Language Tip #1: Read

Matt Kaplan is currently a Music Intern in Spain.  This is the second in a series of blog posts he’ll be writing for us while there.  See the first entry here.

Kaplan 1As obvious as this may seem, reading in another language has been unbelievably beneficial to me in my journey to learn Spanish.  However, there are a lot of fallacies that are easy to come across without even knowing it.  It took me a long time to catch a rhythm on what works and what doesn’t work when approaching reading in this new light.

If you can develop a reading strategy and identify your realistic level within your studies, reading can affect your language abilities in a very direct way.  I believe that reading alone has boosted my vocabulary more than any other exercise as well as increased my confidence to get out there and speak it.  As we all know, confidence in speaking a language is a HUGE barrier to overcome.

Even if reading is not really your thing ( I personally am a nerd for literature), try and aim for something that interests you.  It could be reading the sports section of the local paper, magazine articles on celebrities, or your favorite novel in a translated version. However, I can’t stress the idea of starting with children’s books and easy reads enough.  It might seem ridiculous, but you’d be surprised how much vocabulary and sentence structures you can benefit from even from a book with a sentence on each page with pictures.  If anything, it is humbling.   If you’re embarrassed to do so, buy a few and read some when you wake up or before you go to sleep.  If you have a good basic knowledge of Spanish grammar and vocabulary I’d recommend The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  It’s a little more advanced than a book for toddlers or something but a great read and it is translated in a ton of languages.

Also, is the comfort of your own room so that people don’t think you are crazy, read aloud.  Reading aloud is a great way to practice pronunciation and getting a strong feel for the rhythm of your language.  Hey, it’s not like you’re going to make a mistake on missing a word or phrase, right?  It’s all there in front of you so you can focus on “speaking without stumbling.”   This has been an amazing tool and I still do it sometimes with advanced literature.  This especially helps with trying your hand at pronouncing harder words.  You are less likely to use advanced words if you can’t pronounce them! Simply understanding them isn’t enough sometimes.

Next, no matter what you read, you need to have a game plan on how to read it.  There are a million schools of thought on how to go about it: some people think you just need to jump in and read and that’s it, while others will look up every single word they don’t understand, etc.  I fall into a mix between the two: I use the latter idea to facilitate the first idea.  When I read I always have a pen ready to take notes.  As I read I tend to box words I don’t know and then re-write them at the top or bottom of the page depending on space, I will underline phrases and conjugations I might not be familiar with, and then put a star next to words that I don’t really know but I’m fairly sure I know the meaning of.  The reason I do the last step is because there are a handful of Spanish words that are easy to figure out if you know the English equivalent (for example la ira = ire), but there are also loads of false cognates and for that reason, I never want to assume (also I’m sure that the idea of false cognates really only applies when trying to translate a handful of languages).

Kaplan 2 copyI then read and mark as I go along.  After I finish a chapter I will revisit and look up the vocab and phrases and write them down on the individual pages.  If the word I think I know checks, out I will simply write a check next to it.  Finally, I skim back over the chapter in an effort to have a holistic understanding of what I just read in conjunction with my new vocabulary and phrases.

If you are still reading at this point I’m sure you’re probably thinking, “that is ridiculous, who does all of that for one exercise?!”  I know it does take a lot of time and dedication but I can assure you that the juice will be worth the squeeze.  Why?  Because this is a great way to accurately measure your progress.  By your third or fourth book you will be impressed with how little you are needing to write and how much quicker you can get through your favorite novel or magazine.

Also, just a note: if you start with a piece of reading and you are marking words and phrases every other line and it is taking you a week to read a few chapters, the book is probably too advanced and you are not helping yourself in the long run.  I know because I’ve definitely made that mistake quite a bit.

Anyways, this is what has worked for me in the past and I hope this small insight on reading will be of some use to you all.  If anything, this can be an excuse to explore local coffee shops or parks to take a load off and relax in the heart of the culture of your target language.  Right now I am obsessed with the literature of the Colombian author, Gabriel García Márquez.  I have always loved his style of writing and the way he uses language to express emotion.  Now that I am able to read it in Spanish as it was meant to be, it is as if I am reading him for the first time all over again.


7 Life Lessons from a Summer Composer’s Workshop

Today’s guest blogger, Jessica Marlor, is a composer and student and at Smith College in Northampton, MA (right across the street from our offices!)  This summer she traveled Europe studying opera composition and was kind enough to write a guest blog post for us.

A few weeks ago, I packed my bags and set off for Dublin, Ireland for the 2015 Irish Summer Composition School. I arrived at the airport, ready to start my new adventure, ready to delve into my work and learn from the amazing teachers and colleagues. As I waited in line to check my bags, I was alerted that there was a problem with the online ticketing server, causing anyone who downloaded an e-ticket (hint: just me) to be put on a waitlist for the next flight. Furious, I huffed and puffed my way to the ticket office and demanded a seat on the next flight. Outraged, I waved and waggled my finger, trying to sweeten this particularly sour situation.

After an hour of arguing, I secured a seat on the next flight, and they even upgraded me to priority boarding. The only catch: The next flight was not for 8 hours.

The first hour was filled with texting, reading, and wandering around the tiny Luton airport. The second hour, was spent sipping coffee in a starbucks. And the third hour was spent chugging water to placate my caffeine jitters caused by hour 2.

