Thursday, August 19, 2010

Così Reflections

I'm back from my whirlwind trip to NYC where I witnessed the opening night of "Così fan tutte: Some Assembly Required," which I'll refer to as #nycosi from here on. It's quite appropriate that #nycosi has been so closely tied in with Twitter because, like Twitter itself, it's difficult to explain how an event like this works to someone who's not there. The uniqueness of Twitter is in how multiple conversational threads can be followed quite naturally, creating a web of widely varied but interrelated ideas and relationships; I don't think it's possible to grasp it without participating. Likewise, #nycosi developed in part out of musical/personal relationships that were formed on Twitter and Twitter also enables a communal running commentary as the talking, rehearsing, and performing is in progress; so there's a multi-layered interconnectedness that energizes the whole experience.

Of course, Twitter is just a networking interface; it can't perform an opera, so there's much more to #nycosi than just a bunch of typed words. In brief, the event is structured around discussing, rehearsing and performing Mozart's comic opera Così fan tutte over four evenings (Aug 17/18/20/22), with a rotating cast of highly professional singers singing the roles and an even more fluidly shifting group of highly skilled instrumentalists becoming the unrehearsed orchestra for each night. At the center of it all is conductor/coach Jennifer Peterson, who somehow managed to assemble all this talent from both her professional connections (coaches get to know a lot of singers) and her Twitter web. Thus, the sense of community is an integral aspect of the #nycosi experience; there's a palpable sense of how much all of these musicians enjoy collaborating in such an open and collegial environment. Although not everyone knows each other, there are probably rarely more than two degrees of separation among the participants. For me, it was also a very satisfying "tweet-up," as I met quite a few people I've only known in the virtual world before now. (Whew, they're not axe-murderers - or, at least, they're all very nice.)

As far as I could tell, most (all?) of the talent was participating on a volunteer basis, which could be seen as good or bad. It's certainly not a model for how to make money in the music world, but it's just as certainly evidence of how much musicians love to make music together, especially when the environment is supportive and empowering for all involved.* At one point, after there had been a good bit of back-and-forth among singers, orchestra members, and conductor about a tempo question, co-host Cori Ellison noted that one doesn't see that kind of open, democratic debate in a typical professional situation - and for good reason, by the way, but #nycosi is a reminder that the professional context isn't the only way to experience great music, even for professionals. There's a paradox in that we're trained to be focused on putting together finely polished performances for paying audiences, and that can be very satisfying, but the act of putting music together less formally and for its own sake can also be very satisfying. One of the things that #nycosi does is allow an audience to see that side of musicians.

Although it had turned out that my admittedly meager cello skills weren't required, I did get to take on the curious role of official twhistorian for the first night, which meant - well, I didn't really know what it meant, but I had a great seat just off to the left of where the singers stood. I was conveniently shielded from most of the audience by an enormous column (everything takes place in the comfy and very red lobby of the Gershwin Hotel) which made it not feel too strange to sit with laptop at the ready, sending out tweets whenever it seemed appropriate.

All the tweets include the #nycosi tag, which means that anyone interested in the event can follow along and add to the #nycosi stream as well, whether seated in the hotel or across the country. (You can read my archived "live-tweets" here or follow the still-ongoing live stream here.) As the evening progressed, there were contributions from a wide variety of Twitterers, including several members of the orchestra and even one of the hosts. Quite a few (no real idea how many) also seemed to be following from afar; it's fascinating to wonder what they were experiencing, since it wasn't the actual music. I think, as much as anything, it was participating in the sense of occasion. At any rate, I ended up churning out about 80-90 tweets that night, many of the "play-by-play" variety, some including live photos. 

The singing really was fabulous - the singers had rehearsed with Jennifer ahead of time and came knowing their parts quite well, although all held scores in hand. It was fun to watch them interacting, moving fluidly in and out of character, listening attentively and appreciatively (with scores still in hand) while others sang, etc. The orchestra mostly held together fine, although there were inevitably times when barlines didn't quite line up, understandable given the lack of rehearsal for them. Still, as much as I love playing piano reductions, you can't beat the thrill of supporting singers with a live, full orchestra (especially with Mozart's sublime orchestrations - listen to that viola line in the video below!) - when you consider how expensive it would normally be to assemble a band as talented as this (or even one much less talented), it was a remarkable luxury to have them there at all, and there were flashes of brilliant playing.

This idea of experiencing music in fragments (due to stopping, restarting, variable quality of execution, etc.) is fascinating. Sure, Mozart may have written this music to flow along continuously, but having the opportunity to stop and reflect can actually be energizing for an audience, especially since rehearing the same passage a few times can often make it all the more engaging. After all, I often find myself rewinding my iPod 15 or 30 seconds in order to hear something again. Musical analysis inevitably puts high value on experiencing music "in whole," but if we're honest, sometimes we just really look forward to "that part," which might even just be a little turn of phrase. I think there are ways in which an evening like this plays off of that less "big-picture" way of listening.

On the other hand, as much as #nycosi is an inviting way to present music, especially due to breaking down some of the formal barriers audiences often encounter, there is certainly an insider-y quality in an event like this. One of the hosts, director Ned Canty, tweeted at one point Wednesday night:
Singers doing a splendid job of telling this story with no props costumes or lights and a minimum of movement. #nycosi #losingjobsecurity
Now Canty has directed the opera six times and knows it intimately, so it stands to reason that he could easily follow the drama without all those extras, but the truth is that someone new to opera could hardly be expected to make much sense of things. In fact, at one point, after a fast-paced recitative scene had been run, Jennifer turned to the audience and asked optimistically, "you could all follow what was going on there, right?" She seemed a little surprised to see many heads shaking left to right, but this is the way music so often goes for us musicians. Once you're on the inside and know the works intimately, it's hard to imagine how they wouldn't make sense to anyone. 

Still, audiences members could hardly complain since ticket prices were rock-bottom low and they were all very close to the action, hearing glorious music being lovingly produced. No one would suggest that this is a model for how opera should generally be presented or how performers should try to make a living, but there's a lot to be said for seeing musicians in their element, and I suspect that these evenings will provide a real motivational boost to all the participants - it never hurts to be reminded why we love doing what we do, and Jennifer's operamission has accomplished that mission beautifully.

Again, it's really a "you have to be there" kind of thing, but here's one richly rewarding excerpt (shot with my blurry camera from my prime twhistorian location) from the run-thru that ended the first evening. This is the tender farewell quintet as Ferrando and Guglielmo pretend to be heading off to war, to the distress of their girlfriends, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, and to the amused delight of Don Alfonso, who's pulling all the strings.  

from left to right:

JAMES BOBICK - Guglielmo

* I mentioned to Jennifer as she was breaking down the set-up for the evening, moving her own harpsichord, etc, that it was notable that she'd found volunteers with the very specialized skills required to play all of the instrumental parts, but she hadn't bothered to find a volunteer stage manager - not only was it telling that she didn't mind doing the dirty work, but I suspect she knew that she was offering her musical volunteers a real privilege to be involved, even if they were giving back very generously. Not that stage-managing isn't a noble pursuit, but I think she figured she could handle that (and the conducting, and the continuo playing, and the coaching, and the assembling of talent), so why burden someone else?

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