International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv, my last master-class for this year

On Thursday was the last International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv’s master-class that I went to. The last actual one was on Friday, but since I couldn’t get to it (a pity, since Paul Sperry would have been very interesting to see, I think), I don’t count it.

Before I go on, though, there’s one comment I want to make. Something that came up because I did not really expect the amount of ego surfing (“Ego-surfing” is the term for when someone runs an Internet search for their own name, or possibly other close people, to see what people write about them) that I’ve been seeing from singers in the program. I got plenty of such hits.

Now, the general rule when posting is be aware that anyone may read it, and I generally follow it, but if people are going to fall on these on purpose, there is something that I think may not be entirely obvious to someone who goes looking for stuff about herself (or himself, but so far the statistics of hits I got here say otherwise). I’m not a music reviewer. More importantly, while I am actually capable of providing much more accurate review of their singing and performance, I don’t. I can go on for each one about how they sang specific notes, how well they did their staccatos, how bright or dark were the notes, and plenty of other musical and singing parameters. But it isn’t interesting. At least, not for the purpose of me posting here.

I don’t expect anyone considering hiring the singers to take my words for anything. And this is why I only say some very few words about how they actually were, and go on with what was done with them. The result is that I may seem to be rather harsh and very critical. That’s not the point. I just want to write about the interesting bits from the class that I remember, and for a class those would invariably be what got mostly mentioned on the stage. Which would be exactly the things that the singers did wrong.

So if I start by listing a singer’s faults, and go on about how much work they got during the master-class, it doesn’t necessarily imply they were bad. It doesn’t necessarily imply they were good either, but they could have been. Most of them are good, or very good. But if someone read these posts thinking (mistakenly) that the point is to review the singers, they could get the impression that I think most of them are really bad. So if you’re one of the a singers who came here ego-surfing, don’t assume I wrote anything about you beyond what’s explicitly there. OK?

Now that’s that out of the way, back to the business at hand. The maser-class was supposed to be another one of Joan Dornemann’s, but she came on stage and informed us all, in a hoarse voice, that she has a sore throat and can’t really speak. She sounded convincing. Although, of course, if she just wanted to bail out, I’m sure given the circumstances she wouldn’t have had a problem faking a very convincing sore throat, or getting vocal coaching to help her do it if she can’t on herself. Not that I’m saying she did that, but it’s an amusing thought. I hope she got better, and after all this is indeed one of the risks of speaking a lot.

So instead of Joan we got Lucy Arner. Something which surprised me a bit, because while on some of the past years she did have a few master-classes, she didn’t officialy get one on this year’s program. So I originally assumed she just didn’t come. But since obviously she did arrive, she was right there after all, I’m not sure why exactly was it that they didn’t schedule her originally.

I did see two previous master-classes with her in the past, once of which was alright, and one which was bad since in it she was very technical with the singer and didn’t pay much attention to the audience. So when Joan announced the switch, I was somewhat apprehensive. As it turned out, though, she was excellent and interesting, so my worries were entirely unfounded. Still, I must not have been the only one, since there were a few people who up and left when Joan got off the stage. Their loss.

The first singer was an Israeli mezzo-soprano called Maya Lahyani. She sang Must the winter come so soon?, from Vanessa, by Samuel Barber. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I was a bit concerned for purely prejudicial reasons, when I saw the name Lahyani in connection with opera. I am however glad to say that those concerns were unfounded, and she was a really good singer. She had a very lovely and clear voice, and while her diction was a little flaky it was still possible to understand everything. Of course, with the way many people around here speak English, it’s not such a surprise that it’s easy to understand English regardless of how it’s pronounced, but that’s not her fault.

And in case anyone cares, according to Lucy this is a very good audition aria, short and beautiful. It’s also one of Lucy’s favourites, apparently, but that means it’s a bad piece if she’s giving the audition, since she’s bound to notice every little thing.

In this case they just worked on diction. Lucy said that English is a hard language in this regard, all full of not only diphthongs, but triphthongs and quadriphthongs as well. Well, I’m not entirely sure about those last, but that’s what she said, even if in half-jest. She also said some of them are ridiculous, which is really no way to speak about a language, is it? Even one having ridiculous sounds.

Lucy also corrected some cases where Maya drew the sounds beyond where the word ended, telling her that there are no vowels there, so she shouldn’t sing them. And in an amusing twist gave an example of a famous singer, but one who does it wrong, instead of one who does it right “You may have heard Pavarotti sing like that. Pavarotti has all these extra vowels”.

We also received two comments related to other languages. One was that “French is a very good language for singing in English”, since it has vowels which correspond well to the sounds required when singing in English. The other was about parts of the song where the singer blows air which isn’t used directly for the note being sung “Air that doesn’t support the tone is a big no-no in Italian. But a yes-yes in English”.

There was another part where Lucy wanted Maya to sing more slurred R consonants. She asked her “How do you make a slurred R?”, and when she couldn’t give her a good answer responded with “People don’t think about that. I think about that… I have too much free time on my hands”. And went on to explain that you can make a slurred R by pulling the tongue out a bit, and the lower sides of the cheeks (She used a better terminology, but since the proper words elude me at the moment, that will have to do) inside. Now you know.

The second singer was Karina Lucas, a mezzo-soprano from England. She sang Il padre adorato, from Idomeneo, by Mozart. She had a nice voice, but a little flat. Mostly Lucy worked with her on staying closer to the score, stating that in this case, especially given the recitative parts, Mozart does not give the singer a lot of leeway, “go with the orchestra”. At one point she did say that in some cases, had it been another composer, then the change Karina made might have been a good idea, but in this case “Mozart, him I trust”, even if he was just 24 at the time.

Lucy also told her that in cases of recitatives she must pay a lot more attention to the consonants. Something which singers don’t do a lot when singing Italian, since “Italian is a vowel’s language”. Which I think is somewhat amusing considering Italian only has five of them, but it’s true that they are still what you mostly hear, and often the consonants get smoothed over.

The original third singer did not arrive, with Lucy saying something I didn’t quite hear, but which resulted in her stating the singer was just too tired. Instead we got a duet, The Cherry Duet, from L’Amico Fritz, by Mascagni. The singers were Talia Or, who as usual had a great voice but was somewhat lacking diction and acting, and a tenor whose name I didn’t manage to catch. When he said it the name sounded a little like Pierre, but he didn’t look like a Pierre, so I really don’t know. He was nice, but gave me the impression he was more speaking, than singing, his aria.

When they announced what they are going to sing, Lucy said “Oh, too bad!”, going on to say that it’s one of her favourite arias (yes, again. She must have had a good day. Or she really likes a lot of arias). As another side note, this was one of the very rare times when the pianist received a mini-lecture as well, about something which he (Rolando Garza) apparently didn’t do right. Lucy is a known pianist herself, so it makes sense she pays attention.

In the aria Suzel and Fritz are meeting when she is picking cherrys, and he offers to help. Or as Lucy put it “They are talking about picking cherrys… Yeah, right!”. And tried to get the two singers to look a little more like there’s something going on beneath the surface. She went on in great length about the movie Continental Divide in which there is a scene where supposedly the two main characters have a discussion about ornithology which just barely mask that “they are actually making love with words”. Nobody in the hall seemed to have seen the movie, though. Including the singers. Still, the idea should have been easy enough to get. But neither of them seemed to be able to hold it for more than a few seconds.

There was another one of those pick a hot actor parts, and Lucy got Tom Cruise’s name back as an example. She wasn’t too happy with it, though, saying that “Everybody says Tom Cruise. Can you please be more original?”. Eventually I think they settled for Harrison Ford.

At another part she said that they needed to be a little less focused on the exact singing, and go with their instincts. That it’s a problem for them because the teachers “nag them all the time about their a vowel, and double consonants”, during which Talia Or started to very dramatically nod up and down with her head to show that they are indeed getting nagged a lot about their a vowels. Goes to prove that she does have the dramatic acting ability, she just needs proper motivation.

We then went on a break. The cue for the audience was the usual one: half the singers were gone, and nobody else rushed immediately on-stage when the duo left. Lucy took a little longer to get it, I think because she didn’t have a master-class in a while, and this was indeed a last minute thing. So kept yelling backstage for them to send the next singer. But soon enough people from the audience shouted at her that there’s an intermission, and she was kind enough to allow us (well, the half that didn’t reach the doors of the hall yet) to take a 10 minute break.

During which I saw the last duo and a couple of other singers leave. Usually the singers stay to watch the other master-classes and students, so I noticed that they leisurely went away. Not sure why, but it doesn’t matter much, I suppose.

The first singer after the intermission was Amit Friedman, an Israeli baritone. He sang Herr Gott Abrahams, from Elijah, by Mendelssohn. He had a good voice. But I feel sorry for the guy, because even if he was a totally amazing singer, which he wasn’t, he’s still going to have a hard time finding someone who will want him on stage. He’s very very tall, and thin. In addition to that he also stands very hunched and tucks in his chin, possibly due to years of talking to people who are shorter than him. The overall effect is that he looks extremely awkward and out of place. There may be a few roles he could fit into, but in most places he will look very inappropriate when on stage.

