Mignon Dunn – July 16 – International Opera Program in Israel 2006

[Update: I forgot to link to the usual disclaimer, of why anyone reading this should not take it as a serious review of the singers who participate in the master-classes. I also cleared an ambiguity I had on the name of one of the sung arias, based on the comment by the singer]

The master of this day’s master class was Mignon Dunn, herself a very well known and accomplished singer.

I recall seeing that she has a master class in this opera program for years now, but don’t recall how far back. Every year it seems like she has just one master class, though. And until this year I think I never managed to see one.

The first singer was Angela Pihut (or Pihot, they spelled in different on the two master-class she was on), a Soprano from Moldova. She sang Donde lieta usci from La Bohème by Puccini.

She has a very lovely voice, nice clear high notes, and good crescendos. But she also suffers from a problem with the languages. Not only her English during the class, which was bad, but the impression is that she didn’t really understand what it is that she sang. And her diction could use some improvement as well, though that’s a part of the same problem.

Her acting during the aria was too sad. Since this aria is after Mimi (the character she’s singing) had a big fight with her boyfriend, and they broke up, being sad seems natural. But Mignon reminded her that in these circumstances people often don’t act as sad as they feel. “We all broke up with someone we love. It’s painful, and we want to make it as unpainful as possible”.

In the same vein, Angela’s tendency to look down during the aria was met with the comment “Don’t look at the floor, he is not on the floor”.

And again, something which happens to a lot of singers, she listened to herself while singing, trying to judge herself and decide if she’s good. But if a singer is too busy listening, they don’t put as much into their singing. “Don’t be your own critic. You are good”.

Another point, which Mignon raised with several of the singers, was that it is important that they’ll keep their energy while singing. Even if it’s sad, even if it’s supposed to be quiet, they should keep their energy. “Keep your energy. don’t relax for goodness sake”.

The second singer was Malena Dayen, a Mezzo-Soprano from Argentina, who sang in this master-class the aria Werther! Werther! (I think officially called Je vous écris de ma petite chambre) from Massenet’s Werther.

To clarify, unfortunately by this point I’m a little confused about what was sang originally. According to her she sang Werther! Werther!, and this is what I corrected my report here to say. I have no reason to doubt this, since I do believe she has a better reason to remember this accurately than I do, since the length of the aria does fit what happened on the stage, and since this aria does make more sense for her as a singer. In my original report here, though, I was under the impression that the aria was Vieni t’affretta from Macbeth by Verdi, which I explicitly do recall being mentioned on stage this evening. The reason for my confusion is that I’m not sure why Macbeth would have been mentioned when singing Werther, yet I really can’t figure out any other singer this evening that I may have confused it with. Possibly Mignon made some comment comparing a certain detail in this aria with the Verdi one, and this stuck in my recollection over what was actually sang.

This aria is very long. Mignon stopped Malena somewhere in the middle, and said that she won’t be singing all of it. This is also a problem with master-classes, because each of the student singers deserve their time, but there is a limit on how much they can stretch each session. So singers who choose a long piece often either have to only do half of it, or the form of the lesson is changed and they work while singing the aria the first time, instead of singing it straight first and then repeating while working with the master.

Much of what they worked with on this aria was also the issue of energy, and putting enough strength into the songs. Mignon’s phrases during this part included “Don’t relax, just don’t relax” , “It gets too sad, and sentimental, and I lose patience”, “Don’t not use energy, ever” (Yes, that’s a double negative. But no grammar aficionado from the audience complained, so I won’t either), “I know it’s piano, but don’t hold back with it”, and “For me it’s simply not enough. It’s not a matter of loud, just give a little more”.

As I said, Mignon Dunn seems to put a lot of weight on energy.

The third singer was Carlos Conde, a Baritone from Puerto Rico. He sang Hai gia vinta la causa from Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart.

Mignon, and most of the audience, liked his singing. To me personally he sounded a bit flat, with little distinction between the low and high notes. A matter of taste, I guess. And the aria is supposed to be partially a recitative, so maybe it was even partially justified.

