Bostridge’s Winter Journey

Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! So sayeth the marquee above the shadow box stage in Butterworth Hall at 92Y. But there was no singing in the hall on Superbowl Sunday evening. Jeremy Denk was there to talk to Ian Bostridge about his new book on Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, and audience members would have to do their music listening at home.

Still, the quiet focus in the room made me wonder if everyone was steeped in Winterreise-induced wistfulness. The piece – perhaps the world’s gloomiest – tends to do that to you. ‘Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession’ is Bostridge’s exploration of Winterreise, one essay for each of the 24 songs in the 75-minute masterpiece. Bostridge’s observations are not simply interesting on their own terms, but put into words what makes Winterreise such an emotional standout. Here are some comments from the evening that made me want to read the book: Continue reading

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On Talking to the Audience

Don’t do it. Or at least, don’t do it the way we’ve been doing it.

That was my thought as I watched Alan Gilbert sweat through another awkward attempt at “audience engagement” last Thursday night at the Phil. Talking to the audience before a concert is supposed to be how we break the ice from the standard concert format, the rituals of which must surely baffle newcomers. The Entrance of the Concertmaster. The Smattering of Applause. The Playing of a Single Note. The Entrance of the Conductor to Great Applause. The Nod. The Turn of the Back. The Music Begins.

For those of us trying to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who hasn’t been to many concerts, we keep thinking that they surely would like some explanation of what’s to come (in case it wasn’t enough to have read the publicity that got them to buy a ticket to begin with, the program notes, and possibly listening to the whole thing online). Or perhaps that our newbie – and maybe even some longtime subscribers – would feel personally touched if maestro humanized himself by saying a few words, instead of simply presenting his fanny in silence.

So what we get is the spectacle of the poor schlub in tails, fumbling with a mike and scrawled notes, trying to illuminate a masterwork in 40 words or less. It turns out, talking about music is about as easy as writing about it.

The resulting comments tend to fall into the following categories, all of which were painfully demonstrated at the concert:

News Peg Continue reading

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Observations from my first family concert

Two weeks ago, my little company faced its toughest audience yet: early music connoisseurs plus a pile of kids. It was an experiment and a risk. Would toddlers enjoy German Baroque oratorio? Would discerning listeners mind some wiggling and whispering in the pews? Can you really call it a family concert if it’s nothing more than a regular concert, just with an invitation to wiggle and whisper?

It was my first real journey into sacred music. I cribbed most of the rep from the René Jakobs/Concerto Vocale recording, which has the Christmas Story (Weihnachtshistorie, SWV 435) by Heinrich Schütz as its centerpiece. In our performance, we began with a Gabrieli instrumental, then the annunciation duet (SWV 333), surprising our Mary, who was seated in the audience. The trio Joseph, Du Sohn David (SWV 323) showed us the inner life of our production’s other protagonist, and Rorate coeli (SWV 322) sealed the deal before we launched into the Christmas Story. We ended with a double choir Praetorius setting of In dulci jubilo (AKA Good Christian Men Rejoice). It was a high point for me artistically, and we are hopeful the production and the children’s component have a future. Continue reading

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Funny, I don’t feel innovative

In October I was thrilled to learn that my collaborator and I, Liza Malamut, received a grant to support our upcoming production of the Schütz Christmas Oratorio, from the Paul R. Judy Center for Applied Research, a branch of polyphonic.org that rewards “creative, artist-centered enterprises that reflect new models of artistic innovation, organizational relationships, and operational sustainability.”

We were among 10 ensembles/individuals to receive the reward, out of 60 applicants. 100% of the gift will support our performing artists, who already are being generous with their time and talent. The funds are much needed – complementing our ongoing campaign, The Schütz Bucket Challenge – and it’s surely an honor to have our efforts recognized. But I might disappoint the Judy Center when it comes to those new models of innovation, relationships and sustainability.

My goal with Musica Nuova reflects similar to the goals of the grantmaker: offer a variety of ways to engage with the audience, seek out new listeners, possibly in unique venues, and be flexible in forces to present the most intimate of lute songs to a full scale opera.

But I stand on the shoulders of giants when it comes to artistic innovation. I learned Italian Baroque singing and how to turn a bunch of songs into a show from Grant Herreid, and I’ve just put it together on my own since then. This partnership with Liza is a welcome new relationship for me, but a better businesswoman would have forged more alliances early on. And operational sustainability. Right. Considering that I will spend in childcare about what I need to fundraise, you could say I don’t have the most sustainable model in town. Continue reading

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Why Opera Companies Charge Audition Fees and Why You Should Pay Them

$50 for opera.

