My Chronic Migraines Turned Out to Be “Suicide Disease”

The following blog post comes from BOC member Allison Provaire. A shorter version originally appeared on XOJANE, but we thought Allison’s complete thoughts are worth sharing. Brava to you, Allison, for telling your story so bravely.

About 3 1/2 years ago I started having what I thought was a migraine, a skull crushing, ice pick to the brain migraine. It went on for days, which turned, into weeks and soon my concern began to mount. I have a long history of migraines which began in high school and were usually provoked by stress, so I attributed it to my “burn the candle at both ends” kind of lifestyle.


By day I work as an Executive Assistant in Academia, and by night I am an Opera Singer. I’ve studied music most of my life and received my BA and MM in Vocal Music. Anyone that is a classical musician knows the kind of stress level that comes with acquiring those degrees, and living as a musician is even tougher. From the 14-hour days to the constant auditioning, and constant rejection, it is not a life for the faint of heart.  I attributed my unyielding migraine to my stress level and attempted to deal with it with painkillers, muscle relaxers, and sleep. Nothing seemed to do the job and weeks of pain quickly turned into months, months of chronic, and at times, debilitating pain. Doctor appointment after doctor appointment yielded several diagnoses including chronic migraines, cluster headaches, and (my favorite), icepick headaches. These appointments also led to rounds of medications, medications that did very little, if anything, to help the pain. I became physically and emotionally exhausted, and what’s more, I was unable to sing. I put my life and my passion on hold.

One of the hardest things about this disease is the stress it puts on your life. It seems to leave a trail of destruction in its wake that reaches your family, friends, loved ones, and profession. For me, this was true in every area, but the most distressing was my inability to perform. I am lucky enough to have family, friends, and a significant other that are more supportive than I ever could have imagined. Their love and care during my time of pain are not something everyone can depend on, and I feel truly fortunate in that respect. However, pursuing a passion like Opera requires you, and your body, to be at your best on a regular basis. It is not forgiving. It doesn’t care that you don’t feel well. It demands perfection. The time needed to prepare for auditions, learn music, and polish foreign languages, was not something I had. What I had instead were doctor appointments, acupuncture appointments, Cranio-Sacral  massage appointments (also known as a small woman beating my muscles into submission for an hour, sounds relaxing, I know.) I had no energy left for the thing I have always wanted to do. Even if I had, the pain that came when my voice rattled around inside my head was too unbearable.  Instead, I cancelled auditions, backed out of performances and tended to my health.

Allison in her most recent BOC production, “Opera Bites”, in November 2015. Photo Credit: Dan Busler

Finally, I was referred to a neurologist, a neurologist to whom I am forever grateful. He immediately knew that I was not dealing with cluster headaches or even chronic migraines. This was something more nefarious, he just had to figure out what. My patience and fortitude were waning and almost every evening I was either emailing his office or calling, pleading with him to fit me in as I could no longer deal with the physical pain and mental exhaustion. Finally, one morning during a last minute visit to his office, he said the words that would forever change my life. He said, “I think you have Trigeminal Neuralgia.” I was hopeful, confused, and had a million questions. He changed my medications and within two weeks, my pain was gone. Unless you have dealt with chronic pain, you cannot know the feeling of fairy dust and unicorn magic that comes when that pain is gone. It is better than sex, it is better than drugs, it is better than being surrounded by a thousand Ryan Goslings who each happen to have a new kitten for you.

I did achieve remission after I was put on the proper medication, but I have also suffered through bouts of break-through pain, sometimes lasting weeks, sometimes only days. It is something I manage on a constant basis, by adjustingmy medications when necessary and continuing to pursue alternative therapies like acupuncture and massage, and anything else that might help. I would take up Extreme Ironing if it meant long-term pain relief.

If you are unfamiliar with Trigeminal Neuralgia, here’s a basic description of this disease, which I can only assume was sent from the depths of hell:
                  Trigeminal neuralgia, also known as tic douloureux, sometimes is described as the most excruciating pain known to humanity. The pain typically involves the lower face and jaw, although sometimes it affects the area around the nose and above the eye. This intense, stabbing, electric shock-like pain is caused by irritation of the trigeminal nerve, which sends   branches to the forehead, cheek and lower jaw. It usually is limited to one side of the face.

I happen to have what is referred to as “Atypical Trigeminal Neuralgia” it’s a fun brand of the disease that is marked by non-stop, 24hour pain that can go from mildly annoying to HOLY GOD SOMEONE TAKE MY SKULL OUT OF THAT VICE, interspersed with the severe “electric shock” type pain of Typical TN.  It is so much fun, that is if your definition of fun is having someone stab you in the eye repeatedly while you stand in line at the DMV. Maybe it is, I don’t know your life.

Allison in BOC’s production of “Our Town” (2015) with Sarah Shechtman. Photo Credit: Dan Busler

This disease is also known as the “Suicide Disease” becaus
e many of those afflicted with it have either committed, attempted, or thought of suicide. I sadly know from experience that it is aptly named. Also, it’s more prevalent in women than it is men. Why? No one seems to know exactly. Unfortunately there are still a lot of mysteries yet to be solved regarding this disease but there are a lot of people working on solving them.

For all of my fellow TN warriors out there, stay hopeful and take care of yourselves.  You’re not suffering alone and please hear this, YOU ARE NOT CRAZY. Never let anyone make you feel that way and remember that you are your best advocate. Fight for the care you deserve.

Allison Provaire

FOUR SISTERS: A new perspective, live from rehearsal

BOC’s “Family Feuds” takes place March 10-13 in the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA. One of the three operas on the program is Four Sisters, a one-act opera about a group of sisters, each with different mothers, feuding over the inheritance of their mutual, recently deceased father. Each of the sisters thinks she’ll be happy — if only she can score the windfall left by her father.

