So You Want to be a Movie Star …

James L. Conway

I’ve invited author and director James L. Conway to join me today. In my two part series on the harsh realities of pursuing a career as a singer, dancer, or actor, I didn’t really cover what it means to aim for the stars as a film actor—in other words, to be a movie star.

Conway is a film and television director who recently published his first novel, Dead and Not So Buried. (READ IT, all you aspiring actors and everyone else—it’s clever, hilarious, and suspenseful). His villain (I’m not giving anything away, because it’s clear up front who it is) is a handsome young man who clearly has talent as an actor but fails to get the breaks he needs and ends up unraveling completely.

James, I wanted to ask you specifically about what it takes to make it in Hollywood. I knew a lot of drop-dead gorgeous actors and actresses (particularly actresses) in New York who did one or two national commercials and then fizzled out. Or did a pilot that was never picked up and didn’t get another chance. Does being beautiful increase your odds? How important are other factors such as acting ability, intelligence and affability?

Being beautiful helps if you can also act. There are a lot of beautiful people with no acting ability. who are stiff and nervous in front of a camera, or have limited ability. They may be cast for one or two roles because they look right for the role and it falls within their limited range. But for a long-term career, you need talent.

In fact, character actors (the non-beautiful majority of actors) tend to have longer and more diverse careers because character actors are not usually limited by age. As ingénues age, turn 30, then 40 then 50 the acting opportunities get few and far between. Most starring roles are written for young sexy actors. But opportunities for character actors only gets better with age.

Is it easier for a man than for a woman?

I don’t think it is easier for a man or a woman. It’s tough for everybody. There is so much competition for every role that it takes a combination of talent and luck to succeed.

The casting process is brutal. First your agent has to get you an audition. You get the sides (scenes you’re going to perform) and study them. Then you drive 45 minutes to get to the casting office. Walk into a room with fifteen or twenty people who often look just like you since you are auditioning for the same part. Then you get to read. That can last as little as three or four minutes, or as long as five or ten. You leave having no idea if you got the part. Then if you are lucky, you’ve get to drive another 45 minutes to another casting office for another audition.

Sometimes lightning strikes and you get a part that can launch a career. More often, you don’t get cast, or get cast in a show that takes only one or two days to shoot and then you start the horrible process all over again.

Can you be supremely gifted and beautiful and still fail?

Most supremely gifted actors do succeed, I think. Frankly, there are very few of them and when someone truly stands out, word spreads.

But not all supremely gifted actors come in all shapes and sizes and some are difficult to cast. Gabourey Sidibe, for example, the wonderful black actress from the movie Precious is a fantastic actress. But she is a very heavy black woman and there are very few roles written for woman like her. So a long-term career becomes difficult.

What percentage of the truly talented make it in Hollywood?

I would say a large majority of the truly talented make it in Hollywood. But there are very few who are really truly talented. There are many more competent actors, journeymen professionals who have to fight it out for every role. This is the vast majority of the actor population.

Is there a particular look Hollywood requires which might surprise us if we saw the actors in real life?

Actors always look different in real life. First of all, they aren’t in makeup. We tend to think stars are bigger than they are because their personalities and charisma are bigger than usual. We’ve all heard the stories about short actors like Tom Cruise (5’7”), Ben Stiller (5’8”), Michael J. Fox (5’4”), Dustin Hoffman (5’5 1/2”). Many actresses are small, too. And very thin which makes them seem even smaller. And many actors are very shy in public.

Now there are some actors and actress that burst with charisma on and off camera—George Clooney comes to mind. Robert Redford had that, too. But mostly, they are really just people like us.

Only a lot better looking.

What about tattoos and piercings—a problem or not?

Tattoos and piercings can work for you or against you. As a character actor, tattoos and piercings can help. But you are limited to a small subsection of roles. If the tattoos can be covered, no problem. All three actresses on Charmed had tattoos. Alyssa Milano had seven, I think. But we covered them the first couple of years, then stopped. They were on her wrists and on the back of her neck and no one seemed to mind.

But if the tats are on your face, or sleeves on your arms, you are limiting your possible roles.

How many actors have you met who were genuinely nice people? Is it true that most of them are insecure narcissists?

Most actors are terrific people. Many have fun, out-sized personalities and are a lot of fun to be around. Some are insecure narcissists, but far fewer than you might think.

How would you describe (not just physically) the type most likely to thrive in Hollywood? Man, woman, dwarf, circus performer? Dancer? Short, tall, interesting face or perfect features?

Honestly, anyone can make it in Hollywood. Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) is a little person, Jimmy Cagney was a dancer, Bogart was far from handsome but became a star.

It helps to have memorable looks—really attractive or really ugly or really evil looking or really sweet.

But with the right combination of looks, talent and luck (tons of luck) anyone can make it.

And that also depends on your definition of making it. Most working actors just get by. But they work enough to make a living. And since acting is there passion they are happy.

If your definition of making it is to become a star with all the fame and money that comes with it, the odds are definitely against you.

What career path is most likely to give a young person an entrée into Hollywood. A degree from a League School? Julliard? Yale? Broadway experience? Success in commercials?

School pedigree means little in Hollywood. It’s all about your talent. A mediocre actor from Yale School of Drama is going to be just as unemployable as a mediocre actor from Nebraska State.

When casting directors, producers and directors look at someone’s resume, they look at credits. Never education. You either have talent or you don’t.

Do actors and actresses still feel the need to hide their sexuality if they are gay? Do their agents encourage them to do this?

Many actors and actresses do hide their sexuality if they are gay. There are so many reasons you don’t get hired—too tall, too short, too thin, too fat, too young, too old—there is no reason to give someone another potential reason to say no.

I think agents want to give their clients the best chance of getting a role. And as wrong as it is, there are some people who are still prejudiced against gays. So most agents would rather you keep your private life, private.

Does pedigree matter? It seems that an awful lot of actors come from acting families—Gwyneth Paltrow, Drew Barrymore, the Baldwin Brothers ….

Pedigree does matter in one regard, connections.  The famous mothers and fathers have got agents and managers and famous friends who can help the son or daughter get an audition. But that’s where it ends. If they aren’t any good, they won’t get the role.

But access is important. So it is a big leg up.

