Opera master classes underscore the massive amount of work and musicality behind great performances
The International Resource Centre for Performing Artists, a Toronto-based help centre for young musicians trying to build their careers, organized four days of operatic voice master classes, ending with an evening of opera arias tonight at George Weston Recital Hall.
The worshop leaders were two respected names in the business: Joan Dornemann, a coach at the Metropolitan Opera, and accompanist Vincenzo Scalera, who has spent the last few years working with the young singers at LaScala's young Academy in Milan.
I sat in on four master classes. I was curious to see what the non-conservatory, non-university, non-Canadian Opera Company contingent of Toronto opera wannabes looked and sounded like. I also wanted to see what Scalera was like as a coach.
The singers where pretty much what I expected. One, still a teenager, should have been told that singing, not even to mention opera, was not going to be part of her future. Another was an exceptional, mature artist who, for whatever reason, does not have the stage career she appeared to deserve. The other two fell somewhere in between, in that grey wash of mediocrity that Peter Schaffer's Antonio Salieri so feared and loathed.
Scalera was bright orange, fuscia and flashing scarlet in this sea of grey. With only 30 minutes per singer, per day, he could only focus on finessing an aria rather than trying to solve technical problems -- as he explained to me afterward.
Time after time, Scalera emphaiszed the meaning of the words, of matching that meaning with what the music is doing, and conveying the appropriate emotion. He would sing along. He repeatedly pushed the supplied accompanist off the piano bench to do it himself, magically turning the instrument from background beat-keeper to a full pit orchestra.
Every moment I witnessed reminded me of how much work goes into a singer's every utterance. I was also reminded how you can work interpretation all you want but, if there is no fundamental musicality in the singer and if they don't have the basic technique to produce their sound, it doesn't amount to much -- be it at the end of 30 minutes or 30 hours.
"Communication is only part of it," said Scalera in conversation afterward, when I asked him what he thought makes up the attribute we call musicality. The other part is something ineffable that is icing on the cake of hard work.
I had barely 20 minutes left to chat with Scalera on the day of my visit, hardly enough time to even dip my toes into his deep well of experience and anecdote. His long and glorious career as accompanist had him working with the legends of the 1970s and '80s, right through to today's top singers. He told me it was the late bel canto soprano legend Leyla Gencer who brought him into LaScala's young-artist program.
Like so many people devoted to powerful expression, Scalera noted that it is not the beauty of a voice that matters, but what the artist can do with it.
Among the names he mentioned was soprano Renata Scotto. She may not have had the most beautiful-sounding instrument, but she was a convincing operatic actor, as far as he is concerned. "She IS Suor Angelica. She IS Georgette in Il Tabarro," in Puccini's Il Trittico, he said of a favourite performance, with conductor James Levine.
Tonight's recital will show off the state of the art, as he saw and heard it on a rare Toronto visit. The organizers picked 11 singers, including the one person I would have sat down for a let's-try-to-think-of-another-career-option chat.
In other words, this will sound and feel like any other student recital. There are two pianists slated for accompanist duty at George Weston Recital Hall.
The performances start at 8 p.m. You'll find more information here.
Here are two French-flavoured tastes of Vincenzo Scalera the accompanist. The first is from a 1988 performance of Raynaldo Hahn's "L'Heure exquise" with José Carrerras. The second is Juan Diego Florez singing a bit of Edouard Lalo at London's Southbank Centre in January: