Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Power of the Music of the Night

When Michigan Opera Theater moved into the newly renovated (with ongoing renovations) Detroit Opera House 25 years ago, the musicians in the orchestra found we were given a few perks which we had not previously enjoyed in our rented facilities.  The biggest difference was in the pit itself; spacious, multi-level and partially under the stage.

Another amenity was the use of a conveniently located orchestra room. Though not beautifully decorated, its utilitarian space included two small rooms that could be used for practicing or changing clothes, tables and chairs, a bulletin board, humidifier and lockers. Continuing renovations brought an additional two practice rooms on the 4th floor with electronic keyboards and carpet.

All of these spaces were put to good use during our recent run of Phantom of the Opera. Many of us arrived early to get a good parking place, warm up in the practice rooms, go out for coffee or tacos, work on various projects or simply chat with our fellow musicians. The collegial atmosphere was especially apparent between shows on the weekends. As the show ran during January 20-21, the inauguration of president Trump and the subsequent Women’s March on Washington, you can bet that there were many heated political discussions as well.

During the week we only had single shows in the evening so there was a minimal amount of socializing before show time and during intermission but on Saturday and Sunday there were two shows a day with a break of around three hours. For some, that was enough time to go home and relax but others had different plans for their time. Trying different restaurants for dinner was usually my priority. One of the travelling musicians got carry-out and went shopping. A few people walked down to Campus Martius to go ice skating. Our local horn player, who drives around 90 miles, brings a sandwich and an air mattress and takes a nap in one of the practice rooms upstairs. One of the keyboard players who travels with the show uses every available moment to work on her jewelry. Elaine Davidson makes beautiful hand-made silver bracelets using silver wire of varying gauges, pliers and other tools, and polishes them to a bright luster. I think she must do a pretty good business while on the road - two of our musicians bought bracelets. Elaine is working on getting her website going so if you’re interested in jewelry for men or women, check back soon.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to perform the same show eight times a week or, in the case of the star soprano, six times?  How do they keep it fresh?  One of the touring keyboard players mentioned that travelling from city to city keeps it fresh. Every new place has its own feel. He also offered that Detroit has been great – good players and a friendly, social atmosphere. We are happy to hear that! The assistant conductor/substitute keyboard player has a program called ‘Sing-Song Saturdays’ between shows on Saturdays when she plays for singers who want to get together informally and sing songs from other Broadway shows, anything NOT Phantom. In Detroit that program was turned into a Cabaret show held in Ferndale on the middle Monday to raise money for “Broadway Cares”. The group began raising money in 1988 to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic and has expanded to provide funding for The Actor’s Fund, which administers a safety net of social services for those in the entertainment industry.

My heart warmed one day when I returned to the orchestra room after going out for dinner between shows. Three of our string players and the violinist who travels with the show were playing string quartets. It was relaxing to hear beautiful music as I sat at the table with my knitting, snacking on chocolate that someone had brought to share.  Did I mention that I love my job?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Preparing for Phantom of the Opera

My setup with monitor
If you’ve ever wondered how the musicians prepare for an upcoming show, how many rehearsals they have, and that sort of thing, read on.

Recently Phantom of the Opera came to town, a fabulous show that I have played once before at the Detroit Opera House and one in which I was looking forward to playing again. The show travels from one city to another, bringing with it four musicians and two conductors. Much of what the audience hears coming out of the pit is in the three keyboards, each with sampled sounds of instruments we don’t have live such as oboe, percussion, string section and, in the case of Phantom, the infamous organ. There is a pre-recorded actual pipe organ which is very impressive at the beginning of the show when it fills the theater with its massive sound. As for the live instruments, there are six local string players and five winds – flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn and a doubler on clarinet and flute.

The opera musicians are first call, starting with the principals. I only get to play if the principal player isn’t available and if the book only includes instruments which I play (flute, piccolo, alto flute, recorder). So, for example, if the flute book includes doubles on clarinet or saxophone, I wouldn’t be able to play.