We used a GoPro camera to film moments in a recent rehearsal. It provides an interesting perspective on the opera and on what it’s like to take part in an opera rehearsal in general. Below, Tascha Anderson, our fearless GoPro guinea pig, helps provide some context about her character and what it’s like to work on this opera.
What’s the story of your character? How is she different from the other sisters?
Olga is the oldest sister, who thinks she knows best and perhaps sometimes does, but not necessarily as often as she thinks. She is a bit of a curmudgeon, but loves her family very much. She is a sassy, sarcastic, posh New York girl about 28. She loves fashion. She’s seen a lot, done a lot, and takes no bullshit. She’s real, she’s tough, she’s smart, and she wears her emotions on her sleeve (good or bad). She has a good sense of humor, and she’s not afraid of offending anyone. She’s mature and experienced, and she can read almost any situation before/better than her younger sisters. Nevertheless, she’s just as shocked at what happens at the end of the opera as her sisters are.
Is there a lesson to this drama? What’s the point of it?
Good question. I think the point is — there are going to be surprises in life, even when (especially when, sometimes) you least expect it, like in a family situation. And as the opera states itself: Shit happens, and that’s just it — there’s no rhyme or reason for it, and it’s not fair, but it’s just life. That’s the way it goes! And we always have family, even when shit happens, to bring us back to our roots.
How do you think Nathan is different from other directors? (referring Stage Director Nathan Troup)
Wow. Where do I even start with Nathan? Nathan is so, so, so incredibly brilliant. He blows my mind with every show in which I’ve worked with him, and even with every individual rehearsal. He sees a picture in his head, and he somehow knows exactly how to communicate it clearly with you. And sometimes the picture morphs, but it’s a journey, and he’s on it with you. It’s such a collaborative process, in the best ways possible. He comes from a theater background, and he understands how singers think. He also understands that everyone goes through a rehearsal process a bit different, and is able to be a chameleon with his explanations for that reason. One of the many things he does that I just LOVE is he will get up and be your character to help show you what he’s looking for. I think so many of us singers learn visually, so it’s extremely helpful, especially because he adds such an impressive physicality to each character he becomes for that brief moment. I always learn so much working with Nathan — he just makes everything make sense, and finds the common thread. He’s so much fun, too!
How would you describe this music? Do you enjoy singing it?
This music is quite difficult, to be honest. The hardest part though, is not having a conductor. It’s a good challenge in a lot of ways, because you are forced to rely on your cast mates and pianist, and work as a team to stay together. But we have had to make minor adjustments, because there are some things that just don’t work without a conductor. This music is not necessarily intended to be like eating a chocolate bar. It’s no Puccini or Gounod. It doesn’t have many sweeping legato lines or heartstring-tugging melodies. But it definitely sets up a scene (for instance, you’ll hear car alarms in the score, so that you really feel like you’re in New York City), and it tells the story, and I think that’s the point.
Want to join in on the fun?

An interview with Patricia Weinmann, Stage Director of Faust et Marguerite

The “Faustian Bargain.” If someone sacrifices anything for unlimited knowledge or power, they may have made a deal with the devil. Here, the Stage Director of Faust et Marguerite, Patricia Weinmann, lets us into the world of Boston Opera Collaborative’s retelling of the classic Gounod opera.


Can you tell us about the “distillation” of this production? What’s been cut? What does that mean for the show in terms of the narrative arc?

The narrative arc hasn’t changed at all. What we’ve done is focused in on the four main characters and then primarily the two, Faust and Marguerite. We have cleaned out the plate, so to speak, of the chorus, the drunk students, the chorus. Valentin – he is not a central character in this opera. Originally, he didn’t even have an aria. That famous aria was added later for Covent Garden because the baritone wanted an aria. There is a scene near the end where he was killed, but it was still not elemental to the story. The opera is really about Marguerite and Faust. So, for us, it’s an opportunity to really have this luxury of focusing in on these characters because there’s not a lot of static around. For me, as a director, it’s a luxury. And I think for the performers too, it’s a luxury to do that.

Mephistopheles (Brian Church, Marguerite (Emily Jensen), and Faust (Salvatore Atti) rehearse a scene from Act 1.
Mephistopheles (Brian Church), Marguerite (Emily Jensen), and Faust (Salvatore Atti) rehearse a scene from Act 1.

As a director, the least satisfying for me anyway is choreographing enormous drunk student scenes, soldiers – that to me is not interesting dramatically. It’s a lot of color, it’s a lot of activity, but dramatically it’s not interesting. To be able to push that away and see what’s there. It’s almost like panning for nuggets. It’s looking for the essence. We’ve had such rich conversations about characters’ motivations and interactions, and their journey and their arc and what happens. If you think about Faust, a lot of people say, “Poor Marguerite, and Faust is a bad guy.” When you see it like this, you get to know him as a person and see that he, like all of us, has made a terrible mistake. At the end, he’s filled with intense grief and remorse. It’s too late for him. But he’s a real human being. You really see what happened with him. He went in as a joke, but came out the other end realizing that he loved her deeply. Or at least cared about her deeply as a human being.

I’m curious about the two casts and how they present different stories, if they do.

I don’t feel myself so much as a director, although I have a vision for this show and it’s been consuming me for months. But I feel that my role is more of a guide. Everyone, because they’re unique individuals, they’re bringing their own perspective, their own history, their own feelings about bad decisions and regret – about falling in love, about loving someone deeply. Siebel represents unconditional love. He loves her even when everyone else has rejected her because she’s completely abandoned once she becomes pregnant and gets abandoned by Faust. But he’s that beacon of love. Those two people bring their own stories about that, so it’s lovely having different casts. They’re bringing their own gifts and beauty to it.

Have you directed Gounod operas before? What do you find different about this style of opera?

I’ve done Massenet, but I haven’t done a whole lot of Gounod. I’ve done a lot of scenes of Gounod, but this is my first full opera of Gounod. For me he presents endless possibility. He’s a fabulous dramatist. There was never once when I thought, “I have no idea what to do with this,” where in other instances with composers there are of course myriad ways to take it, but you feel like it’s a little more challenging to open doors. With Gounod, you listen to this music and the text – the libretto is beautiful – and you say, “Wow, okay. I can do this, we can do that.” And that’s why we’ve had such great rehearsals and this luxury of time to sit and say, “Let’s talk about Mephistopheles for a minute. And for hours and hours – what does he represent? And who is he in us?” He is us at our most cynical. It’s not even evil so much as it is cynicism – and it’s devastating because there’s no hope. It’s dark.

Speaking of dark, I’ve heard something about the space and what you have – or maybe haven’t – done with the space.

The theater is fantastic. It’s definitely a postindustrial-looking theater. It’s in the basement. It’s got the piping showing everywhere. When Andy, the set designer, and I went there for the first time, we sat there last summer and we said, “Okay, this is not a pretty space. Let’s not try to pretty it up.” This isn’t a pretty story. This is a tough story. So, we’re leaving the theater – it’s a fairly bare, minimalist set, post-industrial. For me, the set also represents moral degradation, and environmental degradation is part of that.

A sample of Andrea Nice’s initial minimalist set design for the BCA.

So the stained glass window in the church, for instance, has pieces missing now. We’ll see what it looks like, but bits and pieces of detritus. Like that, out there. [Here she points to an area of the Fenway around some railroad tracks.] This is environmental degradation. It’s small. It’s not what we’ve done to the planet, but it’s a small picture right there. The filth, the dirt, the old trash, the wood left over there, the cone that’s plastic and not used anymore. All these cars going by and spewing carbon into the air.

So how do you connect that moral degradation to the story?

I don’t think it’s a far jump for anybody to look at that and say, “This is degradation in so many ways.”

