Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dead Man Walking: Walking With Joseph De Rocher and Sister Helen

One of the great things about opera is that the same work can be produced in many places at the same time. There happens to be a production of Dead Man Walking being produced by Opera Parallèle just a couple weeks before our production in Dayton. One of the events leading up to the production in San Francisco featured the author of the book that the movie and opera was based on, Sister Helen Prejean. It would be another great way to get into the piece and learn about the people involved in it. I left for the evening thinking I'd be going to temple, with a room of a hundred or so die-hard new opera people. I was eager to hear Frederica von Stade, Kristen Clayton, Nicolle Folland, and Cathy Cook sing with Jake Heggie at the piano, and get the chance to hear some of Sister Helen's story in-person. I figured it would be a low-key opera preview event with a crowd of mostly familiar people. The reality was somewhat different. I arrived at the location, in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood - surrounded by multi-million dollar mansions - to a security detail that was nearly as intense as what I go through when I check into a flight at SFO. Suddenly I was hit with the reality that I was about to participate in an event that is truly politically charged, where there's the possibility of things going very wrong if certain people gained access.  

I got my clearance sticker, proceeded through the metal detectors – twice, and found my way to the main sanctuary where there were about a thousand people already seated. Not a low-key event at all. Good! People are interested. People are involved... The program begins, Flicka sings with Jake, we are off to a beautiful start. We hear from a former prison warden, an attorney, and Sister Helen about how the death penalty affects us all, costs the system and tax dollars, and is ultimately not an effective punishment. I heard stories of inmates, families of inmates and victims, and the personal viewpoints of these three people who have had so much experience with "the system". It was a startling dose of reality. The average citizen doesn’t get to see what happens to convicts throughout the process, or watch the eventual execution of someone on Death Row. The lives involved in that journey are totally amorphous to us: we generally assume that bad people just go away, and should probably die. Why, though? What does it accomplish? The stories I heard that night had me considering things I never thought about before....

Now I'm involved in telling the story of a disadvantaged man whose life went down a bad path, a crime fueled by drugs that he was dosed with, and whose fate was sealed by the law ending his life. Looking at the gray areas isn't easy: it takes objectivity and effort to listen. It's so easy to say: "bad people should die", but when we say that, what are we actually saying? Stories are always bigger than the surface layer. I never asked myself these questions before. Walking with Joseph is teaching me to look deeper. There's a story behind every person, no matter what they've "done". I’m grateful to Sister Helen for helping me look a little deeper, and to discover things we are taught to ignore.  

It was wonderful to be introduced to her by Jake Heggie after the event was over, and to spend a little time talking about the work and the role. How often do we, as opera singers, get to talk to the source of a story? Almost never! What made that even more special to me was that this author is really working and fighting for change – not just telling a story for its own sake. I’m honored to be a part of that work in my small way, bringing the story and life of Joseph to light. Hopefully I can help people consider things they haven’t thought about before. What’s beautiful about the opera is that it doesn’t tell you what to think – but it definitely makes you think.

More soon...

Monday, February 2, 2015

Dead Man Walking: The Journey Begins

A few weeks ago I was asked to perform the role of Joseph De Rocher, the convict on Death Row, in Dayton Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking. It would be a fast-paced study period, having only a month to get the role learned and memorized before going into staging rehearsals. Memories of the movie with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn immediately came to mind, but I never saw the opera. I’ve always been a fan of Jake Heggie’s work, and was interested in taking on a role like this, but was there enough time for me to prepare?  As soon as I got the call to consider the role, I asked my team about their willingness and availability to help me prepare. I was reassured with extra support from my teacher, the composer, the stage director, and members of the company - since coming in at the eleventh hour is scary even for a modest role in a standard repertoire opera. Through the magic of YouTube, I got to listen to the entire opera a few times, and sang along with several of Joseph’s lines to see how it fit vocally. That part was fine and I agreed to be in the production – now to LEARN it…

As soon as the score arrived (Priority Mail!) I sat down and highlighted Joseph’s lines. That process seemed to go on forever… What had I gotten myself in to, with just one month to learn this huge part? If there was going to be any hope of having it learned in time I needed a battle plan: divide the role into six parts, and take five days to learn (and mostly memorize) each one. Work in sequence, and build on to what you learned the previous five days. There would be a little wiggle room, but I’d do my best to stay on target. It seemed to work, and I’m ahead of schedule.

