An Ode to Opera 🎶

I saw my first opera in the Czech Republic when I was seventeen years old. My high school madrigal choir was traveling to compete in an international competition, and our tour took us to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria. (We took home the top prize!) After a long day of rehearsals in the city of Olomouc, we slunk into the red velvet seats of the 1830 MoravskĂ© divadlo Olomouc opera house to see Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. The surtitles were in Czech. I didn’t quite follow the plot, but I marveled at the elaborate set pieces and the heavy, ornamented costumes. I watched in amazement as the tiers of Solomon’s temple flew above the stage, and as fire ignited along the footlights to illuminate a battle scene. It was all so grandiose—the opera house, the music, the drama. Much to my surprise, the audience burst into song in the Third Act. The crowd of well-dressed patrons joined in on the famous chorus “Va, Pensiero," and it was kind of magical.

I didn’t return to the opera for seven years, and now I’m on a roll seeing contemporary operas. Many luminaries in the theatre world develop and direct operas, and in my recent trips to the opera I have found that the form mirrors contemporary musicals in surprising ways. Arias in operas are much like the "I Want" songs in musicals—characters step aside to reveal their innermost feelings. The songs can be indulgent, emotional, and don't have to drive the plot. This emotional storytelling can also teach the audience how to listen to subsequent recitative songs. 

In December, I went to the Metropolitan Opera for the premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s L'Amour de loin. It was opening night, and women ascended the stairs of the Met with their gowns trailing behind. Men were dressed to the nines in tuxedos. And there was such excitement bubbling about the premiere—it was the first staging of an opera by a female composer at the Met since 1903. (Which was staggering to me and didn't seem like cause for celebration, but I happily attended the celebratory post-show soirée anyway.) Surtitles for the French-language libretto by Amin Maalouf were neatly displayed on the seat in front of me, but my eyes were transfixed on director Robert Lepage’s staging. The sea separating the opera’s long distance lovers—the Prince of Blaye and the Countess of Tripoli—was brought to life with rows of twinkling, tubular LED lights. They seemed to stretch upstage forever, rising and falling with the billow of the baritone’s voice. It was mesmerizing, and so beautiful.

In September I saw the world premiere of the “hiphopera” We Shall Not Be Moved, by Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia as part of the Opera Philadelphia’s O Festival. The performers soared through spoken word, hip hop, and opera singing—all directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones. The opera follows a group of displaced North Philly teenagers who find refuge in the exact location of the MOVE organization, the black liberation group that was bombed by the Philadelphia police in 1985. It was a dark slice of history, folded into the harrowing present, and told through beautiful projections and words. 

Earlier this month, I ventured to BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn for the first time to see Crossing as part of the Next Wave Festival. The opera was composed, written, and conducted by 27-year-old Matthew Aucoin, and directed by Diane Paulus. The English libretto was inspired by excerpts from a diary that Walt Whitman kept while volunteering as a Civil War nurse. It explores the line “What is it, then, between us?” in Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” taking it so far as to imagine a relationship between the author and a patient at a Washington, D.C.-based Union hospital. The set was a one-room ward filled with varying shades of Prussian blue, the color of the Union Army uniforms. Projections of the outside world fluttered across the shiplap walls, and soldiers moved about the space dancing as waves and shifting as wind, all while the lines between good and evil, and life and death, criss-crossed and blurred. It brought forth a divisive period of U.S. history, all while shedding light on the discordance in our country today.

I’m struck by how the images from the operas I have seen—a towering wall, strings of lights, fires blazing—have cemented in my brain. Opera is as much a visual form as an aural experience. It offers the perfect mold for over-the-top, operatic spirited characters, and gives virtuosic artists freedom to explore. I'm excited to see hip-hop dance moves and diverse casts and current events finding a place in opera houses.

While at the Philly Fringe, I happened upon an outdoor screening of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and was unable to find a seat on the three-block long Independence Mall. Hundreds of people of all ages watched and sang along. It was another magical moment. I'll happily add more trips to the opera to my calendar of regular theatre outings.

Happy 7th Anniversary, New York!

