Manhattan School of Music: Voice Master Class with Marilyn Horne.
9th April 2008
Marilyn Horne held a free Master Class which was the culmination of two weeks of intensive coaching for 9 singers and their accompanists at the Manhattan School of Music, 122nd Street on Broadway. The event was open to the public free of charge, yet the Borden Auditorium was only about three quarters full. The evening ran from 7 to 10pm.
Ms Horne looked abundantly well in a brightly coloured outfit, seated for most of the evening at a desk on the stage opposite a black grand piano and music stand (which nobody actually used). The program notes stated that she had her 70th birthday in 2004.
Nine advanced vocal students appeared to be in their mid to late twenties … with almost as many piano accompanists. All were of highest calibre and indeed each would deserve a review in his/her own right … yet this would be unfair as we were not attending a performance, as Ms Horne stressed, but a coaching session. The first chose to sing Delilah’s first act aria which was splendid, as was the second who sang ‘I hear an army’, words by James Joyce and music by Samuel Barber. Ms Horne made a remark about the small number of Joyce books she had read. She also stopped and started the singers at various points, each clearly explained - sometimes with dramatic changes in the vocal results.
We heard sing Ah ichs fuhls; Baby Doe male aria; Delilah’s act 1 aria; Doppelganger; Fiesco’s first act aria; ‘I hear an army’; Oh mio Fernando (sung in Italian); Porgi amor; Spanish song: ‘El e muerte’.
Her commentary and banter throughout was pleasant and relaxing for everyone, without being in any way self-centred or tedious. She has something interesting and pertinent to say about just about everything – including the spring trees, bushes and bulbs lining Broadway on the way up to Columbia which all revealed spring to be the season she awaits with most impatience. This was in direct reference to the mention of ‘printemps’ and the mood needed for the phrase.
Ms Horne used many singing terms, as did her students, explaining the less familiar ones to those of us attending who were not trained or training in the voice. She talked about tempi, diaphragm, palate, jaw, breathing, nasal, head and chest voices, pitch, volume, dynamic, balance, technique, learning, speaking voice and lip movements. All made abundant sense at the time, but getting it altogether clearly takes a long period of intense training.
On several occasions Ms Horne pointed both extended index fingers laterally at her own cheek bones, raised her nose and upper lip slightly, while also making a gesture with her back and body. The latter was to indicate the “support” needed for each note from the diaphragm and everything below it (some say the heels are the most important!). The facial focus was to demonstrate the need to keep the ‘air flowing’ and the voice production up in the ‘resonant passages’.
She emphasised the wisdom of just following the enunciation of the words of any song, avoiding the temptation to force the lips and jaw into unnatural positions (especially sidewards), inevitably affecting the sound. I was a little surprised that there was no mention of trills or other ornaments. She did, however, emphasise the importance of a proper Italianate rolled ‘r’ sound which some of the singers had neglected.
Each singer began by singing their chosen number right through (or trying to). Ms Horne would then read out several pertinent points about the performance using some praise for the good parts and then going into detail about the parts she felt needed attention. These sections were repeated, sometimes up to 5 times and for the listening audience the difference was often dramatic and obvious. On other occasions the improvements seemed more obvious to the experts (and there were many of them present). One singer started with an obvious nasal sound, making one wonder if it had all been worthwhile. Ms Horne recognised the problem within seconds. She stopped the candidate and suggested that nerves had made them pout their lips (or some other labial contortion) which, when remedied, immediately yielded a most beautiful resonant sound, not in the least bit ‘nasal’.
On many occasions she pointed up the need to get the vowels correctly phonated. She quoted Ebi Stignani, ‘possibly the greatest mezzo-soprano who ever lived’ who called the ‘a’ vowel the ‘terrible’ vowel (in Italian). Apparently she often just turned it into an ‘e’ or an ‘i’ when singing to avoid the problem on high notes! We were all told about the need for a clean, accurate start to any song and several of the candidates demonstrated with false or weak starts. Another gripe only brought up on two occasions in the whole evening was not singing exactly what was written in the music. We were reminded of dotted notes and double-dotted notes, as well as those with half or quarter measures, triplets, couplets, syncopated starts and the like. It made one realise just how much effort must have already gone into each aria prior to the Master Class.