I had a few deep conversations with our stage director, Gary Briggle, on the opera, the characters/relationships in it, and specifics of the role. We talked about the look and feel of Joseph, and the story of his past that lead him the death penalty. I was worried about a character like Joseph taking a toll on me, personally, and on the people closest to me. Studying characters isn’t new to me, and I know how involved I get in them, but I’ve never played a man on Death Row for rape and murder… Putting it all away can sometimes be difficult: between the music constantly playing in my mind, thoughts of Joseph’s world, his relationships, crimes, remorse, fear, lies… It’s hard to turn all that off. A journey to get into the space and mind of a man whose life went down such a dark path is not something I want to wander into blindly. Luckily, there are truly incredible people around to keep me grounded, and remind me that I’m also here, now.

One of the striking parts about the process has been changing the way I look for the role. Something as simple as modifying workouts and growing out a beard has been huge in building this character for performance. I’m used to being Zachary Gordin outside of rehearsals until tech week – when costumes and makeup are put on me, and the full transformation is more instant. It’s different when the process goes on for several weeks. I’m meeting Joseph through a kind of immersion, seeing the world in a slightly different way, and considering things and people in a way I don’t usually. It’s comforting to know that I’ll be able to shed him once the production is over, but it’s important to acknowledge that seeing the world through different eyes – even the eyes of a Death Row inmate - isn’t a bad thing.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

SOUNDBOX: Inaugural Performance with MTT and the San Francisco Symphony

I’m thrilled to be one of the guest soloists for the inaugural performance of Soundbox. It’s an exciting new venture, bringing world class musicians from the San Francisco Symphony and Symphony Chorus together in an unconventional performance space, while creating a totally immersive experience for the senses. 

The acoustical environment will be altered for each piece of music by the wizards at Meyer Sound Laboratories, so the audience will be able to hear each piece in the acoustical environment it was meant for. There will be changing lights and projected art on huge screen panels, as well as an interesting menu of bites and cocktails, in a rehearsal hall that’s been transformed into a swanky night club. 

I’m most excited that this is my first time singing with Michael Tilson Thomas, and working with SF Symphony. He’s such a generous and collaborative Maestro, and an immensely gifted artist. I’m honored to be part of this project, and have loved watching it take shape. Here are some details...

What is SoundBox?

"In the small entry room, you move past a curtain, through an unknown door. There’s a teasing view—some kind of installation fills a sunken space. It's like you scored a backstage pass. Time to explore.

Turn the corner, find the bar: there’s craft cocktails and small bites. Video projections flash on the walls. All eyes go to the stage, ready for the show to start.

And then the music. Live music—it’s just so good. Pounding beats, otherworldly chants come from all corners of the space. Close your eyes: it sounds like you're in a cathedral, and then an underground club. Unique and stimulating and totally different."  - from

Here are some photos from the SoundBox Facebook page:  

I promise you, it's even more stunning in person... 
The lights, the seating, the feel, the sounds - truly inspiring.

As curator of this exciting new series, Michael Tilson Thomas writes:

“This first concert will have music that goes all the way back to the Middle  Ages, to some of the most luscious and impressionistic periods of music, to some completely off-the-wall works by Meredith Monk and John Cage. Some of music will take the volume level of the room to its absolute limit, and some will be on the threshold of audibility."  - from

I'll be doing a follow-up post, after the performance. In the meantime, here's a pre-rehearsal dressing room selfie, from Davies Symphony Hall. :-)

More soon! 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Five Ways to STAND OUT in the Crowd!

It’s a funny topic for me to talk about… I actually laughed out loud when I got the assignment to write this article. Though, in all fairness, looking back on my life it seems I’ve always stood out: the chubby kid who could cuss like a sailor - with a piercing soprano singing voice, the bookish church organist at age 12, the countertenor divo, and now the muscle-bound baritone… I guess in some ways that makes me qualified to talk about ways to STAND OUT. As audition season is upon us, we have another chance to reflect and plan ahead. Working from the outside to inside, here are some ideas to help you get in touch with your inner (and outer) STAR!