The building I now work in on 36th Street was once the destination of many trips from Pennsylvania. My parents and I would drive for hours into the city for auditions, sometimes multiple times a week. We’d stand in line to get our photos taken in the lobby of 520 8th Avenue and wait to collect a visitor's pass to ascend the elevator to Ripley Grier Studios. Now I bypass the line with my office i.d. and ride the elevator with kids that look all too familiar—with sheet music in hand and nervous parents in tow.

Sometimes I’m reminded of auditions I had in the building as I pass the 16th floor. One that is particularly haunting was a dance call for the remake of the movie Fame when I was fourteen—I spread my arms wide clocking the girl next to me when I should have been turning. Mandy Moore (the famed choreographer, not the pop star) quietly dismissed me. Equally memorable is the time I auditioned for a We The Kings music video when I was seventeen. After I read the sides, the casting director brought my parents into the room. To improvise a scene. The song was called “Check Yes Juliet,” and the Romeo and Juliet-inspired video was about a girl, her rockstar boyfriend, and her disapproving parents. We made up a scene in which my dad caught me sneaking out of the house to see the boy. I remember yelling, “But I love him, Dad!” And my father yelling from across the studio, “How can you love him? He looks like he is dressed for Halloween!” (Which is exactly what my dad thinks of boys who look like they might listen to rock music.) We didn’t get the roles.

After auditions, I’d resort to my trusty blue binder filled with restaurants mapped out by neighborhoods, and my dog-eared Zagat Guide, for dinner. Whether an audition went well, or terribly like in the above cases, we always made a point to add something special to the sometimes two minute auditions. Food adventures made the long trip worthwhile, and we ate our way through the city. Looking back, I realize that my love for these frequent, quick trips to Manhattan spurred from more than just the thrill of a great audition. They were equally as exciting because of the cannolis from Little Italy, the bowls of pasta from Ill Vagabondo, and the juicy burgers hidden inside the Le Parker Meridien hotel.

So my love affair with New York started long before my parents dropped me off at Pace University for my freshman year of college. It really began when I was seven and stood outside of the Palace Theatre after seeing Beauty & The Beast and declared that I’d live in this twinkling city when I grew up. And it lasted through the eight  trips my parents made hauling my life in and out of boxes each semester of college, all while double-parked on busy New York streets. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

This week, as I look back on the seven years that I’ve had a New York mailing address, I’m reminded of why I love this crazy city. I went to a heartwarming production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in Central Park, which featured a cast of professional actors, New York taxi drivers, teachers, and community members all sharing the stage. I attended a secret concert in my neighborhood of Greenpoint, and sat on a colorful tapestry on a warehouse floor listening to beautiful music on a rainy night. I did yoga on the rooftop of the William Vale Hotel with sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline. I went to Smorgasburg for a lobster roll and drank juice out of a pineapple with a straw. I toured the Brooklyn Brewery. I ran a 5k as part of the Wanderlust Festival and did yoga with 10,000 people in Prospect Park as Alicia Key’s “New York” blared through the sound system. Dragonflies flew overhead, the sun was beating down, and I really did feel inspired by New York, just as the lyrics say.

This jam-packed week wasn't atypical. I survive on spontaneous adventures, and regularly eat dinner long after the sun sets. I’ve somehow managed to make my love of theatre and my passion of food and culture into a living. While my path has wandered, so many things have stayed the same. For one, I still spend a lot of time at 520 8th Ave. Just on a higher floor.

