Singing on a Cushion of Air

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Met star Renée Fleming coaches four Frost vocal students to excellence.

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Baritone Jeffrey Wienand enthralls the Renée Fleming master class audience at UM Gusman Concert Hall.

Vocalists Anna Hersey, Jeffrey Wienand, Maria Fenty Denison and David Tayloe perform at 2010 Renée Fleming master class.

March 10, 2010—By Robin Shear
Metropolitan Opera superstar Renée Fleming proved to be one down-to-earth diva during her master class, presented by the University of Miami Frost School of Music Department of Vocal Performance, at the Maurice Gusman Concert Hall last Friday, March 5 on the Coral Gables campus.

The two-time Grammy Award-winning soprano and Met headliner worked individually to bring out the best in four Frost School of Music Opera Program master’s and doctoral candidates, each of whom performed a classical piece accompanied by piano before receiving Fleming’s constructive and energetic guidance.

Meanwhile, a large audience of students, faculty, alumni, and other community members received a rare glimpse into the exercises and intensive work that go into developing a truly great classical voice.

Fleming led the students, who had been preparing specifically for this class since January, through their selections step by step, emphasizing the importance of breath work and support, encouraging rib expansion, and describing the feeling as one of “singing on a cushion of air.”

“As you’re singing, don’t allow everything to collapse. Keep your core engaged,” she said.

Using vocal terms like mask resonance, head voice, squillo, and coloratura, Fleming peppered her concrete physical corrections with instructional and often humorous anecdotes from her own experiences as both a performer and fan of the art.

She explained the complexity of opera, which encompasses not only virtuosic singing but athleticism, foreign language mastery, acting, working with a live orchestra, and “being able to wear period costumes and not fall or catch on fire,” she joked.

She said that after three decades she finally has gotten to the point in most of her roles that she doesn’t have to think about singing and can focus on communicating. “Be easy on yourself. Be patient. It takes a long time to put it all together.”

She pointed out concerns, “Your chest is completely collapsed,” for example, and praised improvements, ultimately coaxing audible progress from each student’s performance as well as applause from the audience. Often her lessons came from personal insight: “When I’m singing well, I have no neck,” she said.

Soprano Anna Hersey, 29, from Minnesota, a Ph.D. candidate and fellowship recipient at the Frost School, was first to take the stage with Fleming. An Iowa State music graduate with master’s degrees in vocal performance and ethnomusicology from the University of Minnesota, Hersey came to Miami because she “was impressed by the growing Opera Program.”

Accompanied by pianist Wei Wei Wang, also a Frost School student, Hersey performed the aria “No Word from Tom,” from The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky. “It’s one of the hardest arias I’ve ever sung so it’s a little scary putting it out there to be criticized publicly,” she said, but added, “Our discipline is about constantly improving.”

“I love this aria,” noted Fleming during her approximately 30 minutes with Hersey. “It’s perfect for you…. You have to use the ultimate in breath and resonance.”

Following Hersey were baritone Jeffrey Wienand with accompanist Geoffrey Loff, and Maria Fenty Denison, accompanied by Junko Kainosho. They performed Henri Duparc’s Phidylé and Giuseppe Verdi’s “Re dell’abisso affrettati” from Un Ballo in Maschera, respectively.

Fleming’s final student, tenor David Tayloe, was accompanied by pianist Anna Fateeva and sang “Il mio tesoro” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. “There’s more body to be had in this sound,” Fleming told Tayloe, 22. “Don’t take anything away, only add—more breath, more support, more resonance, and let’s just see how much voice you have.”

Tayloe, who joined the Opera Program last August after receiving his bachelor of music degree from Louisiana State University, said of the experience: “It is an honor to be able to sing for someone so pivotal in the success of opera in the modern age.”

More than 300 tickets were sold for Friday’s master class—a benefit for the Frost Opera Theater, which has performances coming up April 15-18 at the Gusman Concert Hall. Key to securing Fleming’s appearance was jazz vocalist Rachelle Fleming, Renée’s sister and a Ph.D. candidate in vocal pedagogy at the Frost School.

The master class showed just how much hard work goes into honing the human voice for the quality needed to perform in a concert hall. “Singing is the most frustrating thing,” admitted Fleming, an internationally celebrated veteran of the art form. “Until you can do it it’s hard to understand.”

After the two-hour class, Fleming, who lauded the Frost School opera program’s level of foreign language cultivation, performance style, and aria appropriateness, went on to charm attendees at a meet-the-artist reception. A student/faculty performance, also a Frost Opera Theater benefit, took place that evening.

Fleming was in South Florida for a concert with the Russian National Orchestra in Boca Raton.

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