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.
“Miss Isolde,” thus the legendary Sir Reginald Goodall addressed the young Jane Eaglen 37 years ago at the first rehearsal of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for one of the very last concerts he would conduct. During our recent lunch, “Miss Isolde” (Eaglen) said that Sir Reginald never called singers by their proper names, instead using the names of the characters they were studying, rehearsing or performing.
“That is way too loud. Look at the score; there are only two ff’s, Wagner never asks for more than that.” Eaglen still has vivid memories of that rehearsal and that concert ― among other things Prince Charles and Princess Diana were in the audience and she got to meet them. The ovations were tremendous and Sir Reginald was reluctant to reappear. “No Miss Isolde,” he said, “it’s all for you.”
It was a decade before Eaglen was ready to sing her first complete performance of Tristan, but she was mindful of Goodall’s advice then and in the subsequent years when she was one of the world’s major Wagner singers. One of the remarkable things about her during her prime years was that she always sang within her voice, unlike others who were pushing far beyond their instruments. Now that she is training young singers, she is bringing her extensive knowledge of Wagner to new generations.