Magid El-Bushra, Press and Communications Administrator, Royal Opera House
First up was baritone Benjamin Lewis with Frederick Brown, piano. Performing ‘Farewell to ye, old rights o’ man’ from Britten’s Billy Budd, one was immediately struck by Lewis’ powerfully consistent and resonant voice, as well as Brown’s supportive playing, bringing out as many of the orchestral colours on the piano as possible. But beauty of tone is just the tip of the iceberg; the real work began when Sir Thomas enjoined Lewis to “think big and sing big”, to enjoy the whole environment of the aria. Lewis responded beautifully to Sir Thomas’ advice about zoning a performance spatially, i.e., when to internalise a phrase, when to aim it at the audience, and when to direct one’s gaze out to the horizon beyond.
Next came mezzo-soprano Penelope Cousland with Edmund Whitehead on the piano, performing the Witch’s aria ‘Hur Hopp Hopp!’ from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. Cousland’s voice has a charming richness, clarity and directness which almost made it impossible to imagine her as a child-murdering old hag. Sir Thomas’ advice was an invitation to enter into a game with the text and the imagery. “Your whole life is in that gingerbread!” he exclaimed at one point, the gingerbread being a metaphor for the kind of imaginative picture-painting required to add layers of nuance to a performance. The text – like the gingerbread – is something to be relished, enjoyed, smelled and tasted. Cousland had time to perform a second aria, Adalgisa’s ‘Sgombra è la sacra selva’ from Bellini’s Norma. It was a great opportunity to display totally different vocal characteristics, and here the interplay between voice and piano became more important, with Allen emphasising the need for seamless consistency of thought between the vocal line and the orchestral reduction.
Lastly, Christopher Cull and pianist Killian Farrell, performing ‘O du, mein holder Abendstern’ from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. If the repertoire choice seemed ambitious, it was nevertheless a good vehicle to display the rich potential of Cull’s baritone. Allen’s ability to succinctly distil the essential emotions Wolfram is experiencing during the aria again pointed to the basic question facing every singer: what do you have in mind when you’re singing? The tragedy of Wolfram’s aspiration is impressive in itself, albeit a complex emotion to convey vocally. The feelings of the character must be borne in mind the whole time, and framed in the singer’s face.
The difference between the National Opera Studio and other training programmes is that the Young Artists are chosen by the UK’s leading opera companies (Royal Opera House, ENO, Glyndebourne, Opera North, Scottish Opera, WNO), all of which work in partnership with the Studio. It was therefore fitting that this masterclass should be hosted by the ROH - surely a stage on which all of these young artists will soon be given a space to present their gifts to a larger audience. But as Sir Thomas reminded us – a place on the great stage is not the final destination, because the work of a singer is never done. A singer’s life is one spent honing the craft of performance and deepening interpretation – a lifelong journey of the imagination.