November 28, 2011

The Alchelmy of Talent: James Kryshak, Tenor

What better way to spend the dog days of summer than with an old friend in a local restaurant chatting the night away with opera, life, school, and technique as hot points of discussion? Well, by no means was such an encounter with an old friend, on the contrary, I had only met tenor James Kryshak once before, for a total of maybe 3 minutes! Yet through a few emails and a call or two, the opera world revealed just how small it really is. Despite a hectic schedule as a young artist with the Ryan Opera Center of Lyric Opera, James and I planned a candid interview for the blog:

Hope you don’t mind Thai? I was here just the other night with a friend. It’s good and not too expensive.
I usually have take out right in my area. This is great, I haven’t been before.

Perfect. It’s a grand reopening, didn’t always used to be called Thai Kitchen…So, there are no rules. We can chat and have our food. I may bring out the note pad and jot something down, but you’re not on trial tonight.
Haa haa, ok. I didn’t think I would be.

Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up? I’m from Syracuse, New York. I like to tell people unfamiliar city that if you envision the state of New York, I’m from the exact center. Sometimes that helps.

I’ve never been to Syracuse, but I know where it is actually. There are lots of great schools up that way, especially for music.
True, but actually I went to Elmhurst here in Illinois. When I started, I wasn’t even a performance major. I studied Music Education and didn’t focus strictly on training my voice.

When did things change?
It was my junior year. I was studying in Vienna, Austria and my teachers urged me to pursue a professional career. So I followed their advice. And here I am.

And when you came back?
Once I returned to the states, I finished at Elmhurst and created my own path towards graduation, couldn’t be more pleased with how it all happened. After I graduated I actually had the opportunity to return to Austria to keep singing. The timing was ideal.

That must have felt very sudden. Were you expecting a move like that?
No, not at all but I am so glad that I had such an opportunity.

Then what? You came back. You didn’t stay overseas and hit the European circuit?
Not exactly. Although I was enticed by an opening in the Vienna conservatory. While at the same time, I got an offer from the University of Wisconsin!

That must have been a difficult choice, they are both so different and in two totally different musical arenas. How did you decide?
It was a very nerve wracking decision, but ultimately after weighing the options, I decided on UW. I wanted to study with Julia Faulkner. Also I couldn’t pass on the three roles I was offered by the university opera. So, I moved to Madison. It didn’t hurt that my family is from Wisconsin and so I was very close to many of them, my Grandmother especially. She lived about three hours north of Madison.

Your stint in Wisconsin must have been a real making experience, especially with the roles you were learning. What do you remember specifically about this time in your career and life?
I had to realize that to reach my goals, I had to understand what my voice was. I spent my first summer vacation in Madison. I decided not to audition for programs. I performed Nanki-Poo in Mikado and worked in a practice room everyday to really figure out what I was learning.

So you deconstructed your instrument…took it a part, examined some mechanics and applied a technique?
You can say that. I spent hours learning my voice; how it worked; and began discovering how I would reach my goals.... a person can take lessons his entire life, but it’s up to him learn how his voice works. This was that time for me. It’s different for each singer.

So in addition the roles you were offered, sounds like being close to family was important too. What role has your family played in your professional life?
My family is fairly traditional. We have holidays together. We talk often and we keep in close touch. My family has always been exceptionally supportive of what I do. It’s not the easiest career to take vacations and extended holidays. My family has always respected my schedule and what I do. They have encouraged me to follow my dream.

Sounds like you and your family have a very special connection. That’s important to some singers, especially when it comes to career goals. You said ‘they encourage you to follow your dream,’ ok, I have to ask, what is your dream then?
My dream is simple, to share the music that I love, and to keep it alive. There is a reason that opera has been around for so long and I try to help audiences see and understand why it’s been around for centuries. I want to bring the music off of the page, into the theater, and into real life.

I imagine being part of the Ryan Opera Center has helped you do just that. What has being a young artist with Lyric Opera taught you?
I can’t even describe all the great things I have learned as an artist with this company. I have learned so much. People are friendly, supportive, and want you to succeed. There is always help there if I need it. It’s like having a center, a place that will provide me with support throughout my career. It’s been truly incredible.

