Sherrill Milnes – July 11th – International Opera Program in Israel 2006

The first master-class of the program this year was actually on the previous day. But it being both the opening night, and by Joan Dornemann, there were no tickets available by the time I ordered. And I ordered relatively early.

So this second master-class of the series was the first master-class in the opera program I attended this year.

This is, I think, the first time Sherrill Milnes, a very well known American Baritone and coach, comes here as a part of the opera program. Or, if he was here before, I certainly didn’t get to see him.

Not surprisingly, he seems very much at ease on stage, and seems to really know his stuff. He was articulate, clear, and interesting, and I’ll be happy to go to his master-classes if he will come again next year.

This master class also had one aspect which was somewhat different than what I’m used to. In addition to instructing the singer, and explaining about the arias and singing, he gave recommendations to the piano player. Accompanied by explanations to the audience about various differences between notes for an orchestra (as opera scores are written) and for solo piano (which is what they have in the master-classes).

While not expected, this was interesting. The adaptation for piano is always a slight problem, since the music accompanying the aria isn’t exactly what it’s supposed to be. The piano usually does a very adequate job at it, so it’s not a big problem, but it’s still often noticeable. But this evening Sherrill had explanations on various sections where the purpose and feel of the music could be better kept by altering the notes further, to compensate for the differences.

He also started the evening by mentioning that while normally singers prepare for work by not singing for a day, letting their throats and vocal chords rest, the students/singers here actually practised all day. Which isn’t really an excuse for anything, but does demand more understanding for slight slips.

Before I start to go over the singers and what happened, if you arrived here by searching for one of the singers, please read my short disclaimer on why these posts shouldn’t be taken as a serious review of individual singers here.

The first singer was Deridre Fulton, a Soprano from Canada. She sang Sola, perduta, abbandonata from Manon Lescaut by Puccini.

My own main problem with her was that she appeared too frozen, and didn’t really express emotions. Her singing was otherwise good, with a clear a deep voice, and good control.

Sherrill did comment that this is an aria that requires intensity, and worked with her on that a little.

He also had a general observations, after some small timing issues, saying that in aria songs consonants with duration usually occur before the beat, while vowels and consonants without duration, occur on the beat.

The nature of such master classes is that often the teacher stops the singer in mid-sentence to go over a point. And when the singer resumes the aria, sometimes they’re asked to resume mid-sentence as well. This is hard, since singers usually practice singing in a stream, or sections, and never start in such location. So even if they know the part very well, it can be difficult to pick up in the middle. This happened to Deridre a couple of times, and Sherrill mentioned that it’s a common problem, and that when it happens to singers “It makes them feel stupid. But they’re not” and it happens to everyone.

He also made a comment, when she sang too soft or strong than she had too, that singers tend to read strength in an exaggerated manner, too up or down, for example singing pianisimo instead of piano, or forte instead of mezzo-forte.

Another thing he said, and later repeated with a few of the other singers, is that breaths can be used for more than just taking in air. That’s the main purpose of course, and in most cases singers should do it inaudibly, but there are sections where it can add to the dramatic effect of the aria. “The reaction isn’t with the first syllable, it’s with the breath”.

The second singer was Pierre Etienne Bergeron, a Baritone, and also from Canada. He sang an aria whose name nobody (or almost nobody) was able to catch, despite several repetitions, from a German opera whose name nobody seemed to manage to catch as well. Sherrill has to step in and say it’s a version of Hamlet. [Update: Thanks to Hemdi from the program, the name of the aria is O vin dissipe la tristesse, and the opera is Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas]

If anyone who reads this can provide the proper names, I’d appreciate it…

He had a good voice, but sounded a little held back, like he’s not going as far as he can or should on some parts. His acting was more active, and more dramatic. But apparently that acting was not entirely appropriate to this aria, since this is the area Sherrill focused on when working with him.

The aria itself, and I may botch the explanation because Sherrill explained it like to an audience with some familiarity with this opera, was not originally intended as an aria, but more of an orchestra and choir piece. This resulted in a few discussions with the pianist, Rolando Garza, on modifications to the score to make the piano emulate the music better.

As for the presentation, a part of it was the usual point of paying attention to what is going on in the aria, and what the singer actually said. Not all the aria should have been with the same attitude, differentiating, for example, between the beginning where the singer tries to get himself wound up to perform a murder, or the middle where he’s there and events occur.

Sherrill also worked with him on acting better when mentioning God in this aria’s context. “When you say God at least make a little Awe”, as well as comments of finding something specific to focus about. He mentioned that singers sometimes tend not to pick locations and object to focus on, even when warranted.

Another point was on getting the details right when acting. If he pretends to hold a glass and drink, he should hold his hand as if he really has a glass in it, and move it towards him like he really drinks. Not like some do it, moving the hand towards the face fast, and then fast back down, in what would have caused a real glass of wine to actually splash the singer on the face.

On the other hand Sherrill also warned against taking the acting too far on these details. To continue the previous example, after doing the drinking, which is relevant, it is alright to go on ignoring the wine glass. No need to keep on pretending to hold it, and then pretending to put it someplace, when the song as already moved on anyway.

The third singer was Adam Marguelies, a Baritone from the US. He sang Resta immobile from Guglielmo Tell (William Tell) by Rossini.

