Culture Conversations: Music
Tale of a Tenor
Brian Stucki Finds His Voice
“Tenors are seen as being a little neurotic,” explains singer (and tenor) Brian Stucki, “and I think it’s because it’s a high wire act. The demands on the tenor are greater than the demands on just about any other part. The big notes are a big deal and people wait for them. Sopranos get this too, but tenors are talking about technique all the time.” Stucki is reminded of a tenor he once worked with. He described him as a totally normal guy apart from the fact that he slept with a silk scarf on his neck. “I don’t know what he thought was going to happen or what magical properties the scarf had” he laughs, “and I’m still not sure he was telling the truth. Maybe he was kidding (polite pause)…but I don’t think he was.”
Brian Stucki is what you might describe as a traveling opera singer. He “lives” in Holladay, but in 2010 he did seven full productions and performed in a number of concerts and recitals which meant he was home for only 15 weeks last year. He has traveled all over the world from Seattle, to Mexico City, Rome, Warsaw and Tel Aviv singing everything from Mozart to Philip Glass. However, an operatic career isn’t exactly what Stucki originally planned for himself.
Cello had always been Stucki’s instrument. He excelled at it in high school and earned a degree in cello performance from Brigham Young University. But somehow, as a cello major, he also earned the University’s “Singer of the Year Award” as he performed the lead in two BYU opera productions. After graduation he moved to Chicago to play in the Civic Orchestra which is run by the Chicago Symphony. “My plan was to stop philandering around with this singing thing and focus on the cello” he says, but somehow, during the orchestra’s off season he ended up at an audition for a local opera company. L’Opera Piccola did two Italian operas every summer and Stucki decided to fit in an audition for La Boheme on his way back from playing a wedding. “I had a tuxedo on, no portfolio with me and sort of just crashed the audition. They asked me if I had a head shot or anything to show them. I’m sure they were like, ‘Who’s this idiot?’ and they finally asked me, ‘can you sing?’” Stucki sang the aria from La Boheme and they cast him as Rudolfo.
Doors started to open. It didn’t take long for Stucki to learn that as a singer, he had more possibilities to express himself musically than he would as a cellist in an orchestra -- and it was more fun. “There are issues with morale in the professional orchestras” he explains. “The people who get these jobs have trained to an extremely high level, but when you’re in an orchestra you’re expected to subsume your personal musical perspectives in deference to the conductors and your section. There’s not a lot of scope for personal expression. It can be exciting in its best moments, but with the Civic Orchestra I saw how it can become a job. I saw how I’d have to pursue other things outside of orchestral playing to be fulfilled as a musician.”
After earning a masters degree in vocal performance at Indiana University, rather than establishing himself in New York, he went the non-traditional route and settled in Salt Lake City. “Work was taking me everywhere but the big city for the first year after graduation. It didn’t make sense to live in the most expensive place in the nation and maintain an empty apartment there for the bulk of the year.” He realized he could base his family anywhere as long as an airport was nearby. “It has been wonderful—such a beautiful and serene place to come home to, not to mention much cheaper. With the money we save on living expenses, I can travel to New York as often as necessary.” Stucki has sung with companies and orchestras from coast to coast and on three continents. Highlights include The Pearl Fishers with Seattle Opera,|1| Così Fan Tutte |2| with the New Israeli Opera, Haydn’s Creation, with Boston Baroque, The Barber of Seville |3| with the Compaña Nacional de Mexico in Mexico City, and The Fall of the House of Usher with the Polish National Opera.
While high culture dominates his “on the clock” time, pop culture is very much a part of his down time. Just for fun, we flipped through his Pandora stations beginning with Depeche Mode which he endorses as an excellent station “I never have to skip a song” he says. On to Henry Purcell Radio, Beck Radio, They Might Be Giants, Danny Elfman, Aaron Copland, White Christmas, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Police, New Order, Cake, etc. When it comes to TV, he cites Arrested Development as being one of the best things that has ever been on television and Community and Modern Family are currently on his “to do” list. He mused on modern writers and how they have moved away from formula which segued perfectly into my next question about his thoughts on modern opera.
Modern operas are frequently adaptations of plays and books. Stucki admits there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking about opera right now, but new opera isn’t necessarily interested in being ground-breaking. “Some people will say that makes it less vibrant. Modern operas deal with things that are more immediate and real rather than fantastic and outrageous. Some of the modern operas have great musical moments, but they are still trying to accentuate drama with music, rather than accentuating great music with drama.” If Stucki were to introduce someone in the modern world to opera, he would still start them with La Boheme, Carmen or La Traviata rather than an American opera with a more relatable story. “They illustrate what makes opera a powerful artform – and that’s music -- music that tells a compelling story, but really, it’s about the music.”
Just like most art forms, opera is trying hard to build audiences, but at the same time they’re trying to stay true to their perceived roots as high art. “Today’s audiences are dramatically minded; they care about believability. Opera has gotten a bad rap in the past because of players who can’t really act. He explains, “Someone told me about an old book called Acting for Opera Singers and it was just a bunch of pictures of gestures for happy, sad, etc.,” he laughs. “What happens too frequently is opera singers will bring their arms out, not because they’re motivated by something in their emotional story, but because they’re singing a high note.” The challenge is that opera houses are huge and the distance between the performer and the audience members is huge. Although Stucki wouldn’t describe it as one of the best musical experiences he’s had, one of his favorite theatrical experiences was in Warsaw playing Roderick Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher by Philip Glass based on the Edgar Allen Poe story. “The director dealt with it as a piece of modern theater, and it was a smaller ensemble, in a smaller theater so the audience was closer to us.”