If you had to narrow it down further, what would you say?
I can say three things. This program really teaches a person about his/her voice. You rehearse a lot, so you get the chance to really learn how to work under a lot of stress and juggling several roles at one time. Second, you get to understand the business very quickly: call times, pay schedules, rehearsal conduct, everything. And last, the complete art of opera. Let’s just say there are a lot of details that, if I didn’t have this opportunity, I wouldn’t necessarily know about.

I bet you have a pretty hectic schedule from week to week, how do you prepare your roles and organize mentally for rehearsals?
I start with the question, “How can I make this music my own?” It’s important for me to apply who I am to what I sing. This mindset gives me a certain freedom, allowing me to perform freely.

And what about technical preparation, do you have any strategies or routines?
I like to start with melody, looking at it, learning notes and how they relate to create what I’m singing. Then a word-for-word translation is next. I like to know which words might require emphasis and how these words are set to music. It’s not enough to know what you’re saying, a singer has to become what he’s singing and be convincing too!

Words of a wise performer. Is that it, are there any other items about technique that you exercise regularly?
I don’t think the steps vary too much from singer to singer, but when it comes to my own technique I want to know that I can sing through any circumstance: if I get bad news just before a show; if I’m not feeling well; if I have low energy…etc. These are all challenges that a solid technique can overpower. Takes practice, but it’s hardly impossible.

Funny that you should mention this, someone once said that singing is a profession of living and learning about yourself. Has singing taught you anything significant about yourself?
Absolutely. I’ve had to learn that James the singer is not necessarily James the person; I am not my voice. My voice is a tool that allows me to do my job, it is my instrument but I have learned to assert control of it. My voice doesn’t have power above me the person. This was hard to learn but understanding this makes life and singing easier and more enjoyable.

Interesting. Can you elaborate?
Sure, maybe this example will help. I was in a rehearsal covering a role. It was the first time I was to sing before the stage director and conductor. I was nervous, because I was notified only a few moments before the rehearsal. I was well prepared and well coached but I got overly nervous about what I was going to have to do. During an aria, I had a flub and became completely distracted by tiny mistakes. I had to check myself, and fast! I had to separate who I was from what I was doing. In that moment I felt like I had failed, even though it actually went fine. I learned a lot from that experience. It’s hard to explain and there’s no class in school that can teach you these kinds of skills. I simply had to get over the idea of what I wanted to happen and embrace what was happening.

I think I know exactly what you mean and what you’re talking about is not always any easy chore, but it’s necessary. So what about your time off? When you’re not singing to a house of 3000 seats and siztprobing with a world-class orchestra?
I’m a foodie. I like to cook and flip through recipe books to try interesting dishes. I’m sort of a knitter too. I took a class once and I was hooked. When I mentioned that I sing opera, they went berserk with questions. I had to gently remind them, “I’m here to learn knitting,” and explain that what I do is still a job. It just happens to be on a stage.

Does this happen often, entertaining questions people have about an opera singer and what we do?
All the time, and I enjoy it! Singers have many facets to their lives. We are performers, we are singers, we are teachers, and we are also educators. It feels good when I bring the art to people in ways other than with an orchestra or in a costume. Teaching others is an important part of what we do too.

If you’re at all familiar with my interviews I like to end with some type of advice or reflective anecdote but before we met I was strumming notes and wanted to try something a little different. Did you happen to see Oprah’s farewell episode? Umm duh! That was TV history, an event not to be missed!

Haa haa, well maybe you recall the nine lessons throughout the episode. I jotted them down. I want to show you this list and learn if any of these resonate with you...
Ok…Hmm, I think that number 2, ‘Be responsible for the attitude you bring to a situation’ and number 6 ‘Wait and listen. What is your life telling you?’ speak to me.

Why those two? Can you explain? Attitude is critical. There are so many situations in life and in singing that are out of one’s control. But how one handles a situation is telling. You have to be responsible for who you are and the attitude you bring to something.

…and the second?
Life tells us many things in equally different ways. We are conditioned for immediacy, wanting everything now! Very few take time to stop and “smell the roses.” This isn’t good. If we just take a few moments everyday to listen to what our own self is declaiming, we save a ton of time and stress.