At what age is it too late to try to make it in Hollywood? Is 25 already too old?

If you want to be a leading man or woman, 25 is the sweet spot. You generally look young enough to play younger, sometimes even a high school kid. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (Spiderman) are both 28. And obviously you can also play your age or older at 25.

Now 30 or more might be a problem. Unless you want to become a character actor. Then any age will do.

What movies do you recommend as giving the most truthful portrayal of what it’s like to try to make it in the movies? For instance, Naomi Watts in Ellie Parker seemed to me to be pretty painfully accurate.

Ellie Parker is a very good portrait. Entourage was pretty good for someone who has made it and juggling stardom.

From what you’ve observed, does the casting couch still exist? Is it worse for men or women? Gay or straight? One of my best friends in New York was a photo double on a movie set, and the producer’s henchman had her delivered to his trailer. This was the eighties. Does stuff like that still go on? And if so, why does it so rarely come to light?

The casting couch doesn’t exist that much anymore. At least, not as blatantly as it once did. One reason, I think, is the possibility of lawsuits. Sexual harassment is a real fear at all the studios. They have all been sued over the years. Before every production begins, someone from Human Resources meets with the cast and crew and goes through all the do and don’ts.

That being said, it does exist to some degree on a more subtle layer. When a powerful producer or director say asks a young actress out, it certainly would help her career if the producer or director liked them.

I think it is definitely worse for women than men. Though, I once worked with an actor on a Movie of the Week. During production the female network executive came to location and attached herself to the actor. It became clear that she wanted to sleep with the actor. The actor didn’t particularly like the woman, but slept with her anyway fearing he might anger her and jeopardize the network hiring him in the future.

What about weight? I’ve noticed that actresses on TV are getting a little heavier. Or is that my imagination? Is it still necessary to be underweight to look good on film? Is having a good body more important than a beautiful face?

I don’t think most leading ladies are getting any thinner. There is tremendous pressure on actresses to look good—and sadly in our society, being thin is one criteria. Also, magazines like National Enquirer and People publish unattractive pictures of actresses who gain weight. Remember Jennifer Love Hewitt? She publicly said she liked how she looked, then lost almost 20 pounds.

What you have noticed is that more character actresses are being allowed to star in TV shows. And with character actresses weight is not as much of an issue. So you are seeing more actresses that seem a bit heavier.

What about nudity? Is it still possible for an actor or actress to refuse to do nude scenes?

It is possible for actresses to refuse nude scenes. Natalie Portman has never appeared nude. Neither has Megan Fox, Jessica Alba or an array of others. But nudity is part of many movies and TV shows and actresses can lose a role if they refuse to appear nude.

Once you are a star it is much easier to be picky about nudity. If they want you badly enough, they’ll accept less. But when you are just coming up, if they the role has nudity and you won’t do it, you probably won’t get the role.

By the way, when there is nudity in a role it is in your contract that you agree to appear nude. If once shooting starts and you refuse, you can be sued.

Do you trust one acting method more than another? Does one method work better for film and another for stage? What type of training works best for both? Should actors try to learn different methods for different media? Or in your experience is film acting more about innate talent than training?

There are many different methods taught to actors. The secret is what works best for the actor. I do believe that acting is a gift, much like playing the piano. You are born with a certain ability that can be finessed with study. But if aren’t born with potential, I don’t care how many classes you take, you will never become a good actor. It is not as easy as good actors make it look. Acting is tough.

Do actors need more than one agent? Is it possible to do without representation?

It is not possible to succeed without representation. Agents are necessary to make the deal with the studio, for example. And agents have relationships with the casting directors and studios. A lot of actors and actresses also have a manager. It helps to have two teams out there working for you.

What is the best way to get an agent? Is becoming an agent’s apprentice one way to get in the back door?

There are a number of ways to get an agent. In Hollywood, appearing in plays and workshops is a great way. Agents come to see the plays looking for new talent. Taking classes is also good. Many of the better teachers know many agents and if they come across someone really talented, they will often make an introduction. Also, if you have a friend with an agent you can ask them to give your demo reel to their agent. Networking with people is incredibly important.

I think it’s as hard to get a job as an agent’s apprentice and it is to get an agent. And generally they are looking for people who want to become agents, not actors. If you could get a job working for a casting director would be much better.

What is the best way for actors to stay sane in Hollywood? Scientology? Drugs? Ecstasy? Therapy? How does one avoid becoming a statistic?

Booze and drugs, while fun, can be dangerous. Therapy can be very helpful. But for me, good friends are the best way to stay sane. Friends who don’t encourage your bad habits. Friends who understand the stress and frustration of trying to build a career.

Does a young person need to worry about backstabbing by fellow actors?

To some degree. Betrayal is not as common among actors as it is among cut-throat businessmen, but it happens. I’ve been on shows when the on star plots to get another star kicked off the show. But it’s rare.

Schadenfreude is much more common. The secret hope that your friends fail. Envy is the real four-letter word in Hollywood.

Is making a movie usually fun for the actors?

Making a movie is hard work but usually great fun for actors. A film set is made of about a hundred people who spend all day making sure everything is right for the actor. Building the set, putting them in wardrobe and makeup, lighting them …. And, when the moment comes when the cameras roll and they snap the slate, it’s thrilling.

Also, you have a lot of talented people thrown together for a few months with only one goal: to make a great movie. Actors are at the center of that equation. The crew becomes a big family, with everyone looking out for each other. People forge very close friendships that last a lifetime.

What is the percentage of rejections to successes for most young people starting out?

Rejection is a fact of life in Hollywood. It is very hard to break in. We all hear stories about the actor who gets a role in a TV show and becomes a superstar. An overnight success. But that actor has usually been in the business for 5 or 10 years, barely making a living, waiting for that right role to come along.

Stardom often comes down to just that. The right role at the right time with the right actor. You need so many things to line up for that break out moment. But it does happen. So an actor needs talent, thick skin and perseverance.

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So You Want to Sing, Act, Dance?-Part II

Last week we joined four young talents to discuss the realities of a performing career. As is clear from Part I, I am not in the business of dream-weaving.

Darcy Dancer:

How can I lose? I’m a triple threat!


Can you do any kind of dancing—jazz, tap, Broadway jazz?


A dancer is a dancer.