He was nice, but his voice seemed a little weak and restrained (maybe because of overworking it that day, as Sherrill indicates some of the singers did?). He had a few diction problems, and he just sang the part without trying to act it.

This aria takes place just before the famous part of the William Tell story when he shoots the arrow into the apple standing on his son’s head. This requires, of course, that the singer pass some strong emotions. Which Adam didn’t do, eliciting a comment from Sherrill that “It was a little too little, I didn’t believe you were a father talking to your son”. Even beyond the special emotion of the scene, people sound different when talking to their sons, using a different infliction and tone.

Adam also held his fists clenched during almost the entire aria. It’s true that he should have expressed Tell’s tension and anxiety, but as Sherrill said “clenched fists looks like the singer is frustrated, not the character”, and this should be done in other ways.

By the end of the repeat song, after hearing the comments and recommendations, Adam’s singing and acting in this aria improved noticeably.

The fourth singer was Anya Fidelia, a Soprano from Russia and the US. She sang Vissi d’arte from Tosca by Puccini.

She had a strong voice, and very clear diction. The quality of her singing, her musical control, varied a little, with some parts being excellent, and some a little less good.

In a few places she made quick tempo changes that weren’t required by the notes. She should have picked a tempo in range and stuck with it. Sherrill said that in an actual opera there is a conductor that sets the exact tempo, but when just singing an aria like this she can have her own tempo, pick a pace that seems appropriate to her.

He also worked with her a little on the timing of her movements. She did made various movements and gestures when appropriate, but it was disconnected from the music, looking like she occasionally forgot to move and remembered she wanted to at the last moment.

Some of her gestures and postures were also not exactly appropriate, looking different than what she wanted them to. This is a common problem, since often people feel as if they look a certain way, while outside observers see something different. Shrerrill suggested the obvious way to practice on that, getting a mirror. Mirrors have a big advantage over getting another person such as a coach because “Singers, you don’t have to pay a mirror!”. And then it’s possible to practice the movements and see how it really looks like.

The fifth, and last, singer of the evening was Jose Adan Perez, a Baritone from Mexico. He sang La pietade in suo favore (or was it Cruda, funesta smania? My notes aren’t clear) from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti.

A very good singer, and quite likely the best one on this evening. About the only noticeable problem was that he sometimes had his stops a little too sharp.

He also apparently practised/studied with some well known figures, as Sherrill told him that “You worked with all the right people”.

One comment Sherrill made to him was regarding a part where he should have had a crescendo, but it was impossible to hear one because he was using a loud voice all the way. Sherrill explained that singing forte is a bad idea when going into a crescendo, since there’s nowhere to climb to. So even if the part is in forte, he should go down to piano so he could crescendo.

Another comment Sherrill made is was on showing the effort of singing. Singing an aria is hard, and takes a lot of effort. But what the audience sees shouldn’t be so transparent “Do all the effort you need, we don’t want to see it”.

It’s a balance, though. On the one hand the audience doesn’t want it to look like it takes no effort at all, and prefers to see that the singer is actually working, and that we get something for our time and money. On the other hand it shouldn’t look too hard, since the audience will get worried if it looks like the singer is about to get a heart attack and second.

Sherrill Milnes was very good this evening, and has a talent for explaining things in a way that the singers will understand him clearly. This isn’t as trivial as it sounds, since a lot of the terms, and especially whatever words can be used to try and explain exactly how to sing or move, are very subjective. It happens that an instructor tries to tell a singer something, and the singer understands and tries something different. Sherrill did not seem to have that problem, and expressed himself to the singers very clearly and with ease.

The singers themselves were also quite good, and it was a promising start for the season.

4 Responses to “Sherrill Milnes – July 11th – International Opera Program in Israel 2006”

  1. hemdi says:

    Bergeron’s aria is French from the opera Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas. And it is called “O vin dissipe la tristesse” (O wine, chase away my sadness)
    Yaron, if you contact the sadna and tell them that you are writing a blog on the internet, maybe they can put you on the early mailing list of the tickets, and you can get more tickets to whatever you want to see. Glad to see that we have such a young and adamant crowd. Keep it up. Hemdi

  2. Post author comments:

    Hi, Hemdi, and thanks for the response!

    I actually have comments on quite a few more days for this year, but didn’t get to writing them down here yet. Hopefully I’ll have the time later this week or weekend.
    At the same time I’ll update this post with your information.

    And thanks for the suggestion, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s not like what I’m doing is ‘official’ or anything.
    I am on the mailing list, I just need to order the tickets immediately instead of waiting a few days. I didn’t wait that much, but there were 2-3 days extra I could have cut.

  3. Ada Marie Bull says:

    when you were attending this class, did Mr. Milnes say what he is doing these days besides teaching Master classes? A proffesorship? conducting? Thank you for any information you may have. We miss him!

  4. Post author comments:

    Hi Ada,

    He didn’t mention anything like that during the masterclass. Or at least, he or Joan probably did say a few words, but nothing that I can remember.

    According to his biography page in his V.O.I.C.Experience Foundation site (the page is linked to near at the top of my post) “Milnes is currently the John Evans Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University in Evanston , IL, and is continuing his dedication to young singers.”

    Which seems accurate and up-to-date, as he is also listed in the university itself as a part of their School of Music’s faculty.

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