A large part of the lesson was therefore spent trying to get him to stand straight, and not look all hunched and tucked in. Which didn’t really help. At best he’s extremely used to standing like that, and at worst it’s now physical. This may be alright when talking to people, but is a great problem for his stage presence. Lucy did get him to force himself to straighten up a few times, but it never held.

Elijah is also an oratorio rather than an opera. So this aria is “an oratorio aria, not an opera aria. The singing is the same, but the details are different”. Meaning that they worked on several points done a little differently. It also has sequences which start in the high notes, and culminate in the low notes, with the climax at the lowest. This is the opposite of what usually happens in Italian, and most arias, so takes some practice to do right. Which he did after it was pointed out to him and he tried it a couple of times.

The last singer was Shlomi Wagner (not related AFAIK, but definitely raised the musical expectations), also a baritone from Israel. He sang Bella siccome un angelo, from Don Pasquale, by Donizetti. He’s still young, and lacking both his very high notes and very low notes, but he has a beautiful voice, strong vibrato, and will probably become an excellent singer once he’ll grow up some more and keep practising.

In this aria Dr. Malatesta tries to describe to Don Pasquale a women he wants him to marry. The women is… not impressive, to say the least, so the aria is in essence a sales pitch, full of empty compliments and outright lies. Much of what they did in the lesson was trying to get Shlomi to put it more in this perspective, mostly from the acting angle. As she told him, he’s trying to sell damaged goods, and should present the aria like the stereotypical slick used-cars salesmen.

They went on with him singing, while all the time she was throwing various metaphors at him related to what is going on in the aria. At one point the aria goes on about how the women is as fresh as the lilies, so Lucy pointed to one of the large flower pots at the side of the stage saying “as fresh as the lilies over there…”. Except those are plastic flowers, so she went straight on with “Fresh NOT like the lilies over there. Looking a bit fake”.

At another point the aria goes on about her enchanting smile, and Lucy added “The most beautiful smile… hiding the worst dental works in history”.

As for singing, there was a time when he held a note for a too short duration. After telling him to lengthen it, for a few times, she jokingly exclaimed that “You’re twenty. You’re into instant gratification”.

Also, when he needed to sing a note he couldn’t quite reach, she told him how to sing so it will be less noticeable “want you to do that soft, since your voice don’t have these low notes yet, and we don’t want them to know that”. And later “We’re going to take out the g-flat. For now. Next year, you get the g-flat.”

There was one more incident, going on during the time Shlomi was singing. I heard a cell-phone ringtone from behind me. I looked around, and saw some lady starting to rummage inside her bag. It seemed like she started to press some buttons, since the phone beeped in a manner fitting a cellphone keypad, but it didn’t quite stop the ringtone played. The lady got a lot of attention, and eventually managed quiet the phone down.

A few seconds later, that’s right, her phone rang again, but this time she quieted it rather quickly. About a minute after that… Anyone cares to guess? That’s right, her phone rang, and she once again started to fiddle with it inside her bag. Apparently the concept of shutting a phone down, or disconnecting the battery if they can’t locate the off button, is beyond the intellect level of some people.

Oh, and the best part? When she did that on this last time she quietly (But I was close enough to hear) and angrily uttered to herself “Nimaas li!”, which can be roughly translated as “I had enough of this!” or “I’m tired of this!”. She, you notice. Because she‘s the one being bothered. Not the rest of the audience, and the singer and coach on stage. She had enough… These people still manage to amaze me every time, though I should really get used to it by now.

A very enjoyable evening, overall, and a good master-class. As far as the program goes, I’m scheduled to go to one of their aria concerts, and one of the operas, but I’m not sure there will be anything warranting a post. Until next year, then.

In this series (International Opera Program 2005):

  1. International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv
  2. International Opera Program, part 2
  3. International Opera Program, part 3
  4. International Opera Program, Part 4
  5. International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv, my last master-class for this year

6 Responses to “International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv, my last master-class for this year”

  1. international vocal arts institute says:

    It is wonderful to find such a detailed recapitulation of our activities in tel aviv. By the way, not only was Joan really sick that night, she went back to NY and was sick for another 7 weeks, only to discover at the end, that she had pneumonia… she is better now and looks forward to next summer in Tel Aviv.

  2. Post author comments:

    Wow, I’m sorry to hear that Joan was so seriously sick. I hope she’ll be alright, and am looking forward myself to the next summer program here.

  3. International Vocal Arts Institute says:

    I find your comment about Maya Lahyani’s name rather racist, and even if you think it deep in your heart, maybe you don’t need to share that kind of thought with your readers, because it doesn’t give you much credit. It’s equivalent to any remark made about someone’s religion, race, etc, and I wish you would take it off your site.

