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Keys to the Future

by Olivia Giovetti

Le Chiavi di Bel Canto alumnus James
Rodriguez (red jacket and pants) and Jennifer
Noel in Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims at the
Moores Opera Center.
When the economy tanked in 2008, many organizations—particularly those in the nonprofit sector—turned their focuses toward a newfound austerity, focusing on what they had versus what they lacked. But while that was going on, mezzo soprano Melanie Sonnenberg had arrived at the University of Houston’s Moores Opera Center as a visiting professor and noticed something the state of Texas lacked: A non-choral, non-entry-level summer program.

“There really was nothing towards advanced vocalism, performance orientation, or opera programs,” explains Sonnenberg. Additionally, with the fallen market, Sonnenberg notes that many American vocal students were looking to slice their own budgets while still attending summer programs that would eventually pay for themselves. With Europe a costly venture, Sonnenberg brought a bit of the continent to Eastern Texas, and the result was the Moores Opera Center’s Le Chiavi di Bel Canto.

“We batted this idea around for a while,” says Chiavi co-conspirator and fellow Moores faculty member Joseph Evans. They had initially developed Sonnenberg’s idea into a two-year plan that would offer an international faculty of authorities educating young professionals or graduate students in the expectations of the profession, the demands of the literature, performance practices, and ornamentation.

Sonnenberg and Evans delved into their own backgrounds and training to come up with a formal plan. Although assuming it would debut in the next decade, they were asked by the school in January of 2009 to implement it for that summer—a task akin to performing Götterdämmerung with less than a month’s rehearsal period.

Calling in favors from colleagues around the country (including Houston Grand Opera Studio’s former music director Kathy Kelly, coach and conductor Ted Taylor, and Kennesaw State University faculty member Russell Young), Sonnenberg and Evans started off small in their first year with a 10-day intensive. It was comprised mainly of local Texan students—not the worst test-group in Italian opera given the similar vocal characteristics between the state’s drawl and the country’s language.

Baritone James Rodriguez was one of the members of that first class, a singer whose sole Bel Canto experience prior to Chiavi was Belcore in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. He discovered the program after being accepted into Moores to complete his master’s degree but, like most singers, was wary of Bel Canto being an area of music where he would be a good fit.

“It’s a repertoire I didn’t think I’d ever sing,” he admits. “But I got to work with some great faculty from all over the U.S. whose specialty is this specific repertoire.” Rodriguez quickly realized that there were approaches specific to Bel Canto that were applicable—even essential—to other rep, from an impeccable legato to breath control. However, in his own words, it also helped him to become “a fine-tuned musician. Singing this repertoire, you’re so exposed a lot of the time, the accompaniment at times is very minimal. You have to be solid. It taught me a lot of things I clearly did not know about this rep; I learned to really embrace it.”

Entering the Moores Opera Center later that fall, Rodriguez was cast as Don Profondo in Rossini’s rarity Il viaggio a Reims, a work conducted by Taylor with whom the young baritone had worked extensively during his ten days with Chiavi in terms of technical approach. The mettle of the program, though proven while it was actually running in a humid Houston summer, was further tested in “Viaggio,” a work written by Rossini for a cast of virtuosi. “It was very rewarding to know that on a collegiate level we were able to perform one of Rossini’s most difficult scores,” Rodriguez says of his success with the part (he continues to use Don Profondo’s aria for auditions).

“They knew they had all the tools to address the technical and interpretive elements in that type of repertoire,” Sonnenberg says of the 2009 Il viaggio a Reims and its direct connection to the Chiavi program. She agrees with Rodriguez that the Bel Canto genre is one rife with possibilities for singers, but that it’s “an area of singing and musical offering that is not addressed as much as it should be.”

There are certainly some popular representations of the form, from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Lucia di Lammermoor to Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. However, even the works of Bellini (who, along with Donizetti and Rossini, makes up the core repertoire focus in Chiavi) are rare in comparison to those of Verdi and Puccini. Between the three of them, they boast nearly 120 operas—with Donizetti alone contributing 70.

While many have recycled arias, such as the final cabaletta for La Cenerentola versus that of Count Almaviva’s, that’s still a significant chunk of repertoire for singers to use not only in competitions, auditions, and recitals, but also performances: the German city of Bad Wildbad has an entire Rossini festival, and several companies in the United States, chief among them the Met, are going past the usual Donizetti suspects and exploring meatier territory like his Tudor queens trilogy.