The traveling life of a performing artist can be very exciting, but it isn’t necessarily easy. Packing up and being “portable” all the time can be taxing, but Stucki has been doing the traveling thing for five years now and packing for one person has become a cinch. But Brian Stucki rarely travels alone. He and his wife Ann have two children: Colin (5) and Jane (2), plus another on the way. “It is definitely harder by several orders of magnitude to pack for two months with two kids than just for yourself. You might think it’s just four times harder, but it’s more like 72 times harder.” Taking his family in tow has its challenges, but for Stucki, being able to see them every day is worth the effort and extra expense. “My first year out of school, we were on the road for 10 out of 12 months. My son would not have known who I was if we didn’t spend most of that time on the road together.” Having the kids around also keeps him grounded. Stucki recalls a fancy premiere party in Warsaw: “It was the closest thing to a paparazzi moment I’ve ever had with all these photographers around. And then I go home and as I’m getting ready for bed Colin throws up. So I went from my fancy party to cleaning up kid puke.”
Although Stucki consciously bypassed what could have been a somewhat unfulfilling musical career in the orchestral world, as an opera singer, there are still elements lacking that he needs to be fulfilled as a human being. One thing he misses is a sense of community. “If you meet some people you think you’d get along with you try to fast track it, like ‘let’s be friends quick! Cause we don’t have a lot of time here.” Fortunately, he has other interests that help him relate to those around him. Even when he’s traveling he likes to connect with the local community in any way he can. Last year, while working with Arizona Opera, he entered a pie contest. There were over 200 submissions and he won first prize in fruit for his Gingered Pear. He loves to cook and he’s already looked into getting his kitchen certified so he can run a pie booth at the Farmer’s Market in Salt Lake City -- if it turns out he’s around this summer. An avid gardener, Stucki can’t wait for warmer weather so he can transplant the heirloom tomato seeds he’s been nurturing to his garden outside. He also excels at bread-making and cultivates his own yeast. He tinkers around with woodwork and someday, when he has more time, he’d like to take up pottery.
The yearning for a more grounded lifestyle might speak to the absence of accumulation Stucki gets to witness as a traveling musician. Operatic performances are typically two weeks which isn’t very long. Utah Opera, for example produces five performances. “You hit your stride by the third performance and then you only have two left.” He clarifies, “When you travel somewhere and perform, you don’t have any true context. You pour all your energy into something and it’s great for the audience; they enjoy it, but then you leave. And I think that’s a little frustrating to me. I want to put all my energies into something that accumulates and develops.” One thing that satisfies his need to see the full cycle of development is teaching. Stucki is currently an adjunct professor at Utah Valley University and is a finalist for full professor in vocal studies. There’s a lot to do there and the opportunity it presents to establish a home and himself as a “builder” appeals to him as a departure from what he’s become accustomed to.
All in all, Stucki and his family have no complaints about where their life has taken them. “Once you’re in the rhythm of something, it becomes your life; it becomes your job” he admits. “Sometimes you have to remind yourself by saying ‘I have a great job, I do something really interesting – I pursue something I love.’”
Exhibition Spotlight: Salt Lake
Children Touched by Firefiles
Fetish Dolls from Uganda
When Utah artist Trent Alvey left for Uganda this winter she brought with her a giant black bag full of cloth donated by friends, needles, thread, scissors, string and whatever else came her way. She has returned with 70 doll fetishes created by children at the Asayo Wish Foundation orphanage. They will be on exhibit at Salt Lake's 15th Street Gallery beginning April 15.
Alvey went to Uganda with two objectives. She wanted to visit the Rwenzori Mountain Gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest. Hiking in with a friend she was able to visit with one of the eight habituated gorilla groups that struggle to survive in a shrinking habitat and changing climate. She also went to direct an art project at the orphanage. She worked with a group of 160 children, ranging from 3 to 18 years old, struggling to survive in a terror-ridden country torn apart by a volatile political climate.
Asayo's Wish Foundation was begun by Sarah Asayo, a Ugandan political exile who lives in Salt Lake City. It was built near Kaberamaido, an area brutalized by guerrilla warfare for decades. The orphanage cares for a generation of children that was conceived, born and survived in a period of "unfathomable brutality, as well as the brutality of AIDS, malaria, dengue fever and starvation," Alvey says.
Alvey worked with Agolo Jane, Sarah Asayo's aunt who is the on-site manager of the foundation. With her bag of collected material and tools she instituted an art project for the children in the orphanage. "I initially started the fetish doll making process with a quick demonstration. As the children watched, I picked up a discarded chunk of Cassava root that had a solid base but looked like a twisted torso. I fashioned a blue head with a long flowing head scarf, no arms, but a wrapped chest with a blue chiffon flowing skirt. The kids all laughed when they saw it because she looked like she was in motion. Then they simply went to work. It unfolded with raw materials of random cloth, thread, needles, string and available scraps of anything in their area, all incorporated into the fetishes. It emerged with its own collective frequency.
All the dolls came out looking like a family, but with great diversity."
Alvey was particularly impressed by the collective spirit that took over the project. "We had only two pairs of scissors that actually cut, so everyone shared efficiently. One person would take the job of cutting pieces of cloth in the general sizes as needed. Another child might assist by fetching pieces of foam rubber, sticks or rethreading needles with either black or white thread. As one child would lay a doll down, another may pick it up and add something to it. Some kids liked to check to see if everything was secure and nothing was liable to fall off or come undone. All the while there was laughter and fun or focused concentration. Everyone fully engaged."
Alvey has brought back 70 of the dolls, and will be selling them in order to raise money for the orphanage. The exhibit at 15th Street Gallery will also feature work by local artists John Sproul, Susan Beck, Jenevieve Hubbard, Lenka Konopasek, Steven Larson, Trent Alvey, and Justin Diggle.