Premiere: Die Entführung aus dem Serail


Tonight at Oper Dortmund is the final opera premiere of the season: Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). While this is not the largest work for chorus, the production is quite worthwhile.

Of special note: I am singing as one of the chorus soloists, which is fun for me. That won’t happen tonight at the premiere as we’re double cast, but the following performance.

Toi toi toi!

More information here.

Auf Deutsch:

Heute Abend an der Oper Dortmund ist die letzte Premiere der Spielzeit: Mozarts Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Obwohl der Chor nicht so oft auf der Bühne ist, lohnt die Produktion sich trotzdem.

Besonderer Hinweis: Ich singe als einer der Chorsolisten dieser Produktion, was mich freut. Da es zweimal Chorbesetzungen gibt, singe ich nicht heute Abend als Chorsolist, sondern die Folgende Vorstellung.

Toi toi toi!

Mehr Infos hier.


The Dunning-Kruger Effect Meets Die Erkältung


You can listen to this story here


Part of being an artist is the willingness to look like a fool for just long enough to start looking brilliant.

Or so I’m telling myself.

Upon reflection, for much of the time that I’ve been singing, I have basically always thought that I was better than I was. That’s not to say that I was awful, but instead that I couldn’t accurately judge myself in the moment.

Thus I wriggle uncomfortably when I listen to past recordings or analyze much of my older work. Stuff that is obvious to me now clearly wasn’t obvious to me then.

Out of tune? Cringe.

Spread high notes? Moan.

No legato? Convulse.

More terrifying: I don’t know what I’m doing now that will horrify me in the future. It’s the artists’ version of the Dunning-Kruger effect: bad artists can’t know why they’re bad.

Or more kindly reformulated: growing artists can’t know now what they will know later. In fact, we probably wouldn’t even begin if we were viscerally aware of just how bad we are at the start, and this Effect is probably a blessing in disguise for this reason.

In my experience, the Effect is slightly different when learning a language, but it’s relevant regardless. On the one hand, I already speak one language well, and I know I speak the new one – German – comparatively badly. This is the case despite the enormous amount of work I’ve already put into learning it. No delusions there.

On the other hand, the task appears to grow larger as I learn more, which is in line with the Effect. Just how far I have to improve gets further away as I gain knowledge, and the depth of my unfamiliarity is more apparent with every new word and every idiom. It’s easy to forget just how much expertise I’ve gained in my first language compared to a second.

For example, phrasings that never struck me as particularly idiomatic in English are now simply wrong in German:

More beautiful. More and more. I’m cold. There is.

Chuck those wordings out the window, and be prepared to chuck more after that. Yes, one can find the same meanings, but it’s harder than simply looking at a German/English dictionary and finding the individual words. I am constantly surprised by what simply doesn’t translate, and the examples above are beginner stuff. The rabbit hole goes ever deeper.

Naturally, I would love to emerge butterfly-like from a cocoon of isolation speaking perfectly and wowing people with my incredible nuances of grammar and vocabulary, but “das geht nicht. I must speak now because I live in Germany, and there’s no time to wait for future perfection.

Thus I’ve had to accept that I will sound stupid some or even much of the time depending on context. Despite my best efforts, I will sometimes have a hard time communicating my needs or understanding others’ needs. Sometimes conversations will end abruptly due to my linguistic limits, and other conversations will simply feel vaguely unfinished.

This is compounded during cultural-difference-collisions. Some basic concepts just do not translate, and what’s required is a total rethinking of the world.

Take, for example, the common cold. Every country has their own understandings/superstitions of what a cold is, how one catches it and what to do about it that is unrelated to any of the actual facts about colds.[1] Germany is no exception.

Realizing that doesn’t mean that I grok those differences though. When people speak of becoming erkältet or having an Erkältung, they don’t always just mean the rhinovirus infection. Some people have told me that one can become erkältetjust from drinking cold water with ice or from the wind. Due to the multicultural nature of Europe and especially an opera house, a mixture of international opinions about colds is present alongside the German ones. Toss in the other words that have similar but not exactly the same meanings (Schnupfen for example), and you have a problem for a lil’ Ausländer like me.

Having had a cold recently, I went down to the local pharmacy to make my case for why I needed medicine. In Germany, most drugs are available only after convincing a pharmacist to sell them to you. This includes antihistamines and pain relievers, and the quantities are often quite small compared to those in the States. Turns out they don’t feel the need for buckets of pills for a family of four to stockpile through three winters and the Second Coming.

On the bike ride over, I practiced some words and phases I needed:

Husten. Erkältung. Ich erkältete mich. Und so weiter

I botched it almost as soon as I got to the counter. I inserted random verbs into the wrong places, apologized and tried again. The pharmacist, a smiling young Turkish woman, asked what other language I spoke. The way her look soured when I said “Englisch. Ich bin Amerikaner” revealed that my response was not the answer she’d been hoping for.

Continuing, I told her in German that I had a cold, was coughing and wanted something to help me sleep. Or at least I thought I had told her that. She suggested an expensive box of pills that was a general cold remedy under the theory that I could sleep better if I felt better. It was a fair enough concept, but I knew I didn’t want them as soon as I saw the big C on front, which signaled that these were a vitamin C placebo.

