For the Love of Lieder

Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn’t know much about German Romantic poetry. I did read some Goethe and Heine (because I had excellent high school German teachers) but I didn’t exactly grasp the scope of that literary movement. And I couldn’t have guessed that those poems would change my life. (Mendelssohn portrait from Linda Hines’ blog)

But when I moved to Salzburg to study opera, I discovered that other singers had moved to Salzburg to study Lieder. They wanted to make a career of singing art songs, and they were there to study with the great German pianist, Hartmut Höll.

Professor Höll is an inspiring musician, famous for his recordings with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Mitsuko Shirai and Renee Fleming.  And his music doesn’t sound like anybody else’s.  He has his own sound; his interpretations are always creative and original. The students at the Mozarteum had tremendous respect for him. They only wanted to show him their very best stuff. And to do that, they had to first understand the poems that the great composers had set to music.

Fortunately, poems were thick on the ground in Austria! People were always throwing around names like Eduard Mörike and Hermann von Gilm zu Rosenegg (which is a long name to throw around).  I found that I could absorb a great deal of information just by standing around and eavesdropping on conversations! That’s how I discovered the Heidelberg poets like Brentano, Arnim and Eichendorff.

There is a special pleasure in reading poetry in a second language. It feels mysterious, like cracking a secret code. You have to let the words linger a bit longer in your mouth to catch the full flavor, but it’s worth the wait. I was floored when I first read Nikolaus Lenau’s “Frühlingsblick” out loud. I was so… READ MORE.

Full post at www.icadenza.com

Running Home

Do you like to run? How would you feel about running from Canada to Mexico?

Meet Norma Bastidas, ultra-marathoner and mother of two, who is running 2600 miles to raise awareness about violence and domestic abuse.

Norma left Vancouver on April 21st, and she ran past my house in Los Angeles two weeks ago. Today, she’s running through the Sonora Desert and she plans to arrive in her hometown of Mazatlan, Mexico on the 8th of July! You can follow her journey at: Running Home, A Journey to End Violence.

I am always inspired by people who do “impossible” things, so I felt very privileged to meet Norma. Her athletic career is nothing short of amazing: she has run ultra-marathons on all 7 continents and she’s also an accomplished mountaineer. She has run on all kinds of terrain, from the sands of Namibia to the ice of Antarctica. (How do you top that?)

But this journey is special.  “I wanted to do something really hard,” she told me. “And I believe in what I’m doing.”  She wants to put an end to violence.  Does that seem impossible?  Remember that this woman is running all the way from Canada to Mexico. There isn’t much that seems impossible to Norma.

When I heard she was coming to my house, I made sure to get her some fuel: multi-vitamins, L-glutamines, and lots of pasta! She was grateful for the dinner, but she was almost too excited to eat. Instead of focusing on her own amazing story, Norma kept asking me about my projects. She wanted to hear about my festival in Nepal, and my dreams of singing in Africa. She asked how I was using my music to inspire people.

Sitting on my couch on the 9th of June, Norma was absolutely glowing with happiness. (No one should look that beautiful after running every day for two months!) She couldn’t wait to tell me about her mission.

“Every time you decide to push the limits of what you think is possible, they get a little further,” she said. “But you have to be smart about it.   You don’t want to put yourself in danger for no reason. So I always ask myself: am I afraid because it’s really dangerous, or am I just afraid to fail? If it’s just my ego talking, that’s not a good enough reason not to try.”

I think she’s right.  It’s important to take risks sometimes. It’s not about winning a trophy or “being the best.”  It’s about pouring your life into something that matters.

You might not be able to run sixty miles in a day like Norma Bastidas.  But isn’t there something you’ve been wanting to do? Some dream you have given up because it feels impossible?

Michelangelo wrote, “the greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”

So where is your next “finish line?” Maybe you could go just a little bit farther? Re-think your own boundaries. Push the limits of possible.

the White Nights of St Petersburg

Here in Los Angeles, the sun will set over the ocean at  precisely 8:02 PM this evening. I’m sure it will be spectacular.

But in St Petersburg, Russia, the sun will not set until just before midnight. When you are that far north, summer days never end. June is a magical time in St Petersburg, when nighttime only lasts a few hours, and the darkness isn’t very dark.

Back in June 2007, I got to experience the famous “White Nights” of St Petersburg. I was in Russia to compete in the XIII International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, an unforgettable experience.

But since my father had been invited to St Petersburg as a  guest professor, I decided to go there first. After all, this was my chance to experience the Winter Palace, the Hermitage, and the Mariinsky Theatre. Like any musician preparing for a major competition, I would spend several hours a day practicing… but why stay home when I could just as easily practice my music in this glorious city?

Instead of just singing Tchaikovsky arias, I got inside them. I stood at the very place where Liza throws herself into the river Neva in the final act of Queen of Spades. I sang inside a Russian church. I practiced reading the Cyrillic alphabet as I walked around the city, slowly sounding out words like интернет (internet) and ресторан (restaurant).

I strolled down Nevsky Avenue almost every day, visiting every cathedral and every shopping mall. I took a canal cruise. I saw DaVinci’s Madonna Litta at the Hermitage. I went to Dostoyevsky’s house. I attended the Kirov ballet. I toured the czar’s Summer Palace.

But there was one thing I still had to do: I desperately wanted to see a Tchaikovsky opera at the Mariinsky Theatre. I had tickets for Eugene Onegin.

I was staying with my parents in a little budget hotel called the Vyborgskaya. We were living in cramped quarters and it wasn’t very clean.  It had been an especially hard day; my dad had injured his foot, so walking around town was not very comfortable. We’d had to wait in long lines to buy subway tickets, and whenever we finally got to the front of the line, the clerk would pull out the “technological difficulties” sign and disappear! I was also feeling a little queasy because I had eaten a questionable meat pie at a local bakery. But I was still looking forward to the opera.

