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, February 27, 2019


Director Justin Griffith Brown coaching the role of Frasquita (photo by Kathleen Spencer for City Lyric Opera)

WorkshOpera? A very clever neologism to describe one of the initiatives of City Lyric Opera. We will first quote from their website and then we will describe our personal experience of the event.

"Too often in professional companies, artists are rushed through musical and physical role preparation. Often companies are on a tight rehearsal schedule and performers aren't allowed the time to explore their characters and the music together as a collaborative group. Here at City Lyric Opera, we believe that so much knowledge can be gained from taking the time to work together as a group to put a piece of music on its feet in a safe environment. WorkshOpera is process-based, not performance based so it is not open to the public and does not culminate in a performance. All artists are encouraged to play, experiment, and to make mistakes in order to better inform their own sense of artistry and musicianship. In the 4-hour workshop, singers will work directly with a conductor and stage director to explore their characters and musical style in the context of an operatic scene. Singers are expected to coach the repertoire ahead of time with our rehearsal pianist and arrive to the workshop memorized and ready to work."

We arrived ready to be a "fly on the wall", to learn how this process worked. We audience members go to a performance, sit in our seats and either we feel entertained and enlightened, or we don't. Most of us have no idea what goes on leading up to this performance. To know is to appreciate!

If you have been fortunate enough to have studied voice, you know the countless hours of study the participants in the WorkshOpera had put in beforehand. They probably read their part aloud, sang their part on a neutral vowel, then learned to sing the words on the melody. They likely put in a lot of time and effort just learning French.

So now, all five participants, chosen early in the season by audition, were ready to delve into the Act II quintet from Bizet's Carmen "Nous avons en tête une affaire". The four hour WorkshOpera comprised two sessions with Director Justin Griffith Brown (well remembered from his innovative direction of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte for Bare Opera) and two sessions with Maestro Thomas Muraco (whose Opera Repertoire Ensemble at Manhattan School of Music has delighted us for years).

Mr. Brown began by asking the five singers to introduce themselves. We always thought directors worked by telling the singers what he wanted them to do but this was an entirely different experience. He listened to each one tell how he/she felt about their character and asked interesting questions. Which one was older? How did they know each other? What was motivating them?

He said a bit about what was going on in Seville during that period and told about the racial tension existing between the gypsies and the Spaniards. This would surely color the performances.

There were physical exercises designed to promote group cohesion and focus. The singers walked around in a circle, maintaining equal distances. At a certain point, one person would change direction causing the others to follow suit.

Another exercise seemed designed to keep the conversational scene alive. It involved tossing an imaginary ball toward another member in the circle who would then toss it to someone else. The words used to toss were "Zip, Zap, and Zop". The exercise was then complicated by performing the same action while moving in a circle. Then the exercise was performed with singers mingling around the room without boundaries. 

We observed the singers meeting the challenge of focusing on the physical representation of a conversation whilst being in different positions vis-a-vis one another.

In this tag team type of situation, it was now Maestro Muraco's turn to impart his vocal coaching. The participants sat facing him and were instructed to run through the text of the scene, reading their lines slowly. This gave him an opportunity to evaluate their French and where they put the stresses. He made sure that they carried each phrase through to the end.

Pronunciation was given a fine tuning, especially regarding the "schwa".  In a fast paced scene like this, consonants must be incisively articulated and rhythms must be accurate. All this must be accomplished while maintaining a legato line. Singers, as they move around the stage, must keep the conductor within their peripheral vision and be on top of the beat.

After reciting the lines, the scene was sung through with piano accompaniment and further corrections given.

If the singer knows the music well then the staging would not throw them off.

And staging was just what Mr. Brown did during his second session with the participants. Tables and chairs were set up to create Lillas Pastia's tavern. Every line that was sung created its own movement. It did indeed seem a safe space for the singers to experiment. 

It made perfect sense for Carmen to get up and move away from the others as she declines to join their latest "affaire". Similarly, it made sense for Dancairo and El Remendado to enlist the help of Frasquita and Mercedes in persuading Carmen to join them. The flirtatious aspect between the characters was explored as well as the manipulation of the women by the two men. It seemed very organic to us, as if the singers were creating the scene spontaneously.

We learned that changes in the music's tonality or rhythm can inspire a character to move. We observed the five singers coming together as a unit and we doubt that we can ever watch this scene again without being cognizant of these shifts and motivations!

Mr. Muraco took over once again for a run through with the participants, now at a more advanced level. Before adjourning, we were treated to a staged "performance" of the scene. We found it engaging and involving, even more than actual performances with sets and costumes. Voices took on new colors as the characters had become more developed.

We might repeat that this was not a rehearsal for a performance. The five singers will leave with enhanced security in their characterization and singing. One might say they have the role "under their belt". We would like to further point out that City Lyric Opera does not charge singers anything for this priceless experience. It is funded by donations from opera lovers who support the art form. In our opinion, it is a very worthy investment.

A big loud "BRAVO" for City Lyric Opera and their singer-centric approach. Singers themselves, Co-Founders and Co-Artistic Directors Kathleen Spencer and Megan Gillis have created something remarkable in three years.

(c) meche kroop

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