Wind section for Phantom

We are hired usually a few months ahead and are given an advance book for practicing a few weeks before the first rehearsal. They include metronome markings so we can practice at the right tempo and ‘heads up’ indications for tricky places. In the last few years the advance book has included a DVD of the conductor in the pit conducting the show so we can follow along and get a feel for how the show runs. These tips are very helpful.

At the first rehearsal we trade in our practice books for the real thing, which remains with the show’s librarian or on our stands in the pit. They never allow the actual book to go home with the musicians.  This is the book that travels with the show and contains helpful markings by the people who have played it in previous cities. On the last page it is traditional to sign your name, date and place.  It’s fun to see who has played that particular book before, and I usually know at least one person who has signed it.

signature page
To illustrate a useful application of this practice, many years ago I was playing Peter Pan in Toledo and got sick. I noticed from the signatures at the back of the book that a friend of mine nearby had played the show a few months before so they were able to call her to sub for me. Although it worked out for me at the time, I haven’t been called for Toledo since. Unfortunately, musicians can’t afford to get sick. We don’t get paid to take sick days either. But, I digress.

Back to the pit. Or, I should say, the rehearsal room because that is where the first rehearsal is held. The stage and pit are usually still being set up for opening night so are inaccessible to us. In the case of Phantom, our first rehearsal was Tuesday evening.  We met the six travelling musicians and they learned all of our names in a flash – impressive because there were eleven of us. As the locals got to know the travelling musicians who tour with the show, new friendships developed. One of the keyboard players recognized me from the last time we did Phantom and everyone was playing the “do you know so-and-so?” game.

 The conductor was very efficient and pleasant and the time flew by. We almost made it through the whole show but luckily we had another orchestra rehearsal the next day. For some shows we only have one rehearsal on the morning of the day it opens. Then there’s the sound check which begins two hours before curtain and lasts about an hour. At the sound check the sound crew tests each musician’s microphone level on each instrument they play. This is time for us to either run through scales and doodle around or show off with fancy excerpts or a tune from the show. Then the lead singers come onstage, usually look into the pit and say ‘hello’, and we play a bit of one of their songs. That’s the first time we hear the singers. 

After the sound check we have an hour to kill before opening night. We are all on the edges of our seats, concentrating 1000% on doing everything right for the first few performances, until it becomes more comfortable. Although the conductor warned us at the rehearsal about some of the special effects, it was a shock at the opening night performance when jets of fire shot up from the stage, blinding us and searing us with the heat. It was so distracting that I missed my cue at the first couple performances. Just when we begin to feel more confident, the assistant conductor comes in to conduct a show and we get nervous all over again. With eight shows a week, the conductor needs some time off.  Luckily both conductors for Phantom were very good and gave us our cues.

There is always a camera on the conductor for back stage monitors as well as little individual monitors for anyone in the pit who doesn’t have a great view of the conductor. I used a monitor during Phantom because the podium was so high and I was so close to the conductor, I would have had a stiff neck from looking up so much every night. It’s important to look at the conductor because, even with a show that is very predictable there can be surprises. There are also a few places where the conductor has to put ear buds in his/her ears to listen for a click track to coordinate the pit and stage (and sometimes the backstage chorus) with a recording.

By the end of the first week we are confident that we know the show and are ready for a night off.  Monday is traditionally dark in a theater. It’s also a good time to catch up on things at home we’ve let slide because of the busy schedule.  I used my day off to go to a yoga class and get a massage. Did I play my flute or piccolo that day? Well, what would you have done?

Unflattering selfie with the famous chandelier

Friday, January 20, 2017

Knitting in the Pit

Welcome back to my blog. It’s a new year and we have a new government in the USA as of today. It was a sad day for me to watch as the most respected (and respectful) president in recent times flew off to his new life as a private citizen. I’m not saying he was the most popular, but it is generally agreed that he and his classy wife imbued the White House with respect and a scandal-free eight years.

