Monthly Archives: November 2012

Breaking News: It’s a Bad Time to be Rich

Watch out guys!  This is a Rant with a capital R.  I’m angry and I’m using curse words.  So, If you prefer for me to talk about opera and singing and nice things, then maybe you should skip this post, mmmkay?

So the only thing anyone in the media is talking about lately is the “Fiscal Cliff,” and how to avoid it. On NPR, they were talking this morning about one of the president’s strategies, which is to increase tax rates on the wealthiest 2%, specifically they discussed raising the capital gains tax, and the dividend tax.

Then, this commentator  Bill Smith of CBIZ MHM, comes on and says something unbelievably obnoxious.

“It’s a bad time to be rich.”

Is it?  I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.  How bad is it?  Like, are you worried about how you’re going to afford Christmas presents for your children if this tax hike goes through?  Maybe you’ll have to take on a second job to make ends meet?  Maybe you’ll be forced to sell one of your cars, and you and your spouse will have to share a single vehicle?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.  You and your accounting firm’s clients will pay a little more on your capital gains, and your standard of living won’t change at all.  Why don’t you go cry about it in your fucking mansion over some caviar and Dom Perignon?

Honestly, has there ever been a time in the entire history of civilization that you could call “a bad time to be rich”?  Actually, I can think of one:  The fucking French Revolution.  And do you know why the French Revolution was a bad time to be rich?  Because all the poor people, who were basically starving to death while the noblemen partied at Versailles, got so pissed off about being poor that they decided that the only solution was to guillotine some motherfuckers.  That was a bad time to be rich.

Fortunately, nowadays most of us understand that the guillotine is not an appropriate solution to most problems, so instead we go camp out in urban parks.

No, it is not a “bad time to be rich,” you entitled prick!  It’s a bad time to be struggling to afford your heating oil, because it’s fucking cold out.  It’s a bad time to have to choose between purchasing one or the other of your medically necessary but exorbitantly priced prescription medications.  It’s a bad time to find out you’re pregnant and faced with the medical costs of pregnancy and childbirth, not to mention 18 years of feeding, clothing, entertaining, and educating a child; but there’s nothing you can do about it because you live in Mississippi.

Instead of wasting your breath on the radio complaining about what a bad time it is to be rich, why don’t you go volunteer at the local food bank and get some fucking perspective, you slimy, Republican asshat.


I Can’t Find Any Christmas Music I like, and I Blame My High School Choir Teacher

“Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes,” says Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and the director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University. “Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity.”

Do you suppose that explains why my taste in music, especially when it comes to classical* Christmas music, is so rigidly snobby?

Around this time every year, I start scouring the internet for festive music to enjoy during the Christmas season, usually making several lists, one of which would be of classical music.  And every time I practice this ritual, I find myself hating almost everything I listen to.  I can only choose a few albums and tracks after hours of sighing, “ugh, gawdy,” and “TOO SLOW!”  It’s like Christmas rolls around, and suddenly all these highly respected classical musicians throw all their taste out into the snow.

O Holy Night is complete garbage, and so is that dress, Dame Kiri.  You are the greatest lyric soprano of your generation, I know you can do better than this.

But I digress . . .

When I was 14, I was a freshman in high school, and thus spent my first school year singing in the chorus under the direction of Cliff Thomson, a man who, for better or for worse, has had a huge influence on me as a musician.

He was a bit of a strange fellow, at least by rural Virginia’s standards.  He was flamboyantly gay, smoked like a chimney, had a dark sense of humor, and a volatile personality which could be unpredictable.  Occasionally he would fly into wild rages, perhaps out of stress, or nicotine deprivation, and begin cursing, insulting students, banging the piano, sometimes even throwing things.  I hated these moments, but, as one of the more dedicated choral students, was rarely the target.  I’d glare at the slackers whose whispered conversation in the back of the room triggered Mr. Thomson’s temper and would quickly forgive him for wasting another rehearsal.