By the fourth hour, I started to ask myself: Is this a sign?

I couldn’t get it out of my mind that this might be one of those moments where  mysterious benevolent forces are screaming at me from the heavens: GET OUT NOW, RUN FAST, RUN AWAY.

But I went, I made it to Dublin, and I went to the Summer Composers School, and now, I cherish those jam-packed, cerebrally intense 10 days. It taught me so much about how to write music well. There is a difference between having the physical capabilities to write music, and writing music in a way that is idiomatic and logical. The latter is a paradox that I will be trying to understand for my entire life, but what I learned at ISCS was a nice, logical, and friendly introduction.

I learned so much from ISCS, that I needed a full week and a half to digest all of the lessons. I retreated to organize my thoughts in the only logical way I know how: Writing more music. While writing the opening chorus for my opera I realized that I had learned much more than I bargained for. The lessons that advisors, relatives, and my parents had been trying to instill in my thick, and extremely stubborn skull for my entire life—- the kind of lessons that are only learnt through hard-knock, real-life.

(and excuse the amount of Beyonce/Nicki gifs, I’m still not over The Pinkprint and will not be for a long time.)image03

1. Ask Questions, let your will to learn be insatiable

As the resident least-qualified composer at the workshop, I accepted my place by keeping my mouth shut, and avoiding the hotseat. BIG MISTAKE. The first couple days, I held my tongue whenever a question came up, fearing that if I answered incorrectly i would void my credibility and be thrown out the front door by my ankles. Let me make something really clear: most of the seemingly ‘highly talented’ people have no idea what they are doing. It is a big mistake to ignore your burning questions. Go for it. Ask a question, take a stab at a problem, put yourself out there. You will learn much more than you ever expected.

Take it from me. On the first day of the workshop, we met with the musicians who would be premiering our pieces. Before us stood a soprano (ok, yeah I know how voices work…fine), a piano (yeah ok, bang on a key, get a pitch, easy-peasy), a violinist (bow across strings=gorgeous sound) and a french horn (maze-like mess of tubes and valves and HELP I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING). As I gawked at the seemingly impossible instrument, the other composers asked questions about the newest advanced techniques, essentially one-upping one another to show off.

While this was all very well and interesting, I realized that I didn’t really know how to write for the horn. Yes, I studied my orchestration textbook, I knew it was a transposing instrument, I knew its range, but I had no idea how it worked. How could I ever hope to write something for a horn if I didn’t even know how to produce a single note.

As a person who makes a fool of herself on the regular, I eventually got up the courage to ask how a horn worked. The horn player quickly demonstrated how mouth position changes the pitch in a french horn along the harmonic sequence, and how pressing the valves changes the harmonic sequence that is being utilized. Immediately, it was clear what kind of passages are idiomatic and which would be near-impossible to play. Asking one question gave me the tools I needed to compose an effective piece.

The best part? One of the directors of the program pulled me aside afterward to let me know how grateful he was for my question. Even he did not understand exactly how a horn worked.

So yeah. Asking questions really is a PLUS even if it makes you look stupid for 10 seconds.image06

2. Don’t ever doubt yourself

Do you know what the imposter syndrome is? It’s this annoying psychological syndrome that you must memorize to get above a 4 on the AP psych test. It’s a number that’s generated from a series of questions that puts self-doubt into a neatly-organized set of categories. Its a personality trait that a shocking number of highly successful people also have. Turns out, having the imposter syndrome is extremely normal, and the normalcy of this syndrome is directly linked to your privilege in a specific situation.

Flash forward to me: an incredibly blonde, incredibly weird, baby-composer without even a bachelors degree under her belt, plopped in a classroom full of bright eyed, successful, fast talking, deeply theoretical white men with PhD’s and masters degrees. You better believe I’m going to feel like an imposter.

I felt like there was some sort of mix-up. Like, perhaps they had seen my name and thought, “Hmmm, maybe we should let this little girl in, she should round out our diversity quota.” Or maybe they had just given me a spot out of pity. Regardless, I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like if I spoke up, or voiced my opinion, I would be deemed as ‘intellectually incompetent’ for this line of work and quickly shown the front door.

But as the days went on, I realized that although I didn’t have the training, and accreditation that the other students had, I certainly had earned my place. I’m certainly not good at counterpoint, nor am I some sort of prolific music theorist. Frankly, I’m still pretty green at writing music, but the bottom line still stands that I have a lot of passion, a lot of drive, and a fresh, DIY approach to making meaningful music. While the boys may have been great at what they did, I certainly overshadowed their talent with my ability to tell a universal story. There, I found it, something I’m great at. It only took me 3 years of composing to figure it out.

You certainly may not know what you are good at now, but you will. Give it time, pay attention to your work-ethic, your passions, and your ideas. Being observant of your tendencies will allow you to better understand your strengths and weaknesses. Doubt it difficult to ignore, but the sooner you understand and own your value, the sooner you will be able to kick that nasty self-doubt habit


3. You will not get along with everyone; but that does not mean that you treat them with disrespect

Truth bomb: You will not like everyone you meet, and not everyone you meet will like you in return. Ok, Ok, So this is not the most earth-shattering truth bomb, but sometimes you have to put on your big-girl pants and accept this fact. Truth is— you will probably feel indifferent or disgust towards MOST of the people you meet in this world, but that gives you no rationale to treat them poorly.

