Around two weeks ago, the operatic twittersphere was reeling from the livestreamed master class given by the fabulous Joyce Didonato at Juilliard. I love this kind of thing. I’m hungry for as much as I can learn about how to do opera. I’ve listened to all the famous Maria Callas master classes from the 70’s, and am always rapt during the intermission interviews of Met HD broadcasts with the hope that the singers will share some of their secrets. So when I heard that one of my favorite singers, the one I’ve given the title “THE next legendary soprano,” Patricia Racette would be giving a masterclass to students in the Washington National Opera’s young artist program, I was one of the first in line to observe.
And I knew that it wasn’t going to be a waste of time as soon as Ms. Racette stepped on stage in a pair of red and black python leather boots saying she hoped to make this a casual session. “Sorry we don’t have drinks!” she quipped.
The first of four students stepped on stage to sing Morro, ma prima in grazia, from Un Ballo in Maschera. It was a bit stiff, probably more from nerves than anything else. When the young soprano finished her aria, Racette jumped right in with a discussion of dramatic focus, pointing out that as the character is declaring her final wish to her husband who is threatening to kill her, this young singer seemed to be directing her focus all over the place. If you were pleading to gaze upon you son one last time before you die, wouldn’t you be intensely fixed on the one who has the power to grant your wish?
Racette then acted as a stand in for Renato so that the singer portraying Amelia would have someone “speak to.” It definitely made a difference in the intensity of the performance, but in a recital or audition situation, we probably won’t have another character standing there. Racette also noted that if you’re going to make the choice to turn your focus inward, you have to do it completely.
The next singer was a baritone who performed Avant de quitter ces lieux. Here, Racette reiterated something she had discussed with the first singer, which was that what this character is saying is so important, and that the importance of it ought to be communicated through the singer’s physicality and focus, and through musicality. In this instance, using the steady, even quarter notes of the first phrase to show resolve.
She also spent some time on vocal technique with this student, encouraging him to close some of the vowels in order to focus the sound, which, in my opinion, improved this baritone’s singing quite a bit, especially in the upper registers.
Mi chiamano Mimi was sung by a soprano that I heard perform in another masterclass about a year ago. She has an exquisitely rich, dark voice, but Racette warned her against getting too indulgent in it, lest the sound fall back. “Don’t be droopy,” Racette said, pointing out that all the character is saying in that first phrase is “Hi, my name’s Mimi.”
Racette spent quite a bit of time with this student talking about the subtext of this first flirtation Mimi has with Rodolfo.
But the best thing that Patricia Racette had to say about performing this aria, had to do with the breath/pausa before Mimi sings “Ma quando vien lo sgelo,” where the musical landscape shifts quite dramatically. Racette instructed the young soprano to take her time with this breath, inhale through the nose, perhaps taking in the scent of Rodolfo, and then, “make us beg for that moment.”
As a singer, I often feel hurried in these moments which can feel like a lot longer than they really are. So the idea that you should leave your audience trembling with anticip (SAY IT!) pation, was a revelation.
Finally, a young tenor sang Una Furtiva Lagrima. And what a voice! Yuri Gorodetski is one to watch out for, folks! Racette worked with him mostly on musical phrasing and legato. Gratuitous use of mezza voce and piano singing turned this aria from “not another una furtiva, ugh.” into a breathtaking bel canto masterpiece. Plus, this guy could really sing. Really.
It was a pleasure to shake Ms. Racette’s hand at the end of the class and tell her how much I loved her Tosca last fall. I’ll leave you with a few stray remarks she made that either made me laugh or made me go, “Oh yeah….”
- “I can’t tell you how useful it can be to distract yourself from singing” (that is, while you’re singing)
- Something I seem to be hearing from everyone lately is making those Italian “ah” vowels nice and bright.
- Activating your core for vocal support can also activate the emotion of what you’re singing.
- She called out one singer for what she called the “carrying the wood” gesture.
- “Do not send the task to throat central.”
- “Sing like you’re not going to get to sing again for the rest of your life! …Levine told me that once and I was happy to learn that he didn’t mean what I thought he meant.”
- “You want your larynx to stay in its throne while you’re doing something, really, quite unnatural to it.”
- “Make music, not chemistry.”
- “It is incumbent upon every artist to facilitate a variety of ways of doing things, and that’s how you’ll find your way.”