Sunday, February 26, 2012


Last week marked the beginning of staging for La Calisto. It was our second week of "break" from school (the previous week was when I was in New York performing Theory of Flight), but it would be more accurate to say it was our second week without classes, as 273 Bloor St. West has been bustling with activity, from the orchestra concert with Leon Fleisher as conductor and soloist to the auditions for next year's students to our week of rehearsals.

These rehearsals are much like what I experienced when working with Yale Opera. We begin by reviewing each act with with a read- and then sing-through, attended by our Italian diction coach, as well as the usual crew: the director, music director, répétiteur/other music director, stage manager, and two assistant stage managers. Then we move into staging. Those needed for the scenes in question are called for a several hour block. Rehearsal props approximate those that will be used on stage, including full skirts (which means that all of the ladies playing ladies are robed in these candy-pink polyester taffeta concoctions). We're rehearsing in one of the smaller performance spaces in the building, Conservatory Theatre (yes, Canadians spell things strangely) and the outlines of the set are taped onto the floor. The performances will be in Koerner Hall, which you can see here in a photo I stole from the internet:

A pyramid of steps (a ziggurat, if you will--there's fifth grade coming in handy!) will be built in the center of the stage and turned on an angle. Sheets of cloth will be hanging from the ceiling, designed to evoke trees, upon which lights and images can be projected. We'll be in Edwardian garb. I haven't seen my costume yet, but when we were measured the other day a few students saw some of the sketches. I've heard that Mercury will be in a driving outfit and Jove will be in a tuxedo, and Diana has a riding/hunting outfit. In my mind, this makes Calisto and the other nymphs a little like the Gibson girls below--independent to a degree but still hemmed in by society--but I guess I'll see soon enough. Oh yeah, and then there's the bear costume. No word on that either!

And, true to the original executors of this opera who spent a sizable chunk of their budget creating a real fountain with real water on their 1651 stage, it seems as if there will be some stunning magic. I don't want to spoil the effects for those of you coming or get in trouble for revealing such things beforehand (I don't know that I would, but I'd rather avoid it), so perhaps they shall wait until later. Since we're not in the space yet, it's all in my imagination anyway! And it really is funny how far that will take you. After a couple of days rehearsing with the taped outlines in Conservatory Theatre, the steps began to feel real, and when I see the space in my mind, it is in 3-D. I was wondering if I were just a little too enthusiastic about this whole endeavor when the person playing Diana mentioned to me that she sees them that way too. Guess we're all going a little crazy!

While we're "on stage" working, even at this early juncture, we rely on a whole host of people on the other side of the room. Two people are playing continuo, the director is directing us, the stage manager is writing everything that we're doing down on little sticky notes that are positioned and repositioned any time something changes, and the assistant stage managers are I think doing the same thing, plus carrying out other tasks and making everything happen. They're perhaps a little like unicorns: they possess magical properties of amelioration and healing, but you never see them at work because you're too busy pretending to drink out of an imaginary fountain. Well, perhaps that analogy was stretched a little, but the gist of it is that putting on a stage production requires an enormous amount of work, much of which is behind-the-scenes and is deserving of at least as much applause as the folks on stage with flapping mouths.

My favorite part about the staging process is the act of uncovering the character. No matter how hard I try to explore all the nooks and crannies when studying and preparing a role, new surprises emerge when they step onstage. All of a sudden, patterns of words take on new significance, perhaps certain phrases that I felt pointed to action are now more lethargic: new impulses are discovered. It feels a little like what I imagine sculpting to be--you start with a block of stone and, slowly but surely, the figure emerges. It's so much fun. This director's style involves both freedom for the actor but also incorporates (at least here) a fair bit of physical comedy and/or specific physical gestures, which require exact timing, so often we'll begin by feeling our way into a scene and then continue by sharpening and refining edges.

Thus far we've made it almost to the end of the second act. Classes start up again tomorrow so we'll be relegated to evenings two days a week and Saturdays again, though I think all of us would rather remain immersed in staging. I know I would! That and voice lessons and I think I'd be happy forever.