Case and point: A few weeks ago I met a man who we’ll call Frank. He was a composer, just like me, and seemed pretty talented albeit a shallow name-dropper. I swallowed my disgust to learn a little more about him. Who cares right? Although he annoyed me a bit, I definitely could learn a thing or two from Frank. He was an established composer,conducting his OWN choir and producing his own music. I was pretty impressed. As the program went on, I realized how different our views on the music world, and life itself differed greatly. So I, being the grump-tastic feminist that I am, called my mother and complained about him. For a week.

I kept finding reasons to hate him, and his music. But he kept surprising me with his talent. He eventually sent me a hand written card, to tell me how much he enjoyed meeting me and learning about my music. Making me feel like a gigantic ass-hat, and I realized: Its perfectly fine and normal to dislike someone— but don’t let it ruin your life. If someone is in your way, you cannot continue to loathe his or her presence, rather, you must extend an arm. Get over yourself, because honestly, High School Musical definitely had it right


4. Be your own mentor first

Someone I deeply respect once told me, “You will never find the mentor you are looking for”. Yikes, talk about tough love, but at the end of the day, once I accepted that I needed to be my own trailblazer, the mentors I needed came out of the woodwork. I couldn’t possibly consider myself my own mentor— certainly I’m not qualified enough. So I took to reading Elizabeth Swados’ book about becoming a composer, Listening Out Loud. It was a baby step that I took in order to become my own mentor. At the end of the day, You know your life better than anyone else, so find ways to forge your own path. Study the lives of those you admire, and learn from them; do not simply try to be them. There will come a time when you are in need of advice, or a hug, or both, but you cannot guarantee that there will be someone there to pick you up, dust you off, and send you on your way. You must learn to do this yourself, it is a skill that takes time and patience.

When your perfect mentor comes along, your backbone will be strong enough to accept the challenges of your own life’s journey. Remember: when the student is ready, the teacher appears.

5. Don’t compare yourself to others

Probably the most-given, and most-difficult advice ever given. ever. But still this life-lesson is an important one to learn; a skill that we must continue to fine-tune throughout our lives. This never gets easy, but the reward is well worth the suffering. I’ll keep this short and simple since I’ve chewed your ears off with my other points. C’mon kids, this is a biggie. Do Not. Compare. Yourself. To. Others.

Your voice is important and unique, and if you disagree with me now talk to me in 10 years. End of point.image05

6. Your path is your own, there is nobody else that has a path like yours. learn to embrace your unique path

And THIS is why you must learn to not compare yourself to others. Why compare yourself when your circumstances, skills, and outlook differ HUGELY from one person to the next? Sure you may feel as talented as Rihanna, but you are not Rihanna. period.

Embrace your weird, squiggly, awkward path. It’s yours, so flaunt it. By accepting the reality of your individual path you can learn and flourish.

My music is my music. It is unequivocally, and unflinchingly me. If I were to try to sonically impersonate the composers I looked up to, i wouldn’t be doing myself any favors. I would just be known as the ‘girl who sounded a lot like so-’n-so’ or ‘trying too hard to be what’s-his-name’ which is just a losing battle.

Trust that you’ll put the pieces together soon, and that you’ll find that your path (although perhaps daunting and lonely) is exquisitely rich and full of new opportunities.image01

7. Your voice is worthy of being heard

Period. You are valuable. Your work is valuable. Who you are is valuable. Remember that especially when your voice feels silenced. So say it with me: I am valuable. Periodimage00


Drought of Touch

Bón Día from Barcelona! My name is Allyson and I am a dance intern in Barcelona, Spain with Performing Arts Abroad. This blog post is part of my internship capstone project.

A week ago I went to my first rave. And it was at 6:30 in the morning… you heard that right.

The rave, called Morning Gloryville Barcelona, involved no hallucinogenics and no alcohol. Instead, the goal was to get to the trance-like bliss of a night-time rave with nothing needed except the DJ, the energy of the crowd, your body, and a free cup of coffee.

I was willing to go for it. So at 5:30 a.m. I forced my protesting body out of bed and crept covertly out of the apartment, trying not to wake my host mom. It was still dark outside, and walking to the metro station I remembered the last time I had been awake at this time in Barcelona. Then, it had been the end of a long night. Now, it was the beginning of a long day. The street was almost deserted: just me and the street sweepers.

When I arrived at Mercat de les Flors, the location of the rave, the morning light kissing the rooftops took my breath away.  It was all so sharp and clean.


The music was already spilling from inside the building, even though the rave hadn’t technically started. The repetition of the words, the drop of the bass, began to weave their spell. A woman’s voice, singing, inviting: start moving in your way.

We were gathering. Fairy wings and glittered skirts. High heels and Hawaian prints. A cacophony of nighttime color and sound, so curiously juxtaposed with the scent of coffee and the brightening of the sky.


At 6:30, those who had arrived for the beginning formed a circle, hands on each others backs. A woman began to speak into a microphone. Against the music, and in Spanish, I couldn’t catch it all. Just the general ideas: breathing, giving energy, being present.

She told us to divide into pairs, and I found myself face to face with another woman. “Look directly at each other.” We began the rave like that, sinking deep into the eyes of a stranger.

In case you don’t know, eye contact can be terrifying. For this first partner, it was a little too intense. She kept laughing and looking down or away. I tried to hold that, without casting judgment, although I was aware of the uncomfortable space it created between us. I tried to make my face a resting place for her restless, flitting gaze.