Have you recently needed to follow this advice?
I have. For instance, my current situation… I’m finishing with Ryan Opera Center in March at which point my schedule becomes considerably less busy. I have had moments of anxiety, but I stop and tell myself, ‘you have come this far by letting what needs to happen, happen. Don’t force your path. It will become clear.’ I remind myself of this when I get anxious. I’m confident that my path becomes clearer each note I sing. I believe in this and in myself deeply.

Thanks James for having dinner with me tonight. It has been a real treat getting to talk with you and learn about you as a performer and person. I think I have some good notes here. We’ll definitely have to meet again, off the record.
Haa, of course! I am happy to be a part of this and always find these types of interviews fun.

September 26, 2011

Seven Blunders

It is amazing that a man barely five feet tall, weighing barely 100lbs, and barely raising his voice his entire life had such a tremendous impact on hundreds of thousands of people. I woke this morning, thumbed through a score, and out of the binding fell a photocopied list of Ghandi's Seven Blunders. Maybe one or more resonates with you...

1. Wealth without work

2. Pleasure without conscience

3. Knowledge without character

4. Commerce without morality

5. Science without humanity

6. Worship without sacrifice

7. Politics without principle

Perhaps 'Diet without Protein' can be included as a 20th century alternative! Ghandi, we love you, but stop making your nutritionist so frantic. In the mean time, these probably fit just fine.

September 8, 2011

Want to watch him get high?

It's thrilling when high notes soar across the audience, as if waves of electricity are shooting from the very veins of the performer into the heart of everyone watching. High notes of course, especially for the tenor, take more than practice and scales.

In a fun clip from BBC some of my favorite singers gather and talk about the tenor high note, the spectacle, the drama, and the moxy it takes to pop them out night after night. Below are just a few points of view expressed in the video link:

Rolando Villazon, "In order to sing those notes, the tenor must be in total control of his instrument!"

Renee Fleming, "Our high notes might squeak and sometimes be unattractive, but tenors are under a unique type of pressure.

Juan Diego Flores, "Some people don't even care about the rest; they only want that note. You need good nerves to sustain a career full of pressure."

German Yodeler, "Vhats eez the big deal anyvay, weevs za high notes? Tenor must learnen to place die handen near mouth und squint the eyes. Dann, he has no problems."

Full Video,

September 5, 2011

When rejection hurts, take their head

What's that feeling when someone you like just isn't into you, that salty mix of embarrassment, disappointment, and sourpussness? No matter how many times you text, send that email, or bump into them, they simply aren't giving you the time of day. Arrrghh, the nerve!

With experience, we're able to shrug off rejection a little better, but no matter how good at it we become, somehow it still stings regardless of age. For most, looking and not touching drives us insane. After all, we made the cake, damn it, of course we want a taste every once in a while. And we deserve it, don't we? Hmm, but at what point is that little taste more like a whopping chomp? And when do we know if we've bitten off more than we can chew, swallow, and digest?

This photo says it all, capturing one of my all-time favorite moments in opera, "Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassen!" Roughly translated, "since you aren't into me, you no good scally-wagging dumpster muffin, I stole your identity on the Internet and threw out the sports section before you woke up... by the way, I'm going to cut your head off and make out with it."

This rich and totally cool photo by Richard Avedon captures soprano Karita Matilla as Salome, the short tempered Judean princess of Richard Strauss' epic tale of rejection, quick synopsis here. Blinded by desire, poor Salome shows us her psycho long before we know what we'd wear to dinner.

Granted , it's ok to be a little crazy and it's probably ok to share that crazy with future partners, boyfriends, gal pals, and lovers. BUT, let's get one thing straight, too much crazy too soon and you might as well tattoo "rejection junkie" across your forehead.

September 4, 2011

Invictus, the song for all

Let's agree, every once in a while a movie comes along that touches the heart, Invictus definitely had its moments. Portraying Nelson Mandela during the wake of apartheid chaos in South Africa, Morgan Freeman basically wants everyone who sees this film to leave the theater in deep thought and maybe in tears.

A stout and beefy Matt Damon, successfully leaves behind the boyish personae of his early career and triumphs as the captain of the South African rugby team, taking them all the way to the world cup. Did Damon actually pull off a champion South African accent...umm, yea.