How then do you find that this story is relevant today?

All of us have Faust, we are all Mephistopheles. Hopefully we are Siebel, and we have Siebels in our lives. Sadly, many of us are Marguerite. Someone who’s naïve who made an uninformed choice. You can say she was seduced, but she has a free will. It’s an uninformed choice. Faust makes an informed bad choice. But we all have some of each of those characters. And all of us know someone who’s made a tragic mistake. And as you get older, you think wow, yeah. The remorse, and the chance that you had to make something better and you didn’t, which is what happens with Faust. He had a chance. He could have gone back sooner. And maybe Mephistopheles is pushing, pushing, pushing that we’re going to have these eight months – whatever it is, it’s unspecified – why he leaves. But you have to assume that he’s pursuing his sensual pleasure, which is why he made the agreement in the first place – in Gounod’s version. It’s about sensuality, virility, getting his youth back, having fun. A lot of this comes from myths that date back to the Renaissance. Originally, it was unlimited knowledge, knowledge of the universe. Being able to see the cosmos. That’s what the agreement was, for 24 years. It wasn’t so much having a great time. It was more unlimited knowledge and power. But Gounod focuses in on the sensual, the virility and youth he wants back – to pursue this gorgeous girl. There are so many tales though. The ones we know are Marlowe’s and Goethe’s.

An illustration from Goethe’s original version of Faust.

Those are the ones that stand out, but there are so many of those tales, mostly emanating from Germany, but also Poland. It’s the Faustian bargain, selling your soul. Even today, in the news, we say it’s a Faustian bargain. It’s not so much they give up their souls, but they give up their moral principles for greed. You give it all up for greed. Faust, in this opera too, it is greed – it’s greed for youth. He wants youth again. So, it’s an ugly kind of greed, as much as monetary greed is, wealth.

BOC Alumni Profile: Rachele Schmiege

Rachele Schmiege_0101This month’s feature interview is one of BOC’s illustrious alumni, soprano Rachele Schmiege. A graduate of New England Conservatory and a BOC Member for 5 years, Rachele propelled herself into a career of singing numerous roles all over the country, as well as with many New England regional companies.

We talked to Rachele about the challenges and joys of a life of a singer balancing gigs, day-jobs, traveling and much more! Find out more about Rachele on her website:

What job did you have when you were in BOC? (i.e. – committee, team, staff, etc.)

I had numerous jobs while I was in BOC: Christina English and I were membership Co-Chairs for a while, then I was on the special events team and later I became the Special Events Chair.

What roles did you have with BOC? Which one was your favorite?

I was in the inaugural production of Iphigénie en Aulide as the Goddess Diana. Other roles included: Queen of the Night in the Magic Flute, Beth in Little Women and Frasquita in Carmen, Voluptua in Pizza con Funghi and Blanche in Dialogue of the Carmelites.

Rachele backstage with some of the BOC Carmen cast, 2009. From left to right: Jean Paul Putney, Kristina Riegle, Michael Sakir, Brooke Larimer, Brendan Buckley, Rachele Schmiege
Rachele backstage with some of the BOC Carmen cast, 2009. From left to right: John Paul Putney, Kristina Riegle, Michael Sakir, Brooke Larimer, Brendan Buckley, Rachele Schmiege
BOC Little Women 2
Rachele performing the role of “Beth” in Little Women, next to other BOC alumni Beth Lytwynec.

What’s something that you wish you would’ve known about a singing career when you were leaving graduate school?  In other words – what DON’T the conservatories tell you?

At the time, New England Conservatory did not have any entrepreneurship classes. I’m pretty sure about half my graduating class believed that they were going to graduate and step right into a Young Artist Program, The Metropolitan Opera or a busy singing career. As great as this would have been, this is not the reality of classical singing: there is a lot of hustle, a lot of “thinking outside the box,” and a lot of hard work and heartache. I had to learn these lessons as I went along and sometimes they were hard lessons. I’m happy to report that NEC now has a great Entrepreneurship Program and I volunteer as a mentor to help guide young singers.

There’s a lot of debate going around about YAP’s and their function as catalysts for young artists into careers. What’s your take on this, and did you find the YAP’s you participated in a worthwhile experience?

I was fortunate enough to have a few different Young Artist experiences that have shaped my current musical career. They provided contacts, experiences and useful tools to fill the void between graduate school and a singing career. I think that the right program can really help a young career move forward, but some can really burn a singer out. I have known talented colleagues that have been used and abused by these programs. Do your research and talk to colleagues to find out which might be the best fit for you! Also, Young Artist programs are not the only way to start a career: get inventive and make opportunities if you find that this road is proving to be challenging.

Do you have a dream role?  Have you sung it yet?  If yes, what’s a role that you haven’t sung that you can’t wait to sing?

Rachele performing her dream role in La Traviata at Hubbard Hall Opera
Rachele performing her dream role in La Traviata at Hubbard Hall Opera

About two years ago, I closed La Traviata with Hubbard Hall Opera with an amazing sense of accomplishment and dread. I had just premiered my dream role… what next? Since then, I have created a larger list of dream roles, but I also want to perform La Traviata again. Once you fall that deeply in love with a role, there is an intense need to do it again. I can’t wait until the next time!

What kind of music do you listen to beyond opera and classical?  Do you have a favorite band or artist?

I listen to everything! I love pop, club, country, disco, golden oldies… you name it, I will probably listen to it. I do love opera, but often my ears need a break and a simpler chord progression.

What’s your favorite piece of music (opera, song, theater or otherwise) and why?

Verdi’s Requiem … do I really need to explain why? Its glorious!!! Grab your drink of choice and really listen to the piece. I discover something new every time I sing or listen to this piece.

On singing careers – Do you think the nature of making a career of singing in opera is changing?  If so, how do you think the experience of BOC can help a young singer prepare for their next stage?

When I was in BOC, there was a great sense of team work. I know that my experience in BOC as the Special Events chair helped me to land my first day job… and let’s face it, we all need help paying the bills between and during gigs. Sadly, making a living as a singer is a hard road and very few singers can make this their sole job. I know singers that are singing at the best houses in our country and also working at law offices, yoga studios and marketing firms. BOC taught me valuable skills: how to solicit companies for goods and services, work with donors and confidential information, teamwork and running a committee. Paying the bills is not really optional… Having a correlating career is often necessary and developing your tool box of skills will not only help you in your opera career, but help you everywhere in life.

On opera as an art form – How do you think opera is evolving and changing with the times?  Or do you think it’s staying the same?  Do you prefer opera to be reinvented or remain the same?

