SFOpera - Zooming Adlers

Zooming Adlers

Over the last eight months, an extraordinary operation has been underway at the Opera, as we have sought to keep creativity alive in the San Francisco Opera Center. Our twelve Adler Fellows (ten singers and two coach/pianists) had barely started their year with us when the pandemic hit, throwing their whole world into question. Musical coachings, drama and language classes, not to mention preparation for stage roles, suddenly became impossible in the ways that they’ve been done for decades. But through the wonderful energies and resourcefulness of so many in the Company, particularly the Adler Fellows themselves, we have been able to keep creativity alive in this vital part of our artistic work.

The Adler Fellows are with us for typically 1–3 years in a post-graduate level residency program in which they refine their craft in a supportive environment with regular access to voice teachers, coaches, language teachers, and the artists of the mainstage season. Almost immediately upon the shutdown, the Company pivoted to ensure that the Adlers would retain access to as many resources as possible. I am so grateful to Managing Director: Artistic, Gregory Henkel, Associate to the Managing Director: Artistic, Ilana Rainero-de Haan, Director of the Opera Center, Sheri Greenawald, as well as so many other colleagues who have pulled together to make all this possible. As Sheri prepares to retire at the close of this calendar year, it is a great shame that she has not been able to coach the Adlers in person, but thankfully through some fabulous logistics and technology, we have still been able to have a creative year in the Opera Center:

  • The Rehearsal Department, working with our Artistic and Opera Center Departments worked through the complex schedule of at-home classes, multiple Zoom rooms, time zone differences and facilitators to ensure a new approach to Adler scheduling.
  • Our Music Director Designate, Eun Sun Kim, curated improved microphone technology in the Adlers’ homes. Zoom does not allow both singer and pianist to make sound at the same time, but we wanted to ensure that the sound would be as high fidelity as possible to allow detailed work to happen.
  • We delivered higher quality digital pianos to our two Adler pianists, Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad and Andrew King after the first few weeks of enduring some not great options!
  • We sought out an array of teachers, coaches, and mentors to work with the Adlers including Eun Sun Kim (who has been providing weekly coachings with them in what must be a first for a music director!), and world-class artists such as Christine Goerke, Brandon Jovanovich, Patricia Racette, Morris Robinson, Christian Van Horn, Quinn Kelsey, and Alfred Walker, all of whom have spent time in conversation with the Adlers. As our Head of Music Staff John Churchwell notes, the Zoom environment has encouraged new forms of engagement as well: “We have held seminars on prompting and assistant conducting, on entrepreneurship, and on how to create performance opportunities for yourself as one leaves the Adler program.”
  • In addition to all these amazing artists, the full time Opera Center faculty headed by the incomparable Sheri Greenawald, John Churchwell, and César Ulloa have continued to train the Adlers. We’ve had 10 music staff members, three language teachers, two diction coaches, and several artistic leaders from the Company working regularly with the Adlers. The support network for the Adlers has been truly astounding!
  • Early on the in the pandemic we released our Odes to Joy series in which many of the Adlers offered musical moments of deep meaning to them. When speaking of this series, Adler Simone McIntosh shared: “As an artist, one of my goals is to be able to touch audiences in a meaningful way. Since our typical medium of performance venues has been taken away, the virtual platform is one of the few ways we can share our art form.”

Odes to Joy

I had a chance to sit down with all of the Adlers last week and talk with them about the experience of learning, of making music, and of being an artist during this pandemic, and I began by asking them what kind of silver linings they’ve found during this time. So often we focus on what is being lost, but has this time of isolation been beneficial in any way?

Elisa Sunshine talked of the benefits of really being able to delve into technique in a way that one wouldn’t usually have time for in a regular season. She’s been working to open up her sound in the back of her throat, finding a more rounded tone, and has really appreciated the focused time to be able to work on that. A number of Adlers talked about using these months to learn roles and repertoire that they simply would not have time for otherwise; now they can work on new repertoire with coaches, slowly, methodically, deeply. Anne-Marie MacIntosh has been studying Gilda, Giulietta, Manon, and Donna Anna. Christopher Colmenero has been delving into Samson, Siegmund and Cavaradossi, and was just about to crack open the pages of Peter Grimes. As he said, “this time has allowed us to work at a micro level in a way that we don’t usually have time for.” Esther Tonea has been studying Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, her first Russian role. She’s been doing this with Adler coach Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad, who has also been teaching her Russian.

