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Five Days Out

from Sunday, June19th of the year2011.

So, we are five days out until the premiere of Two Boys; it’s reached a real feverish moment. There are what I would call physical-technical people working overnight to reset our show from either Midsummer Night’s Dream or Simon Boccanegra, and then there are virtual-technical people performing overnight charettes in grim suburbs, rendering video. Here’s something cool: I walked past the stage door the other night, and they were loading in from the street the large pieces of steel that compose our set:

I love seeing the seats through the back! We’ve been in the theater for a week now, and the basic structure is that we have four 3-hour rehearsals with a piano, and then four 3-hour rehearsals with the orchestra. After that, a dress-rehearsal with the piano, and then a dress-rehearsal with the orchestra, and then a day off and then it just happens. It is absolutely terrifying. The way it stands now, we won’t be seeing many of the video elements until the fourth orchestra and stage rehearsal; some bungled schedule mishegas meant that a very important, albeit minor, role wasn’t at his first stage and orchestra — it’s a role that I was always nervous about actually hearing on the stage and in context, because it’s a young singer with a huge orchestration — and meanwhile, because it’s big and there are flashing lights, people from the opera company are tempted to poke their heads in and see how we’re doing, and the answer is usually some version of that moment when you’re cooking dinner when the sauce is overflowing from the pan, the cat has gotten involved with the flour, some mysterious crust of roasts past has offended the smoke alarm, and the Bengali woman you said could have your house keys is knocking at the door. It’s been basically that for the last few days. Which is why it’s great that I have today off! Even though the mess isn’t my fault or problem, it’s still my responsibility both artistically and morally to be some sort of guiding spirit existing in collaborative motion with the director. All of this is to say: making an opera is really hard and I’m really happy to be here and I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck:

You can see our amazingly awesome set in the background. The set is by Michael Yeargen, but essentially what it is is a form of stylized stationery for Don Holder (who very graciously (?) skipped his own opening night at Espider Man to come and be with us at the first stage rehearsal) and the clever creatures at Fifty-Nine Productions. It’s the same lighting and projection team, incidentally, who are making Dark Sisters, the chamber opera, happen in a few months!

One of the things that is extra nervous-making about this endeavor is the orchestral balance. I’m a pretty facile orchestrator for the stage: I know how to make things blend the way I want them, I know what will pop out and what will fold in, etc. In a pit, I’m flying blind, a little bit. Orchestrating for a solo instrumentalist is one thing, but for a solo singer is another thing entirely, and when you add the idea of an orchestra pit into it, it’s a whole other set of issues. I’ve been, I think, 88% correct, but there are, of course, little things that come up, and then it gets into issues of expediency and efficiency: any change has to be transmitted first to Murray and Caroline on team piano, then Jamie, the wonderful assistant conductor, then of course to Rumon the conductor, and then from him on to the orchestra. It sounds small, but all these people are physically far from one another and it involves a small act of synchronized swimming to cut the horns from bar 617. I did, cheekily, manage to pencil in six more thai gong moments at the very end, which is, I am happy to report, very much saving the ending; what was once a sort of dirge has become a Balinese cortege; cut the violas, add the gongs, smooth out the tremolos!

Music talk: I think we need to have a big international conference on what a tenuto line means. I’ve always thought about it this way. For singers, they interpret it almost universally as “Stressed,” so you use it in that way to indicate a stress — but not an accent. For instrumental musicians, at least in my experience, it means to hold the note for precisely the full value. Then it gets hairy when you start adding dots on it or lines above it. In general, what I do is write what I think it means the first time in a score, and hope for the best, but some orchestras are really chatty and do the kind of Midwestern thing of Constant Commentary. Those of you who have vacationed with your entire families will know what I mean. “Oh, they have curtains just like at home!” “What did she say?” “She said they had curtains!” “What?!” “Curtains!” “Who’s Curtis!?” — transpose this to the orchestral context and you get, “Tenuto for the strings in 43 just means a full value, not an accent.” “So he wants it accented?” “No, full value.” “Not full value.” “Valkyrie?” “No, Val Kilmer. Bar 34.” It goes on and on down the stands; I want to start a variety hour called Who’s On First Position.

I want to talk about something insane for a little bit. I think a good indication of how stressed out I am is How Bugged I Am By Other People’s Small Mistakes & Technology. In general, I’m pretty zen. But when technology shit doesn’t work – like, the phone says you have 4 phonebars and you take a call from your mom and then it cuts out? – it can, in certain stressful situations, drive me completely crazy. This week was all about this image:

iPhone users, isn’t that the worst? You get an email you’ve been waiting for, and it’s like, nope! Nope, you can know that it’s there, but you can’t have it. It’s like christmas presents, but relevant! The biggest vexation last week, though, was about Dark Sisters, this chamber opera I wrote with Stephen Karam. The plot of the opera deals with a fundamentalist polygamist sect living on the Utah/Arizona border; so, loosely based on the FLDS, a sect that has been very much in the news in the last decade. The FLDS, like many similar groups, splintered off from the mainstream LDS church, the Mormons, around the turn of the last century. The opera treats this scenario not as a novelty, but as a reality for the six women and one man who occupy the stage. The opera, also, is about as un-judgmental as it can be; I always think that an oratorio is the time to be judgey, and an opera is for the audience to navigate for themselves. One of the biggest and most important things about this, for me, is to be very clear that we are dealing with one specific sect of polygamists, and not in any way with the mainstream LDS church. Anyway, I lost my mind when I opened up the internet one morning to behold this:

