Tag Archives: profile

Profile Phriday: Jonah Nigh, Part 1

Jonah is a friend-of-a-friend, and joins me in the ranks of “reformed singers.” I recently read a thoughtful essay he wrote about his transition: the precipitating event and the aftermath. The article is focused through the lens of the liberal arts course of study he pursued (initially unwillingly!) as an undergraduate. I loved the article – it’s witty and touching. Next week Jonah and I will talk about the process of moving out of singing, transferrable skills, and his advice for folks who are questioning.

The article is here.

Some highlights:

I did not actually want a liberal arts education prior to coming to Lawrence. Like most teenagers, my definition of success was myopic in scope, and as an aspiring opera singer I could not fathom the need to study statistics, psychology, or any other subjects that were not immediately applicable to getting on a stage, singing loudly in a foreign language, and wearing a fabulous costume.


My story could easily be miscategorized as a cautionary tale for aspiring artists–as a warning to make a “Plan B” just in case a career in the arts doesn’t work out. On the contrary, a liberal arts education does not negate one’s unique capability or potential of being an artistic practitioner.

Many thanks to Jonah for allowing me to repost. Please join us next week for the continued conversation!

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Profile Phriday: Nathan DePoint

Profile Phriday is BACK!

Today’s Profile Phriday focuses on one of the nicest guys in opera: Fort Worth Opera’s Company Manager, Nathan DePoint. Nathan started as a singer, but now works behind-the-scenes at one of the most innovative festivals in the country. I was lucky enough to get to know him last year during the Opera America Leadership Intensive, and I think you’ll find his story rings some bells – here it is.

Nathan DePoint


So, Nathan. What exactly is it that  you do?

I am currently the Company Manager for Fort Worth Opera.  That title means a lot of things, but ultimately I deal mostly with logistics and patience!  The fun parts of my job are hearing auditions and helping to plan future seasons and casting. I also enjoy casting and working with our chorus master to manage our chorus.  The stressful and biggest part of my job is handling all the logistics of our visiting artists.  I plan the travel, housing and transportation for each of our guest artists.   From the middle of March to the middle of May each year, I am on-call 24/7.  As soon as our artists arrive, I act as the first point of contact for them – anything from doctor recommendations and appointments to dry cleaners!  I also assemble and distribute the daily schedule during the festival and assist with many random production-based tasks.  Almost every single day is different – it keeps me on my toes!

Aaah…a juggler of sorts! So when did you get the opera bug?

Growing up in a small town in western NY, I never really had any exposure to opera.  My performing arts exposure was limited to mostly musicals; but while working on my BA, my voice really just opened up. That was when opera became a viable option, when I was hooked.

I can recall two very distinct performance moments that have led me to this point.  The first would be the first operatic role I ever learned and performed.  It was the role of Gil in Wolf-Ferrari’s one act opera The Secret of Susanna (we did it in English). It was such an amazing experience to perform my first opera “under the stairs” in Jones Recital Hall on the campus of John Brown University. From then on, I have basically been consuming opera.  The second specific memory I have is of seeing my first professional opera – Rigoletto produced by Tulsa Opera. Being at a small school, our productions were all done with piano.  To hear, live, the combination of the singers and the orchestra was overwhelming.  I remember getting goosebumps up and down my arms when hearing the “Sparafucilleeeeeeeeeeeeeee” and wanting so badly to be a bass!  (Obviously, I learned quickly that baritone was the best voice type.)

Hey, my guilty pleasure is Pierrot’s Tanzlied – you don’t have to sell me on baritones! So, you earned a degree in Voice/Opera?

 I have two degrees in music.  I earned my BA in Music with an emphasis in Vocal Performance from a small school in Northwest Arkansas called John Brown University, and my MM in Opera Performance from Wichita State University.  Starting my undergrad, I was actually a double-major in Music and, believe it or not, Construction Management (I have always been drawn to architecture, and that was intended to be a stepping stone to that end.)   I chose Music as the other major because I had always been involved in it.  I grew up singing – in church choir, the choir at school or in high school musicals. (GO MUSIC EDUCATION!) I can’t remember a time when singing wasn’t an aspect of my life.

But how did you move from on-stage to off? (I hear that lattes were involved?)