Zooming with the Adlers

Christine Goerke and Brandon Jovanovich in a conversation with the Adler Fellows.

One of our music staff coaches, Maureen Zoltek, has also noticed the value of time that the pandemic has offered: “Now, with the extra time not spent in rehearsals, I’ve noticed that we are all finding more depth, detail, and thoughtfulness in our preparations, which will ultimately lead to a better, deeper understanding of the characters and music. Letting music ‘sit,’ for lack of a better word, is an essential part of the learning process, and one that we don’t often have the luxury of getting the first time around. Now we not only have more time to enjoy and delve into the learning process, we also have the benefit of some breathing room.”

Learning new repertoire during the pandemic has also been important for the coach/pianists. Eun Sun Kim has been working with the Adler pianists every two weeks — again, a complete luxury in terms of time with the Music Director — and she has been taking them intensively through scores. For Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad it has been La Bohème and Il trovatore; for Andrew King, Carmen and Ariadne auf Naxos. They have to both prepare the score and sing through the roles at the same time — an absolutely essential skill for a répétiteur, and Eun Sun has been talking with them about what she would be asking of the orchestra and what she would be asking of her music staff. As Kseniia noted, “she’s been giving us her secrets!” Amazingly, Eun Sun has continued this work even when on the road in Europe and Korea. Says Eun Sun of the benefits of the process: “How to read your score, to find the composer's intention, to connect the printed notes and your spirit and body entirely. The excitement of discovering the elements that enrich your artistry and the joy of bringing your imagination into reality! No doubt that the whole work process has inspired me as well!”

Eun Sun has also worked frequently with the singers. With Christopher Oglesby, she was working on Jaquino in Fidelio before we sadly had to cancel the production. Christopher really appreciated the focus on the text and the colloquialism of the German, in addition to musical work on phrasing and how to think about the broader context of the piece — “How the small cog of your role fits into the larger piece of which you are a part.”

Eun Sun Kim and Anne-Marie MacIntosh coaching via Zoom

Eun Sun Kim and Anne-Marie MacIntosh coaching via Zoom

I asked the Adlers what it was like to learn on the digital platform of Zoom. Usually a coaching is a collaborative experience between singer and pianist. But now it has to be staggered — the pianist introducing something on the piano, and then the singer working through something unaccompanied. We are working on a beta test of new technology that may allow us to overcome that, but for eight months, that less-than-ideal staggered approach has been their way of working.

In conversation with the Adlers about Zoom, on Zoom.

In conversation with the Adlers about Zoom, on Zoom.

Simone McIntosh talked of the benefits of the detailed work that digital coachings provide — getting deep into the characterization of a role, not being able to rely on harmony or the rhythm of the accompaniment, but having to internalize all of that oneself. Tim Murray described the bar being higher in a digital environment — as it’s just you, you are very conscious of your pitch, you are fully responsible for the dramatic intensity of the piece. Anne-Marie MacIntosh talked about preparation work with recordings to really fill in the understanding of a piece, learning fully what is underneath you orchestrally as a singer, so that when you are coaching a cappella you know the full context in which you’re singing.

Home studio setups for John Churchwell (left) and Anne-Marie MacIntosh (right)

Home studio setups for John Churchwell (left) and Anne-Marie MacIntosh (right)

One of the things I’m fascinated about in general through the pandemic is how our perception of art will change once we return to live performance, both as audience members and as performers. For Adlers, at the beginning of their careers, they are standing at a particularly impactful inflection point, with their whole careers stretching out before them. How will COVID likely impact their approach to art?

For Victor Starsky, singing is a very much a physical manifestation of the body. He quoted Bruce Lee’s book The Art of Expressing the Human Body and what it means to bring one’s whole physicality to performing, to martial arts, to fatherhood. For Victor, that physicality and that artistry is in service of empathy — how to bring your energy into a place where you and the audience members feel secure and loved. For Simone McIntosh, she sees a renewed depth in artistic experience ahead for audiences and artists alike — we have been deprived of so much, that there will be incredible perspective and depth when we return.

