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San Diego Union-Tribune – Opera Lover Uses Camera to Document Arts Growth

San Diego Metropolitan Magazine – She Changes Careers to Conquer

amazon.com – Amazon Talks to ML Hart

Opera Lover Uses Camera to Document Arts Growth

San Diego Union-Tribune / February 19, 1998 / by Neil Morgan

Martha Hart was daydreaming. She’d quit after 14 years in a law office and was taking up photography. She was imagining ideal projects for her and her all-manual, heavy-metal Minolta.

She liked opera. After she’d moved to San Diego in 1965, she’d attended a student dress rehearsal of San Diego Opera’s “Faust,” when a young Placido Domingo was the substitute tenor. She had studied theatrical design at Mt. Holyoke, gone to operas in Vienna with her mother.

In 1995, after researching every book she could find on opera, she decided no one had done the book she wanted to do. Striking cold, she mailed a proposal to Ian Campbell at San Diego Opera.

Much stood in the way of her daydream. She was unknown. She was unlikely to win a commission for a backstage documentary. She’d be in the way. Nobody would underwrite it. How could she do it herself?

Campbell saw her proposal, sighed and put it aside. Two days later he picked it up again.

He knew she was right about one thing: Most photographic records of opera companies are posed and lifeless. They miss the feeling backstage at breathless, terrifying moments when opera is being thought out, rewritten and finally offered across the lights.

People don’t know what it’s like, she had written Campbell. I don’t know either, but I’d like to catch it on film and share it.

As Campbell reread her letter, he revisited his own daydreams come true: seven years as an operatic tenor in Australia, then management and an unexpected call to join the great Met in New York. Now, the nights when an untested young singer soars into fame here on his own stage in his adopted city.

He sent word to Martha Hart to come in.

He liked her portfolio. she wasn’t asking for money but access to rehearsals and performances. If her pictures were good enough for a book, her fee would come after all bills were paid.

Campbell gave her the run of backstage for two seasons.

By early 1997 her life was centered in the windowless rehearsal hall downstairs at Civic Theater. Her camera was revealing the frustrations of director Jim de Blasis and the firey pouts of Adria Firestone, tuning up for her “100th-and-something” role as Carmen. And Richard Leech, making himself up for his first Don Jose, staring shocked into the mirror as that face took form.

“Everyone knew I was there,” Martha Hart writes in notes for the book, “but they quickly forgot about me.” She was using fast 3200 ASA Kodak film without flash.

Sometimes she showed the casts the tiny images of her contact sheets. Conductor Karen Keltner was intrigued: “All I see from the pit are eyes and mouths.”

She assigned herself photographs, but it was better when she simply moved in close, watched and listened and squeezed.

Her epiphany came as she documented the frantic give-and-take of a world premiere, “The Conquistador.”

“Everything was different,” she says. “They were searching for the baseline. Emotional rehearsals! Debates on interpretation – pitch, lines, everything – the composer crying out and a singer pleading, ‘What if we held this note a quarter note longer?’”

The book is at the bindery, proof sheets glittery with excitement. There are 350 candid photographs and insightful captions in “The Art of Making Opera: Two Seasons With the San Diego Opera.” It includes a history of San Diego Opera’s 33 years by David Gregson and valuable chronologies and indexes. It’ll go on sale next month at $60.

“The company and I have given and taken a lot from each other,” she says. “It’s the most difficult and rewarding thing I’ve ever done. There isn’t any other book on opera like what we’ve done here.”

It documents the continuity and vigor of this company. In a moment of civic doubt, it validates San Diego’s cultural energy.

Neil Morgan, the former editor of the San Diego Union, writes a tri-weekly column for the Union-Tribune.
All material © Neil Morgan 1998.


She Changes Careers to Conquer

San Diego Metropolitan Magazine / June 1998 / by John Willett

Overcoming ‘Yes, But’ disease, photographer ML Hart wows worldwide with a seminal volume about opera

In this era of diversification and mergers, it should come as no surprise that artistic institutions are consolidating resources as well as branching out. So are individuals. So are a lot of women.

