Friday, May 18, 2012

*My Interview With* Alek Shrader

Opera Singer Alek Shrader

I've been following Alek since The Audition aired on PBS back in 2009, and have had delight in learning about him ever since. He not only attains boy-next-door good looks but a booming operatic voice that won him a spot at the Metropolitan Opera House. What could possibly make him even better ? He LOVES comics and fanboys over Joss Whedon! Don't we all :). 

Name:  Alek Shrader
Age:  30
Occupation:  Opera Singer
Currently Living:  Nomad (I don’t have a home residence anywhere – I follow the gig!)

Geek Sheek:  For those who aren’t aware of your amazing talent, please share with us what you do and how you came into it.

Alek:  I’m not so sure about this “amazing talent” you speak of, but I do sing opera for my day job. Honestly, I sort of reluctantly stumbled into it. Both my parents are former opera singers, but when I was growing up, that fact actually made me want to do ANYTHING but sing opera. I’m stubborn like that. I have to do my own thing. I had a rock band in high school just for fun, and joined choir because my friends were in it. That evolved into having a rock band in college and being a music education major (teacher by day, rockstar by night was the plan). We had a lot of fun, but the truth of the matter was that we weren’t really going to make it as rock legends. Coincidentally, I had begun to sing art song and opera arias in my college education, and the more I sang, the more I liked it. Success bred motivation, and I’ve been a lucky opportunist ever since.

Geek Sheek:  What kind of exercises do you do to develop that operatic style of voice?

Alek:  A bunch. Physically, I walk a lot (and quickly) and I do some light stuff at home. I think about going to the gym several times a week. Vocally, for me it sort of depends on the day. Obviously, using your voice every day (at least a little bit) is beneficial to keeping it “in shape”. (Singers are constantly making little noises; sometimes it becomes involuntary. hehe) I don’t mean singing an opera every day; there is a daily limit. It’s very similar to professional athletes - practice a lot and then perform. There are specific vocal exercises I do, but it might be super boring to write them into word form. Here’s the abridged version: There’s the one that gets the breath going… The one that goes fast… The one that goes high… And then I sing snippets of arias that work specific zones (like certain notes or vowels). I discovered the hard way that singing operatically is really like competing at the Olympics, in that – for best results – you shouldn’t roll out of bed one day and go perform. The actual performance is really only an extension of the preparation/practice. You have to keep in shape.

Geek Sheek:  As I understand, Opera singing isn’t just about singing but also acting or being extremely animated whilst singing. Explain the importance of this and what your process is to achieve this level of performing.

Alek:  Acting is one of the vital components of opera (the other being singing). Some people like to debate which is more important to the art form itself or the longevity of opera, but I think that’s a waste of time. I’m of the opinion it should be a perfect blend of both, in which the singing and acting complement each other to increase the overall effect the performance. We sing in treacherous times, you see. Opera is fighting for life in the United States, and thank goodness there are opera performers out there who are up to the task. In a fairly obvious way, when you go to the opera, you expect to hear good singing. I think you should also expect to see good acting. Why wouldn’t you? And why should you expect one to suffer for the sake of the other? As for my “process”… Remember when you were a kid and you would play make-believe? That’s it. That’s acting. The dedication you had to the game and the lack of inhibition in whatever fantasy you were bringing to life are the only basic tools you need. Of course, then it becomes a refined thing, working with coaches or directors. As a fundamental starting point, I just try to keep everything in the reality of the character (after I really, thoroughly know who that character is). You don’t need to add anything – if it feels right, it probably is. One thing I really shy away from is making my characters into versions of Alek. Inevitably, there will be little pieces of me in my characters, but I want to base my portrayal on sympathy and fantasy rather than my own experiences or personality. In the end, I’m not supposed to be me on stage. Opera offers other obstacles (four o-words in a row!) for convincing/realistic/”method” acting. Foremost, your character (probably) wouldn’t be singing if it were reality. Secondly (and sometimes more importantly), some actions you just shouldn’t really do in performance (such as, for example, murder). So, for me what works best is simply pretending – dedicated, uninhibited, well-thought-out-so-it-feels-natural-and-looks-real pretending.

