International Opera Program, part 3

Monday evening I went to yet another master-class in the International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv.

The well established fact – that it’s impossible for my father to go anywhere without meeting someone who knows him, was demonstrated once more, as we came across no less than three different people who said hello to him. At least this solved the problem of how to pass the time until the show started.

Another change was that they started selling those T-Shirts of the opera program. White shirts with blue prints. The money supposedly goes to support the musical studies, so a price of 50 ILS per shirt is understandable in that regard. Yet they did raise the actual ticket prices a lot over the years, so we weren’t too inclined to donate more.

The master-class was again by Joan Dornemann. On the latest years, when it becomes harder to bring extra talent to teach, Joan shoulders more of the burden herself. She does bring John Norris, but if I recall correctly he does exactly two master-classes on each years.

On this particular evening all the student singers were Israelis.

The printed program only listed five singers for the evening. The first one on stage was not on the list (ergo I may have misspelled the name), a girl called Lauren Yelinkovitz. She started by singing Oh Mio Bambino Caro, from Gianni Schicchi, by Puccini. She had an overall nice voice, good pronunciation, but sang too weakly and without any expressions of emotions. The hand-clapping of the audience were a bit mild, and Joan told her that she needed to show more personality, and act a little more. Joan then asked her if she had also prepared a different piece.

It does happen sometimes when for some reason the teacher doesn’t want to go over the aria which was just sung, but in this case it appeared to be out of the blue. Lauren said that she had, and shortly started to sing Popular from the musical (yes, that’s right, musical) Wicked. Not only that, but she sang it like a musical piece rather than an aria piece. And she acted it as well, instead of just singing. She certainly did show a whole lot more personality. It was quite obvious something a little fishy was going on. And indeed after she finished, and got plenty of cheers (she sang well, and it was fun, though her voice did tend to be a bit squeaky when she went to the higher notes), Joan said that it’s a preview for the Broadway evening. After that the singer went off the stage. She wasn’t really there for a master-class.

As one of the aria concerts in the series, there will be one where their singers will sing songs from musicals, instead of arias. Since they haven’t yet sold all the tickets, they decided to give us this song as a sort of a self publicity effort. It’s sadly understandable why it wasn’t sold out. The opera crowd they usually attract isn’t exactly interested in musicals, many of them are very old, and old fashioned in what they want to hear. And people interested in musicals may be reluctant to hear those songs performed by opera singers. Which is also why I’m not going to be there myself, since my one friend who realy likes musicals does not like opera, and so preferred to stay clear of this. It’s even sadder, considering that as hard as it is to see operas in Israel, it’s much much harder to catch a musical in English around here.

The first actual master-class singer was Shira Raz, a mezzo-soprano. She sang Svegliatevi nel core, from Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), by Handel. I’ve heard her in the past, and she’s a very good singer. I really liked her voice, and her singing. Her only problem was with the pronunciation and diction. Joan thought so too. She started off by saying that this is a very difficult aria, and that it’s usually sung by a contra-tenor. That the piece is bouncy, and very personal, and listeners usually either really like it, or really don’t like it. She went on to say that as far as this aria is concerned, singers are divided clearly into two groups, “Those who can sing it, and of those who can’t sing it. Those who can, there is nothing to say to them about it, and those who can’t, well, there is nothing much to say to them either”. And that Shira certainly can sing it.

And then of course came the heavily emphasized “However”, followed by a lot of criticism on her pronunciation and diction. She said that what Shira sang wasn’t Italian, it was an amalgamation of all sorts of languages, including bits of ancient Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and so on. She turned to the crowd, and asked how many people speak Italian. There were something like 3-5 people who raised their hands, including my father. She then asked if they understood the words Shira sang, to which the replies ranged from occasionally to sometimes. Certainly no yeses.

Joan went on to say that there are basically two reasons for lousy diction, that the singer is “either lazy, or dumb”. She then went on about how industrious and hard working she knows Shira to be. But before the crowd got too full of mirth, Joan also said she doesn’t think Shira is dumb either, “which leaves one thing, you didn’t think about it”. Joan went on to explain to her that paying attention to diction is important, and that she should take it seriously and work on it.

Joan then went over the aria with her, in the typical master-class fashion, correcting various diction errors as she went along. The thing is, Italian only has five vowels. A lot less than many other languages. So very often you hear singers who aren’t native Italians singing Italian arias with all sorts of sounds which just don’t exist in the language. On a master-class some years ago Joan called it “singing Italian in French”. And she said, with some hyperbole, now “Italian has 5 vowels. French has 27 vowels. And German has 528 vowels”. By the end of the lesson, my father said Shira’s words became a lot more understandable.

Then came Assif Am-David, a male (The only one this evening. Actually, most classes feel skewed towards females, and sopranos. I’m not entirely sure why) baritone. He sang Tutto è disposto, Figaro’s third aria, from Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), by Mozart. He had good voice, and good clear diction. Basically a very impressive performance, except that he seemed to get too harp at times. More so than I noticed at other times I heard this Aria performed. Joan described it better, by saying he sang it as if Figaro was angry. She started off by asking him a little about how much he worked on the aria and if he practice it a lot (yes). She said that it looks very structured and formed, like it was already very fine-tuned by him and his teacher, to reach a very specific and well crafted performance. She said she doesn’t really want to work with him on any specific part, since doing so may shake something of the structure of the aria he has established for himself, and make it all tumbling down forcing him to learn it from the start.

