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.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Yesterday we were privileged to sit in on Joyce DiDonato's Master Class at Juilliard. Brian Zeger, Artistic Director of the Vocal Arts Department, gave her the introduction merited by her artistry and accomplishments in the field and pointed out that she has been given an Honorary Doctorate at this esteemed institution. The class was live-streamed for a wider audience than could fit into Paul Hall.

If you are wondering about the title of this review, all those extra "E's" stand for Education, Enlightenment, Entertainment, Exhilaration, and Excitement--all of which marked the two hour class that we wished had lasted longer.

The participants were students pursuing advanced degrees in the Vocal Arts Department, all of whom showed evidence of superlative training. What Ms. DiDonato contributed was in the nature of fine tuning their artistry with intuitive observations and suggestions. She began by pointing out that the class was not a performance but a playground in which the singers could try out new things. It is the process that is important.

There were concepts that seemed to apply to one and all. First of all is the importance of analysis of the character. The singer must figure out why the character enters onstage and the reason the character makes his/her exit. Physical gestures reveal the underlying feeling. The singer must have his/her own point of view but be sufficiently flexible to make adjustments, according to the wishes of the director.  But never enter an audition or competition with the anticipation of what is expected.

Once the singer has learned the aria thoroughly, the singer must give attention to making choices and never allow the performance to become automatic. If there is a repeat, think about the reason for repeating.  Hear the harmony in the accompaniment but feel the rhythm.

Ms. DiDonato has a particular affection for recitativi. This is where the singer reveals his/her artistry. With the three women singers we heard, focus was mainly on the recit. Their collaborative pianist was the excellent and always supportive Chris Reynolds. All of them were transformed by their 25 minute session!

Mezzo-soprano Nicole Thomas worked on "Sein wir wieder gut" from Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. The Composer is 18 years old and love has hit him like a coup de foudre. He is hormonal and emotionally extravagant. His volatility is expressed by the music being "off the beat". (This is not the same as Cherubino who is constantly in love.) The manic energy must be supported by clear diction to get over the dense orchestration. The "z" sound of "Sein" must be clear.

Soprano Tamara Banjesevic worked on "Eccomi in lieta vesta" from Bellini's I Capuleti  i Montecchi. From the beginning "Eccomi", the singer must project innocence and purity. She is looking at herself dressed for a wedding to a man she does not wish to marry.  The pain must also show but not self pity. Giulietta is seeing herself in a mirror.  If the singer sees it, the audience will see it.

Soprano Felicia Moore worked on Elettra's aria "Oh smania!"--or at least the recit part--from Mozart's Idomeneo. The singer must dig into the text.  It is important to emphasize the  "zm" sound of "smania". An accompanied recit is like a conversation between the singer and the orchestra. This involves intense listening for the underlying harmonies and key changes. Specifically, in this recit, there is a switch to the major mode and the singer must understand why and sell it to the audience. Slowing down gives the singer a chance to register the emotional journey.

Tenor Joshua Blue alone got to sing an aria, accompanied by Ji Yung Lee on the piano. If there is one tenor aria that is ridden with cliche, it is "Una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore. Ms. DiDonato got rid of all the stuff by asking Mr. Blue to sing it to her, as if he were telling his best friend about his new discovery. This made a world of difference. It became sharing instead of "acting". 

He was also encouraged to imagine an unbroken thread of sound to produce the necessary legato. This resulted in a more Italianate sound without his pretending to be an "Italian tenor". The repeated phrases were given new meaning and new life.

A few minutes were saved at the end for a Q and A. The point that stuck in our mind was about career development--that tenacity comes from within, not from teachers or coaches. We are cognizant of the difficulties faced by young singers and have made observations that support Ms. DiDonato's comment. It is a journey and it is never helpful to compare oneself to others. Ms. DiDonato pointed out that her very own career got off to a slow start.  Each one is on a different journey. Live it!

(c) meche kroop

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