John Norris – July 12th – International Opera Program in Israel 2006

This was the first of John Norris’ master-classes this year.

And, as usual (sadly), the hall was half-empty. He’s wonderful, does great work for the singers, and is also very entertaining and interesting for the audience. But he usually works with the singers on their acting and presentation, not on their singing.

And some of the regular people who come to the opera program seem to have a problem with this. It’s not that they just think it’s less interesting for them. It’s that they don’t think it matters. They hold the view that an opera singer just has to sing, and nothing else matters.

This view is very very wrong. Deciding whether they enjoy it themselves, that’s a matter of taste. But whether it matters or not, that isn’t. It’s a part of the show. Opera isn’t just a vocal art. The singers aren’t just singers, they’re also actors. And how they stand, pose, move, act, all this matters a great deal.

True, a great singer with mediocre acting skills can probably go along much better in the business than a great actor with mediocre singing skills. But that doesn’t make anything beyond singing less important.

And, somewhat ironically, all these things actually also affect the singing. When singers get more into the role, and act it properly, they also sing better and more appropriately. And this is sometimes very apparent in John’s classes, where he very rarely makes a direct comment about the actual singing, and yet the singers often improve in that as well during the repetitions.

Still, time after time, in his master-classes either almost half of the seats are empty, or they become empty during the break.

Their loss.

The singers themselves think so too. In the audience there are also a lot of the program’s singers who arrive to watch their colleagues being tortured tutored on stage, and to learn the general lessons explained. Sometimes I get to sit near some of them, and can often hear their discussions among themselves. And more then once, during John’s classes, I heard a few talk about how wonderful he is as a teacher (This time the exact word used was “brilliant”).

The first singer on-stage this evening was Moran Abouloff, a Soprano from Israel. She sang Monica’s Waltz from The Medium by Menotti.

She improved drastically from last year. Good voice, and lovely high notes. She sang a little too softly at times, and her acting wasn’t entirely fitting, but overall she was very good. I heard her once last year, and really didn’t like her, so I’m happy to see the improvement.

One thing John recommended that she do in this aria is avoid looking, and singing, directly to the audience. Part of the time her focus should be directed to where the Toby character is. To help her focus on a character which isn’t there he started by placing a chair on the floor, but quickly enough she managed to get the point and just pretend Toby is somewhere specific and focus on the same empty direction on stage.

In the other parts of the aria her focus shouldn’t be outward to the audience, but on the “fourth wall”. Monica and Toby are trapped, in a hard life, and her demeanour should reflect that. (The fourth wall is an acting term referring to an imaginary wall on stage between the actors and the audience)

Another recommendation he gave her for this aria was to imagine Toby’s responses when her character of Monica asks him questions. He told her to use the short pauses between the questions to whisper to herself appropriate answers. This did seem to help getting her into the proper mood, assisting her in connecting to what is happening in the aria.

A somewhat more complicated thing he also worked with her on was to try and act two roles to a degree. The aria is Monica’s song, but a part of what she is singing is what Monica supposes Toby would tell her in response. So for this she has to act differently, like she is trying to imitate Toby.

The second singer was Angel Ruz, a Tenor from Mexico. He sang Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola from Falstaff by Verdi.

He was alright, but his voice sounded a bit bland to me, and he sounded like he kept himself to a rather limited vocal range. I wasn’t very impressed with his singing last year, and he seemed pretty much the same now. On the other hand a large percentage of the crowd did seem to really like him (as did Joan Dornemann in a later master-class this year), so I guess it’s a matter of taste.

He also had a weak voice when speaking. A few times John had to lend Angel his mike when they discussed some point, since it wasn’t possible to hear him otherwise.

Mostly John worked with him on two ways to portray the character better during the aria. The first thing was to try and get him to actually look, and sound, like he’s telling a secret. John had Angel sit on a chair, hold his finger in front of his lips, and sing more quietly as if for himself and not to another person. The intent was to give him a sense of privacy, as if he’s speaking and telling the secret, not really singing.

