Who Wants to be an Opera Star?

The Tucson Operatunity Troupe

From left: Ian, Jovahnna, Dori, Mitch, Rouzbeh

In what was then rural North Carolina, a theater troupe visited my father’s fourth grade. In that time and place, seeing live theater performance was rare, but he loved it. He went on to work in theater himself as an actor, director, and set builder. Though he’s no longer in the business, his appreciation of theater continues to this day, and he credits that troupe as an early inspiration.

Ian and Jovahnna hugging after their duet

Happy Papagano & Papagena

In August, I was hired to work for a similar troupe during this semester. Arizona Opera’s Operatunity troupe is a program where four singers (Soprano, Mezzo, Tenor, Baritone) and a collaborative pianist are sent out to perform at local schools. By local, I mean southern Arizona as a whole: in what I now consider terrifically fun team-building exercises, we would all climb in the van and drive (often for hours) to small communities for one or two shows.

Our target audience was elementary aged children, though we sometimes performed for slightly younger or older students. We introduced opera concepts and repertoire, and the schools were often those in communities without easy access to the arts.

Their reaction? In general, they didn’t just like us; they went nuts for us. Dori’s first notes in “Quando men vo” would illicit some squirming, but by the end we won them over. At some schools we were treated like rock stars and were asked for autographs and encores. The kids would even sometimes announce their intention to become opera singers themselves.

“Category one: Know Your Opera Voices…”

Dori happy about receiving points

Happy soprano

The material was structured as a game show entitled Who Wants to Be an Opera Star? I was the show host, and the other singers were contestants answering questions, accumulating points and performing. At key points, we would teach the students simple melodies and rhythms.

Mitch and Jovahnna singing a duet

Will they ride off into the sunset?

These selections were chosen for kids, and – rest assured – no sopranos died in the course of a show. Instead, we wore silly costumes and played with simple props. The choreography was energetic and comic, and all the ensembles were sung in English translation.

Nevertheless: we performed real rep. Selections were drawn from such operas as The Magic Flute, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Daughter of the Regiment. 

Was it Rigged?

It was rehearsed, but believe it or not, I would have no idea who would win a given show. Honest. There were enough wild cards (including my capriciousness in point giving – mwaa ha ha) that it would change every time.

Wild cards included singers competing to sustain a note for the longest time. We would also adjust our selections depending on our audience. And sometimes the singers would just steal lines to get extra points for themselves.

The kids followed the contestants’ status closely, and they would even form teams supporting different singers. For example, in Safford clear “Team: Mitch”, “Team: Dori”, and “Team: Jovahnna” cliques developed, and they would cheer or gasp in fearful anticipation as points were awarded.

Question Time

Ian looking at students with raised hands

These kids were very eager to ask us questions

At the end of it all, I’d crown a victor as “our next opera star” and then we’d do a Q and A with the kids. Often, and adorably, the kids would instinctively raise their hands without having a question. Sometimes, they would just give one of us a compliment. For example, there was this gem from a first grader:

“Even though she didn’t win, I think Dori did really good.”

At which point we all melted into puddles of “awwwww”.

Most often, their questions were along the lines of “How do you do that?” or some variation thereof. That was hard to answer. We would awkwardly mention breath support, resonance, years of practice and all that kind of stuff. Describing Rouzbeh’s 22 years of piano practice was an easy way to elicit a reaction, but so was revealing Jovahnna’s only been training for five years.

But the students’ tone while asking made me suspect that they weren’t seeking an explanation. Instead they were expressing themselves in a question.

Why Opera?

Happy kids

Happy kids

At our Morning Blend appearance we were asked why opera should be sent to schools. I answered about multiculturalism, which is fine, but here’s a better answer:

Because opera is amazing.

There’s a reason that opera – born in Florence, Italy around 1597 – has survived for over 400 years. Each generation shapes this art so that only the fundamentals tie our present operas to the earliest. But those fundamentals can still prompt the question – “How do you do that?” – when opera grabs us for the first time.

How does a human being make sounds like that? How can a person write such amazing music? Could I do that too?

Hopefully, this line of questioning leads to the conclusion: If you can do it, then so can I.

