Ben Cohen: “Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously.”

Ben Cohen, age 94 (“That’s right, much to my dismay,” he said with a smile), finds that he’s consistently asked the same two questions about his work: What’s your favorite? and How long did it take you to do it?

He declines to pick a favorite while standing in a room at the Medford Memorial Community Center surrounded by his pieces and those of three others. The show, “Ben Cohen and Friends”, has about 40 pieces of art created by Cohen, Marlene Craig, Joyce McAfee, and David Watson on display through Christmas 2017.

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Ben Cohen, 94, framed by his work and those of his friends at the Medford Memorial Community Center. Photo: Elizabeth Silverstein

But Cohen does give his best guess to how long each piece takes. “When I’m teaching a class, I say about 60 years,” he said. “It took a very long time. Right through WWII and everything.”

Cohen grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in New York City’s Lower East Side. It was a childhood considered disadvantaged, Cohen explained, since four families living in the tenement shared one toilet in the hallway. He attended kindergarten speaking only Yiddish and writing left handed — both of which were strikes against him in the New York City public school system, which would not enroll left-handed children. Despite a rocky start, he learned English and compromised with his writing. “To this day, I do everything left handed except write,” said Cohen.

He also attended the Henry Street Settlement, a nonprofit organization developed by Lillian Wald in 1893, which provides social service, arts, and health care programs. “Social workers tried to help dead-end kids, to try to get us on the right path,” Cohen explained. “They decided I had possibilities as an artist.”

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“K Clamp”, watercolor, by Ben Cohen

When he was eight years old, the staff decided to send him to a life class at a larger school, which consisted of male and female nude models. “In the art world, it is an important function to learn how to draw the human body,” Cohen said, sharing the reasoning behind their decision.

But perhaps eight was a bit young. “I was far too embarrassed to look at the models,” Cohen added. “I was looking at the other wall. The instructor said, ‘You have to look at the model.’ I was just too embarrassed to look.”

His embarrassment didn’t deter him from the art world. Art followed him even when he was drafted into the service at age 19, leaving the tenement and New York City behind for the front lines. He was in every battle of World War II, drawing on pieces of paper before each engagement. “I just had scraps of paper,” Cohen said. “I drew everything from where we landed to where the invasion happened.”

Original col. pencil sketch by Cohen; view of Liverpool harbor through porthole; seagull and small green ship in foreground.

Original pencil sketch by Cohen; view of Liverpool harbor through porthole; seagull and small green ship in foreground. Photo: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection

Those pieces now have a home at Brown University, but the memories linger. “I remember during the Battle of the Bulge,” Cohen shared, “I was told by the superior if we were captured, I better take my dog tags and bury them in the snow, because with a name like Cohen, they would shoot me on the spot. I didn’t get captured.”

Original pencil sketch by Cohen; view overlooking stern of troop ship, with tall smokestacks; other ships floating in background.

Original pencil sketch by Cohen; view overlooking stern of troop ship, with tall smokestacks; other ships floating in background. Photo: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection

After the war, he married Shirley, his wife of 71 years, who passed away a year ago. He was attending a program through his military service, attending the University of Pennsylvania for mechanical engineering, and heard that the local Jewish Community Center had the best pastrami sandwiches. When he had some time off, he decided to check it out. “Army food is nourishing but not gourmet,” Cohen explained. “I went for a pastrami sandwich and I ended up with Shirley.”

It was through Shirley that he learned that some families lived in entire houses, something he hadn’t experienced growing up in the tenement. Her father was a market butcher in Philadelphia, and when she took him to meet her family,  he was astonished. “I thought he was a big industrialist because I couldn’t imagine someone could have a whole house,” Cohen explained.

Cohen also went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn through the GI Bill for three years, their standard, unaccredited offering at the time. Afterwards, he snagged a job designing toys and toy packaging. When the toy company went out of business (“Not because of my lousy designs,” Cohen noted), one of the packaging companies he had designed for called looking for a design. “I did a package,” Cohen said. “Next thing I know, another call. From there on, it was nonstop. I worked night and day, around the clock. When I was getting ready to retire, I was very concerned I wouldn’t have anything to do.”

Oil painting of water lilies.

“Summer Garden”, oil, by Marlene Craig

At age 55, ready to retire, Cohen called several of his longtime accounts, announcing that he was leaving the designing business. He made sure to add that he wasn’t leaving town, and if there were any issues, he was a phone call away. “Next thing I know, they called back,” Cohen said. “They used to give me about half of work, now they wanted to give me all of the work since I didn’t have anything else to do. So it sort of backfired. I finally convinced them, I’m out.”

Cohen started teaching classes and workshops, finding the freedom from commissioned work enjoyable. “I was thrilled I could now do what I want and no client would tell me, ‘No you can’t do that, we want so-and-so,’” Cohen shared.

These days, Cohen continues to teach beginner and advanced workshops at the Willingboro Art Alliance on Wednesday mornings and at the Philadelphia Sketch Club on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. He also attends the Philadelphia Sketch Club on Wednesdays to work on his own art. “I found now that I have sort of laid back a little bit on what you might call serious work,” Cohen explained. “To me, art is spiritual. For that hour or two or three, I can forget the world. It is terrific therapy. You forget everything.”

"Path to Kate's Track", watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (top); "Mill Dam Park, Mt Holly", watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (bottom)

“Path to Kate’s Track”, watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (top); “Mill Dam Park, Mt Holly”, watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (bottom)

His advice for other artists is simple. “I think one of the things I could say is don’t take yourself too seriously,” Cohen said. “Don’t get too uptight about it.”

He keeps his own work, mainly pastel, infused with humor. “I have nothing against classical art but I like to see a little bit of humor,” he explained. “Take a look around this world. I think we need it. There’s so much horror going on, we take it for granted. Happening all the time. We need something a little lighter. I’m not concerned about politics. I’m more concerned about doing the nose right.”

