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.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


Stephanie Blythe

Stephanie Blythe is our hero, or heroine, if you will. You may know her as the highly acclaimed mezzo-soprano, but she is also an acclaimed master teacher.  Her direct "no nonsense" approach to teaching never fails to offer the student useful pointers. The proof of the pudding is the change one hears in the half-hour allotted to each student.

What is remarkable about the audience is how supportive they are, partly mirroring her supportive attitude and partly reflective of the overall mood we have noticed within Juilliard's Vocal Arts Department.

Each of yesterday's participants has a special vocal quality that Ms. Blythe never failed to praise.  But she made the point that a beautiful sound is not enough; she points the student toward maximum artistry and connection with the audience.  This artistry does not come from histrionics but from simplicity and understanding of the text.

Two of the composers represented in the program were present in the audience.  We wondered what the young singers felt.  Probably a lot of excitement and some additional pressure.  They didn't seem to show any anxiety however. The singers were apparently encouraged to choose their own songs. Each one had prepared by intensely studying the text--extremely important in art song performance.

First on the program was bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum who performed John Musto's setting of James Loughlin's "Rome: In the Café" from the cycle Viva Sweet Love. Mr. Quattlebaum clearly had spent time with the text and we particularly enjoyed his reading of it. There is a haunting mystery about the subject observing a woman in a café and the drama of her daily appearance to meet a man who attempts to console her as she weeps.

Mr. Quattlebaum was rather eloquent as he described his learning the text and his thoughts about it.  Ms. Blythe coached him on spinning the tone, even on the shortest notes, advice we would hear again and again. As we keep hearing, it is the BREATH that connects the notes.  Ms. Blythe spoke about string instruments and bowing, a useful metaphor indeed; phrases must have direction.

As the possessor of a low voice, Ms. Blythe had some special tips for Mr. Quattlebaum and also for mezzo-soprano Kelsey Lauritano who followed with Ricky Ian Gordon's  "X" from the cycle Late Afternoon.  There was no doubt that Ms. Lauritano has a deep feeling for Jean Valentine's text about a brother who died of AIDS and parents who didn't want his name on the AIDS quilt; she had found the cycle herself and chose to learn the song.

Her coaching involved allowing a bit more head voice in the mix to carry the sound. She was asked to sing the song with intimacy and simplicity. We have never heard it put this way before but we loved the concept that eye contact creates an active audience.

Tenor Matthew Swensen performed "The Lake Isle of Innisfree",  Ben Moore's setting of a text by William Butler Yeats.  He sang it with the most beautiful sound which Ms. Blythe praised--but she wanted him to look at the audience more and connect. She initiated a valuable discussion of rubato and the "give and take" which that score marking indicates; the singer must take time here to take us to the place of tranquility of which Yeats wrote.

She further advised more attention to the dynamic markings of the song.  Other points included smiling with the heart instead of the mouth and not furrowing the brow. There was a valuable trick offered--running a piece of Scotch tape across the brow so that one can be made aware of this bad habit and correct it.  Now that's something everyone can try!

The final entry on the program was soprano Julia Wolcott's performance of "Orinda Upon Little Hector Philips" from Ben Moore's cycle So Free Am I. The sad text by 17th c. poet Katherine Philips is a eulogy to her babe who died. The text is difficult to speak, let alone to sing--especially at the upper register of the soprano range. 

We loved the sound of Ms. Wolcott's voice but had to look up the text online. Ms. Blythe's coaching was, of course, to pay more attention to enunciating the text! There was also the suggestion to use less histrionics. 

There was more discussion of vibration and taking time to spin the tone, especially on the short notes--and where did we hear that advice before! When taking a breath, the singer should maintain the space of the prior phrase--all great advice.

Pianists for the master class were excellent: Michal Biel, Katelan Terrell, and Adam Rothenberg.

Ms. Blythe is a champion of contemporary music, of which we are not.  When she summed up the afternoon she expressed her belief that music recently written speaks to us today. It has not so far spoken to us, however!  Yet we acknowledge that what we heard today was more successful at reaching us.  We think of it as perhaps a whisper that may grow in volume as in Rossini's "La calunnia" sung by Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia.

It was a truly valuable experience, for the audience as well as for the singers. Ms. Blythe stressed the fact that singers could try out what she offered and "take it or leave it".  We hope they will take it!

(c) meche kroop

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