We changed partners.

My second partner was brave. Together, we held each other’s gaze without breaking it. “Don’t think about anything” said our instructor (instructor? teacher? guru? fellow human?) “Just see the person sitting across from you.” As the minutes passed, I felt tears coming into my eyes. Almost immediately after, I saw them reflected sympathetically in the eyes of my partner. Similarly, without any intentional effort my face and body arranged themselves to match hers. (Actually, there’s a scientific reason for this. Wikipedia “mirror neurons” when you finish reading)

After minutes of this, of just seeing, we were told to touch our partner, in whatever way we wanted to. Our hands found each other’s shoulders. Others were grasping hands, touching knees, or gently holding faces. I could feel the weight of her arms. I realized we were now smiling. Not embarrassed, deflecting smiles, but expressions of genuine joy in the acts of seeing, and being seen.

We are so rarely allowed the luxury of studying a face. If we took time to do this with every new person we met, the word “ugly” would not exist, at least not in reference to other humans. There is no such thing as “ugly” when you really look. Judgment fades and there is only light and shadow, structure and detail, color, symmetry and asymmetries, humanness.

“Start moving in your way.” The words were like a massage—repetitive, soothing. Telling me to begin by listening. The room was electric, pulsing with energy. I felt as if there were invisible threads connecting me to every person in the room. Each one present and accounted for.

At last we finished and stood up. My partner and I grasped each others arms and smiled and laughed in and said thank you in as many ways as we could. Then we let each other go, and started moving in our ways. The music changed. The dance began.

Since that morning I have not been able to forget the electricity of being touched and seen, so long and so unbreakingly, by another person. I find myself craving a return to that sensation. I imagine I crave it the the way friends who smoke crave nicotine.

Touch and sight. Even before the rave, I was thinking about these things frequently. They have been on my mind almost since arrival.

The fact is that people touch each other much more in Spain than in the U.S. When I first observed classes at Varium, I was taken aback by how much teachers would touch students. Male and female alike would absentminded stroke the hair of the child standing nearby, or place a calming hand on the back of a rowdy kid to quiet them, or engulf someone who had drifted away from the group in a sudden bear hug to scoop them up and carry them back to the group.

But although this surprised me initially I now I find myself doing the same. After for weeks of working with kids at Varium, to touch feels automatic, natural and right. Now, I don’t hesitate to touch. Working in Spanish and Catalá, I often struggle express myself verbally. Touch and eye contact are two most clear and immediate forms of communication that I have at my disposal.

Outside the dance community (which is, granted, more touch-prone than most), it is the same. Parents touch their children more. Couples can get away with PDA of the highest degree. Even strangers can touch each other, for example when trying to pass behind someone on the metro. For example, the waiter at the restaurant where we take the Varium kids for lunch touches me when I am blocking his way in the narrow aisle between the two tables, to let me know he needs to come through. Even the Spanish greeting, two kisses on either side of the face, is closer and more intimate than the American handshake.

Similarly, I have been struck again and again here by how readily people meet each other’s gazes. Not just meet, but welcome, with radiating warmth. I see this a lot at Varium, between students and students, students and teachers, parents and staff. And I see it especially in conversations when people are speaking to each other in Catalá.

In the United States, we train ourselves into isolation. We are taught that it is rude to stare. Our eyes flit from the screen of our smartphones to the floor to avoid being caught on the splinter of another person’s gaze. We teach our children that their personal bubble reaches as far as their fingertips so that we can all keep each other at arm’s length. When we take our change from the cashier at the supermarket, the sudden warmth of their fingers is startling, an unwanted intimacy. A teacher who places his hand on the back of a restless student risks a lawsuit.

So at first it was hard for me to reciprocate, let alone to initiate, these moments of warm human contact. I would feel bashful or nervous and cast my eyes down, or stiffen my muscles. But I have been practicing, these last two months, and I have improved a lot. My skin sings when it is touched. My hands happily assure other people that I see and acknowledge them by finding their shoulders or arms. My eyes seek other eyes like magnets. What I did at the rave was like a marathon, but really I had been training for it ever since my arrival in Spain.

Now, with five days left in Spain, I find myself thinking heavily of my return to American culture, where it seems we are in a perpetual drought of touch, and avoid eye contact when we can. I think it will feel cold, and lonely.

I recognize that there are reasons to take care with these things, perhaps especially with touch. I know that touch, when unwanted, can invade and harm, deeply. Sexual assault and child molestation are devastating. And I know that for children on the autism spectrum, touch is frequently more disturbing than comforting. And I know that everyone has different sensitivities and preferences. And I know to always get consent. And I agree that staring at strangers (and being stared at) is creepy.

But I mourn the degree to which fear of inappropriate touch/gaze has so distorted our perception in the United States that we cannot seem to distinguish the natural from the perverted. I am angry that because of perverts and child molesters should have the power to remove the sense of touch from our schools. Most of all, I think there is enormous capacity for healing in the acts of touching and seeing. I felt that last week. What if every white police officer had to look for five minutes into the eyes of the black man or woman he is facing before he could put his finger to the trigger or his hands to the throat? What if every congressman and woman began the day by sitting and holding the gaze, or the hands, of their political opponents? I think many of our wounds could begin to heal.

