People in my profession are worried, and with good reason. The recent webinar by the National Association of Teachers of Singing, American Choral Directors Association, Chorus America, Barbershop Harmony Society, and Performing Arts Medical Association has suggested that singing together is not safe now, and may not be for some time.
Naturally, many of us who direct opera or choral ensembles are scrambling. What might we do? How can we plan? I am actually engaging in what you might call anti-planning right now, or as I have termed it for myself since at least 2013, “Strategic Procrastination.” Yes, you may laugh. It sounds like an excuse not to plan at all. But it is one of the most valuable techniques I have learned to employ as a director over the years.
I was trained in what you might call the traditional way of creating opera. It’s not that I feel I was never given the chance to explore my own creativity as a singer/actor, but largely in rehearsals, you learn the music correctly, then you show up and do exactly what the director says, to the best of your ability. In a few cases, if you were not able to execute exactly what the director wanted, or didn’t understand the instructions, you might get yelled at. I have also worked with directors who gave us a lot of ownership of the creative process, and I really appreciated that. But that is not always practical–rehearsal periods are short and somebody ultimately has to be in charge. The best directors, I believe, have a strong vision and are able to clearly articulate it and guide you along, but also are open to the unexpected and trying a different angle when maybe their vision and the natural tendencies of the actor are in conflict.
The first time I directed an opera—and looking back I’m surprised it “worked” at all—I was working with a couple of professional singers and some actors/dancers at the Indy Convergence in 2009. I had come in with a grand plan to write, compose, and direct a short opera. I ended up collaborating with a wonderful composer, Meredith Gilna, who did most of the composition. Because the cast members came from different artistic traditions, we didn’t really have a shared language. We also didn’t have enough rehearsal time to put on more than a sort of experiment rather than a finished product. In a few cases, there just wasn’t a way to teach everyone to sing their parts as written so we just went with whatever came out. I had to let go of my inner perfectionist and just roll with what happened. And you know what? It was ok. We had fun. We created something a little silly and though I’m certainly biased, I think there was some really nice collaboration and art-making going on. But in some ways to me it felt like a failure, because it did live up to the rigorous standards in which I had been trained. It didn’t deliver a polished final product. I realized I had probably been way too ambitious. Then I thought, maybe it was just right. Maybe you aim for the moon and land…not among the stars but take some really interesting detours?
I learned from the experience. I learned that I had to adapt my own process to meet people halfway, and respect that other artistic traditions come with their own processes and they are all valid. Sometimes you just need to get the music learned and get something done. Sometimes you can explore the process of creation rather than focus so much on the end product. I learned how to be process-oriented rather than product-oriented, and it was a valuable lesson for me as I went on to direct a collegiate opera program. What is more important to the students—to push them to achieve a final product or to have them learn and grow? While I would love to ideally do both, I like to put as much emphasis as possible on the learn and grow stage. This is where the strategic procrastination comes in.
In 2013, while working on my doctorate, I was invited to direct the Umbrella Project at the Indy Convergence. I came in knowing I was working with people with different artistic backgrounds, and the first thing I wanted to do was come in without much of a plan and listen and brainstorm and improvise musical textures and storyboard with them to see what strengths they each brought and what ideas excited and motivated them. Sometimes I almost went too far in that direction and then realized I did actually have to direct—to take what we were discussing and craft it into something. But we came up with some really interesting multidisciplinary explorations of the subject of Otherness, with spoken dialogue, improvised soundscapes, and dance.
These experiences have been very helpful as I finish my third year of directing a small collegiate opera program. I literally can’t plan very far ahead. My second semester, I almost had the forces to put on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience,” but all it really took was for one or two singers to not be able to enroll in opera that semester for it to become impossible to cast. Fortunately, I already had a plan B, and though I had done some planning work for Patience, nothing had been set in stone.
Over the summer, I resisted the urge to do much planning for fall. “Strategic procrastination,” I told myself. I might have it all worked out and then a student I was counting on drop out, or a wonderful new student who needed a role. I needed to give the students ownership over their roles by involving them in the creative process. All I knew was that I was going to use music mostly from 1920s American Musical Theatre, and aim to give each student a solo and a duet or small ensemble number, and do at least one full-group number. The semester started in late August and the first thing I did was pick a song for everyone. I didn’t even have a partial script draft until September 7, when I wrote a few pages of dialogue, without really even knowing where the plot was going. Seeing the students in action and talking to them helped me write their characters. I involved them in things like name choices, personality, and so forth. I am extremely proud of the production of “Pinstripe Harry’s Tea Room Cabaret” that we put on. Was it perfect? No. Were there things we could have done differently? Yes. For one thing, I probably should have called a couple of extra rehearsals to help get the dialogue memorized more solidly a little sooner. But the students outdid themselves creating interesting characters and relationships, and along with our collaborative pianist Dr. Sangmi Lim, creating some beautiful music.
Sometimes the lack of information about the future, the lack of being able to plan in advance, can be a blessing. We find new paths, or sudden insights, or find things from working together that could never happen by one person sitting in a room thinking and planning. Serendipity can be a beautiful thing, and I am a more relaxed and happier person when I spend less time worrying about the future and more time just being open to it.
This is why I am not really all that worried about the future of opera. Am I worried about how long it will take to be able to sing in groups in person? Sure. Am I worried about lots of other things about this whole dreadful pandemic? Sure. Am I worried that a lot of bad things might happen to a lot of arts organizations? Sure. But opera will continue. I have some ideas I’m really excited about for Fall that involve thinking outside the box and that can work even if we have to do the performance virtually. But I’m not planning too hard, because who knows how much will have changed by August? I’m in strategic procrastination mode, letting ideas percolate and not planning too far out. I’m keeping up with the webinars and new technological innovations and what my colleagues are doing. Artists are innovators—we create things out of practically nothing. Lots of really smart, talented, and amazing people are dedicating themselves to making art continue to happen. And I’m thrilled to be a small part of that.