Well, no, actually. A lot of ballet dancers can’t adjust their techniques any more than classical singers can carry off “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Be prepared to take a lot more classes. Can you sing?


My voice is a little small, but I’m told it’s very pretty.


Singer/Dancers are usually belters. In other words, they want your voice to have lots of brass. We’re not talking Shirley Jones. Are you prepared to sound brassy and nasal? Because that’s the sound Broadway wants these days. They don’t want “pretty.”

James Basso:

Up till now I’ve simply listened. But hey, why should I fail? I’m a bass baritone, handsome, and I’ve already won three major awards—in fact, every darn contest I’ve entered. I love performing, am never nervous and never sick. I love life, love all my teachers, and have been helping out at the Boys Club on weekends. I’m quite personable and tall. Everyone tells me how talented I am. I speak three languages, I play piano, and I can learn a piece of music overnight. I can sight-read anything. Why would you try to discourage me?


James, go for it. You have a major shot at a career. You’re also a man. And with all the hormones in food, low voices are becoming more and more of a rarity.

Sally Spinto:

What about me? I’m just as good as James!


You have a shot, along with hundreds, maybe thousands of others. You, however, unlike James, face the fight of your life. You will have to brave cruelty, rejection, the jealousy of your peers. Then if you do make it, you will realize that it has become a business like any other, with some incredible moments and a lot of boring, frustrating hours. Ninety percent of your audience won’t really appreciate what you are doing. Two percent will gnash their teeth in envy, wishing they were you, perhaps obsessing over you. Eight percent may appreciate what you’re doing; they will respect you but not think you are extraordinary, just a talented person doing her job. But no one will give you the reaction you hoped for, idolize you as a celebrity, appreciate just how difficult your profession is.

When you’re feeling great, you will have a blast. But that will be about ten percent of the time. The rest of the time, you will be performing with a fever, with PMS, with post-nasal drip, and then some mysterious thing will invade your voice, making everything more difficult. The ENT you visit will cost $600. (One I called told me he charged $1,200.) You probably won’t have health insurance, so this will be a major blow. Your voice teacher will cost $150/hour plus and your coach (the one you’re going to because he casts small roles at Podunk Grand Hotel) will cost $75/hour plus. You will have to learn to live very frugally, unless you marry a rich man. That’s what my teacher told me to do. Unfortunately I just wasn’t attracted to rich men.


Okay, but that’s you. That won’t be me. And for me performing is better than sex!


Well, you’re young. Sex may not be that great yet. However, the more you perform, the less performing will give you that rush. It will become like any other job—any other job, that is, where you must constantly watch your Ps and Qs. You can be a lawyer with a head cold, write a column with the flu. Performers—especially classical singers—can’t go to that party, stay up late, have that extra glass of wine. Your friends will wonder why you are never free in the evenings, and the more success you have, the harder it will be to have a real life, to nurture a relationship. You will be on the road ten out of twelve months, babying yourself, trying to rest your voice, putting up with opera general managers who parade you around like prize cows in order to squeeze another $1,000 out of patrons. Resisting the efforts of managers and agents to push you into accepting roles you know you’re not ready for or will never be ready for.


I don’t need a relationship. My career is me!


Then perhaps you are one of the chosen few. Because your social life will always come second.

Sally Spinto, Aaron Actor, Darcy Dancer (in unison):

Don’t you have anything nice to say?


There are lots of people out there who will encourage you. You are, no question, in the top echelon of your age group—full of promise, young, lovely, starry-eyed.

James Basso:

Not me. It’s a business, pure and simple. I have no illusions about re-enacting The Singing Teacher.


Right, the film with Jose Van Dam. The fairytale where the teacher takes you under his wing, puts you through rigorous training, and helps you perfect your art and vanquish your rival. James, if you have no illusions, this is the profession for you. The only ones who make it to the top are the ones who approach it like a business. They realize that they will be expected to always be in excellent health, to be prepared for every rehearsal, to be upbeat, to put up with temperamental directors, conductors, fellow singers, to overlook the evil gleam in the eyes of their understudies.

Sally, Aaron, and Darcy:

You can’t discourage us. We want this!


Yes, I know that. I just hope that each of you has a backup profession. Because each and every one of the singers, actors, and dancers I have known, in New York and Seattle, eventually gave up and had to start over or turn to teaching. The more successful they were, the later they started over. These are people who had careers at the Met, who did three apprentice programs, who were accepted into San Francisco’s Merola Program. The only ones still doing it have flexible professions outside of performing or spouses with money (and health insurance). Most of them are very good at living on a shoestring. All those who stayed in the profession eventually became teachers or directors. If they were lucky or bothered to get their doctorates along the way, they scored positions at universities. But a doctorate alone won’t get you a position like that. You have to also have had a real career, where you performed in major houses.

Look at the famous singers who have made it. Many married their teachers, their directors, their agents, or the heads of their record companies. Or they had rich parents, parents who were also performers, wealthy “benefactors.” Do you want it that much?

If so, go for it.

But there’s an alternative. Do something else for a living, but never stop singing, acting, dancing. Who are the happiest performers I know? The amateurs. They don’t have to keep topping themselves. Because they know that for professionals, even that one great review, that one great role, can still be followed by three months of unemployment and the review that kills their careers forever.

Now go head and enjoy the next ten years. Dream your dreams, have a few exciting successes, get involved with one new charmer per show. Then throw in the towel when you’re thirty and go to med school. You’ll be the most compassionate doctor ever because you know what it is to suffer and to be humbled.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to discourage you. No one could have discouraged me. And I had fun; I can’t say I truly regretted anything. However, I am now watching my more practical friends planning their retirements, kicking back and enjoying themselves. They have health insurance, nice clothing, luxury vacations. My fellow performers—even the ones who “made it”—face uncertain futures. They had late starts in their professions, have poor or non-existent health coverage, no investments.

As one friend says, “We had our retirement first.”

If you can—who can?—then try to picture yourself in twenty-five years. You have a respectable performing résumé, you look much younger than your actual age, you have a lot of cool stories … but no investments, bad health insurance (if any). You had an investment banker for a husband, but he/she divorced you for someone with money. Is all of this okay with you? If so, then maybe this profession is your true calling.

