hazy picture of what occupies most of my present professional life – writing, self-promotion, and getting paid for it all.

The life my wife and I lead is, indeed, unconventional. To say it is “living the dream,” as we are frequently told (both admiringly and enviously) is a misrepresentation of both what we do, how we do it, what (and who) we have to deal with, and what things look like when we are not “at work” (which is, not frequently).  From the outside, we are living in Europe, writing and performing Art, mingling with other artists and living a charmed, Instagram-ready lifestyle of glamorousness, fun costumes, and fabulous experiences, replete with hashtags that boost our own mythology.

But in our unconventional existence, there is still workplace politics, personality conflicts, massive internal and external pressure to produce or perform, the isolation of knowing that we are the only ones looking out for ourselves and our careers, the triumphs and stresses of supporting and raising a child in the midst of it all, and seriously ridiculous tax situations in which we find ourselves with alarming consistency. Also, being away from those who have known us the longest means missing significant family events, holidays, birthdays, deaths, funerals, and having to organize staying on contact with the people in our lives within the window of a six-timezone difference.

Sometimes – sometimes – my wife and I can create something meaningful in and of itself that allows us to think that we are indeed fortunate to work in the fields that we do.  But in most instances, our work is a job like any other job we have had, and like those had by everyone we know – we work, we produce, we finish tasks, we go home, we do it again the next day, and we keep an eye on the long game.

The Frank sitting in that office seems small and lost to me as I write this – he was. He was also confused, angry, restless, and longing for “the dream,” like it was a solution to everything, and without a clue of what it really meant or how to achieve it.  He didn’t know that there was no path, no script, no amount of proper connections or accolades that were needed for him to learn to do the work. He was idealistic and absolutist, and terrified that he hadn’t the tools – or worse, that it was too late – to fight for “the dream.”

His heart – one might say – wasn’t in it.

 

 

No one told me to go screw myself

There’s a great 30 Rock episode where Kenneth joins Jenna and Kelsey Grammer, of all people, in a con job syndicate called the Best Friends Gang.  After cheating a Carvel Ice Cream Cake store out of hundreds of dollars, Kenneth is in too deep and suggests a “long con.” Grammer responds by trying to grift Kenneth out of fifty bucks.

This is the best way I can explain my experience of being an opera composer on the push to develop new projects. I’ve written about the long game before (seriously, compared to the development of an opera project, tectonic shift seems rushed), but the deeper I get into it – and keep in mind that it’s only been about four years since I went Pro – the more I’m drawn away from the fifty buck grift, and embrace the “get hired as a pool boy and get the rich heiress to fall in love with you so she’ll secretly write you into her will without telling her adult children” long con.

The pitch meeting was, as I put it in the last post, just another audition – I wasn’t expecting to walk out of that room with a commission; I was going to put it down, and see if they’d pick it up.  But as I’ve said before – and where composer “auditions” differ from other auditions – the purpose of this interaction was to secure the possibility of further interaction.  I met with the general director and the conductor, with the conductor’s assistant looking on. My pitches were fine – I stumbled where I had stumbled in practice and stumbled in some new places, but kept my head and tried to focus on not sweating. My visual materials were well received and I got to draw attention to the page I had set up for the pieces I was pitching.

We talked about co-commission possibilities (wasn’t expecting that), my flexible casting and orchestration options (which have become a signature piece of my opera pitches) and it was reinforced that the conductor is really supportive of my work, which I will take any day of the week. And that was it. The meeting, which lasted maybe fifteen minutes, ended how I wanted it to – with a chance to revisit after the summer.

I think I’m a finalist for the pool boy job.

Two months ago, this meeting wasn’t even in the cards. It took a lot of my emotional and creative energy, and today feels like a mix between the release of a pressure valve and post-show blues. I’m glad I can move on to other things that got pushed to the side while preparing for this meeting, but I know I’ll start preparing for a follow up after the summer, so, you know, the hustle never ends.

A little more than a year ago, I was in Fort Worth for the Frontiers Showcase. In preparation for that, I wrote about The Brand – “I am becoming a better opera composer.” The chess match of the long con demands something more concrete and driven. Simply put, if this will go in the directions that I want it to go, I have to acknowledge that big things could be coming at me, and I will be prepared for them.

 

The wind-up

I have a pitch meeting in about five hours. In these types of meetings, one proposes operas that one would like to write to people who commission and put on new operas. I’m surprisingly calm, although I am still in my pajamas and it’s almost 1pm.

This meeting took me two years to land. That’s not a typo. In April 2016, I started communicating with the assistant to a major conductor. I had met said conductor – and his assistant – on a few occasions, so that a brief reintroduction would receive a response of  “Oh yes, of course, how are you?”  My initial emails inquired about opportunities to arrange for the occasional pops-ish concert by the conductor’s orchestras. The following January, after a positive response from the conductor, I contacted the assistant to enquire about how to submit orchestral scores. I chased the assistant for another six months until I got a mailing address. Three months later, after corrections and printing, I mailed the score. Five months later, I received and email from the conductor saying he had received the score and would take a look.

That was two months ago. Things accelerated after that – the conductor liked the score and wanted to talk, the conversation quickly shifted from orchestral music to opera, he asked for pitches to be delivered to him directly. He wanted these pitches to be “100% me” (which I figured meant passion projects), and with a distinctly American perspective in subject and musicality.  I gave him two options, he liked them both, we moved to set up a meeting with the general director of the opera.

That brings me back to the present – still in my pajamas.

For an opera composer, delivering pitches is an audition. To be honest, I’ve never had a live pitch meeting – only those over the phone or via email. I’ve written a lot about crafting pitches (here’s a good one) so I won’t get into that now, except to say that I still do it the way that link describes.  But what I will do is enumerate the list of truths about auditions that have been compiled over the years by me and my wife, who, as I write this, is in a pretty large audition herself.

  1. Take every audition. I have figured out my audition/submission calculus – the depth of my feelings of rejection is inversely proportional to the number of opportunities I seek out. If I get a few rejections, but know there’s 20 more applications floating around out there, I feel infinitely better than when the only application I sent out got the can.
  2. It’s only an audition. #DemystifyArtisticPursuit
  3. You have no idea what the people on the other side of the table are looking for. This includes how you look, where you came from, what school you went to, what prizes you’ve already won, who you know, and the fact that the folks on the other side of the table are looking to advance their own sphere of influence just as much as you are.
  4. Give them what you have that day; if they’re picking up what you’re putting down then roll with that. One has nothing to prove to anyone in this business, nor should the farm be given away in exchange for the possibility of an opportunity.
  5. Get back to work. Because there’s another audition coming up. I’ve also found that massive amounts of work put into the presentation I have to make for one big audition can be used repeatedly for down-ticket auditions, email blasts, etc.