He also, apparently, lost 80 pounds during the past year. That’s some diet.

In this aria the acting should reflect the mood of Count Almaviva. On the one hand full of himself and vain, but on the other hand concerned about what others think about him, and also getting furious when he overhears Susanna and Figaro.

On the Count’s character Mignon had to say that “I think the count is really neurotic. Strong people don’t care that much what people think about them. But he does, too much”.

Mignon worked with Carlos on these acting bits, showing the different moods and personality traits that the count exhibits during the aria.

She also had a comment about the singing, which again could apply not only to this case, but in general. There is a part of this aria in which some sentences and sentiments are repeated a few times. And Carlos sang them the same. So Mignon said that “We do say things over and over and over again. But you have to get a little madder each time”. There should be some change, progress, growth. The repetitions aren’t done frozen with no changes.

The fourth singer was Laura Mohre, a Mezzo-Soprano from the US. She sang Svegliatevi nel core from Giulio Cesare by Handel.

She had a very good voice, and beautiful high notes. But she was a bit too quiet, didn’t project her voice well enough. It seems during her singing that she couldn’t take in enough air, and kept taking half-breathes instead of breathing fully.

This is a vengeance aria, starting with an appeal to the Furies to get him[1] more riled up for his revenge. So Laura had to act, and sound, madder. “Stop thinking vocal production, and just be as mad as hell”.

After some prompting from Mignon she also improved her stance, which besides making her look better also made a noticeable improvement to her voice.

Usually I don’t mention the pianists in thes master-classes, because the main point is the singers. So as long as there’s nothing out of the ordinary with the music I just don’t pay attention (This is very different on music concerts, were I tend to notice way too much). But on this particular aria the pianist, Sasha Ivanov, missed quite a few notes. I assume he didn’t get enough practice time on the piece in advance.

The fifth singer should have been Juan Carlos Rodriguez, a Tenor from Mexico. But he didn’t arrive. Instead we had Thomas Wazelle, a Tenor from the US. He sang De’ miei bollenti spiriti Libiamo ne’ lieti calici (Actually, he didn’t name the aria, and I didn’t write anything in my notes to remind me for sure. So I suppose it’s possible he sang De’ miei bollenti spiriti instead) from La Traviata by Verdi.

He had a nice voice, but he needs to work on his diction.

He also didn’t hold many of the notes long enough. But it’s not a matter of ability, since when Mignon pointed his attention to it, and told him to hold the notes, he did. And noticeably improved.

It did require him to breath a little more, but as Mignon said “Breathing is better than not breathing”. Hard to argue with that.

Another good evening on the opera program, and Mignon was certainly good enough to try and catch next year as well.

  1. Well, the singer is a her, but Sesto, the character, is a him[back]

4 Responses to “Mignon Dunn – July 16 – International Opera Program in Israel 2006”

  1. Thomas Wazelle says:

    Yes, you got the aria correct! As a matter of habit, I always state my name, where I’m from, and then the name of the aria I sing for a master class. That evening was no different. Maybe confusion about the name of the aria stemmed from the fact that it wasn’t in the program. As you stated in your “review”, I sang in place of Juan Carlos because he too was sick from jet-lag. Actually, as a little side note, I had been exhausted from jet-lag and snoozing through the first half of the class in the back row of the auditorium. At intermission, I was awakened and asked to sing. I’d do anything for Mignon, and she needed my help so I agreed. I hadn’t sung that particular aria in quite some time, but considering my current state, it was fun and energetic enough to sing in the midst of waking myself up.

    One thing to point out when watching a “Master Class” is that singers often will sing an aria that they think needs improvement. It defeats the purpose of the “class” to sing something that needs very little work. How interesting would it be if the teacher said, “Very good, there is nothing I can say about that!” It’s much more interesting if we reveal our flaws and let the teacher iron them out for all to see and hear. That’s what a “master class” is all about. A “review”, serious or not, is never appropriate or fair when an artist has offered his/herself into such a vulnerable position. It’s a peak into what takes place between the teacher and the student behind closed doors, and, consequently, makes for very easy prey. Posting those flaws for all to see discourages future young singers from sharing that special phenomenon with the public. I find that to be alarming.