I moved to Fort Worth, Texas following graduate school, and while I was working at Starbucks, I met Darren Keith Woods.  Darren is the General Director of Fort Worth Opera.  One of my fellow Starbucks employees worked for another non-profit that shared the building with FWO, so he made a call.  I am pretty sure that conversation went something like:

“Hey, so I am working with this opera singer at Starbucks”

DKW: “Oh, brother…”

“I’m just wondering if you would be interested in meeting him”

DKW: (being the generous human he is) “Sure.  I’ll just stop to get a coffee and talk with him for a few minutes”

Little did I know how instrumental he would be in my life going forward, and what an incredible mentor he would become.  After hearing me sing, he invited me to participate with the FWO Studio Artists in masterclasses, and when they needed to release the baritone from the studio, they called me up to replace him.  He asked if I could learn Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk (the two children’s operas) in time for a Monday performance.  This was Thursday afternoon.  So, of course I said, “yes” and faked my way through that first performance.  I finished out the year covering Sharpless in Butterfly and Ford in Falstaff, as well as creating (and retiring, since the role has been subsequently cut from the opera) the role of Jos in the world premiere of Frau Margot in the inaugural Fort Worth Opera Festival in 2007.

The final “defining” moment really was my final audition season.  It was fall of 2007. I had taken a “real job” at a law firm to please the parents of the girl I was dating at the time – that whole social pressure of the male being the provider – and it was wearing me out.  We broke up, and that left me with this job that was draining any joy from life. Then I went to audition! As you can probably imagine, it was just awful. I wasn’t singing well. I wasn’t satisfied with being the second choice, and quite frankly, I was a good singer, but not great. As I had been in the Fort Worth Opera studio the spring prior, I called up Darren and talked to him about moving into a job that would allow me to still be involved in the art form without having to be a singer.  It just so happened that they were looking for a Development Associate and the rest is history.

There are obvious advantages in starting an administrator’s journey as a singer: most obvious is knowing the repertoire from a different point of view. You know the score on a totally different level when you’ve studied them from a singer’s perspective rather than simply plugging in voices to a cast list.  You have a better idea of how voice colors do or don’t work in certain roles. My thought process while transitioning was this: to figure out what skills I needed to become a successful GD.  Starting in development was an obvious advantage: as a General Director, if you can’t raise money, you aren’t going to be very successful.  Looking back, I think being a singer was a waypost on my journey –  I don’t see this as a back-up at all! Administration was always something in which I was interested.

I think the solidifying moment for me; the moment that made me sure I had made the right decision, was when I was accepted, as one of twelve people world-wide, into the Opera America Leadership Intensive program in the summer of 2012.  The program is designed to recognize and cultivate the next generation of operatic leaders.

So, what are your favorite parts of your job?

Coming up with solutions. It sounds simple, but really, that is it.  Sometimes the solutions are easily achieved, but there are times when they are really a puzzle.  Those are the ones that give me the most satisfaction.

Another source of great satisfaction is when our guest artists want to return to Fort Worth. That tells me that the experience of being in Fort Worth was a good one beyond just the stage, and they want to relive it.  I know that I have a large part to play in that, and take that responsibility very seriously.  It’s fun when I get to see friends year after year come back. That’s when I know I’ve done my job well.

Do you regret leaving the stage?

I have never had one moment of regret since I made the transition: I am not the type of person that can do something halfway.  When I decided, I also decided I would never sing again. Period. Not practice, not dabble…it was cold turkey. The only exception I have made was when I sang for my little sister at her wedding (talk about nerve-wracking!!).  Other than that, I haven’t even entertained the thought of it. If you can honestly say that you won’t regret it, then you are ready.

The interesting thing to me is that I haven’t even really MISSED it!  Every now and again, when I see a production of Nozze, I have the slightest pang of missing it (The Count was my favorite character to create), but it was the relationships, the bonding and the fun creating during the rehearsal process that I miss.  I was never one of those singers that enjoyed the performing part nearly as much as the process. That’s what I loved about being a singer; being creative, being allowed to explore and try things…also, not having my days start until 10 am was pretty great, too!

Do you have any advice for conflicted singers/performers?

The only advice I could really give to a performer faced with this decision is to ask them this question; will you regret it?  If any part of you can answer that with a “yes”, you aren’t ready to give it up.

Follow your gut.  It is almost always right.

Be honest. Be upfront. Be a good colleague.  Don’t be afraid to invest in others. Best advice I could give.

Words to live by. Thanks for sharing your story!