Opera Candy launched a petition against the application fees that opera companies and competitions charge singers, fees that apply even if applicants are rejected without having an audition. An old baritone colleague noted that he has already spent $600 this year for about 12 applications, and would like to apply for more but is running short of discretionary cash.

As someone who self-produces shows, I have to say I am 100% pro-audition fees. Fees come under the category of earned income in a non-profit, which includes other fees for service, such as income from tickets or workshop tuition. The other way that non-profits make money is through contributed revenue or charitable donations, which takes a lot more effort to bring in.

To get a single $50 donation can take months or years of engagement: marketing and publicity to get an individual involved, mailings and internet campaigns to get them interested in giving, the development and promotion of a membership program with competitive perks for donors, special events to build community etc….

By contrast, even a lesser-known company can haul in dozens of $50 application fees – let’s call them gifts – with one ad on YAP Tracker.

If you had to meet payroll each month, which path would you pick?

Audition fees fill a critical hole in any company’s budget. Not only do they help defray the costs of processing the applications – which are not inconsiderable for companies that fly people to New York for auditions each year – but they add up to a healthy source of cash for other purposes. Rebecca Greenstein of Opera Moderne mentioned to me one year that she would hear 300 auditions that season (80% of whom, she estimated, were sopranos).

300 x the $20 audition fee = the full budget for one of my chamber productions.

(For the record, I haven’t charged fees when I’ve held auditions. I don’t think people would pay to audition for my relatively small enterprise. Instead, I’ve cast singers by recommendations from others, which has proved to be enormously inefficient and a cost burden for me. But that’s another story.)

Ever notice that some companies extend their application deadlines? I saw this a lot after the 2008 financial crisis. It’s not because they just couldn’t find the right Mimì. It’s because they can harvest more cash from another crop of singers and they don’t want to leave money on the table.

But application fees exploit artists! Some will say. They exploit women! They’re charging people to apply for jobs! How about not charging if you don’t get an audition, or don’t show up on the day of? If all of us singers joined together and refused to pay, we’d have them over a barrel!

Art has always been supported by other artists, one way or another. These fees are small compared to the expense of putting on a full season of opera. The overrepresentation of women in the performing arts is a factor beyond the control of opera companies, and if they capped the number of female applicants, that would really be discriminatory. Job application fees are not illegal, and a young artist program or a competition is not a job, even if you receive a stipend. My guess is that tiered pricing would add a level of complexity to processing applications that would require too much staff time and logistics (Credit cards swiped and then refunded? Extra postage to mail back checks?). And right, singers all over the world will join together and agree that not one single person will pay an application fee. Because opera singers are known for their solidarity and compassion.

This exploitation of opera singers is hardly the worst kind of exploitation there is. With very few exceptions, we all come from a background privileged enough to afford the expensive training that opera demands, and one more $50 application fee won’t send my baritone pal or anyone else to the poorhouse.

Opera companies are non-profits with an educational mandate – educating the public about opera through high quality productions, curricula for young people, and opportunities for young artists. If you would like to take advantage of one of these programs you must pay a fee. A young artist program is an educational program, not a job. Just as ticket sales don’t cover the costs of productions and youth education programs need school fees and charitable support to operate, young artist programs must rely on a variety of income streams to stay afloat.

So consider your application fees as your contribution to your chosen art form. You might not get to perform with the company you are supporting, you might not even get to audition for them. But somebody will, and in order for that to happen, and for opera to thrive, we all have to share the costs.

If you are very good and very lucky, you will not be paying application fees for long. You will be a professional, and pay fees instead to a manager and a publicist.

If your applications are not successful, at a certain point you may want to reevaluate how you are choosing to support opera, since you are not getting much out of it yourself. For example, for just over $600 you could see every single opera at the Met this season. You could pay a pianist well to put on a recital. You could make an outright donation to a performing arts company.

If all of us performers did this – even in part – no one would question the future of the Met, the future of opera, or the future of classical music.

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Leaving Classical Singer

I have ended my involvement with The Entrepreneurial Career column at Classical Singer Magazine, which I’ve been writing for nearly three years now. I’ll miss the role, but I feel it was time to leave it. Here’s why.