As Agnes Gooch says in Auntie Mame, “I lived. I gotta find out what to do now.”

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So You Want to Sing, Act, Dance?–Part I

I have convened a question and answer session with the Class of ’12 and invite you to sit in. I hand-picked the participants based on their high level of talent and their ability to listen. In other words, they are fictional.

In real life no one listens. Everyone has to make their own mistakes. But just in case there’s one eighteen-year-old out there who can be swayed, I’d like to explain why it might not be wise to “follow your bliss.” If only I could sit my own eighteen-year-old self down and force her to think again.

What prompted this post? I have a seventeen-year-old godson who wants to be a jazz guitarist. He can also sing, at least as far as I can tell from the video his mom showed me. I haven’t seen him in years—I’m an unofficial kind of godmother, the kind who sends gifts but doesn’t try to influence your life. However, his mother is one of my best friends from way back. Apparently he is talented in math and science—gifts that pay off big time in today’s world—and so has choices. We’ll call him Sam.

Sam, don’t take this personally. I want you to be happy. Both your parents thought they wanted to be actors. Your dad went to an Ivy League school and your mom was accepted into one, but went to a League school instead to study drama. They both did some cool stuff in New York—they were genuinely talented, take my word—but mostly your dad was a bartender and your mom was a waitress. Eventually they became psychologists. Your dad died of cancer. Your mom wants you to avoid her mistakes. She thinks you’re smarter than either she or your dad ever was. I wish I could convince you to be sensible, but the truth is, I want you to be happy, too. Even if that happiness is just a pipe dream.

So, Sam, this isn’t about you, but it is about others of your generation. It’s about Sally Spinto, who is a very talented soprano with a big voice. She is pretty and about thirty pounds overweight. Aaron Actor excelled at every children’s acting program in his city. He was awarded Best Actor in a Musical by the state’s main music theater company for the role of Jean Valjean in the high school version of Les Miz. Darcy Dancer is a classical ballet phenomenon who can also sing and act. She has big plans to go to New York in the fall. James Basso already sounds like he’s thirty. He won first place at the state Solo Ensemble contest and is one of the youngest bass-baritones ever to win the Metropolitan auditions.

WARNING: This is Cat with her claws unsheathed, ready to burst your bubble. No pussy-footing around here. If you’re looking for feel-good answers, look elsewhere. Lots of people will tell you what you want to hear at this age, because no one wants to rain on your parade. But I live in Seattle, and it rains on parades all the time. I’m used to it. It’s in the best interest of all your voice teachers to tell you that you’re going to make it. Because they need your money, and you make them look good.

To be fair, no one really knows … but we have a pretty good idea.

Sally Spinto:

Cat, I won first place in Washington’s Solo Ensemble contest, singing “Mariettas Lied von Laute” from Die tote Stadt. Isn’t someone like me assured of a future? I hear there aren’t a lot of spinto sopranos around.


You definitely have a better chance than most. You are the best eighteen-year-old soprano in Washington, after all. But that is just one state, and you are competing with sopranos from every country in the world. Even the Eastern Bloc countries, whose singers used to be impeded by the communist thing—that is to say, they couldn’t leave the country. Tell me, are you the nervous type?


My mom has been very supportive. I sang the heck out of that audition at State, but sometimes I do get nervous and sort of lose it. And I have allergies.


Your competition never gets nervous. She also doesn’t have allergies. She is never sick. Are you planning to lose some weight?


I’m only 160 pounds! How dare you?


Well, you’re shaped like an apple, which means that a corset won’t be enough to give you the illusion of slimness. Your competition may be hefty, too, but if she has an hour-glass shape, she can get away with it. People who are investing in your future—such as agents—are worried that you will have a baby and balloon up to 200 pounds.


That’s so unfair.


Yes, it is. If they were to tell you to lose weight, what would you do?


Tell them where to go!


Then they’ll tell you where to go, no matter how talented you are. Even talented people have to suck up to every single person in authority around them, even those they don’t respect. That’s the business. Get a reputation as “difficult,” and they won’t care whether you’re Renee Fleming’s clone.

Aaron Actor:

What about me? I’m just about to do summer stock at Theater of the Young Gods. I’m playing Romeo! Look at me? How can I fail?


Aaron, you’re a great-looking guy. Are you gay?


Are you kidding?


Actually, no. Life will simply be easier if you are. Especially if you can play straight. Most of the casting people and many of the directors are gay. As are your fellow actors. As a gay man, you wouldn’t feel the same pressure to make a living. But frankly, Aaron, you’re a little arrogant. The stereotype is that all actors are narcissists. But in order to have a profession, you’re going to have to learn to “act” the part of the world’s nicest guy—and be really convincing, because these people have excellent BS detectors. Write lots of thank you notes, keep in touch with everyone you’ve ever met, network for at least an hour a day.


I’m terrible at that. I can’t remember anyone’s names and I certainly can’t remember the casting directors I’ve met. I have a terrible memory for faces.


Aaron, if you can’t sell ice to the Eskimos and recognize every single member of the tribe after one meeting, then you will never make it as an actor—not in any major way.


What if I have a great agent?


That helps. Don’t be surprised if she or he expects you to sleep with them.


Come on. That old casting couch thing is a myth.


Uh, actually, no. But you won’t be kicked out for not putting out as long as you perform in other ways. So you’d better be unusually versatile and well-connected or so talented that people hand you awards the way banks hand out lollipops.


What about my amazing good looks?


Well, Aaron, you are eighteen. If you age well, then great. If you lose your hair early or get slightly chubby, then all bets are off. You’re not very tall, which isn’t in itself a deal breaker; there are lots of short actors out there. You should probably get your teeth capped and go on Accutane. And then at some point you’ll have to prove yourself as more than a pretty face, or your career will be over. You’ll also have to be very lucky. Luck is a HUGE element in every career, no matter what your gifts.


There’s nothing wrong with my skin!


It’s not perfect. And you’re competing with perfection.


I want to be a stage actor.


Then be prepared to make $500 a week before taxes. You will have to take your expenses—head shots, acting classes, cosmetic treatments—out of that. And save money while you can. Almost no one goes from show to show. Do commercials, look into voiceovers.


My parents are very supportive.


Are they prepared to help pay the bills when you’re thirty-five?