But when he does get the nose right, it’s because it’s just a nose. “When I do a nose, it’s really a nose; it’s not a metaphor for something major happening,” Cohen said.

"The Patriots", oil on panel, by David Watson

“The Patriots”, oil on panel, by David Watson

Working in almost every medium, even if pastel is his main choice, Cohen said he takes liberties to extract a certain vibe, one he calls impressionistic realism. He’ll change the colors, or change the settings, putting a model from a session at the Sketch Club on a $20 instead of a couch, adding in New York City below her, and calling it “Let the Money Float”. Another time, he dressed a model in a Santa Claus suit, added a window with a raging storm outside and called it, “I Ain’t Going Out In That.”

His pieces at the Medford Memorial Community Center are also semi-impressionistic, as he made artistic choices to change colors in real-life scenes, like “South Philly Graffiti” in pastel, or add a stadium behind a model, such as his “Phillies Fan” piece in pastel.

The influence of living in West Philadelphia for many years can still be seen in his work, but New Jersey has been his home since 1968. His house in Cinnaminson has three studios, a Wall of Fame filled with the work of his two children and five grandchildren, and plenty of nude figure pieces that he and Shirley picked out. He’s come a long way since his days as a shy child in New York City. “Relations would come and tell us we were going to corrupt the kids,” Cohen said of the nudes. “Now the kids are in their 50s and 60s, and every time they come around, they tell me they weren’t corrupted.”

The show, “Ben Cohen and Friends”, will be up through Christmas at the Medford Memorial Community Center. Stop by on Saturday, Dec. 2, during the Dickens Festival, to view the art while meeting Mrs. Claus with other fun for the children at the center. The show will also be available for viewing on Friday, Dec. 8 from 6 to 9 pm, with four other shows opening on Main Street.

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Ginger Kuczowicz: “The simplicity of it is beautiful.”

Ginger Kuczowicz has a mission: crafting all-natural home and skin care products and providing ecological cleaning services to encourage healthier, greener living in Philadelphia.

Kuczowicz owns two different businesses, the first of which is Holistic Home LLC, an ecological cleaning service she started in 2010, and the second is a physical store called Soap Box she opened in 2013. Soap Box sells hand-made, all-natural skin care products and household cleaners. She now has ten employees, and Holistic Home LLC was named The Best of Philly 2014, and​ one of the best by Yelp and Angie’s List, while Soap Box won The Best of Philly 2015.

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Kuczowicz opened Soap Box as an extension of her cleaning business to provide simple, all-natural items. All of the products are handmade in the back of the store. “If you use soap and touch your skin with it 25 times a day, it should be healthy for you,”  Kuczowicz said. “Lotions, skin care, anything you put on your skin. We sell supplies we clean with at the store. We often have clients who say, ‘What can I do to make my home smell like the store?’”

Using vinegar, baking soda and essential oils as some of the foundations for her products, Kuczowicz explained that what she crafts is simple to make, and easily replicated at home. “The simplicity of it is beautiful, in my opinion,” Kuczowicz said “There’s nothing harmful about it.”

Kuczowicz developed a passion for cleaning during her upbringing in Upper Silesia, Poland, the most industrial part of Europe for the 20th century, with coal mining coating houses regularly in soot. “We had to clean from almost the moment we were born,” Kuczowicz said. “Every Saturday, everybody would just clean their houses. The windows had to be cleaned once a month or we couldn’t see through them.”

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She came to the United States in 2000 to be with her partner, who had made the trip the year before to work on his doctorate degree. Having gone to accounting school after high school at age 15, she was already an experienced accountant for the Foundation of Cardiac Surgery Development. When  she arrived in the United States, she continued to work in nonprofit accounting. She found a job with Your Part-Time Controller, a company that specializes in nonprofit accounting. “Every day was a different nonprofit,” Kuczowicz shared. “You become friends with them, because they care about certain causes that are close to your heart, like pets or the elderly. That was a great job too.”

She started cleaning on the side, and when considering the products she wanted to use for her cleaning work, Kuczowicz examined the number of cancer cases in the western world after World War II, and saw a correlation between health and the staggering increase in amount of chemicals that were being used. “The number of cancers has grown drastically,” Kuczowicz explained. “Obviously the chemicals in the cleaners did not help the situation. They were not even necessary. We just have a tendency to overdo cleaning. Simple vinegar can do the job just fine. It’s actually good to be exposed to bacteria, on some level.”

Three years after she started her cleaning business, Kuczowicz quit her accounting job. “It had grown to such a size that I could no longer do both,” Kuczowicz said. “It was just not fair to my employer at the time, or my own business. I couldn’t keep up with the demand on both sides. I had to make a decision. Either close the cleaning business or quit accounting world, which I enjoyed immensely.”

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Her accounting experience has proven invaluable with her businesses, and she encourages anyone considering starting their own business to keep good books. “Books are the most important thing to see how healthy or unhealthy your business is,” Kuczowicz said. “You can have someone do them for you, but understand what they mean. That’s something people have a tendency to run away from because it’s not easy or pleasant to learn, but it’s so crucial I can’t stress it enough.”

She also encouraged potential business owners to have a plan on paper, be aware of the time needed to grow a business, and set time aside every day for self care. “Get ready to be finished with their social life because there’s no such a thing as weekends,” Kuczowicz shared. “There is work around the clock. At a certain point, after a few years, you build a client base and are able to get help.”

Until that point, however, Kuczowicz stressed the long hours. The job is draining,” she said. “It is stressful either way. That will never leave you. I want to add at the same time the importance of taking a break. It is difficult to take a break because the amount of work is staggering, but I think a person should make a point to have thirty minutes or an hour to close the laptop, close your iPhone and do something for yourself.”