I try to stay away from political commentary on this blog about playing music in the pit of an opera house but this post will be as far as I go in that direction.

My topic today concerns knitting in the pit. I mentioned it in a previous post as one of my pastimes while sitting through long dialogues during shows or during intermissions. I am currently in the pit playing Phantom of the Opera and there is no time to knit during that show but I have been using every other available moment to knit for what has become known as “The Pussyhat Project”.

knitting in the pit
I just read about the Pussyhat Project five days ago in the newspaper and have so far knitted six hats, all in some shade of pink for women to wear at a Women’s March tomorrow, January 21, 2017. The first two I made were sent off to my cousin in Washington, D.C. where she and a friend will wear them in solidarity during the march. There are also sister marches for those who can’t make it to D.C. I have signed up to participate in the one in Detroit, on the campus of Wayne State University, where I and a few friends will wear my remaining pussyhats.

You may ask, “What is a pussyhat?” or “What is the Women’s March all about?”

At this point you could just google it as both topics are all over the internet, but I will try to explain my take on it. I first heard about the Women’s March on Washington when it was getting organized and wished I could attend but would be in the middle of the Phantom run so forgot about it. The idea of a peaceful march in Washington the day after the presidential inauguration to show solidarity among women, minorities, immigrants, LGBT and other marginalized groups who don’t want to see their hard-fought battles for equality taken away kindled in me a desire to do more than sit by the sidelines and watch as others participated in what could be a landmark demonstration for human rights.

Then on Monday I read about the Pussyhat Project (I think the play on words should be clear for anyone who watches the news without me going into graphic detail), which was started by a couple of women who like to knit and wanted to use their craft to make a statement at the Women’s March in D.C.  They started knitting pink hats with cat-like ears and invited other knitters to do the same and to send the hats to Washington to show that women are united in protecting their rights. They hope to see a sea of pink marching through the nation’s capital. As a knitter I knew that this was a way I could be at the Washington march in spirit even though I cannot physically attend.

Eventually a few sister marches sprung up in other cities but when I checked the links there were none close by until about a week ago, when I found one in Detroit that was in the morning. Great! Now I can participate in a sister march and still make it to the two performances of Phantom on Saturday. When I announced on Facebook that I just signed up to participate, a couple friends contacted me to say they wanted to go, too.  One is even going to make a sign and is planning to shout slogans.

I won’t be carrying a sign or shouting slogans but I will be carrying on a ‘soft’ protest by wearing my pussyhat.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Mimi's Backstory

Michigan Opera Theater is on summer break so here is one from the archives:

October 17, 2015

I am sitting in the orchestra pit on opening night of Puccini’s La Bohème, the all-time favorite opera of so many opera fans, contemplating the timeless and tragic love story.  As a piccolo player, I have long stretches of time during performances when I rest with nothing to play.  Sometimes (during rehearsals only) I catch up on my reading, check my email or just close my eyes and listen to the beautiful music.  The story of La Bohème is very familiar to me and on this occasion, perhaps the sixth or seventh production of this opera that I’ve played over the years, I let my mind wander.  I wonder about the back story of the characters and challenge myself to imagine Mimi’s past. Is she really so guileless?

At the beginning of the opera we meet four poor and carefree young men living together in a Paris garret apartment in the 1830’s.  They are idealistic artiste types (a poet, a painter, a philosopher and a musician) who can’t afford to pay the rent. Next we meet Mimi, the quintessential sympathetic operatic heroine suffering from tuberculosis, who also lives in the building.  She and Rodolpho, the poor poet, are forced together by chance when her candle is extinguished by a draft on the stairs. His friends have all gone out on the town and are waiting for him.  Mimi knocks on the door to get a light for her candle, they each sing an aria, are obviously attracted to each other, then go out to join his friends at the café. Of course they fall in love, break up, get back together, break up again, and she dies. The End.