Kids get there more quickly than adults, which is why troupes such as ours are so valuable. Whether they actually pursue this craft themselves is ultimately irrelevant, though I always encouraged them if they showed interest. Instead, the goal is to remind them that they can do exciting things with their lives, and opera is one terrific option. But so long as they energetically pursue their own creativity in any way at all, then they still enrich the world.

These kids want exciting and fun lives for themselves. How do I know this? First clue: when I would announce the title of the show, without fail they would take it as a question and raise their hands.

“Who wants to be an opera star?”

They do.
All photographs by Mark Voss. Used with permission from Arizona Opera.

This was a wonderful experience. Thank you, Lori, Ken, JB, Lin, Randy, Peg, Linda, Rouzbeh, Dori, Mitch, and Jovahnna. Thanks to all the teachers and principals who were so supportive and who work with these kids every day. And thanks, Dennis, for that Facebook post!

Digital Sheet Music: My First Steps

When I went to Europe this summer, I brought a fair amount of sheet music. While there, I was always worried that I didn’t bring the right book or that I didn’t bring enough books or – especially on the way back – that I’d brought too many books. In fact, I did bring back too many books since I accidentally snuck away my hosts’ Lohengrin score (sorry!).

As I look at my ever expanding library of sheet music, I realize that I do not want an enormous paper library. I’ve moved too many times, and I know what it is to pack everything up and lug it around. And even if I do own something, if it isn’t there with me when I need it, then it’s mostly useless.

In short, I would like to use digital sheet music.

So what to do?

Current Imperfections with Digital Sheet Music

Unfortunately, there’s no perfect answer. Currently, sheet music producers have made few inroads to digital sheet music production. Published digital sheet music is often reductions of pop songs, some musical theater and modern church music. There’s a smattering of classical music, but it’s hardly comprehensive. Some Chopin here, some Mozart there. The classical vocal music available is the most popular stuff but no full scores or song collections that I’ve found. 1

More troublesome, there’s no standard file for digital sheet music transmission. One application can open its own files but no other application can. It’s similar to the e-reader market in which each commercial file type is proprietary.

The most compatible file type is PDF, but PDF can’t change the way it flows from page to page. The reader program also can’t interpret the notes as notes since it’s often just a photo.

Another challenge is that sheet music is meant to be written on. Like an actor’s script, the sheet music serves as a palette to write performance cues and tips for the future. It’s often messy, but each performer has their own various needs. For a singer, it’s not uncommon to write large swaths of IPA. Flexible annotation is an absolute must.

My Technique: forScore on iPad

So here’s what I’ve done:

My preferred digital sheet music applicationI’ve installed forScore on my iPad. The company behind it does have a small digital sheet music store, but currently it’s too small for my purposes. Instead what I love about the application are the powerful PDF annotation abilities. It’s basically a tool for PDF annotation, but it has some other bells and whistles that make it ideal for digital sheet music reading in a way that GoodReader – another awesome PDF annotation tool – isn’t.

PDF files can be created yourself by scanning or by using Sibelius or Finale (please do not distribute them to others unless your have the rights), or they can be downloaded from public domain sites like IMSLP or university public collections.

I acknowledge that PDF is not perfect. The iPad has a large enough screen that I can make it work. However, I currently have excellent vision, and I can imagine a day in the future when I will want more flexible options for display. If you’re considering using an iPad for reading sheet music PDFs, then I suggest that you go to an Apple store and download sheet music from IMSLP onto one to see if it’s adequate for you.

Some Awesome forScore Things

These are a few of my favorite things in forScore.

One important capability is the ability to jump from one page to another without having to swipe pages over and over.

An example of a screen in forScore showing both the digital sheet music and a keyboard and a blue dot for a jump

Another is the variety and flexibility of annotation tools with the ability to create your own (the blue highlighter shown is my invention).

Digital sheet music in forScore with an array of writing tools to highlight and markup the score

And finally, there’s the built in metronome and keyboard.

Digital sheet music in forScore with the built in metronome over it

Most reassuringly, all of it can be backed up over the internet with very little fuss. That includes my annotations. When I once thought I’d lost an aria book, I lamented not the book itself but the annotations. I have no angst over this with ForScore.2

So? How’d it go?