The first line of information you send to most people you meet, whether in an audition, casual meeting, or “blind date”, is visual. Working from the outer-most layer, in, what does your appearance say about you? Are you well-groomed, polished, comfortable and confident – the classic diva/divo in the best possible sense? Are you more casual in your wardrobe, using softer fabrics with more flow than shape? Or perhaps you just throw on whatever is mostly clean and don’t give it much thought? However you do it, the way you present yourself to the world speaks volumes. It’s an opportunity to say something – to answer some questions about who you are, and how you operate, before you’re even asked. A person can just as easily come off like they don’t care, and that they aren’t interested in what anyone thinks of them, just by how they look. That’s all fine, too, if that’s really what you want to say. Just be aware that people ARE watching, and they will respond – subliminally and otherwise. Picture the person you want to be seen as, and dress the part. Anyone can do this. You don’t have to be made of money to look like you’ve given some thought to your personal “packaging”. There are tons of blogs and magazines for those who need some inspiration, and professional makeup advice is readily available – just head over to Nordstrom, Macy’s, Sephora, etc. explain your project (whether it’s an audition, performance, cocktail party, etc.) and get some help. Figure out what makes sense for your look  - as an extension of “who” you are – and make the outside match the inside!

This ties-in with “dressing the part”. Your social media presence is another key element in the way other people interface with you. It gives your friends, fans, followers, and potential employers glimpses of who you are, and what you stand for. What does your online presence say about you? I can’t stress this enough: you have to be the guardian of your personal brand.  What does that mean? Here’s an example… If your facebook page is full of photos of you partying with your friends in lots of bars, people are going to assume you’re a raging alcoholic. Nobody is sympathetic to the fact that the only time you post photos is when you’re out drinking with your friends, because that’s when you feel cute, and how that only happens once every 6 months… All they see is a drunken fiesta. Over, and over… Period. Your online presence speaks volumes about you. People share their interests, political views, triumphs, pains, and more… Where is the line between appropriate sharing, and a potentially negative over-share? Think about your audience, here. Not everyone that sees your social media presence is interested in hearing you wax on about how hard your life is, how drunk you get every weekend, or how much of your Dad’s money you spent at Gucci… The truth is, whatever you put out there says something about how thoughtful or thoughtless you are. How do you want to be perceived? Here’s a trick: think of a person you truly respect and admire. Now think of inviting that person to scroll through your social media pages. What would you want to hide from them? What do you wish to have said differently (or not said in the first place) on your page? Make a list, do a big clean-up where you delete all the unfavorable stuff on your public profiles, and ALWAYS think before you post!

If you want to STAND OUT you have to do more than look the part, and have a great website/online presence. You have to back those assets up with ability, depth, and knowledge. That way, once you’ve broken through the first level of approval (the surface level) and actually get to talk in an audition, or when you meet someone for the first time, you actually have something to talk about. As a singer, you need to know so much more than notes and words. You have to know social history, music theory, technique, language, physiology, stagecraft, what’s going on in the orchestra, acting, how to tell a story – and that’s just the basic stuff... What happens beyond that is the magic. The more studied, educated, prepared, experienced, and truly accomplished you are, the more you have to offer the world around you. The more accomplished you feel, the more secure and calm you are in general. It truly trickles into every aspect of your life, and the people around you can sense it too. Be useful. BE TRULY ACCOMPLISHED!

So there you are: dressing the part, your website and other online profiles are clean, slick, and streamlined, you’re honing your craft on a constant basis, and really walking the walk of accomplishment.  Great! There’s more… Another asset setting you apart from the masses is your authenticity - and whether that stems from a place of positivity or negativity.  People will come to respect you for your confidence, honesty, reliability, and complete presence when you can offer yourself freely and without malice. The reverse is also very true – it’s easy to fall into the pit of dishing out harsh criticism, undermining your colleague’s reputations behind the scenes, and being the “go-to” for gossip. It might serve you with a quick fix, like breaking the ice with new cast mates in a production by ripping on the stage director or another colleague… but in the end, you’ve only served to undermine your own integrity in the view of others. I’m not saying that we should all posture ourselves toward an impossible sainthood (because, uh, that’s real?…), but to keep in mind that everything we say or do is interpreted by those around us.  That simple fact should motivate us toward thoughtfulness and clarity. You’ll sleep better at night, too!

I mean that in every way. In your career, do what you do best. Singers, in your auditions and as you select roles to pursue and perform, only present what you do best.  Save the hard work and wrestling matches for the practice room and your teacher’s studio. An audition is never a good time to try new tricks, new repertoire, or something that is “difficult and therefore impressive”. Incidentally, “difficult and therefore impressive” only works out if it’s easy for you and you do it perfectly. If you can’t, put it away and do something else. Again, ONLY SHINE. If you do what you know you do well, there’s a different kind of confidence you bring to the experience. It’s in the way you breathe, the way you move, the way you communicate. It’s the kind of confidence we can see, feel, and that makes us comfortable entrusting you with a role (or trusting you in general). Having worked on, and truly earned this level of confidence will allow you to shine even brighter. It’s a worthy and a noble goal. I challenge you, as I challenge myself, to do it: ONLY SHINE!

