Thursday, December 17, 2009

Good singing is extinct

Or either no one knows what to listen for anymore. I think that is more to the mark than the former.

98% of Americn intendants have no clue. Absolutely none. It is quite laughable, actually, but really sheds light on why the art form is in a painful decline here in the good ol' USA.

Great thanks to those guys and gals for bringing us to this point...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Another reason Islam should be destroyed

The Whitewashing of Soraya M.

Screenwriter Mark Tapson has a terrific piece at Big Hollywood on the ongoing spurious exoneration of Islam going on surrounding the superb filmThe Stoning of Soraya M. -- about which I wrote here and here.

While Iranian-American protesters packed streetcorners in Westwood last Saturday afternoon in support of the revolution currently playing out in the streets of Tehran, an historical drama about stoning in Iran got underway at the Los Angeles Film Festival mere blocks away.

For the few who don’t know by now, The Stoning of Soraya M. is based on French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s bestselling book, which relates the true story of a woman in a remote Iranian village, in the years after the 1979 Khomeini revolution, who is falsely accused of adultery and stoned to death by a mob desperate to cleanse themselves of this affront to their collective honor and to their religion. It’s not only a gripping story in its own right, but it shines a harsh spotlight on the almost unimaginable reality that the barbaric punishment of stoning still exists in the Iranian law code, despite a largely nominal 2002 moratorium, the result of pressure from Western human rights groups.

(Full disclosure, even though I’m not reviewing the film here: I’m close friends with the filmmakers Cyrus and Betsy Nowrasteh, I provided Mpower Pictures with a bit of research on the project, I’m friends with other cast and crew and producers associated with the film, and I think stoning is bad. So don’t take my word for it when I say Soraya will be the most important, affecting film you’ll see all year. Instead seek out the multitude of reviewers who recommend the film, including Big Hollywood’s John Nolte and then see it for yourself.)

Following Saturday’s screening was a panel discussion, not so much moderated as simply hosted by Iranian novelist Khaled Hosseini, author of the bestselling The Kite Runner, who personally selected the film for the L.A. Film Festival. The panel also included Soraya’s writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh, starring actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Dr. Reza Aslan, billed as an Islamic scholar.

Heading off any concerns about possible Islam-bashing in the movie, Mr. Nowrasteh noted at the discussion’s outset that Soraya is actually a pro-Muslim film, because it shows how a few hypocrites can hijack a religion for personal reasons, not to mention that the story’s victim is herself Muslim. He went on to discuss his personal attraction to the story and the process of bringing it to the big screen. Ms. Aghdashloo eloquently responded to a couple of questions about her personal passion for the role and for addressing the real-world issue of stoning.

It isn't really "Islam-bashing" to describe or depict Islamic teachings and practices accurately. And of course those who stone adulterers are not in the least "hijacking" Islam, since Islamic schools of jurisprudence all teach that stoning adulterers is good and proper, but in this case, at least in a narrow sense, it really is appropriate for Nowrasteh to have spoken about "how a few hypocrites can hijack a religion for personal reasons," since in the film the stoning victim is not really guilty, but is railroaded. Of course, this is almost certainly not how most people in this audience understood his words.

The Q & A was shorter-lived than many including myself would have liked, or at least less focused; one question, for example, was directed to Mr. Hosseini about his novels rather than the movie. But the focus really got blurry when Reza Aslan took the mic.

“Well,” he started, “I guess it’s up to me to put this into some sort of historical context.” If only he had, then people might better understand why the outrage of stoning still exists, and why it exists today only in territories in the grip of Sharia, or Islamic law. Instead Aslan proceeded to so dilute any context at all that people told me at the reception later, which he did not attend, that they either had no idea what he was talking about or simply tuned him out. What he did do, in several obfuscating turns at bat, was utterly whitewash Islam, its prophet Mohammed, and Iranian lawmakers past and present of any responsibility whatsoever for the practice of stoning.

He began by asserting that “many cultures” struggled with the issue of stoning. I nearly interrupted him right there to ask, “Really? Which cultures besides those under the thrall of Sharia law? Do Laplanders stone adulterers? Peruvian Indians? The Watusi? Minnesotans?” Aslan clouded any potential for understanding by claiming that culture, not religion, is responsible.

Dr. Aslan, an assistant professor of creative writing at UC Riverside with degrees in religion, is such a professorial rock star that he has a MySpace fan page (“Even though he’s the greatest smartie-pants ever he’s a living doll and exceedingly cool,” the site gushes). Not unusually for professors, he seemed to revel in regaling his captive audience with rambling answers devoid of much actual meaning. At one point the answer meandered so tortuously that when Aslan was done I turned to friend and fellow Big Hollywood contributor Charles Winecoff and said, “What was the question again?” “Question?” Charles replied. “What was the answer?”