For this gig I’m doing in Tucson, I used digital sheet music 95% of the time. They were emailed to me as PDFs, and I did some organization in the app. At first during rehearsals, I was nervous that it’d be clumsy and waste people’s time, but I got the hang of it. I bought a stylus, and I rarely thought that paper would be better. In fact, every time I highlighted too much in yellow, I was thankful that I wasn’t using paper because I could easily erase the mistake.

iPad Issues

There are a few problems with forScore, but the bigger issues are with the iPad itself. Upfront: the iPad is svelte, and the screen is gorgeous. iOS is fluid and all that. Battery life was never an issue.3

But Apple is determined to dictate how we should use their machines. It’s occasionally maddening. They really want to dissuade users from using handwriting, and handwriting on an iPad – even with a good stylus – looks worse than childish. Ever seen a Chick-fil-A ad where the cows write “eat mor chiken“? That’s what it looks like. But it’s not as nice.

Who wants a stylus? I do.4

For performers, handwriting is essential. Most aren’t going to stand there and type notes to ourselves in the margins. Since the iPad is regularly pitched as a creative tool, this seems like a logical capability to have.

And iPad’s document system is extraordinarily inflexible. Please just give us a central file manager.

A brave new world?

I’m hoping that over time, publishers will find a way to fulfill the need for greater electronic access to sheet music, and technology companies will create devices that offer the flexibility performers need. Organizations like NATS will also have to adapt since they can be strict about sheet music requirements at their auditions.

My wishes:

  • That I can buy a variety high quality digital sheet music including full opera scores (I am not for stealing sheet music).
  • That it can be easily annotated.
  • That it has reflow capabilities based on screen size and user preference. Transposition capabilities for song rep would also be divine.
  • That it’s in a file type that can be opened by different programs.
  • And I hope that the programs are cross platform compatible. I’m using this iPad now, but the inking capabilities in Windows 8 look pretty sweet (not to mention its useable filesystem). Plus I’m more willing to buy into a proprietary environment if I know that I can access the content on whatever I use (similar to Kindle).

That may be too much to wish for, but I’ll still wish it.1

I’d love to hear your wishes or techniques for using digital sheet music if you have them.


  1. The company closest to getting there that I’ve found is musicnotes.com. They have cross platform apps for reading, those apps accept other files formats, and their sheet music viewer for their library supports different versions of annotation. Their library just isn’t quite what I need (again: song collections and full opera scores), and the annotation flexibility isn’t even close to what forScore does. But I’m keeping an eye on their progress, and them being totally digital, I expect that they’ll be aggressive in this space.
  2. Of course, using an iPad in an active theatrical rehearsal environment has its own angst. The thing is expensive, after all, with a glass front. It works best in music rehearsals, but I made it work while staging. Just be careful to not have a big passionate moment and throw the thing on the ground. And if I lost it  I would lament more than the annotations.
  3. I did bring my cord to rehearsals, however. Just in case.
  4. I do realize that what Mr. Jobs was saying was that these machines should be usable even without a stylus. But handwriting still exists, and it will continue to exist, and that will require some extra tool. Handwriting with a finger tip is no fun, and the disdain apparent in that video doesn’t give me faith that they’ll ever reconsider their position on digital handwriting for iOS devices.

Endeavor Fly Over


The population of Tucson was thrilled that space shuttle Endeavor flew over today.

Likewise, in my regular home of Las Cruces, the small city was similarly blessed with a greeting after its fly-over of the White Sands Missile Range. Shortly after my girlfriend texted me to say that she’d seen it over LC and that her students were super excited to have witnessed it, the folks around me in Tucson started hollering “There it is!”

And there it was, softly humming and coasting over the Sam Hughes neighborhood as it passed over the mall at the University of Arizona. The whole event from my vantage lasted 15 seconds. But at the end, all of us who were there just smiled , looked around and said “Cool.”

It’s days like this that make me feel really lucky. There’s been a lot of those recently.

In Tucson

I’m in Tucson for a gig with Arizona Opera that opens Monday morning and extends through the semester. I was hired last minute – one week ago – due to someone else dropping out, so that’s why I haven’t completed the passaggio series yet. But that’s coming.