    Instead, review them when they are singing in a concert or an opera. It’s safe to say that in those situations singers offer only what they have learned, coached, and rehearsed, worked out the flaws, and that they have deemed “performance ready.” The “closed doors” have been opened and they are ready to share with the world and with you.

    Thank you for your enthusiasm and audience participation!


  2. Post author comments:

    Hello Thomas, thanks for commenting.

    You are entirely correct, of course, in that singers should pick arias where there is room for improvement for master-classes. There are rarely cases where the master does say “That was excellent, thank you. Next”, and while the arias are usually very enjoyable in these cases, that is far from being a crowd pleaser, just as you say.

    And this is one of the reasons why I don’t really consider these posts a “review” but more of a short account of my impressions from the master-classes. It’s more about what the “masters” said, and general points, and less about the singers. I do mention brief impressions of the singers because writing about a singer in a master-classes, in any situation where they sing, without saying anything about them feels out of place. But it should not be considered an actual review, or a musical review, or anything of the sort.

    I actually made a post on why people who read these should not consider them to be reviews of the singers, but forgot to link to that post from this directly.
    Singers do come with arias they haven’t practised to perfection, tired after a few days of work on them, in a less than ideal settings, and so on. I do want that to be obvious to anyone who reads these posts.

    But I don’t think that simply not saying anything is a better alternative. I’m nothing in the singing/music business besides just another listener. When I say something about a singer it shouldn’t carry too much weight, regardless of whether my opinion is good or bad. It is not my responsibility to avoid station what opinions I have just because someone may decide to take them too seriously.

    And a review is always appropriate, even when an artist puts themselves in such a position of singing not at their best. The review just needs to be clear on what the situation was. And even though in this case I didn’t link to the longer text, I do explicitly state that these are master-classes.
    Making a review under these conditions, without saying it wasn’t a proper full concert, that would be inappropriate. But that’s not what I’m doing. I know most people aren’t at their best in those situations, and I expect almost everyone who will read this will know so as well.

    You are in a better position than me to know how singers would respond to this, but I still find it hard to believe most singers will really become discouraged because someone wrote things that may have been mildly bad about their singing in a setting where they themselves know they didn’t practice and try to the best of their abilities. I really expect reactions on the range of “Who cares?” to “well, duh”.

    I am sorry about the aria name. Usually when the singer say the aria’s name I try to write something down even if I didn’t hear it. So seeing I had no note, I assumed you didn’t say what it was, rather than that I didn’t catch it. Sometimes I explicitly remember that the singer didn’t name the aria, but in this case I don’t remember it either way. If you name the aria as an habit, it would be a safe bet that you indeed named it also on that evening.

  3. Thomas Wazelle says:

    Thanks for responding and for making the correction. I realize I may have come across a little terse. I appreciate that you took the time to attend the class, and even more that you took the time to write an account of it. I realize the comments you wrote were your impressions. I wish more people could have such intelligent opinions, especially where opera’s concerned. I simply felt a need to share a little insight into the sensitive task of being made a master class guinea pig. It’s not easy. Of course, singers practice the arias before they sing them, and a master class is a place to expose their flaws and ask them to try new things, but let me be clear in the fact that singers always try to the best of there abilities in a master class situation. I do apologize that I wasn’t clear enough in my comment about the title; you actually got it right the second time with “De’ miei bollenti spiriti.”

  4. Post author comments:

    Hi Thomas,

    Thanks again for correcting the aria’s name. I fixed the post.

    And thank you for your insights and any other information you shared. I believe we do agree on the point that singers will always do their best when they get on stage, it’s just that on a master-class they’re not the best they could possibly ever be since they do have more to learn and practice for the aria.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.