Category Archives: masterclasses

Barbara Hannigan Masterclass (ROH, 16 May 2018)

We all want magic

Carly Owen soprano
“I want magic” from A Streetcar named Desire

A good aria to start off with, even though during a masterclass we’re actually hoping to disassemble the magic and see what makes it tick. That’s the curious thing about their appeal: you’re going all cerebral about things that make you feel. Understanding why you feel something (or hoping you do) often enhances the feeling. And masterclasses have an uncanny way of making you (me?) like even things I don’t normally like. Sometimes for a very short period of time, other times for good, you do catch a glimpse of the composer’s reasons. (I don’t think you ever quite get what makes it tick, but picking the composer’s brain for a few moments is the next best thing).

Hannigan advised Owen to show Blanche’s vulnerability without losing her strength, which I think is very good goal to strive for, as it asks for a lot of maturity from a performer.

The pros and cons of being a decent person

Edmund Danon baritone
“Within this frail crucible of light” from The Rape of Lucretia

pro: the world needs more of you
con: doesn’t come in handy when you’re playing the bad guy

It’s interesing observing someone who’s picked a bad guy aria but then turns out to be not particularly comfortable being creepy. I mean this aria is Creepology 101 (but brilliantly written, chapeau, Mr Britten).

Q & A (paraphrase): should we go all method actor on something like this?

Q & A (tl:dr): when you’re young and don’t have much experience with the (big, bad) world, you can use anything at all that works for you to get in that place where people believe what they see/hear, even if for you it’s all abstract. But playing an antagonist will bring out the not so nice side of you (for the time you have to play said character – hopefully, only for that time).

The common sense advice given to anyone interested in acting is: watch/listen to people. There are going to be all sorts of people around with, with all sorts of reactions and MOs. You don’t have to be them but remembering them when needed will be of great help to build a character that is far from your usual self.

For instance: I mentioned elsewhere that I happen to know a very unsavory character. Now the most important thing I take from our (thankfully) occasional interactions that would be of use here is the tension he carries with him. If you could transfer even half of that tension to your public I think you’d be doing a very good job at portraying a creep. I’m not saying it would be easy – especially doing it in front of others – but then you did pick an intensely unplesant person to inhabit… and actually, it is interesting testing your own limitations of “bad” – unless you find out they extend much further than expected. But at least you’d be aware you have a problem.

The pros and cons of presenting an aria the singer had created

Lorena Paz Nieto soprano
The mad scene from Written on Skin

pro: being able to talk to the person who’s created the role.
con: it must be so much harder to have only one option out there if your imagination is running low.
pro: it must be so exhilirating not to have 348638578436 other singers to be compared against or be blocked by there not being all that much new to say with this role.

It’s useful, I think, especially for a young singer, because it reminds you that a successful performance goes beyond technique. Hannigan advised to bark out those lines, which perhaps doesn’t sound nice to a young singer who has thus far been instructed to make sure their performance in front of an audience is neatly packaged. Though, again, you did pick a mad scene. Going overboard in a mad scene I think is generally approved by all audiences – especially if you made sure your high Cs remain intact.

She mentioned being smart about picking your audition aria (ie: short, expressive). She went on to imply you don’t have to worry too much about the second one, as they would’ve made their decision after the first 30secs but if you have something cool and way out there, do put it in (basically to show off your mad skillz). So, mezzos going in with Parto: stop after the second parto and go home, nobody’s going to listen to you for 6min+ 😉 that being, said, Parto has been a staple for a long time, so someone’s listening, at least for a while. For sopranos she actually recommended S’altro che lagrime – I, of course, was happy to hear a Tito nod from her. I also agreed – as a young soprano, you probably have everything you need to show in that aria.

The tenor still gets the most attention from the public

Satryia Krisna tenor
“Here I stand” from The Rake’s Progress

Here’s the short and sweet aria where it’s going to be immediately obvious if you’re right for it. Krisna sure looks the part and I for one liked his interpretation. Smooth but not overly polished because, hey, this Rake is in progress 😉 I can’t remember what Hannigan told him to work on but I’m sure you’ve already got the gist of her wisdom if you made it this far.

As a general piece of advice she told students to try and be very desciplined and organised in the way they approach their career. Ah, don’t we all wish we could’ve followed that advice at that age? I hope this crop of students do because Hannigan is a living example of how far you can get if you do (and are a bit lucky, too).

This Masterclass was held at the Linden Studio at the Royal Opera Ballet School, which is a very fine space.

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Masterclass fans: new ROH Masterclass with JDD

Just to make me happy, it starts off with Parto. I haven’t seen it yet but I hope it’s good (almost 2 new hours). If it’s not good we can laugh about it here 😉

After watching/listening to it:

For those who don’t know and would like to before applying yourselves to an 1hr and 46min, this batch is mezzo only and it containts work on three mezzo staples: Parto, Dido’s lament and Non piu mesta (which I always call Non piu messed up). They are all promising singers but the young woman working on Dido’s lament has a particularly beautiful tone (baby contralto? we should be so lucky 😀 ). She is also very cutely star-struck.

