|Justina Lee, Shannon McGinnis, Aaron Crouch, Maya Amir, Keymon W. Murrah, Alexandra Nowakowski, and
Joyce DiDonato (photo by meche kroop)
Guest review by Ellen Godfrey:
April in New York means that opera lovers get to see the wonderful three day event of master classes led by the exceptional and multitalented mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. Most masterclasses take place on only one day, but she has the same four singers for three days in a row on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In addition, she works with the young singers during the daytime as well. Students are selected through auditions of singers from around the world.
The classes are part of the Weill Music Institute held at the Resnick Education Wing of Carnegie Hall. The sessions are always filled to capacity and many of the audience members return year after year.
Joyce Di Donato is the most original and talented Master Class teacher of all the master classes I have seen over many many years. She is so supportive of the students; they feel right at home with her. She has a second sense about knowing what she can do to help each student and she uses a lot of physical exercises to free up the singer’s body and mind. She is like a dog with a bone; she will work on just a few measures over and over again and not give up until the singers succeed in finding their own personal way to sing those notes.
Ms. DiDonato made some opening remarks before the first session began. She emphasized that she is not a pedagogue nor a voice teacher. Her mission is to guide the singers in how to perform, to be artistic and to find the drama in what they are singing. We have the total liberty to cry or to laugh or to be daring. This is a playground, a chance to liberate ourselves and be free.
Ms. DiDonato welcomed the first singer, Alexandra Nowakowski, a Polish- American soprano. She thanked Alexandra for taking the risk of being the first to perform on the program. Ms. Nowakowski sang the “Caro Nome” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. She was very confident in her singing, had good resonance, a good trill, a beautiful messa di voce, and good portamenti. Her phrasing was also lovely and she received a big hand from the audience. It seemed like a perfect performance to us, but there was still work to be done.
Ms. DiDonato asked her if, as Gilda, she felt different this day then the day before when she had encountered a handsome young man as she came out of church. Rigoletto is such a popular opera, everyone knows how it goes and they stop listening…so she was told to compose as though she were Verdi and to search out Gilda’s character. Ms. Di Donato also told her not to be a coquette, but to have elegance; also to anticipate the beat and not just land on it. After she sang the aria again, the audience was astonished to see how much progress she made.
In the second session, she again sang a lovely “Caro nome.” She was advised to try to discover more in the music and text and to live it as though she didn’t want the moment to end. Alexandra was quick to catch on to what she was being told and the modifications could be heard.
She sang a different aria for the third class… “Come per me sereno” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Alexandra told us that this was the first time she sang this aria in public. She sang it beautifully, with gorgeous high notes right on pitch. Ms. DiDonato was very pleased with it but felt it lacked some fragility and suggested she be bold enough to play with the dynamics more.
The second singer was the Israeli mezzo-soprano, Maya Amir, coming to New York for the first time. She sang Ottavia’s aria “Disprezzata regina” from Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’incoronazione di Poppea. She has a lovely mezzo voice and a nice delicacy to her voice, but was told that she sometimes needs to make her voice ugly. She is the Queen and needs to act as one. Ms. DiDonato worked with just the words of the aria several times to get her to be more dramatic. "You need to show your hate and you must spit out the consonants." She was told after a lot of repetition of the phrase “Disprezzata regina” that she was a thousand times better.
For the second session she chose the well-known aria “Lascia la spinta” from Handel’s oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, (I wish young singers would announce the name of their arias and their own name by projecting their voices so that we in the audience can hear their names and what they are performing). She sang with great fragility and softness. She was praised by Ms. DiDonato but she felt that somehow it seemed that Maya didn’t want to be seen or heard. She gave her a water bottle in each hand to use to give her energy as she sang. After some work on this she told Maya that she had improved and she was coming out more. For the final session, she sang Ramiro’s aria from Mozart’s La Finta Giardineri ,“E giunge a quest segno.” Ms. DiDonato said she needed more attack on the notes and that more grit is required for this aria. She complimented Maya for getting more out of herself.
For the first session, tenor Aaron Crouch, a native Bostonian, sang “Il mio tesoro” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It was sung with good breath control and good coloratura, but there were a few times when his voice got a bit ugly. He is very personable and communicates well. "Welcome to where you are now", she said; "I’m sure you will be a major talent but you have to be patient and have a plan. We know what we want to sound like but it should be natural; you have an infinite amount of options and colors. I love what you did this morning…just take some time to digest it".
He started the second session with “Total Eclipse” from Handel’s Samson, which he also sang in the third session. He was told that he has a lovely tone and that this would be a good audition aria for him. Ms. DiDonato worked with him a long time on the “e” vowel. She said, "Don’t think about the sound you are making; you should feel the sensations". He made great progress from the second session and sang this aria beautifully with lots of feeling in the final session.
Counter-tenor Keymon W. Murrah was the final singer on Friday. He sang Orfeo’s aria “Amour, viens rendre a mon âme ta plus ardente flamme.” from Gluck’s Orfeo. He had no trouble with the coloratura singing and used his breath well. Ms. DiDonato said "I love this piece and how you sing it. I want to hear the words enveloped in your glorious sound. You have so much natural talent but we have to get to the next level; you have to be patient."
Keymon sang “Where'er you walk” from Handel’s Semele for the second session. Ms. DiDonato worked with him tirelessly on just a few words and getting the sound lighter and easier. She talked about comforting people and making the world a better place. She then told him to go out and sing to the people individually in the audience. He made eye contact with members of the audience as he sang and sometimes shook their hands. This was a beautiful moment and the audience gave him a big round of applause. Keymon said that he felt freer to be himself. In the final session he sang “A quel giorno” from Handel’s Semiramide. He sang with freedom and good range from top to bottom. Ms. DiDonato had him sing with a pencil in his mouth to help his breathing and keep the vowels in place.
Justina Lee and Shannon McGinnis were the wonderful pianists who accompanied the singers.
All four singers made wonderful progress under Ms. DiDonato. It was also evident that she loves working with these young singers and helping them to pursue their careers.
Some take-home points for all you singers who are among our readers. "The sound belongs to the audience. The sensation belongs to the singer". We think you will understand this point! Another tip: sing the harmony, not the melody. And sculpt the vowels!
(c) meche kroop