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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/14/11

"Voice Teacher" Debuts at Louisville Derby City Film Festival February 20th

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My guest today is Danny Mendelson, the director/producer of Voice Teacher. Welcome to OpEdNews, Danny.  Your documentary will debut on February 20th in Louisville, Kentucky. That's pretty exciting.  Tell us a little about the film, please.


Thank you so much for having me.   Voice Teacher is about Don Roberts, a construction worker who builds throats, rather than buildings.  Singers from all over the world regularly attend his studio in Oneonta, NY, but rarely in person.  Don teaches over the telephone, a bizarre approach to many in the singing world.  Day after day, Don teaches cantors and up-and-coming opera singers how to engage their vocal machines.  
But to enter this particular studio, pupils must embrace the psyche behind the training.  Don will go to great, sometimes outrageous lengths to enforce the doctrine that voice teaching is a sacred existential journey and the film catapults you into every aspect of Don's hyperactive personality.  The film also explores how his roots in the synagogue drove Don to become a cantor and rabbi, where he combined artistic singing with religious purpose.   Voice Teacher is a psychological profile of a man who has dedicated most of his adult life to facilitating the human voice.

He's quite a character! Where did your interest in Don Roberts come from, Danny?

Don and my father are lifelong friends.  They met in the '60s at the Hebrew Union College in NYC where they were studying to become cantors.  Don and I happen to be friends, but as a filmmaker, the challenge was to remain objective.  Don is quite a character, and it was important for me to find the unfiltered truth in him.  Don can be difficult and quite outrageous and I did not set out to make a puff-piece about him.  Hopefully, that comes across. 
Don in action

Not to worry; no one would accuse you of making a puff piece. Don comes across as a complex and talented man. I learned a lot more about the voice than I ever knew before. Don makes an interesting analogy between training the voice and personal trainers. What did he mean?

The voice is an athletic instrument and Don treats it that way.  He strengthens the muscle the way a personal trainer would strengthen one's biceps.  Don is strictly a machine-builder; he doesn't coach songs.  He works with a student to develop his/her instrument and then it's up to the student to find a coach to work on repertoire.  However, Don is something of a psychological coach, which can cause tension with some of his students (as depicted in the film).  

His methods and his personality are not for everyone. Did you have a personal interest in music or was it Don's story that propelled this project?

I come from a family of singers so music is a part of my life.  Singing is a passionate hobby and when I'm not making films, I perform as a tenor in various venues.  Don had been my voice teacher for some time when it struck me: the life of a voice teacher had never been portrayed on film in any meaningful way.  With his eccentric style and engaging personality, Don seemed like the perfect candidate.  

Does a potential viewer have to love music or this particular kind of music to enjoy your film?

Absolutely not!  This is the story of a mad scientist (whose science happens to be the voice). Some may say he's a mad genius, others would say he's just mad.  That's for the viewer to decide.  But the science itself is purely incidental.  You don't have to be a voice or operaphile to be engaged by Don's personality.  Voice teaching is the hook; Don Roberts is the movie.

I noticed that in the film, the title is all in capital letters.  Is that a coincidence or because Don Roberts is larger than life?

The latter.  That's why I made a film about him!

What's your film background, Danny?

Well, I'm a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where I received a BFA in Film/Video directing.  My thesis film, Rehearsing, about the struggles of a neurotic opera singer, was nominated for best film and best director at the 2006 Dusty Awards.  I played the lead in the film and cast Don as my eccentric voice teacher (wink, wink).   Rehearsing went on to play in film festivals in New York and the Max Ophuls Preis Film Festival in Saarbrucken, Germany.  Making Voice Teacher allowed me to continue combining my passion for singing with my life's work and Don was the perfect catalyst for that journey to take hold.

Cantor Alberto Mizrachi working with Don

Yes, indeed. Your film is being shown  as part of the 2011 Derby City Film Festival in Louisville, Kentucky and the 13th Annual Louisville Jewish Film Festival.  How did that collaboration come about?

Cantor David Lipp of Louisville took an interest in the film both as a singer and a cantor. Voice Teacher is not, strictly speaking, a Jewish film. But it's a film that is very Jewish. Before becoming a voice teacher, Don served as a cantor to many of America's largest synagogues. He then caught the preaching bug and became an ordained rabbi. We explore how Don's spiritual journey went on to inform his voice work. What better way to honor this artistic/religious mixture than to combine festivals to present the film? Don and I are thrilled to present the film together.

Is there anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?

I think we're good.

Thank you so much for talking with me, Danny. Good luck with your film!

Thank you so much for the opportunity!
Danny's film, Voice Teacher , will be shown at the Eifler Theatre, Clifton Center, 2117 Payne Street, Louisville on Sunday, February 20 at 2:30 p.m. 

trailer for Voice Teacher

Derby City Film Festival website

13th Annual Louisville Jewish Film Festival website

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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