I think companies have to evolve and reinvent to keep their doors open. Gone are the days of resting on laurels and assuming that the company process is “good enough.” PR and Marketing is key and social media is not an option. The one thing that should stay the same is the quality and the standard of productions: great singers telling a worthwhile story. Personally, I love a good show: reinvent it, keep it traditional, set it in Vegas… As long as it makes sense, I see nothing wrong with it.

What are some of the sacrifices you’ve had to make in order to be a successful singer?

I would not call them “sacrifices” per se, but I have made choices to advance my career that have taken me away from family, friends, vacations and life events.  On the other hand I have also made choices not to advance my career by turning down gigs that have not paid enough that were a “great opportunity” or took me away from home for too long.  The key to this career is balance and making decisions that are right for you in the moment and at that stage in your career.  Sometimes there is regret, but you can’t beat yourself up over the things that “might” have happened.

What’s next for you?

I have a very exciting 2015-2016 season! This year I am revisiting favorites, playing a fairy tale princess, reuniting with favorite colleagues, returning to opera companies and making company debuts! Stay tuned and find updates on my website at:

Sing it Rachele!
Sing it Rachele!

16 Tips for Singers on Moving to a New City

My dear blog readers,

First and foremost, I apologize that I haven’t posted in some time; it’s been a crazy few months with a wedding (Yay I’m Married!) and now… very sadly, a move.  This will be my final post as your blog editor but I have decided to use this opportunity to tell you about my experience so far in relocating as an emerging professional.

Sadie Gregg, former head of marketing and PR, has also recently moved all the way to Portland, OR.  Sadie and I are known for writing viral Buzzfeed articles… and that is the format we have chosen for today’s post.

1. Make a list of pros and cons before you move.  Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into and that you’ve really thought it through. 


2. But also accept the fact that you’ll never actually know if this is the right decision.  Even if you’ve made literally hundreds of pros and cons lists (see #1)


3. If you’re actually excited to move, ride that wave out, man.  Because, it turns out, the actual process of moving sucks no matter if you’re excited or bummed.  You’re all like, “YAY I just packed the kitchen.  Oh wait, I still have like… 9,436,843 more things to pack…” 


4.Start cold emailing people pretty much every day of your life until you land some gigs.  And know that some of those gigs might be a little questionable. 


5. Start searching for your new day job BEFORE you move.  Because job searching  is never going to be fun.


6. If you’re moving to your hometown, anticipate all of your friends saying this very phrase simultaneously “OMG LET’S HANG OUT LIKE ALL THE TIME” 


7. Pack to make sure that you know EXACTLY where all your music is.  You know, just in case one of those cold emails lands you a gig where you have to sing a bunch of obscure music that you haven’t actually learned but are certain you have it in one of your hundreds of music books but is invariably packed away in some indiscriminate box for the rest of eternity…AKA you’re never finding it ever again unless you have a card catalog for your moving boxes.   


8. Take this opportunity to go through your music.  Get rid of old crappy copies that you’ve made.  Start over new.  A move is a perfect opportunity purge.  Out with the old and in with the new!


9. There is a chance that you’ll make some pretty good connections right away.  People will offer you gigs without even hearing you sing.  Kind of cool that all that hard work you’ve put into making your résumé beautiful has actually paid off, am I right? 


10.  Take on the attitude of “everything’s going to be okay” even if you don’t know that.  Go confidently in whatever direction you decide because sometimes, that’s all you can do. 


11. If you happen to be moving with a spouse or partner, ALWAYS discuss whether this move is good for BOTH of you.  Even if they’re not a musician, these discussions must happen.  Moving is a big deal.  


12. Sometimes your job makes you an offer that is really hard to refuse even though you’ve already made up your mind about the move.  If you really like your job, this is one of the hardest things ever.  If you don’t, well… 


13. One of the hardest parts about moving as a singer is saying goodbye to your voice teacher.  No way around this. 

14. And saying goodbye to your friends is probably just as hard.  But, look at the bright side, you have friends to stay with when you visit!  


15. Some unrelated and rather interesting information; make sure your landlord has put your security deposit and last month’s rent in an interest bearing account before you vacate.  And ensure that your next landlord does the same thing.  People are greedy and seedy and not very nice sometimes.  Don’t find that out the hard way (like I did…)


16. Last but not least, don’t forget to thank the people you’ve worked with… either in person, over the phone, drop them a note, send them smoke signals, whichever format you choose… just make sure that people know you value the time they have devoted to you and your development.  

On that note, thank you, Boston Opera Collaborative, for all of your time, your beautiful art, and for helping me to become a better musician.  I will miss you all dearly but look forward to when we are reunited.  This isn’t goodbye… it’s just see you later.

Truly yours,

Lawren and Sadie


Whatever the Music May be Worth: An interview with Ned Rorem



I recently had the privilege and pleasure of speaking with Mr. Ned Rorem.  As soon as I got word that we would be speaking, I very frantically began to devour any and every interview, article, program note, and Wikipedia article that I could find to learn what I could about him.  The more I read, the more I gleaned of what I might expect when speaking to Ned.  Ned comes off as a confident, honest, opinionated, and fiercely loyal man.  In his repertoire are hundreds of songs, 7 operas (12 if you count each of the Fables individually), 3 symphonies, and a vast number of orchestral, chamber, and choral pieces.  As someone who is just barely emerging as a professional musician, you can imagine how intimidated I was in preparing for this call.

The day of the interview arrived.  I was a pile of nerves.  I had a million doubts and worries; what if my questions weren’t good enough?  What if he didn’t like me?  What if I sounded stupid or uninformed?  As the clock ticked closer to 5:15, when our call was scheduled, one of my coworkers offered me a beer.  I gratefully accepted in hopes that it would help to calm my nerves.  I cautiously dialed his number (I still can’t believe I have Ned Rorem’s phone number) and as we spoke, I realized I didn’t need anything to calm my nerves. Ned was so kind and earnest.  As my anxiety melted away, I was left with a sense of wonder and awe of a man I have admired for many years.  My questions are italicized, while Ned’s responses are in bold.


Our Town is a classic in the repertoire of American literature and plays.  What drew you to this piece as material for your wildly successful opera?

Interestingly, it’s very attractive.  I’m not the first person to want to do it.  Aaron Copland did the music for the movie.  I wouldn’t even have done it if I hadn’t gotten the rights.  A lot of composers have wanted to do it.  It’s such a well known play, whatever the music may be worth.


In an interview with J.D McClathy from 1999, you said that “music is the most abstract of the arts, painting the most concrete.”  With this attitude, I wondered what your experience was in collaborating with McClatchy?  What did you want to bring out most in the text?  

I just wanted to clarify the text as I have.  Any changes I made to the libretto were done long before.  I wanted to write a listenable text, whatever the music may be worth.