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She’s found other challenges as well. “Even though you are driven by your mission to do good things, that mission gets pushed aside by daily necessities of filling out paperwork, on compliance, or taxes, bookkeeping, hiring people,” she shared. “Normal business stuff that you don’t think about going into business. You think that you’re just going to be focusing on the mission – why did you even open the business. There can be only 20 percent of that left when you have all of those other obligations on your back. My desk is never clear. That is a challenge. I would love to have a secretary, but I’m not big enough to have somebody just yet.”

As many challenges as she faces, Kuczowicz has found her work to be rewarding as well. “When people tell me that someone no longer suffers from asthma attacks after we’ve done the cleaning or when we come to clean on a regular basis,” she said about the encouraging things she encounters with her work. “When we clean with natural cleaners, there’s nothing that triggers asthma. I love when people ask specifically for green cleaning, because they have small children, animals. A lot of them have the tendency to spend a lot of time on the floor. Dogs lick the floor. It’s fine licking vinegar but not so much Pine Sol. That’s very rewarding when people notice the difference. Not to mention they don’t have to spend the time cleaning. They’re buying time also from us.”

Visit Holistic Home LLC’s website, or Facebook. Follow Soap Box on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram or visit the online store.

Mark S. Doss: Performing Opera, the Culmination of All the Arts

Mark S. Doss grew up next to a church rectory and was able to observe the kindness of the priests who lived there firsthand. He combined his childhood love of baseball with his desire to enter the ministry, and settled on being a baseball-playing priest.

But another interest crept into view when he was young–he watched a movie that featured an operatic feat of breaking a glass singing a high note. He asked his chorus teacher, Mrs. Hilton, how he could find the music the baritone was singing. She directed him to the library, and then arranged an opportunity for Doss to have a non-singing part in Aida, a Metropolitan Opera touring production.

That day in April 1976 was Doss’s first exposure to a live opera performance.

He then took drama and chorus classes in high school, and performed in Godspell. That led to a city-sponsored arts training program, where Doss performed in The Wiz That Is as Daniel Galein. After that, he acted in The Man of La Mancha.

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Photo from www.marksdoss.com.

Finishing a summer of performing, he entered the seminary program at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, IN, still intent on the priesthood. He ended up ministering through a different means. “My goal was to become a priest, and declaring my minor to be music was certainly a way (I thought) to continue my study of voice and to use that to the best of my ability in my ministry,” said Doss. “The comments I received early on did give me something to consider, but ultimately I knew that I wanted to use my singing to inspire others in a way that I, myself, am inspired, knowing that when one sings one does indeed pray twice. Certainly when I sing the words of Zaccaria in Nabucco, Jochanaan (John the Baptist) in Salome, or even Méphiso in Faust–the devil was once an angel–I am celebrating the gifts I have been given from God, and I am presenting back to God the fruits of those gifts, borne out through my hard work and dedication.”

At age 21, he won the second competition he had ever entered, mere months after the first competition, where he tried to sing after coming down with a cold. He placed in the District Competition of the Metropolitan Opera held at Valparaiso University in Indiana.

Still, Doss took his GRE exams in sociology and not music. Then things began to shift. “I auditioned at the University of Illinois and I was offered a full scholarship, and then I auditioned at Indiana University’s School of Music and received extremely enthusiastic responses from the faculty that heard me,” shared Doss. “I expected to be told I should just line up behind the other one hundred nice voices they had heard that day, but that did not happen.  Something just seemed to ‘click’ when I would sing, and this came to me profoundly at one of St. Joe’s glee club concerts, when I found myself feeling extremely ‘at home’ while on stage singing ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ from Fiddler on the Roof.”

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Photo from www.marksdoss.com.

Doss left seminary after his second year, graduating with a Bachelor’s of Arts from Saint Joseph’s. He earned his Master degree at Indiana University, during which he sang in his first opera role as Khan Konchak in Borodin’s Prince Igor. This is also where he first performed his signature role, as Méphistophélès in Faust.

As much as the world of opera pulled Doss in, it has not been without its struggles. Without a large amount of musical training, Doss has had to be creative. “I have worked to develop many different techniques to compensate for what I consider a musical handicap,” said Doss. “My brain seems to initially put words and music on two different tracks, so I am constantly trying analyze each of them separately and then to bring them back together.”

In the years since he experienced his first live opera, Doss has performed all over the world in over 120 roles with more than 60 major opera companies, singing in 10 languages. He refers to opera as a “culmination of all the arts”, and has found that the art form fits his desire to have a hand in everything. “The word ‘opus’ means work,” explained Doss, “and the plural of that word is ‘opera’ (works). You have singing, acting, languages, dancing (ballet), scenery, makeup, wardrobe, the orchestra, and a number of other visual arts that are now incorporated into what we call opera. If you just want to sing, then you can do that with a piano or even a cappella, but it’s not opera because you are always going to be missing five or six elements of the art form that can only happen when you bring all of them together. ‘It takes a village.’ When you bring so many people together and have them working together on a single operatic project it can be a thing of great beauty!”

Doss won a Grammy in 1993, on the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Handel’s Semele, conducted by John Nelson. He was also honored with the Entertainment Award from Planet Africa for his artistic achievements while being a positive role model. He presents a Role Preparation Masterclass and continues to fundraise through Opera Susquehanna and the Bozeman Symphony. “Through my Role Preparation Masterclass I have presented as many elements of opera as I possibly can,” explained Doss who splits his time between Erie, PA and Toronto, ON when not performing. “I offer them a smorgasbord of what opera encompasses, and so I encourage people to study every aspect of history, culture, literature, music, languages that let them be encouraged to let the art more choose them, if they have the gifts that should be showcased for the world to see.”

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Photo from www.marksdoss.com.

Doss also willingly and eagerly provides advice to those who ask. “Whenever I am asked to offer suggestions on singing, starting a career or my thoughts on a certain character, I am very enthusiastic,” Doss said. “Some of the conversations after performances have been very enlightening, when I get a chance to hear people telling me how many times they’ve seen me perform in other operas, or how many performances they’ve attended of the opera I am doing at the time. Some fans don’t like certain productions, and I often share their feelings or I try to explain the director’s concept in a way that might help them become more comfortable with different ideas. Primarily I want them to know that I am always more interested in playing a character on stage, than just being Mark S. Doss singing a few lines of music.”

