Thursday, December 27, 2012

Happy Holidays

Happy Holidays and a toast to a healthy and prosperous 2013

Our regular programming will resume in 2013 after we are done eating and drinking.  
Look forward to articles on the history of the MET, interviews with our District Winners, interviews with judges, bios on our Region Finals judges and much more.  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Upcoming Events

As the end of 2012 nears, it ones again becomes obvious how fast time flies.  Yesterday, the Met announced the sale of tickets to the Grand Finals Concert to be held on Sunday March 10th at 3pm.  They will go on sale Wednesday December 19th, so get yours early so you can hopefully watch many Eastern Region winners perform.

Of course, before it is March 3rd we as the Eastern Region have many more upcoming events.  The first one is the Region Finals to be held on January 24th at Merkin Hall (129 West 67th Street).  The exact time is yet to be determined, but the singing will commence somewhere in the afternoon between 1pm and 2pm.  As the judges deliberate you will be able to enjoy some drinks and snacks while you get to know all the singers up close and personal.

Just a reminder, our judges for the Region Finals are Gayletha Nichols, Marilyn Horne and Matthew Epstein.  Keep an eye out for the bios of all our judges in the next coming weeks, as well as snippets to get to know the singers better.

If you would like to attend the Region Finals, you can sign up on our website.  We have a suggested donation of $15 (which you can pay at the door) which will enable us to award our singers some amazing prices so they can further their careers.

Then on February 7th we will have our annual Benefit Gala, to be held at the wonderful Kosciuszko Foundation (15 East 65th Street).  We are in the process of planning the evening, so more details to follow, but mark your calendar so you won't miss this great event filled with music and great food.  You can check out last year's gala here.  If you are interested in attending, single price tickets will be announced soon (starting at just $125 and $50 for students and Young Associates), but if you are interested in supporting our organization on a higher level, check out our recent fundraising letter which went out to all our donors.

If you wish to receive our correspondence, you can sign up for our mailing list here.  If you rather receive a hard copy of our gala invitations and fundraising letters, you can email your info to

I hope to see you all very soon.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Divertissement: Holiday Cheers from the Met

Every year, the Met invites New York City to attend the lighting of their Christmas Tree. This year I attended the lighting myself for the first time; a festive event with carols, hot chocolate and a Grand ol' Time.

I am actually writing this in almost freezing temperatures on the Plaza right now, but the tree is just so fascinating and some hot apple cider is keeping me warm. The tree brings out the kid in everyone. Who does not like a train and an airplane?

After the lighting of the tree by Peter Gelb with the help of a nine-year old girl, Ryan Speedo Green and some colleagues come on stage to sing some carols, followed by the Met's Brass Band. What a great tradition, one which many National Council Winners share in.

Stay tuned for some pictures tomorrow, but now I am of to see Mozart's Clemenza di Tito.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ballo and the limits of our imagination

Last night I attended Verdi's Ballo In Maschera at the Met, the newest production of the season directed by David Alden. This production fit the picture perfectly on what I read in the book "Opera" by Robert Cannon (Cambridge Introductions to Music). I hear a lot of feedback on new productions: manning the membership desk during intermissions, having a coffee in the Belmont Room or sitting in my seat waiting for the next act to begin. I have a very open mind, with an unlimited imagination, so I love the new productions.

I always tell people that no matter what they think, there is always something positive to find in a production, even if it is just the singing, which is always stellar at the Met.  Many people seem to have issues with the new direction opera is taking, but Robert Cannon has a whole chapter in his book which helps show that there is more to love than just the singing in modern productions.  He helps clarify this new direction and the role a director plays in it.  I always employ this information when I try to change someone's mind.

It has only been in the last hundred years that the role of the director has become important.  In the 'old days', there was no need for a director.  There was only one way to perform an opera; the way the composer intended it to be performed.  Some composers left detailed notes in addition to the music (such as Wagner did for The Ring), while others were a little more vague about what they wanted to see on stage.

In the beginning, all an opera house needed was a conductor.  He interpreted the composer's wishes and set the opera to stage.  As time passed, this job was left to the stage manager, who decided the lay-out of the scene, where singers would enter and exit, etc.  Soon, though, this job became too much for one person as technological advances were made, audience expectations changed (mainly because of the advent of film and television) and productions became more elaborate and complex.

