|Participants in Emmanuel Villaume Master Class at Juilliard (photo by Michael DiVito)
Thursday's Master Class at Juilliard was unusual and unforgettable. Most master classes involve a single singer getting coached in the finer points of song interpretation. The class conducted by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume (through the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts and the Collaborative Piano Departments at Juilliard) involved three duets and one ensemble. As one might have expected, the charmingly Gallic maestro worked exclusively in French.
Apparently, he had already worked with this select group of students, all graduate students, because they sounded just terrific before their coaching. That being said, each pair reached a new level of artistry within their strictly allotted half hour. The progress was remarkable. Maestro Villaume has a profound understanding of each character, as much as any director; but he fosters characterological authenticity within the musical context. Show me anyone else who achieves this depth!
In general, he likes to play with the concept of tension and release in the vocal line. He urged the students to find reasons for the silences between phrases by focusing on the thoughts the character might be having. He advised the students to listen to each other, which, we imagine, is even more difficult than it is in the theater, given that there are so many other things with which to be concerned.
Two coaching sessions involved Georges Bizet's masterpiece Carmen, a masterpiece which the composer thought was a failure when he died, never knowing that it would achieve the position of the most-produced opera ever. We had tenor Alexander McKissick as Don Jose in the Act I duet with Micaela, portrayed by soprano Maria Fernanda Brea, accompanied by Michael Biel.
They worked effectively on character. Don Jose is happy to see her but rather ambivalent in his affection due to his recent encounter with Carmen. Of course he wants to hear how his mother is in "Parle-moi de ma mere". He can be gentle here but he must color the phrase differently when he repeats it. One can sing agitato while singing piano.
Micaela must be shy but also flirtatious. She means to marry Don Jose as his mother wishes. But she is innocent and knows nothing of his situation. Ms. Brea also conveyed a sense of her character's inner strength which she would call upon in Act III when she goes into the mountains to find the wayward DJ.
Next we heard soprano Christine Taylor Price as Leila and tenor Miles Mykkanen as Nadir in the Act II duet from Bizet's Les pecheurs de perles. This provided the perfect demonstration of the tension/release concept we noted above, to avoid metronomic phrasing which is just boring. Collaborative pianist Will Kelley was astute in getting that point.
A phrase from pharmacotherapy came to mind which can also apply to a scene. "Start low and go slow". Obviously if you begin a scene with great intensity, there is nowhere to go. In this scene, Leila must listen closely to Nadir's line and to enter not only at the right time but at the right level of intensity. No wonder we love duets!
Further instructions were given to use the consonants to project the vowels. We have noticed this deficit rather often in American singers who often sound afraid of the consonants. A further point was made that French opera is "softer" than Italian opera.
This point was reiterated in the next duet from Jules Massenet's Werther. There is no melodrama in French opera! "Il faut nous separer" is a suspended waltz which, like the relationship between Werther (sung by tenor Gerard Schneider) and Charlotte (mezzo-soprano Natalia Kutateladze), goes nowhere. CP for this duet was the excellent Katelan Terrell.
Much time was devoted to phrasing and knowing which words in a phrase to weight. The crescendo on long notes can continue in intensity through the silences. The singer can feel without "acting".
A fine point of French diction was to allow the final "e" of a word (like "cherche") to evaporate. It's there but it should never be obvious.
The final coaching was the most fun and apparently delighted the audience as well as the singers. We will never be able to hear the Act II quintet from Carmen without remembering the points made by Maestro Guillaume. We would tend to agree that making this scene light-hearted like a cabaret sets up the audience for the tragedy to come.
Le Dancaire (sung by baritone Dimitri Katotakis) and his sidekick Le Remendado (tenor John Noh) are trying to persuade Frasquita (soprano Anneliese Klenetsky) and Mercedes (mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn) to come along on their next smuggling adventure.
Only Carmen (mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms) refuses. And then....she drops the bombshell! She is "amoureuse". The group is incredulous. We have never scene this scene done so effectively; it was accomplished by increasing the tempo and getting each singer to make a more decisive entrance. The entire quintet must be propulsive. Nathan Raskin at the piano had much to contribute in this regard.
Singing about duty (devoir) and love (amour) requires very different coloration.
Another point was that Dancaire's portamento can be used to show his humorous incredulity. Very effective! These characters are having fun and in a way are playing themselves, perhaps a bit self-consciously. Maestro Villaume injected one final touch that was very effective--a rivalry between Frasquita and Mercedes. The latter sings a line and the former repeats it while upstaging her.
What a worthwhile class! So much information imparted graciously and effectively.
(c) meche kroop