I began thinking about writing a blogpost about how to have a successful “masterclass” experience and then I realized that the same things required for a positive masterclass experience are also required for success in the totally contorted business of Opera. How do you avoid this type of situation as is experienced here in this Freni Masterclass that is inspiring a lot of conversation on social media and the blogosphere?
I met Mirella Freni around 2006 at a competition she judged and she was the warmest most loving artist. Nothing she says below is wrong! But her one-dimensional commentary and apparent impatience with these Russians “darkish” tone makes her look less loving and refined than she usually is. Furthermore, the young mezzo at the beginning was on the verge of tears and the young bass was not sure if he should stay after the recitativo. She appeared impatient and dismissive. Yet she is not!
Or how do you avoid the embarrassment of this situation, also often discussed on social media?
Again, Maestro Kraus is not saying anything wrong. Both Kraus and Freni know the sound they want. Kraus singing a great Bb does not achieve any improvement in the young dramatic tenor’s process. Why? What is the problem in both the Freni and Kraus masterclasses?
Let us not talk about Freni’s mood or the fact that she says the same to every student or that Kraus is obsessed with this high position at all costs. Both legendary singers say the same thing over and over.
Simply put, the students that had a bad time were not prepared! Not prepared for the situation they came to.
The first rule of a high profile masterclass with a great singer is the following:
You are there to make them look good!
And if you can achieve that, you could get a lot out of such a class, including connections, etc. In other words, one does not come to a masterclass with Mirella Freni to learn the fundamentals of singing. You come able to make great sounds and with the wherewithal to make immediate changes upon request. But to make immediate changes, the technical components must be already trained, such that a suggestion is turned into a vast improvement in the sound. The error that is made is the expectation that great singers who exhibit extraordinary technique actually understand the totality of what they do.
Most high level singers only know a portion of their technique because they came into singing with many components already developed and coordinated. In their experience, vocal technique is limited to what they themselves had to learn.
Example: A little less than two years ago I arrived in Härnösand Sweden and taught a masterclass for 18 young students. It was the easiest masterclass I ever gave and we experienced 18 small miracles over two days of work. Why?
The students at Kapellsberg Musiklinjen of Härnösands Folkhögskola are taught by extraordinary teachers who had already trained them thoroughly. They had even voices from top to bottom, excellent and natural breathing technique and a great natural sense of resonance. My job was basically technical refinement, confidence building and artistic expression. They were ready to make immediate changes. During those two days, I got to know them and what they fundamentally needed in order to make their next steps. But that is extra! The average famous singer who does masterclasses is in another sort of performance and wants to look good doing it. The students are in great part merely a means to that end. It is also a way to earn a living beyond the career on stage.
However when one succeeds at making the great singer look good at a masterclass, there may be rewards. One may begin to have a deeper conversation with such a singer. One may even be referred to agents and impresarios. Most young singers go to these classes hoping to learn something great from a great singer, or at least to have their process confirmed by someone who has touched the firmament. Those who get confirmation are usually those who know they have something special and are confident about what they do. They don’t need a famous singer’s confirmation. They are the ones ready to take advantage of what such an experience might have to offer.
Famous singers have a lot to offer students in terms of their experiences. They can talk about the way they prepare for a role, or how they learn to deal with difficult situations with conductors, directors, managers and colleagues. They could talk about how they presented themselves at auditions. There are many things beyond technique that they could talk about, unless they are truly capable and interested in doing the complex work of technical development.
The young dramatic tenor in Kraus’s masterclass was not physically/muscularly in a place to produce any kind of Bb let alone a truly resonant one. With “boring” detail work, the tenor could have gotten a Bb out in tune, but that is not the kind of work that famous singers want to do in a short masterclass. Most cannot do it, and those that can are afraid they might not have enough time to make a good impression. So whose fault was it? The innocent young tenor and his teachers who put him in an impossible situation. He should have sung something he could actually produce all the notes to. Then Kraus’ directives could have been easier to implement.
In Freni’s case, nothing would have been good short of having a perfect technique. The kind of final phase production that she was seeking is not possible to teach in a masterclass. It must already be there. In other words, a young singer at Freni’s best technical level would have been easy for her to work with. She could help them navigate the road of the aria as opposed to fixing the car.
To take this beyond the masterclass format, an audition works the same way. You are not talented enough until they hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see. The singer must know himself/herself and in a way have a good idea what to expect, and know how to take commentary in a proactive manner. I did an audition for a theater a couple of years ago singing Otello and Siegmund. I was able to chose my audition time in the early afternoon (which is next to impossible) and had everything at my disposal (practice room at the theater all morning, a hotel 200 meters from the theater, perfect spring weather, two days rest beforehand). I sang very well! I spoke with the conductor afterwards:
Conductor: “That is the best Wälseruf I’ve ever heard!” He was speaking about the “Wälse, Wälse…” in Siegmund’s monologue, Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater. “You know you will have a hard time getting hired to sing these roles in a German theater!”