A stage manager or conductor was no longer enough to interpret a work.  What the opera world needed was someone who had a single vision and who could mould a production into a cohesive whole, a director.  So much more was expected of the director; he had to get involved with the acting of the singers, the emotions they needed to portray and the meaning of the roles.  He has the difficult job of finding a balance between text, tradition and modern world.

When a director decides to take on the challenge of mounting a new production of an old work, he can travel two different paths: the traditional or the contemporary.  However, no matter what path he choses, he must always keep the history of the opera in mind.  It is important to learn about the social and political context in which an opera was written.

This is especially important in Ballo.  Even Verdi was not able to mount this opera in accordance with his own wishes.  He created Ballo with an image in mind, one formed by his day and age: the prevalent taste of the times, the artistic conventions, the expectations of the audience and of course the financial, political and social circumstances of the eighteen hundreds.  When Verdi wanted to premiere Ballo in 1859, he was censored in Naples because the opera featured the assassination of a king.  This incident was actually based on true history; the assassination of King Gustavo III of Sweden in 1793 by his disgruntled courtier Anckarstrom.  Instead, Verdi took his work to Rome.  They allowed him to perform Ballo, but only after he changed the setting from Sweden to colonial Boston.  Only recently has the opera been performed in its original context, just as Alden has done in this production.  Alden's Ballo is set in Sweden, but the Sweden of the beginning of the twentieth century, with the men wearing suits and the women beautiful dresses.    

A director must also keep in mind who he is directing for this time around.  The path a production will take is mainly decided by the audience who will get to see it.  Some places are known for new productions and new commissioned works, while others follow the path of tradition.  New interpretations are always needed to keep the audience interested though.  A director just needs to decide what that interpretation will be and for whom it will be.

The Met can afford to have a radical staging of a work as its audience is sophisticated and knows about opera.  I find it a breath of fresh air to see a familiar opera in a new light.  If you go into such an opera with an open mind and unprejudiced, it can be a revelation.  A modern interpretation can be a little more difficult for people new to opera, but they arrive with no baggage, memories or history which means they are more open to different ideas of the same story.  The important thing to keep in mind is to know what you are going to see and know the background of the piece.  MetTalks are a great way to find out about an opera, as is the evening's program which is always available on the Met's website days before the performance.

When it comes to Alden's interpretation of Ballo, he takes the path less traveled.  As often happens in his productions, he pays less attention to the composer's original ideas and focuses more on the hidden meanings and subtleties of the piece.
"I can't really direct something until I feel that what I have to say personally I can say through the piece.  I think that is what an artist is supposed to do...My productions are very much about my inner emotional life." (Directors in Opera, 2006)    
Icarus, the Greek mythological figure who flew too close to the sun, is featured prominently throughout the opera as a metaphor for the king's days filled with pleasure and illicit love.  This performance is not straightforward, but will have you discovering hidden meanings behind all the going-ons on stage.  

Of course the performance features Stephanie Blythe and Sondra Radvanovsky, both winners of the National Council Auditions and graduates of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.  They perform opposite Kathleen Kim, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Marcelo Álvarez.  So all in all, a stellar cast and a must-see performance which will keep you on your toes right until the end.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Monetary Confessions of an Opera Singer

This wonderful article was submitted to me by one of our District Audition participants, Kiri Parker.  As she was warming up in the green room at Casa Italiana, she overheard some singers and organizers talk about how expensive it is to be an opera singer. When she found out I was in charge of the blog, she came to me offering to write an article on the subject. We have had this discussion before here on the blog, but I always love a fresh perspective, especially on a subject as important as this. Enjoy!   


"Overheard moaning about my financial situation at the first day of the MONC NY District Auditions, I was asked whether I would like to blog about it. Pleased to do what I can to help the cause, I am now writing my first opera blog.

What was the cause of my being so vocal about my financial situation at that moment? A combination of the rush of openness I experience after performing, bumping into a lovely colleague I hadn’t seen in a while and the tingling of my still swollen eyes from the day before.

The previous day I was trying to find an alternative to the $200 asthma pump that had been prescribed. After a frustrating day of looping among my insurance company, my doctor and a pharmacy, a rather exasperated pharmacist finally told me that there are no significantly cheaper alternatives. I promptly burst into tears. Dignified? Not exactly. True to the life of a young singer – I’m afraid so.