Well, we haven’t discussed that.


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A Butterfly with Longevity

The space needle was nestled against the full moon on the opening night of Butterfly

I’ve written a few translations for operas, and one of the lyrics I am most proud of is in Alfred’s drinking song, from Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus.

Love is like a butterfly,
Lasts at most but half a year.
But tomorrow I could die.
Kiss me while I’m here!

After I wrote that, I started to wonder if a butterfly really could last half a year, so I looked it up. Most of them die off pretty quickly, but some Monarchs make the half-year mark. That’s a long time for an insect.

Years later, while listening to Seattle Opera’s Madama Butterfly, I thought about the lifespan of Butterfly interpreters. The role is just so difficult. And there’s really no point in taking it on if you’re not going to immerse yourself in the character’s journey from youth and hope to despair and premature death.

One of my friends works behind the scenes at Seattle Opera. (I had opening night tickets this year.) Not having seen Madama Butterfly himself, my friend asked me what I thought. When I fell all over myself telling him how great it was, he seemed surprised. “The chorus boys have been pretty catty,” he said.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that. My own expectations for Patricia Racette had been low. All Puccini is ear-candy, of course, but whenever I hear someone hyped as the “foremost Puccini interpreter,” I’m skeptical. Hmm, I think, how long has she been at it? Not too many voices can specialize in that repertoire and continue to sound fresh for years on end. When I lived in New York, I heard a lot of wobbly Puccini interpreters at the Met. One major exception: Mirella Freni. She was 55 when I saw her in Manon Lescaut, and she looked and sounded 30, which is a prime age for a singer.

When Racette first opened her mouth, I wondered if my skepticism had been well-founded. Her pitch was imprecise in her floating high notes, mostly because of her vibrato. The rest of the cast was incredible in every respect, so I sighed and settled in for another flawed Butterfly. It’s a relentlessly sad opera in any case. Even without reading the synopsis, you know right away that it’s all going to end badly.

However, something surprising happened. She got better, a lot better. Perhaps she’d been nervous at the start—after all, 8,000 people were watching the broadcast live at Key Arena. By the end, I had even been won over by her voice. The part requires amazing stamina—both vocally and emotionally—and if she’d truly been on the outs vocally, she’d never have acquitted herself like that. By the end I could feel my eyes stinging with tears. When I heard my fellow-season-ticket-holder friend sob, I kind of lost the mood (there’s something a little comic about someone else sobbing in that context), but by the end I had tears streaming down my cheeks, too.

My boyfriend Jeff attended with his aunt the following Wednesday. Afterwards, I said, “Wasn’t that great?!”

“It was the saddest thing I have ever seen,” he replied. “But good, in a masochistic way.”

“What about her singing?” I asked.

“She sounded great to me,” he said. “No pitch issues I was aware of.” Jeff is a classical guitarist and has one of the best ears I know of.

It’s been easy for me as a voice teacher to hear flaws and think I know the solution, but time has taught me that there is so much that can rattle a singer—physical fatigue, emotional stress, body changes, small changes in the vocal folds … Sheer vocal technique is not always enough. And perfection is not what your audience is looking for. They want to be entertained; they will forgive you a lot if you keep them interested. Beautiful sounds with no emotional content become boring in about five minutes. What is amazing about the truly successful opera divas—the ones who travel the world ten months of the year playing the leading Verdi, Puccini, Mozart heroines—is that they are able to do it night after night, that they take enough pride in themselves and respect their audiences enough that they never just call it in.

So back to the chorus boys. Of course they were disdainful. They haven’t experienced this singer from the audience. They’re hearing her from backstage in snippets. Many are young–well, not that young–most have never had to carry an entire opera themselves through a run, and here’s this spinto soprano who is renowned for her acting. What self-respecting fledgling opera singers wouldn’t turn up their noses? Ah well, a cat can look at a king. They’ll learn.

But I say, Bravo Patricia. I was totally sick of that opera, but you made it come alive again!

This video isn’t taken from the performance I saw, but here is Mirella Freni at about that same time, amazing as always:

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Happily Ever Hereafter

I’ve always been a sucker for a happy ending, even if that ending happened in the afterlife rather than on earth. Wuthering Heights was one of the first “classics” I read—when I was 12—and I was perfectly okay with Catherine and Heathcliff finding happiness as ghosts on the moors. (I can’t really imagine any corporeal beings being happy there, what with the treacherous bogs and all. You’d pretty much have to be a disembodied spirit.)

Perhaps it’s the Easter season that got me thinking about the afterlife, but not the organized religion kind, which I never found very appealing. My converted Catholic brother is shocked that I make no particular effort to celebrate Easter, and the lapsed Episcopalian who was forced to attend church as a child and paid to do so as an adult (paid soloist) is not positive he’s wrong. However, there is something about being forced to do something that makes you resist it all the more. (Take note, parents who insist on piano lessons! … Although those of us who ended up having to accompany students, not to mention ourselves, are mighty glad you did.)

But back to the subject at hand ….

I’ve been wracking my brains for other novels other than WH whose endings would only be considered happy if you’re willing to take that leap of faith into the afterlife, but not too many jump to mind–even though I know I’ve read a ton of them, particularly romance, reincarnation or time-travel novels. Among recent bestsellers, I liked The Lovely Bones well enough, although the book didn’t really work as a movie. Mostly I’ve been thinking about afterlife movies, or movies whose success depend on the viewer buying the concept of an afterlife, such as The Hereafter—the Clint Eastwood production. (I have the book on my to-read list.)

This movie particularly appeals to people like me—a hopeful spiritualist in a Pascal’s Wagerish sense. I did resist seeing it initially. Jeff and I were spending Christmas with his family, and the hotel movie theater was showing it at its late-show. The description, something like “three people deal with death” didn’t exactly promise a jolly good time.

Death! The perfect subject for Christmas.

Well, yes, as it happens.

Another reason I’ve resisted is that I’ve seen a few too many grim Clint productions in recent years (mainly, Mystic River) and was inclined to think this would be another. I do admire the guy as a person (what I know of him) and director and enjoy him as an actor—even in those orangutan movies.