Geek Sheek:  How many languages can you sing in? Is it difficult to learn a song in the various languages they are performed?

Alek:  Singing in a variety of languages is practically unavoidable for opera performers. I have performed operas in Italian, German, French, and English, and I’ve also sung in Spanish and Latin. While I’m only fluent in English (usually), I can speak the basics of Spanish, Italian, German, and French, enough that I could at least ask directions or order a sandwich. Singers are typically trained to learn and understand these and other languages (often Russian, for example), and the more fluency you gain would obviously be a great benefit to your performance. However, in eight semesters (average length for the first degree), you simply might not have enough time to become fluent in four or five languages. Fear not! Singers also (typically) take language diction classes to at least sound like they know the language. We learn how to pronounce the words properly, and hopefully the vocabulary and grammar will soon follow. In a perfect world, you are fluent in the language you sing in; in the meantime, you must at least know how to pronounce the words correctly and at bare minimum know the meaning of the words you sing.

Geek Sheek:  What has been your favorite play to do so far and why?

Alek:  This is a cheesy, common response from many performers, but I’m right up on that band-wagon: My favorite show is the one I’m doing right now (whatever it may be). Don’t throw up! I have reasons. For me, performing is playing/pretending/fun, so I have the most fun with my current show. I do have fond and special memories of previous shows (as well as some stinkers), but I really try to commit myself to the show I’m on now, and find a way to have maximum fun (even if it takes me a while). Since I’ve been pretty successful at finding my joy, there are simply too many stand-outs to list (but I did meet my wife in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, so that one wins).

Geek Sheek:  I became a fan of you after seeing The Metropolitan Opera documentary: The Audition in which you won. What was that experience like?

Alek:  The MONC Audition experience was simply surreal. I’m so fortunate that it was captured on film so I can continue to convince myself that it actually happened. It took me about a day to ignore the cameras (actually, I dodged them when I could). There was a moment when I realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I should just be myself. After that, I didn’t care about the cameras or winning/losing; I just wanted to sing “Ah! mes amis” on the stage of the Met while I had the chance.

Geek Sheek:  The documentary to me was more like what American Idol is like with the dwindling down of each performer to get to the final 15 and then it was the final 5 (I think). What opportunities opened up for you after you won?

Alek:  After the Audition, many doors opened for me. I got a lot of attention from the industry to do professional things or go to highly prestigious programs. Thing is, I was still in school. In a different mindset from “take your chance – sing ‘Ah! mes amis’”, I felt I wasn’t ready to move into a career. I was honored for the interest, but I wanted more time to improve my craft before I got out there in the public eye. I auditioned and went to Julliard for a year, and then became an Adler Fellow (young artist) at San Francisco Opera for about two years. So… almost three years later I finally became a full-time performer.

Geek Sheek:  To me it’s a preposterous assumption to even think but what do you say to people who tend to write Opera singing off as a dying art form?

