We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, January 22, 2016


Marilyn Horne (photo by Henry Grossman)
Stephanie Blythe (photo by Chris Lee)

Sir Thomas Allen (photo by Sussie Ahlburg)

Every master teacher has his/her own style and, almost always, has something worthwhile to contribute to the young singer's artistry. It is next to impossible to say that one is "better" than another; one can only say that the master teacher's style is a good or poor match with a particular student.  That being said, it does seem as if the very best master teachers don't dispense "boilerplate" but rather address each student's unique skill set or lack thereof.

Earlier this month we had the opportunity to sit in on a few of Joyce DiDonato's master classes (reviews archived) and were very impressed.  This week we were privileged to witness three more master teachers, two of whom we have observed on prior occasions and one whose teaching style was new to us.

Sir Thomas Allen taught on Tuesday. Sir Thomas indulged his veddy veddy British sense of humor and kept the audience in a state of entertainment. He was fortunate to have four excellent singers and four superb collaborative pianists with whom to work. The term "collaborative pianist" was itself a source of amusement since Sir Thomas pointed out that they were formerly called "accompanists". We ourselves do not find the newer term to be "more PC" but rather more descriptive of their role.)

Sir Thomas had some valuable things to say to soprano Michelle Price and also to Collaborative Pianist (let us just say CP from hereon out) Michal Biel, whom he urged to begin Strauss' "Cäcilie" more forcefully.  He encouraged Ms. Price to take her time, to smile and to keep her eyes lively, to clean up the word endings, and to create one long line by not observing the rests. He worked quite a bit on the triplets, telling her to anticipate them.  But above all, he urged her to read poetry and to learn to paint a picture with words.

Tenor Kevin Gino performed Liszt's "Pace non trovo" with CP Nathan Harris. He instructed Mr. Gino to find an image to inform each phrase, to make good use of the consonants, and to differentiate between the recit-like introductory stanza and the long cantilena lines to follow. He urged the singer to say something specific with the cadenza.

Soprano Capucine Daumas  performed Debussy's "Apparition" with CP Alden Gatt. This song is an ethereal one and both artists were urged to creata a gauzy shimmery texture. Ms. Daumas needed to reduce the amount of effort she was putting forth and to minimize the degree of openness of the jaw.

Baritone Ryan Thorn sang Schubert's "Der Wanderer" with CP Andrew Sun. Certain features of his presentation were immediately improved as he was instructed to keep his eyes open and to allow his posture to express the weariness and yearning in the text. Again we heard the advice to practice speaking the poetry, allowing it to be informed by the music.

Overall, we got the impression that in singing art songs, attention must be paid to the text by reading it and re-reading it. We were to hear this refrain again from Stephanie Blythe the following night. And it is a refrain worth listening to! We are willing to bet that Ms. Craft, whose Spotlight Recital we so enjoyed, spent a lot of time studying the texts of the songs on her program!

The same four CP's played for Ms. Blythe's class and impressed us with their adaptability. Michal Biel played for soprano Dru Daniels who sang Schubert's "Die junge Nonne". Ms. Blythe's style is completely different from Sir Thomas' but marvelously effective.  She is effusive in her praise of each student, generally admiring their instrument but modestly proffering "one person's opinion" on interpretation. For example, she loved Ms. Daniels' vibrato and choice of song and encouraged her to seek coloratura roles.

She humorously pointed out the curse of women's high-heeled shoes and the price the female singer pays in the currency of tension. Ms. Daniels immediately removed her shoes! Great!  Now she could bend her knees and ground herself; she could create a freer tone. She was urged to keep spinning the tone, especially on the repeated notes and to keep renewing the vowels. Just as Sir Thomas did, Ms. Blythe focused on the text.  She had Ms. Daniels recite the poetry over and over in English first and then in German.

Mezzo-soprano Beste Kalender, who followed with CP Nathan Harris, performed Schoenberg's "Shenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm". It was obvious that she had researched the text and had a deep understanding of it. Ms. Blythe again spoke of the importance of an intimate understanding of the poetry.

She indicated an interesting visualization--that of Klimt's painting "The Kiss", in order to convey the rapturous eroticism to the audience. She wants the singer to take the audience on a journey.  She further advised Ms. Kalender to think about intensity rather than volume.

