I test drove my new tattoo on opening night of the opera, wearing it on my right forearm. It’s a black ink outline of a buffalo that houses 6 Keith Haring inspired people moving in different directions inside it. My first tattoo for musically directing my first opera.
With sleeves rolled up, I swam in my large black snap-buttoned cowboy shirt, Marsha Ginsberg, the costume designer chose for me to wear. I wore the large shirt open with a dark gray v-neck t-shirt underneath, a pair of Lucky blue jeans and my scuffed charcoal colored Frye boots and my “guido chain” as JAX Messenger the lighting designer liked to call it. The cast were dressed in non traditional costumes that looked like something you’d find at a thrift store or something your neighbor might be wearing; an orange hunter’s onesie, camouflage fishing gear, a cheerleading outfit, prom dresses and soccer mom sweats.
The pressure of opening night floated in the air of the gray carpeted, newly renovated Hudson Hall at the historic Hudson Opera House’s walls. Months of preparation, listening and rehearsals led up to this moment. Could I lead the company through these 483 pages of Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson pageantry or fall on my face, leaving the cast and orchestra confused and in disarray? There was only one way to find out…
I first learned of the great American pageant/opera, The Mother of Us All on March 21st 2017 when I received an email from R.B Schlather, the director of The Mother of Us All and recent transplant to the small artistic river town of Hudson, NY I moved to some 4 years ago. He attended a recent show I had just finished musically directing and playing hammond organ on for a Bobby Previte original work called Niagara Falls which involved two other hammond organs, drum set and a 10 year old boy. R.B. told me he enjoyed the show and introduced me to The Mother of Us All, “a fantasy about 19th Century American loosely based around the character of Susan B Anthony and debates about equality, voting rights, female leadership, and non sequiturs. Basically it reads like scrolling thru a Facebook feed.”
“He digged a pit, he dogged it deep, he digged it for his brother.”
“Daniel was my father’s name, father’s name, father’s name.”
“Oh hell I want to tell about my wife, and have you got one? No, not one, two then, no not two, how many then? I haven’t got one.”
“Not anymore, I am not a martyr anymore.”
“Daniel Webster needs an artichoke.”
These catchy non sequiturs were the Facebook feed like qualities he was referring to that I quickly discovered after listening to the opera for the first time a few days later. The above lines all come in the first six minutes of Act 1, Scene 2 and are sung by different Steinien characters that range from a pompous and dignified politician, to a ghost angel, a loiterer and to Gertrude Stein herself.
R.B. was looking for a musical director and wondered if I could meet him ASAP to discuss fulfilling that role over coffee at Moto, the local motorcycle/ coffee shop down the street from my beat up, San Francisco shotgun style brothel like apartment. I wrote him back the next day and said I was interested though let him know that I’d never directed an opera or orchestra before.
He told me the Hudson Opera House had written a grant to put on a production of The Mother of Us All to celebrate and commemorate 100 years in women’s suffrage in New York State. Susan B. Anthony had also spoken at the Hudson Opera House which added another level and depth to this production.
I liked R.B.’s style of black sweat pants, black t-shirt and a camouflaged puffy jacket with hunter orange inlining when we met over coffee about a week later. I wouldn’t have pinned him as an opera director in a police lineup which comforted me as did his energy and our dialogue about The Mother of Us All. I told him the opera sounded like the bandstand I use to play trombone in growing up in southeast Wisconsin which fit in with the vision he saw for this production. I said yes without fully thinking about what musically directing an opera would all entail though knew at some point I would have to learn and that I could do it. It was a challenge I was willing to accept.
The last week of September I spent in Philadelphia, a few weeks before rehearsals were to begin. Whenever I say Philadelphia I either get Boys to Men’s Motown Philly in my head or Fresh Prince’s “in west Philadelphia, born and raised, on the playground is where I spent most of my days”. I’m sure anyone from Philadelphia would appreciate that with an annoyed eye roll.
I was working for Ballet X with my dear friend and colleague Tracy Straus and it so happened that R.B. Schlather and JAX Messenger, the director and lighting designer of The Mother of Us All were in Philadelphia at the same time working on a production of Debussy’s opera, Pelléas et Mélisande at the Curtis Institute of Music down the street from my hotel.
Curtis holds the smell of prestige and old musty hard wood. The black box theatre, where I first watched R.B. work was true to it’s name, a black box. A black Steinway grand piano was perched on wheels in the performance space with a device that connected the piano bench to it so it could be moved while being played, as well as a sweet LED lighting rig that lit the keys. I watched about an hour of rehearsal, R.B. and JAX gave me a spin on the Steinway as I improvised on the keys and then I walked back to my room at the Sonesta.
I first learned of Curtis at Interlochen Arts Academy, an arts boarding school and summer camp in upper Michigan that I was fortunate enough to have graduated from and also not to have gotten expelled from for drugs or other shenanigans.
Kurt Fiegel, a very generous man that owned a rubber company and lived in a nearby town next to the village I grew up in gave me a full scholarship to study jazz piano at Interlochen Arts Academy. He paid my full tuition for the last two years of high school to the boarding school after hearing me play a jazz gig when I was fourteen at a retirement party at Sperinos, a local mom and pop Italian restaurant in a nearby town.
About two years later I was accepted to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston for jazz piano in a frigid snowy January of my senior year of high school. I attended NEC for 2 1/2 years and then dropped out with the motivation that no one would give a shit what kind of degree I had when they saw me perform. R.B. didn’t seem to care whether or not I had a degree in music. He read the bio on my website and thought I would be great to musically direct the production.
Three things stuck out in my head after listening to the opera for the first time:
1. The chords and melodies sounded very Americana, simple yet complex with sections of dissonance and moodiness.
2. Overall it had this bandstand type feeling like the one I grew up playing trombone in when I was a kid growing up in rural Wisconsin.
3. Certain lyrics, specifically Thaddeus Stevens line in Act 1, Scene 3 where he proclaims, “I believe in public school education. I do not believe in free masons, I believe in public school education.”, stuck out in my head.
Both my parents were public school teachers, I grew up going to public school and have taught in public schools since 2003 when I began working for the National Dance Institute while living in NYC. I’ve experienced private school education as well and know its value as I do public school education’s value. School was also a point of contention with my ex-wife in how our daughter should be raised. My ex grew up on Park Avenue in NYC attending private schools her entire life, I grew up in the village of Darien that had a population of about 890 people on a good day and walked to my mediocre public grade school school. A green acres type of story if you will, I guess.
I listened to The Mother of Us All several times in various elevations and atmospheres before we officially had our first full company rehearsal on Sunday October, 15th. I listened to it dancing in my kitchen making dinner for myself, girlfriend and daughter, driving my black Honda Accord with my seven year old, the sandy beaches of Fire Island, Señor Bear restaurant and Linger bar in the hip upcoming part of Lohi Denver, Jet Blue (I never listen to opera on United), Amtrak, walking to the Half Moon, a dive bar in the upstate New York Rivertown I’ve been residing in for the past 4 years, Hudson Hall as well as others. I’d listen intently, casually, ironically, methodically and would practice conducting, sometimes in places where conducting wasn’t on the menu or where you should be playing some kind of beach game.
Smoking weed before musically directing an opera for the first time is like wearing snow gear to the beach in summer. You can do it but you’re probably going to sweat a lot more and look out of place and kind of like an idiot. The first rehearsal as a company, accompanied by being slightly high left me paranoid and feeling slightly out of place. I got through the first rehearsal fairly well though realized I never wanted to mix weed and conducting again, especially at this level. I didn’t let anyone know in the cast that I smoked weed before the first rehearsal for the duration of the opera. I also never smoked again before another rehearsal or performance. Lesson learned.
“Good job. You seem more relaxed tonight,” R.B. told me after our second full company rehearsal the following night that consisted of singing through the entire piece. “Thanks,” I replied, thinking to myself, it probably helped that you weren’t high for this rehearsal, Tony. Dumb ass.