And when I haven't been in rehearsal, things have been sometimes chaotic at home. On Friday, I wasn't called in for 10 am rehearsal for the first time all week, so I decided to make bread (a pain de mie). It was a dreary, sleeting day and I had just put the loaves in the oven and went outside to take out the trash and recycling from the basement before eating lunch when... the door was locked! And I was locked out! And the bread was in the oven! And the cat was inside! And I had to be at rehearsal at 2:30! And I didn't have any money or my cell phone! Luckily I was wearing shoes and a neighbor I'd met once before was home; she was able to help me get Comrade MM's phone number, who told me to take the taxi to her workplace where she gave me her keys and taxi fare, and I was able to get home just at 2:00 to see the house safe, the bread perhaps salvageable for croutons, and the cat alive. Though I did slip when I was running inside to get some more money for the taxi and bruised my hip and hand. And I didn't have time to eat lunch and I was so hungry. It was a long, long day.

And in the meantime, Our Paulie of Many Diseases (at one point diagnosed as a bacterial infection, yeast infection, roundworm, and ringworm) has donned a cone of shame. It seems he doesn't have ringworm but the verdict is out on the cause of his suffering (perhaps a food allergy? ear mites, if the last culture was faulty?), so he has to wear a cone until he gets better. He is rather miserable about it.

Here he is on my bed, surrounded by the detritus of yesterday and looking rather morose:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Adventures of the Bird Spirit

Last week I traveled to Hamilton, NY, home of Colgate University's Ho Tung Visualization Laboratory, a planetarium (see below), to perform Anna Lindemann's Theory of Flight. Anna is one of my friends from Yale and also one of the most inspiring and creative people that I know. She was in my residential college and a year or two ahead of me in school. We sang together in the Yale Glee Club my freshman year and collaborated on another project, Bird Brain.
Here is the Dalai Lama visiting the planetarium! I'm not sure what the date of the photo is, but I think it's a few years back though relatively recently.

Perhaps you have heard me talk about this piece before; I performed in the premier last year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (see the photo I stole from the internet):

The story of Theory of Flight can be found on Anna's website (along with a video of our original performance and many photographs), but I'll try to sum it up here too.
First of all, the question of genre: What is it?
I'm not sure how to answer that question, still--though I think this is a good thing. Theory of Flight has two characters, a scientist named Alida and a Bird Spirit. The scientist (played by Anna) only speaks; the Bird Spirit (played by yours truly) only sings. It is a staged work. In addition, there are two sets of animations: one which serves the purpose of a chalkboard (albeit the most beautifully-designed chalkboard you've ever seen) and another which serves as both focal point and backdrop in the scenes featuring the Bird Spirit. The animations were made using both stop-motion and computer programs. The accompaniment to my singing is all electronic and is executed with Synful, a synthesizer (I think that's what you'd call it, anyway). Anna wrote and created and made all of these things, plus collaborated with her cousin Ky on the costumes.
Now that we've straightened that out, What happens?
Again, perhaps a little difficult to say. Essentially, the scientist Alida becomes obsessed with achieving flight in non-avian species (namely herself). Over the course of the drama, she falls deeper and deeper into this obsession, eventually amputating her arms and--through the help of science--growing wings. All of this is presented under the guise of a lecture series; we see Alida at three different points along this trajectory. Interrupting all of these lectures are appearances by the Bird Spirit, who sings arias which are related to material from the lectures. Alida is able to grow wings from her amputated arms but these are not powerful enough to let her fly, and it is only through intervention by the Bird Spirit that she is able to achieve her goal.
In the first production, the space at RPI (shown below) featured a rigging system.

At the end, Anna was literally able to fly, making smaller arcing leaps and finally a long flight across the stage while I was singing a final aria. The new location being a planetarium, it did not feature any rigging. So, a lot of this past week was spent thinking about the meaning of the ending. Would Alida really fly? How does the Bird Spirit feel about this? How much of this is in Alida's mind? And vice versa?