Sorry to be so cavalier about the plot of the opera but please remember that the end of this imagined back story is the beginning of Mimi and Rodolfo’s romance in La Bohème.

Mimi was thrust into living on her own at the age of 17 when her mother died unexpectedly. She never knew her father, a common enough scenario in 1830’s Paris. Mimi was a tender-hearted girl, raised to be kind to everyone, “because all people, regardless of their circumstances, are to be treated with respect,” as her mother was fond of saying.

Mother and daughter were very close and Mimi felt the loss deeply when her mother died. She rarely ventured out of her little apartment and sometimes forgot to eat.  She half-heartedly tried to continue the business her mother started – stitching little flowers and monograms on handkerchiefs and pillowcases for the bourgeoisie. Mimi inherited her mother’s skill in needlework and their fledgling seamstress business was becoming more successful before her mother died. Some of their customers took pity on the poor girl by bringing meals to her and trying to send more business her way but that was short-lived and Mimi was soon very much on her own. One young woman about town who remembered Mimi from their school days took more than a passing interest in her dilemma and came to visit one day.

“Who is there?” Mimi called when she heard the knock on the door.

“It’s me, Musetta,” came the cheerful reply.

Mimi rose from her chair by the sunny window, where she was working on a particularly intricate flower design, to answer the door.

“Musetta, it’s lovely to see you. Please come in.” Mimi tried to arrange a pleasant disposition on her face as she opened the door and stood aside to let Musetta enter.  “Would you like some tea?”

“I would love a cup of your tea, dear Mimi,” and Musetta made herself quite at home. “I had to come by to see how you are doing and to bring you these new hankies.  I would like some pink roses on one and lavender on the other. Can you also monogram them with my initials?”

Mimi returned with the tea and examined the new handkerchiefs.  “Well, yes, I think I can manage it.  This is very fine silk. It may take a while to finish it.”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter, they’re a gift from Alcindoro.  He’s a bit daft and has probably already forgotten that he gave them to me,” finishing her statement with a twitter of laughter.

Musetta studied the tea in her teacup, replaced the cup in its saucer, and suddenly became very serious. “Mimi, have you met your new neighbors, the young men who moved in to the attic apartment above you?”

Mimi flushed involuntarily and replied, “well, yes, er, no, I haven’t exactly met them but I have seen them and I’ve certainly heard them bustling about up there.” She remembered seeing one particularly handsome young man and felt herself blush at the thought. Just then, quite unbidden on her part, Mimi’s reverie was interrupted by a convulsion of coughing and she found it impossible to continue talking.

“Mimi, my dear, you must have that cough looked after by a doctor.”  Musetta rose from her chair to put an arm around Mimi’s quaking shoulders.  “It sounds horrible!”

Mimi slowly regained her composure, glancing quickly at the handkerchief into which she had coughed for signs of blood and, to her relief, found none. Paying for a doctor was out of the question and Mimi didn’t consider it. In an effort to assuage Musetta’s concern, she sipped her tea and returned to her visitor’s inquiry.  “I’ll be alright. You asked about the young men upstairs?”

“Yes, one of them, Marcello – he’s a painter, is an old boyfriend of mine and I want him back.  I’m tired of Alcindoro.  He has a lot of money and buys me gifts but I’d rather have love. Marcello is the closest thing I’ve had to true love and I want to give it another chance. Can you help me?” Musetta leaned in toward Mimi with an earnest look on her face.

Mimi was a bit shocked by Musetta’s candid statement.  She would never have thought of asking an old friend for such a favor or, for that matter, speaking so openly about her intentions. On the other hand, remembering her mother’s words to always be kind, and finding it difficult to refuse an old friend’s heartfelt plea, agreed to the request while hoping that this Marcello fellow wasn’t the one she herself found so interesting. It would be nice to find love but simple companionship would be alright, too. Those ruffians upstairs might be just what she needed to distract herself from her grief.