Sure it's not an easy task to wrap up apartheid, the route to a World Cup win, and the complete afterglow of presidential election in 133 minutes, but actors, cast, and director Clint Eastwood (Umm, what??) are to be commended.

Not familiar with the Invictus poem, except the occasional reference via Oprah, I didn't know what to expect. Let's just say William Ernest Henley wrote one for the ages:


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

August 19, 2011

Summer Hiatus

Thank you for your emails regarding The Voice Within Community Blog. The blog remains on summer hiatus but will resume with full force early fall. More interviews, tips, stories, gossip, and general hoopla to come.

See you soon!

April 5, 2011

The Alchemy of Talent: Interview with Richard Stilwell, Baritone

Isn't it every singer's dream to spend time with one of their favorite performers? Perhaps it's as simple as getting an autograph, a picture beside them, or simply seeing them live on stage. Maybe it's spending two years with them in an intimate teaching setting where advice about technique, acting, and unleashing one's inner opera rock star is the aim?

This was the case with lyric baritone Richard Stilwell, faculty at the Chicago College of Performing Arts and his 14 voice students, myself included! In his weekly performance seminar, singers perform arias, art song, musical theater and a wide range of repertoire for their classmates. The goal of the class is to provide performing opportunities for the singers while also being an arena for constructive advice from peers and highly experienced faculty.

Richard takes time from his busy schedule of teaching, performing, and traveling to provide an insightful discussion about music, life off stage, and how he tackled a career on the big stage...

Morning Richard! Hope I didn't call too early. I completely forgot about the time change. Are you on the east coast?
No no, don’t worry. I’ve been awake and I’m still here in Chicago anyway.

Perfect! Thanks for taking time to talk with me outside of class. I appreciate your help with this project. Why don’t we go ahead and start? Tell me, where did you grow up and when did music become a regular part of your life?
I grew up in St. Louis. When I was 5 or 6 I began singing in the church. This is probably where lots of singers realize they have a talent for singing and also have their earliest memories with music. I had solos with the choir and members of the group encouraged me to sing. Choir was really my musical foundation when I was a kid. Since we had no professional musicians in my family, mounting a career in music was totally foreign to me. That didn’t dawn on me until much later in life. In fact, I was an English major at a small college in Indiana. I did sing with a gospel quartet and toured along the western coast. Music was always with me, but I wasn’t certain what to make of it. I enjoyed it... so, I did it.

What instruments did you study as a child, did someone make you practice, and do you perform those instruments in public anymore?
I studied piano for 3 years, but I wasn’t pressed to continue. I was young and other than my gospel group and a few small productions I’d seen, music wasn’t totally on my radar. However, I did become a pretty good
sight-reader and honed a sharp ear for harmony. Singing hymns really boosted these skills. That experience actually landed me my next job in the army chorus, where I sang for awhile after leaving college. But still the thought of opera, legato, coloratura, and stage lights might as well have been ideas locked in the bottom of a tomb.

So what changed? It’s no small feat to sing doo-wops in the mess hall with your buddies and then eventually end up on every major opera stage in the world. How did you find your glass slipper?
Keep in mind it was a very gradual process. Even in the middle of a singing career, even very successful ones, we stop and ask “What on earth am I doing…should I be doing this?” All along friends would ask why I didn’t study music or audition for things and I wasn’t completely sure, but one moment of change came when I sang my first recital.

Sounds like it was something of a milestone. Talk a little about it. What do you remember?
Everything! I worked with a coach from the St. Louis Opera Guild to prepare the music. It wasn’t much but I had to work hard. Working with the coach was a lot like an extended introduction to vocal arts. We worked on building characters and singing with expression. But the thing I remember most was the audience and communicating to them. It was such an exciting phenomenon and I didn’t want to let the feeling go. That experience opened the door to music a little wider for me.

You had an open spirit about it all and rolled with the punches. That’s important for a singer. Do you remember your very first voice lesson?
We talked forever about breath. Then he showed me a "horn of plenty" a kind of old-fashioned loud speaker. He illustrated what projection was. It’s not that I was supposed to go around blatting my voice like a bugle or trombone, but instead, I was supposed to project my sound and used my body for help. After all, opera is a form of controlled and beautiful shouting. I was introduced to opening my throat and allowing sounds to come from my body without force. I started thinking how to make my body more active in my singing. It was a great start.