A photo from the first performance. Alida is attached to the rigging and wearing the wings given to her by the Bird Spirit.

Eventually it became clear that the best way to be a convincing Bird Spirit was to have a separate storyline from Anna/Alida. In my Bird Spirit mind, I was a scientist of some sort myself. Alida was my subject in an experiment and the intercalary arias (sung in English) were therefore not Alida's dreams but the Bird Spirit's way of influencing my test subject. Planting the idea of using an axolotl blastema as a means to introduce embryonic avian genes was not so much divine intervention (as Alida might think) as a further step in the experimental process. Eventually the Bird Spirit realizes--partially from wisdom and partially from jealousy--that her experiment has gone awry. Perhaps the Bird Spirit was hoping for company in her lonely life, but eventually found the introduction of another powerful figure into bird-dom too threatening. Perhaps Alida actually does represent a far greater danger to birds in her new half-bird state. If we are to ascribe human emotions to the Bird Spirit, it is most likely the former masquerading as the latter. Regardless of the reason, the Bird Spirit decides to ostracize Alida. In this iteration, the final aria (sung in bird speak) is not a celebration of Alida's successes but an affirmation of the Bird Spirit's bird-ness and also a cautionary tale: did you learn so little from Icarus' attempts? Beware lest you too fall from great heights.

The three performances went quite well (and were very well-attended), but Anna and I were a little flummoxed by the audience's somewhat bemused receptions to the first two shows. There are parts of Theory of Flight that are funny, but the first two audiences were very subdued. The third performance was our best despite some technological glitches, largely because there was so much positive energy coming from the other side of the room! At first we were worried that the community of Hamilton wasn't used to something so different, but in the end it seemed that it was a combination of factors: a large number of younger children in the audience (who tolerated the show quite well but probably didn't get much of the science) and also the afternoon performance times. The last performance was on Saturday evening and was followed by a Flying Feast, an edible, bird-themed reception designed and concocted by Ellie Markovitch and Rose Mitchell. Thanks to the appreciative audience, the Saturday night show felt more spontaneous than any of the others. At the Flying Feast we were able to talk to some of the attendees, many of whom seemed so excited by the mix of media and disciplines. Several of the professors expressed either delight at seeing scientists talk to artists (an art professor) or were impressed by the ability of artists to discuss important scientific processes (a science professor). It's always gratifying when you have a performance that seems as if it will stick in someone's mind for a while.

Anna was able to get a grant from Colgate to put on three performances of Theory of Flight along with a Flying Feast and to pay for the sundries of transportation, lodging, food, and fee for all involved (including the tech crew, made of Colgate students, operating all of the confusing computers and lights). One of Anna's friends, a luminous person named Emma who often wears amazing pants and is talented in so many ways that perhaps it is enough to say that she is luminous, was the director of the RPI show, but she could not come to this performance. So, we were joined by a friend of Emma and Anna's and another Yalie, yet another luminous individual who is also playwright and actor but is named Alex. I think Anna has a knack for meeting interesting people. Anyway, Alex and I stayed at Holcomb's Bed and Breakfast, a friendly establishment run by the loquacious and gracious Karen. It was such a luxury to have the opportunity to drop my daily cares and to be able to focus on the task at hand. I had been worried about taking the gig because I only had this one week off from school this semester and thought I might need the chance to recuperate. In the end, I think that this trip was both more rejuvenating and relaxing than a week at home could have been. Instead of sitting by myself in a practice room, I was working on character development for the Bird Spirit and thinking about how it might apply to Calisto. Instead of just worrying about my ribs and support while staring at a mirror and poking my sides (which I also did at the B&B), Alex gave us warm-up acting exercises that quite often dealt with some of the same issues we constantly ponder as singers. It was also wonderful to be in a little town with bright stars and deer and quiet nights. And, as always, it was a gift to get to work with Anna and, for the first time, Alex, and to meet new, friendly faces in a new place. It's stuff like this that makes me miss Yale.