This is what I dream about, after a morning surrounded by music and color, movement, touch, and gaze. But the reality is that today, in my country, the language of touch is spoken by few (lovers, mothers, dancers). How I wish that we were more multilingual.


Trying to look right at you.


…But good luck trying to look into THESE eyes! (Dali museum)

Written by Allyson Yoder, Performing Arts Abroad dance intern in Spain. This blog post is part of her internship capstone project. See her blog here. 

The Opera Revolution of the Socially Conscious Generation Begins Today

This is a blog post by guest contributor Jessica Marlor, who is a music student at Smith College.  This is the first of three articles about her specialty of opera that she will be writing for the Performing Arts Abroad blog this summer. This summer she is collaborating with music composers in London and also has a personal blog,  She suffers from a chronic illness, and blogs about writing a modern opera while dealing with a disability.  Jessica says about her blog: I think it might be a nice thing for some of your students to read, especially those who may be dealing with a chronic illness. Through my own experience, Ive learned how powerful it is to hear about people doing exciting and creative things despite a physical/mental/emotional limitation or disability.”

Many musicians deify the European aesthetic. For centuries, Europe has been the epicenter of musical genius; a real-world Eden to the composers that built the classical canon from the ground up. Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Stravinsky, Verdi, Strauss— The list goes on; all European, and all immortalized by their work and legacy. Any passer-by on the street can list famous classical composers, but what percentage of the composers named are non-European? My guess, is close to 0%. There are thousands of unnamed composers around the world who have a prolific portfolio— but non-European composers are largely unknown. While Europe has been the creative birthplace of inspired pieces for centuries, does Europe uphold its creative musical legacy?

In the United States alone, there is an abundance of talented young composers building upon our modern aural palate. I personally have been inspired by the work of composers such as Aaron Copland, John Adams, Philip Glass, Eric Whitacre and Kate Soper; the work done today in the United States is rich with depth and complex aural texture. In terms of creative genius, the United States has reached its zenith, becoming a melting pot of sounds, textures, and innovation. The United States is the musical superpower for the 21st century.

Yet why do I, as a modern opera composer, fight tooth and nail to live and work in Europe as a professional musician?

The reason lies in the way that art— specifically music—functions in the cultural landscape. In Europe there is a reciprocal relationship between artists, governmental bodies, and patrons, a process that I believe has led to the demise of our cultural center. Art in the US has the propensity to be fed by wealthy US donors, and thus caters only to the US elite, the 1%. While this seems like a stretch— allow me to explain my theories and how they differ vastly from the cultural landscape of the United States. Since most of my research is based in the opera scene, I will use this as a medium to show the disparity between US and UK arts organizations.

In order for culture to thrive, the government must commit itself to broadening the scope of performance and presentation. Both the governments of the  UK and the US fund non-profit organizations through the Arts Council (UK) and the National Endowment for the Arts (US) to oversee the distribution of government sanction aid to arts organizations. But while the US only funds the National Endowment for the Arts and the John F. Kennedy Center the UK government utilizes a myriad of different trusts and lottery systems to fund the various cultural exploits of the UK. The US government supports the arts by funding the maintenance and upkeep of the John F. Kennedy Center. The UK government funds the National Lottery for the Arts (£262M), the Arts Council, the Catalyst fund (£100M), and NESTA ( a government funded trust of £250M).

To see a full breakdown of each of the UK Policy and the US policy click on the hyperlinks.

But how the government funds music is only a fraction of my point. Really, I am more concerned with the way that opera companies respond to their audiences— something that the United States has yet to understand. A few particular UK opera companies work with their audiences to create a homogenous body of work that reflects the audiences themselves, rather than the wishes of the sponsors.

Let me illustrate this problem a little further. Without government sponsorship, US opera companies must seek capital from other sources— traditionally from wealthy opera-hungry donors. Thus the 1% donates to opera companies to support them, and in return the opera companies must piece together a season that will encourage these wealthy donors to continue their patronage. The wealthiest US tax bracket, as we all know, is predominantly older white, cis-gendered men, so the opera companies must choose to produce works that reflect the aesthetics favored by these audiences.  As you may already see, this creates a vicious cycle where the wealthiest donors are more or less creating our cultural landscape. opera has become corporate, ladies and gentleman.

Where the US opera companies are lacking in funding, they fill the gaps with private or personal sponsorship. It puts artistic directors in a hard place— keeping them pinched for cash and the only way out is through attracting wealthy donors. The 1% — the image they present, the values they support, their very identity is represented in the work that is presented to the nation. This troubles me greatly. How can opera stay afloat when 99% of the population does not see itself in the operatic landscape? Music is powerful because we identify with it, how can we be moved by something when we do not see ourselves represented accurately? The face of opera reflects those who can afford to support the arts, and not much else.

Opera, although it is my lifeblood, frustrates me deeply. As a white cis-woman, the leading ladies that I see in the opera are spineless housewifes, hopeless romantics, tragic heroines, evil seductresses. None of these women even remotely capture the complexities of growing up female in the United States. When opera begins to reflect humanity, then opera will become relevant.

Today, and especially in the United States, there is no lack of relevant cultural work, but performance opportunities are few and far between. The opera companies of the nation simply do not have the means to support these eclectic works.