Stephen Karam-Nico Muhly Mormon Opera Dark Sisters Sets New York …

So I lost my mind. I opened up twitter and facebook, and all the opera companies who commissioned the piece (!) had re-tweeted merrily. I was in the middle of insane Two Boys stuff, and of course the phone wasn’t working and I had one fucked up bar of internet, but I managed to send out an SOS. Child. The next time I checked, look at the correction:

Stephen Karam-Nico Muhly Opera About Fundamental Latter Day Saints …

Well, fuck me. Who wrote that? That’s the thing that I’m really interested in. The headline has been finally corrected, but it’s that second stage that I’m interested in. It reminds me of when you ask a dog to lie down, and they do that weird half-thing, and you’re like, no, all the way down. Some human being in one of these opera companies or in the PR companies that they employ, typed the word “Fundamental Latter Day Saints.” Now, if I wanted to be a real crazy harpy faggot of grammatical abuse, I would demand that they put a hyphen in between Latter-day, but I think these people have had enough torture for this week. But I am curious to know the identity of the person who typed Fundamental. Is it an example of having been told to do something and mis-hearing it in a game of telephone? Is it an example of a last-minute rush out of the door at 4:45 PM on Friday, the last few keystrokes before whatever it is that arts PR people do on the weekend? Amanda? Anyway, the forensics of mistakes are really interesting to me, especially as they relate to nomenclature and grammar. I 4 C an ORATORIO coming up!!!

One more kind of cute Dickensian thing. The ENO is housed in an amazing building in London, the Coliseum. There is, predictably, a Roman Theme (right down to it saying SPQR all over every object), and there are Carved Lions every goddamn where and the whole thing is gorgeous. Apparently it boasts the widest proscenium arch in London? It’s pretty great. It’s also one of those palimpsestic structures that hasn’t quite figured out its vertical identity. Check out the way these elevator buttons work:

Like, it BASICALLY makes sense. Basically. But when I get into an elevator, like most neurotic people, I want to know how the hell do I get out of this building when the revolution comes? There was a building like that at Columbia University, where I went at, where basically the floor numbers corresponded to the distance from the actual street, which was, in some cases, four, five, or six floors below the main entrance. So you’d end up with adjacent buildings connecting in such a way that one would start out on the sixth floor and end up on the fourth, without actually mounting or descending stairs. I was so late to my very first big-girl seminar class on the West-African Novel it was mortifying. Speaking of which:

Anyway. At least there is this video, which I watch approximately 200 times a week.

What I like about this video — aside from the nineteen obvious things — is the site-specificness of it. It is a video that requires an understanding of Atlanta. A lot of viral videos — Leave Britney Alone, Friday, etc., are so popular because they apply to all of us, everywhere. This video, on the other hand, has to do with Atlanta, and with Language, and as such, is So Fucking Great. A few points to remember. The entire thing is an epistolary moment, from Funky Dineva to his friend Vanessa. This is important in the framing of the narrative; it’s like Conrad. The second is check out the voice change at 3:30 and how it transitions elegantly into the change, and then slams out of it at 3:49. Another thing: the feminizing and subsequent attack of sites of power and retail. This is something that comes up in anticolonial narratives during the Raj — attacks on post offices etc. In this video, we see it with Miss Concentra (the health-care provider) and Miss Lenox Mall, a shopping center. Get into it. Also I need a serious linguistics IPA rendering of what’s going on with the word “right there” at 3:15; it’s not the ATL-erhua thing of “thurr,” at all, in fact, it seems to have an additional flip at the end plus a stop.

[audio:I’ll tell you what the fuck.mp3]


  • brilliant, funny, nerve wracking. great good wishes for the opening!

  • rite theyuh
    All the best on your opening, wish I could get to London to see it!

  • Sounds like everything is going well. Can’t wait to hear the new CD as well. As a percussionist I’ve always thought of tenutos as meaning a note has a certain “weight” to it.

  • As God is my witness, Nico is doing a brilliant job of protecting everyone within earshot from his actual nerves. It is masterful.

  • oh, such fabulosity. you are amazing and your opera will be amazing and break a leg, merde, and No Mishegas!

  • /?ai? d?eœ?/

    Maybe? That diphthong in “there” is tricksy.

  • Been re-reading this post again, knowing a new one will not be forthcoming, as Opera. Is. Happening. “I always think that an oratorio is the time to be judgey, and an opera is for the audience to navigate for themselves.”

    Child. You amaze. Blessings upon you and your production!!!

  • Since I cannot be There for the opening, I contented myself with waking early this morning to download Seeing is Believing, which I thought I had known from this site and the earlier Guardian streaming. But the sonics on this disc revealed a whole new piece – still a masterpiece, of course, but all the clouds have disappeared from the night sky. Congratulations, and best wishes for Friday.