Master classes enable audience members to learn how painstaking and complex it is for a singer to master a song or aria, let alone an entire role. While these classes can be nerve-wracking for young singers, they too stand to benefit from the wisdom and experience of the artist who is teaching them. Most of the masters are senior or retired performers such as Thomas Allen, Martina Arroyo, Ileana Cotrubas and Marilyn Horne.
The Juilliard School has found a special niche in the vocal master class by offering a series of singers still active in their profession who can offer a contemporary perspective to students who may well have heard live performances by the people teaching them. Recent master teachers have included Joyce DiDonato and Renée Fleming. On May 1, four talented Juilliard students had the good fortune to work with the bass-baritone Eric Owens, who is 43.
In introducing Owens, Brian Zeger (head of Juilliard’s vocal arts and a faculty member in the collaborative piano department) described him as "a conductor’s favorite, a director’s favorite" for his artistry and willingness to explore and experiment in building a role during the rehearsal process. Zeger noted the huge acclaim that Owens received as Alberich in the Met’s current production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. I reminded myself as I heard this that Alberich is, in fact, the title character of the cycle as he is the Nibelung in question.
Owens is one of those singers whose radiant intelligence is part of what he brings to his work. But, unlike some who flaunt it, he uses it as a tool for digging deeper into the material and then making his performances more luminous, textured and immediate.
In the class, he approached each singer based on the music performed and that singer’s particular qualities. This may seem like the obvious thing to do, but it is not a given. Many master teachers I have seen draw from a core set of beliefs and ask every singer to adhere to them. Owens listened and watched with great care and worked with each student in specific ways.
The class began with baritone Takaoki Onishi singing Almaviva’s aria, “Hai già vinta la causa” from Le Nozze di Figaro. This is a difficult aria--what Mozart is not difficult if it is to be done well?--in that the Count has overheard, and must react to, Figaro remarking on a plot by the Countess and Susanna to outwit him. Many singers play this with ire from the start while others seem to produce music without connecting it to what is being said. Owens made a helpful suggestion—simple, but ideal--asking to “see the wheels turning.” As he sought to refine Onishi’s interpretation, which was solid in musical terms, he joked about sounding like certain conductors: “Don’t do what I said, do what I say!” Over the course of fifteen minutes, Onishi’s performance of the aria became more nuanced and--importantly--more his own rather simply doing what Owens asked for. That’s good teaching.
Soprano Julia Bullock sang “Der Knabe und das Immlein” from Hugo Wolf’s Mörike Lieder so well that I wondered what Owens would say. Clearly he was impressed but he said “give me some spice with that sauce,” and suggested that she vibrate her sound a bit on the letters M and V in certain words. With Bullock and a couple of her classmates, Owens asked that they try singing the music using only vowels to get color and variety into their sound and then had them sing it again, using certain consonants on which different kinds of emphasis and expression could be added. These small but subtle touches enriched the complex and contradictory nature of this song, which seems all sweetness and light but has churning currents just beneath the surface.
With bass-baritone Önay Köse, the teacher took a different approach with “Che mai veggio...Infelice e tu credevi” from Verdi’s Ernani. This young singer has a very attractive voice and showed good facility with the Italian. Owens asked him to not create a color or warm sound but to sing this music as if he were speaking it and inject a touch of nasality. “I feel like you are adding color to your voice where color is already there," said Owens. "Color on top of color bogs things down.” He then offered the example of Luciano Pavarotti: “He sang like music just fell out of his mouth, like it was coming from God without forcing it or trying to color it.”
The last singer was Mary Feminear, who sang of Violetta’s “Follie...Sempre libera” from La Traviata. This music is notoriously challenging and asks each singer to accomplish many tasks while putting a personal stamp on it. In coaching the soprano, Owens made a decision that he did not immediately reveal in words but worked for in music. He asked her to “go right up the middle rather than spreading the sound....make the top sound like the rest of the voice.” What was he after? Owens believed that the character of Violetta is more womanly and less girlish. The sound that Feminear (and many sopranos) produced in the uppermost part of the aria was more piping and childish then adultly feminine. By teaching Feminear to connect all parts of the aria vocally and dramatically, Owens enabled her to give the music and character an arc and depth that clearly took her by surprise--positively so.
Part of a Juilliard master class involves students in the audience getting to ask questions of the teacher. One 22-year-old bass-baritone lamented at “being stuck in age-appropriate repertory” of mostly Mozart. Owens quickly replied, “How is one stuck singing Mozart? It is the gift that keeps on giving. Mozart and Verdi help us check where we are. The great thing about being a bass-baritone rather than, say, a soprano is that there are roles for all phases of the career: Figaro, Leporello, then later perhaps Verdi, then Wotan and then Benoit and Alcindoro” in La Bohéme.
Another student asked Owens to name singers who awakened him to what opera and song could be. His choices were not ones most singers mention, but bespeak a refined awareness of superb artistry. I suspect most of the students had never heard of them. First there was the Swedish mezzo Anne-Sofie von Otter, whom the 14-year old Owens heard in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He also cited José van Dam, the splendid Belgian bass-baritone. For technique, he mentioned the Italian coloratura soprano Mariella Devia, who is still singing beautifully in her 60s and makes a rare New York appearance on June 5 in Roberto Devereux with Opera Orchestra of New York. Finally, he named the divine Sarah Vaughan, who was a master of using legato to achieve beauty, expressivity and colors.
Next time I hear Owens sing, I will also hear his ideas and influences and admire him even more.
All photos by Ken Howard