You have written 7 operas, but you have said that song is your preferred medium in writing for the voice.  Our Town is certainly a landmark for modern American opera (and one of the most beautiful, in my opinion).   Why do you prefer song to opera? What has drawn you to both?

It used to be so.  I’m the only person in America for years that was even writing song and in those days, there were still singers [performing song].  I can’t even think of one composer in present day that specializes in song.  I also like writing in my own language.  It’s very funny that Americans would take a text in any language but their own (God knows Americans are full of themselves).  Virgil Thomson has written, in his native tongue, some pretty good operas.



You’ve given Boston Opera Collaborative your permission to change the role of the Stage Manager from a tenor to a soprano.  Is there a reason for your flexibility?  Do you view your work as evolving even still or do you feel it’s more concrete?

I’m not much against it.  I think that music is music.  I don’t see why Tosca can’t be done by a man.  Once I’ve written a piece, I forget about it.  I’m just pleased that my music is played.


You have said that you hope to be remembered for your piece, “Aftermath”.  You held fast to your pacifist beliefs in the wake of 9/11.  Are you writing anything in reaction to the current events?  ISIS?  Ferguson and now, Baltimore?

No, I’m not.  I’m not writing anything.  I’ve more or less said everything I’ve had to say.  I don’t think that music necessarily politically influences the world.  I’m trying to think of a piece that is very powerful and has influence on the world and I can’t.  I don’t think that in times of war that you have to write about lilies of the valley.  Right now, I’m not doing anything.  I’m only writing right now on commissions. 



I often have difficulty justifying my continued pursuit of music.  As someone who has been wildly successful in this field, what advice would you give to an emerging artist/professional?  What made you continue?

Money and performances.  I think there’s something tragic about someone who just writes a piece for the the hell of it.  I think you should have something in mind- a performance in mind.  I think it’s insane to just write something.  Nobody is writing songs any more.  I can’t think of any singers who specialize in the singing of songs.  Plus when American singers give recitals, they sing in every language but their own.  


You have said that you feel like you may have said everything you have ever wanted to say, as an author and as a composer.  Is there anything you wished you had written more of?  Less of?  Anything you would take back if you could?

No.  I don’t.  If I had a commission somehow, to write another piece,  I would do it.  But if I died right now, I would not be ashamed of what I leave.  Americans are specialists but in France people do more than one thing.  And even if they are only writers they do poetry and novels as well.  I wrote for the same reason as anyone would.  I wouldn’t do it unless I knew someone would read it.


I inquired into his writing of “The Paris Diary” asking how he felt about his publisher changing the order of some of his words- and commented that I felt he was courageous for being so open about his sexuality in a time when society was far more cruel to the gay community.

I wouldn’t have let it be published unless I was okay with it.  I was very open about my sexuality… I didn’t think of it as courage.  I just wrote what I wrote.


Ned with Gary Graffman and Andre Previn


 Are there any young composers that you are currently interested in or new works that you’ve been following?

I’m having a hard time thinking of anyone.  [I listen] Less now than I used to because I’m getting older.  I’m not interested in teaching any more.  It takes so much out of me.  But I try to keep up with who’s doing what. 



When we hung up the phone, I was filled with such awe and joy;  I was and still am so inspired by Ned’s confidence in the quality of his work and in himself.    And now, I can live my life knowing that I have heard the voice of one of the greatest composers of modern opera and been able to share his voice with you all here.  So, from all of us in Boston Opera Collaborative:


Thank you, Ned Rorem.  You are an inspiration to all of us.



Singing Through Cancer

Guest post by singing roster member Stephanie Mann (who can be seen in BOC’s upcoming production of Our Town as “Mrs. Gibbs”), on how she sang her way through cancer.

‘I have been through Hell and have come out singing’

When I was asked to write a Blog post about my experience with ‘singing through major adversity’, I really wasn’t entirely sure how to start. Everyone has adversity in their lives and ‘major’ is a broad term. I knew what it meant though.

I am a Soprano and a Cancer Survivor.

As I thought about this post and wondered what to focus on and what points to make, I finally decided to talk about what singing did for me while dealing with all of this.

I honestly don’t think I could have gotten through without my singing and performance schedule.

Right before I was diagnosed with Stage I Breast Cancer, I had been cast as ‘Fiordiligi’ in a production of Cosi fan tutte. I was so excited to be working on this show and when everything crashed down, I was urged by my parents and doctors to back out of the production. I didn’t have to think too long before I told them that if I backed out, if I didn’t perform, then I wouldn’t be sure that I would be able to get through all of this.

Stephanie Mann 3
Stephanie as “Fiordiligi” with BOC Alumna Christina English as “Dorabella.”


I auditioned for a musical less than a week after my surgery.

It was the music that kept me going. It was the learning of the piece and the staging and performances that got me through my surgery and my first two rounds of chemotherapy. It was the wonderfully supportive cast and artistic staff of that production who got me through my hair loss, weight loss, and appetite loss.

What I wasn’t warned about was the phenomena commonly known as ‘chemo-brain’. Like many singers, I work a day job and working on music when I wasn’t at work (and sometimes when I was). I drilled the words and music so many times and I would have it down cold. But ‘chemo-brain’ would strike and suddenly, I couldn’t remember a thing! It was always at different parts in recits or ensembles; never the same place twice. I only had one performance, out of four, where I didn’t lose my place somewhere. Maybe it could have been worse in that as a performer, I had trained to be able to memorize and retain large amounts of text and music. But it wasn’t limited just to Mozart.

When that production ended, I swiftly entered rehearsals for a production of The Scarlet Pimpernel. I had spoken at length with a friend on the West Coast who was going through the same thing I was, only a couple of months ahead of me. She was, herself, a dancer, and knew the need to make art as well as the healing power it has. The director knew what was going on, but I didn’t announce it to anyone else. The first person to guess was one of the men in the cast who was actually a Doctor. Others swiftly followed until it was known…but again, it was the very need to perform that got me through the rest of my chemotherapy treatments and the bone aches. I finished my treatment right before opening of the show and did the performances exhausted and bald (I had 4 wigs in the show!), but I made it and had a blast!

Stehpanie Mann 1
Backstage napping during ‘Pimpernel’ (I totally don’t remember falling asleep…ever).
Stephanie Mann 5
One of the fun wigs I got to wear during ‘Pimpernel’!

Immediately afterwards (while still bald), I was invited into a concert production of Wagner operas as well as a concert production of Don Giovanni. I never stopped singing; not even when I felt nauseous or in pain from the surgery or chemotherapy and not even when I was so exhausted that I fell asleep backstage. I still had coachings even when my breath control was pretty much shot because my body was so weak and tired.

Because if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to make it through everything that I had to get through.