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Theatrical Trip Upstate

Two weeks ago I hopped on the Metro-North for a weekend getaway in Hudson Valley, New York. The hour-long train ride was marked with views of the Hudson River, harbors full of sailboats, and majestic cable-stay bridges. My lovely mother greeted me at the Cold Spring train station, and we ventured down the town’s quaint main street and dropped off our bags at a riverfront bed & breakfast. Cold Spring looks like a postcard. Its Federal-style homes dressed with columns and Palladian windows, and its colorful drag of specialty shops and general stores turn back time. That first night, we picked up sandwiches from a deli and drove to the nearby hamlet of Garrison to visit the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. We followed a parade of theatregoers outfitted with picnic baskets, blankets, and bottles to the festival grounds. The performances take place in a 540-seat tent, which is flanked by a mansion and spectacular views of the Hudson River and Storm King Mountain. We passed through a garden of rows of herbs, a fountain surrounded by roses, and then claimed our spot on the lawn for our picnic dinner. Soon it was showtime, and we made our way to our seats inside the massive tent to see Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Behind the set, peach colored-clouds floated over the West Point castles across the river. The play was fabulous. The audience laughed at the cross-dressing and the hilarity that Hamill brought to life from Austen’s novel. In the morning, we drove north to Newburgh to visit Scenic Arts Studio, a large warehouse where scenic backdrops and sets for theatrical performances are painted. During our visit, Scar’s lair was being crafted for the national tour of The Lion King, and clouds were being painted on a backdrop for the upcoming Broadway production of The Honeymooners. I stood underneath a double-sided backdrop of constellations from the show Cymbelline, which was inflated by a fan. It was beautiful! We spent the day in Beacon visiting the Dia:Beacon museum, giggling at some of the absurd exhibits  and admiring Richard Serra’s towering steel cylinders. That evening, we went to a reading of Hamill’s newest work, Odyssey, at the defunct Garrison train station. Brandon Dirden starred as Odysseus! The station rattled as trains passed by, all while the Cyclops Polyphemus stormed the stage. We returned to our bed & breakfast in the pouring rain, and perused realty sites looking at homes for sale—we really didn’t want to leave. We even snuck into an open house the next morning. On that final day, we joined the throng of Manhattanites in hiking gear for the town’s main attraction—its hiking trails. We traversed the 5-mile Cornish Estate Trail and explored the stone ruins of the Northgate mansion, an estate that was destroyed by fire in the '50s. There were butterflies and wildflowers and croaking frogs along the pathway, and we descended the hill and finished our trip with ice cream cones on the riverfront. I can’t wait to return next summer. Thanks, mom!

 Picnicking at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival before the performance.

Picnicking at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival before the performance.

Scranton Shakespeare Festival Wins a Home Game

The last time I was at the PNC Field was for my friend's 13th birthday party. Her parents reserved a luxury box, which was decorated with streamers and balloons. I was much more interested in the cake than the game happening below. Earlier this month, I returned to my home field (which is the Triple-A affiliate to the New York Yankees) to see the Scranton Shakespeare Festival’s production of Damn Yankees! The show hit a home run in bringing theatregoers and sports fans together for a new—dare I say more exciting—spectacle on the baseball field.

Instead of the familiar stadium song to start a baseball game, the musical—penned by Richard Adler, Jerry Ross, Douglass Wallop, and George Abbott—began with a sweeping overture. The company of 24 performers descended down the seating area behind the coach’s first base box singing the opening number “Six Months Out of Every Year.” In it,  the women lament that their husbands spend half of the year following baseball, ignoring their household duties and marital responsibilities.

The biggest offender is Joe Boyd. A die-hard fan of the Washington Senators team, the aging Boyd (played by Michael Gilbert) spends the six-month baseball season glued to the television screen watching his losing team. “If only The Senators had a long ball hitter we could beat those damn Yankees!” he bemoans. A mysterious character then appears on the TV—aptly portrayed here on the JumboTron—to offer Boyd a deal. Mr. Applegate, played by the devilish Joe McGurl, gives Boyd the chance to transform into the savior that The Senators need—Joe Hardy, a young slugger for the team. The catch? If Boyd chooses to play in the final pennant game of the season, he will stay as Joe Hardy forever. Boyd, a canny real estate agent, requests an escape clause as part of the arrangement.

The team's newest player, played by the dreamy Timothy Michael Quinn, arouses curiosity in the town. Quinn's alluring singing voice and muscled physique surely added to Hardy's appeal, and bring hope to The Senators players who make up for their lack of skills with heart. Reporter Gloria Thorpe, played by Juliana Pillets, is skeptical of the newcomer. Pillets led the charge in the first of many catchy group numbers, belting out “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo."—her booming voice echoed up Montage Mountain. The mystery surrounding Joe Hardy and his cryptic background begin to unravel as Joe toggles between wanting to return to his wife at home and the temptations thrown at him by Applegate—including the lascivious Lola of the infamous tune "Whatever Lola Wants."