In the merger department: No new production seen at San Diego Opera these days is the effort of SDO alone. For example, its scene shop is one of the most respected in the country, building not only SDO’s own productions but also those for television, the legitimate stage and others nationwide. But nowadays, such extraordinarily expensive ventures as newly designed operas are always a joint venture of two to five companies from Texas to Florida to Seattle and elsewhere across the country. The reason? Money.

When it comes to branching out, here’s a case in point. San Diego Opera recently emerged as publisher of a new book, “The Making of Opera,” a handsome tome of arresting photography and sensitive narrative by ML Hart. (No periods between the initials, please: “It’s the way I sign my name,” says the artist.) The book teaches a lot about the great art of opera, American’s opera heritage, San Diego’s prominence in that heritage and about the day-to-day business of art in general. It’s a mesmerizing tale that will hold the interest of even the most dyed-in-the-wool sports fan.

Over Belgian waffles with pecans and maple syrup, a real splurge for Hart on one of her “two or three mornings a year that I go out for breakfast,” the photographer tells the tale of her emergence from what was, until recently, a chrysalis of professional discontent with her place in today’s world of business. “I was feeling very frustrated and angry because I was pushing aside, ignoring, the nature of what I should be doing.”

Hart, now 44, began her odyssey among a loving family that, alas, suffered from the “Yes, But” Disease, a wrong-headed thought process still prevalent and deeply embedded in the American psyche. “That’s lovely dear, and we definitely think you should pursue it for your own enjoyment, but how are you going to make a living?” they asked.

Martha Hart, Oregon-born but raised in Arizona, Maryland and San Diego, got straight As in high school, yet never took a college degree despite spending five and one half years in academia. Why? “I didn’t like the structure: I didn’t fit in with other kids. Then there was the partying, and everything I was being taught was non-practical theory. It finally dawned on me that I didn’t need to be there.”

After three shots at college, the last in theater design at San Diego State University, she ended up in the costume department at the Old Globe and also worked for a year at the Asolo Theater in Sarasota, Fla.

Then, tired of starving, Hart went to typing school, took a job as a legal secretary and finally, via on-the-job training, got into paralegal work.

And into what she describes as a 13-year low of frustration and anger.

“I’m an artist and it took me a long time to accept that, much less live it.”

How did she change? “I had a great therapist,” she says without hesitation. Hart had started seeing her because of problems with family and friends, “who all seemed to want a piece of me.”

“One of the first things she said to me was, ‘When you resolve the central issue in your life, everything else will take its proper place.'” It took a while but Hart finally realized that the relationship between her personal self and her artistic self was the most important issue of her life.

“Most women believe the most important relationships in their lives should be their spouses or their family. Society, religion – all sorts of things condition us for this. We feel it is wrong somehow to say, ‘I am the center of my life.'”

Hart set out to do something – anything – strictly to please herself. She went back to school while working, and in three years learned American Sign Language and interpreting, just because it was something she wanted to do. At the same time, again, because she wanted to do it, she took classes in art history.

“This was an important loop in the path,” says Hart. “It forced me to come out of myself. It pushed me to find new boundaries, meet new people, do things I didn’t think I could do. The fact that it didn’t result in anything tangible or a product for me was irrelevant.”

Among other things, she and her husband Michael Hart decided not to have children. “It was a conscious decision. Without knowing who or what I was going to be, I did know I couldn’t be whatever that was going to be and a mother, too. You can’t do kids halfway.”

Through all this, Hart was very successful in the business arena. She rose to paralegal status in the office of a malpractice attorney, then moved to health care administration, where she spent four years in risk management, then procedural and regulatory affairs at the UCSD Medical Center.

“You keep changing jobs because you think the next job is going to be better.” This was not the answer, as Hart found out. Stress became worse: Hart was burned out.