She must have seen me grimace and asked me to confirm if I wanted them or not.

“Do you have an antihistamine?” I prompted.

She looked incredulous. “Do you have an allergy?”

My visible surprise at this question was probably interpreted as not understanding the words. As far as I know, antihistamines are perfectly fine for colds if you want to feel drowsy and dry yourself up.[2]

I couldn’t summon the vocabulary to explain myself though. The absolute best that I could have done in German would be something like, “But anti-histamine is for cold also good. Then makes the nose less mucous, and I could sleep ok,” and I’m sure I would have messed up the declensions.

Actually, that might have been a passable explanation, but I instead only managed a sustained “Uhhhhhh.”

Sensing trouble, another pharmacist – who was also an Ausländer– came over and began peppering me with questions. I explained again. Cold. Cough. Can’t sleep.

She said, “Ah, Reizhusten.

I have since looked up this word, and I don’t quite understand the distinction between it and Husten, which is “cough”, or why this was a “Eureka!” moment for her.

She then began mentioning the word for “juice” (Saft), and I had no idea what she was getting at. She held up a box and explained this would ease the cough, but it was only for evenings, and I’d have to drink a lot of water.

This one clicked. Cough syrup equals cough juice. Good enough.

“Yes, that’s what I want.”

But instead of expressing relief, they both looked doubtful.

The second one explained further that it wouldn’t cure the bacterial infection but would only suppress the cough. Not actually having a bacterial infection, I was confused by this statement. Again, I’m sure this was interpreted as my not understanding the words themselves.

I began wondering if I had I managed to communicate to her that I had something much worse than a cold? Pneumonia perhaps? Could this entire conversation be because they thought I was dying and asking for advice on how to sleep through it?

The first pharmacist wanted me to consider the pills with the vitamin C again. Skeptical; I asked what actual drugs were in it. She didn’t answer and instead asked if I had a sore throat. No. Headache? No.

She set it aside, picked up the cough syrup, tossed it on the counter and told me the price in a defeated tone. It cost less than half of the vitamin C pills.

As I pulled out my wallet, I saw the second pharmacist squinting at me. She leaned on the counter and insisted again that I only take it at night and drink lots of water in a tone that suggested she was entrusting me with something dangerous and important. I said, “Ja,” nodded and paid. She tightened her lips and sighed through her nose while the other put the box and some free tissues in a cute little bag. I smiled and thanked them as gingerly as I could.

They stared after me as I left.

The day before, I had spoken to my wife’s German teacher on the subway. Our conversation had been entirely in German, and we had discussed Haydn. She’d seemed impressed and had complimented me, and my wife later reported that she had even mentioned to her class how normal I sounded. Armed with this, I had walked into the pharmacy feeling pretty stinkin’ good about my German progress.

But walking out, I didn’t know what to think. During the bike ride home, I turned it over in my head. I had reviewed words before I’d gone over, hadn’t I? Yes, I had, but I hadn’t known what I hadn’t known. How can I look up words before I know that I need them?

There it was. The Dunning-Kruger Effect for languages. I hadn’t known going in just how over my head I was. But I had been, and this was a pretty simple situation. With this thought the vast wilderness of future growth stretched before me, and a sense of dread dawned as I considered future embarrassments and future regrets over present clumsiness. Endless…

“This is the process!” I crowed to my neighbors and myself from my bicycle seat making a decision to not let it bother me. “This is what people do when they want to get better at things.” We look stupid until we don’t look stupid, and our teachers are often the unwitting people who have to deal with us while we wonder when everyone started seriously discussing juice.

Or so I’m telling myself.


[1] Consider that you never hear the phrase, “Wash your hands, you’ll catch cold.”

[2] Funnily enough, when I asked a doctor the next day for an antihistamine, he asked the same thing.

Background song “Overreacting” by Brad Sucks.

Premiere: Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons)

Auf Deutsch:

Heute Abend (27.04.2014) ist an der Oper Dortmund die Premiere von Haydns Die Jahreszeiten.

Die Premiere ist das Ergebnis monatelanger Arbeit und ist ein voll inszenierte Interpretation des Oratoriums. Ich bin unglaublich zufrieden mit dem Prozess, den wir gehabt haben, und die Ergebnisse sollten unser Publikum begeistern. Die Musik und Wörter selbst sind herrlich, genial und hoffnungsvoll, und sie gefällt mir immer mehr.

Weitere Infos hier.

In English:

Tonight (April 27, 2014) at Opera Dortmund is the premiere of Haydn’s The Seasons (Die Jahreszeiten).

This is the culmination of months of work and is a fully-staged interpretation of the oratorio. I’m incredibly pleased with the process we’ve had, and the results should delight our audience. The music itself is delightful and ingenious, and my love of it grows with every listen.

More details here at the Theater Dortmund homepage.

Of Silence and Concerts

Konzerthaus Dortmund and Reinoldikirche

Photo: Konzerthaus Dortmund with Reinoldikirche in the background

Sitting perched above the orchestra during the rehearsals and performances of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky at Konzerthaus Dortmund, I had the recurring thought:

This is irreplaceable.

