Master Class: Thomas Allen on Making Mozart's Music Sing

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In a recent dispatch about Switzerland’s Verbier Festival, I mentioned that it is distinctive because of the extraordinary emphasis given there to music education as well as performances. Each summer a group of young opera singers gathers to learn the roles to one opera from experienced artists who are master teachers (I was hired to give some pre-concert talks to the public at the festival).

This year's opera was Mozart and da Ponte’s Le Nozze di Figaro (which returns to the Metropolitan Opera repertory on October 26). Master classes were given by soprano Ileana Cotrubas, and baritones Thomas Quasthoff, Claudio Desderi and Thomas Allen. Here are highlights of Desderi teaching a master class in France about Mozart and da Ponte. Watch Allen as Don Giovanni and Desderi as Leporello perform “O Statua Gentilissima” to have a sense of how music and words are inextricably combined in the Mozart/da Ponte operas (Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosí fan tutte).

Allen’s master classes were quite different from those offered by Cotrubas, and equally valuable. While the soprano focused on organic issues in the music as the wellspring of interpretation, the baritone used the sound and meaning of the words as the way into creating a role. He emphasized how both the music of Mozart and the words of da Ponte express a duality that must be captured by singers as both musicians and actors. This duality is also heard in the orchestra’s music, which is very challenging and particular but also exhilarating for performers and audience.

“We are not doing Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro,” said Allen. “We are doing Mozart and da Ponte’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Da Ponte did not get nearly the credit he deserves. This libretto is even more brilliant, perhaps, than the music.”  That is quite a statement, but Allen’s point is that in some operas, deep exploration of the sound and meaning of the words is fundamental.

In asking the young singers to give full weight to the libretto, Allen noted, “There is a meaning to everything da Ponte says to us. And then there is a second meaning, and perhaps a third.” In the Mozart/da Ponte operas, there is a duality to so much of what these characters express. This is because they, like so many of us, might say what they want but not fully understand what they really mean. Figaro can say pian pian (slowly, slowly) because he is feeling pressed but, in fact, he wants to push quickly ahead. 

To this I would add that, in the Mozart/da Ponte operas, the duality or double meaning is also present in the music. What the Count or Countess Almaviva, Figaro or Susanna might be saying and what they are thinking might be quite different. Only Cherubino, the hormone-addled adolescent who becomes unhinged at the sight of a woman, is unable to represent a feeling other than what he is actually experiencing. This only makes him more endearing.

From the first words of the opera, Allen immediately set the context for the two singers before him: "What one needs to feel at the start of Figaro is the joy of these two people, Figaro and Susanna, in love.” He worked very hard at making this relationship palpable because the bond between the two servants must be solid as they come to face all manner of adversity. "If we start small with this tiniest of scenes, we have an explosion, a tree with many branches, an oak. The kernel of the characters of these two most important figures can be found here.”

Allen said that the action has to be enacted as described in the words and music no matter how unusual the production might be. "Figaro is measuring the small room for their bed. It might be an Ikea bed, but young singers might one day find themselves in an Ikea." At this, the young bass-baritone singing Figaro remarked that he had already been in a production of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi set in an Ikea store.

Watch this scene with Erwin Schrott and Miah Persson to understand how concentrated, musically and dramatically, the opening of this opera is.

Allen said that to successfully perform roles, one of the secrets is to use moments of silence to convey character. “I love when you don’t say anything. That is when we, as the person we are playing, are thinking about what we are going to say. For us, there is no book (libretto)—the words come from within.” To understand what Allen means, watch him as the Count Almaviva in “Hai già vinto la causa."

The British baritone began another class by asking the singers playing the Countess, Susanna and Figaro to speak the dialogue as if in a play. He encouraged them to infuse the spoken words with vocal patterns and inflections. He pointed out that actors—good actors, anyway—can color their voices. These singers, in giving color to their voices and words, go part of the way toward creating the small details of character that give richness to their overall portrayal. "The beauty of recitative is that it allows you, with brilliant dialogue, to get close to the play."

Allen used many cultural references which, I think, might have been unfamiliar to these young artists. In discussing the class distinctions among the characters, he mentioned the Ibsen play, Hedda Gabler, and the famous British television series Upstairs, Downstairs. This is part of the job, though, of a master teacher. Presenting cultural ideas and models that are unfamiliar to the young student is a way of guiding him or her to sources of insight and inspiration.

Allen was very demanding when it came to how words are pronounced, pointing out that a single consonant, such as the M in madama, is distinct from the double M in dramma. The music suggests, and requires, that a single consonant sound different from a double. Sometimes, this can affect what a word can mean. Sono can mean “I am” or “are” while sonno means sleepiness. The single or double N makes a world of difference.

"Acting is not rocket science. It is just basically observation and everything that happens after is organic.” Allen noted that it is interesting in opera that you might have a bunch of singers who are wonderfully vocally but not great actors. Or there might be singers who excel at acting but not are not memorable as singers. The implication is that there are those in the middle, who have a lot to offer as singers as well as actors, might be better suited to roles in the Mozart/da Ponte operas. But he was quick to add that certain singers, including Joan Sutherland, Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti, are “gods and goddesses for whom just singing—making wonderful, beautiful, big sounds—can stun you with their beauty.”

Watch an entire performance of Le Nozze di Figaro and come to your own conclusions about which cast members are more proficient as singers, which ones are better actors, and those who are equally adept at both.