Me: Fascinated, I ask him: “why?”
Conductor: “Well, how do I put this delicately…In a traditional German theater, people expect a German-looking guy to sing Wagner heroes and a bit more brightness in the voice to sing the Italian repertoire.”
Me: Does my voice not carry enough in the house?
Conductor: “No, quite the opposite. We had you stand in the back of the stage and were impressed how strongly your voice came through the back of the house. ” Then he changed: “Did you ever sing as a baritone?”
Conductor: “I was not sure because the Bbs were so comfortable. But I thought I heard a particularly dark color to your voice. For lead Italian roles, you would need more Spitz (more point) in order to give the voice a more italianate color. The whole time I was thinking, if anyone is ever looking for a Herodes from Salome, you would be the first I would suggest.”
That had been my first audition as a tenor. Was I disappointed? Au contraire! This conductor told me everything I already knew. I also knew that his Otello looked a lot like me and had also sung Tannhäuser in Germany among other German roles. The moral of the story is the following. I was prepared enough to make a good impression, and experienced enough to take this conductor’s good advice. Not that I should necessarily limit myself to Herod and other character tenor roles (I love Herod by the way! Amazing role!), but that he confirmed the fact that I needed to concentrate on the more brilliant aspects of the voice. I had already been working on it. It also confirmed what I already knew. It is not enough to sing the notes comfortably. One must sound and look like what people expect in a given role to be able to break in. So I went back to work and I bet this conductor would not recognize my voice today from what he heard two years ago. I also did not take his comment about “looking German” as racist. He was just telling it like it is in many German situations. But one thing I know about the German theaters, once you’re in, they will use you in anyway they can, including in roles they themselves considered unsuitable before. So:
You can’t sing Siegmund! Now you can!
When we present ourselves, whether in a masterclass situation or an audition, we must be prepared to do our best job with no expectation that whoever is there is going to like it. Do they not like it because you did not do well or because they have a different idea of what you should sing? You must weigh the information in see how it can help your personal trajectory. There are no stories ever of a total unknown coming to a top theater. Unknown to the greater world maybe but not untested. Anna Tomovo-Sintow debuted in Ernani at the MET and made a sensation, but she had paid her dues elsewhere. Rudolf Bing was not taking a random chance with Magda Olivero at age 62. He heard her in professional performances in Italy and knew the quality of what he would be putting on stage. He gambled with a straight-flush in his hands.
Finally, it is worthwhile to talk about “proprioception” in teaching. The other day, I told a young singer:
Me: “Imagine the throat opens beyond your throat into your upper back! You will then feel the low resonance as if your upper back was a drum vibrating sympathetically with your tone!”
Young Singer: “That is uncharacteristically unscientific of you! Why are suggesting sensations now?”
Me: “Because you are at a stage of physical development whereby you can actually distinguish clearly between physical vibrations! The truth is that you could not have these sensations before, because the instrument was not muscularly structured enough.”
He tried my directive and was amazed how easy it was to do something that was heretofore very precarious in his voice.
Kraus and Freni knew that sensation of high resonance that felt like a narrow beam. The resonance that carries the sound to the back of the hall and that buzzes in the ear like a swarm of bees. Just asking a student to place it higher does not always work. It only works when the student already does it in other parts of the voice. Then they understand what is being asked of them. The mezzo and soprano (singers 1 and 3 in the video) would not get there immediately with the directives of “just sing more comfortably” or “put it more forward and higher”. They needed to be brought to the experience of true brilliance that does not violate natural depth. Squillo is not the same as just singing a brighter vowel! It is not about disconnecting from the lower voice. It is about being able to stretch the vocal folds appropriately without losing the fundamental, natural substance of the voice. It is also about having access to a complete resonance space that includes articulating text naturally without the larynx rising and falling like a yoyo. It is also about a fold posture that induces complete but gentle closure, allowing a fluid emission of breath. It is also about having strong development in the core muscles that govern breath compression (i.e. support).
Physical sensations is the vocabulary of a singer’s final technique. However sensations that are not based on a solid physical foundation can lead to vocal disrepair. Indeed many of the sensations that high level singers experience are not available to the developing singer until certain elements have been developed. Resonance sensations are unreliable until a solid support and phonation system have been addressed.
In closing, the quality of the singer’s experience in a masterclass or audition is totally dependent upon the singer’s level of preparation for the situation at hand. In the age of the Internet, we can all research a singer before we decide to attend their masterclass and decide whether we are ready to work with such a person relative to what it is they are looking for in such a situation. Thirty minutes in a masterclass is almost silly unless one is at a level whereby the information can really have an effect. A student would do better to invest in real technician to work out all difficulties before presenting himself/herself to masterclasses with famous singers.