As part of San Francisco Opera's Merola Program for young artists, distinguished singers give master classes. I recently heard bass-baritone Eric Owens conduct such a class for four young singers. I had never been to a master class before and found it quite interesting; it was two hours without a break, but the time went by quickly, even given the very technical nature of what was going on. I was very interested in seeing Owens in the role of teacher since he gave a truly remarkable recital for Cal Performances a few years ago.
There were four singers: baritone Alexander Elliott, with Sahar Nouri on piano, performed Wie Todesahnung . . . O du mein holder Abendstern from Wagner's Tannhauser; soprano Talya Lieberman, with Sahar Nouri on piano, performed Oh! Quante volte from Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi; mezzo-soprano Nian Wang, with Kirill Kuzmin on piano, performed Parto, parto from Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito; and bass-baritone Rhys Lloyd Talbot, with Ronny Michael Greenberg on piano, performed Vous qui faites l'endormie from Gounod's Faust.
Owens spent about thirty minutes with each performer, always starting with genial and sincere words of praise before moving on to detailed critiques of individual phrases and even consonants and vowels. There was advice on breath, and on the piano phrases that take more breath. He had them vibrate each note, or sing nasally. It seemed to be a matter of taking things apart and then putting them back together -- of making the singers very aware of all the physical elements that went into producing each note (and into producing a finely spun legato line) and then moving them beyond that self-consciousness. It struck me how difficult singing is, as well as how simple and natural -- and what mental poise it takes to live simultaneously in those two realms, of self-critical hyper-awareness and of selfless, joyful music-making as a specific-character. At least in a class the singers can stop and try again. In a performance, what happens happens and you need to keep moving.
He rarely offered emotional or interpretive advice, though he did end by telling Lloyd Talbot as Gounod's Mephistopheles to go ahead and "be that bad boy they all love - this is the ultimate one -- you're the damn devil!" He also said to one of them, "You're going to tell me a story, and it's not that you've memorized an aria -- these words are being spoken for the very first time." And he told someone else, "Stop trying to make your voice beautiful -- it's already beautiful." Instead he offered acute but always considerate advice on how to produce certain sounds ("German is a gorgeous language"), and the sounds ultimately produce the effects.
He would step away from the stage as the performers repeated phrases at his request, and he was very considerate about not blocking the view of any audience members as he stepped back into the auditorium (I wish the rest of the audience had been nearly as considerate -- there was an irritating amount of whispering, program shuffling, and other garden variety bad concert-hall behavior.) He reminded the singers that "it's work what we do up here" and that "my job is to make myself unnecessary." It was a remarkable view of vocal artistry, the kind of behind-the-scenes look that we audience members don't usually get (and should probably forget when listening to opera). All four singers impressed me right off the bat with their voices but then I was further impressed by their eagerness to learn and try things differently -- it can't be easy to be on display like that.
The class was followed by what looked like a lavish reception, but I had to work the next day (this was a Thursday night) so I had to high-tail it out of there. Your next chance to catch the Merolini in operation comes with the revival of Previn's Streetcar Named Desire on 10 and 12 July; more information on there may be found here.