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Vic Muenzer- Language and Sound

I spend 4 intense days each year with Vic, in a small, windowless room, with 3 other guys…sounds sordid, but on the contrary our only vices are the great cookies from Shirlington’s Best Buns bakery! We get together to  produce Wolf Trap‘s classical radio show, Center Stage from Wolf Trap. Vic is our producer and distributor, but he’s also a conductor… with a degree in …English? Here’s Vic’s story.

How did you get started?

I had wanted to go to Northern Illinois as a music major.  My father discouraged me early on after I studied violin with him, saying I had no ear.  Also, both parents felt that Northwestern was a much better school. (My mother was a NU alum, and my father was on the faculty at Northwestern, so we were entitled to get half off tuition.  That discount certainly helped direct my decision). I played piano, but I didn’t really want to be a piano major, and wasn’t up to the NU performance standards, and in all honesty I was more interested in recording.

I had just come off of a successful year in AP English (at Maine South H.S.) and coincidentally English was the most flexible undergraduate major at Northwestern.  So I had my cake and ate it too – I was an English major, but did every course a music major would have done except the performance requirement.  I graduated with a B.A. in English.

There were not many places one could go to learn the art of classical recording, but Northwestern turned out to be an ideal place.  Pick-Staiger Concert Hall had just been built and it had a new recording studio with no one to run it, so I was able to come in on the ground floor and learn by doing.  In retrospect it was a great opportunity.  By the time I had left NU I had produced 3 commercial recordings.

(Editor: Vic had a very specific experience that drew him to the art of recording, and wrote about it. It’s a beautiful essay, and one that I wouldn’t tinker with. You can find it at the end of this post.) 

So, the recording thing really started to pan out for you even before you graduated…

Truly.  Since the event that is described in the essay, I began regularly attending recording sessions with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (I could because I was family) and I ended up befriending nearly every recording team that came through Chicago – from Decca to DG and RCA.

Also, at Northwestern whenever I produced a recording for someone,  positive feedback kept coming back to me.  The feedback that made perhaps the biggest impression on me was when the first violinist of the Fine Arts Quartet took me aside at the end of a session and told me I was quite good at producing and that I should pursue it as a career.

So, you self-define as a recording engineer?

Well…not so much. I am a radio producer and a conductor.  (Now there’s a combo)

Whoa! Ok, how did you get from point A to point…Q?

I continued to build a career as a record producer until the mid nineties.  In 1997 I left the record business:  after three years of producing for Daniel Barenboim, our company lost the contract to produce his records.  This led to many different efforts to save the company, one of which was a contract to produce “wholly owned” orchestra recordings for a company called NorthSound which provided classical music laced with nature sounds, which they sold in kiosks at museum stores and tourist shops.  This contract, ironically, led to my first conducting efforts, as it was cheaper to conduct myself than hire a conductor for the purposes of many of the NorthSound recording sessions.

In keeping my hand on the technical side, I also began producing radio shows. (Editor – This is the role in which I first met Vic.)

So now? I am a radio producer.   I am a “retired” record producer.   I am a conductor.   I am a mediocre trumpet player.   (haha)

So how did your training inform your path to your current profession? 

I have found that everything has fed into everything else.  Performance and musical studies have made me stronger as a record producer and subsequently a radio producer.  And my experiences working with top-notch conductors as a record producer have made me a much better musician and conductor. Northwestern did provide me with some big opportunities.  I probably got my big break when Cablevision came to Northwestern to do a pilot live performing arts show for a new concept called Bravo.  (Working on that pilot at Pick Staiger led to my becoming the first Associate Producer of the Bravo Network!) And, something I couldn’t have anticipated, but being an English major from Northwestern has really enhanced my abilities as a radio producer, because most of what I do revolves around the verbal presentation of the “stories behind the music”.  So research, writing skills, verbal communication and syntax are highly integral to my radio work in a way I would never have anticipated.   So the English major turned out to be important.

Lesson: Everything in life has value…eventually.  We learn from EVERYTHING!

I will wholeheartedly agree with that statement. So, what advice do you have for folks who are searching?

First of all, get to know yourself well enough that you can be honest with yourself. Then, look into your heart, listen to it, and follow it.  Determine what your true priorities are in life and build everything around that.

Thanks, Vic. Here’s his essay, Reverberations of a Ruin.