I really didn’t feel like I was through it all until I was singing in an outdoor concert event that August and, during a break, one of the audience members came up to me and asked, “I don’t mean to pry, but do you have cancer?” I told her that I had recently finished my treatments but yes, I did. She said that she was an Oncology nurse and noticed my port scar (the port was still in as I had continuing treatment for a year) which was why she asked. She then said that I sounded beautiful and was amazing for being able to do what I was doing.

It was then that I took ownership of my scars and realized that I had, indeed, come through this singing.

It was Stage I and the tumor was completely removed with surgery, but because of my age and the type it was, chemotherapy and radiation were strongly advised. I have scars that I never dreamed I’d have. I have to get through appearance issues and strength and all of the unknowns that come with chemo (no one knows how anyone will truly react). I still have an enjoyment of coconut despite having two coconut popsicles at every chemo appointment (twice a month from January to May) to try and prevent mouth sores that could stop me from singing. I have had to deal with the stares and the snarky comments about my sexual preferences once I started going without my wigs/turbans/hats as my hair started growing back.

Stephanie Mann 2
My visit home after finishing treatments…3 generations of us!


The side-effect of all this was that performing gave me drive so I wouldn’t just lay down and stop. It was music that gave me strength. It was the love of the art that pushed me through everything onto those stages every night. And it was the support of my friends, family, and colleagues who showed me that people are truly amazing and we take our relationships with them for granted.

And I never stopped singing.

The Many Talented Guest Artists of Rinaldo

Michael Sakir, Guest Conductor


The very talented conductor Michael Sakir is no stranger to Boston Opera Collaborative.  In fact, you might remember him from BOC’s production of Dead Man Walking or one of the three other shows including Little Women (2010), Carmen (2009) or The Magic Flute (2008).  He joins us for his fifth show (that’s right, FIVE SHOWS!) to conduct the upcoming production of Rinaldo.  Returning to BOC is like “coming home” for Michael and over his seven years as a guest conductor with BOC, it has become like “family” to him.   “This is my first Baroque opera.  It has been a thrill and a wonderful challenge to dive into an area of repertoire that I thought I would never be a part of,” he said. When the opportunity to work with co-artistic directors Greg Smucker and Patricia Weinmann presented itself, Michael was very excited; “who better to dip my toes into the world of early music than with a company and with individuals with whom I am already dear friends?”

Michael spends most of his time conducting 19th century Italian opera and contemporary American opera, but is very excited to venture into the world of early music with BOC.  He already has an impressive list of operas in his repertoire including Dead Man Walking, Little Women, and The Tender Land, to name a few but his hunger for opera isn’t yet satisfied. When I asked, out of curiosity, what he would love to conduct,  Michael paused, pulled out a list and listed his top 3; Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, Andrea Chénier by Umberto Giordano, and even Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Mezzo-soprano Courtney Miller, composer Jake Heggie, & stage director David Gram – Jake Heggie’s DEAD MAN WALKING – Boston Opera Collaborative – March 2013

In addition to making this journey with BOC, Michael will be also be making his maiden voyage with the New Vintage Baroque ensemble.  According to him, “The Boston early music scene is very small but very active,” which led to the partnership with NVB.  Michael befriended the co-founder of NVB, Lindsay McIntosh, when they were both attending Boston Conservatory.  The partnership with New Vintage Baroque turned out to be, “a perfect match”, as they are, “an ensemble dedicated to storytelling and to drama and theatricality, which is perfect for [Rinaldo].”


Lindsay McIntosh, Co-Founder of New Vintage Baroque and Oboist



Lindsay McIntosh joins us from New Vintage Baroque as one of the founding members and the oboist in the group.  Similar to BOC, Lindsay is as active behind the scenes as she is in performing.  She says, “I oversee and guided all projects that are NVB. I guess you could say there is nothing I don’t do for New Vintage Baroque. My co- artistic directors Francis Liu and Clay Zeller-Townson help me tremendously in steering this amazing ship that is NVB.”

For many musicians, finding a niche in the musical world takes some time.  For Lindsay, Baroque music “found” her rather late in her undergraduate career.  She took a class for Baroque ornamentation while studying at Boston University.  She says, “At first the sound of a baroque oboe along side a modern oboe was a bit awkward to my ears but the teacher, Marc Schachmann, immediately picked up the vibe that I really loved playing baroque music.”  It was at his urging that she began taking private lessons geared specifically towards Baroque oboe and everything sort of clicked.  “It was a little like fate,” she says.

New Vintage Baroque was born of Lindsay’s discovery and subsequent love of early and Baroque music.  Lindsay commissioned a, “rap cantata” from composer  Doug Balliett (composer and narrator of NVB).  She approached co-founder Frances Liu, who, “at the time was in the Juilliard Historical performance program with me, asking him if he’d like to be part of this rap cantata, then quickly after that conversation New Vintage Baroque was born.”


New Vintage Baroque at the Gershwin Hotel
New Vintage Baroque at the Gershwin Hotel

When guest conductor Michael Sakir approached Lindsay about collaborating with BOC on Rinaldo, she was, “over the moon”.  She says, “I commend BOC in hiring a historical group to be their opera pit, the sound you will hear is like no other…”  Additionally, she lauds Rinaldo as one of Handel’s most beautiful operas and is really excited to work with, “the talented cast of Rinaldo.

Following Rinaldo, NVB will be very busy, “closing our very successful second season May 8-10th, with a program and a new commission from Oracle Hysterical all about the Passionate Pilgrimage.”  In their 3rd season, they begin with, ” a regional tour of our inaugural season featuring Doug Balliett’s rap cantatas, then we will commission a new piece by Simon Frisch, where he will be writing us a song cycle in the lost language of Breton, then we will later tour Brittany France in the summer of 2016.”  Their 3rd season closes with an opera by Doug Balliett based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, taking place, “in the historical Morris-Jumel Mansion, where Hamilton resided.”


Tommy Neblett, Choreographer


Coming to us from the Boston Conservatory and Prometheus Dance, Tommy Neblett is an incredible guest to Boston Opera Collaborative.  Mr. Neblett and his wife, Diane, are long-time friends to artistic director, Patricia Weinmann, so when he was asked to join the artistic team for Rinaldo, he was thrilled.  He says, “I love opera, I’ve always loved opera… and I love working with opera.  My wife Diane and I used to be choreographers with Opera Boston.”  While engaged with Opera Boston, Mr. Neblett worked on Les pêcheurs de perles, Alceste, Nixon in China, among others.  It was through this that he found his unexpected joy in working with opera singers.  I am not the most graceful so I had to know how he felt about working with opera singers.  He said, “All in good nature, I find it challenging [to work with opera singers] but it’s a good challenge.  I love being in a room filled with singing.  It is just ethereal to me.”