But he was also different from the choir directors at all the other area high schools.  He scoffed at the idea of “show choir,” and wouldn’t dream of having us perform cheesy arrangements of pop songs or jazz standards.  I once heard him confess that when he started teaching, he would diligently audition singers and place them into three or four choral sections, chamber choir, treble choir, madrigals, etc., but he eventually got too lazy to deal with the scheduling difficulty and so every singer was now part of one choir.  Advanced Choir Select was what it was called.

And our repertoire was particularly sophisticated, even if our performances of it weren’t very polished.  It was in that choir room that I first discovered the soaring polyphony of Palestrina, the broad romanticism of Brahms, the precision of Mozart and Handel.  And every December, I reveled in our “Holiday” program which would be almost identical to the one from the year before.

The music for the Holiday concert was mostly a mix of traditional Christmas and Advent hymns, and early music. Always Stille Nacht instead of Silent Night, always the same floaty phrasing on In the Bleak Midwinter, always the same warp-speed tempo on Ding Dong Merrily on High.

The Gloucestershire Wassail was a standard, which we the students loved, mostly because we recognized it was a drinking song, and thus vorboten.  We would sing loud and boisterously,

Wassail, wassail all over the town!
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree.
With our wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee!

In the verse about the butler, we would emphasize the word with staccato:  “BUTT-ler.” When we got to final verse, we’d pull back to pianissimo, just above a whisper:

And here’s to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tript to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tript to the door and pulled back the pin

Then crescendo on “pin” back to a full fortissimo, carrying through with no breath to

For to let these jolly wassailers in!

All this is to say that the music was fairly highbrow, (well, that particular number is kind of highbrow-lowbrow) but still really fun.  It was in those high school choir classes that I learned that classical music is a real laugh, and not stiff and snobby.

When I was applying for colleges, I had a conversation with Mr. Thomson about whether I should apply as a music theater major or an opera major, as I wasn’t sure at the time.  He looked at me and said, “people who can do music theater can do music theater, people who do opera can do anything.”

At the end of the year when I was getting ready to head off to conservatory to study opera, as I was saying goodbye to him, he told me another thing, “You’ll sing Turandot one day.”  I didn’t realize at the time that he meant that he thought I had the potential to do this:

I’m still holding out hope on that one.

Anyway, here is my 2012 Classical Christmas Playlist, made up of a lot of pieces we used to sing in that high school choir, some that I think we could’ve sung, and some other stuff.  Lots of choral music, the Choir of Kings College Cambridge is featured heavily, as is Chanticleer.  There are a couple tracks from Kathleen Battle’s delightful Christmas album with guitarist Christopher Parkening.  A breathtaking a capella Sweet Little Jesus Boy sung by Leontyne Price could bring tears to your eyes if you hear it at the wrong part of your menstrual cycle.  Enjoy, kiddos!

*I hate this word, because it means too many things.  What I mean here is, music that you might hear on the “Classical” radio station.

Role Models: Joyce DiDonato

Mezzo Soprano Joyce DiDonato has a new album, Drama Queens.  I was watching this promotional video for the album this morning, and it occurred to me that Joyce (I have a habit of referring to my operatic idols by their first names, as if we’re friends.  Joyce, Bryn, Renee, you know, the gang.) is exactly the type of artist I would like to be.  Not necessarily the type of singer I would like to be, her voice and repertoire are very different from mine, but they type of artist.

Well, exactly what kind of artist is she? (Or, probably more precisely, what kind of artist am I perceiving her to be?)

First of all, Joyce seems always to be absolutely delighted with what she is doing.  And why shouldn’t she be?  She’s a highly in-demand, international opera star!  I’m sure that just like everyone, she has bad days and gets down, but the public face she presents is one of joy.  She’s always excited about whatever role she’s singing, or laughing with her colleagues, or discovering  the city she is visiting.

