Master Class: Joyce DiDonato Delivers Lessons at Juilliard

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On January 25, at the Juilliard School, Joyce DiDonato gave a master class on how to give a master class.

I have been to countless such events in which accomplished singers work with promising young artists and this was one of the best. The reason, I believe, is that DiDonato presented herself as a sympathetic colleague rather than as a great star, which she is, or as an imperious prima donna who doles out her jealously guarded pearls of wisdom one at a time. You may not know that the American mezzo generously and eloquently shares her ideas with the public and other artists on her blog.

Joyce DiDonato turns 44 on February 13. It is notable that most master classes are given by singers in the latter stages of their careers or in retirement, yet here was one of the most admired and in-demand singers in opera today speaking not from the memory of another time but being very in the moment about what it means to sing opera now. In fact, the next night she gave her last performance in the current run of her universally-lauded portrayal of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the Met. Here she is performing Maria’s prayer.

DiDonato began the class, which was streamed live on Juilliard's website, by announcing, “We are not dealing with the finished product today; we are dealing with process. There is no finished product without process. Talent is fabulous, but work brings you the other 90 percent [of what you need.] That is the exciting/frustrating/exciting/frustrating thing about it. This class is a discovery process, not a performance.”

She remarked at one point, “I am not a voice teacher so I don’t like to talk about technical things because I could really mess people up.” I was impressed by how she was able to work with singers on certain technical refinements in a way that asked the young artists to bring forth what was challenging and work through it without DiDonato imposing a new method of producing the sound.

For example, baritone Tobias Greenhall sang “Largo al factotum,” Figaro’s entrance aria from Il Barbiere di Siviglia. He did a very fine job, especially when one considers that he was a last-minute replacement for a classmate. But there was room for improvement. DiDonato asked for a simple but essential change that made all the difference. She said, “I’d love to hear a brighter Italian ah rather than aw on the letter A. With ah, there is more sunshine in the baritone voice. It makes the voice sound younger and allows for more humor. It may also, down the road, keep the top fresher and brighter.”

To make the singer understand in physical terms how to achieve this, she told him the ah sound “is in the back teeth and molars, not in the temples.” This is, in fact, quite technical, but I think the imagery was essential in this context. Greenhall sang the famous first line, “Largo al factotum della città, largo!” with a present though not exaggerated ah so it became “Lahrgo ahl fahctotum dellah cittah, lahrgo!” and there was a remarkable change in his sound and demeanor. 

DiDonato noted that punctuation gives the singer a lot of information that many do not incorporate into their preparation. An exclamation point or a question mark can bring a specific moment to a character, a comma might allow a breath, a period may mean a rest even if the composer did not put one there in the score.

She recommends that all singers, when they practice, to record themselves so that they can listen after and make decisions about what works best. She further advised that they follow the example of baritone Thomas Allen, who counsels that they look at paintings that a composer (in this case, Rossini) might have looked at and use them as a guide for the physicalization of the character. How did the man stand? How confident was he in his clothes? DiDonato described Allen as “in control of every hair on his head.”

About performing, she told a student, “When things are in a good zone, which does not always happen, I feel more like a painter than a singer. I am creating and finding color and shape.”

In singing Rossini’s music, DiDonato said, it is not necessarily a good idea to have the audience be sure, or the singer seem sure, where the next phrase will go. Otherwise, there will be a feeling of predictability and inevitability that might satisfy certain ears but be boring for many others. It’s true: part of the joy of hearing Rossini sung well is that element of surprise that comes with it. Watch this video from a German television program and focus on how DiDonato sings with such freshness and flexibility (try to ignore the distracting camera work). 

This is great Rossini singing, even more so in that she is not in a production of La Donna del Lago with scenery and costumes. In part because it is unerringly truthful even if you, the listener, don’t know what she is singing about. You still believe what she is saying and doing. She quoted stage director Leonard Foglia, who contends “that which is true and that which is false are the two things that exist on the stage,” to which she added, “We want the truth side.”

Another important observation for developing one’s role and performance: “The orchestra tells you everything you need to know: harmony, energy, character.” I would add that this applies not only to singers but audience members. How often now do I encounter “readers” at the opera house who pay attention to the projected titles and generically follow the action on the stage? They scarcely listen to the music! When I take people to an opera, I advise them to listen first and foremost to the music and to actively watch what is happening on the stage. One should only consult the titles, not become a slave to them.

In a couple of key moments in the class, DiDonato used a word, vocality, that I had never given much thought to. She told a student, “Language, musicality, vocality, theatricality—it is a huge thing to get a role up for a performance.”

Vocality, according to my dictionary, has its “origin in Middle English, ca. 1350–1400; from the Latin vōcālis, equivalent to vōc-  (stem of vōx ) voice + -ālis -al.” There are five proposed definitions for vocality as an adjective:

1. of, pertaining to, or uttered with the voice: the vocal mechanism; vocal criticism.
2. rendered by or intended for singing: vocal music.
3. having a voice: A dog is a vocal, but not a verbal, being.
4. giving forth sound with or as with a voice.
5. inclined to express oneself in words, especially copiously or insistently: a vocal advocate of reform.

To my mind, it was a noun connoting outspokenness or bluntness. I doubt this was what Joyce was thinking when she used the word. I wrote to her after the class to ask how she understands this word and she kindly responded: “Vocality!  I meant simply the art of using the voice … if I speak of "theatricality" I mean the dramatic choices, approach, etc.  If I mention "vocality" it's usually relating to the expressive use of the voice, or it could also be simply the technical part of merely phonation ~ it all depends on the context.  But in a nutshell it's anything pertaining to the voice.”

To hear more of Joyce DiDonato’s own voice (by which I mean the one that emanates from her heart and soul more than the one she uses for opera), I commend to you a letter she wrote to a young singer that could be a manifesto for a courageous and sane approach to life.

I don’t think anyone who attended the class will soon forget the way DiDonato worked with the gifted mezzo-soprano Rachael Wilson on the aria “Svegliatevi nel core” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare. In it, the character Sesto has just learned of the death of his father. While Wilson did well in musical terms, she had not yet plumbed all of the emotions in this key moment in the opera. DiDonato began with humor and then gradually dealt with deeper darker themes, giving Wilson ways to pull from herself the feelings to imbue the performance. It was not a singer saying, “Do what I do,” but rather using tools a singing teacher or good stage director might apply to help a performer find her own way across a new emotional landscape in ways that were unstinting without being traumatic. 

This transaction between DiDonato and Wilson was nothing short of breathtaking and I noticed how still every audience member became. You must see it to fully understand what I am referring to. If and when Juilliard releases a video of this class, we will post it for readers. In the meantime, watch a conversation on Vimeo I had with Joyce DiDonato at New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò on March 30, 2011, part of a series I lead called Adventures in Italian Opera. The qualities that make her so treasurable are all fully in evidence.