What was your first professional job?
I was cast as Silvio in Pagliacci and very shortly after as Le Dancaïre in Carmen. Do you know the quintet from Carmen? There’s a tenor role, Remendado, you might enjoy…if you enjoy being a smuggler.

Ooo, sounds fun, as long as I get to carry a knife and have an eye patch, ha ha. What singers inspired you when you began? Who did you look up to or hope to be like?
I have many. It’s hard to narrow. My hero was baritone, Robert Merrill. I couldn’t stop listening to him, such a beautiful voice. I enjoyed Franco Corelli too. His raw musicality was simply unparalleled. I also really liked Cesare Siepe. It was a dream come true when I got to sing with him in a Don Carlo production. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Dame Janet Baker is right up there too. I still gain inspiration from these artists.

Opera is a complex art and at any given moment a singer is asked to do forty things at once. Can you recall any production that challenged you musically, vocally, physically, and mentally more than the others?
The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe at Lyric Opera by Dominick Argento. I will never forget what a bear that was. It was practically atonal. But the mind is so amazing, if you work hard and decide that you’re going accomplish something, chances are, you will. I also did The Aspern Papers at Dallas Opera with Frederica von Stade. There is an incredibly difficult duet that goes on for pages without accompaniment, I worried that we’d never end up in the right key once the orchestra reentered…but we did, every night. The hardest challenges to conquer are those silently stirring inside us. Singing is mind over matter.

Is there an opera or role that's been especially important in your performing?
The Mozart operas have been extremely important in my career, particularly the Count, Don Giovanni, Don Alfonso, and Guglielmo. Guglielmo was my Met debut. I returned 25 years later to sing Alfonso. No other singer has ever done both roles in this opera at the Met. Pelleas in Pelleas et Melisande by Debussy was also important because this role got me into La Scala, Covent Garden, Paris Opera, and other major houses overseas. I recorded it with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. It has been THE major role in my career.

Ok let’s take a few moments to talk about singing technique. What does this word mean to you?
Technique is about singing freely with the least amount of pressure and projecting the voice with beauty and articulation. A singer needs to use long vowels and give even the smallest notes purpose. Technique is really a heightened awareness of your body and the ability to let it do want it wants naturally…relax. But relaxation is not laziness. Singers need energy and space in the throat and mouth to produce the sound they want to make.

Are there any basic singing principles that you emphasize in your own teaching and singing… breath, posture, relaxation?
Relaxed jaw is important, but the not the body…that’s got to be energized and ready. After all, we really are athletes! I would lose five pounds a night singing Giovanni. With experience, you learn technique and endurance.

Some singers have a natural legato while others have endless high notes or wicked coloratura. Were there musical or technical concepts that you grasped more quickly?
Legato I understood early, a lot of this came from simply listening to other singers. You can learn so much by not singing a single note but, instead, by opening your ears. Listen to what the masters are doing. Listening is something that I feel a lot of singers in your generation have gotten away from and it can teach you so much. How we do what we do is important
and listening is key. Now with YouTube and the Internet you guys can hear what would take me a lifetime to find in a library or record store.

Rarely do people talk about a singer’s job. Yes, singing and performing are very important parts of what we do, but are there any other aspects of our job that you believe are equally important?
Giving back has always been important to me and it’s always been a personal mission. I have been very lucky in so many ways and I feel responsible for sharing what I’ve learned. I want to pass the torch.

Many singers have a good idea of certain goals they want to achieve in their careers—singing at the Met, winning a very prestigious competition, etc—but what advice can you share about sustaining a career in opera?
Well, that’s the trick! Think in terms of the big picture and longevity. Learn from others, be patient, and above all know yourself and your voice. Gather information and make informed decisions about roles and literature. There are plenty of people out there to help. So keep good council near by. We all need it, at every level. Sometimes you will just have to turn things down and that’s totally okay. Remember it’s you up there when the curtain goes up and you never want to have that sudden feeling of “uh oh” for any reason.