Joyce is a scholar.  In the classical music community, there is a joke that there are musicians, and then there are singers.  I hate that joke.  If you are not a Musician with a capital M, than you have no business singing classical repertoire.  Still, singers have a reputation for not understanding music theory, or being unable to even read music.

That is simply not the case with Joyce.  This vlog on how she approaches learning a new role shows just how tuned-in she is to musicality, style, language, characterization, and she is focused on trying to interpret the composer’s intention.

Notice how she talks about being aware of the orchestration and what it says about the character or situation.  She is focused on details that many singers don’t even give a second thought.

Joyce gives back.  Her blog, Twitter, and vlog, all focus mainly on advising and inspiring young singers.  She makes it clear that she didn’t get where she is just by chance, but by hard work, study, and persistence.  She has often mentioned that she wished there was something like her blog available to her when she was starting out.

She also has an extraordinary knack for making opera accessible without dumbing it down.

Joyce is an absolutely captivating performer.  I had the privilege of seeing her sing in the Met’s The Enchanted Island last season.  The woman owned the stage.  I can’t explain it better than this:

Joyce has a sense of humor.  Some performers just take themselves way too seriously.  Humor is essential, especially when you’re, say, singing a Puccini role where you watch your lover die tragically of consumption every night.

Madame DiDonato’s hard work, study, joy, humor, and gratitude would be assets in any field, but in the world that originated the term “diva” they make her truly divine.  So, the next time I’m hung up on some kind of operatic conundrum, I’ll ask myself “WWJD?”  What would Joyce do?

Tedium and Frustration: Learning New Repertoire

As I was leaving my voice lesson a week ago, I mentioned to my teacher that I think I need some coloratura in my rep.  She nodded in agreement.  “Fiordiligi or Donna Anna?” I asked, referring to two Mozart roles that would suit my voice.

I barely finished the question before she answered, “Anna.”

“Well that settles it.  Non Mi Dir it is.”

I hate to admit this, but I don’t really enjoy learning new music.  For me, the fun doesn’t come until you’ve got the thing in your voice, and you can start to really make art with it.  And when it comes to pieces with coloratura passages, runs, cadenzas, etc., the process can be especially tedious.  A friend of mine recently posted a snapshot of a brutal cadenza in the score for a Rossini aria he’s learning, cursing the composer for writing “A twenty-nine-tuplet!”

But alas, if we are going to be singers, we must know what to sing.  Every singer, and probably every musician, has his or her own process for learning new music.

I have heard Non Mi Dir, Donna Anna’s aria from Mozart’s masterpiece Don Giovanni countless times.  Now, I’m listening to it again, this time with the score in my lap. I search YouTube for recordings of three or four singers I respect, in this case, Joan Sutherland, Anna Netrebko, and Birgit Nilsson, and follow along in the score, pencil in hand noting where they take unwritten appogiaturas or where they breath in preparation for long phrases.

Many musicians think this can be a dangerous practice.  There is a risk that you will internalize and copy the style of the performers you listen to, instead of creating your own interpretation.  For me this is just a way to get a feel for the overall musical landscape of the aria, and to note any generally accepted performance practices.

The next step is hopping onto Google Translate.  I know that this is the aria where Donna Anna reassures Don Ottavio of her love for him despite refusing his marriage proposal, but just getting the general gist won’t do.  My knowledge from Italian 101 and the use of translation tools will help me better understand every word and phrase of the libretto.  “Troppo mi spiace allontanarti un ben,” becomes in my mind “Too much I’m sorry to postpone a good,” and is then converted a little further to “I’m all too sorry to postpone such a blessing.”

Now that I’m more familiar with the text, I set it aside and sit down at the piano.  Skipping past the recitative for now, I use my rudimentary piano skills to just play through the vocal line, noting anything in the melody that catches me by surprise, like the modulation into a minor tonality near the end of the A section.  Then I go back and sing through, phrase by phrase, without the words.  I might do this an octave below where it’s written first, just to get the notes in my brain without thinking about vocal technique.

