Actress Christine Lahti critiqued student scenes
Renee FlemingDavid BohnettVoice students listen to Renee Fleming

Voices of Experience
Real world advice about life in the arts

Renee Fleming, one of the most celebrated sopranos of our time, stopped by Stamps Auditorium on a cold Saturday in January for a Q&A with voice students. She was in Ann Arbor for a University Musical Society engagement.

There was a palpable buzz in the room as the appointed hour drew closer. A thumbs-up from the stage indicated that the singer had arrived. Ms. Fleming and collaborative pianist Martin Katz emerged from behind the partition. A chorus of cheers rose up.

Students were eager to ask questions about their chosen profession. The singer quickly put the diva stereotype to rest. Wry and self-deprecating, she regularly broke up the room with her witty observations.

“Your job is not perfection,” she said. “It’s to be within a 10% range of your best singing. I’ve never walked off the stage thinking, ‘that was perfect’.”

But the learning process, she said, never ends. “I wouldn’t have the courage to go out there and sing if I didn’t trust my voice. I’m always learning, always experimenting.” Of the so-called “money note,” she told students, “Finding a B-flat took a while, trying to do it without using extra breath. It was a lot of work, but once you’ve got it, you’ve got it.”

The best compliment after a performance, to her mind, is not, “you sang so well tonight.” Instead, it’s, “I cried so hard! I couldn’t believe she died at the end!” She always tries to bring a “120% commitment” to each performance.

Ms. Fleming advised students to be resilient in their quest for a career. It is a very competitive field; there are far more singers than there is work. She suggested setting a time limit during which you are going to give it your all. After that, start thinking about other ways you can thrive in a field you love.

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Christine Lahti (BFA ’72, theatre & drama) visited the School in February. She critiqued three prepared student scenes and then sat down for a Q & A.

Lahti has had a 30-year career on stage, in film, and on TV. Most recently, she has appeared in episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her role in the TV series Chicago Hope. On Broadway, she was in God of Carnage and in Wendy Wasserstein’s seriocomic play The Heidi Chronicles. The film she considers the turning point in her career is Housekeeping, a quirky 1987 drama directed by Bill Forsyth. That milestone left her more open to considering marriage and a family.

Lahti made her directorial debut in My First Mister, a 2001 movie starring Leelee Sobieski and Albert Brooks. While she admits there remain challenges for women as directors, she considers this a very exciting time.

Before relocating to Los Angeles, where she lives now, Lahti spent 18 years in New York, paying her dues by waitressing and doing off-off-Broadway shows where the pay was two subway tokens. Still, she encouraged graduating students to follow suit:  get an agent and work in the theater. There’s no better training ground.

“You have to work hard, you have to be tenacious,” she said. “Audition, audition, audition. Think of each and every audition as an adventure. Use your nerves; they’re your friend.” She also emphasized professionalism, something that was brought home even more clearly for her as a director. Show up on time; know your lines; and don’t dally in the make-up trailer.

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With the recent distressing news of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s struggles, coupled with widespread uncertainty about the future of the symphony orchestra in America, it is always heartening to hear good news.

And that good news came in the form of David Bohnett (MBA ’80), board chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2008. In Ann Arbor last fall, he spoke to Arts Enterprise, an organization that brings together students from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the Ross School of Business to merge creativity with entrepreneurial acumen.

Philanthropist and entrepreneur, Bohnett is president of the David Bohnett Foundation and founder of GeoCities, an Internet-based media and e-commerce company that was subsequently acquired by Yahoo! Inc.

Secrets to the LA Phil’s success, Bohnett told students, include the beautiful new Walt Disney Concert Hall, an exciting young conductor, a very effective CEO, the 17,000-seat Hollywood Bowl as a steady source of ticket revenue, and active community engagement.

Bohnett believes that music education is the key to the future success of symphony orchestras, and in this arena, Los Angeles has become a leader. Its conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, is a product of El Sistema, Venezuela’s famous national music training and youth orchestra program.

Now Los Angeles has Youth Orchestra LA. Supported by a network of community stakeholders, YOLA provides access to exceptional instrumental and orchestral education in underserved communities throughout Los Angeles.

While Bohnett credits the LA Phil’s marketing department for leading the way into the digital age with Web and mobile device applications, he admitted frustration over limited rights to share music, still hindered by intractable union regulations. He charged students with finding ways orchestras can take advantage of those new technologies when they enter the profession.

“I think students enjoyed hearing someone in that kind of position in the classical world talk so candidly about the state of orchestras,” said Michael Mauskapf, musicology Ph.D. candidate and former Arts Enterprise president. “Bohnett’s technology background makes him an authority on some of the initiatives his and other orchestras are trying to adopt.”

“Board members are usually invisible,” said Mark Clague, musicology professor and Arts Enterprise faculty advisor, “but the board is the decision-making body.” Along with their other duties, LA Phil board members are expected to make a significant donation. Jeffrey Lyman, bassoon professor, was struck by that impressive sum. “People with that much commitment to the arts should be cultivated by musicians as our allies and supporters, not our enemies,” Lyman commented, “as they so often are portrayed the minute there are negotiations between musicians and management.”

Bohnett’s presentation seemed to hearten students. “I think what they took away,” says Clague, “is that if you have a sound business model, committed donors, and community support, and you leverage that environment to the maximum capacity of your business creativity and your artistic passion, you can make it work.”

 

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Arts Enterprise began in 2006 as a student organization at the University of Michigan as a collaboration between students at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the Ross School of Business. These students sought to find a way for entrepreneurial, multi-talented students to collaborate on issues such as nurturing the creativity of business majors and developing the entrepreneurial skills of arts majors. In its first year AE, established a student board, raised $25,000 for projects, and launched its first AE Week with arts consultant Eric Booth as the keynote speaker and facilitator.

Since then, Arts Enterprise has grown to eight student chapters at universities around the country. It held its second annual national conference in February at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, to “help visionary faculty, staff, and students plan and launch successful AE chapters on college campuses across the U.S.” Information about Arts Enterprise at Michigan is available at www.artsenterprisemi.com.