A Life Changing Experience

by Stephen Houtz (Cosme McMoon in Souvenir)

Stephen HoutzThere are a few experiences that I have had in my life that can utterly change me; that can take me from where ever I am and put me in another world, another place, even another reality. A recent performance of the Mahler Symphony #5 by the Minnesota Orchestra was one of those moments.

The Berg Violin Concerto in the first half was devastating for me. His inscription in that piece was “To the Memory of an Angel.” He had a specific angel in mind, and ironically, he died before he heard it, adding another angel to the collective memory. For me, the angel was my mother. I didn’t know if I would make it through the second half of the concert.

But since the Mahler was really what I came to hear, of course I stayed. From the very first notes, I was no longer there in my seat in the seventh row, but in a world made up of everything I had ever experienced with this piece. I am kind of a Mahler fanatic: I know and love every note. I no longer remembered where I was, or really who was playing: I was experiencing so much of my life. And in a way that I really can’t put into words. Or don’t want to put into words.

By the time the chorale came around in the final movement, I was weeping, but not from sadness. From experience. From having gone through an amazing journey.

High School MusicalAnd the thing is, I do feel different. I know that I won’t be the person I was when I went into Orchestra Hall ever again. As I drove home, I thought about my week: a microcosm of my life, and how remarkable it is. I spent the week working on a production of High School Musical, Jr. with a group of kids. Now, even Mahler can’t make High School Musical into a transformative piece of theatre, but what it did is showed me these amazing kids that I get to work with, and share with. And that WILL transcend High School Musical. And I thought of all my students I worked with this week, and how I love working with each of them. Of how delighted I am as each one discovers something new or reaches a new artistic level. And how fortunate I am that I can be part of that. And I thought of the production of Putnam County Spelling Bee last night, and how amazed I was at the skill and joy in those kids’ performance. (And even of the surprise joy that I felt knowing that I had friends that would actually try to put me onstage.)

Stela Burdt and Stephen Houtz in SouvenirAnd I think about what I get to do this weekend: to perform in a wonderful show about a woman who so believed in the transformative power of music that she performed against all odds, and won my character over by teaching him how to experience music—and the world—the way she did. She says in the last part of the show, “If only we could live in the music forever, Cosme. If only it would go on and on.”

And for me, tonight, and for the rest of my life, the music will go on and on.

Teaching Someone to Sing—Poorly

Luther College professor emeritus David Judisch

Guest author—Souvenir musical director Dr. David Judisch, Luther College Emeritus Professor

“How do you teach someone to sing badly without causing harm to the singing voice?”  My involvement with this aspect of the play, Souvenir, is a first-time experience for me.  I had never really been confronted with this situation before. My main job in this play was to help the character, Florence Foster Jenkins, so ably portrayed by Stela Burdt, to sound as though she sang very badly.  Not only did we have to deal with that specific issue of Madame Flo sounding awful, but at the very end of the play she must sing in a beautiful, healthy, and artistically gorgeous way.  So after going through various kinds of vocal gymnastics which would potentially be harmful to her, Madame Florence must sing the final song as she would have imagined herself to sound. Sound challenging? Yes!

Stela Burdt as Florence Foster Jenkins

During my forty-seven years as a studio voice teacher I had never before been asked to try to accomplish anything like this. Luckily the woman chosen to perform the role of Florence was none other than the amazingly talented Stela Burdt, a former voice student of mine at Luther College. This was a distinct advantage because I felt I knew Stela’s vocal habits pretty well. Other than the usual requests from pop rock band singers who would sometimes ask for my help regarding their vocal fatigue while performing, or perhaps the Rabbis who came to me for assistance with their tired voices after singing in synagogue for hours, I had never really had to deal with this kind of vocal danger.  My training and experience has been with what is called a bel canto type of singing.  Bel canto literally means beautiful singing or beautiful song, and refers to training in a way which accommodates classical music, such as art song or opera.

When I was sent a copy of the script of the play along with the musical scores of the songs to be sung, I discovered to my surprise that the scores were the actual notations of the original music. There were no indications as to how to “mess” with the music so as to make the rendition of it sound quite awful. That particular task was up to us to decide. So now Stela and I had two tasks before us. First, how to “mess” with the music so she could sing badly or that her voice could sound awful, and second, how to maintain good vocal health so that she could sing the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria at the very end of the play.

Months before actual rehearsals began I had an interview with Alan Bailey, the stage director.  One of my first questions for him was to ask what Stela should have prepared before the cast gathered for rehearsals.  Should we have already made decisions as to how exactly those misappropriated notes should be, or should we allow some flexibility so the natural rehearsal process could work itself out?  We decided that we needn’t have every note, phrase, predetermined. This allowed Stela to make on-the-spot adjustments to suit the moment.

The real Florence Foster JenkinsStela and I began working together for a few months before play rehearsals started.  We met for an hour or so every two or three weeks. Even though this play dealt with the real live historical figure of Florence Foster Jenkins, it was never our intention to have Stela sound like the real Florence. Our rationale for doing so was to avoid predictability. Before messing with the music, we decided that she should learn to sing the real actual notes, and that she should be able to sing each aria/song in a healthy, beautiful way.

Then, we messed with it. We came up with a list including wrong intonation, anemic sounds, straight tone, fast/narrow vibrato, slow/wide vibrato, nasality, throatiness, incorrect rhythm, overall quality, wrong syllabic emphasis, register breaks, and breathlessness. Each segment of a song could have one or two of these ingredients.

Even though we worked as hard as we could, along with my cautioning Stela about healthy habits, there were bound to be times when she did step too close to the cliff’s edge. So long as we could avoid outright vocal abuse we could enable Stela to continue the entire run through the summer. As audiences have indicated thus far, we think we have met our goals.

Please go see this beautiful play!

New and Improved

We’re back, baby!2015-co

After a season-long disappearance of exploring the possibility of blogging through our Facebook page, it has been decided (by yours truly) to return to this page in an effort to pass along news of an artistic nature from the Commonweal. Hooray, am I right?

A new title is currently in the works (yes, I will take your idea) and I am in the process of brainstorming ideas for content based on the productions we will stage this year as well as content based on who we are as a theatre company and the mission that we uphold.

Welcome back and stay tuned as I inject some new life into this page in 2016.

Thanks for reading,
Jeremy van Meter
Commonweal Communications Manager & Resident Ensemble Member