Here’s a slapdash look at a recent practice session of mine where I was working on Non Mi Dir, focusing specifically on the tedium of learning the coloratura section.

As you can tell, there’s still a lot of work to be done here.  I’ll take it to my voice teacher and we’ll spend several lessons trying to get every note of the aria into that singer’s sweet spot (we’ve already spent some time on the A section together).  Then I’ll see a vocal coach who will work with me on making it musical.  Ideally, the finished product will sound something like this (here’s hoping!):

Obama Owes his Election to the Sesame Street Generation

Two days later, I’m still giddy with excitement about the results of Tuesday’s election.  To me it meant that Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 wasn’t just an anomaly.  More revealing than the victories for the Democratic party were the demographic results coming out of exit polls: 88% of Romney voters were white, while minorities made up 44% of the Obama vote.

Liberals have been saying for a while that the GOP has become the party of white men.  A few months ago my mom volunteered at an Obama rally here in Virginia.  I had asked her if the crowd was diverse, knowing that a strong voter turnout among minorities on election day would be crucial.

“Yes!  There were all kinds of people there,” she said, “Black, white, Latino, all kinds!”  But then she went on to add something else.  There was a counter-rally at a private residence across the street from the school where Obama was holding his event.  Its Republican attendees were out on the lawn, holding signs, and they were all white.  

On Tuesday, Bill O’Reilly was lamenting Romney’s coming loss on Fox News, and complaining that, “The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that this economic system is stacked against them and . . .”

Now, I want to point out that over 50% of Obama’s voters were white, and he won a majority of the under 30 vote; which brings me to a little hypothesis I’ve been cooking up.   I call it “The Sesame Street Vote.”  It’s basically this:  young Americans are more comfortable with racial and cultural diversity than our parents and grandparents, because we watched Sesame Street when we were babies.

Sesame street premiered in 1969, and within ten years it was an institution. By that time, according to Wikipedia, 9 million children under the age of six watched Sesame Street daily.  And what did we see?  Well, we saw a lot of lessons on counting and ABC’s, taught by a cast that looked like this:

This is one of the most diverse casts in television history.  Some of them spoke Spanish, or used sign language, but they were a community who worked together and cared for each other.

Sesame Street also gave us messages like this:

A song where children from many different backgrounds sing, “We all sing with the same voice, and we sing in harmony,” is just one of dozens of Sesame Street pieces meant to teach us about diversity or just the normalness of other cultures or lifestyles.  (As an aside, my mom used to sing a song to me with this same tune that went “My name is Molly P.  I sit on Grandma’s knee!”)

I think an argument can be made that my generation was the first to be widely taught from the start that all humans, from all cultures, with any skin color, are fundamentally the same, and should be treated equally. That didn’t simply make us willing to elect a Black president where the racists wouldn’t, it made us eager to elect a president who would represent all Americans.  We were taught in school that America is the great melting pot, a place where people have always come to make a better life for themselves.  We were taught that racism is wrong, that the injustices of segregation and Jim Crow were triumphantly defeated by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement.

But when we grew up, and saw how much injustice still exists, we felt cheated.  We found out that racism had not, in fact, been eradicated.  We realized that many people still thought women couldn’t do certain things as well as men.  And we discovered new injustices (well, the injustice wasn’t new, just our awareness of it was), like the fact that a person who falls in love with someone of the same sex can’t marry that person. So we got angry.

We were not going to put up with those old white guys who were nostalgic for the Leave it to Beaver days.  So we voted for the party that gave us the Dream Act, and the Lily Ledbetter Act, and the Affordable Care Act.  We voted for America’s first African American president, way overdue.  On Tuesday, we voted for him again while the peanut gallery on Fox News watched, terrified of the “voter intimidation” tactics of the opposition.

You’re right, O’Reilly, this isn’t “Traditional America” anymore.  And good riddance!