Opera singing is a technical feat – each note we sing has a different frequency, which is achieved through a balance of air pressure, tension in the chords and the right shape in our mouths to create a resonance chamber. A singer must train for years in order to be able to do this optimally – the voice is said to be ‘lined up’ when we can do that throughout the range. This creates the strangely but gloriously resonant sound operas singers have. Then add onto that that the optimum combination changes depending on the note before and after (e.g. if we had a low note followed by a high note, we would choose a resonance on the low note that would be optimal for the high note and sacrifice some of the low resonances on the low one).  If we vary dynamics (amplitude) this also changes the combination. To master this it takes about 10 years of training. A lot more complicated than rubbing your head and patting your belly …

Training is expensive. Luckily, there are generous people who donate and thus allow us to compete for scholarships and prizes to help us in this long, arduous and wonderful journey. I personally have been incredibly lucky to have generous scholarships throughout my studies, as well as the opportunity to study with some of the most amazing teachers and coaches. I’ve done some prestigious young artist programs and was ‘spotted’ by an agent in my first year of leaving school. This doesn’t mean I haven’t lived a shoe-string budget lifestyle since leaving home and had various financial crises from which kind angels have rescued me.

So why was I crying in a pharmacy over an inhaler? Well, as we all know, life is expensive. There is rent, health insurance, food, transport. Once you’ve left school, as an opera singer, you need to continue working on your voice and repertoire. Throughout your career you need regular lessons and coachings. In New York, these are $125-250 each – today we consider one a week luxurious and optimum. The proponents of ‘bel canto’, the technique developed during the time often considered the golden age of singing, reported that singers would have a lesson everyday and until fairly recently this was common practice in operatic training. Coachings ($80-$150 each) are needed whenever you are learning new music, which hopefully is all the time! We also have to pay for auditions. Young artist programs charge us to apply to keep down their costs and even some professional companies have begun the practice of charging for our equivalent of a job interview. The audition is, as freelancers, a regular practice throughout most of our careers. Then add on the fact that we need to look like we stepped out of the pages of a magazine if we possibly can and you can see that the costs add up. Most young singers have to choose a balance between their finances and the fact that they need time to study and practice. In addition, if you are an international, like me, your visa severely restricts what you can do to earn money – only being allowed to do exactly what your visa has been granted for. Shall we say the inhaler was a straw landing on a very sore camel?

There are those that are lucky enough to have wealthy families who want to support their children in the pursuit of their dreams. But that is the exception, rather than the rule. Quite often opera singers’ families aren’t able to support them or don’t understand why their offspring would choose such a career and so choose not to help (much more commonly than we would like to think). Those that are blessed with larger voices are not blessed with an easy path – it takes longer to coordinate the more hefty chords (which produce the heavier rich sound) and the voices mature much later, meaning they are training longer and likely to land contracts that can pay the rent much later on. Even for lighter voices, the person who doesn’t struggle financially is very much the exception. Even if one has contracts with major houses, you need enough of them to cover your costs. I have friends who are lucky enough to sing regularly for major houses and they still have points where they don’t have enough for the basic bills.

Why should you help? Everyone has their own reasons for supporting different causes, in the same way no two singers sing for exactly the same reason. I would say that opera, due to the combination of elements that it combines, has a unique potential to transport us to a different place – to something bigger than ourselves. In a time where it is so easy to lose ourselves in the chaos of modern life, the arts are an anchor that is too valuable to lose and it is far easier to support and nurture something that is waning than to reignite something that has gone out.

There are too many singers for the number of jobs and so we could let simply those who have the private means to fund themselves or those most quickly out of the stable be the ones who succeed. This is the trend right now, but as we all know that talent doesn’t always correlate with wealth and it isn’t the product that is made quickest that is of the best quality. One just needs to look at the annals of the great singers to see that often the greatest voices meet with much adversity before they come to fruition as artists. Without young singers being helped to train and supported in the difficult years of establishing themselves, the art of opera will be lost.

The world of the arts is in the realm of dreams, and so we could consider them dispensable in the face of the multiple needs of humanity - but in our dreams both the turmoil and hope of humanity is inherent. What would the world be like without the room for the expressing that?"


- If you would like to support the MONC Eastern Region and the wonderful singers who walk onto our stage, please check out our website.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

District Auditions 2012: The Winners

Eastern Region District Winners (and moving on to the Region Finals)

Yujoong Kim

Evgenia Chaverdova

Sabrina Laney Warren

Takaoki Onishi

Leela Subramaniam

Mizuho Takeshita

Karen Vuong

Lilla Heinrich Szász

Rose Sawvel

Felicia Moore

Matthew Anchel

Encouragement Awards

Sheherazade Holman

LaMarcus Miller

Sofia Diana Antonakos