“What can I do?”

Musetta revealed her plan and received confirmation from Mimi that she would carry out her part of the scheme before they parted company. As Mimi walked her friend to the door, Musetta abruptly turned to clasp Mimi’s cold little hands in hers, placing in them the silk hankies which she had brought to have embroidered. “I think you need these more than I do.  You keep them, dear.”

She rushed out the door leaving Mimi to wonder about what had just transpired in her gloomy little apartment.  She had been feeling very tired lately and tried to take a nap but found that she was too nervous so took a walk instead, thinking that the fresh air would bring a glow to her face. She found herself strangely excited about their plan and began to spruce herself up for the intended meeting with the boys upstairs.

At the agreed-upon time, Mimi picked up her key, took her candle into the hall and cautiously ascended the stairs to the garret.  She had heard a lot of banging around a few moments before, then many noisy footsteps descending the stairs, and then all was quiet. Maybe they had gone out. What a relief that would be!  It would get her off the hook for her part in Musetta’s plan.

She blew out her candle and immediately felt guilty.

I’ll just knock very lightly and maybe they won’t hear. I can tell Musetta that nobody was home.

She barely made a sound as she tapped lightly on the door.

“Who is it?” came the voice from inside.

Oh dear, there is someone at home. I feel faint. “Pardon me.”

She heard him say, “a woman!” then scuffling around.

Soon the door opened and she saw the young man with whom she felt a rising infatuation. Was this Musetta’s painter? Her astute powers of observation detected no paint spatters on his clothing so perhaps this one was fair game. He gave her a tender look and her heart melted on the spot. She hoped she could have him all to herself.

For the conclusion of the story, please watch “La Boheme” by Puccini.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Haydn’s Farewell and Carmina Burana

The Flint Symphony Orchestra flute section: L-R
Scott Graddy, Alice Lenaghan, Laura Larson
The Flint Symphony Orchestra recently concluded its 99th season with a stunner – Carmina Burana. As magnificent a musical experience as Carmina is, the night was also tinged with a bittersweet sadness. The orchestra began the concert with Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, a tribute to our retiring president, Paul Torre. In case you don’t know why this piece has the nickname “Farewell”, it is traditional to perform it as the composer intended, with musicians leaving the stage in random order throughout the final movement. Only two violinists are left onstage at the end. Haydn composed this as a hint to his employer because the musicians hadn’t had a break in a long time and they wanted to go home to visit their families. It worked! Prince Esterhazy gave the musicians their vacation.

At the Flint concert, after everyone but the final two violinists left the stage and gathered in the wings, Paul was brought up to the front of the stage. One by one, we each gave him a flower and a hug or words of appreciation for his many years of service to the orchestra, then sat in our chairs as the final presentations and speeches were made.

After intermission we joined forces with soloists, the Flint Festival Chorus and the Ann Arbor Youth Chorale to perform a fitting conclusion to the season – Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. In 1935 Orff came across the collection of dozens of secular songs from the Thirteenth Century which had been discovered in 1803 at the old monastery of Benediktbeuren in Upper Bavaria and published in 1847. He organized selected poems into three sections – ‘Springtime’, ‘In the Tavern’ and ‘The Court of Love’ - with a prologue and epilogue as a “scenic cantata” for choirs, soloists, orchestra and “magical tableaux” (mime and dance). When I say secular, I mean not suitable for family entertainment. To give you an example, our fearless leader, maestro Enrique Diemecke decided it would be fun to have the orchestra sing along on the penultimate chorus, “Oh, oh, oh, I am bursting out all over! I am burning with first love!” (English translation from the Latin) and that’s the part with the G rating! Carmina Burana is fun to play and the audience certainly loved it. If you’ve never heard it, go listen to it right now! Actually, if you watch television I’m sure you have heard part of it anyway. Does “O Fortuna” sound familiar?