The second attempt was to pretend he has two imaginary friends in front of him, and to tell them what he has to say, alternating between the friends.

All this work not only improved his acting for this aria, but also improved his singing. Part of it was a point many of the teachers in the master-classes raise, that often the singers concentrate too much on what they’re doing and how it sounds, and it interferes with their actual singing. In his case he tried too hard to make sure everyone will hear his song, and as John put it “When we worry about projecting we become more stiff”. When he managed to get into the role he both looked, and sounded, better.

The third singer was Anyz Volvovsky, a Soprano from the USA/Russia (If she gave more details on what that means I didn’t write it down, and don’t remember it. Her spoken English was good, though). She sang Signore, ascolta! from Turandot by Puccini.

She had a nice and clean voice, and sang quite well. But she didn’t really do the acting part. Her stature and movement were not appropriate.

And this is naturally what John worked with her on. Getting her to sing the aria looking less like someone important and more as a slave girl, more humble. She kept looking upward and out, with her chin up, in what John jokingly referred to as “The Soprano Disease”.

A bigger problem than just for this aria, since he also warned in general not to overdo it, and “not to let the energy disperse when looking up”.

The fourth singer was Jessica Bowers, a Mezzo-Soprano from the US. She sang Cruda Sorte from L’Italiana in Algeri by Rossini.

She sang very well, and has a beautiful voice. Her acting, however, was lacking (yes, that’s a recurring theme with most singers in these master-classes. Even when they know they’ll be with someone who is mainly concerned with their acting).

There were two main things he worked with her on this aria. The first was to look more like she was just shipwrecked, which is the condition the character she’s portraying is in. Someone just recovering from a wreck, finding themselves waking up alone on the beach, doesn’t look as well off as she did. John initially had her sitting lopsided on a chair, and told her to pretend she has an headache. When she still didn’t look suffering enough he encouraged her with calls of “Whine, whine”.

Later on the aria, when the character of Isabella seas the pirates approaching, she becomes more confident because they are just men, and she’s a manipulative beautiful and women who think she knows what men wants. So John had her act more appropriately for that, and show the correct expressions.

Here too, the acting helped her really get into the role, and the both looked more convincing and sounded even better. As John said “Don’t we love it when a singer forget themselves?”. As long, of course, as they don’t forget themselves too much and keep on singing right. Not a problem here at all.

The fifth singer was Rodrigo Garciarroyo (Or maybe it should be Garcia Arroyo? The English text on the page was Garciarroyo, but the Hebrew text would indicate this second spelling.), a Tenor from Mexico. I missed the aria he was singing, except that the composer was Verdi.

Overall he sang very well, and had a pretty, strong, and clear voice.

But he could sing better. John brought out a prop (a lot less of them this year, compared to some of the previous years), a large yellow rubber band. He had Rodrigo stand on one edge of it, and stretch it up with his hands, singing while he held the band tense.

With the band his singing was more tight, and stronger. More focused. John said that “When he relaxes, the energy drops”, which was true. The simple physical exercise of holding against a strong tension helped Rodrigo keep more energy in his singing.

The sixth, and last, singer was Deborah Berioli, a Soprano from the US. She sang Tu, tu piccolo Iddio from Madama Butterfly by Puccini.

She had a very beautiful and strong voice, and kept a pretty dramatic presentation (which was actually appropriate). But she didn’t sing clearly, and needs to improve her diction.

One thing John worked with her is on keeping the dramatic strength but being less outward with it. In the aria she sings to her son, but when she talks to her three years old son about her problems she isn’t really talking to him, but to herself.

He also let her stretch the rubber band some, as a way to help her focus herself differently. And, not less important, because she had a tendency to keep her knees slightly folded instead of straight. Something which she couldn’t do subconsciously when using her whole body to stretch a large rubber band.

All in all a good evening, the singers were very good, and John Norris himself was as excellent as usual. While just the second master-class I’ve been to this year I already started to get the feeling that on average the singers this year were better than last year. Though of course last year had a few exceptional singers as well.

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