Mezzo Deanna Pauletto and CP Alden Gatt performed "Madrid" by Pauline Viardot, a composer we love and rarely see on recital programs.  This song, although sung in French, captures the unique Spanish flavor we love. Ms. Pauletto was instructed to make the word "Madrid" mean something different each time she sang it. Further instructions were to think of sound as energy and to "let it go".

Also performed was Montsalvatge's "Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito". The lesson for this song was to focus on the audience not on the floor, to slow the tempo, to maintain a soft warm tone, and to sing with simplicity.

The final student was baritone Benjamin Dickerson who is still an undergraduate at Manhattan School of Music. He profited by some work on his presentation. The singer should never stand squarely facing the audience but should turn his body 45 degrees with one foot facing forward.  As Ms. Blythe put it "The body leads the voice".

She gave him some helpful hints on dealing with tension.  She differentiated between the passive concept of relaxing and the more active choice of releasing. She recommended putting Scotch tape on the forehead to become more aware of the wrinkling. (That could be a helpful hint anyone could try!)

She talked quite a bit about looking at the audience and about the pianist (in this case, Andrew Sun) and singer listening to each other. Her method of coordinating the opening with the piano is the singer assuming the breathing rhythm of the music. This was one point of disagreement between her and Sir Thomas who wants the CP and the singer to be looking at each other quite a bit. We have not yet decided what works best and probably both styles are valid under different circumstances.

Last night's master class was conducted by Marilyn Horne herself whose style is different from the other two. Ms. Horne doesn't get  physical with the students, nor does she lavishly praise their voices. She gets right down to business working on techniques that the student is lacking and she does so with razor-sharp judgment.

The first recipient of Ms. Horne's astuteness was mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo who performed the Samuel Barber son "A Nun Takes the Veil", along with CP Nathan Harris. English diction is quite challenging and the suggestion to overdo the enunciation of the consonants was most helpful. Phrasing also came under scrutiny and the extra breaths allowed Ms. D'Angelo to follow the rallentando markings in the score without running out of breath.

There was time left over for the pair to perform Ernest Charles' "When I have sung my songs".  This involved more work on the breathing in order to time the ending of the song.  Extra breaths can be used dramatically.  More time was spent on achieving legato and on bringing some warmth into the song, so different from the Barber song.

The next students were known to us from Juilliard. We are happy to report that the stress of appearing in a master class did not adversely affect the performances of tenor Matthew Swensen and CP Michal Biel.  They too had the opportunity to perform two songs.

First they tackled Strauss' "Die Nacht" which Ms. Horne recommends using as an encore piece when the voice is warmed up. But some deep breathing and increased support helped to establish the called-for long line. This is one of our favorite songs and the two artists successfully conveyed the sense of anxiety and fear of loss.

The second song, Grieg's "En drøm", required more emphasis on the low notes.

The third team to appear was soprano Angela Vallone (also known from Juilliard) with CP Andrew Sun. They began with another lovely Strauss song "Morgen" and Ms. Horne wisely quizzed Ms. Vallone on her interpretive ideas. Clearly, all three master teachers value the importance of the meaning of the text. The song should be sung very slowly with the singer being aware of the pulse, particularly in the notes held across the bar line. Dynamic markings call for a soft and peaceful sound.

Their second song was Schumann's setting of "Kennst du das Land" from Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Ms. Vallone was coached to sing the song as if the 12-year-old Mignon were singing it, to see the world through her eyes and to paint that picture for the audience. She was quite successful at this, to our delight.

The final pair on the program comprised tenor Ian Koziara with CP Alden Gatt. They began with Wagner's "Träume" which seemed a strange choice for this dark-voiced singer who seemed rather baritonal to our ears. He was coached to be less stentorian in his approach--to weave a spell with a soft tone and a slow pace, and to resist the urge to create a crescendo.

It was important for him to learn to support his breath abdominally instead of jutting out his chin.  Schubert's "Erlkönig" seemed to be a much better fit for him and he succeeded admirably in creating the voices of the concerned father and the nastily seductive Erlkönig. It was the plaintive voice of the child that he needed to work on.

Taken separately or together, the three master classes were a valuable learning experience. We tried to imagine what would happen if the same students could be shown singing the same songs for three different master teachers. That would really be something!

(c) meche kroop

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