The efforts Doss puts into fundraising are to not only raise awareness and encourage attendance, but also reach those who don’t have easy access to the art form. “I think there should always be private funding for opera, but also a balance of public funding because it really does allow so many people to be involved and employed, giving them a sense of worth and high self esteem,” shared Doss. “I think the funding issues are difficult, but not impossible to overcome with more innovative ideas. When the economic times are difficult, I think it’s very hard for people to attend performances of any type. My fundraising efforts have been to primarily help that situation and to constantly reach out to those in communities who might not be exposed to opera, inspiring them to see the possibilities the art form can offer them in its need to have a village to keep it going. Through the HD performances of opera, people have gone to theaters to enjoy the art form, when getting to the actual Opera House might be more difficult. This could be taking some people out of the seats, but it can also be inspiring more people to get their chance in the Opera House for the first time, and many times afterwards.”

Mark Doss performed as Méphistophélès at the The Coade Theatre during the Dorset Opera Festival until July 29, and graciously took the time to answer my questions between staging and videotaping sessions. His next performance, starting on October 7, will be as a soloist at the Wyoming Symphony in Casper, Wyoming. Doss will also perform as a soloist October 28 & 29 in Bozeman, Montana at the Bozeman Symphony.

Learn more about Doss, see what he’s performed previously and learn what’s upcoming at his website or Facebook page.

This is the third and final article about appreciating, studying, and performing opera.

Danielle Perrault: Studying Opera, That Stunningly Gorgeous Musical Expression

Danielle Perrault planned to be a psychologist.

In 2007, she finished her undergrad degree in psychology at Simpson University in Redding, CA, while maintaining a connection to music. “I had a lot of friends in the music department and I sang in the choirs,” said Perrault. “I was very interested in classical music even back then. There were times I considered switching my major to music, but at the time, I didn’t think I was good enough. I was afraid I would fail at it, so I never switched while I was at Simpson. I still really loved studying psychology, so I finished that. It wasn’t until I almost graduated that I realized I didn’t want to be a psychologist.”

Born in Queens, NY, but raised in San Diego, CA, Perrault returned to San Diego to be with her family while she figured out what to do next. “We’ve lived in the same house since we moved here when I was five,” shared Perrault, who has one younger sister named Kelsey. “After I graduated I thought I wanted to be a nurse. I moved back home and went to a community college to take prerequisites for nursing school, but the classes that I needed kept filling up. I ended up taking a music class to keep my schedule at full time.”

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Credit: Matt Haney

Then a class assignment required her to perform. “That was the first time I sang a solo by myself in front of people,” Perrault explained. “That was the beginning of my catching the performing bug. I started studying music about a year later and never went back to nursing.”

Perrault completed her degree in music and moved to Kansas in 2015 to study opera performance at the University of Kansas. She graduated this spring with her master’s degree. “I actually started out thinking I was going to go into musical theater,” admitted Perrault. “The two have a lot of similarities. Musical theater borrows a lot from opera, and it just kind of went off on its own track. But as I kept studying and taking voice lessons, my teacher and I both realized that my voice was well suited for classical singing. I still love musical theater and I’ve recently been honing my skills in that genre so that I can incorporate it into my career at some point. I went with opera as my primary focus because that’s where my voice was going and I ended up falling in love with it.”

Perrault sang in performances at the school and for the Chorus of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. “I’ve loved working there,” said Perrault. “The people are amazing. It’s always a fun experience with high production value. It’s a great place to sing.”

She also has had several opportunities to travel abroad. Currently in Italy for the month of July, Perrault also completed a choir tour in Spain while an undergrad and traveled to Germany after being selected by a panel to sing during the Eutin Summer Opera Festival in Eutin. “That was actually a tough experience for me,” admitted Perrault. “There were a lot of great things about it. Every time you get to go overseas and spend any amount of time in another culture is amazing, but it was also really interesting working in another country and experiencing a different work climate, a different work structure. It ended up being quite challenging. But I did get a lot of good things out of it as well, like cultural insights and learning how to deal with adversity.”

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Credit: Lauren di Matteo Images

Perrault is no stranger to tackling difficult roles and embracing learning experiences. “I think I’d have to say my favorite role so far has been Hansel in Hansel and Gretel,” Perrault shared. “I did that while I was in my undergrad. We had a music director at the time who was very demanding and gruff, and the rehearsal process was often a bit scary. But as a result, I learned a lot and I grew so much. … I got a better sense of what it actually takes to be well prepared for a role. And the role itself was such a blast. I was playing a pre-teen boy. I’m a mezzo-soprano, one of the lower female voice types, and we frequently get cast in the roles of young boys or young men. When I was first starting my vocal studies and found out about that, I was kind of upset. I had all these stereotypical ideas about playing tragic, romantic heroines. Why would I want to play a little boy? But I actually really love it. It’s intriguing to play someone who is completely different from myself. I love digging into the psyche and physicality of a boy and having a blast with it. I hope I can do that role again many times.”

Ultimately, Perrault would like to be accepted into a young artist program, which, she explained, is an apprenticeship for opera singers. Typically, aspiring opera singers apply to programs at opera houses around the country. “They’ll typically hire four singers or so, one per voice part,” Perrault added. “They’ll use those singers for outreach events and sometimes they get cast in small roles or cover (understudy) lead roles for the company’s main stage operas. They’re all a little bit different, but ideally, that’s a possible next step I’d like to take. It’s one of the few ways young singers have some stability. It’s typically a two-year contract with a regular paycheck, which doesn’t happen very often in this industry. It’s not much and it’s not for long, but it’s steady. And it’s a great training ground to learn from professionals who are further down the path than you are, and to focus on your craft without the distractions of worrying about your ‘day job,’ or where your next gig will be. There are a lot of ways to become a successful opera singer, and a young artist program is not a requirement, but that’s an experience I think I would enjoy and benefit from.”