Yet she did tell him that he should try to do it less angry. That “Mozart did not write angry people”. The style at the time in Italy, and the way Mozart wrote, was more witty. Figaro does rant against women in the aria, but it’s all slightly veiled and hinted. Figaro doesn’t go around screaming in anger, but more circumspectly tries to warn his friends about the dangers of women. They went over parts of the aria where he tried to sing and act a little less angry, and it was an improvement.

The next singer was Gal James, singing Mi chiamano Mimì, the first Mimi’s aria, from La Bohème, by Puccini. She has a good deep voice, dark high tones, and barely passable diction. Mostly Joan worked with her on fitting her acting and tone to what is going on in the opera. Joan had Gal sitting on a chair, and brought a guy to sit in front of her on a second chair to pose and Rodolfo. This was slightly more complex than the similar things from the previous master-classes I listed here, since he also had to move a little according to the aria’s progression.

They elaborated on the situation on the aria. Such as that Mimì isn’t originally as shy as Gal portrayed her, since she did come to Rodolfo of her own accord on a made-up pretext. Or that in two points during the aria Puccini inserted the same note he used by the end of the opera when Mimì died, and this can be used to show a little hint that not all is entirely well.

There was also a little joke from Joan, coming up as part of the discussion, going something like “Of course it’s possible to fall in love in half an hour! You don’t believe me, go to Italy, you’ll see… Of course, you may also not stay in love for more than half an hour.”

Dana Marbach, another Soprano, sang Saper vorreste, from Un Ballo in Maschera (Dance in Mask? I don’t think I encountered an official translation in English), by Verdi. A very short aria, with plenty of “Tra la la la la” bits. She was very nice, but the “la” words sounded half swallowed sometimes. The character played, Oscar, is a guy. Joan told Dana that she crossed her hands like a women does, and to go get some sessions with John Norris to work with her on walking like a boy.

Joan also tries to make her stop pulling her shoulders up whenever she was drawing a breath, stating that her lunges are more down, and that it doesn’t help the singing a single bit. She did say that dancers sometimes breath higher than singers, but then asked Dana if she thinks she’s a singer, the answer to which was of course a No. Joan put hands on her shoulders to remind her to keep them down. Later on she had her singing while standing on one foot, to help her concentrate on her body’s position and balance.

Joan also mentioned the “La” words, saying that in Italian she needs to make a sharper “L” sound with the top of her tongue, not a think one with the back of it.

The last singer was Anastasia Klevan, also a soprano. She sang Donde lieta uscì, the second Mimi’s aria, from La Bohème, by Puccini. She sounded alright, with decent diction, but nothing too exciting or inspiring. She also occasionally went on notes that weren’t according to the text. Another big problem with her was that she was being very much out of character, since (as we found out once Joan asked her about the story) she was wrong about what is going on in the aria.

This aria occurs after Mimì discovers that her love Rodolfo broke up with her. Joan asked Anastasia why is that, and she said that she thinks Rodolfo is jealous. At which point Joan went on about how some singers just read their own text, and the pages of the opera they need to sing, without reading the rest. Mimì is very sick at this stage of the story, and Rodolfo earlier in the story said to a friend he cannot stand being with her, watching her dying, knowing that he cannot help, and does not have the money to get help for her. But since Anastasia didn’t read this part, she was only aware of the official excuse, that Rodolfo was jealous. And so the whole aria was sung differently. The aria should have been more tragic, with internal desperation, not with annoyance.

Anastasia also sang a few notes longer than specified. And some notes differently from what was written. Joan said something like “You don’t get to do that. There are rules. You park here. You sing this note that long. You don’t do that, they take away your car, they take away you job”. Later on, on a more general note to all the singers there “You guys don’t read the music”, or “You poor composers. You make up these things, thinking I won’t notice”.

When going over the aria, someplace near the end Anastasia smiled, eliciting from Joan a comment of “That’s a very big smile for a very sick girl”. There was also a point where she tried the method of getting Anastasia to say some of the words in her own language, in this case Russian. She told her to say in Russian “Listen to me!”, to which Anastasia replied that there aren’t words for that in Russian. Joan dismissed that with “I was in Russia. And they said Listen to me! They had no problem with that.”

Reading this post of mine again, there is just one thing I think I need to explicitly clarify, about Joan Dornemann. I quoted (From memory and hastily half-scribbled notes, so all quotes are approximate) plenty of stinging and sarcastic comments. She isn’t really like that. She does use barbed words sometime to drive a point home, but she’s extremely nice, warm, and friendly. A lot of it is a matter of tone, but I can’t say anything that would be clearer than read those quotes with a Joan Dornemann voice. Since most of the people reading it doesn’t know it, assume it sounded totally without malice, and with underlying humour. Plus, of course it’s mostly those type of sentences which stick to my mind well enough to quote, so the sample you get is already biased. All the totally nice and happy things may matter more for a singer, but lack any… journalistic appeal from me side. You’d be bored senseless from this post if I quoted those.

Overall it was still a nice and enjoyable evening, but not the best master-class I’ve been to.

Oh, and as we were leaving we saw the fire hydrant outside leaking a lot water. Despite telling someone from the staff about it last week…

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