This is, of course, thanks to the hearty amount of legwork done by preceding generations, whose effects are felt on the Chiavi program. Faculty member and soprano Nova Thomas was mentored by Bel Canto trailblazers Dame Joan Sutherland and her husband Richard Bonynge. Joining the faculty this summer is soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, for whom the Bel Canto rep fits like a well tailored glove.

Sonnenberg herself did many premieres of Rossinian critical editions, and she recalls working with scholar Philip Gossett in the living room of her New York apartment on ornamenting her roles in “Viaggio” and La donna del lago, or coaching with the late Henry Lewis, the onetime husband of Marilyn Horne and one of the driving forces behind the legendary mezzo’s Bel Canto expertise. “Today this kind of background and schooling just doesn’t exist,” Sonnenberg sighs. But through the design of her program, she hopes to reinstate some of it into a select handful of students—there are 12 faculty members for roughly 20 to 22 people.

“It’s not set up so that we give them tons of repertoire,” says Evans. “It’s not about cramming hordes of literature down their throats. It’s about learning how to learn the music properly and what’s expected in the professional arena. And the result is they concentrate on a very select few arias, scenes and duets, [and] ensemble pieces.”

But sometimes the one aria makes all the difference. Soprano Ashly Neumann, now in the first year of her master’s program at the Moores Opera Center, spent the summer before entering the school working on Elvira’s showstopping cantabile and cabaletta from Bellini’s I puritani. “This was my first delving into Bel Canto literature. The program itself [fed] my interest,” she says. “When they told me about the Bel Canto study program, I thought, ‘Can I do Bel Canto?’”

The answer was yes, and Neumann credits the program with “giving [her] the tools to build an entire role.” In subsequent performances at Moores, Neumann has been complimented by directors and conductors on her preparedness and hard work, which she attributes entirely to Le Chiavi di Bel Canto. “I don’t know if I necessarily worked harder than anyone else, but I knew what I needed to do. I knew the steps I needed to take,” she adds.

Part of that preparation comes from the fact that singers start off every working day of the program—which has now been expanded to three weeks—with movement classes taught by Sonnenberg, whose own studies in her native Minnesota focused heavily on light ballet and Martha Graham isolations. These exercises feed, like so much of the program, into practical applications onstage, from going down on one knee without using your hands and still singing a high B-flat to lying prone on the floor while singing after a heavy bout of stage combat to finding a dozen ways of using a chair or filling musical interludes in arias with stage business. “Most Bel Canto arias either have a long introduction or a long interlude between the cantabile and cabaletta,” says Sonnenberg. “So one of the assignments is to show me three completely different ways they’re going to fill that time.”

These tools are key for singers as rehearsal times in the professional world are slashed. No longer do casts and ensembles have time for detailed work on the intricacies of blocking, and so the onus is placed on performers to have this in their tool kit before day one. The added benefit of learning such work in an intensive setting is that it kicks off each day, which Sonnenberg has noticed leaves singers fully energized for the rest of the day and ready to tackle the vocal work.

Afternoons are full of intensive coachings with a Moores Opera Center twist (Moores is one of those rare schools that gives singers freedom to float between vocal studios and teachers): “We separate them into Fach and level of development, and three or four people will be in a room together with a coach and they’ll work for three hours, alternating,” explains Evans. “Sometimes it’s on the same repertoire, sometimes it’s not, but it’s the same kind of voice type. And then we rotate; every two days they shift to another coach.” The group coaching method has turned out to be one of the most popular aspects of the program, one that Evans says they’re trying to incorporate into the school proper.

“There was so much we could learn just by watching our peers go through the same process we were going through in learning the rep,” says Neumann of the group sessions. “It was really interesting how much I learned just by watching other people.”

Bucking the odds isn’t necessarily easy, from indoctrinating singers into the world of Bel Canto to starting a summer program during one of the nation’s most severe economic crises in recent memory. Sonnenberg and Evans credit the success of Le Chiavi di Bel Canto to funding from the Texas Music Festival, whose underwriting makes it possible to cater to less than two dozen students and also allows for those students to pay modest tuition fees for expert instruction. It’s also what gives singers who are starting to establish their careers a chance to refine their ever-expanding credentials.

“A lot of students have come here because they realized they were missing something,” Sonnenberg says. “They’d come up to me and say, ‘You know, I had some of these tools, or some of the Uta Hagen acting ideas, or some of the ways of how you dissect and analyze a long cadenza of Donizetti. Now I have filled in the empty spaces—now I know that when I leave here I know exactly what I need to do and what I can do.’”

Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.

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