“I had been working with my therapist for six months before the question of being an artist ever came up,” Hart says. It was then she started experimenting with cameras, but had no thought of making a business of it. It was a weekends and spare-time thing.

But would this be enough to satisfy?

“Gradually the balance began to change, “she says. “It’s not always clear; there’s not a morning when you wake up, the clouds part, music starts to play and there’s ‘The Answer.'”

But when UCSD began downsizing and absorbing the tasks of departments and individuals, it provided Hart with the opportunity to make the big shift.

From then on, her story reads like that of so many talented people: she struggled until she mounted her first photography show at La Vae Gallery in La Mesa, where she still exhibits. Then she took part in a group show in Denver put together by photographers who had met on the Internet.

That’s how she met Richard Bram, who had working photographic sessions with the Louisville Symphony. “I was so envious,” Hart recalls.

Then came the idea to look at the workings of an opera company. She put a detailed proposal before SDO general director, Ian Campbell, and was astounded when he accepted.

“The Making of Opera,” some three years later, is the result. Needless to say, Hart is not only making a modest living as a photographer but, because of the book, is en route to national recognition.
Campbell reports that of the initial 5,000 printed, 475 volumes have been sold and five libraries have ordered. The Opera needs to sell 2,600 copies to recover its costs.

“When you consider that this was designed to be a long-term sales project, that’s a significant number. Orders have come from all over the U.S., Europe and Australia,” says Campbell. “The book’s visibility will increase in months to come and we anticipate reaching our intended target with no problem.”

To hell with the Yes-Buts of the world!

An author, lecturer and consultant, John Willett has critiqued music, dance and the arts for more than 17 years.
all material (c) 1998 by John Willett and San Diego Metropolitan Magazine


Amazon Talks to ML Hart (1998)

Amazon.com:   Where are you from? How—if at all—has your sense of place colored your writing?

MH: I’m “from” a lot of places—I was born in Oregon and spent my childhood in Washington DC; I’ve lived in Arizona, Idaho, Florida, Massachusetts and San Diego. I’m an urban-driven person—love the energy and rhythm you pick up from the city, any city. There’s this intense curiosity I have about other places and people, an appreciation for all the variations and differences you see—maybe you’re forced to do that when you move around a lot and have to fend for yourself. But it gives me the ability to put myself in another’s place, to see with someone else’s eyes.

Certainly living in San Diego has been an example of “chance meets opportunity equals luck” because it led directly to being able to work on THE ART OF MAKING OPERA. It started as a photography project, but when it came time to write captions, I was dissatisfied with just a straightforward description of the images. As I expanded the captions, I found that I was using words more and more in partnership with the images, telling the story—my story. How the pieces all fit together to make a bigger picture. Then the book really started to come alive for me.

It’s interesting to me that you ask about “coloring” my work – as a photographer working in black and white, I quite consciously use that limitation to reveal more “color” in the images than is seen with colors themselves. But black and white is how I see—I dream in black and white, too—always have. I thought it was normal, that everyone did it, but I just found out a few years ago that most people actually dream in color. What a great word.

Amazon.com:  When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?

MH: I knew I wanted to write pretty early on. I knew—but I didn’t do it. In school I was always kind of sheltered – coloring inside the lines, if you will. (Color—there it is again!) When I went away to college, I was like Miranda in a brave new world, and I started thinking and opening my eyes. Actually, I wasn’t ready for the structure of college—I was too busy learning about life. So I’m 17 years old and for the first time ever, reading things other than literature—philosophy and all the feminist writings: Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Mary Wollstonecraft, a wonderful book called The First Sex by Elizabeth Davis. It was a time of big changes—Ms Magazine was emerging and Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs at tennis. Well, I felt excited and outraged and alive, and I knew that I needed to be a part of all this connecting that was going on, this reaching out to people. A door had opened for me, and I knew, way deep down, that writing was the way. It was my way. It was like a brilliant light going on. And I guess you could say that it blinded me. I was afraid of the power I found behind that door I’d opened. Terrified. Absolutely terrified. And I closed it.