“I especially liked your signing of Jo the Loiterer’s part,” R.B. encouragingly said. I felt relieved. He told me to get a drink and take a deep breath. I gladly took his advice after I got home to my apartment over a glass of Bulleitt bourbon on the rocks.
“I’m NOT Leonard Bernstein but I can do this,” I told my girlfriend, Chloe when I got home who had dinner and conversation ready. “Yes, you can do this, and no, you aren’t Leonard Bernstein. That’s not why he hired you.”
Having never conducted an opera before nor been in a production of this size, I couldn’t have imagined a better musical partner than David Sytkowski, the brilliant young pianist and vocal coach that lived in Manhattan. David had recently turned 30, handsomely stood around 6 feet and wore his hair with a natural poof. He grew up in Wisconsin near Milwaukee and graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the same University my dad graduated from. He has a sweet and kind demeanor though I could never really tell if he thought I was full of shit or not. He was doing his job and more, helping guide me through the twists and turns of conducting an opera, phrasing and reducing a score via cutting and pasting.
I’ve never had the opportunity to reduce an orchestra before. I remember calling a guy that the opera house connected me with and asked him for advice in mid September on reductions. He said, orchestra reductions can take months if not a year to do. We had a week and a half to complete it before the first orchestra rehearsal.
Our orchestra consisted of flute, clarinet, bassoon, harp, piano, percussion, French horn and 2 trumpets. I also played melodica to fill in some parts that couldn’t be covered in the harmonies. We cut and pasted from the strings, French horn, English horn, trombone, oboe, piccolo, bass clarinet and 2nd clarinet into our small “band stand like” orchestra. An orchestra any bigger than this would be challenging to fit into the space as well as not over power the singers who were staged in every corner of the hall.
I knew in taking on this challenge I would have to balance it with all the other commitments I had going on in my life. I couldn’t just stop being a father, Air BnB manager, social media manager for a doctor, surgeon and app company, a piano teacher to an eleven-year-old girl, Harmony Project teacher to 45 kindergarten through 3rd graders and rock n’ roll keyboard player with Bash & Pop. Musically directing an opera on top of all of that made life thick and rich and also when the time came, super fucking challenging.
The most challenging moment came the day after the first orchestra rehearsal on Monday November 6th when R.B., Dan “Big Dipper” Stermer the production manager and David and I met in the back glass room at the Tiger House, an old historic Inn that was a 3 minute walk to Hudson Hall and which housed a few of the artists in the production.
R.B. felt nervous about the way I led the orchestra and that I was flailing at times. He was panicked that I was not up to the role of conducting the opera. The feeling of accomplishment and exhilaration of having my photo in the Sunday New York Times the previous day quickly evaporated. My heart pounded in my chest. My esophagus tightened my breath. I had just gotten out of a session with my talk doctor about 10 minutes prior and my belly was full of black coffee. Was I about to get fired?! WTF!
I remember feeling exhausted and like I wanted to stick my head in the sand by the end of the 3 hour orchestra run through, knowing I had a 1 hour break and then another 4 hour rehearsal with the full company after that. It was the first time I was using the full 483 page 11 x 17 inch orchestral score to conduct from. I had been using the vocal/ piano score for rehearsals which was a mere 157 pages and on 8 1/2 x 11 inch paper.
Conducting an orchestra for the first time is kind of like flying a plane or driving an 18 wheeler for the first time. You can study, drive a car, do a flight simulator, read the manuals and practice doing it all you want but when you’re behind the wheel of a vessel that big, it’s do or die. Thankfully in conducting opera the probability of fatality is highly unlikely unless I were to stab the flute player or someone were to have a heart attack.
“I’d like to… or maybe we can find a way to keep you involved in conducting some how and let David be the conductor,” R.B. painfully and emotionally expressed to me around the glass coffee table in a late morning light. I kept my composure, breathing deeply and advocated my case in continuing to conduct The Mother of Us All on the condition that each day I would improve, otherwise the singers and orchestra would not have the leadership they needed to have a successful production. That gave me 3 days, including the day I was on to get my shit together and not flail.