Is there anything you now know and understand about the business that you wish someone would have explained when you first started out?
You’ll have to make sacrifices and sometimes they aren’t easy: being away from one’s family, raising children, developing a home life… there’s a whole list of things that people don’t really talk about. Sometimes we singers have to make time for things that would otherwise seem so simple and basic. Sometimes we battle loneliness and depression, especially the more demanding our calendars become. And sometimes, it can all be overwhelming. This is all part of the job description that no one ever really explains when you sign up. There are many wonderful rewards in what we do, but yes, some things people don’t talk about. So be careful what you wish for; there is always a cost.

You have devoted many years to training young talent and have inspired students through your vocal instruction. Can you talk a little about your teaching philosophy?
It’s all about being the complete performer, not just singing. I want you all to be singers, actors, and artists. So, it’s not enough for me to just teach you guys how to sing pretty notes. Audiences will want to know something about you, who you are. I want to help you all get to the next level and equip you with everything needed to go beyond even your own expectations. It’s never just about singing. That’s only one part of what I teach. I encourage my students to go beyond.

Thanks for talking with me Richard. Our talk adds real insight into a life on stage and becoming a professional in opera. Actually, I have only a few more.
Of course, I’m happy to do things like this.

You have been asked to address an auditorium full of singers; some are just beginning their careers while others have been singing for several years. You are told that you can say no more than three words and that you will have a very limited time in front of them. What are your three words?
Wow. Let me think about this one...

· Beautiful

How do you prepare for a performance?
Gearing the body up is important, usually I do something like a walk beforehand. I also do some light singing too, simple scales and arpeggios, nothing too taxing on your voice or energy. When you get to the theater there will be lots of things racing through your mind. So you’ll want to feel ready and prepared.

Are you talking about mental toughness and focus?
Exactly. Performing is mind over matter in most cases. And let’s face it you’re always going to be working against something that's never the same thing…congestion, stress, fatigue. Sometimes you just have to sit down and talk yourself into a better frame of mind. You have to call upon yourself. It’s not easy every time, but it’s necessary. Every performance won't be your best, that’s impossible; we are human beings, not robots. But remember all the things that can help you. People want you to do well. So when you’re up there try getting yourself into a positive, “CAN-DO" state of mind.

Any other advice about preparation or mental toughness?
Adrenaline is a helpful friend. I shocked myself sometimes. Somehow the body just knows what to do when the overture starts. Low energy can translate in many ways. What felt like bad nights, became performances where I received the most praise.

Okay, one last question…the chicken, or the egg?
Haaaa haa haa, really?

I’m listening…
The egg! That’s where all the possibility, inspiration, and beginning is; it’s the place where something greater is growing.

Now I’m hungry.

January 22, 2011

Opera: myths and misconceptions

What is it about attending the opera that makes some people so antsy? Not knowing what to wear, knowing whether to pack a snack or not, having to take out a second mortgage to cover the cost of tickets, or simply fearing they might snore all the way through the entire show? Maybe it's a mix of all these stressful variables.

Some may argue that opera can be a little more complicated and involved than simply going to the movies or watching the game with your buddies. But, is it? All the same, opera is fantastic world of murder, mystery, redemption, love, and romance. And above all, it is usually pretty entertaining and comedic!

Well thanks to Today's Chicago Woman magazine and authors Magda Krance and Emily Lange, we are able to understand the trepidations some people have about going to the opera. Luckily these two authors completely dispel the collective myths and explain the reality of each in their article, "Opera for Beginners". But don't be fooled by the title, both the operatic novice and the seasoned pro can benefit from this handy article. They tackle the six most popular griefs and attitudes people have when it comes to hearing the fat lady sing:

1. I won't understand what they're singing.
2. I don't have opera gloves, a gown, or a tuxedo.
3. Tickets are too expensive.
4. Operas are soooooo long!
5. Opera is boring and irrelevant.
6. I don't know enough about classical music to 'get' opera.

What have you experienced? Reading this list, I can say that I have had my fair share of explaining to do with friends less versed in this outrageous vocal art. Even after some gentle coaxing and explaining, there is still a margin for error. Nonetheless, one must try.