Page to stage

The Poker Flat concert I alluded to last month is officially scheduled for this Saturday, September 3, on the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. Andrew Simpson’s score combines folksy music-theater elements with a more modernist operatic idiom. We are sharing the 1-2:30 slot with another piece, so I can’t say for sure when we will begin, but I feel safe in saying it’ll be after 1:30.


Dying is easy

Lesson #1 learned (or at least reinforced) from doing Gallantry, which closed out its five-performance run at the Capital Fringe this evening: If you don’t keep up your energy during the non-funny bits, the funny bits fall flat. Lesson #2: Timing, concentration, and commitment to acting seriously within a silly universe require a lot of effort, even for just half an hour. As a rule it takes me forever to internalize any principle of the stage, so watching my castmates Emily Casey, Tad Czyzewski, and Rebecca Stugart cutting up in rehearsal as though they were born to it was as awe-inspiring as it was gratifying.

I’ve never been in such a copiously reviewed show before. I’m not immune to praise or censure (and we got some of each for Gallantry), but the most gratifying reviews, for me, are the ones in which the reviewer clearly got what the performers were trying to do.

Thanks to Jay and Gregg at OperAlterna for taking me on. And thanks to everyone who showed up! I love the opportunity, at Fringe, to mingle with audiences and even get to know some familiar faces year after year.

In other news, one event that’s not on the official list until I have received an official date is at the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage festival, over Labor Day weekend. Rachel and I will be among the five singers presenting excerpts of Andrew Earle Simpson’s work in progress, The Outcasts of Poker Flat, based on Bret Harte’s story.


Did that just happen?

Trouble in Tahiti was over way too quickly. Thanks to Evan Solomon, Tim McLoraine, and Richard Scerbo at Inscape for making it happen, and my fellow cast members (Tanya Ruth, David Dickey, Brendan Kennedy, and Brittany Baratz) for making it so much fun.

Without any gigs planned for the summer, I thought I’d be able spend a couple of months at my own pace: give one or two auditions, learn some new repertoire, try some different things technically, do some promotional recordings. But last week a call came in, and now instead of taking it easy I’ll be playing my third consecutive Capital Fringe.

This weekend, though, I’ll be unwinding from Tahiti on a long bike ride with friends in a lovely part of West Virginia. I got into biking after leaving grad school and coming back to Washington in my mid-twenties: it seemed like just a practical way to get around and get some exercise at the same time. But I soon discovered that being a bicyclist entails a particular mixture of obsessive tinkering, sheer physical effort, and the occasional ecstatic rush that reminded me a whole lot of singing. I’ve been hooked ever since.


The "trouble" with Tahiti

As all-around brilliant as Leonard Bernstein was, the libretto he wrote for his one-act domestic tragicomedy Trouble in Tahiti is… let’s say unpolished. The colloquial American English back-and-forth of the main characters is authentic, and wonderfully set – there’s a reason the mezzo aria “Island Magic” is the most famous excerpt from the show. (No links to YouTube here – you should come see our live version instead on Sunday!) Some of the satire is ham-fisted and some of it is too clever by half, but there’s still plenty of bite to it. Where the libretto really falls down is when Bernstein tries to get lyrical – when the unhappy suburban husband and wife break off from squabbling with each other to reveal the tender, confused, and for once potentially likable people they are inside. These little monologues are serious wincers on paper. If you watch the show, though, you’ll notice that Bernstein saved his most beautiful music for just these scenes.

For me, a lot of the beauty of opera as it’s actually performed is in this sweet mismatch of imperfect elements. A kind of marriage.


Don't be boring

The first one-on-one conversation I had with John Lehmeyer took place during a rehearsal break for an opera he was directing at Peabody; I was a lowly undergrad in the chorus. Out of the blue he turned to me and asked: “Mr. Rogers [always on a last-name basis!], you’re a very intelligent person, aren’t you?” I stammered something modest and a bit defensive, trying to think where this line of questioning was about to go. “Yes,” he continued, “I noticed that about you.” End of conversation; time to go back to rehearsal.

That was vintage Mr. Lehmeyer: courteous, intimate, and disarming in the space of two sentences. In my mind’s eye I can see him calling out blockings at a rehearsal or overseeing costume fittings in a dusty back room at A. T. Jones & Sons like an unusually plainspoken oracle — a big man with a forceful, ungentle voice and startling, clear, intelligent eyes. He died eight years ago this month, but even now he’s stage-directed me — at Peabody and at the late lamented Summer Opera Theatre Company — in more productions than any one other director. (I took several opportunities, during those productions, to prove him wrong about my intelligence.)

The biggest impression he left on me was the conviction that music and opera ought not to be boring. The typical Lehmeyer production was a riot of color and action (usually featuring as much cleavage as the cast could show), all staged with a masterful visual imagination that I envied. But even his darker, moodier productions crackled with tension; they were never boring. This principle may seem obvious or oversimplified to you, but to a young guy with a tendency to overthink things, it was an important and a hard lesson to learn. “Don’t be boring”: it’s as simple, and difficult, as that.

This blog is where I mean to practice not being boring.


About the blogger

The official artist’s bio.

When I’m not being a soloist on the stage, you can find me writing software code1, singing in the choir at the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington, bicycling around greater Washington, cooking or baking in the kitchen, working in our vegetable garden, or collecting odd facts about random stuff.

Leonore the cat is kind enough to share her house with my wife Rachel Barham and me.

1 The main reason it took me so long to get my own website up is that it became a point of professional pride to roll my own.