In his 27 years with Prometheus Dance, Tommy and Diane have had the opportunity to travel around the world and explore in ways he never imagine.  One of the highlights of this international career includes a performance, “in Spain in front of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela at midnight.”  In addition to Prometheus, Tommy and Diane have a second company called The Elders Ensemble where, “we choreograph specifically for [elderly women], plus we choreograph some inter-generational pieces where the [young professionals] dance with the elderly women.”  He highlights this as one of his favorite opportunities as a choreographer, calling it “heart-warming” and “precious”.

Tommy’s area of expertise is modern dance, which he characterizes as, “very technical and very athletic” and often focused on many social issues from rape to genocide.  The piece Apocalypsis was based on the Kosovo War and “one of the best things we’ve ever done for the company”.  Devil’s Wedding, another piece, was inspired by the book Reading Lolita in Tehran and focused on women’s rights in the Middle East.  Prometheus has even been commissioned to choreograph a piece based on Tourette syndrome, an experience that Tommy says was enlightening and beautiful.  The process involved videotaping people with exhibiting the involuntary movements associated with the disorder called “tics” and translating those into dance.  The project culminated in a benefit performance for the Tourette community.  Mr. Neblett says he’s enjoyed working on pieces with social impact; however, the company is striving to bring lighter pieces into their repertoire, saying he and his wife, “don’t want to be pigeonholed into just one category.”


Check out this video of excerpts from a show that Tommy and his wife Diane choreographed!

BOC Alumni Profile: Christina English

Christina English


Known for her “agile mezzo-soprano voice” and “striking” presence, Christina English brings dramatic commitment and musical sensitivity to a versatile array of opera, concert and musical theater performances throughout the New England area. Christina’s recent performances include her “intriguing” portrayal (The Boston Globe) of the hateful stepmother Háta in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride with Boston Midsummer Opera, and an extended 7-week run as Cinderella’s stepsister Florinda in Sondheim’s Into the Woods with Lyric Stage Company of Boston. She has also recently appeared as a soloist with Odyssey Opera, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and Guerrilla Opera, and was an active member of Boston Opera Collaborative for 7 years.


Engagements in the 2014-15 season include: Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston; regular school performances with the Handel & Haydn Society outreach vocal quartet; Pasatieri’s Signor Deluso at Music on Norway Pond; and her ensemble debut with Boston Baroque in Bach’s St. John Passion. Christina is a founding member of Lorelei Ensemble, a women’s vocal chamber ensemble dedicated to the performance of new works for women’s voices. She recently appeared with Lorelei in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Kansas, as well as in the Jordan Hall premiere of The Debrecen Passion by Kati Agócs with Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Upcoming engagements with Lorelei include a chamber performance at Sloane Merrill Gallery in Beacon Hill; residencies and performances with the Mt. Holyoke Chamber Singers and Handel & Haydn Society Women’s Chorus; performances at the ACDA and Chorus America conferences; and Shelter, a concert featuring two world premieres and a collaboration with Chinese calligrapher Mike Mei.



1      What has been your involvement with BOC (i.e. roles, other performances, work experiences administrative, committee, etc.)?

 I performed in the ensemble of BOC’s first full production, Iphigénie en Aulide; Don Giovanni (chorus); Suor Angelica (La Badessa/Zelatrice);Little Women (Meg); Carmen (Mercédès); Orpheus in the Underworld (Public Opinion); various scenes programs and concerts. ADMIN: I was co-chair of membership (alongide Rachele Schmiege) shortly after I joined BOC in 2006. I also served as Clerk, Special Events chair, and on the Dead Man Walking task force.


2      How has membership with BOC affected your career?  The behind the scenes work and the singing?

Being a part of BOC was a wonderful learning experience that also created lots of opportunities for me. Doing behind the scenes work helped prepare me for the work that goes on behind the scenes of my own career. I learned networking and development skills, and built relationships with colleagues and patrons that I maintain to this day. Performance-wise, I was able to add several great roles to my resume during my time in BOC, keeping my resume up-to-date and relevant, and gaining valuable experience working with talented directors and conductors.


Christina portraying a very sassy Mercedes in BOC's Carmen
Christina portraying a very sassy Mercedes in BOC’s Carmen



  1. What’s something that you wish you would’ve known about a singing career when you were leaving graduate school?  In other words – what DON’T the conservatories tell you?

Conservatories would do their students a big service if they would more deeply address the personal, emotional, and practical aspects of having a career. For example, how might you support yourself when you are first starting out, rather than expect that you will instantly have a successful, bill-paying career or follow the prescribed YAP to mainstage path? How do you envision your daily life as a working musician, and how does this align (or not) with the realities of a singing career? How do you maintain friendships and relationships amidst the pressures and challenges of a competitive and stressful business?  Speaking of this business: practical training in the business side of singing is lacking at many conservatories. The Entrepreneurial Musicianship program at NEC, which developed shortly after I left, is a great example of such a program, and I am seeing these programs pop up more frequently at conservatories. As a singer, you are a product and, unless you have management, you are your own boss, employee, and management team. All that said, I don’t think we can expect any one person or entity (like a conservatory) to tell us everything we need to know about this career. We need to ask questions, learning as much as we can about people who are working in this business and how they have navigated all these issues. Young singers should also seek out as many different learning opportunities as they can; I learned a lot of these things that “conservatories don’t teach” from my participation in programs like Seagle Music Colony, OperaWorks, and Brevard Music Center. Find out where you lack knowledge or understanding, and figure out where to get more information and advice. Build yourself a team of people you trust who can help you navigate all these issues.

4      Do you have a dream role?  Have you sung it yet?  If yes, what’s role that you haven’t sung that you can’t wait to sing?

I have sung Meg in Little Women, but Jo is at the top of my list of dream roles. I identify much more with her character than with Meg, and would love to take on such a complex and vocally challenging role. 


5      What kind of music do you listen to beyond opera and classical?  Do you have a favorite band or artist?

I generally only listen to opera for study purposes; I’m more likely to be listening to an indie band or meditative/ambient music. Music I’ve been listening to lately includes Lucius, Pollens, Kishi Bashi, and Macklemore; and sometimes, I just need to put on some Queen and belt my brains out.


6      What’s your favorite piece of music (opera, song, theater or otherwise) and why?

I honestly can’t pick a favorite. I love to match music to my mood, the seasons, and my activities, so my “favorite” really varies with these conditions.


7      How do you think opera is evolving and changing with the times?  Or do you think it’s staying the same?  Do you prefer opera to be reinvented or remain the same?

I think there needs to be a balance of the two things. There is something to be said for a traditional opera that is presented clearly and simply, allowing the music to speak for itself. However, there is so much potential in trying new things with old material, presenting operas in alternative venues or with unusual stagings that can bring out different elements of the story. Also, new compositions are just as important to this art as the traditional canon. Composers today are telling stories that are relevant to today’s audiences using a musical language that is more accessible, or perhaps more innovative, than traditional opera. This is a vital part of keeping our art alive, and doing our part as a generation of singers to contribute to an art form that is still living, no matter how many people will try to tell us it is dying!