Fuck, can I really do this? After our meeting I felt like crying, like I was in over my head, like I was on the verge of getting fired, like every rehearsal I had to do better and better and if I didn’t I would be fired. My parents were flying out to see the production from Wisconsin and friends were coming to see the show from town and NYC. All 5 performances were sold out and major press would be there to observe and critique the shows.
The orchestral scores came with me to the opera house along with a few number 2 pencils and a bunch of neon colored sticky notes after our meeting. I still wasn’t completely sure how to conduct and give cues properly. I asked David for some advice on conducting. Jokingly I turned to him and said, “This is like conducting 101.” David replied with a smirk and slight laugh, “No, this is baptism by fire”. He was right. It was and I felt the fire under my ass singing the hairs on my balls.
It was a long and taxing rehearsal that night which was called the “wandelprobe”, an opera word which means the first time the orchestra and singers do the thing together. Exhausted and still freaked that I might be canned, I went through all of Act 1 again with me sticky notes and bourbon. I stickied every fucking cue and time signature and what have you until I passed out around a quarter to two in the morning, clutching the orchestral scores like my daughter does her stuffed animal bear, Dodo and her fluffy ducky.
I went to bed with the thoughts of “If you get fired, that will be a story and you’ll learn something from it, be it possibly incredibly painful and embarrassing.” I was hoping that would not be the case and put more and more of myself into the work so I could rise to the occasion and “murder it”, as my girlfriend Chloe would say. A phrase which here refers to the modern way in which people say, “You killed that!”, as in “You did an excellent and superb job in completing that task”. Chloe liked to replace “killed” with “murdered”. I wanted to murder it, not it me.
Tuesday morning I woke and dove back into the score, practicing the rest of Act 2 and going through Act 1 again, using sticky notes like they were going out of style. Every page had at least one, hot pink, neon yellow and bright blue sticky note, if not 5 by the time rehearsal came around at 7. I learned that stickies are a girls best friend. For real!
This rehearsal was the first time the whole cast would be together. Something unheard of in most major productions from what I was told.
Our full dress rehearsal on Tuesday went smoother then Monday’s vandelprobe. I was giving more cues and was feeling more confident with the score though was still feeling a little awkward in how I was conducting.
Up to this point, I was conducting with a baton my father had given me when he came out to visit for 4 days at the beginning of September. He had two masters degrees in conducting and knew a shit ton more about the sport than I did. His baton was old and worn like his hands and was one of my fathers most cherished possessions. He gave it to me to conduct The Mother of Us All. I really wanted to use it for this reason and up to this point, was using his baton to conduct.
I found that in order to conduct this mother I would need to let go of the baton, physically let go of the baton. R.B. suggested the next morning that I sit in an office chair instead of stand while I conducted. He told me to use my arms more and be more free with the sections. He also suggested that I put down the baton. I sank in the black office chair and moved my arms, free from having anything in my hand and almost immediately felt more comfortable and at ease. R.B. could also tell I looked more relaxed and confident. This was the turning point for me in sinking into the role as the conductor of The Mother of Us All.
Opening night. The energy smelled of excitement, anticipation and Lil’ Debs hotdogs. I felt ready and relaxed and slightly on edge. Tammy, the soon to be head of Hudson Hall told me there was a bunch of press here including the New York Times. Great, though I didn’t really want to know that. I’d rather not have any idea who was there. I feel knowledge of things like that can impede performance and cloud mental space.
Call was 2:45 for myself, David and the four main characters of Act 1, Scene 1, Michaela, Teresa, Nancy and Kent. R.B. asked me when I got to the opera house how I felt. “Stoked!”, I said. “I’m ready to do this!” I don’t get nervous so much for performances and haven’t really experienced many opening nights to know if it’s a big deal or not on this level. To me it was the first time we were sharing this mother with the public.