It took a long, long time for it to be okay, for me to learn how to live with the kind of power—and the responsibility—that goes along with it. Because writing is a powerful force. You can’t really control it, you go along with it. Like a river or a tide. When I was in my late teens, early twenties, I thought I had to do everything perfectly, brilliantly—you know, paint the Sistine Chapel Ceiling the first time I picked up a brush.

Amazon.com:  Who or what has influenced your writing, and in what way? What books have most influenced your life?

MH: Oh wow, probably everything I’ve ever read! From way back, I remember absolutely inhaling storybooks as a child—poetry, classics, novels—I escaped into them, didn’t matter what the subject was. I remember my 5th grade teacher, Miss Kurtz, would read to our class for half an hour every day—we were too old to have naps, I suppose, so she’d read to us after lunch. I love to create worlds and people in my mind as I read, imagine I’m living their adventure, and cry and feel for them. I read lots of different stuff, from history to science fiction to Dickens and all the 19th century Americans, essays, plays and poems. Dictionaries—I read dictionaries! I love words!

What books. Well, the women’s writings, as I said. A Tale of Two Cities. Rebecca. Homer. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Milan Kundera. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Robertson Davies. Stephen Jay Gould. A Wrinkle in Time. The Duchess of Malfi is one of my favorite plays—read it and understand the John Webster joke in Shakespeare in Love! Shakespeare, of course. Dorothy L. Sayers. Paradise Lost—this work is filled with light and darkness – so brilliant, it’s almost impossible to take it all in. Henry James. Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas made a huge impression on me in high school, and I often go back to it; the words are so tangible and sensual. How many more do I get??

I love passion and conviction in writing—essays by Harlan Ellison, James Burke, Robert Hughes. Passion in any kind of art, too—singers who tell a story have always appealed to me: the Weavers, Harry Chapin, Gordon Bok. Opera—of course! And painters, like Caravaggio or Goya. It’s the same kind of communicating, just in different media.

You know something I just realized—this is intriguing – nearly everything I’ve said here is fiction. Well. There’s the impact of “telling the story” for me. A great story, intriguing characters, writers who command and control words and reinvent ways to reach out to you.

Amazon.com:  What is the most romantic book you’ve ever read? The scariest? The funniest?

MH: The most romantic? Okay, you asked! A multiple tie for first, here—The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, probably because of the danger, the high stakes, and because Marguerite is such a strong character. No, no—it’s because she and Percy are equally strong and so passionate. Then there’s a play called The Lady’s Not For Burning by Christopher Fry—it’s written in blank verse, a 20th century work—and another intense pair of smart, strong, equal characters; for years, I identified very closely with Jennet. Oh… The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. Cyrano de Bergerac by Rostand. The sonnets of Pablo Neruda, too, from way back. If you saw the film Truly Madly Deeply, it’s one of Neruda’s poems that Alan Rickman quotes in really bad Spanish to Juliet Stephenson’s character. The part in the film is taken out of context, but that one part by itself is devastatingly romantic, in a big-picture definition of “romantic.” And I have to mention Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, six fat books, because of the impact—massive and seductive, huge epic story—it’ll blow you away.

Scariest is The Shining by Stephen King—far better than the film; also Edgar Allen Poe, the master.

Funniest—The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. Did I say I love words!?

Amazon.com:  What music, if any, most inspires you to write? What do you like to listen to while writing?

MH: If I put music on while I’m concentrating, it’s non-vocal; otherwise I get distracted too much. And then it’s usually Mahler or Willie and Lobo. Sometimes I just need to it to be quiet, to listen to the rhythm of the words in my head.

