Witnessing a master class, in which a distinguished musical artist works closely with several advanced young musicians, giving them suggestions for improvement and ripening insights into the work at hand, is almost always a satisfying experience in several ways. For one thing, of course, it gives an audience an early look at the quality of musicians who are close to entering the ranks of professional singing or playing, allowing us to take note of performers we want to watch out for in the future. But another interesting element of master classes is the opportunity to get a close look at the teacher, someone who has already reached a high point in the musical world, gaining the opportunity to learn from his or her approach to the younger artist a precise look at just what the teacher-coach considers most significant in the art.
On Wednesday, July 12th, the coloratura soprano Erin Morley offered just such an experience to five singers who are attending the Tanglewood Music Center’s vocal program this summer. Though she is a world-famous coloratura, Morley did not limit the class to singers who would offer arias she herself might sing. Rather she worked with five singers in varied vocal ranges, singing arias that she would never undertake herself. She spent roughly a half hour with each one, taking a range of different approaches. She clearly had the measure of each aria and the operatic scene in which it occurred.
The singers, who were prepared for this class under the guidance of Dawn Upshaw, head of the Tanglewood Music Center vocal program, and their choice of repertory, included: soprano Juliet Schiefer (with pianist William Shi), “Ah! Je veux vivre,” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette; baritone Kevin Douglas Jasaitis (with pianist William Shi), “Hai già vinto la causa,” from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro; mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Barkidjija (with pianist Elias Dagher), “Wie du warst” from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier; tenor Bradyn Debysingh (with pianist Gracie Francis) in “Un momento di content, from Handel’s Alcina; and soprano Yvonne Trobe (with pianist Corey Silverstein) in Dvořák’s Rusalka.
Each singer performed the chosen aria completely, after which Morley made suggestions ranging from purely vocal ideas to suggestions for the acting of the scene, especially drawing attention to changes in the singer’s stance or gestures. With each singer she asked, at least once, “What does this [the text] mean?” (The printed program included the original text of the aria and an English translation, which allowed the audience to follow the point.) The discussion could include the specific scene at hand or a broader consideration of the character in the whole opera.
One aspect of vocal training that is especially prominent from early students to well-established singers is concern for the line, especially the legato sustained on the vowels of the text. But consonants are essential to bring out the actual words. They can help articulate the word, or, if allowed to intrude unduly, to break up the smoothest legato. On this point, Morley gave the cheerful suggestion, “Don’t let up on the word when you feel a consonant coming on.”
With singers as advanced as these, detailed treatment of vocal support and voice placement were rarely an issue, except in moments of extended range, either high or low. The pronunciation of vowels, especially on high notes, got some attention, especially when on a sustained high note with a vowel like the short “i” sound, where the singer can open it to something more like “ah,” which in an intense sung phrase still approximate the spoken sound, though it is easier to sing in the open position. The most problematic pronunciation questions in this class came in the Dvořák aria simply because Czech consonants can be very complex for non-native speakers to assimilate.
Throughout the class, Erin Morley’s approach was warmly encouraging, gracious, and supportive. She complimented each singer on the elements that improved during the session, with enthusiastic praise, such as “This will be a great role for you.” This kind of caring generosity from a distinguished performer cannot help but give the student confidence that will be beneficial in future rehearsals and performances.