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The Musical Journey (so far!) of Dylan Trần

Who is Dylan?

Dylan has many titles with New Orleans Opera! Among them: Chorister, Marketing Coordinator, Filmmaker, and Composer. Grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and enjoy reading about his musical journey…so far.

New Orleans Opera:
Thank you for letting us all get to know you a little better Dylan! Let’s kick it off at the beginning – tell us about your journey to a music filled life?
Dylan:

“In elementary school I was cast as Mowgli in a community theatre production of The Jungle Book. Unfortunately my family, the theatre, and I were all convinced that I was tone deaf. To be fair, I couldn’t match pitch to save my life. They changed half of my singing lines to spoken, gave the other half to other characters, and left me a single singing line: “The bees are buzzing in the trees to make some honey… just for…”, which I butchered at every performance. I was so embarrassed that I totally gave up on any hope of being a musician after that. Years later, however, I discovered My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco, and other pop-punk bands. They ignited something in me and I began saving up money for instruments, teaching myself guitar, piano, whatever I could get my hands on. I remember desperately wanting to learn the drums as a teenager, but we couldn’t afford a drum set. I knew that the local community theatre had a drum set though, so I lied about being able to play and offered my “services” in the orchestra pit for free. When they said yes, I was so excited.

Yes! I’ll get to play a real live drum set! Whelp, I better go learn how to do that…” 

I spent hours every night leading up to the first rehearsal on YouTube, absorbing as much information about drums, drummers, and drumming as I could, practicing on pots and pans, books and boxes, and my own body. When I showed up to that first rehearsal, adjusted the throne, and sat myself behind the drum kit, none were the wiser…

In my experience, teaching yourself drums and guitar is much easier (and much less expensive) than teaching yourself an orchestral instrument, so unfortunately I wasn’t equipped to participate in band or orchestra in high school. I resigned to the choir room and to after school theatre, this time with a bit more vocal facility, where I discovered my love for singing. My affair with opera began shortly after, when I stumbled into an audition for The Magic Flute my freshman year at Loyola, not knowing what opera even was or why this Mozart guy was such a big deal…”

How long have you been working with NOOA? And please tell us about your different roles within the company:

In 2014 I got a text from Carol Rausch asking if I was available to sing in the chorus for NOOA’s Le Nozze di Figaro. My college roommates can confirm, I yelped with excitement. I was 20 years old, a sophomore at Loyola, I had only just discovered (and fallen in love with) what opera even was the year before… and yet here I was with an opportunity to perform with a professional opera company! I’ve been so fortunate ever since to sing comparario roles, sword fight, learn martial arts, ballroom dance, cover roles, etc. all on the Mahalia Jackson Stage. 

One of my personal highlights as a vocalist was in our 2018 production of Terrence Blanchard’s Champion. Not only was it an honor to sing in a production by Blanchard, a living legend, but I found myself in a comprimario role that included a full duet scene with the main character! Our scene ended in a big kiss and I’ll never forget the hooting and hollering of local teens coming from the house during our Student Night Out orchestra dress.

After some time I realized that, while I was gaining valuable experience through performing with Loyola, NOOA, Krewe de Voix, the Marigny Opera House, the LPO, church choirs, and many other performance organizations throughout this amazing city… I wasn’t learning much about the business of music. I knew if I wanted to be successful, I needed to pick up that slack. Serendipitously a marketing internship opened up at NOOA. I applied, worked my butt off, and the next year we negotiated a part-time position. Now I get to work with the amazing staff at NOOA, meet so many wonderful members of our New Orleans community, and share with the world some of the things I love most: music and the people who make it possible.

Do you ever have internal struggles/conflicts while working on both the administrative and artistic side of the the company at the same time?

I try to be thoughtful about working on the administrative and artistic side of things simultaneously. In the ‘19-’20 season I was in the choruses of both Carmen (Bizet) and Joan of Arc (Tchaikovsky), while also “premiering” my staff role as Marketing Coordinator. Balancing my chorus duties with my marketing duties isn’t always the easiest thing to do… in many rehearsals I would be singing high As alongside the other tenors one moment, then I would run off stage to take photos of the principals the next moment. Occasionally I wouldn’t be able to sing with the rest of the chorus for certain passages in rehearsals, so that I could ensure our video/audio gear was recording the content that we needed for promoting these productions. It then becomes even more imperative that I’m doing the sufficient preparation on both ends, to make up for having responsibilities in multiple areas. 

