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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Ready for Her Lesson Scene

Joyce DiDonato gives a Master Class at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Joyce DiDonato gives pointers to mezzo Kayliegh Decker (right) at Saturday's master class.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2015 courtesy Carnegie Hall.
As they're not always open to the paying public, a  master class taught by a major international opera star  is always a special occasion. Master classes provide deep insight into what makes the great singers tick, where a great singer guides younger artists in pursuit and perfection of their craft. When that master class is given by mezzo Joyce DiDonato in a room held high above W. 57th St. during a spectacular February snowstorm, the occasion becomes unforgettable.

Ms. DiDonato has become one of the biggest opera stars of this decade, winning audiences over with her brash, cheerful personality and astonishing instrument, at home with the high-flying bel canto operas of Donizetti and the equally challenging baroque operas of Handel, where she is known for performing trouser roles.

Last Saturday afternoon, she stepped away from the big stage Metropolitan Opera (where she is currently singing the leading role in that company's new production of Rossini's La donna del Lago. This was the first of three Master Classes this weekend at Carnegie Hall, held in that venue's new Resnick Education Wing, newly created from former office space in a multimillion dollar renovation.

As the snow swirled outside, the singer was relaxed, funny and off-the-cuff. With piano accompaniment, she worked with four rising stars, two sopranos, a mezzo and a tenor. The audience was a mix of young singers there to learn and opera lovers there to see a world-class mezzo-soprano impart her wisdom to the next generation of artists. Everyone in attendance got an in-depth series of lessons on breathing, preparedness and the importance of recitative in the performance of opera.

The lessons started with Alison King, an American soprano. She chose "Mi tradi," Donna Elvira's aria from Act II of Mozart's Don Giovanni. After Ms. King sang the aria through once,  Ms. DiDonato went phrase by phrase through the recitative, pointing out meaning and suggesting ideas for inflection and breath control. She illumined how Mozart uses phrases in the recitative as musical building blocks for the following aria. She also encouraged Ms. King to understand and emphasize the inner turmoil and despair of Elvira, and her willingness to forgive the dissolute Don.

"Oh good! A mezzo!" Ms. DiDonato exclaimed as Kayliegh Decker came up to the piano. The two singers worked on "Ombra mai fu," the opening aria from Handel's Xerxes. Here, Ms. DiDonato pointed out the importance of the singer's central core, of drawing breath and producing sound while feeling mentally rooted and able to pull energy from a room. Ms. Decker showed notable improvement, going from stiff and uncertain to relaxed and fluid, as she found Xerxes' self-confidence and arrogance in this famous and introspective aria.

Next up: the Korean soprano Narea Son. Ms. Son tackled "Bel raggio lusinghier" from Rossini's Semiramide. This is one of the composer's grandest and most challenging Italian operas. The aria ended with a stunning display of fioratura and a gorgeous high E at the end. Ms. DiDonato instructed the singer on posture, specifically the need to keep her hands out of "singing position" and act more naturally. Finally, Ms. DiDonato addressed the problem of stereotyping by opera casting directors, citing her own experience as the "blonde American" singing in Italy.

Two hours had been allotted for the class, but Ms. DiDonato stayed longer to work with the last singer, tenor Gerhard Schneider. He had prepared "Fra poco," Edgardo's aria from the last act of Lucia di Lammermoor. Once again Ms. DiDonato focused on recitative and being in the moment, helping Mr. Schneider create a memorable portrait of grief and his character's suffering following the death of his beloved. Working through the first part of the recitative, they broke with a promise to pick it up at tomorrow's class--where Mr. Schneider would sing first.

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