8      Tell us about your most memorable or unique performance experience!

After college, I performed Le nozze di Figaro with Operafestival di Roma in a courtyard near Piazza Navona. My most memorable experience is actually not of being onstage, but of waiting backstage during the overture and looking up at the sky, hearing Mozart’s beautiful music resonate within the space. The audience was dressed casually, people were eating ice cream and snacks, children were quietly watching, and it just seemed to me to be a perfect moment in time. I try to remember that feeling whenever I perform – that I am creating something beautiful and new every time I walk onto a stage, and the audience is there to be swept away with me.


9      What activities do you enjoy beyond singing?

I can’t wait to get back on my bicycle after all this snow melts! Because I’m taking a break from yoga after a wrist injury, I had the bright idea to take up running (well…let’s call it jogging), which I’m really enjoying. I love going to concerts, museums and events with friends and hanging out with my handsome cat Arturo and my equally handsome boyfriend Jameson (an actual person, not the whiskey).


10  What’s next for you?!  

I have a busy spring with Lorelei Ensemble, starting with a chamber performance at Sloane Merrill Gallery in Beacon Hill on April 1 – come join us! We’ll have hors d’oeuvres and cocktails served alongside beautiful music and art –  April Fool’s jokes not included.


Guest Post: Dane Palmer “In Defense of Pop: Ke$ha, Chiptune, and why you should listen to the radio”


Dane Palmer

Dane Palmer is a Boston-based marimbist, bike mechanic, and theater technician.  Recently graduating from Boston Conservatory, he has performed all over, most recently in Shenzhen, China. Dane is currently commissioning pieces from many sources, all based on showing the commonalities between popular music and classical.

“I do think it’s important that people who profess to really be interested in music….to expose themselves to the width and breadth of the music available to them, and in this day and age that’s everything.” -Chris Thile-

I have a day job. I’ve spent the last 5 years paying my bills as a freelance theatre technician and bike mechanic in Boston.  Every day working with people who don’t listen to music that we define as ‘intellectually stimulating’. We would get to work and turn on the radio. I spent a long time fighting this by plugging myself into my phone and listening to what I wanted to listen to. But after a while this became anti-social and boring. So I unplugged, and started living with what was on the radio that day. After a while, I found myself analyzing whatever was playing and noticed there was a lot more to pop music than I had been told.

The biggest realization I had was that 99% of the time you’ll hear pop music it’s recorded. This means it’s the same every time. But it also means that every single sound is permanent. The performer or producer is saddled with the weight of this performance being concrete. One of the things that I like the most about performing live is that as soon as I play a note, I can’t get it back. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. But they don’t have this luxury. Now they also have the luxury of being able to try as many times as they want until they get it right. Which just means that they have no reason for it not to be perfect. That just seems insane to me. The only thing that’s acceptable in the popular music world is perfection.

I tried to discuss this with friends and classmates. As soon as I mentioned ‘pop music’ in any capacity, they turned off. They would stop listening and thinking and participating at all. I’d ask their opinion on different artists and they would have never heard of songs that have hit number one on charts all over the world.

I’m going to very briefly show you some of the thought behind a song that many of my colleagues consider to be a horrible crime against music. And explain where it all came from. Some terms you may need to know for any of this to make sense:

Chiptune Here’s an example of chiptune style. (credit to Trey Frey. Check him out. He’s awesome.)

8-bit : a computer architecture which was used to make early video games on systems like Super Nintendo and Gameboy. Chiptunes were originally written using these early computers and today the sound is emulated in much more complex programs that recreate the restrictions that these early computers had.

Synthesizer : A sound creating device often times built to look and play like a piano. All it does is synthesize sounds with timbral parameters created by the musician. I will shorten this word to it’s common name of ‘synth’.

Kesha’s song “Tik Tok” is heavily influenced by a style of music called chiptune. If you don’t know what chiptunes are think Gameboy or Super Nintendo. The song starts off with her singing over a very standard chiptune sound that is acting as the chord structure and the bass line at the same time. It’s very simple, but it’s job is to show the key and create a rhythmic opposition to the melody line. Then starting at ~00:17 the drums come in. Still very simple (just bass drum and snare) but this is very typical in a chiptune song, and Kesha follows chiptune rules extensively. The synth notes are inverted to add a sense of movement upward and create a growing sense of excitement. As the chorus starts, the synth sound changes slightly to add more body and and depth to the sound. The original sound still can be heard in the background helping to fill out the sound. Hi-hat is also added to have more rhythmic drive going forward.

So far we have 6 layers. Bass synth, mid-range synth, bass drum, hi-hat, and 2 layers of vocals. One of the biggest restrictions of chiptunes is that they can only have 8 layers of sounds (chiptune is derived from an 8-bit computer system. 8-bit = 8 sounds).

The bridge takes a lot of these layers away, using only a synth sound that is much more rounded than the initial synth sound, very quiet hi-hat, and vocals. Eventually adding in two more layers of a bass drum and an arpeggiated synth in the background.

The final chorus uses the same six instruments as the original choruses, but also adds the arpeggiated synthesizer and another vocal layer acting as a descant in the background of the main vocals.

This is a very quick and dirty analyzation of how and why Kesha uses the sounds she does and how her layering is influenced by chiptunes and 8-bit music. There are many other rules and constraints she is following, along with many reasons she chooses the sounds that she used, but I’ll save that for a later time.

Just for comparison’s sake, here is an chiptune exclusive version of Tik Tok posted by ‘FrankJavCee’ on youtube. You can easily hear how the sounds in Kesha’s version are almost identical to the sounds that chiptunes are able to make.

This explanation is not to make you like the song. Or to make you like Kesha. It’s just to show that there is a reason to listen and try to understand every genre of music. No music is beneath anybody. It’s rather eye opening to be able to pull the same amount of care and construction out of a Kesha song as I would pull from a composed academic work. The biggest differences are usually where the intellectual emphasis is placed.

I like to think that gaining this knowledge of styles of popular music, and incorporating it into programming concerts and recitals is a way to get new audience members in the door. By applying culturally relevant rules and ideas, we have a chance to make music that is culturally relevant again.

I’ll leave you with a video made by Chris Thile, a mandolin specialist who has performed with artists as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma and Bela Fleck. The quote at the beginning of this post is from this video. He is asked to talk about his opinions on the way that audiences respond to different genre’s of music, and how that affects him as a performer.

Other works to check out:

Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snider (on spotify)

Dance tracks by Steve Mackey (on spotify)