She’s aware of the personal challenges that the career holds. “I’m under no delusions that this isn’t a tough industry, and at the beginning, it’s especially hard,” Perrault said. “You have to do a lot of start up work yourself on the audition circuit. It’s a costly process in terms of time, money, and energy. Some people go the competition route, and if you’re good at that and win a lot, it can help with your many expenses. Application fees, recordings, accompanist fees, coaching, lessons, travel expenses… It adds up quickly. It’s really helpful if you can get management to represent you and open some of those doors for you. But the work never really stops. An opera career is still a business, and you still have to maintain relationships and connections and stay on the radar of producers, conductors, and company managers. I’m not quite there yet. They say you have to have something to manage before you can get a manager, and I’m still working on the ‘something’.”

Then there are difficulties with societal perceptions. “It seems like every few months, someone publishes a new article about how opera is dying,” said Perrault. “I can see how people come to that conclusion, especially with the culture we live in now. Everything is instantaneous. Opera is hard. It’s a difficult art form to consume. Even for people in it, it is challenging. For one, it often takes a lot longer to say things when they are sung. You have to be patient. The story takes a little longer to unfold. If you don’t know the language the opera is being sung in, or even if you do, you have to rely on translations projected above the stage. It takes a little more work than sitting in front of the TV. But because of all of that, it’s rewarding. Because things take longer to say and because the story takes longer to unfold, it builds a greater sense of dramatic tension, and the payoff is greater. You get to experience stunningly gorgeous musical expressions of human emotion that words alone can’t convey. I think opera has a lot to offer and I think it’s presented in a way that any human can identify with because it goes right to your soul. I don’t think the problem is that opera is irrelevant, I think people are reluctant to consume it because of the effort that it takes.”

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Credit: Villa Medicea di Lilliano Wine Estate

Perrault has noticed that opera houses are trying different series and offering music in different venues, like libraries, museums, and restaurants. “I think the new performance trends are helping people realize that opera doesn’t have to be stuffy and boring like they thought,” she said. “Is it for everyone? No. Nothing is, really. But I think it’s for a lot more people than those who realize it. Opera is fighting against culture notions of what opera is, but I think it can thrive. … I have a lot of hope for the future of opera. People can help by just trying it out. Companies are doing what they can to make it more accessible to more people. A lot of them are active on social media, so you can get regular updates on what they’re up to. Just find something that looks even slightly interesting and go! Worst case scenario, you don’t like it; there are worse things in life than not liking something. It’s no big loss. But then again, you might be surprised and enjoy yourself.”

Full opera performances are available on Spotify or Youtube, Perrault explained. “You don’t even have to leave your house. There are so many ways to learn about opera these days. Operas are even broadcast in movie theaters now, so you don’t even have to dress up. It’s best live though, so check out what your local opera house is doing and go support it. It’s such a beautiful art form that expresses humanity in such a beautiful way. I think it’s something that needs to stay, and it can if people are willing to take a second look at it.”

Perrault continued, “Another hindrance is a general lack of appreciation of opera as an art form and the people who do it. There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into it. I’m not trying to tell a sob story. It’s just a reality that many people don’t know about. One of the biggest critiques I hear is that it’s too expensive and that’s why people don’t go. For one, that’s becoming less true. Yes, if you want orchestra seats you’re going to pay a lot. But a lot of opera houses now offer special rates for students and young professionals. And most of the time, balcony tickets are very reasonably priced.”

Finding the right venue for the right price can help. Sometimes, opera houses will offer tickets between $15 and $20 for great seats. “It’s financially accessible for a lot of people in different income brackets,” shared Perrault.

Perrault also explained the prices. “Opera is very expensive to produce. A lot of people are involved. You have the singers themselves, and you also have a whole orchestra of anywhere from 20 to 100 people. You have the people in the costume, wig, and scene shops, the stage managers and stagehands, the lighting technicians, everyone working in the main office, etc. It takes a huge village to put on a opera, and all of those people need to be compensated for their time and expertise. We don’t make a ton of money. Maybe international super stars make a good living, but most opera singers don’t. You may get a nice big check for a six-week performance and rehearsal run, but then you have to make that for last several months until your next gig.”

Perrault added, “When you think about supporting opera, it’s helpful to think about the people behind it. It’s not paying into some elitist thing that executives are using to line their pockets. It’s helping to support people who really love this, want to keep it around, and are already making a lot of sacrifices to do so.”

Follow Danielle’s adventures online at her website or on Instagram. She’s currently performing in Italy.

This is the second of three articles about appreciating, studying, and performing opera.

Christine Sacchi: Writing about Opera in a Way that’s Interesting to the Aficionado, Accessible to the Curious

Artistic talent and music appreciation runs in Christine Chase Sacchi’s family, but opera unexpectedly captured her heart a few years ago.

In 2009, when Sacchi’s daughter traveled to Italy as part of her art education, Sacchi, a homeschooling mother of seven, wanted to hear music that evoked the experience of being in Italy. She found Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, an Italian bass-baritone opera singer, on Youtube, and got hooked. “I looked up everything I could on Youtube and starting buying CDs,” Sacchi said. “He sings a lot in Europe and not as much here.”

She started to watch for a chance to hear him on stage, and was eventually able to see D’Arcangelo on the stage in Los Angeles, and continued to pursue her appreciation of opera in other ways. “I started being more interested in opera in general through being his fan,” Sacchi shared. “I would get so full of words every time I would go to something. I would write and put it on Facebook. My girlfriends who were opera fans that I met through Facebook groups had an endless appetite for everything I wrote. They said, ‘You gotta write a blog.’ A girlfriend from Russia said, ‘I read all the opera blogs, and I like yours better than theirs.’ After a year, I got around to it.”