And that’s really important to me. Rhythm. Cadence. Sound. The way words sound when you say them. The way they sound and feel inside you when you read them, doesn’t have to be out loud. Music is such an emotional connection here, and music is everywhere. Wind. Waves. Traffic. The voice—my favorite instrument, the first instrument —is even stronger, like a direct line to my heart. I’m always wanting to create that same kind of response, that pulse, that heartbeat in my writing.

Amazon.com:  What are you reading now? What CD is currently in your stereo?

MH: I never read just one book at a time. So, two biographies—one of Arthur Conan Doyle by Stashower, and one of Paul Robeson, the one by Duberman. Also, Who Killed Classical Music? by Norman Lebrecht.

In my stereo? Could be almost anything… But at this moment it’s “Mario Lanza—Live at the Hollywood Bowl.”

Amazon.com:  What are you working on?

MH: I’m writing a book about tenors—about the impact of the voice on the audience, really. It’s not a how-to-sing book, and it’s not gossip about personal lives. It’s a celebration of the art form, what’s special about the tenor voice, how it moves an audience—mixed in with an understanding of all the hard work it takes to get there, to just do it. If you think about how rare a really good tenor is, never mind a great one, that’s a pretty unique phenomenon. And these men are extraordinary—hard-working artists, whether they’re household names with a dozen recordings or whether they’re known only to their families or within the business. More than half of the research and interviews are completed. I’ll be doing a lot of the writing in the next few months—and I’m itching to get to it, to see where it takes me.

So this will be photographs and in-depth interviews with seven of today’s tenors in the opera world—somewhat more text than images in this book, where THE ART OF MAKING OPERA was more images. I’m also interviewing more than 100 different people in the opera business, from lots of other tenors to singers of all voice types who are their colleagues, to their teachers, directors, conductors, composers… You name a legend in the business and I’ve probably already talked to them or soon will be. Those comments are all providing threads of color in this very rich, sexy, complex tapestry that’s emerging. And you wouldn’t believe how this project has a life and a drive of its own! Very pushy, very demanding of my time and energy, and it all wants to be happening right now—which is not so inappropriate, given my subject!

As both a photographer and a writer, I’m always discovering. Always. Every day. With the cameras, I’m a portraitist—I find it boring to shoot sunsets or buildings or flowers. I shoot people because I need to interact with them, discover something about the part of them that’s underneath the surface. When I was working on THE ART OF MAKING OPERA, casually chatting with people, I found I was using words the same way that I use the camera—trying to find out what makes them tick. I’m doing more formal interviews now for the new book, and the more I do, the more turned on I get, the more ideas I have—this is what it’s all about, for me!

Writing is such an incredible journey—it can take you anywhere, everywhere, if you’ll let it. I think the same can be said about life, if we will only give ourselves permission to live as fully as possible. Take the risk of being intensely personal in your work! Break the rules! Get rid of all this carefully planned and plotted stuff! Who knows then what we’re capable of experiencing and discovering and creating, for ourselves and for our audience? I did it when I walked away from a paycheck-and-benefits job, from that whole lifestyle. People told me they admired my “courage.” It felt more like “desperation” to me, but you know what? I did it.

I’ve never worked harder in my life than I am now. I’ve never been happier and I have no regrets. I wake up in the morning and I just can’t wait to find out what will happen in my day. And I learn so much when I’m writing. Arthur Miller said it best: “He who understands everything about his subject cannot write it. I write as much to discover as to explain.” Isn’t that great? I have that next to my computer—love it!

“We have
To look elsewhere… for instance, into my heart
Where recently I heard begin
A bell of longing which calls no one to church.

I am interested
In my feelings, I seem to wish to have some importance
In the play of time. If not,
then sad was my mother’s pain, sad my breath,
Sad the articulation of my bones…

What is deep as love is deep, I’ll have
Deeply. What is good as love is good
I’ll have well. Then if time and space
Have any purpose, I shall belong to it.”

Jennet Jourdemayne, from The Lady’s Not For Burning by Christopher Fry