Flint is a special place. Who would expect the city that has endured hardship after hardship to have a thriving symphony orchestra? All we hear about Flint now is the water crisis. The whole world knows about Flint’s water crisis and how it has tainted the image of a city that was already badly damaged (think of Michael Moore’s film, Roger and Me, struggling schools, and emergency management, to name a few problems in recent memory). But what about the jewels of the city – the cultural institutions?

The Flint Symphony Orchestra has endured for 99 years in its little corner of the cultural center. Yes, we have suffered crises, too. After the recession of 2008 the parent organization of the Flint Symphony, the Flint Institute of Music (FIM), suffered a loss of funding and had to ask us for concessions. We took a huge pay cut, as did many workers at the time, and it took years to climb out of it. When your wages are drastically cut it can influence your self-esteem. I think Paul Torre understood this and frequently came to the rehearsals to voice his gratitude for our sacrifice and for our musical gift to the community.  That didn’t cost him anything. It certainly built up his reputation with the musicians. After the conclusion of one season as FIM was climbing out of the financial hole, every musician who had played that season received a bonus check with a heart-felt letter of appreciation from Paul Torre.

Yes, Flint is a special place and the 99th season of the FSO is a special time. I could feel the energy and enthusiasm propelling us toward the landmark 100th season next year. We’ll be venturing forth without Paul Torre at the helm but our conductor of over 20 years, Enrique Diemecke, will lead us into our next century of inspired music-making. Maestro Diemecke (we all call him Enrique) is the guiding force which gives our orchestra its identity in the community. We are fortunate in Flint to have such a charismatic leader on the podium. You will have to wait for more about Enrique – he deserves a blog post of his own.

Yours Truly in the lobby at the FIM

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Kay Ragsdale and her Flutes

Kay Ragsdale and the flutes of The Lion King

It is with a heavy heart that I offer this tribute in memorium to one of the kindest and most generous people that I have known. Kay Ragsdale was a fine person and excellent flutist who loved her work and was happy to share her joy in her flute collection with anyone who was interested. It was more than a flute collection to her; it was a way of life. For every ethnic flute she owned she sought out a master to teach her the ways of the instrument. She learned not only how to play the flutes with their respective traditional techniques, but also their history and folklore. I will always cherish the time I spent with her, remembering her generous spirit, infectious laugh and amazing knowledge about flutes and cultures of the world.

This is a transcript of a lecture demonstration given by Kay Ragsdale, the flutist who travels with the Gazelle Tour of The Lion King. She has a magnificent collection of ethnic flutes from all over the world, as well as novelty flutes from different cultures and fascinating stories to go with the instruments. Not all the flutes she owns are played in the show. The Lion King flute book requires fifteen instruments (that’s a lot of doubling!) but she transports about 80 flutes in the instrument truck, some as back-ups in case a bamboo flute develops a crack, and some she carries with her so she can give demonstrations to groups in the cities where the show is playing. She offered to give a demonstration in Detroit when the show was at the opera house in 2008 and what follows are highlights from a transcription of the lecture she gave to the lucky few who were assembled there.

Kay also offered to any flute student the chance to sit with her during a show and experience The Lion King from the pit, an opportunity that two of my students took. It was a unique experience which they will always remember. At the end of the show she gave each of them a little clay bird ocarina which chirps when you put water in it and blow through the tail.

If you want to find out more about the flutes in The Lion King and see interviews with Kay Ragsdale, just go to You Tube and search for Kay Ragsdale, flutes.

Highlights from Kay’s lecture in Detroit:

“One of my favorite things, and I’ve actually had to use this, is a cane. It’s a walking stick flute. These were very popular in Victorian England. The Dayton C. Miller collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. has the largest collection of walking stick flutes of any country. Some had detachable piccolos and a bird whistle in the handle. Of course, only wealthy men had walking sticks but the women, not wanting to be left out, installed little music boxes in their bustles which would play their signature tune whenever they sat down. We do know that Queen Victoria’s bustle played “God Save the Queen” when she sat down.

