Opera Daily 🎶 — The Masterclass
This week's Opera Daily features the role of the masterclass in training and development
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In the 1970s, Maria Callas was invited to teach masterclasses at the Juilliard School.
These masterclasses were highly sought after by students and opera enthusiasts as they provided a unique opportunity to learn from one of the greatest voices of all time. There were 23 two-hour sessions, and Callas worked with 25 students she had selected after listening to 300 young singers in auditions.
I remember seeing Terrence McNally’s 1995 play, Master Class, inspired by these masterclasses. The play focuses on Callas as she teaches a group of three young opera singers, offering lessons not just on singing but on life, art, and the pursuit of excellence. Callas reveals her insecurities, struggles, and passions through her interactions with her students.
“Good teachers make the best of a pupil’s means; great teachers foresee a pupil’s ends.” — Maria Callas
Here’s a clip from Terrence McNally’s 1995 play Master Class (Zoe Caldwell as Maria Callas and Audra McDonald as Sharon):
The play is not just about singing. Rather, it discusses the nature of art, the sacrifices required to achieve greatness, and the meaning of success. Throughout the play, Callas challenges her students to strive for excellence while acknowledging the pain and heartbreak that often accompany artistic pursuits.
Terrence McNally took significant liberties with the events and dialogue to create a more dramatic and theatrical experience in Master Class. Still, the larger questions of what it means to be an artist and what it takes to achieve greatness are spot on.
What is a Masterclass?
Masterclasses exist across many artistic mediums and consist of an expert in a particular field sharing knowledge and guidance with a participating student.
In opera, experienced singers and teachers provide guidance and mentorship to aspiring singers and help them to improve their vocal technique, stage presence, and overall performance skills. The masterclass is sometimes led by a renowned opera singer, who works one-on-one with the participants, providing constructive criticism and feedback on their singing.
Essentially, a singer comes in with a piece prepared (an aria or art song), and in front of an audience, the teacher offers them notes and advice on how to make it better. This is not a voice lesson; instead, it feels more like vocal coaching (although the teacher often gives vocal pointers).
It’s a lot of stopping and starting, which can be a bit irritating to the student, but if led by the right teacher, it can provide valuable insight and information that the student can take back to their voice teacher and overall practice.
What I love about these masterclasses is seeing how some of the greatest singers in the world think about the notes and words on every page. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to achieve the sounds they are able to make. As you will see with Pavarotti, he often struggles to explain his ideas.
Great talents tend to learn naturally.
In music, as in sports, the best teacher is usually the person forced to learn skills with self-conscious effort. So while the great singers of the world are valuable in the masterclass setting, it is often the lesser-known teacher that can allow the singer to make great strides in the moment.
Today we’re listening to two excerpts from masterclasses with Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti at Juilliard.
Maria Callas with Soprano, María Elena Guiñez
Even though there is no video in this first video, I love that you can really sense Callas’s personality throughout. And she sings!
Luciano Pavarotti with Tenor, Tonio Di Paolo
I am not sure how much Tonio improved during this session, but I must admit I love getting a small window into how Pavarotti thinks about his phrasing and sound production.
Want to listen to more masterclasses?
Thank you for reading (and listening), and feel free to reply with feedback or leave a comment.
Enjoy and please have a wonderful week,
PS. If you missed last week’s selection, we featured The Hours, an opera about one day in the lives of three women, from three different times and places.
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The aria Suicido hangs over all of this----mixed with a mania of fame and adulation after Maria was dead. McNally was a grave digger as well, and his plays posturing, not insightful or worse. The reviews for her last tour with DiStefano were lacerating as well. Maria was not a goddess but a victim, somewhat like Princess Diana or JFK junior to the media mob.
My introduction to the great French baritone Gerard Souzay was in a master class at my alma mater, an eye-opening event (he remains one of my most favorite lieder singers). If you've not seen it, Renee Fleming in her association witylh the Kennedy Center conceived of a multi-day master class event showcasing established performers in master classes in jazz (Dianne Reeves), opera (Eric Owens), pop (Ben Folds), broadway (Sutton Foster), etc. It was packaged as a 1.5 hour PBS Great Performances special. And it was eye-opening special. Here's a Washington Post review link: https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/renee-flemings-american-voices-festival-transcends-lousy-concert/2013/11/24/ef3d7d82-5534-11e3-ba82-16ed03681809_story.html&sa=U&ved=2ahUKEwiTks7IpJD9AhUhk2oFHX-jDxE4ChAWegQIBhAC&usg=AOvVaw3qOseLABPuSrgshgvNQRDF