    In addition, I would also like to say that although it’s wonderful to see how enthusiastic you are about the opera program, you are hurting MANY singers with the way you write about them. And I think, once again, that someone who is writing publicly must adopt a certain responsibility towards the people he is writing about. They are human, they are trying out things, some of them are very young and inexperienced, and your disclaimer in the first paragraph doesn’t make it OK to then go and trash them. This is a small country and things you write innocently can then be quoted by others who read them. The program’s goal is to provide a relatively safe environment for people to try out new things and to grow artistically. I know for a fact that singers read what you write, I know that they are offended by some of the things you write about them. That in itself should be enough for you to consider how your writing affects others. Thank you for your consideration

  4. Post author comments:

    Hi,

    Sorry for not responding to this earlier, I was out of the country and didn’t check comments here.

    Yes, the comment about her name is, kind of, racist, pretty much by definition. But I don’t think overly so, or very surprisingly so in this context.
    These cultural gut reaction are pretty common, even if entirely not PC, because at some level they’re still rooted in reality. Wrong many times on an individual level, but true in current statistics. In this case different kinds of music and entertainment originally came from different cultural groups and countries, and the correlation still exist today even if it’s not strong and happily keeps getting weaker.
    It is a touchy subject, of course, but I don’t think it should be insulting.
    I don’t feel I should be ashamed for admitting my first impressions, not very meaningful and based only on a name, went that way. Especially so considering that in this case the stereotype really was irrelevant, as I did write quite explicitly.

    If I knew for a fact that several singers are offended by what I write, and what exactly offended them, I’d certainly either stop, or change how I write these things. I hope you understand that you writing that you know that for a fact isn’t quite good enough, since I don’t know who you are, what is your relation to the singers, and how exactly were these feeling of offence portrayed to you. You claim to be from the IVAI, but used a non-ivai email address that refers to the NYC part, and sent this message from a location in Israel. Which, if you are, means that you should be a part of the program’s staff that came now for this year’s program. I think it’s a bit too early for that, but I don’t know that for a fact. But I believe that anyone from the actual program’s staff, who came all the way here from NY for the program, would not have a problem identifying by name. Which you didn’t.
    This doesn’t affect the merit of any of your claims, except for the part where you ask me to do things based on things that you claim to personally know. I can’t base anything on claims of facts without the actual facts, made by someone I don’t know at all. There’s no basis for trust in this. If you are from the IVAI and the program, then you obviously have spoken with many singers, and could know how they feel, even if you don’t provide the details. But if you’re not, then you make statements without basis to support your own personal opinion, which I have no real reason to value over my own.

    What I do know is that none of the singers who read what I wrote here ever bothered to post a comment saying that they felt I offended them personally in what I wrote about them. From general experience offended people tend to complain. So if I offended “MANY” singers, where are they?
    And I know that personally I don’t think there is any offence in what I intended to write, or what I did write, so unless someone can clearly articulate their problems then I simply can’t see it.

    Saying that Israel is a small country isn’t relevant. A very large percentage of the singers come from abroad. It’s an international ‘market’ with international singers. Foreign singers perform here, and Israeli singers perform abroad. I don’t think a singer’s home country, or mine, is a consideration here.

    I do agree that they’re all starting their careers, young, and usually inexperienced. I never stated otherwise. But I do state explicitly that the performances were done on a master-classes, and by young and still-training singers. And I state explicitly that these are my own personal impressions on how they performed on that specific occasion, with a song they, by definition and intentionally, haven’t yet completely mastered.
    That does make it perfectly fine to point out some of the weaker points in their singing. These were the weaker points by my opinion, or the teacher’s opinion. And I believe I never, ever, “trash”ed any of the singers, and even when my overall impressions were not good I was still pretty mild. With most singers my overall impressions were good, and I wrote that, so mentioning the weaker aspects of a good performance can hardly be taken as “trash”ing anyone.

    If you have any specific cases where you think I went overboard, was insulting, or implied things about a singer that should be offensive (Note: saying that a singer did not make a totally perfect performance on a master-class does not fall into any of that), please give me the details. If I have been hurting many singers, as you claim, I’m sure you can give some specific examples of things that you think were offensive, or that they did.
    The problem isn’t that I don’t care about hurting the singers, it’s that I genuinely don’t think that I am, and don’t see how I do, or possibly can.

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  6. Katy says:

    Throughout the process of learning to use the voice, I’ve come to realize that the less I try to “make the sound,” the better and bigger it sounds. I’ve learned to direct the sound in such a way so that it has its own freedom and just let it come out on its own.

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