Sacchi launched her blog on January 1, 2014, and now, over three years later, has hundreds of daily visitors reading her posts. “I’m having so much fun with it,” Sacchi said. “I’m having people tell me on Facebook that they saw me at the opera.”

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Sacchi started adding interviews to her blog, in addition to her reviews. She interviewed two composers, Robert W. Butts and Marco Frisina, as well as bass baritone Mark S. Doss. Doss sings in twelve different languages, and flies around the world singing in many prominent opera houses. When Sacchi first reached out to Doss, he was singing in Italy. Doss is tall and strikingly handsome, and Sacchi was a bit nervous at first. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m kind of afraid, but my readers just love interviews,’ said Sacchi, who was able to complete the interview in writing and eventually met Doss in New York. “This interview was perfect for my readers, since my blog is focused on basses and baritones.”

While the opera blogosphere is full of good writing, Sacchi wants her niche to be writing for those who may not be musical experts or even opera fans.  She wants to discuss things in a way that’s interesting to the aficionado while accessible to the curious. “I’d like to be a bridge between normal people and the world of opera,” Sacchi shared. “I want to appeal to the avid fan as well as the first time opera goer.”

As she’s attended more performances, Sacchi has been able to verbalize what she finds particularly appealing about opera. “I have distilled for myself why the art form is very special to me and why I’d like to see it perpetuate instead of dying out,” shared Sacchi. “The human voice without amplification is a very beautiful instrument. The experience of it hitting not just your eardrums but your body can’t be reproduced outside a live performance. To be in the room with the music is an experience of the whole body, mind, and soul.”

Of course there’s a place for microphones and recordings, Sacchi agrees.  But hopefully through writing about opera she can reach people with the idea that live singing is a tradition well worth preserving in an electronic age.

In her quest to introduce more newcomers to opera, Sacchi admits encountering some familiar preconceived expectations. She responded, “Some people literally expect to see a large lady in Viking garb, horned helmet and all.”

This raises the question of body image and the pressure on singers today to not only sound great but conform to standards of beauty driven by film and television. As to whether a large frame is necessary to sing well–it’s not. “I’ve seen a lady five feet tall and slender fill an opera house with her voice,” said Sacchi. “It’s pretty amazing what they can do with professional training. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with size at all. In the meantime, they’re now dealing with being judged on how well they look, as well as how they sing. This modern standard of physical beauty is putting a lot of pressure on the opera world. The singers think, ‘If I’m overweight, I won’t get the role. And if I get the role, but I’m not someone’s idea of slim enough,  what will the critics say?’ The critics can be vicious.  Fans like me get nervous because I don’t want people to get hired just because they’re thin. I want them to be good singers.  If the balance tips too far toward movie star looks, we could end up hearing lesser voices.”

In addition to old stereotypes, technology has influenced how a potential audience views opera. “We can all hear the world’s best at the touch of a button,” Sacchi said. “What does this mean for audiences attending local shows? Will we become unrealistically demanding?”

When considering new material for her website, Sacchi looks for performances that revolve around a featured singer, a new opera, or a particular composer, especially if she’s featured a certain person on her blog. “Because I’m interested in new music in helping opera not die out,” explained Sacchi. “We need new opera. The old opera is very beautiful but I don’t think we were meant to watch the same shows over and over. There’s something stale there. Culture needs something of our own time.”

She is also aware of how music continues to evolve. “In the 20th century, some modern music got very hard to understand, very intellectual and technical,” Sacchi said. “Audiences became wary of new compositions. I think we’re finding our way forward now to music that’s very beautiful and relevant. Opera is just drama and music put together–people singing about their feelings and about life.”

Sacchi writes in other forms as well and is working on her first novel, a murder mystery that revolves around a real-life church homicide. Catch the latest in her adventures on her blog.

This is the first of three articles about appreciating, studying, and singing opera.

Ruby Allain (5): “I’m an artist, too.”

Ruby Allain only turned five at the end of April, but she’s already making her mark as an artist.

“We all hang out together in our one big room and share supplies,” explained her mom, Morgan. “The bookmark thing started because when Danny and I have to cut down paper, there’s usually an inch left over.”

Trying to cut down on waste, they started making the paper ends bookmark size and giving them to Ruby. “I like painting,” Ruby said, who makes 10-20 bookmarks at a time. “I’m an artist, too. My mom and dad are the greatest artists. That’s why I did bookmarks.”

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Ruby started painting two years ago, at age three. It took her about a year to understand how to control the brush, Morgan explained. Ruby went to her first event as an artist over Christmas 2016, then another event more recently, selling about 70 bookmarks all told and making over $50. “I’m gonna sell more though,” Ruby said. “They have different colors and I did them all by myself and pictures, too.”

Painting with watercolor, Ruby likes to add in a variety of colors. “I do every color,” shared Ruby. “I like colors. Blue, pink and yellow and orange and red and green. I like pink. That’s my favorite color.”

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Ruby is also a fan of the comic, “The King’s Lost Ruby”, that Danny draws for her. “It’s about me,” Ruby explained. “I like that my dad did the ogre. That’s my PawPaw. It’s really fun. My MawMaw is a witch – a good witch though.”

And she’s a fan of the Labyrinth artwork Morgan creates. “She does Labyrinth and we have that movie and I like that,” Ruby said. “She loves David Bowie and I do, too.”

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Plus, living in rural DeQuincy, LA, their backyard is perfect for exploring. “Me and my dad go on adventures,” gushed Ruby. “We go on adventures where the treehouse is. We do a lot of fun stuff at my MawMaw and PawPaw’s house. We make maps and I have a sword.”

Asked if she fights monsters with her sword, she said yes– “Zombies, mummies and other nasty things.”

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Ruby gets her love of painting from her parents, Morgan and Danny. Follow Morgan on Facebook, snag a piece of art from Etsy or Society6, see some fun stuff on Tumblr, and catch her on Instagram or Twitter as @theinklinggirl. Danny shares his work on Instagram and sells through Morgan’s Etsy as well.

