Tuesday, February 26, 2013

JDD's Master Classes Are Not Just for the Students

I mentioned Joyce DiDonato’s Julliard master class back in January. The class was streamed live by Julliard, and in February, they posted clips on their YT channel. Julliard has already removed some videos, which is a shame, because there is a lot for us to learn (even us opera buffs who are not necessarily planning on a great singing career.) Julliard posted each student’s session separately, and so far I have watched only the first two sessions. (Unfortunately I think those are the only two still online.)

It’s been a long time since I attended a master class, and even longer since I participated in one. JDD mentions right off that she is not going to talk about technical issues, noting that one can risk causing damage by making the “wrong” suggestion. So she focuses on interpretation. I guess that’s what most master classes do. A fine artist doesn’t want to interfere with the work that a student and teacher are doing. Thinking back, I got coaching on interpretation, not technical advice.

I remember going to a master class by Beverly Sills because I thought I’d get to hear her sing. But that’s not the point of the class. She coached, cajoled, encouraged, advised, and got the students to think in new ways about singing and acting. But she hardly sang, if at all.

We do get to hear JDD sing a teensy bit, but what we really get to see and hear is the thought process that she goes through as a singer/actor in preparing a role. We also see her ease of communication with the students, her great sense of humor, and the seriousness with which she approaches her art. She helped her students create an inner dialog and a motivation for how they moved, and how they sang, and how they inhabited the character. Essentially her advice is don't act the part, be it. 

Watching JDD coach student singers already has made me more critical of what I see on the stage. Just the other night our local PBS station broadcast the recent Aida from the Met. I couldn’t complain (too much) about the singing, but dramatically it was like watching community theater. (Actually, that’s an insult to community theater actors.) 

The drama, intent, emotion, (and other things) that a singer can convey with just her/his voice is astounding. At the same time, it’s disappointing to hear a glorious voice that is just that: a voice, accompanied by some distracted random gestures that mostly convey the thought, “I’m an opera singer and I don’t know what to do with my hands while I am singing.” (This even brought Robert Wilson’s staging style more into focus for me. His movements are spare and formal, but at least they don’t seem unmotivated.)

At one point, JDD held down the soprano’s left arm. Our arms sometimes take on lives of their own; sometimes they coach us, and other times they just like to float about as we sing (see my post on singing in the recording studio). Sometimes I wonder, when watching an opera, just what is that tenor’s hand doing out there. So JDD gently held down the arm. Suddenly, the singer’s right arm started to levitate, and Joyce caught it and coaxed it back down. There was a knowing murmur from the audience of (mostly) other singers. JDD got this singer to go from a lot of stage movement that seemed unmotivated, to projecting her emotions and thoughts while barely moving a muscle. Joyce added that it’s OK to move, but that movement should have a purpose—a reason.

Joyce DiDonato is kind, gentle, encouraging, caring, generous, humorous, and serious in her work with these opera students. (Kudos to the students for their fine singing, too!) It's a joy to watch her work and to see students transform  with a bit of coaching. In a way JDD has spoiled me  just with two half-hour coaching sessions. On the other hand, I feel like I am even more tuned in to what is (or is not) happening on stage. If she ever decides (God forbid) to stop singing, she’d be an awesome stage director. Watch the videos that are still on YT, and learn to appreciate opera, singing, and Joyce DiDonato (not necessarily in that order) even more than you already do.

Here is the mezzo with the floating arms and a gorgeous voice. 
What JDD does with/for her in less than 30 minutes is 
wonderful and amazing!


  1. Shame that the Sesto/Figaro videos were taken down, those two were the most fun.

    But this masterclass was very instructive and amusing - I feel like I could listen to her talking about pretty much anything, but it's always wonderful to see her being so thoughtful and encouraging when it comes to speaking of singing and opera. She truly is an ispiration.

    (And about the gesturing during singing part: funnily enough, she's also one of those singers who wave their hands around during recordings. A lot.)

    1. She definitely moves around a lot when recording! I really enjoy watching clips of her during recordings - I think the amount of gesturing she does is directly related to how one can almost hear gestures in the music when she sings, even if it's just audio.

    2. It's interesting because you'd think the gestures would be more interesting in live performance. OTOH when a singer is on stage with other singers, an orchestra, and an audience, there is more to play off of. While in the studio it probably takes more work to pump up the energy. I do enjoy watching most any recording session, or rehearsal situation.

      I haven't seen JDD on stage enough to know what she's like in person. I am guessing she moves as the music and drama call for it.

    3. I think there's some kind of "special gesturing" in the studios - at least I find that there's some similarity in the hand gestures of some singers (it's a bit like they are painting. Or I'm just making things up).

      From what I've seen of her concerts though, DiDonato only uses gestures when the music calls for it, and she's really witty with them (here's some recent awesomeness of hers).

      (And an absolutely non-related video - some backstage footage from a recent Vienna production of Clemenza with Schade and Garanca; thought it might be of interest!)

    4. I also found out that JDD would love to sing (and I think would be a great) Figaro in the Barber of Seville!


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