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The “First Day of School”

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

Director of Programming Tracy Cox on fear and power in the rehearsal room.

This piece is presented as part of the New Era Voice Festival. Learn more here and sign up now.

Music video for JOYCE DiDONATO's 2017 Album: IN WAR AND PEACE: HARMONY THROUGH MUSIC, directed by James Darrah

Many singers refer to the first day of rehearsal for a new production as the “first day of school” — and for good reason. You are often working with a company for the first time, in a city you are visiting for the first or second time, with colleagues and music staff you may also be meeting for the first time. You may even be singing a role that is brand new to you (!) — navigating the nuances of a sing that is still settling into your bones. If you're lucky, as often as every two months — you might have another first day of school.

Now add to all those factors a wild card: the director. This person is the driving force of the artistic vision of any piece. This person will directly impact your working life for 4-6 weeks. This person can enable your success within a piece — your singing success, your dramatic success, your psychological ability to juggle all that is being asked of you under high-stress conditions. Or they can undermine you. Both scenarios are realistic. Both scenarios should be prepared for — artistically and emotionally.

I’ve thought about this a lot in my working life — how deeply the working relationship with the director can impact my success in a piece. How to intentionally prepare the material so I feel like I’m on equal footing with the other artistic minds when I walk into the rehearsal room. How to show the director – whether they are fresh and filled with enthusiasm, or cynical and tired of remounting Figaro for the 1000th time — that I bring a ferocious understanding of the text to the table. That I’m ready to eat the stage and take no prisoners. That I am an artist — just like they are. A great singer, but not just a singer — who are so often unjustly thought of as generic and replaceable in a sometimes unkind industry. An artist. A collaborator. A partner in crime who can elevate the artistic vision.

So how do we prepare with this intention in mind?

James Darrah is one of the directors who sets the world on fire every time he sits down to mount a new production.

Not only has he developed and directed acclaimed productions of new operas including the world premieres of Reid's Pulitzer Prize-winning Prism and Missy Mazzoli's Breaking the Waves and Proving Up, Darrah has crafted music videos with “enigmatic twists” (NPR) for artists including Joyce DiDonato and Jakub Józef Orlinski on the Warner Music label. He is constantly thinking of innovative ways to approach repertoire, and has debuts and new productions on tap with The Kennedy Center, Theater an der Wien, The Santa Fe Opera, Prototype Festival and Teatro Nacional São Paolo in Brazil. In 2020 he was slated to direct a new production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony and Frank Gehry designing.

Edward Nelson and Yujin Kim pictured for San Francisco Opera/ Merola Opera Program's 2014 production of Don Giovanni, directed by James Darrah.

His work is visually and emotionally arresting, striking in its style of merging innovative design with unexpected movement, narrative heft, and dance.

And on top of all this — he’s a genuinely nice man who cares about the dynamic in the rehearsal room.

We reached out to him for M4Arts because we know — both through his innovative work and his commitment to the next generation, at UCLA and as Creative Director of the Music Academy of the West’s Vocal Institute — he’s not satisfied with the status quo or with unpleasant and uneven working dynamics.

He developed this class — for us — as a tool for singers wanting to enter that rehearsal room with 1,000 ideas and nerves of steel.

A serious seminar for the serious vocalist — curious and dedicated to a productive, engaging and ultimately rewarding creative process in the new reality of opera in 2020. A four-part class to build simmering, idea-ready artists eager to unleash new potential all while navigating the rehearsal room, auditions, and months of work before the first day as well as an exploration of progressive ideas and structures about how to best prepare.

This discussion and media course is designed to openly and boldly explore and discuss the intricacies of Director + Singer relationships, broaden one's own personal artistic awareness and brand that can translate into actual projects for the future, facilitate important discussions about how to approach and dismantle auditions and rehearsal room "norms", work well with colleagues and give a glimpse into the processes and thoughts behind Mr. Darrah’s own process and response to the shifting landscape of the opera field.

Join us every Thursday in July — we’ll be breaking the industry apart and figuring how to lead first with art.

Watch for James Darrah's class on Artistic Identity and the Rehearsal Room!

Miss a class? No problem! You can access past masterclasses and series here. Learn more about the M Institute for the Arts here.

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