In perhaps the most exciting intermission ever, audience members retreated to the food stands for hot dogs, cheese steaks, and pints of beer. Act II began with The Senators spilling over the railing and onto the field for “The Game,” which was the crowd-winning song of the night. The uniformed players spun round, leaped over benches, and grapevined from first to second base—all while real-life ball players practiced in batting cages behind them at the other end of the field.

Director Michael Bradshaw Flynn successfully married the traditions of the sport to the athleticism of theatre in this production. The all-star cast stepped up to the plate with dance-heavy numbers choreographed by Matthew Lynady—all of which were perfected in the short span of a two-week rehearsal period. The character of Lola was played with great agility by Mollie Downes, who gracefully dropped into splits and maneuvered her fast feet on the ballfield dirt. The show's oddball number "Who's Got the Pain?" even found its place, showcasing the company's mambo dancing skills—even though the song does not further the plot. 

It comes as no surprise that Joe exercises the escape clause that he sets in place for himself, even though the musical's mirroring of Faust does keep the audience wondering if he'll sell his soul after all. But Joe returns home to his wife and his middle-aged existence as a real estate agent, happy as can be. The musical—which took home the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1956—surely has a pleasing ending. Even the toddlers seated in front of me were satisfied. 

The curtain call was marked with a sunset, and audience members made their way to the field's VIP lounge for a celebration of the season’s conclusion. Audible gasps and cheers filled the space as the 2018 summer season was announced. The excitement filled me with hope for my hometown. The sounds of the hummable song “Heart” drifted out of the stadium and followed me into the parking lot. It was thrilling—maybe this is how baseball fans feel leaving a victorious game.

 The cast of  Damn Yankees!  performing "The Game" at the PNC Field in Moosic, PA.

The cast of Damn Yankees! performing "The Game" at the PNC Field in Moosic, PA.

Prepping for the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center

I never went to sleepaway camp. It is funny because I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, which is chock-full of camps in forests with lots of trees and bodies of water for kayaking and paddle-boarding. 

Maybe I never went because my older brothers were banned from Camp Orchard Hill in my hometown after they demolished two of the organization’s brand-new go-karts. (Which was actually really funny and not as terrifying as it sounds.) Perhaps my perspective of sleepaway camp was tainted after I dropped my brothers off at Camp Woodward in Lancaster and visited the bunk rooms of the bikers and roller bladers, which reeked of sweat. Or maybe it is because my brother shattered his tooth on his bicycle handle one summer there, and I didn’t want to have my own catastrophic trip to the dentist while being away from home.

I did have my fair share of summer day camps, though, learning about constellations in science camp, mixing potions in wizardry camp, and even smashing geodes in rock camp.

The closest thing to a sleepaway summer camp that I ever experienced was an acting bootcamp for kids. I traded the great outdoors and star-gazing for the twinkly lights of Times Square, and stayed in a hotel with my gracious mother for a whole week when I was 12 years old. Instead of playing capture the flag, activities included memorizing commercial copy and mastering the art of audition tapes. (And making some pretty great memories with my mama.)

In high school I witnessed the true merit of sleepaway summer camp when one of my best friends demonstrated her ability to change her bra and underwear all without taking off her clothes while we prepped backstage for the annual dance recital at school. She also can french braid her own hair and tie a cherry stem with her tongue, all skills perfected by many summers spent at Camp Kresge in the Pocono Mountains.

This weekend, I feel like I’m finally getting a real camp experience. I’ll be venturing to Waterford, Connecticut for the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. I’ve packed plenty of bug spray, a pair of boat shoes, and saved my dentist's number in my phone. I might be sharing a room with a stranger and there will be a communal bathroom. And while I don’t think there will be s’mores or Kumbaya around a fire, there might be titillating games like “Name That Theatre Critic,” or we might win prizes for filing reviews in a timely manner. And I’m excited. 

Whatever these two weeks have in store, I’m trying to not worry about my non-critical nature or think about all the things in the theatre field that I don’t know yet. And I’m trying to get over my bad case of imposter syndrome. I plan to go into this experience knowing that I have a lot to learn—and institutes are for learning, right?

Who knows, in addition to coming back more opinionated I might even learn how to tie a cherry stem on my tongue.