The Hereafter begins with a spectacular tsunami scene, which I’ve watched several times all by itself for the coolness of the special effects, wherein the lead actress, Cecile de France—beautiful but in a real-person way—“dies” and revives, certain that she has witnessed the afterlife. Matt Damon is a reluctant medium who drowns out the voices by listening to nothing but Dickens on booktape (who can blame him? especially when the readers are British and can do all the voices!). His character is particularly sympathetic, even if I don’t buy for a minute that the woman he meets in cooking class would run away under any circumstances. On repeated viewings, I tend to fast-forward through the scenes involving the kid, although his performance is great and these scenes are intrinsic to the plot. It all comes together perfectly at the end, and although I always have a good cry, I am uplifted. There are very few movies I bother to watch more than once these days. As a kid I watched many movies multiple times. A few I continue to revisit periodically, although I may have finally reached my saturation point with Gone with the Wind and Dr. Zhivago (sad endings, both, but oh well!).

Here are a few recommendations if you’re looking for atypical Easter fare:

  • Heaven Can Wait and the film it is based on, Here Comes Mr. Jordan
  • The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (the Rex Harrison film, not the TV show)
  • Maytime (Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy), although Naughty Marietta and Rose Marie are by far the best of their movies. A note to opera fans–these films also have fun excerpts from operas, and you wish you could see Jeanette in all these roles, even if her voice wasn’t big or rich enough for the stage.
  • Resurrection. Ellen Burstyn at her most empathetic. The main character becomes psychic after a near-death experience. Ending is kind of happy, depending on how you measure these things.
  • The Dead Zone. Dated, but Christopher Walken is at his creepy/sexy best. Not exactly a happy ending if you want to see true love triumph. Happy, if you’re going by what’s-best-for-mankind standards.

As far as traditional Easter movies goes, I confess I have whiled away an hour or two (or three, with commercials) from year to year sobbing during Ben Hur. (I think it’s the film score that really gets me going.) Charlton Heston isn’t on my list of “actors I most admire,” but he was perfectly cast in that movie, which is a riveting epic drama from start to finish, no matter what your religion.

Then there’s The Robe. Gets me every time!

I could usually get a laugh out of my father with my Richard Burton imitation: “Were …  you … out … there?!”

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When is a Voice “Old”?

One of the most memorable (and enjoyable) opera performances I ever witnessed was at the Met in the late 80s: Alfredo Kraus (then in his 70s) and Frederica von Stade in Massenet’s Werther. Granted, Kraus was famous for turning down roles that did not suit his voice. And what an amazing instrument it was! I have a record that makes all my singer friends laugh–an early recording of Kraus singing one high C and D after another. All the most difficult high tenor arias. He holds these high notes so long that it becomes almost a parody. (These ridiculously drawn-out, exquisitely beautiful notes do distort the line of the music; the composers were no doubt rolling in their graves.) So yes, Kraus started out with one of the most phenomenal instruments ever (on a par with Pavarotti’s).

Did I mention that he was in his 70s? And his voice was still pristine. (He looked pretty darn good, too, at least from my seat in the nosebleed section of the Met.) Von Stade was also at her most gorgeous, heartrending best. I know of no other singer whose empathy carries all the way to the back of the house. And her creamy, supple mezzo, infused with so much genuine conviction, is still my all-time favorite voice.

Which brings me to Whitney. Her voice was also world-class. She definitely could have sung opera if she’d chosen to. Although the drugs would have caught up with her voice a lot sooner. And the alcohol. And the cigarettes.

Voices are fragile and they do become more fragile with age. While I was living in New York I performed with many singers in their 20s whose voices were already ruined. Wide vibratos, unreliable pitch. Sing the wrong repertoire or with poor technique or while you’re sick and you don’t need vices to destroy your voice. Outside of drugs, one of the things that really kills a voice is GERD–acid reflux. And a bulimic singer isn’t going to get very far for obvious reasons.

Cigarettes alone would have taken the sheen off of Whitney’s voice. Alcohol dries the vocal cords. Free-basing? Um, yeah. So all that angsting about how singers get washed up because of their age … Age was not Whitney’s problem. What about Tony Bennett? Forty-eight is not old for a singer, not one who pays attention to her health.

Opera does make special demands on the singer. Renee Fleming (older than Whitney) is still at the height of her powers (and her beauty). I would be surprised if she has any vices to speak of, not with her demanding schedule.

Several years ago I was an American Idol-type judge for a local contest, and the audience favorite was a 17-year-old who sounded 30. When she didn’t win, she was outraged. She would show us! She hasn’t.

After seeing a picture of Adele in People, Jeff and I watched several of her YouTube videos. We were mystified by her popularity. Her voice was so obviously a wreck. Then, finally, someone pointed me to a video of her when her instrument was healthy, and I started to understand the appeal. Later on I read about a clinical diagnosis of her vocal problems, which were clearly attributable to overuse. Is she really destined to have a long career? Once you’ve damaged your voice, it becomes like a trick knee or a bad back: it can easily be damaged again. And a major career like Adele’s will eat you alive if you don’t know how to protect yourself. Few do.

There was nothing wrong with Whitney’s technique. Just watch any concert performance from before her drug problems took their toll. Her face isn’t distorted, her throat is relaxed and so open that you can practically see all the way down. She could have sung for years and years, but life got in the way.

Click here to see Alfredo Kraus and Frederica von Stade in action.

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Woody’s Latest Tango in Paris

Jeff and I went to see Midnight in Paris with a couple of Francophile friends soon after its opening. Paris-fans ourselves, we were predisposed to enjoy it, and we mostly did.

An aside: I have a French friend, a conductor, who constantly complains about America’s love affair with Paris in the ‘20s. “Come on!” he says, “There are other periods in Parisian history just as fascinating. The music is just as good! Why does every concert have to feature music from Paris in the ‘20s?”

Back to the movie. If any other director rode roughshod over the laws of physics in this fashion, he would be pilloried. The reviews I read rhapsodized over Allen’s absurd premise that all Gil had to do to find himself in the past was catch a carriage at the right spot at midnight. Then, of course, no one is bothered by his inappropriate dress, Valley Boy-speak and literary pretensions, which most famous writers would find annoying. Lucky for Allen, he convinced a lot of truly wonderful actors to impersonate all those “characters” we know and love, which somehow made it work.