The UK however, is able to indulge the development of relevant opera because their funding is reliable. Unlike the plight of the US companies, UK opera organizations are able to indulge the work they believe in because they are not bound to the demands of their patrons. They have the freedom express their creative minds, and program their seasons to attract a diverse audience, rather than a wealthy one. This freedom is key in retaining the artform. Finding a sustainable and invested audience allows opera to grow as an artform, reflecting the zeitgeist rather than resisting it.

Many of my peers suggest that opera is a dying artform. I often counter this statement with, “Our audiences are dying, not the artform.” I believe that we must listen and learn from our audiences in order to create a sustainable opera culture— perhaps our very conception of what opera is must change. In the UK today, opera is changing its nature to fit the demands of the modern audience, a practice that is vital to the survival of opera. While older works are still presented, and enjoyed, new opera takes center stage. Tȇte a Tȇte opera, a new opera company focused on presenting new opera for new audiences, stages a new opera festival every year. With over 100 performances, and 40 new operas, Tȇte a Tȇte opera reaches out to artists throughout Europe to commission and create productions that are unique and cutting-edge. Their work to make opera accessible, creative, and fun is admirable and certainly a step in the right direction.

One company in particular rises above the rest in terms of their commitment to making opera accessible and meaningful. Streetwise opera was founded after a comment was made regarding homeless presence in London:

“In 2000 a resident of the Passage night shelter read out a quote from a politician in the newspaper. The politician had said that, ‘The homeless are the people you step over coming out of the opera House’. The comment made some people angry and others saw it as an opportunity – if THEY were in an opera it would challenge the public’s attitude to homeless people.”

This group has re-defined opera to give the disadvantaged an opportunity to build self-esteem and community. They work with composers to present new works, focusing specifically on issues of the time. Streetwise opera works with over 600 people annually to develop self esteem through new or reimagined works. opera companies such as Streetwise re-define the image of opera to better suit the public, and create meaningful change. They present every-day struggles through the voices of those who have struggled deeply. They create small-scale change within their communities and large-scale change in the way that we conceptualize and value opera. Our country must look towards creating meaningful change through creative expression, as Streetwise has done.

But I must stress— The opera companies in the United States are doing the best they can with what they’re given. Last year, I served as Artistic Intern for Washington National opera (a subset of the John F. Kennedy Center) which commissions and stages a new short opera every year. Last year I was able to sit in on the tech week rehearsals for An American Soldier, an inspiring opera based on the real-life suicide and trial of Army private Danny Chen. This opera chillingly represents the dangers of bullying, hypermasculinity, and pack-mentality, all through the eyes of an Asian American soldier. A work such as this tackles the issues that I see in modern day opera. It addresses the difficulties embedded in modern society, and works to connect with a more diverse audience. I am proud of much of the work that is done in the United States, but the sheer volume of socially-conscious work being produced in the UK far surpasses that of the US. The fact that one small-scale company such as Tȇte a Tȇte opera can produce over 40 socially-responsible, audience-centered operas in one week, and a wealthy company such as the Kennedy Center can only produce one a year baffles me to no end.

Opera must begin to listen. Opera must begin to learn, to adapt, to the peoples and realities of the world today. Open its ears to the pulse of the nation. opera must develop its cultural heart in order to carry on to future generations. In the words of Tȇte a Tȇte: the opera Revolution begins today.

Island Time Volunteering in the Galapagos

My name is Jenna and I am a theater volunteer in the Galapagos Islands with Performing Arts Abroad.


One thing you hear a lot in the Galapagos is “island time”. This usually refers to the notion, that when someone says they will meet you at 1:30you should expect them closer to 2:00. While this can be frustrating it actually has a really good message. For me “island time” became a reminder to go with the flow and to not take yourself too seriously.


I landed in San Cristobal knowing absolutely no Spanish and ready to help in anyway possible. Originally I thought I would be teaching a theater class, but once there it seemed there was more of a need for volunteers to teach English. So, determined to combine the two, I decided one of the best ways to learn new words and remember them was through art. For two weeks I spent my mornings learning as much Spanish as I could and every afternoon I taught 45 students using theater games and art projects. Things are very laid back in the islands so I could really develop my lesson plans any way I wanted to.



Taking the idea of “island time” to heart, I also did a lot of amazing activities I never thought I would do. We hiked mountains, climbed volcanoes, and snorkeled in coral reefs. The beauty of San Cristobal is beyond compare. Once you step back and allow yourself to be open to new experiences you see truly amazing things.



While all of these adventures were fun the best part of this experience was working with the kids and the other volunteers. We became a family that shared each other’s frustrations and victories. To have students start out not really wanting to learn and with in a week seeing the same students come to class early and ask to sing the counting song, and bouncing out of their seats to tell you the vocabulary word and write it on the board, made me so incredibly proud of them!  Absolutely an amazing experience!


Written by Jenna Snyder, Performing Arts Abroad theater volunteer in the Galapagos Islands.

Dance Culture in Barcelona

Bón Día from Barcelona! My name is Allyson and I am a dance intern in Barcelona, Spain with Performing Arts Abroad.

It has been an incredible three weeks since arriving here. As usual when traveling, I started with the best of intentions to write every week, which were quickly overpowered by the drive to be outside, absorbing and exploring. It’s past time for an update!

My internship placement is at Varium Espai di Movimente, a sunlit studio is quickly becoming my home away from home. This is a very special place. Varium successfully balances broad outreach (over 500 students are enrolled in a year) with depth and quality of training and professionalism with play. In three weeks here I have been blown away by the warmth of community, quality of dance pedagogy, and diversity of programming at Varium.

