Masterclasses are one of the most wonderful resources we have as singers. I admit that I did not attend enough of them when I was younger. I’ve decided I will be going to more of them. And since I’ve started this blog, I thought it would be a great place to discuss them.
Wednesday night, March 9, 2016, I had the pleasure of being in the audience in Hunter College’s Lang Recital Hall to watch Ira Siff give a master class. Ira is currently a regular commentator on the Met Opera broadcasts, he has directed a number of operas and worked with many great singers and opera luminaries, teaches voice both privately and at the Opera Academy in Amsterdam. He’s done master classes with IVAI and The Martina Arroyo Foundation and is just one of the most knowledgeable opera brains in the business. There is much more I could say but you may click the link above to learn more about him. His most notorious claim to fame comes in the guise of his character, Madame Vera, whom he embodied during his years with La Gran Scena. He brought his knowledge and charm to the stage at Lang Hall and did great work with the singers.
The young soprano who was first, Victoria Franco, sang Mimi’s aria, “Mi chiamano Mimi” from Puccini’s La Boheme. He had her simplify the chattier parts of the aria and helped her to add nuance to the aria by breaking it down into separate moments or thoughts. For instance, he stressed that every time there is the word “ma” (which means “but”…) this was an opportunity for the Victoria to change how she was depicting Mimi’s thought process or mood. He also worked with her body language and the aria changed before our eyes. A glimmer of Madame Vera presented itself when with his body language and mischievous eyes he cautioned the young soprano not to turn Mimi’s line “Vivo sola, soletta…” (“I live alone, all alone…) into a lewd invitation. This caused a chuckle in the audience.
Next up was another soprano, Callie Merz, singing the Queeen of the Night’s “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” (Oh tremble not, my dear son) from Die Zauberflöte by Mozart. In this aria, she is speaking to her son-in-law. Ira made a funny quip about how she’s like “the quintessential Jewish mother” and that she had to play her less angry and more domineering. Then he spent most of the time getting Callie to slow down her runs in order to clean them up. Cautioning about keeping the vowel clean on the way down the runs (which he also cautioned the first soprano in her portamenti). The real big “aha” moment happened near the end of his work with her when he then asked her to walk around the stage to unlock her body. Suddenly it was a different voice and all the runs were spinny and exciting. I hope she remembers what it felt like because it was really a big difference.
For me, the tenor may have gotten the most out of the evening. Ross Schwaber sang the aria “Pourquoi me Reveiller” (Why awaken me) from Werther by Massenet. He possesses a rich and interesting instrument that seemed to be locked in his body. Ira had him bend over and access his lower back muscles and breath lower. He had him unlock the grip he had in his epigastrium (mid upper stomach area) and use more breath through the aria. By then end he was getting sounds that were much freer and more beautiful. I hope he remembers the sensations, because I think if he keeps after these concepts, his sound will be more of what it wants to be.
Finally, a mezzo soprano, Jennifer Roderer, sang “Re del abisso, afrettati” (King of the abyss, make haste) from Un Ballo in Maschera by Verdi. This was a more seasoned and developed voice with a healthy technique. Very luscious and big. And yet, Ira definitely brought out some even better, more lush sounds from her. With her the key was helping her not to spread on top and keeping the bottom middle notes more centered. It gave the voice the polish it needed to really make the aria sound ready for performance.
It is very satisfying to attend a master class where, after a few corrections, you can actually hear and see a difference in the voices and interpretations of the performers on the stage. I’m very happy I was in attendance and I would recommend Ira Siff’s classes to anyone looking to learn what it takes to really polish one’s technique and one’s performance. It is nice to be able to absorb the material while not having to actually execute. Watching others is a great way to learn. I look forward to writing about more master classes in the future.