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, April 24, 2018


Joyce DiDonato, Francesca Chiejina, Ané Pretorius, Jose Simerilla Romero, Germán Enrique Alcántara, Shannon McGinnis, and Justina Lee

The master classes given by famed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, as part of the Weill Music Institute, are like no others. This yearly event is so highly anticipated that the dates for next year are already inked on our calendar and we urge singers to apply right away. What makes these classes special can be appreciated both by the young singers selected to participate as well as by audience members who pack the Weill Music Room of the Resnick Education Wing of Carnegie Hall. 

The four young singers, winnowed by Claudia Friedlander from a huge pool of applicants from 47 countries, were of the very highest quality. We can readily appreciate the reasons they were chosen.

Ms. DiDonato is a master teacher renowned for her special talent for identifying exactly what each student needs to move forward in their art and to convey this with humor, originality, and style. She began the 3-day adventure by telling the audience that we were not witnessing performances, but rather participating in exploration, discovery, and the taking of risks. Not every device would work, and each student must decide for her/himself what works and what doesn't.

Certain principles apply to everyone.  Magic happens when the singer drops the "careful" approach. The challenge is to find a physical device that will free up the voice; the best practice is to alternate physical work and vocal work. This will be different for each student.

Soprano Francesca Chiejina came all the way from Nigeria and is a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists' Program at the Royal Opera House in London. She delighted us with Ilia's aria --"Zefferetti lusingieri" from Mozart's Idomeneo. Ms. DiDonato pointed out how Ilia feels safe confessing her love to the flowers and the singer must convey a sense of urgency with considerable variety. The character is very young and very lovesick but also conflicted. The singer must make this clear. The breath must be kept active and energized. She was instructed to exaggerate the rubato and to be less "correct".

There was a big improvement by the second day and on the third day, Ms. Chiejina brought in a new aria which we believe we recognized as "Azaël!" from Dubussy's opera L'enfant prodige, an aria which snagged the Cardiff Singer of the World award for Nina Stemme in 1993. (We wish that singers would announce their names and the title of the aria in a firm clear voice instead of mumbling!)

The coaching took the form of encouragement to stop "monitoring" and to take risks.  An exercise worth trying is to sing on the vowels whilst feeling the pulse underneath, something which Ms. DiDonato calls "subdividing".

Mezzo-soprano Ané Pretorius hails from South Africa and gave us a wonderful "Nacqui all'affanno...non piu mesta" from Rossini's enchanting La Cenerentola. We were particularly glad to hear this particular coaching because it gave us lots of points to listen for in our review of that opera the same night!

Cenerentola's joy and excitement must begin with the first note. There must be strong direction and a seamless legato line in the recitativo. A strategy to deal with the leaps is to stop thinking about the rise and fall of the pitches, and to imagine singing the melody on one pitch.  It sounds counter-intuitive but it worked, giving the brain the center of the pitch, the core of the sound. This is not practiced at full voice.

The line must be kept even when singing staccato or marcato.  It is the singer that controls the tempo and the pacing. There was some practice on the vowel sound "ee", without changing the vowel. Another practice was to imagine that the phonation is taking place way out in front of you, instead of inside your head.

The same instruction served well for Day #3 when Ms. Pretorius sang "Va, laissez couler mes larmes" from Massenet's Werther. A good practice method is to sing just the vowels but to sing them staccato.

Moving on to Argentinean tenor Jose Simerilla Romero, we were as shocked as Ms. DiDonato was to learn that this incredible sound emerged from a 22-year-old who has been studying for only 3 years.  The main counsel for him was to protect himself from doing too much too soon. His natural facility would make him an object of desire for anyone casting an opera but he must not succumb to temptation.

He is a natural both in voice and in stage presence, as we heard in his impassioned delivery of "Amor ti vieta" from Umberto Giordano's Fedora. Ms. DiDonato urged the singer to release the sound instead of driving it, to relax and move the breath, energizing each note.

On the second day, Mr. Romero sang Romeo's aria "Ah! Lève-toi soleil" from the Gounod opera with a beautiful ringing tone. He was instructed to reset with each breath. An exercise of inhaling and exhaling through a straw was very helpful in co-ordinating breath and phrasing. There was a great deal of ease in the uninterrupted flow of air.

On the third day, Mr. Romero sang "Che gelida manina" from Puccini's La Bohême; for us this was the best episode of the three days because we are very interested in the creation of characters. We have heard this aria hundreds of times and we don't want to hear a stock character doing the same old-same old. We want to ditch the stereotype and to meet a real multi-dimensioned Rodolfo, not a generic one!

The tenor must make his performance all about Mimi. He might show surprise that her hand is cold. He is very taken with her and is trying to find ways to impress her. Make it fresh, tenors!

Argentinean baritone Germán Enrique Alcántara made a very believable Count in "Hai gia vinta la causa" from Mozart's Nozze di Figaro. He was even better when reminded that the Count is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier and he is trying to figure things out . There needs to be a feeling of spontaneous discovery. He is incredulous and should seem to be making it up as he goes along.

The singer should not "test the voice" but should phonate right from the start. He must listen for changes in the music and keep the legato line.

On Day #2, we heard "Avant de quitter ces lieux" from Gounod's Faust. His line was greatly improved by incorporating some body movement. This was carried over to Day #3 when he sang "Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen" from Korngold's Die tote Stadt. 

It seemed to us that he caressed each word and sang with great feeling. He was instructed to keep the inner pulse and to let each phrase "hang" until the next phrase and to paint a picture of Fritz' nostalgia. The singer must explore all the possibilities so that he doesn't have to perform an aria the same way every time.  Having options is always a good thing.

The excellent accompanists for the three days were Justina Lee and Shannon McGinnis.

So the three days of intense instruction have ended. The singers will return to their regular lives, taking home the gifts that Ms. DiDonato has given them. We feel as if we are also taking home some gifts.

(c) meche kroop

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