A Master Class with Renée Fleming at The Catholic University of America

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The Catholic University of America’s (CUA) Benjamin T. Rome School of Music presented a master class by Renée Fleming on Sunday, March 13, 2016.

Dr. Grayson Wagstaff, Dean of the School of Music. Photo courtesy of The Catholic University of America.
Dr. Grayson Wagstaff, Dean of the School of Music. Photo courtesy of The Catholic University of America.

Dr. Grayson Wagstaff, Dean of the School of Music, gave opening remarks, stating that this master class was to be a wonderful, historic event for CUA and like those within the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, “(Fleming) believes that great voices sing many great kinds of music.” Wagstaff went on to say that, “While Fleming is one of the great artists of our day, star of opera houses arotund the world, the people’s diva, the first opera star to be well known across popular culture – to CUA, she is family.” After all, Fleming’s sister, Dr. Rachelle Fleming, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in Musical Theatre, and was in the audience supporting the student performers, and her sister.

After the introduction, Fleming shared that she was very excited to be at CUA, complimented its beautiful campus, and said she was looking forward to “having some fun.” As a former vocal performance student and participant in many master classes, I know this attitude was sure to relax the four artists who sat eagerly waiting to work on their pieces.

The audience filled Caldwell Auditorium, a large hall, to capacity, but the class felt intimate. Each student was well prepared, polished, and professional. Fleming demonstrated her wonderful ability to work with all levels (from undergraduate to doctoral candidate) and dove into the story behind each piece, explaining that the acting and thought process helps the vocal technique.

Renée Fleming. Photo by Jonathan Tichler.
Renée Fleming. Photo by Jonathan Tichler.

“No Word from Tom” from The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky was performed by Emily Casey, Soprano, who is completing her master’s degree in vocal performance this spring. Casey displayed her wide range and expressive style in this very challenging selection, negotiating interval leaps and vocal runs with a sense of freedom. Fleming shared that at one time during her undergraduate studies, she was “madly and passionately in love” with the piece. Fleming praised Casey’s lovely, even sound and took the opportunity to work on shadow vowels and middle voice; she encouraged Casey to act while singing the aria, even in an audition setting, wanting to “see” the thought process.

“Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from Sweeny Todd by Stephen Sondheim was performed by Catherine Purcell, Soprano, who is a senior musical theater major. Purcell exhibited impeccable diction, and a sweet vibrato and timbre.  Fleming suggested that Casey think about projecting more, and not to try to control voice with a tight jaw. Fleming suggested the practice of Alexander Technique for learning how to keep a loose neck, and reminded students to move their arms and body naturally while singing.

“Se all’impero, amici Dei” from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La Claemenza di Tito was performed by doctoral candidate Carlos Feliciano, Tenor.  Feliciano is a powerful singer with a warm tone who demonstrated admirable flexibility with the difficult runs in the piece.  It was apparent to me that Fleming would make immediate strides with Feliciano because his foundation was already strongly in place; she suggested deeper, steadier breaths and dynamic variations. Fleming also suggested that he save vocal drama for key points in the aria and pointed out that to relax the back, one can bend over slightly while practicing.  The immediate improvement in Feliciano’s sound was spectacular as he implemented these suggestions.

World-renowned classical vocalist Renée Fleming gave a master class Sunday, March 13, at The Catholic University of America's Benjamin T. Rome School of Music. Fleming shared her knowledge with the audience while working directly with Catholic University student Emily Casey, a doctoral student in opera shown here and three other students in the musical theater department. Photo by Dana Rene Bowler.
World-renowned classical vocalist Renée Fleming gave a master class Sunday, March 13, at The Catholic University of America’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music. Fleming shared her knowledge with the audience while working directly with Catholic University student Emily Casey, a doctoral student in opera shown here and three other students in the musical theater department. Photo by Dana Rene Bowler.

“If I Loved You” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel was performed by Julie Britt, Soprano, who is a senior pursuing a musical theater degree with a minor in Theology & Ministry. Britt sang with a bright, lovely expression and sound and Fleming smiled during the performance, enjoying the sweetness of the song. She suggested that Britt take deeper, relaxed breaths and asked the entire audience to practice a seated bend, so we could feel the sensation of breathing lower into our core without allowing our shoulders to tense. Then, the pair leaned against the wall in a “plank” position and later, leaned on the piano as if lounge singers, to encourage the release of breath and relaxation of the upper body.

Carlos Feliciano, Emily Casey, Renee Fleming, Photo by Gustavo A Ahualli.
Carlos Feliciano, Emily Casey, Renee Fleming, Julie Britt, and Catherine Purcell. Photo by Gustavo A Ahualli.

CUA accompanist and vocal coach, Nicolas Catravas, played for each of the performers with exceptional musicality, and was dependable and flexible. Incredibly intuitive, he was in tune with the master class at every moment, providing stability to his appreciative singers.

The audience was treated to a handful of Fleming’s sung examples. I was left swooning at times, and reminded that yes; Renée Fleming was really standing right there. She shared anecdotes, such as singing Verdi’s Requiem for the first time with a mirror attached to her stand so that she could ensure her tongue “behaved” for the High C’s. She also demonstrated how she incorporates impromptu relaxation techniques into her acting while onstage, and had the audience laughing heartily. She acted like she had all time in the word for the class, even while mentioning, in passing, her upcoming performance with Placido Domingo for the LA Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert.

Throughout the master class, Fleming engaged the students in dialogue, making it a truly collaborative effort, creating a light, yet focused atmosphere.  She not only opened her ears, but her heart to this group of young artists.  During each performance she listened intently, offering generous advice; she coached and encouraged each student in a supportive way. The students were receptive and followed the advice remarkably well; individual improvements and transformations were immediately clear. Fleming imparted wonderful musical information in a personal, accessible way.

Fleming took time to answer questions from the audience and left us with final recommendations such as taping oneself while singing, and to experiment, saying that “teachers give you tools, but you have to practice them and unlock secrets of your individual instrument.” She went on to say that “it’s an ongoing process the artist must be very involved in, and you can never coast … embrace and enjoy the process.” I certainly enjoyed every moment of the process during this truly special master class; we were all privileged that Fleming was willing to impart her hard‑earned wisdom on this historic occasion.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Renée Fleming Master Class was held for one afternoon only on March 13, 2016, at the Catholic University of America’s Caldwell Auditorium – 620 Michigan Avenue. N.E., in Washington, D.C.  For information about upcoming performances, call (202) 319-5414, or visit the website.

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This weekend, CUA presents their Spring Opera Double Bill: La Serva Padrona and Gianni Schicchi at 7:30 pm in Hartke Theatre. Tickets are available online.

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Katie Weeks
Katie Weeks is a graduate of Boston University (Master of Music, Vocal Performance) and George Mason University (Bachelor of Music, Vocal Performance). She was awarded the highly competitive Outstanding Musician of the Year Award by a unanimous vote of the music faculty of George Mason University in May 2003 and the winner of many competitions, including the GMU Concerto Competition, GMU Honors Recital, and the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) Virginia State Competition. In the summer of 2004, Katie attended the University of Miami School of Music at Salzburg program, where she studied voice and German, and in 2002, Katie received a grant to pursue her love of the German language and lieder in a seven-week language immersion program at Middlebury College, Vermont. Since graduate school, Katie has taken a hiatus from performing, but teaches voice and has participated in community theater and cabaret performances in the DC area. From a family of six children, Katie embraces her Irish heritage (her mother is from Dublin) and sings most summers on the Emerald Isle. She currently lends her skills to the federal government as an analyst, and is a dedicated yogi.