Tito arias in Masterclasses (Parto)

Ow, ow, check out the chap banging out Parto on the piano 😦 so wrong. The starting tempo is too fast (what will we be doing by the cadenza? Rossini patter? – to be fair, he’s better at that point) and the setup for the initial partos is way too even and decisive. Decisive? Mr Pianoman, what the hell is this aria about? The subsequent lack of legato, the insensitive take on the clarinet line… 😦

To be fair, La Fleming is exclusively talking about sound production here (which is an interesting thing) and we all know what this aria is about so there’s not much loss. Also she thinks he’s good so maybe I’m talking bollocks. Still…

The moment of truth

A couple of years ago I saw Diana Damrau in La traviata. To this day I remember her È tardi! after Violetta reads Germont Sr.’s apologetic letter. Was she pitch perfect, did she navigate each act with the appropriate vocal, emotional and technical range set out by Verdi? I think so, but I don’t quite remember it all. What I do recall is that È tardi! Her delivery resonated with my own regrets and losses and it stayed with me and most likely will for a while yet.

There are, of course, anally rententive people out there who will strike your performance for a missed high C or too much vibrato/rubato/portamento, too little volume etc., but generally I think audiences are rather after these elusive moments of connection. We identify with the character, and the singer, channeling the character, speaks/sings for us and then catharsis happens (everybody wins).

Easy for us to say please, singers, live the character’s life on stage tonight. But how did Damrau get to be so effective with that È tardi!? Whatever regret/loss did she have to access? We won’t know but she had to connect with something real within herself. In some ways that might be harder than hitting the high C. It’s not just discipline and honing your skills and taking care of your voice, it’s also putting yourself out there (but learning how not to lose yourself in the moment):

I like this chap. I think he’s helping singers build essential tools in a very direct way yet with a lot of gentleness.

Vitellia of the future?

Every once in a while a singer in a masterclass shows amazing promise. You know I don’t easily throw comments like the title around, but I would really love it if this youg singer makes it and we get to hear her sing Vitellia on stage. She already has the right attitude and knows what there is to know about Vitellia plus her tessitura covers everything (in this aria) and her tone is very appealing. Life and stage experience will add richness to that. I have a feeling she’ll be riveting 😀

The video below is also highly reccomended for its very insightful/advanced discussion on Ecco il punto…/Non piu di fiori:

The dark art of seduction

When I first started listening to opera I got a list of all the well known mezzo arias and I dutifully went through all of it, picking an aria I enjoyed most musically and listening to many versions then moving on to the next.

After a while the time came to focus on Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix. The main difficulty with interpreting this aria seemed to be the fact that Dalila needs to sound perfectly seductive whilst she’s lying1. So the singer has to both lie and mean it. Then I thought maybe I’m too analytical and this kind of thinking does not work with opera, you can just (just, eh?) be very seductive and leave it at that.

Alas! At long length I found somebody who agrees with me and can explain it. That someone is Thomas Hampson:

It’s worth listening to the whole thing. He makes the great point of what breath is: not yet heard thought. Also the mezzo is very good, neither too lyrical nor too stentorial, just right for this and youthful sounding which might be the hardest thing with this role.

The exercise on this aria also brings up the level of inner exposure a singer is – or isn’t – confident expressing on stage. It’s surely easier to express madness than to express seduction, it’s not anywhere as in your face even when you’re singing a mad scene. I mean we might feel a bit uncomfortable seeing someone lose it on stage but I think we also feel empathy for them for being wronged or for whatever it is that brought them in that state. Seduction is another business altogether, because it’s someone’s deliberate decision.

Depending on how the singer pulls it off you might feel a mix of appreciation and competition (hey, she’s really good at it and on stage too! how did she get so good? what else is she up to?) or you might feel a bit embarrassed if the end result is not quite cutting it (I took time off my day to hear her sizzle and she’s merely warm). Or whatever you feel – but it’s never just oh well, that was quite nice.

It’s harder to separate hotness from the person singing than it is to separate madness. All you need to do to portray madness is get very intense and develop a good stare. The rest is in the music. We know you’re not really mad. Hotness is harder because not only you have to access that which will hypnotise the audience (yet which you are educated not to make use of in polite company) but you also have to be brave enough to deal with the puritanical residue in all of us.

With this aria there’s just no hiding behind singing all the notes in the right order – if you’re not accessing “hot” you’ve failed. If you are, you’re still singing the bad guy. Though, are you? I like Dalila, so I’m on her side. For all I care the opera can end after after she learns his secret. Obviously Hampson agrees:

(By contrast, I think Juditha is way heavy handed with Holofernes2. Ask me again when someone imagines Samson as a contralto.)

But you are singing the bad guy – the perpetrator – who distracts the hero from his heroic deeds, because that is the narrative we’ve all grown up with. So your success is always going to be met with mixed feelings (I like her yet I know I shouldn’t like her quite so much… because… because... = rationalisation time). Yet it’s so easy to like the hero with a clear conscience: behold, he erred but he corrected that error by sacrificing himself to the cause! Hurrah. Well, didn’t Dalila sacrifice herself to her cause? Anyway: it’s not easy feat pulling off a role like this but it’s very exciting when it happens.


  1. I suppose a case could be made that seduction = lying. Rather persuading, I’d say, compelling the other to see/feel from your perspective. But specifically what I mean is that in order to seduce you need to give/show a bit of yourself, you can’t seduce from a distance as is were. You need to be truthful in the same way in which you do offer fish actual food when you bait them. Let’s just not get into the ulterior motive issue for the moment… (who’s ever completely selfless?). 
  2. somebody needs to stage this scene as bondage. You know Holofernes wants Juditha to tie him to the bed 😀 then it’s just a matter of how sharp is the blade.