Renee Fleming Gives First NYC Master Class at Juilliard

November 10, 2009
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Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito

On October 20th, world renowned Soprano Renee Fleming returned to her Alma Mater Juilliard to give her first New York Master Class.  The Master Class was a benefit for Juilliard and also marked the re-dedication of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.

It was a thrill for me to be able to attend Fleming’s Master Class.  I know very little about opera but have previously seen Fleming at Symphony Hall in Boston.  At the time of that performance, I wasn’t sure what to expect and if I would enjoy it, but as she sang her first song, a smile lit up my face! Fleming’s voice is beautiful and powerful to be sure, but it was her warmth and presence that completely drew me in.

When I learned that Fleming would be giving a Master Class in New York, I thought it would be wonderful to see her in this type of ‘casual’ setting.  But the more I thought, the more I realized it was an amazing opportunity to learn about the voice and opera, a craft that is so often pushed to the side in lieu of nearly every other popular genre of music.

To better understand art, it is sometimes necessary to start with the basics at the ground level.  It is glorious to listen to something like Brahms’ Piano Concerto 1, but what did it take to create such a work of art?  How many years, how many re-writes, how much effort was involved?  When you stop and consider the elements required to construct a concerto or symphony (or any other art form) you develop a greater sense of respect and appreciation for the composer, the work and the performer, listener or viewer who takes on the task of interpreting the work.

I wanted to learn more about what it means to be an opera singer and what is involved in developing their craft.  Who better to learn from than Renee Fleming, a singer who is now a master in her field?  In attending her Master Class at Juilliard, I knew that my understanding would be limited, but I hoped to learn just enough to enable me to begin to appreciate the world of opera.

To see Renee Fleming on stage, you think she’s larger than life.  Her voice is what you would imagine for an opera singer; it is powerful and controlled.  But when she walked onto the stage of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, she was immediately warm and personable.  Fleming is called the “People’s Diva”, but there is nothing diva-esque about her in the way that many people consider a Diva negative.  Fleming tells great stories, she laughs, she is not afraid to talk about her stage faux pas, and she seems like she could be your next door neighbor, albeit with sound proof walls!

I wondered if Fleming would sing at all, voicing examples to the Juilliard students.  I was both disappointed and pleased that she didn’t.  From the perspective of wanting to hear her, it was disappointing, but from the perspective of her being a teacher, she completely taught not by example, but by pulling the talent and work out of the student.  That, was perfect!

Photo credit: Hiroyuki ItoThere were four students who sang for Fleming.  Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Hall sang Handel’s Con l’ali di costanza from Ariodante, Soprano Lei Xu sang Rachmaninov’s Coh (The Dream) from Opus 38, Tenor Paul Appleby sang Richard Strauss’ Flamand’s sonnet: Kein Andres from Capriccio, and Soprano Emalie Savoy sang Massenet’s Il est doux, il est bon from Herodiade.

Early on, Fleming expressed concern, wondering if she’d have anything to add, given each student’s level of talent!  Each sang their piece in full and after their presentation, Fleming worked with them on specific points where they could improve.  Fleming complimented each singer, saying how marvelous they were, but as the students sang, she noticed that but for Soprano Emalie Savoy,  effective breathing techniques were lacking.

Considerable time was spent with the students on breathing, and as Fleming worked with each student teaching them how to expand the breathing chamber, noticeable changes could be heard upon utilization of their newly-learned technique.  For Emalie Savoy, the opposite existed.  Her voice was powerful and she had good breathing techniques; too good at times, and Fleming tried to teach her how to use less air so that she wouldn’t wear herself out.

Each singer was highly skilled with their voice, but Fleming was able to make points that while subtle to me, proved to make a world of difference to her when implemented.  In addition to breathing, Fleming worked with each student on emoting, inflection and expression, which immediately improved each student’s performance.

Fleming spent approximately 20 minutes with each student and I wondered what each felt of their lessons.  While I didn’t speak with any of the students, as I left the Master Class I listened to a pair of male students talking up a storm about the class and how they couldn’t wait to get home to start practicing what they’d learned!

After the Master Class, Fleming stayed an additional 15 minutes to answer questions.  Throughout the class and into the Q & A, Fleming used herself as an example and told us stories about herself and her own experiences.  One of the funniest, I think, was when she had gone on stage at the Met and was tripping over her dress.  She kept walking over it and trying to hold it up, and as she exited the stage to complain about the fact that something was seriously wrong with her costume, she was duly informed she had put her petticoat on backwards…bustle and all!

verismoFleming’s words of wisdom come in the form of her own experience.  She said that she is in better shape today than she was when she was younger and that core strength and flexibility are key.  She claims that she is the expert on anything you can do wrong, as she has done it all!  Fleming also says that it is important to be your own cheerleader because being a good singer takes a very long time.

Fleming said that she is and will always be a student, and that she hasn’t mastered anything yet.  Every day she wrestles with her voice and every day is a struggle.  She then looked at the students and said, “your work is never going to end!”

More information about Renee Fleming, including her new CD, Verismo (which I LOVE), is available on her Web site at www.ReneeFleming.com.

About Juilliard Vocal Arts [source]

One of America’s most prestigious programs for educating singers, Juilliard’s Department of Vocal Arts offers young artists programs tailored to their talents and needs. From bachelor and master of music degrees to advanced artist diploma programs in voice and opera studies, Juilliard provides frequent performance opportunities, featuring singers in its own recital halls, on Lincoln Center’s stages, and around New York City. Juilliard’s opera department has presented numerous premieres of new operas, as well as works from the standard repertoire.

Juilliard graduates may be heard in opera houses and concert halls throughout the world; diverse alumni artists include well-known performers, such as John Aler, Faith Esham, Simon Estes, Renée Fleming, Anthony Dean Griffey, Barbara Hendricks, Hei-Kyung Hong, Audra McDonald, Leontyne Price, Florence Quivar, Neil Rosenshein, Rose Stevens, Tatiana Troyanos, Shirley Verrett, and Robert White, among many others.

In 2010-2011, Juilliard begins its new collaborative education program with the Metropolitan Opera to identify and train the finest young opera singers and accompanists, preparing them for careers in the world’s great opera houses. Met Music Director, James Levine, will serve as the program’s Artistic Director, and Brian Zeger, Artistic Director of Juilliard Vocal Arts, will serve as Executive Director.

Juilliard Master Class photos courtesy of Juilliard and Hiroyuki Ito.