The gist of his message was this: not only is religion inseparable from culture, but the words of, say, the Bible or Quran are utterly devoid of meaning in and of themselves, blank slates upon which we impose our own biased interpretations. Thus, to use one of Aslan’s own examples, if you’re a “misogynistic prick,” you’re going to view the Quran through that woman-hating lens and impose your own meaning upon it, regardless of what Mohammed, supposedly transcribing directly from Allah, actually wrote. Hence, Islam and Mohammed are not responsible for their followers’ misinterpretations, their patriarchal culture is.

No one would deny that religion and culture aren’t closely intertwined (though I would argue that religion influences culture more than the other way around), but puh-leeze – it’s beyond absurd to say that there is no substantive difference between Mohammed’s message and Jesus’, that there is no meaning inherent in their words, or that the massive edifices of their religions have not been built, shakily or not, upon the foundations of those words. It’s also disingenuous to suggest that present-day stoning has nothing to do with a seventh-century religious directive. It’s true that stoning is a pre-Islamic practice not mentioned in the Quran; but the tenets of Islam are based not solely on the Quran, but derive also from the hadith, or the tales of Mohammed’s life, and Dr. Aslan neglected to mention that Mohammed does command stoning as a punishment for adultery in the hadith.

Nonie Darwish, the Egyptian-American author of, most recently, Cruel and Usual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law, and someone who knows a thing of two about women under Islam, stood in the audience and challenged Aslan at length about Mohammed and misogyny. He acknowledged one minor, innocuous point, but then dismissed her flatly with “Everything else you said is wrong” and handed the mic back to Mr. Hosseini. Not “That’s a common misconception,” or “Let me quote chapter and verse of the Quran to clarify things.” Just “Wrong.” End of discussion.

(Yet more disclosure: I personally know Ms. Darwish and can attest that she is an affecting, enlightening speaker precisely because she speaks truth plainly and without the kind of empty circumlocutions Dr. Aslan relies on to befuddle the uninformed and to absolve religion of any responsibility for the actions of its believers.)

After implying that Islam has simply been distorted by lots of misogynistic pricks, Dr. Aslan cheerily reassured us that Islamic scholars through the ages got around their discomfort with the whole stoning embarrassment by making it “impossible” to convict anyone of adultery, thanks to a legal formula of required witnesses that stacks the deck in favor of the alleged adulterer. Sounds good, except that people get convicted of it and stoned anyway, and he doesn’t explain why, if Mohammed/Allah never sanctioned it, Islamic scholars ever had to wrestle with the practice in the first place or why they don’t simply ban it as un-Islamic.

To be fair, Dr. Aslan did cut through the fog with a couple of straightforward declarations, but even these raised more questions than they answered. One such jaw-dropping assertion – “There is no such thing as Sharia” – will come as thrilling news to those awaiting lashings, amputations, beheadings, and stonings in communities from Somalia to Nigeria to Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, etc. where Sharia is in full effect. Another Aslan stunner: “Mohammed was a seventh century feminist.” Surely, I thought, this outrageous soundbite would elicit guffaws from the audience!

But the audience sat guffaw-less. Instead, applause greeted almost every one of Aslan’s opaque, vaporous commentaries. I’d like to believe that this was because he had finally finished talking, but the disappointing reality is that he was simply affirming things that many in the audience, Iranian and otherwise, desperately wanted to believe: that there is no connection between Islam and the Sharia-sanctioned brutality we’d just seen dramatized onscreen, and that Iranian authorities actually disapprove of it.

A much-comforted Iranian woman next to me stood up and, after insisting on being called upon by Mr. Hosseini, gushed “Reza, I love you!” She neglected to express such love for Cyrus Nowrasteh, the director of this extraordinary film; maybe Mr. Nowrasteh needs to rev up his own MySpace fan page.

Overall, Dr. Aslan breezily downplayed stonings in general - Hey, they almost never happen and only in outlying areas out of reach of the rule of big city law, so what’s the big deal? Irrepressible radio host and documentary filmmaker John Ziegler, sitting behind me at the screening, let out a sardonic “Besides, it’s not like it’s as bad as waterboarding, right?” But that wasn’t any solace to a 13-year-old girl sentenced by a Sharia court and stoned to death for adultery in Somalia just last October (after going to the authorities herself and reporting she was gang-raped).