The images are eerie, even maudlin: the odd remains of a building built in 1826. The facade still stands, as do the side walls of the long building. Those two-story longitudinal walls remain filled with rows of window-like balconies, dusted with ornate Rococo filigree, partially melted by flame. The plaster handiwork of many nineteenth century artisans is evident everywhere. My eyes starve to see more. They strain to look deeper into the photos, and I move closer as if that could in some way let me see more. Macabre graffiti, the work of some very different twenty-first century artisans, covers many of the nineteenth century creations. Disturbing though the graffiti is, its oddly appropriate to the ruin. At least its an indication that life still passes through. The hallways to the great ballroom remain standing in defiance of time. The velvet red fabric that lined the ceilings of those hallways hangs in shreds like some great bleeding weep.

At my home in Chicago, on my laptop, with my wireless, I stare into the screen obsessed by these pictures that some creative photographer posted on the web. I thank him. The building—or the remains of the building—lay on Marxergasse in the third district of the Landstrasse district of Vienna. The computer I stare into is 4,700 miles away from Marxergasse. Yet these images throw knives into my heart. It is as if I am there. These pictures are burned into the very depths of my soul. In the bottom of the old building was a pool almost the full size of the foundation footprint. It lay under the grand parquet dance floor of the grand ballroom. The Sofiensaal started life as a public bath house in the 1820s. Soon though, the pool was covered over with a dance floor when the owners figured out that the society of Johann Strauss, father and son, preferred dancing over public bathing. Silly Austrians they must have been. But they knew what they wanted for the hall became a favored Viennese dancing spot, and those Strauss waltz-kings graced the Sofiensaal with their music for decades.

With the grand parquet dance floor now burnt and disintegrated, the pool is again clearly visible in the wreckage and a charred grand piano came to rest in its depths, a legacy of the last recording—a piano recording—made in the Sofiensaal, before fire took the building in August of 2001. The great wooden vaulted roof that covered the ballroom is gone. Lit now by bright yellow sunlight, the image of the piano perched in the empty pool is stark. With what remains now open to the elements, this picture lays bare the mystical core of the Sofiensaals greatness: that pool.

The Sofiensal was the place of dreams. It was where dreams were…well…made into permanent dreams, and then committed to funny little grooves etched in vinyl. It was where my dreams were made permanent. You see, my career leads directly back to that old building. And the pool is the key to it all.

When the pool was parqueted over, it was destined to be discovered as one of the greatest recording studio acoustics in the world with unbelievable warmth and bass response, combined with incredible immediacy. The mysterious pool that lay under the beautiful dance floor was the reason. With the parquet floor built over it, that pool resonated and grooved to the sounds of Wagner, Strauss, Beethoven, Verdi and Mozart.

The hall was so good that in 1956 the English record company Decca moved in and used it as their principle European recording facility for the next twenty-five years. The recordings made there are legendary and stand to this day as the greatest achievements in the history of recorded sound. The Decca producer who guided this effort was John Culshaw. With him was a legendary recording team who pioneered many recording techniques in use today on classical recording sessions and film scoring stages. Culshaw was not interested in reproducing the reality of the live performance. His purpose was to create a listening experience wholly unique to the gramophone. It was bigger, more intimate, more detailed, and had more impact than anything you could expect to hear live. Every opera recording was literally “staged” for the microphones. There were effects used in his recordings that were rarely possible in actual performance. He created recordings in the Sofiensaal that were so hyper-real, so much bigger than life, that they demanded to be heard. He did it this way because he knew that you, the listener, would listen to these recordings over and over, precisely because they were bigger than life.

Indeed, many recordings made in the Sofiensaal became definitive of the art. Wagners Ring Cycle conceived by Culshaw within the walls of the Sofiensaal, recorded with a young Hungarian exiled conductor known as Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic along with all the greatest singing talent available at the time, is simply known as the “Solti Ring.” The fifteen hour recording took seven years to make. To this day, it is considered the greatest achievement in the history of music recording and still supersedes all versions that followed. It does so not just on the strength of its cast or the brilliant leadership of Solti, both of which are formidable to be sure, but because the creativity with which the recording itself is conceived has never been matched. In that era, video was impossible for the consumer, so the recording had to be so vivid that it created visuals in your imagination. Indeed, Culshaw and Solti collaborated to create a “theatre of the mind” in recorded sound. They staged the operas in your mind. Culshaw didnt need video. He didnt make recordings, he crafted them. He loved doing it. And the Sofiensaal was his playground.