Dance Culture in Barcelona


The literal translation of “Varium Espai di Movimente” is “Varium Movement Space,” which is the most concise and accurate description I can think of. Varium is a center for community movement, offering an array of classes that range from traditional studio offerings like ballet, hip-hop, acrobatics, and contemporary, to those you might find in a gym: pilates, yoga, stretching/toning, etc.

In addition to these community oriented classes, Varium is a training ground for professional dancers. Anna Sánchez directs Varium’s pre-professional program, “Formación,” a 1-3 year program of intensive study that attracts dancers—anywhere from 17-30 years old—from throughout Spain, France, Switzerland, and other European countries.  (More to come on this program later!)

Finally, Varium supports many dance companies in residence who train and rehearse in the studio spaces:

Brodas Bros is a professional hip-hop crew with international acclaim. These guys are incredible:

Many of the Brodas dancers are engaged in Varium in other ways, teaching classes or broadening their dance training through the Formación program.

 VariumKids is a junior hip-hop company for youth from 10-16 years old:

GetBak is the next step, an amateur hip-hop crew made of youth and young adults.

Dance Culture in Barcelona

With so many opportunities in hip-hop, there is somewhat of an opportunity gap in contemporary dance. Manama Varium, a new program, aims to fill this gap. Similar to VariumKids, this program will be a pre-professional company for youth who want to go further in contemporary dance.

All housed at Varium, these companies offer rich sources of opportunities for students to grow and get engaged beyond taking classes.


Back in the U.S. when I hear the phrase “dance studio,” my gut response is skepticism. In my experiences, studio atmospheres are often highly competitive and image-driven, confuse tricks with technique, and undervalue or suppress dancers’ creative drive and individuality for the sake of a uniform aesthetic. (See these discussions on Dolly Dinkle studios, competition dance, ballet and eating disorders.)

Personally, a lot of my dance education in high school and college was dedicated to unlearning the things I learned growing up in a dance studio.

But Varium is different.

At Varium, the guiding philosophy is that each dancer is different; everyone will apply the training they receive to their own personal style or movement practice.

The atmosphere is both professional and familial. In class, students and teachers are focused and motivated; outside of class, relaxed and warm. Over the course of the day I see teachers and students talking and laughing together; kids playing in the sunlit patio before classes, parents chatting with whoever is sitting behind the front desk; students in Formación taking a little food together between classes. Founders and directors Anna Sanchez and Xavier Fruitós keep watch over it all, smiles ready and faces open, eyes and ears always sharp and alert.

I wish I had a Varium when I was growing up.

Since coming to ASU, I have had very little interest in returning to the world of the dance studio. It seemed impossible to connect the pedagogy and somatic techniques I was learning at ASU to a studio setting. But seeing the way Varium operates makes me rethink this assumption, and reimagine the role of dance studios in community life if we reframed the “dance studio” as a “movement space.”

Written by Allyson Yoder, Performing Arts Abroad dance intern in Spain. See her blog here. 

We Women in Barcelona, Spain

Bón Día from Barcelona. My name is Allyson and I am a dance intern in Barcelona, Spain with Performing Arts Abroad. This blog post is a part of my internship capstone project.

Apples. Laundry. High heels. Stones.

On Tuesday, July 7, I went to see Sol Picó’s W.W. (We Women), part of the GREC Arts Festival in Barcelona, at the Mercat de les Flors.

W.W. (We Women) investigates the status of women today worldwide. To make this piece, Sol Pico asked women artists and choreographers from many parts of the world to respond to the question:

“What does it mean to be woman?”

From this research, W.W. emerged.

I felt and wondered a lot of things going into this piece. Although I am a staunch feminist, I shy away from work that is overtly so because it so often seems too one-dimensional. I wondered whether I would feel preached at. Also, as a privileged, white, middle-class American woman from a progressive family, I am detached from the realities of violence and overt oppression many women in the world face. I wondered if I would see myself in the piece.

There are no curtains around the stage when I enter the theatre, allowing me to take stock of the scene before the performance begins. There are no wings and no curtains around the theatre. Sand covers the floor, and white military tents are set up onstage. I think of refugee camps, modern nomadic groups, and the book The Red Tent. Transient and ancient.

A stream of sand begins to waterfall from the ceiling. One by one, the women emerge from the central tent, dressed in bikinis and high heels, and walk a runway path to the stream of sand. They don’t walk like models, but like human beings. I take in each body as she walks.

Eight women enter: four musicians and four dancers.

Each body is strikingly unique. Of the dancers, Minako Seki is bird-boned and appears frighteningly breakable, with a curtain of hair that she can wield like a whip or retreat behind like a curtain. Julie Dossavi is muscled, dense, and earthy, with power coiled in her stance. Sol Picó has the compact and chiseled stature of a 1980s aerobics instructor. Shantala Shivalingappa’s svelt and graceful body holds surprising strength. I don’t remember the musician’s bodies so well, because I didn’t spend as much time looking at them.

Julie Dossavi, Minako Seki, Sol Picó, Shantala Shivalingappa. Photo from

Julie Dossavi, Minako Seki, Sol Picó, Shantala Shivalingappa. Photo from

The performers speak in many voices and languages. In addition to French, English, Spanish, Catalan, and Japanese, there are the precise languages of gesture and movement, and the voices of the violin and guitar. One woman sings.