Elizabeth Kinahan Paintings: “A Way We Can Share an Experience”

After a stranger noticed her first cattle painting through her apartment window and bought it immediately, Elizabeth Kinahan, a representational oil painter, has built a livelihood around painting livestock.

Originally from Westfield in north central Jersey, Kinahan’s love of art began when she was five years old. “I’ve been interested in painting and drawing since I was very young,” Kinahan said. “My earliest memory is my grandmother giving me an Alice in Wonderland coloring book. Instead of coloring in the book, I had a blank piece of paper, and I was trying to copy the picture. I did this drawing of the Cheshire Cat maybe 10 times before I came up with one I was so happy with. I think I was five. I still have this thing and I think it says 1986 on it. That’s the earliest memory I have of being interested in drawing. That just never stopped. I always knew art could be the class I could take if I wanted to do something relaxing I knew I could be good at and it wouldn’t be stressful for me. I was a straight C student in gym but art I was good at.”

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As a teenager, Kinahan completed portrait commissions. “They were trying to help me and give me a little money and improve my skills,” Kinahan explained of those who asked her to create. “They were all people who believed in me and wanted to help me out. It made all the difference that there were people who believed I could be an artist and I had a skill that was worth exploring and pursuing. I never really started as much as I just kept going with it. I’ve always loved it. It’s been a source of relaxation and joy and peace and pleasure. It’s an outlet. We all need some sort of outlet and if it’s creative, great. I never thought I could be an artist for a living. I didn’t think it was possible when I was young. As I moved along this path, I realized it’s not only possible but necessary. Historically and culturally, art is important, and if that’s what I get to contribute to this world, I’m good with that. I’m happy with that.”

Even with early talent, interest and encouragement, it took Kinahan a little while to find her path. She completed two years of college as a nutrition major, but couldn’t connect to the college or her choice of study. Kinahan left school for a few years and moved back to New Jersey, where she started working for an airline. “My father said, ‘You just need to get a degree in something. I don’t care. What do you think you can get a degree in?’”

Kinahan chose art, and found a small, all-girls Catholic school, the College of Saint Elizabeth. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Art degree in 2004. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me, getting into that school,” Kinahan shared. “There were seven art majors in my class. It was a very small group. Almost all the classes were taught by Sister Anne. She would teach us how to paint flowers and the chapel. There was not a whole lot of variety. She did teach screen and block printing and ceramics. She was an amazing woman and I learned a lot of techniques from her. When I graduated, I kept going.”

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Kinahan decided to move west after witnessing the destruction caused by 9/11. She had her sights on Arizona, but her boyfriend at the time suggested Durango, Colo. “The whole drive out across the country, we were friendly bickering about where we were going to move,” Kinahan said.

They decided to pass through Colorado on their way to Arizona 13 years ago, arriving in Durango the day of the Main Avenue Art Festival, a yearly tradition in the small town. “I get teary thinking about this,” Kinahan shared. “It was magical. It was perfect. It was a beautiful day and the sky was bluer than I’ve ever seen. We parked on Third Avenue and walked down. I remember sitting on the curb and I had a beer in one hand and a tamale in the other hand, and a stranger was sitting next to me. They said some generic kind comment. And I immediately knew I was home. I don’t ever want to leave this place. I have felt that way about Durango ever since. … I love it. I have found such kindness and support and wonderful like-minded people. That’s how I ended up here and I’ve never really looked back.”

The relationship didn’t last, but Kinahan has continued to thrive in Durango. She switched to oil painting from acrylic after realizing her acrylics were drying too quickly in the dry climate. She met a successful photographer when she started working for the Art House downtown, who taught her the value of visual art and how to approach other people about that value. “My responsibility as an artist is to think as creatively and outside the box as possible,” she shared. “That skill of visual art is valuable to other people. That is where I struggled the longest–in seeing there is value in painting pictures. He was powerful in teaching me a lot about that. He would say, ‘Let’s walk around town and go into the shops and see what art they have up. If they don’t have art up, we can say, wouldn’t it be nice if you had art on your walls? We’re artists. We can put some art up. And if it sells, we can give you 10-15% of that piece.’ I said, ‘That’s crazy. We can’t do it.’ He said, ‘Nope, let’s go.’ We got our art up all over the place. I ended up falling in love with him and living with him for six years. He opened my eyes to the vast possibilities of life and I’m very grateful to him for that. If you have a dream or vision or goal, you have to just ask for it. Ask people for help, and for their time and their ideas. And people actually want to help other people.”

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Kinahan began to understand the value behind her art and how it connected people. “I view artists as documenters of the current climate,” Kinahan explained. “Wherever they are, throughout time and geography, they are documenting the way it is there–animals, what people wore, documentation of a culture, people and a time that I don’t know if you’ll get from writing. Writing can be fudged later on down the line. Historians can change facts. But no one can take a painting from the 16th century and change the garments that were depicted and tell us, ‘No, they didn’t wear collars like that. This is what they wore.’ It’s a different way of charting the time. We as humans, part of defines us and separates us from the other living creatures on this planet, is art making. I think that’s pretty neat. I don’t know why we’re drawn to do it, but some of us, or most of us, are artists. That doesn’t mean we paint pictures or sculpt marble. But we make meals and want to arrange it beautifully on a plate. Or buy pretty pillows. It’s all art. It’s aesthetics and beauty and we want to add joy to a world that would be mundane and boring without it. Many more of us are artists than people want to admit. Almost all of us are doing something creative like that in our lives. That’s important just to acknowledge.”