And now back to work. I returned on Sunday, continued to brush up on Calisto on Monday, and started our week of intensive staging rehearsals today. Also, as a postlude to my bike saga: today I brought it in to a bike store near my house, Sweet Pete's, where it was fixed by an affable and competent mechanic, for free, in a few minutes.

But I shall close with a few photographs:

A ladybug found in my room one snowy morning. I put it in a plant inside because I thought it might be too cold outside.

The farm literally next door (fresh eggs for breakfast!)

Some plants in the field across/up the street/creek.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bicycle Repairs: A Cautionary Tale

When I arrived in Toronto I quickly realized that the most affordable way to travel in the city was by bicycle. Public transportation is very expensive, I live too far from school to walk, and a car was out of the question. So, within a few days I bought my bicycle, a 1970s Canada Cycle & Motor Co. creation in brown, in cash, on a random streetcorner, off of the back of a van from a transgendered person named Alex. It's nearly identical to the one pictured below except that it is more funky looking, is missing the kickstand, and has a ladies' style frame. (I'm writing this post from New York, where I'm doing a performance of Anna Lindemann's Theory of Flight, so there are none of my own pictures at this time. I'll add some later, probably.)

It had some definite issues when I purchased it but I fixed a few things, added a back rack and a handy-dandy green milk crate for a basket, and was soon cycling away. It's really quite a comfortable and sturdy little bike, and fast enough to keep up with even the most hipster of Toronto bicycle enthusiasts, who always seem to carry their U-bolt locks in their belts. When the rains came I realized that the brakes didn't react well to the wet weather; they were very unpredictable and gripped poorly. I also realized that the bike didn't like freezing temperatures and the brakes sometimes had trouble releasing when it was too cold outside. Finally, the shifter didn't really work, but that wasn't much of a problem because I always kept the bike in the highest gear anyway.

I had thought that I'd have to start taking the subway when the weather got a lot worse, but this winter has been so mild that I've been biking through it. Two Thursdays ago I was riding home after finishing work, but forgot to take into account the rush hour traffic. My bike route takes me from my house, just north of Bloor Street, all the way down this busy, four-lane thoroughfare to my school. Toronto clearly has transportation issues, and in addition to the number of cars on the road (and clearly as a byproduct of this overcrowding, as well as the stress of winter weather) the roads are in poor condition. Anyway, this particular Thursday I was just past the worst congestion when some self-important driver in an SUV ran me into a giant pothole. I was fine, but my bike was not; when I dismounted I could see that the chain was off and the shifter was askew, but I couldn't fix it because the bike has an internal hub and I had no idea what to do. I did count my lucky stars, however, because I had purchased a Groupon a few weeks prior for a tuneup with Cyclepath. Though the bike store was several miles from my house, it was a great deal and I had been planning to get the brakes adjusted already--here was my chance!

The next day, I brought my bike (by subway) to the Cyclepath location near Yonge and Eglinton. When I dropped it off on January 27th, the mechanic gave it a thorough looking-over, telling me that some of the extensive issues might be more than what their usual tuneups covered and that the bike needed a new shifter, giving me a quote of an additional $40. The staff was very friendly and predicted that the bike would be ready by Monday, as they said they had the requisite internal hub shifter in stock. I left my email address and Ryan's cell phone number. Monday came and I didn't hear anything from them, so I called and was informed that the bike would be ready on Wednesday. Wednesday came and I didn't hear anything from them, so I called and was informed that the bike would be ready on Friday. Friday came and went with no word. Each time I tried to tell them that my bike was my primary mode of transportation, that I have to go to school and back at least once a day, that I use my bike for grocery shopping, but they were largely unsympathetic and said that there had been a mix-up in their parts order and there was nothing they could do but wait for a shipment from Vancouver. Finally, on Tuesday afternoon (twelve days later) they called Ryan and told him that my bike would not be ready until the end of February. I didn't have the chance to call them back until Wednesday, when I asked if it would be possible to fix my bike provided that I procured the necessary part. "Sure," they said, as long as I would take the responsibility of finding and bringing the part to the shop.