Admittedly, that wasn’t in Iran. Okay, so let’s look at the recent record there: an Iranian woman’s conviction of adultery was upheld just last November and her sentence of stoning confirmed. In January of this year, two men were stoned to death in Iran for adultery, and in May of this year, yet another man was stoned to death (the woman involved repented and presumably got her lashings instead). At least ten more men and women await death by stoning around the country.

The Stoning of Soraya M. is too important a film, and the issue of stoning under Sharia law (oops, I forgot – Sharia doesn’t exist) is too critical to allow an apologist like Dr. Aslan to whitewash Sharia with vague deflections and rude dismissal of debate. Lives are still at stake; men and women are still facing death in this grotesque manner (did I mention that it is specified in Iranian law that the stones to be hurled must not be too small to inflict significant damage nor too big to kill the victim immediately?). If we do not debate honestly the medieval ideology that lies behind this cruel practice, it will never end, and there will be more Sorayas.

This just in, even as I write: The Iranian judiciary is claiming they’ve decided to eliminate stoning. Call me skeptical, but I’ll believe it when it’s officially enshrined in law, when those awaiting death by stoning have their sentences commuted (to lashings, which will certainly result in very muted cellblock celebration), and when no more stonings happen, even in remote villages. In any case, considering that The Stoning of Soraya M. was on a list released in March of Western films that Iran finds objectionable and insulting, and considering the widespread international media focus on Soraya and its relevance to the current unrest in Iran, there’s no doubt that the growing awareness of the film has pressured the Iranian authorities to at least look like they’re doing the right thing.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


People wonder why I hate NATS.  Well it is pretty simple.  Stuff like this is subjective, and there are a lot of people who have absolutely no clue of what they speak or write.  Experience will take most people a looooooong way.  But that still doesn't mean you know of what you speak.

Too often, people are blown away by young singers who are totally in your face and seem to be incredibly polished for their age.  Problem is, they just look like they have it together, when in reality, there is a major technique problem.  They have built for the moment and not the long haul.  It sounds impressive right now, but it lasts a short while, and they have no clue what is wrong when muscles decide they won't work like that any more, and they have no clue where to turn, and burn out.

Then there is the problem of dishonesty within the performance.  Very quickly it becomes evident that every movement, every look, every hand gesture has been practiced over and over and there is no honesty in that kind of performance.  There is no real connection to that person's soul.  It is someone else's and they are perfectly content to steal it without putting an asterik by it.

Organic.  Natural.  Honest. And build for the LONG HAUL, not the moment. Those are the ingredients that make real artists.  That is why there are very, very few today. In my opinion, We only have Domingo and Thomas Hampson.  Please don't insult my intelligence by throwing Renee Fleming in my face.  That would make me laugh.  Robert Orth comes to mind very quickly.  

This is one of the problems why the tenor situation is what it is.  Listening to the young tenor yeaterday singing "Che gelida manina".  It should be easy for him, he is a leggiero and his voice sits high.  But the color of the voice definitely is not even for the most lyric of Puccini, even in a small Euro house.  He should have been singing Nemerino (which is still pretty big for him), Rossini's Ramiro or Count Almaviva.  But some moron might hire him just because the c is kinda easy for him and he looks great. It should be easy, the voice is purt near female.  

That is why the folks with DMA's are useless.  98% of them have no experience in the field, and have no real idea of just what the sound is.  If the singer's voice is large, and since they all have issues producing and more than likely are small voiced, they think the singer pushes. They don't realize the pain that the big voices go through to find themselves, to build a solid technique.

Then they get a kid with a very easy top, but doesn't have the color to do anything other than Rossini, light Donizetti, ect, and they think they have found the next Corelli.  That becomes criminal.

And that is another thing.  Funny how Americans are supposed to be the best technical singers on the planet.  No, they are just the most vain. I hear more poor technique that people gush over than I can shake a stick at.  Case in point:  As I judged Musical Theater Advanced High School Men yesterday, the kid that won blew my two fellow judges away.  I was pretty ho-hum.  The kid really loved his sound, you could tell.  He was manufacturing a darkness that was pretty unnatural, and his tounge was on his chords.  The sound was pretty unhealthy. The performance was cold and not very good in my opinion.  

The next singe to come in was Billy Binion from Richmond.  The performance was energetic, and his sound was organic and healthy, not stuck in his throat.  This young tenor had the notes, sent them out, and the kid sang.  It was a joy listening to that voice spin, especially after the Sam Ramey wannabe I had just heard.

But my colleagues still gushed over the baritone.  I looked at them and smiled.  That is why this business has become so crappy in this country.  So many people don't have a clue as to what they are doing, but they will be bowled over by an unhealthy sound that is dark and they think is big in a small room, and they equate as professional.

