Singing for my friends

March 22, 2012

A tradition I started in our social circle is playing compositions in progress for my friends who happen to be over for dinner. I embrace this ancient court tradition, as did Franz Schubert. After a full belly from food and wine, what better than a little music.

I put a twist on this in that rather than just entertaining my guests, I am doing market research on what kind of impression my music makes on people: not just musicians, people with a wide variety of tastes, and very often listeners who don’t know a lot of classical music. While I sing for my guests, I have to take into consideration that

  • They may forget that I will not be singing the premiere; I’m just doing a composer performance. There will be professionals who will sing these parts. Don’t judge it on my performance.
  • They may have had a hellish day, and this is the first moment they’ve had to STOP; and they fall asleep. One can’t feel insulted when this happens. It happens.
  • One person’s enthusiasm can often carry the entire room; one can’t be overly fooled by too strong of a positive response
  • With this as a background, I performed about a half hour of music for friends last night and I share my letter to my librettist, Mitchell Morris, about the experience.

    Dear Mitchell,

    Last night, M&J and R&P came over to spend some time together, but also to get a taste of the opera. This was the first time I have tried to sing it. I spent three days warming up and getting ready to sing it, and was amazed that my time at the gym is really helping connect to ab support in singing.

    I have two kinds of reactions to my singing, or three: the first is shocked that I don’t sing like an opera singer; the second finds it adorable that Roger is trying to sing all these parts and forgives any shortcomings in the performance. The third assumes that I should give as an accurate performance, complete WITH character, as possible.

    You know our part in Act 1 where Julián and the Captain are chatting — they are BOTH BARITONES, as you know — and when I sing both parts, unless I put some character differentiation in my voice, people can’t tell the difference. If they are looking at the score, they can easily see who is singing what. So last night I learned that I need to put character in my composer performances!

    In that they heard only music from Act 1, they heard music that is more “up.” I realized that Act 2 will start bright and progress to a devastating darkness. So my guests had the impression of la la everything his hunky dory in Mazatlan. R LOVED the dramatic interruption where Julian and the Captain have simultaneous asides. He felt the flow needed that moment of terror.

    M made several good comments: the Captain wouldn’t be navigating the boat, the helmsman would do that; but if here WERE navigating the boat, he shouldn’t be drinking tequila and smoking a cigar with Julian. But if he IS being naughty, we either need to reflect the Captain’s sense of guilt for doing it, or that he abstains while his guests partake.

    J loved everything and left with a big smile, saying she was very happy to hear it. She misses you.

    Just as in the creation of a film, one of the final things that happens to the visual component is that the “color timing” is adjusted. So after I finish Act 1, it seems it would make a certain amount of sense to do a similar thing to the harmonic language. Ditto, the entire opera.

    R encourages me pay attention to the fifth gate in Bluebeard’s Castle, to listen especially to its harmonic language.

    Thanks for the next stretch of text, I’m getting to work on it right now.



    And Mitchell wrote back with his blessings:


    Yes, feel free to post this. BUT I have a couple of comments:

    1) The Captain thinks of himself as in charge, since, of course he is. I don’t recall ever saying that he’s steering—yes, they say that in the opening song, but it’s a song (i.e. an onstage “folk” song), so they don’t have to be taken literally. If you like, I can put in some natter-natter about how even though he’s not actually doing the driving, he’s still in charge, and so forth.

    2) So given this, you want me add a helmsman? I suppose we could use a tenor at this point; and if we do a little scene to be inserted after Ybarra’s scena, we can make the point above more dramatically. I could find a use for him later in the act, and we could easily double him as a town person in Act II. Justice of the Peace, whom AP charms adroitly? Apothecary who finally breaks the news about the epidemic?

    3) As for Dark to Light, the Light to Dark—yes, that’s the biggest move. But there’s trouble on the horizon in Act I again: I am past the initial messing-around stage with Rosa, and beginning to get the drama and dialogue in place. It’s gonna be groovy, but emotionally a turbulent, ominous hue. If you like the helmsman idea, I could possibly find a use for him in that act.

    I’m delighted that the test run went so well! Have I mentioned how strongly those damn bird songs stick in the memory?


    To which I responded:

    1) I looked in the libretto and there was nothing about the captain navigating the boat. It was an image in my head as I wrote the music. So that was all in MY head! Several people commented last night that there was a wonderful underlying feeling of being at sea.

    2) Great ideas about the multi-role tenor part. It was clear from last night, that with all the solos and duets between two baritones — the register gets saturated and we are dying for some contrast.

    3) Ok then, full speed ahead, as it were. As I said, R really liked the violent interruption at the end of all that baritone wash. Foreshadowing the despair of Act 2 not a bad idea. I’m gonna leave it for now and move on.

    I am proceeding with the invention of a helmsman, i.e. the pilot. I think he’ll actually be American, since the steamer company was a US concern operating from San Francisco down to Panama. As for names, I’m sorting through some lightly symbolic but culturally appropriate for a ship named the Newbern (a VERY North Carolina name, as I’ve mentioned). More on that when I get it worked out in my imagination!

    The American helmsman is brilliant. Go for it.


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