I was so busy at school that I didn't have the chance to call around until Saturday, but Comrades M-M and J told me to check with Urbane Cyclist first. One quick phone call to the friendly folks at Urbane and I was told they had something in stock that they thought would work. When I called Cyclepath on Saturday I finally spoke to someone who was helpful, an older gentleman who is a mechanic there. He offered to call Urbane to confirm that the part would fit my bike, saving me the trouble. Sure enough, it would fit, though I still needed to pick it up and bring it to the shop. However, he promised the mechanic on staff would fix it while I waited if I could bring it in on Sunday! I had rehearsal all day on Saturday, but Ryan offered to get the part for me and on Sunday I took the subway out to Cyclepath, part in hand. When I arrived around 2:30 I was informed that there wouldn't be enough time to fix the bike before closing at 5:00, but I guess I complained enough that the mechanic on duty said he would try. I sat in the shop until he finished at 4:15, though he later told me it wouldn't have taken as long if the shop hadn't been so busy (I think three or four groups of people came in; there were two other men working at the same time). As I was waiting, one of the men who works in the shop--the one who had told me that I could find the part myself if I wanted to get my bike fixed in under a month--was explaining that Cyclepath is owned by two former CEOs. I guess they're brilliant at pinching pennies because they've devised the following business plan: provided they have little in stock in the first quarter of the year, their taxes will be correspondingly low! Clearly, the problem of the elusive shifter wasn't just that I brought my bike in during the "slow" season, and not just that bike parts manufacturers are notoriously difficult to deal with (though they are), but that the owners were trying to keep as little in the store as possible. Now that may work very well for some weekend rider who keeps his $4,000 bike in a garage and pulls on spandex when the weather is nice, but for a daily commuter, keeping your bike in working order is necessary and trying to get repairs done in a timely manner is crucial. (To his credit, the guy was not happy about this state of affairs.)

They wheeled my bike from the back of the store when it was done. When I looked at the shifter it was clear that the part had been put on inexpertly at best, as there was a gap in what was supposed to be a close-fitting part, but I couldn't stand trying to deal with these people any longer, paid the remaining balance of $3.12 (much less than I had thought!), and got out the door. Only to discover that not only was the shifter funny looking, but it was also backwards. And though my bike has three gears, it will only shift into two of them. Backwards. Also, my poor green milk crate is definitely worse for wear, with extra cracks and bits broken off from rough handling while in the shop. Otherwise the bike runs just fine and the brakes work a little better than they did before; when I was riding home it was snowing but my bike handled the weather pretty well.

Now, I don't want to complain unfairly. After all, I don't know much about bikes, though I did speak to the Comrades about their experiences with other bike shops in the city and about the parts supply chain and they assured me that Cyclepath could have at least tried a little harder to help me out. For example, why didn't they do me the favor of trying to get in touch when they realized the repair would take longer than expected? Waiting twelve days is a little extreme, plus if I had known the expected repair time earlier I could have bought a February monthly pass; because of the long delay, the window for buying the pass was already over when they finally called. Also, why didn't they think to tell me to look for a part? And though it seems it would be asking far too much, why not look for the part themselves if they want to keep their customers happy? If they're billing me for the part anyway, it's little extra cost to them! M-M suggested that if Cyclepath was going the route of social media (the Groupon) to gain business, I could at least write a frank review of the shop in turn. So, in a nutshell, here it is: if you have a fancy new bike purchased from Cyclepath, I am sure that the staff will be more than happy to assist you. If you are a normal person with a normal budget riding a perfectly adequate bike, I would suggest that you stay far away. My guess is that they will assume, as they seem to have done with me, that you won't notice when they install parts poorly and will treat you with little regard to your needs as a consumer. Plus, they have a really bad parts selection!

This is how I've fared so far:
Total for parts and labor: $35.20
Approximate cost of alternate transportation: $88.40
Total approximate cost: $123.60 (more than the cost of my bike to begin with)

In the end it wasn't much of a deal! Plus, I still have to take my bike to another shop when I get back from New York to get the shifter fixed properly.