“Now, of course you all know what this is - it’s a Nose flute. it has three holes so you only use one hand to finger the notes and with the other hand you close off the other side of your nose, if you need to change sides, then you change hands. Very practical. They make different sized flutes for different keys. While a lot of these cultures talk about the sacredness of the air the cultures that use nose flutes, such as Africa and in the South Pacific islands, believe the air you use through your nose is better than the air through your mouth because you can’t say anything bad about anybody with your nose.

“One of my favorite categories of flutes are clay vessel flutes known as Ocarinas.  They make nice necklaces when you put them on a string and wear them around your neck. An interesting period in Victorian England was when the Victorians thought they could teach baby birds how to sing better than the birds’ mothers. But it turned out that the whole experiment was a disaster. None of them learned their correct species song, none of them could attract a mate or reproduce and they all died. But what we have left from that are these little clay bird whistles which, when you put water in the hole in the top and blow through the hole in the tail, it chirps.

“You can always tell a Bansuri flute from India because they are not decorated. In ancient India a flutist dedicates his life to playing the flute. Now we use clocks but in ancient times the flute player  marked the passage of time by playing different sized flutes, starting out by playing the smallest flute before dawn and ending up by playing the largest flute at midnight. The largest one has about the range of our modern alto flute but without keys to help cover the holes. As the flutes get larger the holes get bigger and harder to cover as the spacing is more distant; so flute players were selected at a very young age and had the skin between the fingers cut so the fingers could stretch out as the flute player grew and their fingers would be able to cover the holes. (groans from the audience)

“Now let’s go to China. Chinese d’tzi were highly decorated.  They believe that the eye is to be delighted as well as the ear. They come in two colors, black and brown. Sometimes stories and poems are written on them as part of the decoration. In many cultures the flutes can be played to the right or the left. The right and left hands are in the same position so you can play it in either direction. Hand position is different than modern western flute; balance points are the chin and each thumb, not the cradle position that we use. There is an extra hole between the embouchure hole and finger holes where you place a membrane, called dimo, made from the interior of a bamboo plant. It's like very fragile tissue paper and causes it to sound like a kazoo. You can place the grain either horizontally or vertically over the hole, traditionally sticking it on with a bit of garlic juice. The d’tzi are smoked and when you get a new one they smell like ham. To maintain these instruments you need to treat them with mustard seed oil.  So, with ham, mustard and garlic, depending on their preference for lunch, your friends might want to sit closer to you or farther away. 

“Now we will go from China to Japan: the national flute of Japan is the shakuhachi. The name comes from ‘shaku’ which was a unit of measurement – originally it was one growing season of the bamboo from which it is made,  which can vary from year to year depending on the growing conditions. Each node represents one growing season and the bottom end of the shakuhachi is the bulbous root. Shakuhachi belongs to the notched flute family; it has five finger holes and plays the pentatonic scale. It is not decorated on the exterior as the Chinese flutes are but beautifully lacquered on the interior.  That is because the Japanese believe that spirits live inside the flute. In fact, you bring the spirits back to life every time you play. Additionally, the air you use is not yours to take at will but given to you as a gift by all those who have gone before. So it’s a heavy weight of responsibility to do one’s best with the air that is given to you only temporarily. After you play a phrase you must then audibly replace the air that you borrowed as a ‘thank-you’. In the show, you are required to follow these rituals if it applies to that country’s instrument.  

“Only the samurai warriers were allowed to play the shakuhachi.  Women and children were not allowed to touch it. Ordinary men were not allowed to touch it either. The samurai studied two things: sword and flute because they shared two elements - breathing and concentration. In battle if you were to lose your sword, you could whip out your flute and use it as a club against your opponent. 