A Bleeding-Heart Liberal’s Election Day Playlist

On Tuesday, millions of progressives across the 50 United States and the District of Columbia will head to the polls to cast their votes for the most liberal candidate Barack Obama.  We are voting this way because we know that the economic policies of Mitt Romney and the Republican Party won’t do anything for anyone except wealthy few who look down on the rest of us from their Hamptons mansions.  We also know that the party’s social stances are bad for women, bad for minorities, bad for the LGBT community, and basically, bad for anyone except white Christian men.

If all that isn’t enough to get you sufficiently fired up to cast your ballot (assuming you havn’t already) and proudly don your “I Voted!” sticker, then load this playlist into your mp3 player of choice and let Neil Young and Ani DiFranco move you to stand up for the 47%. Continue reading

In Which I Spit on your Random Act of Kindness

When my alarm went off this morning, as it usually does around 6:30, my first thought when I opened my eyes was, shit, I don’t have any milk for coffee.

For most coffee drinkers, a lack of available milk would be a minor annoyance, but not for me.  Milk is essential to the coffee-drinking experience.  And, since coffee is essential to the life-tolerating experience, I got showered and dressed as coherently as I could in my pre-caffeine state, got in the car, and made a beeline to the Starbucks drive-through where I ordered a venti pumpkin spice latte (because, since I’m here, why not?) and a breakfast sandwich.

And then something unusual happened.

When I pulled up to the window, $10 bill in hand, the green-aproned woman handed me my coffee and explained, “The person in front of you paid for your order, if you want to keep it going you can, but you don’t have to.”

I smiled.  “Wow, uh, yeah I will, but wait . . .”  Something occurred to me.  I’m all for “random acts of kindness,” but if the person in the car behind me ordered two gallons of coffee for his 8:00 AM meeting, plus a venti triple Americano for himself, and a grande hot chocolate for his carpool buddy, then that’s going to be a problem.  “What is the bill for the next guy?” I sheepishly asked.


Phew.  “Yeah, ok, I’ll pay for his.”   I handed over the $10 bill.

“It’ll be just a minute on your sandwich.”

While I waited, I smiled and thought to myself that the world really is a wonderful, kind, sunny place after all . . . and then there was one of those record screech sound effects in my head.  Something wasn’t quite right about the way the barrista said, “If you want to keep it going you can.”

Keep it going?

When she came back with my sandwich, I asked, “So how long has this chain been going?  Did the guy in front of me start it?”

“Actually, it’s been going on for a little while now.”  She told me.


As I drove off, sipping on my way-too-sweet pumpkin spice latte, I thought, What just happened?  Was this a beautiful example of a random act of kindness being payed forward (two Oprah phrases that I kind of hate) or something else?

Really, the only person who did anything especially kind was the first guy who decided it would be nice to buy a cup of coffee for the chick in line behind him.  That chick, having been unexpectedly relieved of paying the five bucks or so that she had already planned on spending, and perhaps feeling a bit awkward about accepting a gift from a stranger, decided she might as well spend that five bucks anyway on the person in line behind her.  And it continues, each person in this charitable drive-through line spending $5-$10 or so in a big caffeine-fueled circle jerk.

And one more thing.  This is not just any Starbucks.  This is a Starbucks in Loudoun County, Virginia.  A place where, according to the 2010 census, the median household income is around $115,000 per year.  It’s likely that the people in that drive-through didn’t really need a free cup of coffee.

This is all sounding very cynical.  All I’m trying to say is that, sometimes a “random act of kindness” doesn’t really accomplish anything, other than superficially making you feel good.  If you’ve got an extra five bucks to spend on coffee for a stranger, why not spend it on a sandwich for the homeless man outside, instead of the person who was already going to spend five bucks of their own?  If you want to provide a kindness, maybe you should take an hour and pop down to the Red Cross blood bank and give them a pint?  If you’ve got extra money that can be put to good use, perhaps you could loan it out at Kiva?

What happened at the Starbucks this morning, was a fascinating study in altruism and social pressure, not proof that humans are really and truly Good.  That proof lies elsewhere.