The way the staging was set however meant it really felt like our final dress rehearsal. R.B.’s vision was that the audience could sit on the floor and be a part of the opera and move around amongst the performers. The cast and everyone new this though it’s something we never could experience until it happened. The audience was really the final ingredient in making the piece live and be what it was intended to be and to what it ultimately became.
When you’re really close to a piece you know when it’s gold and when it needs polishing. Opening night’s performance needed polishing. I felt it. R.B. felt it. David felt it. There were a few “mama hoo hoo’s” as the dance companies I work with like to say. The phrase “Mama hoo hoo” in this case refers to a mandarin Chinese way of saying “dog dog horse horse” or something that doesn’t make sense or is a mistake.
A good conductor knows how to cover mistakes seamlessly and keep everyone on the same page. In that way it feels a lot like improvising, something I’m very comfortable with having played jazz piano since the age of 11. The difference is you that an opera is a set piece of music and you can’t improvise. You can’t throw your guitar at the drummer or get up on the bar and get the whole crowd singing.
My talk doctor was at opening night and brought me flowers. My girlfriend also brought me flowers that she left on the bottom of my stairs. My daughter, Louise was also in the opening night performance, carrying a sign between Act 1 and 2 that read, “Time Has Passed” in hand written campaign style lettering. Her pace was a little quicker than I wanted it to be, lasting about 3 minutes as she walked her pattern through the hall, onto the stage and out the other door. A couple of the band members needed to pee and we needed every second we could get.
That was another thing I learned from this experience, knowing how much liquids to drink before each performance began because I couldn’t pee once it started, a little over 2 hours. This gave me a little anxiety earlier on in our initial production meetings when R.B. first said that he didn’t like intermissions and he wanted it to be like the Santa Fe rendition where there was not an intermission. Guess I can’t pee then, I thought. Peeing is overrated anyways.
When you complete a performance and you know it could have gone better, it’s challenging to accept congratulations from people. I was struggling with this when my girlfriend, talk doctor, friends and cast members were saying their congratulations to me. There’s an air of, shit, it could have been better and it’s finished and I have to be present and not let everyone know all the mistakes that are playing through my head and to just accept things and be present. I also fell asleep 3 times in public 3 so my girlfriend tells me exhausted from the week leading up to the performance.
We nailed Sunday’s performance. I could feel it and afterwards R.B. gave myself, David and the orchestra two enthusiastic thumbs up, his dark eyes shining in the florescent lit hall as he joined the company for bows. The performance had arrived and both David and let out a big exhale after we finished.
After our final performance, I found Michaela Martens, the lead and star who played Susan B. Anthony. We embraced and she told me that she genuinely was proud of me and how I conducted the rehearsals and performances. She gave me one of the highest compliments I have ever received in that she told me she got used to needing to look at me to emotionally connect with her cues.
I didn’t fall on my face, leaving the cast and orchestra confused and in disarray. Thank fucking god!
The New York Times covered our production of the Mother of Us All 3 times including it as one of the best classical musical performances of 2017. Both the New Yorker Magazine, Wall Street Journal, WQXR and other gave it favorable reviews. I even got a shout out in the Financial Times for conducting the orchestra/band.
I saw R.B. about a month later at a solstice party he was hosting with his husband Adam and I asked him how he felt now that he had some space and time to reflect and relax. He told me it exceeded his expectations on all levels and that he was proud of everyone involved with the production. He pushed everyone, including himself to go beyond what they thought was possible. That is the mark of a true leader and genius.
The whole experience felt surreal like a tattoo of a Dali painting on your chest or like sleepwalking to the gym and then working out in a tutu or like taking a math test on acid in the middle of a blizzard. What the fuck? Did I really just musically conduct a critically acclaimed opera without ever having conducted an opera before and not make a complete ass of myself?
It reminds me of the Edgar Allen Poe quote I wrote into a children’s book my ex-wife and I wrote some years back after our daughter was born. “Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream.” Being on the “other side of the opera” or OSOTO for short, it does feel like a dream. A dream that I starred in and shared with an incredible group of talented, diverse and inspired people in this old whaling town of Hudson, NY.