“The ancient Greek mythological figure, Pan was half man, half goat. One day he was chasing after the wood nymph Syrinx, who wisely ran to the river’s edge where she implored the river god to help her and was changed into a reed, along with her sisters. Not being able to find her, Pan was very disconsolate so he gathered some reeds by the river and cut them into different lengths. He then made the instrument which we call the Pan Pipe and he brought Syrinx back to life by blowing across the edge of the tubes. The ultimate tragedy was that Pan killed that which he loved the most, but do not despair because every time someone plays on a pan flute, Syrinx will be brought back to life.

 “Lion King has the greatest flute part ever. I look forward to playing the show every day. I get nervous before every show and at the end I say, “That was really fun, let’s do it again!” so I get another chance to play it. That’s the great thing about it - you get the chance to play multiple repetitions. One thing I've learned is to never give up or get dissuaded by anything anyone says. I didn’t listen to anyone when they told me I couldn't do it. If you’re interested in something, just explore it on your own.”

After about an hour and a half of fascinating flute lore, we ran out of time for Kay to show us her crystal flute and many others, I suspect, but we came away with her deep love for what she does and her generosity of spirit in sharing her passion with others.

RIP, Kay and thank-you for enriching the world with everything you have given us.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Ah, Verdi!

It's that time of year again, opera lovers - Verdi at Michigan Opera Theater. This time it's an opera we've never done before: Macbeth. Verdi was a fan of Shakespeare and transcribed a number of his plays for the opera stage, a feat for which we will always be grateful. Who can imagine life without Otello and Falstaff? 2016 is a special year for Shakespeare because it's the 400th anniversary of his death. He has influenced the English language in profound ways too numerous to count. Let's just say that our language would be very different if it hadn't been for Shakespeare.

MOT has just completed our sitzprobe (a German term meaning seated rehearsal, when the orchestra and singers have their first rehearsal together, generally with the orchestra in the pit and the singers sitting (sitz) on stage) for Macbeth, an early Verdi opera which premiered after Nabucco but before his other big blockbusters, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata. Aida, Otello and Falstaff were yet to come. The music of Macbeth is unmistakably Verdi and we have wonderful singers to round out the cast. Our Macbeth is none other than Stephen Powell who sang Germont in our Traviata a couple years ago. His rich and expressive baritone is something I've been looking forward to since hearing that he was going to return to the MOT stage for this production.

I am often asked how often we rehearse for an opera. For the orchestra, we have five rehearsals - two orchestra rehearsals, one sitzprobe and two dress rehearsals. We've already had two orchestra rehearsals just to get through all the music. The sitzprobe is the rehearsal I look forward to most when the music comes alive with all the musical components. The singers may not sing full voice but we can usually get the emotional impact at a sitzprobe - the music starts to make a lot more sense.

Next, everyone but the orchestra has a piano technical rehearsal, then a piano dress (which is fun for the orchestra musicians to attend because it's the only time we can sit in the house and see the stage without having to play our instruments). Then the orchestra has two dress rehearsals with the stage, which are both necessary because we usually have two casts for the main characters. Finally, opening night! It's very exciting because we're still a little on edge and all that work finally comes to fruition on that one night when the performance is being broadcast live on WRCJ, 90.9 fm and critics attend to give their opinions on our production. The MOT website also invites audience members to post their comments.

I am posting this prior to our opening night (April 16, 2016, 7:30 at the Detroit Opera House) with hopes that some of you may be moved to attend. I don't expect that we will repeat Macbeth any time soon but it is worth seeing if you are a fan of Verdi or Shakespeare or psychological thrillers in general. Did I mention that there is a lot of bloodshed and all the main characters die before the end of the opera? I should say that most of the murders occur offstage, however.

If you go to the opera, please let me know what you think by commenting on this blog.

Thanks, and Toi, toi, toi!