This is why University and College Presidents should be sued.  They are allowing people who could never be experts to masquerade around like they are.  You don't learn it by sitting on your ass in a library for eight to ten years.  You learn it by doing.  You learn it by suffering.  You learn it by living and breathing it.  

Books are great to read, but they honestely can't teach you a darned thing.

If they ever stood by a real professional on stage a few times, their opinions would definitely change.  but then again, people are always enamoured by the Emperor's new clothes.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009


I enjoy watching Kurt Warner play.  The man truly believes he can play the game at the highest level.  He believes he is a winner.  He works his tail off, waited for the opportunity, and siezed it by the balls.

For the first time in my life. I know that I can really do this.  The voice is there.  And it goes along with a good package.  I honestly believe that.  I never thought that before now.  I also never had a support cast around me like I have now.

For the first time in my career, I have a teacher that thinks I am worth a crap.  And he proves it every time out.  

Now its time to go to work...

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Do I hate teaching?

No, I don't. I actually love it.  But I don't like doing it the way I am having to do it at this present time.  At the end of the day, I am so wiped out that it's all I can do just to stay awake when I get home.  

And I don't even really get to teach the way I want to.  I guess I am old fashioned in the ways of training, although I am very progressive when it comes to performance.  If I could have a daily lesson with Jackson, I would be ecstatic.  But no one wants to get a real technique.  They just want it fast and now.

And that is because of the energy and effort that I put into the work that I do.  I only know how to do it one way, and that is balls to the wall energy.  And I get results.  I'd give their money back if I didn't.

Problem is, I care too much.  I put so much of mysel into what I do, and if they don't take it and grow with it, I take it personally.  I feel like I have failed.  What ticks me off especially is when they don't even practice.  They don't even try.  Then they think I don't notice...

Then there is the make up period when I return from a gig.  I get so slammed that I can't see straight.  And they get uppity at the state school, where, if they had to pay my hourly fee they'd wet their pants.  

Shucks, it could be worse.  I could be out of work or digging ditches or shoveling out stables.  That would stink...

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ok, darned good week of singing

I got to have my first lesson in a month on Monday, and I have to admit, I have had a marvellous week of learning and growth.  The Macbeth aria feels very good, and the "Donna non vidi mai" is beginning to feel like something I have sung for years.  Now I just have to go out there and sing them in front of people.  That is what sets it apart.

I am at the point now that the text is becoming mine.  I was incredibly blown away by the sincereity of the text to "Ingemisco."  I groan for God, who forgave May Magdelene, to redeem me.  I get that, and I can groove on it...

Text.  That is always what creates the drama.  Music enhances it. The voice, the body, and the face convey it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Good lesson today

Beggan with the "Ah, la paterna mano" from Macbeth.  Felt good.  I just over sang it.  Did the same with the "Donna non vidi mai" from Manon Lescaut.  But I learned a lot from the "Ingemisco" today.  That was the piece that set me up.

I had gotten a bit heavy with my last Barbiere, and I misunderstood a couple of things from my coaching with William Hicks.

I also appreciate Jackson's faith in me.  Never had that before in a teacher.  Pretty danged cool, if you ask me.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Craziness of school beginning

I hate panic attacks.  Hate'em.  But whenever I leave for a gig, I get them.  One has to remember that you teach kids, but they're at that weird, in-between stage of travelling to adulthood.  They will be fine, and I will make up every, cotton pickin' lesson.  That will be a month of saturdays, and at least I will have the spring breaks o work, also.

Doing this is good for the Department and my students, but good for me and my family.  It would take take two months work at VCU to come close to making what I make on these gigs.

I will miss most Sheridan and the girls.  I love the Christma Holidays.  That is when I get my most intimate time with my family.  I get very emotional the first few days when I am away, and it is worse when I go to Europe.  Eight weeks there will be extremely fun.  Well, at least the first week won't be...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Great lesson today

In the midst of all the garbage, i had a great lesson with Jackson today.  "Just sing like you speak" has become my new mantra.  

Sang through six arias after the warm-up.  The best of the bunch was the Carmen.  That is what I am talking about.  It eliviates the worry when I begin the "Puis, je m'accuse de blaspheme" that I don't have the space, because the voice is sitting in the same space as if I am speaking.  A lot more ring and a lot more ease.  

The "Donna non vidi mai" was pretty danged good today, and the "Celeste Aida is'nt far off the mark.  But the Freischutz was spot on.  Spot on!!

Gonna have problems choosing what to sing on auditions, especially in Europe this coming fall....