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Learning from the Masters
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Opera America Magazine9/1/2009

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Four artists and a producer walk into a room… no, it's not the latest reality show. OPERA America's Making Connections is an artist development program that brings established artists together with emerging professionals to discuss the wide range of skills and experience required for successful careers in opera. In the three years since its inception, Making Connections has hosted an array of composers, librettists, singers, producers, designers and directors.

Making Connections also provides networking opportunities following each session in which participants have the opportunity to meet and speak with panel professionals one-on-one. The series is designed to benefit singers, designers, composers, directors, stage managers, librettists and other participants in the operatic field.

The 2009-2010 Making Connections season will include nine career development workshops and three masterclasses for singers. Topics that will be covered in the coming season include Audition Advice for Singers, Social Networking in the Life of an Opera Artist, Strategic Planning for Independent Artists, Tax Issues for Artists, and Building and Managing Your Network. The 2009-2010 Making Connections season will feature such notable speakers as Gayletha Nichols of the Metropolitan Opera, Bill Palant of IMG Artists, Brian Dickie of Chicago Opera Theater, Darren K. Woods of Fort Worth Opera, designer John Conklin and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. The series will also include a special masterclass with soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Making Connections takes place in OPERA America's office in New York City. For those unable to attend in person, podcasts are available on; selected excerpts from previous sessions appear on the next page.

Crossing from Theater Directing to Opera (September 2008)

"For me the biggest challenge of working with singers rather than actors has to do with casting. Theater directors usually have a hand in casting, but that's not often the case in opera. So for a play, you go in already knowing that you have the elements you consider most important, and usually everybody is within five or 10 percent of each other in terms of training and abilities. When you go into an opera rehearsal room you have people who musically are all evenly matched, but one of them could be a very developed actor and the other one might not have the same training. If you haven't worked with them before, you don't really know until you walk in there. So the first couple of days are about getting to know the artists and strategizing. One person may need me to describe everything as a color. Another may want me to talk about the arc in the music. This person wants me to talk about what life was like in 1820s Vienna, and that person — I just hope that when he puts the costume on something magical happens. And usually it does."

Workshopping Your Opera (October 2008)

"The libretto workshop was a late arrival in our developmental arsenal. For years, we heard from composers that they weren't interested in hearing the libretto alone because they had their own world to bring to it. But the first time we did a libretto reading the right way (we did a few the wrong way), it was magic. I would say it was the ingredient that changed the course of that particular opera. And the right way to do it is to have actors. Even if it's going to be an opera, you hire actors and a director who is used to theater to do the workshop. You don't necessarily treat it as a play; it's all about workshopping, it's not about the final product. It's transformative for the composer to hear lines being read 20 different ways. For us, we've had to learn how to collect feedback and how to give that feedback to a composer. It's not right to just throw all the feedback at the feet of a composer and say, 'Everybody thinks that character should wear a great hat, so put a green hat on him.' That's not what we do. You have to give it to the composer in a way that he or she understands, and that means you really have to have a relationship with the composer. It's an endless cycle, but it can be inspiring."

Learning a Role Inside and Out (February 2009)

"Every time I start a new opera, I start a notebook. I put information into three categories. The first is what I call 'the givens.' What about the opera and your character will never change? You're always 15, you are in love, you're a prince, you're someone's mother, you commit murder. These are the things that even re-imagining the opera by the director will never change. The second column is: What do I have in common with the character? I'm someone's daughter, I am educated, I've loved and lost, I've had a child, etc. The next column is the things I don't have in common with the character, the things I am going to have to identify, write about and, with the director, create. For instance, I play many characters that murder and I have never committed a murder, so that's something I have no experience with. Many years ago I did a solo work called The Passion of Lizzie Borden. I was having serious trouble with the concept of killing, especially the brutal act of killing with an axe. The director suggested to me that I concentrate on chopping as an act of freedom — a way of freeing myself from the claustrophobic confines of my life. I do know what it's like to want to free myself from confining circumstances, so that became my acting challenge. It was about chopping my way out of something. I was freeing myself. Over the years I've been asked to do a lot on stage that I did not agree with or even understand. I wrote it down, identified it and I worked it out."

Designing for 21st-Century Opera (May 2009)

"This is our task as creators: We are here to create a landscape in which one can dream. And we're with the most beautiful object, this music, and the music always wins. We are there to bring that music forward, not to say, 'Pay no attention to what's going on back there, because I really don't have any conviction about this, so please watch all of this flashing video.' That's the thing we can't forget. I know everybody's anxious about money, and the producers want the audience to be happy, but the audience is going to be happy if they learned something about world, art and life that they didn't know when they came in. That has nothing to do with flash. It has to do with how beautifully sung it is and how sincere the opera-makers are. It's all sincerity. It's just like life. So really it's a question of trusting the material that we have and sticking to the basics. What is the audience putting its money down for? Is it spectacle? Of course everyone wants to have a show of some kind, but the show is the music. And anything that detracts from that in any kind of way is a mistake."
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