With love,
Zachary Gordin

Thursday, September 12, 2013

On Habits, Breakthroughs, Practice, and Consciousness...

Pep talk time...

I see this happen all the time in the studio: we see a problem, identify a plan to fix it, consciously try something different, a breakthrough happens, and a moment of clarity is experienced. Victory! For the singer working to improve their technical abilities, it's a truly joyful experience - a window into a realm of greater possibilities... What follows the breakthrough is the really important stuff! It can either turn that breakthrough into something useful, or send it into a pit of self doubt.

What if we take a step back, and see the breakthrough as just the seed of a new habit or skill? We can frame the breakthrough not as a destination, but as a trail marker on the journey through your process. That seed takes conscious care, implementation, and practice to cultivate it into something useful and durable. Doing the work "behind the scenes", when nobody is watching, is vital to building consciousness and confidence with your new tools. You can observe and control what you do very clearly in your own laboratory/studio/workshop, and bring your findings into practice at your next lesson, rehearsal, performance, etc.

An unpracticed breakthrough can build into its own struggle, and has the added dimension of shame attached to it - since the person not practicing the breakthrough is at fault for their own lack of progress. That shame element makes the breakthrough itself seem more and more distant and unattainable the longer it is unpracticed.

Change is possible, though! It doesn't have to be overwhelming. Achieving your goals requires building and nurturing of good habits. This is done over time, in small and manageable ways.

Let me break it down for you...

Relying on a useless habit/Unconsciousness = No progress.

Identifying a useful solution, and consciously implementing it = Breakthrough.

Conscious work/practice/cultivation = Building a new, useful habit.

This concept fits in so many other areas: fitness, communication, productivity, relationships, and so on... It seems so obvious, yet it's saddening to see how little this positive consciousness is used. Most of us truly ARE creatures of habit. Why not build and nurture good habits? Sure it'll take some work, but that's where the magic happens.

Here's to cultivating new habits, and being empowered toward your goals!


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Leave Beyoncé alone...

I want to elaborate on a facebook post I made this morning:

"Dear everybody, 

LEAVE BEYONCE ALONE! It's funny to me that some people are so flustered about a "RECORDING ARTIST" using a RECORDING for a performance... If you wanted a fully LIVE sung performance, you'd ask for a singer who does THAT for a living - fully LIVE singing. Not a singer who primarily does recordings, and mega-arena concerts with the help of a backing track (of her own voice) that the artist may or may not be singing along with. Apples and oranges, people. Feel free to discuss..."

Which leads me to the point... Why are so many of us upset by this? 

The pop music industry: American Idol, mega-concert tours, recordings, merch... It's based on recorded material and edited image - not live vocal performance. I'm a little torn, to be honest, as I chime-in to point out a subtle hypocrisy... On one hand, I'm an acoustic singer - always 100% live and never 100% perfect - I live for singing to be human and touch my listeners in real-time. On the other hand, I like other kinds of music and other kinds of musicians. Here's where it gets tricky: when people don't understand what they're seeing/hearing and react in a negative way. 

I think it's ridiculous that anyone would pay hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars to go see a pop star in an arena, somehow thinking all they are going to be hearing is the real-time voice of the artist they worship, a live band, get a lights/dance/multimedia extravaganza, AND NOT KNOW WHAT THEY'RE ACTUALLY SEEING. Ahem..., but you didn't buy an album of a live singer with a live band. You bought something that was produced and processed in a studio through computers. I say again, you're not buying a live singing experience - you're buying an incredible super-processed work of technological art. To be clear, I have immense respect for these artists, who work non-stop on their shows, their publicity, their careers, etc. They entertain the masses, and are important benchmarks of our modern culture. 

So, the fact remains, there's a difference between a singer that primarily performs LIVE (unamplified is yet another tier of this kind of singer), and a singer that primarily RECORDS. That doesn't mean the artist can't sing live, but doesn't spend the majority of their life cultivating the technique and the distinctive psychology to support the act of live vocal performance. Different products: apples, and oranges.

When you see a recording artist lip-sync, please don't act all stunned or self-righteous. If what you really want is a live singing experience, ask for it, and get it!

End of rant. 

Be good to each other. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013