I knew about the Sofiensal when I was young. We had the Solti Ring at home. I listened to the whole thing many times, likely one of the few eleven year olds in Chicago to do such a looney thing. But I got it big time, the whole shebang: Wagner, Solti, The Ring, Birgit Nilsson, Gustav Neidlinger, Wolfgang Windgassen, Hans Hotter, Brunnhilde, Alberich, Siegfried, Wotan. But most of all I got John Culshaw. Even at eleven, I knew what Culshaw had done was special, it was something different. Having a father in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra that recently had the foresight to hire Georg Solti as its music director, it was inevitable that I was closer to the classical recording scene than most. Already, there was the tremendous legacy of Fritz Reiner and his recordings with the CSO on RCA. But at thirteen, I was unprepared for the privilege that would soon be mine.

In September of 1971 the CSO was to tour Europe for six weeks. For whatever reason I got to go along. The first week was to be in Vienna and the orchestra was recording the Mahler Symphony No. 8 at the Sofiensaal. I was there running around that recording session. I sat in a special sound control room. John Culshaw was there in spirit, if not in fact (He had left Decca by then, but I swear I remember him in the control room that day). Where I sat, a second Decca team experimented with quadraphonic sound in a room separate from the main control room, as the huge Mahler Symphony was recorded. They built enormous grandstands that stood beside the two stories of decorated balconies in the Sofiensaal. These bleachers accommodated two full choruses and the Vienna Boys Choir. In front of them were 7 soloists and a Chicago Symphony augmented to 120 for the occasion. All these forces were driven by Sir Georg Solti, as one would drive the finest Ferrari in the world. I imagined the glee on Culshaws face as the team played with the four speaker mix for the experimental quadraphonic sound. It was an effort, once again, to take recorded music to a level beyond that of live performance, so that you would want to buy it and listen to it over and over. John knew what he was doing. He defined an industry. Some of the opera recordings he made in the Sofiensaal outsold the pop recordings of the time, to the chagrin of Deccas competitors. In those two days, that smile, the power of the Mahler 8th, the unswerving musical genius of Georg Solti and the glorious sound of the Sofiensaal—that converted bathhouse, that Vienna party room turned recording studio —it all got to me. That day set my path. I was to be a record producer, a classical record producer, creating big productions like that. And I made it. I made it because of the Sofiensaal and Solti and Culshaw and the Ring and the Mahler 8th. In a day, a life was set. Those elements instilled in me an ethic of what making a recording was all about. Without those experiences, I would not have been the same, nor would I have had my career.

I stare now into the pictures, the bare hallways of the remains of the Sofiensaal, looking for signs of what once must have been the great control rooms that Decca created. I struggle to figure out which doors I must have used to get from the soundstage built in the great ballroom back to the control rooms. I look for signs of the adjacent Blauer Ballroom which the Decca engineers used as their reverberation room, as they did not have the digital reverb units with digitally reproduced concert halls that we have now. I stare hard at the close-up photos of the ornate plasterwork fragments that remain, and imagine the sound waves of the Chicago Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic bouncing around among all that wood and plaster. I imagine in my mind a day when musicians and engineers collaborated on an ideal: the “theatre of the mind”. Nothing stopped them from making the most perfect, exciting, dramatic recording they could, to be preserved for all time, and for all to enjoy. The Sofiensaal was a place where reality checked itself at the door. Inside that old bathhouse, indeed, dreams were made.

So I stare again at those photos on my computer screen, searching intently for signs of those dreams, of that creative ideal, of the ghosts of Solti, Culshaw, Nilsson, Windgassen, Neidlinger, Fisher-Dieskau, the Decca Recording team, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony who graced the acoustics of the Sofiensaal with its own glorious sound on three occasions. I look for signs of my own, however brief, presence. Honestly, I have to squint, struggling to reconcile the ruins with my memory. Yet I know in my heart that the Sofiensaal is alive with music, but not in those pictures. The Sofiensaal itself resonates no longer. But it will always resonate in my soul. I am grateful for what it gave me, and for that which it gave the world. The recorded legacy of the Sofiensaal still exists even if the building and the people who created that legacy do not. I celebrate the ruin of the Sofiensaal, even as it brings tears to my eyes. I look at my kids and wonder. What will be their “Sofiensaal”?

Click here for a Flickr slideshow of images of the Sofiensaal

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