"Besides talent, what does it take to be a successful opera singer?" asked the aspiring artist right next to me to Joyce DiDonato on the last day of her masterclass at Carnegie Hall on this freezing cold 23rd of February. DiDonato answered: “Be curious. Ask your teachers: what was life in the 17th century? How did Handel understand women so well?”. Watching her master class is a fascinating way to understand what opera singers have to go through before bringing an operatic role to the stage. For her three days long masterclass, Joyce DiDonato handpicked four young singers, some of them still in school and some right at the beginning of their career: two sopranos, Alison King and Narea Son, one mezzo, Kayleigh Decker and a tenor, Gerard Schneider. Something has to be said about how great and brave those four were: singing in public is certainly not easy but trying out arias and lyrical singing techniques in front of a Carnegie Hall audience is something else. The young very promising apprentices generously embraced the exercise, thanks notably to DiDonato’s exceptional pedagogical skills: she is exceptionally kind, knows perfectly how to criticize without hurting the highly sensitive opera singer’s ego and last but not least, she is really funny, which made the event highly enjoyable to attend.
DiDonato insists on the fact that singing is a process. This idea is the first strong point of her teaching philosophy. These three masterclasses take you through the process, and in fact, you really see it happening. As the sessions go by, you cannot help noticing how much the singers benefit from Joyce’s teaching. On day one, you see these four singers starting their arias pretty stiff, focused on — if not obsessed by — their technique, appearance and sound. One sentence from Joyce was most of the time enough to completely metamorphose a student’s performance: she aimed at "eliminating" the technique in order to force the students to focus on how the score was reflecting the mood and personality of the character, assuming that the technique had become natural for them. It is true that we tend to forget that what makes a great singer is not only a great voice, sound and impeccable technique. As DiDonato puts it, “technique is not what’s going to make your audience cry”. By watching DiDonato teaching these talented young singers, you are being reminded that great singing takes maybe before anything else great intelligence. Indeed, watching DiDonato deciphering a score is quite astonishing. These master classes are even better to watch with the scores of the arias performed in hands. Then, one can fully understand how genius Joyce DiDonato is at close-reading a score. "I have been improvising up here" she said modestly at the end of her third masterclass. That is not quite true: every single one of DiDonato's interpretation of the score comes from a quick and brilliant analysis of it. Thus, DiDonato's process: once one has interpreted a line, they have to render it and make themselves invisible by making the technique and even the music disappear. In one of the most incredible moments of the masterclass, Joyce asked Narea Son to turn her back to the audience and declaim the lines of her aria “E pur così in un giorno” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, without singing: "you're Cleopatra, Caesar left you, you are by yourself, how do you feel?". Son's lines were powerful and stunning. When she finished, she turned around to a mesmerized audience; something in her had changed. The audience recovered and started clapping. Son's singing was never the same after that: she had opened up to her character and was finally Cleopatra herself. That's how Joyce would sometimes end up spending 30 minutes with a student one or two lines. Now, imagine what it would take for a singer to master a whole role. It is not about going from one note to another: the process of mastering a role is a long and laborious one.
This takes us back to the idea of curiosity. DiDonato pushes her students to analyze every single detail of the score: yes, there's a quarter note rest written and that's when you pause. But why is it there? What are you supposed to feel as your character at this moment? What does your character suddenly understand? Same approach with the few introductory musical phrases before an aria: while students, at first, tend to see them as the music before I sing, DiDonato teaches them to see it as the music during which I feel. The difference between the two approaches of the first few bars shows immediately. Again, this part of the “process” is an incredible thing to witness.
Seeing Joyce DiDonato or any other rare singer of her caliber on stage is magical. This masterclass is nothing else than the one of a magician revealing how the magic is done. You understand quickly that just like magicians, there is no magic in opera singing, only tricks: in DiDonato's teaching, the tricks are curiosity, constant work and sincere passion. It is pretty clear that DiDonato, amazing teacher herself, will always be a student of music. Aspiring opera singers and opera enthusiasts alike should watch this masterclass. They will all learn and find inspiration in Joyce DiDonato’s vision and teaching.
The 3 episodes of the masterclass are available for free on www.medici.tv.