First, what it’s not. I remember discovering CS on the shelves of Patelson’s (anyone remember Patelson’s?) sometime after college. With audition listings (otherwise hard to find back then), you-go-girl encouragement, and useful ideas for managing your career, it was an 8 ½ x 11 beacon of hope. I’ve been grateful to contribute to this resource for five years now, and I hope to continue the relationship with occasional articles going forward.

But I found myself putting together my columns more hastily than my readers deserved. And given my current lifestyle choices, that is, parenthood, anything that was requiring extra time needed to be scaled back. More than that, my column became my aspirational way of describing what I didn’t have time to do with my own musical endeavors.

Encouraged by the good feedback I’ve heard from readers, I also felt it was time to move this discussion on musical entrepreneurialism beyond the paywall and to a broader musical audience – namely, other musicians and classical music stakeholders.

Even more importantly, I want to speak to and find out more about the people who once were ambitious about joining the performing elite but have found other roles for themselves, or left the field entirely. The 99%, if you will. Everyone from the solid church-gig singer who gave up dreams of an operatic career to the new MBA whose musical past lies buried in her LinkedIn profile.

Also, I no longer wish to give singers – that is, mostly women – the false impression that they are just one product away from the career they want. Buy this pay-to-sing! Get your masters degree! Study with this teacher! Heck, read this column!

I feel that many women come to the performing arts out of our socialized need to win the approval of many, and powerful forces exist to profit from that need, rather than encourage our commitment to the art form in our best capacity. With enormous competition among women especially, there is a good chance that you will do everything in your power, you may even be super talented, but you will not earn your living as a professional performer.

Then the question becomes – what next? What do you do with your education and passion if it’s not working out the way you wanted? If you produce your own musical programming, how do you make it sustainable? If you are no longer active as an artist, are you happy to become an audience member, or is classical music the ex-lover you wish you hadn’t known? How do we participate in music once we start families, especially since few cultural institutions have programming for very young children and their parents?

As technology continues to command our cultural focus and organizational blunders threaten the existence of cultural institutions, it behooves artists – and onetime artists – to address the question of where in our lives classical music should flourish.

If we don’t, then who will?

To these ends, the focus of this blog will be:

  1. Resources for the Musical 99%
    • Entrepreneurialism tips and warnings
    • Music in your life when you are no longer in music
    • Women in the performing arts
    • Humor (we’re gonna need it)
  1. Good and Bad Audience Development
    • Initiatives that build a following by staying true to classical music
    • Sell-outs
    • Comparisons to other fields (food, sports, business)
  1. Ideas for Music for Young Families
    • Promotion of good events/initiatives
    • Pointing out missed opportunities
    • The good and bad of music education
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More thoughts on building your mailing list

Angry reading emails

Don’t make your mailing list recipients do this!

Oh if this doesn’t happen every time. I write something for Classical Singer, send it off, and think of a half dozen things I should have said. Here’s what I might have added to my latest entrepreneurial column on how to build your mailing list.

If you are starting from zero, don’t just dump in every address from everyone you’ve ever met. It’s a sure way to fill your list with people who won’t buy tickets. What you can do is send a short, tasteful email to groups of people you have met in your different circles, asking them if they would like to be added. Something like this would work:

“I’m launching Opera Eggstravaganza, a new company that brings opera into the kitchen. Could I add your name to my mailing list? I promise never to share your name, and I expect to send about 12 emails per year. Please reply to confirm that you would like to have your email added to the list. If I don’t hear back, I’ll assume that you don’t want to receive emails and I won’t add your name. Thanks, and I look forward to seeing you at _____. (bowling practice, Junior League, spin class, etc.)”

Just be clear, only add people’s names if they actively say they want that, and don’t make them send a testy email if they don’t. Obviously, tailor this to your own project’s needs. And please don’t do opera in the kitchen, it couldn’t be safe.

This step serves a few functions: it filters out people who are definitely not interested, identifies people who are, and, most importantly, offers a personal point of contact before you switch to primarily communicating through mass emails. Personal contact counts for a lot, even at the beginning. After all, these people will be your ticket buyers, donors, community ambassadors and more. It helps to start out on the right foot.

Similarly, when people join your mailing list online, send them some sort of confirmation. An automated email, a confirmation page when they sign up, or a regular-enough newsletter that they will receive some sign of life soon after signing up. Just another touch that lets people know you are glad they are interested in what you do. After all, it’s called ConstantContact, not SporadicContact.

Now, does my site have this? No, but change is a-comin’! Feel free to sign up though. I promise to make you feel acknowledged.

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