At one point Ms Horne said that the soprano in question had to pretend to be a tenor for a particular stressed phrase. She then demonstrated by imitating a tenor in full flight – using her completely intact mezzo voice – bringing the room to stitches of laughter. She sang many lines, notes, phrases and noises in full voice to demonstrate points to the candidates. On the subject of singers in full flight, she recommended The Gambler at the Met where she said cheap or even free seats might be available. She said that Vladimir Galouzine is one tenor today who has the staying power and beauty of voice she has not seen since the days of Gedda and Del Monaco. I had attended the same Gambler performance but without the same positive sentiments. I thought it was musically and dramatically woeful yet the stage design is most original and engaging (and would be ideal for a new Don Giovanni in my view).
There was much humour during the evening. Often her comments on and interactions with the singers were hilarious, sometimes just from unfamiliarity or surprise events: from clenched buttock muscles to ‘wiggles’ (“DON’T call them wobbles” she said – implying, however, that they mean the same thing). As the last singer presented her music to Ms Horne she opened to the wrong page and started to sing out loud Urbain’s first act aria from Les Huguenots, saying “I know this one!” “Non, non non non non non …”.
The last was the best performance to my ears and I made a point of going up to the elegant young lady who had been grilled by Ms Horne in detail thru the long recitative, aria and cabaletta. In particular, she pointed out that this young woman had a huge and natural chest voice and so, unlike others, she had to concentrate on emphasising and broadening her head register to ensure long life of her ‘instrument’. Ms Horne even asked her what note her register changed and the singer insisted that she never thought of things like that. Yet it seemed from what Ms Horne made her then do this ‘gear change’ at several notes lower, keeping the legato of certain phrases in the Donizetti. The cabaletta ‘Scritto e in ciel, il mio dolor’ was spectacular with the final notes nailed perfectly. Goose bumps all round!
Ms Horne gave several personal insights into the various roles. She said that the big aria is the major test for the role of Pamina in Magic Flute. She had never sung it herself due to the difficulties of the aria, although she had sung ‘Porgi amor’ from Nozze. She made the intriguing comment that Charles Mackerras had told her that he had found some evidence that ‘Ach ich fuhls’ should be sung much faster than traditionally done nowadays (he has also promoted some apparently authentic ornamentation for some Mozart gems). While she was not ‘ready’ for a fully andante version of this aria, she believed that the tempo should not lag, lest it make the aria more difficult to sing as well as less appealing in its purpose in the opera as Pamina shows her grief. Ms Horne said that she had done Italian roles in her ‘soprano days’ and very usually ‘auf Deutsch’.
Most bass students of hers rated Cesare Siepi as their favourite and this included the present candidate playing Fiesco from Simon Boccanegra. She said this was because of Siepi’s ability to stick strictly to the legato line. We were told that this aria is known in some quarters as the ‘National Anthem’ for basses. Ms Horne pointed out that this student had the ‘dollar notes’ (meaning the lowest) and now needed to attend certain other parts of his production, which he followed carefully with excellent results. Individual story lines of each of the songs and arias were emphasised in detail, including the Spanish song (grief, suicidal thoughts) and Doppelganger (shock at seeing one’s own reflection ringing hands in anguish).
I spoke to Ms Horne briefly after the master class to compliment her on her marvellous work with the young artists. She was delightful, even with a crusty gent who accosted her with a pile of old 33 RPM records for her to sign!
Comments by Andrew Byrne ..
Opera blog: http://www.redfernclinic.com/opera/critique/
Comments by Andrew Byrne ..