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Alternative Paths for Singer Training
Jocelyn Dueck
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Opera America Magazine4/1/2008

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Another opening, another show! For most opera companies, regularly-scheduled mainstage performances are at the center of their activity. The rhythm of production influences all company operations, from marketing and fundraising cycles to the training and performing opportunities available for young singers. For companies that focus on new work, however, a regular mainstage season — with a set number of full productions in a fairly fixed schedule — is emphatically not the raison d’être. Instead, the public events offered in any given season vary according to the needs of the creative artists. With their orientation toward process rather than production, these companies provide a very different environment for singer training.

Nautilus Music-Theater (Minneapolis) usually presents one full production each year, but new music audiences can attend “Rough Cuts” — a series of presentations of new and developing works by artists from around the country — the first Monday and Tuesday of each month. At the same time, the company runs the Wesley Balk Opera/Music-Theater Institute, a 30-year-old program for directors, singers and coaches. Artistic Director Ben Krywosz describes Nautilus: “While most theaters are in the business of mounting shows… what we do is about expanding artists’ ability to be communicative.” Wesley Balk Institute alumna and OPERA America Artistic Services Manager Megan Young agrees: “It’s not about filling opera house seats, it’s about cultivating artists.”

Wesley Balk (1932-2003) was dedicated to nurturing the complete singer-actor. Krywosz, who started out doing psychedelic light shows in the 1960s, stood through his first operas — Wagner’s Ring Cycle — at the San Francisco Opera in 1972; over the next few seasons he was completely seduced by live performance. After reading two chapters of Balk’s book, The Complete Singer-Actor (1977), Krywosz wrote the author a letter, the beginning of a lifelong commitment to Balk’s philosophy. Krywosz began working with Balk under the auspices of a National Opera Institute directing internship, and in 1983 joined the staff of the Wesley Balk Institute.

“Wesley’s gift was his ability to observe, analyze, dissect and re-integrate the singer’s five performing tools — the mind, the emotions, the voice, the face and the body,” says Krywosz. At the Wesley Balk Institute, performers, directors and coaches meet on the Augsburg College Campus for a three-week summer program. A typical day begins with a group class team-taught by Institute staff exploring the basics of integrated singing-acting, and continues with small groups to study specific techniques such as vocal play, musical improvisation, collaborative principles, song and aria interpretation, etc. Scene rehearsals include material drawn from opera, musical theater and new music-theater repertoire. Soprano Jennifer Baldwin Peden, star of the Tony-award winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune and Nautilus veteran, states, “I can’t count the number of singers who find a more expressive, beautiful tone by working on a seemingly unrelated exercise. Who knew that the movement of eyebrows could potentially affect the way you sing a coloratura passage?”

Mezzo-soprano Jill Anna Ponasik (participant 2006) writes: “My experience made me notice how I was functioning — or not functioning — as a whole person. I began to open up to what Wesley might have referred to as “the freeing,” or that state of trusting yourself and your voice enough to dance freely between the various elements of singing-acting. I have never been so engaged as an artist, or so enthusiastic about what I do as I am right now, today. That is, at least in some part, thanks to my time at the Institute.” Nautilus commissioned Ponasik’s production of Loss of Breath (Ralph Johnson and Bill Corbett), the top-selling show at the Minnesota Fringe Festival in 2007.

Soprano Eleanor Taylor (participant 1996, 2001) sang in the Nautilus Composer-Librettist Studio sponsored by New Dramatists in New York City in February 2005. “I knew that any workshop run by Ben Krywosz was going to be an opportunity for those involved to stretch themselves — a work might require singing in a variety of styles, there might be scenes of dialogue (I recall having to attempt an Irish accent on the spot!), not to mention 25 sets of eyes and ears waiting to see what you did with it!” Taylor co-founded the newmusic duo Two Sides Sounding, won an American Composers Forum grant in 2007 and has given numerous premieres and readings of contemporary music-theater works.

Each season, Brooklyn’s American Opera Projects (AOP) selects six singers and six composers for its Composers & the Voice Workshop Series, which includes 11 workshop sessions between November and May. In addition, the company has a full schedule of readings, workshops and productions of works-in-progress. While a number of AOP productions grow out of projects begun in Composers & the Voice, the company also provides opportunities for more established composers to “try out” works in development: In January, the company produced a reading of Séance on a Wet Afternoon, a new opera by Stephen Schwartz, starring soprano Lauren Flanigan.

Inspired by her work with AOP artists, Flanigan recently worked with the company to create a new series of master classes for singers, “Creating the Dramatic Character for Opera.” Flanigan developed the eight-class series with members of the SITI Company, an ensemble-based theater company founded by Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki. Flanigan had observed that the young singers who participated in AOP’s readings seemed hungry for more opportunities to create dynamic work and engage with other artists, and this struck a chord with her: “I was never in a young artist program. I met Anne Bogart more than 20 years ago and had the benefit of this rigorous training that enabled me to do interesting work in small venues that got written about. These singers need to figure out how to create their own work and get noticed. The class is a way of empowering them to think outside the box and make something unique out of every kind of opportunity.”

Flanigan worked with Ellen Lauren and Barney O’Hanlon, two senior members of SITI Company, to plan and teach the class. The first portion of each class focuses on Viewpoints training, a series of exercises that strengthen the actor’s awareness of his relationship to time and space. As each class progresses, singers continue to work with Viewpoints as they sing the song or aria of their choice. “There are a million different ways to perform any action,” says Flanigan. “I’m asking them to start by finding seven. Once you learn to think that way, eight and nine and ten quickly follow.”

Although Viewpoints is a training method that grew out of the post-modern dance world, Flanigan believes it can benefit all singers, even those whose careers are focused on older repertoire. “When you’re in the school of communication in a modern university, you’re not working with a kinescope, you’re working with the most up-to-date digital technology. In 2008, opera singers need to be able to work with filmmakers and choreographers. We need a larger, more dynamic vocabulary. Once you understand Viewpoints, it allows you to cross into all kinds of production styles, to figure out how to do your thing inside this other thing. It is an appropriate way of working on a role by Gluck or by Philip Glass.”

John Hess and Dáirine Ní Mheadhra founded Toronto’s Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company out of a desire to create a performer-based physical singing theater aesthetic and to develop and produce original Canadian chamber opera. Since its founding in 1995, the comp
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About the Author: Pianist Jocelyn Dueck is a founding member of Two Sides Sounding and music director for Ensemble Youkali, a New York City-based opera collective. A frequent performer of new works, she has debuted works by Lisa Bielawa, Corey Dargel, Louis Durey, Judd Greenstein, Daron Hagen, Edie Hill and Gilda Lyons.
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