Particularly at the start of the pandemic, artists began experimenting with technology and creating art either through multi-tracking themselves or with friends around the country and even the world. That has been true for the Adlers as well. Esther Tonea began multi-tracking herself both playing cello and singing and is currently working on a Pink Martini cover with a friend! Zhengyi Bai has really delved into music production, learning the software of music editing and recording his own videos. In a very poignant example of using technology to connect at this time, Anne-Marie Macintosh harmonized and recorded a very personal rendition of “Amazing Grace” along with family members, which was played at a family funeral that she couldn’t attend because of the lockdown.

Zhengyi Bai’s home recording studio setup

Zhengyi Bai’s home recording studio setup

The confines of the pandemic really do breed brand new forms of creativity, and the Adlers have been envisioning, experimenting, and creating in wonderful ways during this time!

But life is not all about Opera — mostly, but not all — and the Adlers have also been delving into life outside the voice and the piano keys! Stefan Egerstrom has been voraciously devouring books, to the point that it’s keeping him from regular sleep — a trait he inherits from his mother! He also got a rowing machine during the pandemic and has been reviving his interest in rowing. I asked if he could combine the reading and the rowing, but it sounded like that could get dangerous.

Christopher Colmenero recently acquired a new electric bass guitar to add to his collection and has been writing, playing, and jamming with records — he plays around an hour each day. Esther Tonea has been researching Romanian music (connecting to her roots through music) as well as baking, working to perfect the recipes of her mother — she’d just been working on a pumpkin strudel recipe when I spoke with the Adlers. And for Simone McIntosh, who is sheltering in place in Canada, the pandemic has been a time for back-country canoe camping and sewing. She’s known how to sew since she was a child, but she’s determined to get to the next level and start designing her own clothes. Conversation on sewing led naturally to discussion of the Costume Shop Sale — many of the Adlers are eager to acquire something!

Delights from Esther Tonea’s baking odyssey!

Delights from Esther Tonea’s baking odyssey!

Simone McIntosh backcountry canoe camping in Algonquin Park in Ontario

Simone McIntosh backcountry canoe camping in Algonquin Park in Ontario

Chris Oglesby camping at Redwoods National Park

Chris Oglesby camping at Redwoods National Park

I’ve been in awe of the positive energy that the Adlers have consistently brought to bear throughout this period. In their art, in their learning, in their lives, they are retooling, taking advantage of the situation and responding with thoughtful connection to art in whatever way is feasible. As we move into a new chapter for the Opera Center with the arrival of leaders Carrie-Ann Matheson and Markus Beam in January, it will be fascinating to see how these new technologies change approaches to learning longer term. The Adlers know that this is a unique time for reflection, for learning, for personal growth. The life of a professional opera singer can be relentless, moving from one engagement to another on the road with barely a day in between. Having time to be still in one place, to focus on repertoire development, on technique, on baking — this is a rare opportunity for an artist. Thanks to the tenacity and resilience of the Adlers, and the creativity and thoughtfulness of the support structures of the Opera, this time is allowing the Adlers to develop their artistry in ways that will resonate for years and years to come.

The 2020 Adler Fellows

The 2020 Adler Fellows. Photo: Cheshire Isaacs.

I, for one, am very much looking forward to experiencing that artistry live at the soonest opportunity.

I would like to dedicate this edition of Backstage with Matthew to the memory of Suzanne Turley, who passed away last week. Suzanne was an incredible member of the San Francisco Opera family and a lifelong opera fan. She was devoted to the Adlers and the Merolini, making them feel that San Francisco was home away from home. She welcomed many young artists into her home and developed long and lasting friendships that endured beyond their time at San Francisco Opera.. It has been so heartwarming to see the outpouring of love on social media from so many singers, pianists and directors. She leaves a huge legacy of kindness and friendship, and we will miss her dearly. Adler pianist Kseniia Polistiankina Barrad and her husband Simon Barrad recorded this Tchaikovsky song “Whether day reigns” in Suzanne’s home earlier this year and they share it with you in loving memory of an incredible friend to the Adler Fellows.

 

Suzanne Turley with Adler Fellows Toni Marie Palmertree and Brad Walker

Suzanne Turley with Adler Fellows Toni Marie Palmertree and Brad Walker

With warmest wishes,
Matthew

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