“But Cat,” you argue, “who cares? It’s all supposed to be absurd.” That’s why it didn’t bother me that much. The ‘20s was a time that celebrated absurdity. Absurdist poetry had been around since Jarry’s Ubu Roi and was still going strong.

What really bothered me—and caused my sister to join her cat upstairs halfway through when we all watched it together over Christmas—was Gil’s over-the-top annoying fiancée and her intolerable family. None of that struck me as (as the Hemingway character would say) “true and real.” Okay, Gil says she’s great in bed, but she’s so whiny and selfish, I find that a little hard to buy. Then there’s the absurd premise of him taking her earrings to give to Adriana. What did he think, that his fiancée—who liked the earrings enough to bring them with her to Paris—wouldn’t miss them? Pretty hard to buy, that part.

Jeff and I are big Woody fans. We’ve seen just about every movie. At one point we watched a little marathon, realizing that it was starting to feel like the Woody Allen Show, with the same credits and music for every production—especially the comedies. I even like half-mast Woody, which is where I put this film.

I don’t blame my sister for giving up on it, though I think she would have changed her mind in the second half, which ends in a highly satisfying fashion.

At least my brother-in-law enjoyed it. So score “1/2” for Cat!

My favorite part in Midnight in Paris is Gil’s movie suggestion to Luis Buñuel.

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There’s definitely an “I” in Team America, but is there a “We”?

I’m picking up last week’s thread of defining “the funny,” when funny means something entirely different depending on your target audience or readership—“guy-guys” versus simply “guys” versus “young women” versus “older women” (whatever that means to you). Then there are the many other differentials—income disparities, education, cultural antecedents … My own sense of humor is decidedly on the raunchy side, although with my “privileged” education you might expect it to be a bit more sophisticated.

Just to recap from last week, I gave my brother-in-law and sister several “funny” movies for Christmas, and definitely did not bat a thousand. The first movie on the list was Team America: World Police.

In writing we talk a lot about “audience” and “readership”; so, who is the audience for Team America? Probably not me, a somewhat gracefully aging white woman. So, South Park fans, right? Who are they? Guy-guys of all ages. People who are not put off by profanity, perversity, and absurdity. People who aren’t offended by cultural stereotypes (Kim Jong Il can’t say his “L”s.) Granted, these are not elements that just anyone can turn into side-splitting hilarity. I am not defending PPA for its own sake, not at all. If you’re going to make your living juggling hand-grenades, you’d better be prepared for the fallout when one of them goes astray. All of this stuff is explosive and just plain ugly in the wrong hands.

For me Trey Parker and Matt Stone—with their Mormon backgrounds, love of musical theater, vast knowledge of film history—have made just about the perfect movie. In fact, I’m going to buy the soundtrack, which is beautifully crafted and show their fundamental understanding of how a successful musical is constructed.

What can you say about filmmakers who incorporate their hatred for the movie Pearl Harbor into a love song? Who don’t even bother to give their activist movie star women female voices? Who turn Kim Jong Il into Herbie the Dentist from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Who warn us in the credits about “puppet sex and puppet violence”? (And boy, they aren’t kidding.)

Jeff and I have a lot of perverse friends, but none of them seem to like Team America as much as we do. And I admit, it was absolutely the wrong movie to give my sister and her husband for Christmas. I really didn’t take my “audience” into account this time. Wish I’d kept it for myself. (Although, knowing my sister, she will give it back to me. She tends to do that with gifts she doesn’t like.)

So, I’d say that among Jeff and my friends, the percentage of true fans of Team America is 9/11 x -100. (This is a direct quotation from Jeff.) Which I’m aware makes no sense at all unless you’ve seen this movie.

[WARNING: See a few YouTube clips before renting this movie. That should tell you if it’s your thing or not.]

The movie does have a 4 star rating on IMDB, so maybe we just need to get some new friends.

“I’m so ronry …”

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“Everyone Loves The Funny”: Say WA?

Years ago, when I first tried to pitch Diva at a writers’ conference, I attended an agents and editors’ panel. Thinking that my book’s major selling point was its humor, I was pleased to see that one of the agents was especially interested in what he called, “the funny.”

“Everyone loves ‘the funny,’ ” his bio quoted him as saying.

Naively believing that anyone interested in “the funny” would love my book, I of course queried him. No response, but we all know that doesn’t mean much, because whether or not an agent or editor gives your manuscript any serious consideration depends on many, many factors beyond the worth of your project. However, what I have since come to realize is that humor in print is one of the trickiest things to carry off, mostly because so few people agree as to what constitutes “the funny.” There simply is no one definition, as this guy seemed to imply. One perfectly innocent joke can completely backfire, offending readers and turning them against you forever. Most people agree to the elements that constitute a successful romance—attractive hero and heroine, convincing and interesting obstacles in their path, a little romantic competition, a happy ending. Each of the so-called genres has their rules; the trick is deviating from them enough to surprise readers without disappointing their expectations.

I’ve always enjoyed the columns of Dave Barry, who is fond of telling us all the times readers have taken his blatantly absurd premises seriously. His supposedly over-the-top names for rock bands are mostly plausible in today’s world. There is always the risk that what you consider over-the-top will be taken seriously by the humor-deprived.

I’ve thought a lot about “the funny” lately, because I’ve felt the need to cheer myself up. Christmas wasn’t quite the joy-fest I hoped it would be. And then there’s January, the longest, darkest and grayest month of the year. Summer is soooo far off. If summer in Seattle is anything like last year, we’ll get about one month—a few weeks in August and a few in September.

Back to the holidays …. Seeing movies from all eras is one of my passions, so I decided to buy a bunch of funny DVDs to give to my sister and brother-in-law, who lives in a ski resort area with no access to a good video store. My lack of success in finding anything that everyone could agree was funny got me started on my current train of thought.

How do I define “the funny”?

Except for my fourteen years on the East Coast, I’ve been a faithful reader of newspaper comics (mostly in the Seattle Times). Recently I’ve also become a big fan of Funny Times. If you’ve read Diva, you already know that my humor is politically liberal, focused on the absurdity of life, occasionally raunchy. And I’d venture to say that it was largely formed by reading the comics. The raunchy part probably came from being around too many theater people.

