A master class with one of the great Masters

Vocal Master class with Marilyn Horne
June 20, 2014 — Music Academy of the West

by Tracy Van Fleet, Lister contributor

Marilyn HorneThe afternoon began with the great mezzo talking about the first singer’s choice of composers: Bellini. She told the audience much about his history, that he was a child prodigy and was also known as the preeminent bel canto composer. (Apologies to Rossini and Donizetti.) It was refreshing for her to address the audience with the assumption that everyone was knowledgeable about classical singing and classical vocal music. This was no Vocal Lit 101.

The mezzo, Deanna Pauletto, and pianist, Edward Kim, came to the stage and presented “Tu sola, o mia Giulieta… Deh! Tu, deh! tu, bell’anima” from Act II of Bellini’s opera I Capuleti ed i Montecchi. Ms. Horne told us that many mezzos choose to substitute the Vaccai aria from his tomb scene, instead of singing the Bellini, because it just feels better in the voice, and that she did so herself when she performed Bellini’s Romeo.

Pauletto’s voice was very pleasant, with a nice frontal ring to it. Her high notes were fine, but did not leave us panting for more, and her lower notes had a good amount of ring.

When the mezzo finished the aria, Ms. Horne said to her, “OK, that’s done now!” because of Pauletto’s nerves. Ms. Horne told her that when you are nervous, as we all are at times, you have to rely on the breath support to carry you, otherwise the audience will hear shakiness in your voice. Next, she told her to sing as if she was a big tenor. At one point, when working through the aria Ms. Horne said, “Remember, you’re a man!” and kept working with Pauletto to get more bravado in her singing style, and to milk the phrases for emotion, the way a great tenor would. Pauletto tried to elongate a pitch in the recit, but it was still not passionate enough for Ms. Horne. Later, in the aria, there is a moment when an appoggiatura can be added, and leaned on. Horne told her that in an aria like this you need to take every chance you have to show off your voice. Pauletto tried, but fell short of the very passionate style that Horne is so well known for.   In the audience, we could easily imagine how much further Pauletto could go, and still it would not have been too much!

The tenor, John Matthew was next with the pianist Mario Antonio, presenting “Lunge da lei…De miei bollenti spiriti” from Verdi’s La Traviata. He sang the aria well, but I felt that his voice had too much breathiness throughout, especially on sustained and/or high notes. His acting was good and he handled the runs quite well.

The first thing Ms. Horne worked on was his overuse of his jaw and too open of a mouth position. She told us that when she first heard him 4 years ago he sang very far back in his throat and that he has mostly overcome this. She reminded him to use his support and resonators instead of the jaw and mouth for sound. Also, that he should match his vowels “oh” and “ah” with his very good “i” and “eh”. Horne reminded him that one of her favorite ways to handle ascending runs is to imagine a rubber band that you pull vertically in front of your face, while bringing the sound forward into the mask. She asked him to sing one of his high notes “ugly” (she meant with tons of nasality), and when he attempted it, it was actually just right. Always sing the “ah” vowel with frontal nasal resonance.

Liana Guberman, a soprano, with the pianist, Robert Bosworth III, next presented “September” from Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder. Ms. Horne told us that Strauss requested Kirsten Flagstad to be the first to record these, and was relieved when Ms. Guberman said she knew who Fladstad was. Horne also mentioned that many people believe that there should be a 5th song to this group, “Ruhe, meine Seele”, and suggested looking at the piece if she presents the whole group.

It seemed that Guberman was not quite on a par with the other singers, although her voice was pleasant. She did not have exciting notes, and the bottom of her voice nearly disappeared. Ms. Horne suggested that she put more voice into the low notes, or she’d never be heard over the orchestra. Horne told her that this is Viennese music and that you sing it with curves and almost “sloppy”, with no sharp edges anywhere. Every line in this song should be lipid. Also, she told Guberman not to put pressure on the voice, but to simply let it come out in a beautiful arc or curve.

The final singer was Brian Vu, with Rich Coburn at the piano. They presented “Soliloquy” from Carousel by Rodgers & Hammerstein. Before he even sang, Horne informed him that Rodgers was very strict that everyone sing his music “come scritto” with no high notes added at the end, or any changes at all. We got to hear Horne talk about her connections with John Raitt (the original Billy on Broadway) and other notable singers from that era. She also shared her pleasure that some classic musicals are beginning to be produced by opera companies, the way The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus were first brought in and are now standard in the opera repertoire.

From the moment Vu began to sing you knew you were hearing a voice that could become known internationally. He had a beautiful sound, ringing resonance, beautifully handled and evenly matched registers, with glorious high notes that seemed effortless. Everything you could want in an opera star. His portrayal of Billy was quite good, although he could take a few lessons in manliness from Rod Gilfry (OK, who couldn’t). The only thing lacking was more emotional depth and showing us the arrogance that Billy has. Ms. Horne had almost no comments for him, except to remark that there is one line that is traditionally spoken, and to give him a tip for remembering a particularly tricky spot. She said we all have them (Vu had a small word mash-up, on one line) and that when you know there’s a tricky part you go over that part right before you enter the stage. She told us that for her it’s always with Copland’s “I Bought Me a Cat”, keeping all the animals in the right order each time.

As always, Marilyn Horne was gracious and supportive to the singers, but gave them tips and information that were tremendous. I only hope that they were recording the sessions so the singers can listen to it, when they are not so nervous singing for one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century.


Music Academy of the West’s website

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