She added, “It must be important because we’ve never stopped doing it. We’ve always done it. It’s like joining around the table with people you like for a shared meal. It’s important. Why? I’m not sure I can state all the reasons why. It connects people. It’s a way we can share an experience. With an image, you can share an experience with someone you’ve never met. That’s powerful. And exciting to think about. Art is a language of emotion. A visual way to depict feeling through imagery. That all creates this shared bond when you have an impact on someone through an image you’ve created, there’s a connection that has been made. I think this whole human experience is about making connections with other living things. If art helps us do that with other people, there’s got to be healing in that. We’ve always needed that and we will always need that.”

After switching her medium and realizing the value of her art, Kinahan started painting livestock. She had appreciated animals for as long as she could remember, and she loved being able to see cattle and sheep in pastures and get close enough to take pictures. She was living on Main Street above a coffee shop when she decided to paint three cows. “The painting could be seen from across the street,” shared Kinahan. “There was someone in the restaurant looking at me working on the painting. She actually came up the stairs and knocked on my door, and said, ‘This is really weird, but I can see you’re painting cows.’”

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The woman, visiting from Grand Junction, bought the painting. “I really enjoyed the process of painting those three cows,” Kinahan confessed. “As soon as that sold, I decided to do another one. That one sold and it made me realize there might be a market for this. That wasn’t why I started doing this, but it was really encouraging.”

She found more and more people connecting emotionally with her work. “That’s something I’m finding incredibly fulfilling and exciting,” she shared. “I don’t think I’ve ever painted anything that was so personal and something that my entire heart is truly in, and to find another person who shares that passion and that connection is kind of a benefit of the creative process that I never expected. I’m so touched – it just gives me chills every time a person looks at a painting and looks into the great, big eyes of a dairy cow with these big lashes and I’ve seen people truly moved. It’s so interesting to me and I love it. I just feel like this is an area that I have to pursue. I still paint other things. I love to paint. This is definitely where I’m going and what I’m going to be pursuing.”

As her paintings garnered more attention, she started getting invitations to visit herds or to meet an individual animal. When she first started looking for subjects, Kinahan had to learn how to adjust how she encountered the animals. “It was an interesting change in how I learned to actually physically approach an animal in a pasture so they wouldn’t run away,” she shared. “Sometimes they do, but I’m getting better at it. It was this process I didn’t expect, but as I started painting them more and more and displaying them in places, people would seek me out and say, ‘Oh you’re the one who paints the cows. The cattle lady. My neighbor has this exotic breed of cattle and maybe you want to come out and I’m sure she’d be happy to have you.’ I was super excited about those types of opportunities as they came up, and I would travel anywhere to talk to the person who owns the animals and hear the stories and learn what it’s like to raise cattle, how to approach them.”

Kinahan enjoyed hearing the personal stories shared as well. “I’m always surprised but grateful that the owners–the farmers and ranchers–have an understanding of their individual animals,” Kinahan said. “They’re aware of the different types of personalities that each animal possesses, and they’re just as excited to share that as I am to learn about it.”

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One of her most memorable visits was being introduced to a herd of ancient white park cattle, which was a surprise. She had scoped out the ranch for years, driving by and seeing the various animals that lived on the property. She drove by once a week, hoping the animals were close enough to the road for her to snap some photos. Then she started wondering if the owners noticed her visits. She sent them a letter, with a picture of a painting of one of their animals, explaining what she was doing. “Sometimes to a fault, I’m trying to be polite to other people,” Kinahan shared. “I included at the end, if this feels like an infringement, no worries, that’s just me and I’m not harming anyone and I’m just taking photos and that’s it.”

She got a call from the owner of the ranch immediately. “She said she’d love for me to come out,” Kinahan said. “She told me about the different sheep she has – this flock for wool, this for meat, and this is how the mommas behave.”

Then Kinahan got to meet the cattle. “I didn’t even know that was coming,” she said. “I thought it was just sheep there. She told me so much about the breed, and how it’s an English breed and how it came to America and was lost for decades. It was so interesting.”

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These days, Kinahan continues to paint, chase down animals, go on tours of ranches and farms, and donate to rescue organizations. She is also the co-owner of Studio & on Main Street in Durango, which is coming up on its seventh anniversary. Her partner at the time was a founding member, and she couldn’t fathom living and working together. “I tried to stay out of it for as long as possible, and then I finally realized it would be a really good idea for me to join with this team of artists who were doing progressive things in town and filling a void of some type,” admitted Kinahan. “With the outlandish practices we get to procure on Main Street and the uncensored art we can show. It isn’t anything lewd or terrible. I’ve had difficulty showing a nude painting or anything close to be a nude painting in Durango and I was happy to be a part of a place that would welcome that and not shy away from showing something noncommercial or out of the ordinary. There were a number of reasons I was excited to join the studio. It was an opportunity to show my art on Main Street without having to give 50% of my sales to someone who wasn’t working at all for me. To take home 100% or close to 100% of my sales was amazing and was what enabled to keep me being an artist.”

The studio does take 35% of commission currently, which is the bare minimum Studio & can take and still pay bills. “We really want to give artists as much as possible,” explained Kinahan. “For the first two years, we didn’t take any commission. Then we realized we were spiraling downward financially. We were forking out all the money for the rent, and drinks and food and shows and advertising. We had to start thinking about it. We settled on 35% and it’s been a good balance.”

Kinahan also encourages artists to utilize the internet, which makes it possible to connect directly to clients and collectors. “Most of it is free,” she said. “The most powerful tool an artist has is their email list. We can shoot around the side of galleries now. I’m not trying to talk down galleries. They have their place. Artists don’t always want to deal with self promotion. But if you want to keep more of your revenue, then you have the power to do that now. In the ‘80s, it was really difficult to do that. Now, we can do it. It’s a powerful piece for people to wrap their heads around and when they do, it makes things a lot easier.”

Elizabeth posts her work on Facebook and Instagram. Learn more about her by visiting her website. You can see her work at Studio &  in Durango, CO or at Gallery Flux in Ashland, VA.

This is the fifth in a series of articles I’m writing, called “Sustaining Craft”, which focuses on people who make money creating. Contact me to share your story.