Dualities are in my blood, though. Being of mixed race, having a father who was an immigrant from Viet Nam and a mother who is a Louisiana native, I have been raised having to navigate two cultures and two lived experiences. Even in college I was both a conductor and an ensemble member, both a performer and a composer, spending my afternoons in opera rehearsals before running to bars to play with my rock band in the evening. My family comes from poverty and yet I work in this affluent field. I spend my time studying the folk songs of Pham Duy, the orchestrations of Maurice Ravel, the lyrics of Childish Gambino, etc. While I acknowledge the difficulty of balancing seemingly juxtaposing responsibilities, I have to admit that for me there is a comfortability, even a preference at this point, in existing in and moving between these different worlds. 

And now on to your art! The Song of Songs, tell us about the inspiration for this piece. What has been foremost in your mind about seeing and hearing it with a live audience for the first time?

As soon as the pandemic was on the news, I knew that opera was going to have to adapt. I immediately started brainstorming different ways that these traditional pieces could be adapted to be socially distanced. But then I thought… why try to adapt these traditional works, when you could create new works specifically to be socially distanced? Throughout history composers have adapted their music to meet the needs of the medium in which it was being performed. Why should this be any different?

As for the subject matter, I have always found the Song of Songs to be a deeply beautiful text. During lockdown, when I and many others were forced into quarantined solitude, I found myself longing for the kind of intimacy present in the Song of Songs. I feel that the very intimate language in that text, these things that you would whisper into a lover’s ear from centimeters away, take on a different meeting when your forced to say them from 6ft apart (or, in the case of our AGMA Safety Stipulations, the sing them from 15ft apart). 

The piece is written specifically to meet COVID safety guidelines. There is minimal orchestration (only a cellist and a violinist), only two soloists, and an optional small chorus.

The different singers are socially distanced and the music is written in a way that is conducive to this- taking inspiration from the antiphonal courting practice of the indigenous Hmong people in the mountains of North Vietnam, antiphonal Gregorian chants, and harmonies that very in complexity in relation to the physical closeness of those players. When musicians are in close proximity the harmony is more modulatory, but when the texture is more antiphonal the harmony eases into minimalism to better facilitate a satisfying aural experience. 

Do you have a vision for this piece beyond its recent November 8th debut with our Opera Nouvelle concert at NOMA?

“Every piece you write is practice for the next piece.” I can’t remember who said it, but those are words I live by. The best I can hope for this piece is that it informs my future writing, socially distanced or otherwise. 

That being said, because this piece was meant as a way to make live opera possible in a COVID world, I have sent Song of Songs off to a couple companies around the US for review. I have also sent several excerpts to individual musicians around North America for potential performance and/or recording of the antiphonal a capella duets and solo arias. 

Will you please stay and work in marketing for NOOA even after you are a famous composer?

LOL, who knows what the future holds! All I can say is that I consider myself endlessly fortunate to be a part of this company right now. The staff has been a dream team as we explore new and different ways to share the art of opera, and our community has been so receptive to our efforts. I always feel encouraged by my boss(es) to explore my creativity in every avenue of my interest  and the team is always there to help and support- an absolutely invaluable opportunity in my growth as a professional, an artist, and a person. 

ALSOOOO…

I’m one of the composers on this really cool virtual concert.

White Snake Project has collected stories from essential workers about their experiences working on the front lines – from medical personnel, hospital housekeepers, grocery store workers, delivery people, and others – what they do, how they’ve been coping, their hopes, their fears, their families and their despair – anything they’re moved to write about. They’ve paired their texts with composers to make songs about working in pandemic times so that the rest of us can be safe.

The concert you’ll be attending features LIVE singing by our two singers and LIVE playing by our cellist and pianist as they perform in the safety of their homes. We’re building on technology developed by Jon Robertson, our audio engineer, for Alice in the Pandemic which allows artists to perform live synchronously from remote locations.

Thanks for reading and if you are on our social media accounts, give Dylan a thumbs up or shout out every once in a while!