I don’t mean the composition itself, though it’s glorious. I mean rather the entire experience of sitting in a concert hall and listening to musicians playing for an audience in real time. I mean the sea of sound coming from specific people and everywhere all at once. I mean the sheer effort by both performers and audience members to be there together in an act of reverence for the experience itself.

And let’s be clear: the audience is also working. They pay for tickets, but the music we play nowadays is not easy. This Prokofiev piece is challenging to perform, but it’s also hard to understand without multiple listens. Beyond the dissonant passages, the melodies themselves are often treated like recursive Leitmotifs. They are often introduced well before their main introduction in a kind of reflection of the future onto the past. How can an audience know these things in advance? They can’t.

Instead, they need some time to reflect.

The tradition of reserving applause until the end of a multiple movement work has become controversial in recent years. It’s argued that it intimidates new audience members by creating a set of rules to follow. Instead, it’s argued, audiences should be allowed at any moment to show their enthusiasm by cheering and applauding after each movement or even during, much like modern rock or pop concerts.

I understand the concern and desire to make it easier to attract new audience members, and I’m certainly against ever treating anyone with disdain if they applaud outside of traditional places. Nevertheless, I’m still a fan of the silence. Setting aside the difficulty of convincing someone to be the first one to consciously break tradition, the willingness of a large group of people to hold back and be with one another in silence is part of what makes the experience unique. Compared to the hysteria and random outbursts during televised singing contents, I’m perfectly happy with this ritual.

Secondly, it is a part of the effort put forth by the audience to understand and appreciate a work. It’s counterintuitive, but complex music is oftentimes not emotionally comprehensible until its absence. The change in silence itself cues us to the musical journey on which we’ve been. It serves as a reference point. Have you ever noticed that the moon looks larger when it’s near the horizon than when it’s in the middle of the sky? It’s not. It just has a reference point.

Silence is that reference for music.

Chandelier hanging in Deutsche Oper am Rhein

Photo: Chandelier in Deutsche Oper am Rhein foyer

For that effort, the audience receives an experience that is wholly ephemeral. At the end of a concert, there is no cardboard box with the shrink-wrapped concert inside. There is nothing that can freeze a moment of music. Live music is gone as soon as it is created. It is a sand painting being created during a wind storm.

And no recording can capture the experience adequately. There are no pre-amps, gold tipped cables, bit rates, mic placements, ribbon microphones, or processing equipment that can capture the sound of live classical musicians, especially if they’re in an acoustically vibrant hall. No surround sound system can reproduce the sound of a widely spaced orchestra in a hall that sends sound at you from every direction. The sound of live musicians, each with instruments that are perfected to produce that single sound, is too complex. Too much color. Too much dynamic range. Too much.

Each audience member receives something different for that unique ephemeral experience. As I wrote before, we love music, but the manifestations of that are different for each person listening.

Personally, I receive sheer joy from hearing great music, and I do my best thinking while sitting in a concert hall and listening. My thoughts form a turbulent ride of associations as a consequence of the music. Listening to the various climaxes and lulls of Alexander Nevsky, it came to me that I’d only get to experience this a few times in my life. I had managed to live 31 years without ever hearing this piece before, and who knows when I’ll get to hear it live again, let alone sing it? I considered what pieces of music I’d never hear nor sing, and I was grateful for the chance to hear and sing this. 

I could sense the passage of time. Highlights came and went, and once gone they seemed distant though separated by only moments. Minutes. No rewind. Only forward. The musical journey we were on together could be vaguely grasped and related to our own ephemeral lives. Barreling forward. Irreplaceable. Full of moments that cannot be re-lived. Of themes that trade dominance, die and abruptly return. Clues from the future that were unseen at the time. Lost or illusory resolutions and temporary climaxes that trail off with no clear ending.

And finally. Silence.

Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” at Konzerthaus Dortmund


Tonight, we singers with Theater Dortmund’s opera chorus will join with the Dortmund Philharmonic in the Konzerthaus Dortmund to perform Sergei Prokofiev’s cantata version of Alexander Nevsky, which is based on his music for the film of the same title.

I have to say: this is incredible cool music, and you can hear how music of this era continues to influence movie soundtracks to this day.

Take a listen to a portion here, the “Battle on the Ice” to get a sense of what I mean. It’s incredible music: frightening, exciting, beautiful and chaotic while clearly belonging to the genre of film music.

Auf Deutsch:

Wir Chorsänger beim Theater Dortmund werden heute Abend  zusammen mit der Dortmunder Philharmoniker im Konzerthaus Dortmund die Kantatefassung vom Film Alexander Newski von Sergej Prokofjew singen und spielen.

Ich muss sagen, ich finde die Musik toll. Die Musik ist spannend, erschreckend, schön, and chaotisch, aber es ist klar, dass die gehört zum Genre Filmmusik. Man kann noch das Einfluss heute noch hören.

Hören Sie das Beispiel, das “Schlacht auf dem Eis” heißt, bitte da oben.


More information here. Mehr Informationen hier:

Vaterland” Philharmonisches Konzert