Here is a list of the videos I brought to my sister’s place:

  • Team America (the R-rated puppet movie)
  • Stiff Upper Lips (parody of Merchant Ivory)
  • Noises Off (I loved the Broadway show and had never seen the movie)
  • Midnight in Paris (which I’d already seen and thought was a safe bet for both my brother-in-law and my sister, who abhors anything with violence or less than ideal endings)

After Jeff and I got home, we rented the Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Leatherheads.

I just reminded Jeff about Leatherheads, and he dubbed it Leather Hit-You-Over-the-Head with Humor. One of the reasons Jeff and I get along so well is that we more or less agree about what is funny and what misses the mark. I had particularly high expectations for that one, in that I would watch George Clooney in almost anything, even a remake of Noises Off—well, maybe.

Next time I’ll discuss the various reactions to these films, which in some cases was funnier than the movies themselves.

As to “Say WA”? in the title of this post, that was Washington’s ill-advised tourism slogan for a time. Talk about your humor that doesn’t translate ….

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Oops, I did it again or, Perry and Drawing Blanks in Public

The topic of memory lapses is much in the news these days, with Perry’s big gaffe this week. I think he would have gotten away with just putting his foot in his mouth, but then he had to go and chew vigorously.

Having experienced a few major public brain farts myself, I could sympathize, at least until I really thought about it. I don’t like Perry, admittedly, but I also detest the way these candidates are spoon-fed their talking points. Not for a moment do I believe that Perry is passionate about getting rid of those three government agencies—um, the names escape me. If he were, he’d remember their names. He wouldn’t have had to memorize them because he’d know them in a much deeper way; he would at least be able to describe them, even if he couldn’t recall what they were called.

This brings me to song recitals, which require a prodigious feat of memory. If singers truly know what they are saying—and have not just learned the words by rote—they will be much more likely to remember. I used to judge a lot of singing contests. Whenever a singer had performed some British folk song with an expression blank and clueless, as though reciting ABCs, I’d ask, “What is this piece about?” They would stare at me blankly. I would only ask this question when they managed to convey absolutely nothing other than fear, so I was rarely surprised by the answers. Granted, a few of the words were old-fashioned and not in general use, but it had never even occurred to them to come up with an overall concept. No wonder they couldn’t remember the words. No wonder they looked as if they were facing a firing squad. If you understand the words, you can begin to disappear into the piece; it’s no longer about you, it’s about the words, the story, the imagery.

In my youth, a huge emphasis was placed on learning “repertoire.” I wish someone had explained to me WHY this was important. Whatever you learn when you’re young stays with you in a much different way. You might think you’ve forgotten it entirely, but when called upon to resurrect that piece of music, you find that you can relearn it practically overnight. I bet many a Shakespearean actor wished he’d learned the part of King Lear when he was in his twenties, because learning it in your fifties or sixties would be a bitch, to say the least. Whenever I’ve resurrected something for a third time, I know it in a thoroughly comfortable way; rarely, rarely do I forget the words.

I have several videos of song repertoire up on YouTube (under my real name). I have many views but few comments. Most of my watchers are probably teenagers learning songs in voice class. Here is one &$#! comment that came through recently: “Terrible diction!” The little dear then named the word I had fluffed. Now, you can accuse me of many things, but bad diction is not one of them. I pride myself on making myself understood when I sing, so I admit, I was pretty miffed. But I decided not to fight the comment; that’s the Internet for you, every idiot gets his or her say. In any given song recital, I usually forget two or three words per song. (That usually means I am allowing myself to truly feel what I am singing; then the words become secondary.) It’s true that you can’t understand the words I have forgotten; that is because I have not said them.

I tend not to post my foreign-language songs, because I make even more mistakes in them. Although my German, Italian and French song literature passes with Americans, these songs are a tougher sell on the Internet, which serves peoples of many languages, who must have a good chortle at the way their languages come off in American mouths. (I do have a fan in Poland; some guy who owns a heavy machinery company has posted all my videos on his website, even the French ones. I was tickled pink, I have to admit. But perhaps he doesn’t speak French.)

I was a German major, and my French is fluent—well, fluent enough—and my accents in both languages are more or less convincing. Understanding these languages makes it infinitely easier to memorize songs in those languages. But memory is getting more difficult with time. Memorizing is one of those skills that can be developed; it’s a pity that no one memorizes poetry in high school anymore, because the more you memorize, the easier it gets. At one point I could memorize very quickly indeed. I remember one show where I had to learn a new piece overnight for a performance the next day (it was a new musical, so they were still tweaking it). Scary, yes, because nothing you learn overnight is going to be there in a really solid way. So now I have to compensate for fading memory by working twice as hard. I have to run new music through my head even more obsessively.

Once I had to learn a piece in Russian—the “Field of the Dead” alto solo in Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. Wow, that was hard, like memorizing gobbledygook. I wrote it out phonetically, listened to a recording that looped and looped again—we call that learning something in “record” time, a throwback to the days of turntables—and yet, it kept eluding me. FINALLY I had learned it, or at least it passed. Never again.

I have a system that works well for me. I write out the words and carry a cheat sheet around with me, singing quietly or silently to myself while jogging, in the car, at the gym. I do this as much as possible; it’s relaxing, really, like reciting a mantra. All other thoughts and worries disappear. I know what every word means and I have subtext, an overall concept, a back story. That doesn’t mean I will be perfect when the time comes. Performing can be distracting, especially in large public spaces with people milling in and out, coughing, whispering …. All you can do is your best, and that won’t mean you’ll be perfect. Many of my colleagues (40-60- year-olds) use music now. They are done with the fear of memory glitches. I don’t blame them, but I will perform from memory for as long as I can get away with it. I believe it’s better to forget words rather than read music; I just can’t connect with an audience if I’m constantly checking to see what comes next.

And it’s interesting; no matter how badly I’ve mangled words in the past, not once did my friends or family (the only ones I believe) mention or even notice the lapses. What they notice is how you handle them; in other words, if you handle them badly. Do you stop? Do you look sheepish? As long as you don’t do those things, you are golden. Keep on smiling.

That’s what Perry didn’t do. Instead he said, as though channeling Britney Spears, “Oops.” He should have moved on.

And if some twerp does call you on it later, ignore them.

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