By Sinéad O'Kelly, mezzo-soprano 2017/18

19 December 2017


Shortly after being offered my place at the National Opera Studio earlier this year, I received an email from Katya (our amazing Artistic Planning Manager) with the caption ‘Joyce DiDonato Masterclass at ROH’. Two things about this message subject gave me butterflies: 1. Joyce DiDonato, an artist for whom I have long-harboured a deep admiration, was holding a masterclass, and 2. It was at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, one of the pillars of the opera world. Could they be asking me to participate, or was this just to inform me that such an event was taking place? The latter, surely. Not wishing to jump to conclusions, I opened it with trembling hands. ‘We’d like to invite you to participate in the ROH Insights Masterclass with Joyce DiDonato on December 14th.’ Already being indescribably thrilled at even being offered a place at the National Opera Studio for the year, my levels of excitement rose to fever pitch. Replying with a hasty, garbled response to Katya, I texted my whole family with the news, including my youngest brother who is also a huge fan, and we celebrated with a variety of well-chosen emoji.
Next up was choosing repertoire. I knew what I wanted to sing. I had seen the Rossini-themed masterclass Joyce gave for the NOS a few years ago, and being a newly-minted lyric-coloratura mezzo-soprano, I gave myself the challenge of learning ‘Nacqui all’affanno…non piu mesta’, the finale of La Cenerentola, a role for which Joyce has been critically acclaimed the world over. It’s also widely acknowledged as one of the most difficult arias of the mezzo repertoire, but those who know me know I like a challenge. I set my sights on this goal, knowing I had other arias I could sing if I decided by mid-December that it wasn’t ready on time. It is audition season after all, so I had a fair few options polished and ready to go. Florent (my wonderful répétiteur) and I worked on the aria, fitting our practice in around preparation for various recitals and the Handel Scenes project we did with Opera North, about which my lovely colleague Polly wrote last week. The week of the masterclass I almost changed my mind, as I’d had a busy couple of weeks and was slightly panicked my voice would be too tired – it’s not the sort of aria you can pull off without a fully functioning voice! However, the day of the masterclass rolled around extremely quickly, and we decided that this was what we had been preparing for all term, with this particular aria, so we went for it.
Before Polly, Bethan, Satoshi, Erika, Florent and I went onstage, we were given the chance to meet and chat with Joyce briefly while she was getting mic’ed up. This was a great idea on behalf of NOS/ROH, as I know I wasn’t alone in thinking I might just faint with giddiness if I’d met her for the first time on stage, on camera, in front of the audience. She was amazing. She was extremely gracious and friendly, and she has that wonderful quality of someone you feel like you’ve known for years, although perhaps this was intensified by the fact that I feel like I do know her, having watched so many of her interviews and performances. She reassured us that the masterclass was exactly that; a class, a playground and not a performance or a concert; that we should feel free to take risks and not worry about delivering a spotless rendition. This made all of us feel immediately at ease, and excited to get working! I was on third (and last), and it was wonderful to watch Polly and Bethan do their thing, each of them working on completely different technical and interpretative aspects. It was really interesting to see the variation in Joyce’s approach to the two different singers, and how the styles and requirements of the music vary.
Being an extremely informative and stimulating masterclass, the time flew and I was up. My default setting is to mask nerves or unpleasant emotions with self-deprecating humour, but my brain seemed to have jammed as I had nothing witty to say, and Joyce made me reintroduce my aria because it was uncharacteristically lack-lustre. I gave it another (much better) go, and we were off! Joyce allowed us to sing the entire aria through, which was actually the first time we had performed it in front of the public. It was exhilarating. I almost got it right, but fell off the top note at the very end. An hour sitting in silence hadn’t helped, but I remembered what Joyce had said about this being a playground, and not a performance, so I wasn’t too upset. Joyce and I then worked through some segments of the aria. We worked on vocal placement, making sure my voice was always resonating in the place where the tone was richest, and tackling the very tricky coloratura in the final section, by breaking it down into small sections and making sure every note was in place. We debated some of the Italian, and talked about the character and how the aria was written to reflect the nuance of her emotions. Joyce shared some stories from her former years, and it was so heartening to hear that she had struggles and overcame hurdles similar to the ones that we are all facing as Young Artists. I got the chance to sing the last section of the aria again, and I managed to nail all three of the top Bs at the end this time around – success! It was over in a flash – ‘un baleno rapido’, you might say.
After I’d had my chance to work on the Rossini, Joyce offered to answer any questions we had. Even after the camera switched off and the audience were leaving, Joyce graciously gave of more of her time to finish chatting with all of us (including the Young Artists who weren’t singing) about anything we wanted to know. We learnt more about her journey, and how she deals with a range of things, from making repertoire-based decisions, to travelling, to maintaining a work-life balance. She was so candid and spoke straight from the heart – such honesty in a top-level artist is encouraging in a way words cannot describe.
It was truly a once in a lifetime experience to represent the NOS at the masterclass and sing for someone so admired and of such artistry. I am so grateful for the opportunity and the chance to make my friends and family proud. And if this account of the evening has whetted your appetite, you can view the whole thing here!


More photos:

All images © 2017 ROH / NOS. Photographed by Roger Way