Alek:  Well… here we go. The can of worms. There are so many ways to address this issue. I’ll just offer my two cents. If opera is “dying”, let’s save it: call a doctor (maybe even the guy who made the 6-million-dollar Man or RoboCop). If opera is “dead”, let’s bring it back to life: call Dr. Frankenstein. I’m being funny (or trying to be) but I’m serious about the point I’m attempting to make. In this case, the symptoms are the disease. It doesn’t really matter if opera is dying or dead already; the real problem is interest in the art form (or rather, lack thereof). If we choose to present opera the way it’s always been presented, without evolving or adapting to the modern climate/tastes, we have already given up. Opera is living art. To do the same thing over and over isn’t alive, it’s stuck. It’s static. We can make recordings or videos (we have the technology!) to be played over and over. We can even make “historical performances”, recreating, as best we can, the instruments, environment, etc. of the original premiere. I want opera to feel new and fresh. I would like to see the preconception, or even stigma, of opera obliterated. The performances of opera are in dire straits, maybe even “dying”. What is immortal are the sentiments/emotions/thoughts found within the works, that (in an appealing setting) might take hold of someone who had no idea what opera is capable of. But why should they go to an antiquated, stuffy (how dare you!), boring evening of live-theater now that things like cinemas, or television, or the internet exist? After all that, have I really said anything at all? Opera, as a live event, will be sustained by interest. Therefore, I simply say we need to get more people interested. Put opera back in the public eye. “How?” is the real question. Exposure to new audiences is great, in movie theaters, in schools, and so on. Continuing to raise the bar for singing/acting/production is a must. I humbly submit that we might need to take opera down a few pegs, away from the aristocracy, away from the “diva”, away from all that pretension. Opera is for everyone. But everyone might not know that. The thing we need is that jolt of lightning to revitalize the entire art form in the United States – to ignore tradition (if we’re brave enough) but keep the essence, the soul of opera. We need something, in a dark and stormy night, in a very old place, to make the creative mind scream “It’s alive!”

Geek Sheek:  What are some activities that you enjoy that are outside of the Opera profession?

Alek:  In my free time, I’m a pipe-dream writer. I write stories and screenplays. I also go to the movie theater every chance I get, and I watch countless hours of movies or TV shows at home. I’m a big gamer, of all types: board games, card games, video games, sports. I read random things obsessively (especially Wikipedia – research for research’s sake) and I’m a lifetime comic book fan.

Geek Sheek:  Lastly, what are some things you Geek out over?

Alek:  Well, my most recent Geek Out might never be surpassed. Thanks to a new and awesome friend (awesome!), I got to meet an idol of mine while I was performing in Los Angeles. He’s the creator of so many of my favorite things (like the TV show Firefly and its movie Serenity), as well as being the writer/director of the #1 box office opening film of all time, Marvel’s The Avengers: Joss Whedon. I have admired and mimicked him in my own hobby writing for so long that the chance to meet him was a little daunting. What would I say? What should I say? More importantly, what should I not say? This is a guy who gets all kinds of strange and random comments or questions from “fanboys” all day long. So I spent the entire time leading up to the meeting (after a movie screening for Cabin in the Woods) trying to think of something truly unique to say - something that he would think clever and memorable, and we would become best friends, and want to collaborate on a project, or series of projects. I’m Geeking Out right now, aren’t I? Well, the moment finally came and needless to say I dropped the ball. I gave my great little speech, and fell flat on my face. As the words came out of my mouth (in my shame, I won’t repeat them here), a little voice in my head said “Stop what you’re doing! Abandon ship!”, but I’ve gotten so good at ignoring that stupid voice that I couldn’t stop myself. Ah, the awkwardness that ensued cannot be put into words. I then became a silent observer to the group conversation, and after a time tried to redeem myself with some witty banter. It came out all forced and the opposite of witty. I was truly out of the game at that point, so I crept back to a quiet position, only laughing appropriately at his jokes. If anything, it was an excruciating lesson to just be yourself and don’t try to impress anyone (which I thought I had already mastered), because even if Joss and I didn’t become best friends after that 5-minute encounter, I’m sure he would have liked the normal “me” much better than the incoherent-failure version. The good thing is, I can’t think of another person I would Geek Out that hard over, so the next Geek Out should only be easier.

*Where you can find Alek NOW*

Alek is currently in rehearsals for Mozart’s The Magic Flute at San Francisco Opera.  They open June 13, and the show runs through July 8.
Visit the website here for ticket information.

Make sure you join his Facebook fan page HERE and his Twitter HERE . Also, go HERE to see a clip of The Audition featuring Alek, and where to buy the DVD.

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