It’s clear that although Sol Picó is credited as the choreographer of W.W., this is not “Sol Picó and Company.” Each woman is an artist in her own right, and a collaborator in the work.

The diversity of the performers reminds me that the world is bigger than me. Their individuality makes clear that within the broad strokes of culture, nationality, and religion each woman’s experience is different. The question “What does it mean to be a woman” is answered in different ways at different times. For example, Shivalingappa portrays a woman speaking with pride about a matriarchal culture she was raised in (but she speaks in English, so no one can understand her). Dossavi rants in French about the injustice of being given a bitter green apple as a prize for being the last one standing in a grueling dance-off. There are many subjective narratives, rather than a universal truth.

In time, as these experiences compile, themes and common threads emerge. Images and objects heavy with symbolism–apples, laundry, high heels, stones–anchor the stories and create a sense of continuity.

Take stones, for example.

There is violence in the piece. There are no men, and no external forces of oppression. All of the violence—explicit, symbolic, psychological—is inflicted by women, on women—on ourselves.

In one scene, the women silence each other. They put their hands over each other’s mouths, hold back the insistent motion of limbs, intercept the musicians hands that seek their instruments.

In another, which feels all too familiar, one woman, a cross between a drill-sergeant and a zumba instructor, goads the women to dance until they drop in a frenzied contest for the best bikini body.

One of the most disturbing sections of the piece is a duet between Julie Dossavi and Minako Seki. Dossavi embodies an abuser, her fury provoked by Seki’s insistent and childlike repetitions of a phrase. Seki’s bony frame is flung over and over again to the ground, and over and over again she persistently rises. The repetition is not defiant or triumphant; it is more like the repetitive bed-wettings of an anxious, fearful child. Out of her own control. At the end, Dossavi has tied Seki to a laundry line by her rope of hair. She hangs there, limbs flailing, a useless marionette.

I wonder about the gender of Dossavi’s character in this scene. Then I decide it doesn’t matter. Abuse is abuse. Sometimes women are the oppressor, sometimes the oppressed.

Minako Seki and Julie Dossavi

Minako Seki and Julie Dossavi

What else ties the piece together? Well, there is a lot of laundry.

Laundry lines span from the tents to the corners of the stage. When not dancing, the women are hanging, shaking, folding laundry. It is mostly quiet background music, except for one time when the crisp snap of a shirt takes center stage in a performance of domestic skill.

The women cling to their duties, never at rest. Always they are moving. Exhausted from the dance-a-thon contest, the women crumple to the ground one by one. When they can no longer dance they are given a broom to pick themselves off the ground and begin to sweep at the earth. They accept this task without question and sweep all the sand from the center to the edges with a resigned efficiency.

At the end of the piece, it seems the women will finally stop. They set a table for themselves: juicy apples and heaping plates of dirt—and call each other to it (“Por fin!”). With ceremony they fling a spoonful of dirt over their shoulders like a toast and take a bite of the apple. Just at that moment the roof springs a leak. Dust comes pouring down again from the ceiling. Someone springs to her feet to catch it with a bucket. The apples, half-eaten, remain on the stage.

Internalized violence. The demands of the mundane taking precedence over the beautiful or the extraordinary. The hands that never stop moving. Yes, that feels like woman.

I am surprised by how familiar it feels. Even if I may not have known the full depth of it, I can always recognize the taste: The inability to stop myself from doing the dishes, even when I come home exhausted and it’s not my mess. The strange self-punishing pride of standing so that others may sit when its your feet doing the hurting. The unexplainable rage I sometimes smother when I see other’s weakness, because it reminds me of my own. The petty stones I hurl at others and heap on myself. The sour apple I eat when what I really want is a slice of cake. And the wild nights of being pulled to dance by the full moon and the sadness I didn’t know I carried.

Is this it? Is that all? How sad.

I find myself thinking that there is something missing. I find myself thinking: Where are the mothers? Where is the comfort and safety in each other’s presences? Where is the joy? I have been blessed by friendships with incredible women. They are strong, giving, and compassionate. I hold these women close and dear to my heart, and I want to have this seen and celebrated.

There are moments that hint at it. They happen within the lit domestic haven of the tents; swapping stories and gossip in an easy companionship, quiet laughter, the undercurrent of hands on a drum. Or they happen in moments of rare solitude when women are pulled into dancing and their voices ring out suddenly and powerfully. But these moments are few and far between. More common is the sense of loneliness, competition, and isolation that keeps us from each other.

Maybe it’s impossible to tell it all. Maybe there just isn’t room. The performance is less than two hours. The stage is only so big. And pain is more interesting to watch than joy.

I leave the theatre feeling the weight of it all, not knowing what to do with it. I came with a group: five women and one man, and I am hungry to talk. I want to know if they saw themselves in the piece, too. But no one can seem to find the words. I can’t tell if my companions are afraid of diving in to the mess of emotions, or if they are genuinely baffled by the foreign language of post-modern performance and don’t know how to engage. (That happens).

I ride the metro home by myself, thinking of the women I would like to talk to at this moment. I wish they were here to listen, process, and share. Since they are not, the next best thing is to write it all down.

Written by Allyson Yoder, Performing Arts Abroad dance intern in Spain as part of her internship capstone project. See her blog here.