When we got back to the hotel, we were informed that we had to change rooms unexpectedly.  The maids had already begun to move our luggage out into the hall to make room for another guest! Meanwhile, we had been assigned to an even smaller room, featuring three little cots and one coffee table. There was no time to be outraged about any of this because in all the confusion, we were now late for the opera.

We stood outside the hotel in despair, trying to flag down a taxi at rush hour.  Finally, a friend asked us if we would be willing to take an “unofficial” taxi. We shrugged and said yes. Our friend told the driver to take us to the opera house… as fast as possible. And that’s how we ended up climbing into a strange unmarked car.

Before we could fasten our seat belts, the car sped off with a screech of tires. Our driver zigzagged around corners and through intersections at breathtaking speed. I had never flown across a suspension bridge that fast. (Of course, I had not yet experienced traffic in Kathmandu.) We were speechless, but this pirate taxi driver took his assignment very seriously: he had been told to get us to the Mariinsky as fast as possible. And he did.

We were dizzy when we got out of the car, but we did make it there on time.  The driver was grinning from ear to ear. We gratefully handed him some extra rubles for his race car skills. Finally, we stumbled inside the gorgeous auditorium with its rich interior and blue plush velvet seats.

And the music was electrifying. What could be better than hearing a Russian orchestra play Tatyana’s letter scene? I don’t think I can describe the sound of the violins surging with perfect Slavic passion. There are no words for that. It was an exquisite performance.

And even after all of that, we still made it back to the hotel well before sunset. I remember the sunlight shining on the river as we drove back across town.

So whenever June rolls around, I always think about the White Nights of St Petersburg… and my wild ride to the Mariinsky!

Listen to Your Life

Life doesn’t always go according to plan. When I graduated from the Mozarteum in Salzburg, I did not expect to create an opera festival in Nepal. That was not part of my “five-year plan” for launching my career. But in the summer of 2009, due to a very unusual chain of events, I found myself singing and teaching in Kathmandu!

Just a few months earlier, I had been struggling to survive in New York City. My master’s degree in opera was framed on the wall, but I was not getting enough “opera gigs” to pay the rent. So I took a day job with a non-profit organization called Hope Partnership Nepal.

While working for HPN, I learned that Nepal is a beautiful country that has been ravaged by civil war and political upheaval. Most Westerners are completely unaware… Read More

Full post at icadenza.com

Soprano in NorCal

Watch out — I just showered some high notes on Northern California!

I was invited up north for a couple of auditions. Auditioning is a funny thing. A typical opera audition only lasts about 10 minutes.

That’s enough time to sing two or three arias, and have a quick chat with the casting director. Opera singers will often travel for days to get their 10 minutes onstage!

And we plan our audition tours very carefully to ensure that we will have “a good ten minutes.”  We eat well, we sleep well, we save our energy, we warm up our voices and we focus our minds… all so that we can be dazzling when we step into the spotlight.

But what happens when the audition is over?  That’s when it’s time to relax and have fun! Whenever I audition in a new city, I just love to go exploring. So without further ado, here are my latest travel tips:

Sacramento

* California State Capitol Museum – Inside the magnificent capitol building, you can take a 45-minute tour emphasizing Californian history and politics. Unfortunately, there is no coatroom where you can leave your luggage, so I had to drag my little pink suitcase through the entire State Legislature, into the Senate, through the Assembly, up into the cupola, down into the basement, past the Governor’s office, and out into the gardens. But I had a great time.

* Old Sacramento – This historic part of town has an Old West atmosphere. There are several Gold Rush exhibits nearby; in fact, this would have been a better setting for the ill-fated Gold Rush tour that I took in San Francisco in January.

* Sacramento International Airport – Don’t ask me why there is a huge red rabbit suspended from the ceiling of the Sacramento Airport. It’s artistic, and it’s fun, and that’s good enough for me. In fact, there are a lot of fun surprises in Terminal B, including WI-FI lounges and a massage bar.  If you want a bite to eat, I can recommend the Gateway Bar, which features cushioned sofas, a selection of California wines, and a really amazing Greek sandwich (the “Icon,” a heavenly combination of gyro meat, lamb gravy, and tzatziki).

San Jose

* San Jose Museum of Art – if you like contemporary art, you’ll love this colorful collection.  And if you simply need to take a break, you can sit beneath the palm trees in the outdoor plaza, or visit the museum shop and café inside.

* Extended Stay Deluxe Hotel (San Jose) –  My suite included a kitchen, a desk, a queen-sized bed, a sofa, a TV, and a washroom with a full bathtub. I also had access to the swimming pool, the jacuzzi, the fitness room (mostly cardio, no free weights),  and free ensuite high-speed internet. The hotel has plenty of parking, and is located just one mile from the airport and two blocks from the nearest light-rail station. The Bay Area isn’t cheap, and it can be tough to find affordable accommodations in a town where it costs $15 just to open the door of a taxi cab!  But this hotel fit neatly into my travel budget.

Norman Mineta San Jose International Airport deserves a shout-out from the Globetrotting Soprano because it is the only airport I have ever seen that has live piano music in the baggage claim area! That’s pretty impressive in and of itself.

And that’s all for today. Have a great weekend!

the Parasailing Soprano

Have you ever tried to sing while flying over the ocean?

Last July, I  wanted to do something special for my birthday.

So I convinced my friends to go parasailing!  The perfect California adventure.

Flying was my childhood fantasy.  I always longed for the freedom of flight, without the help of an airplane. What could be better than the sensation of gliding effortlessly through the air?

The sensation of falling is not quite so much fun, which is why skydiving has never interested me.  Hang gliding would be an option, but it requires some real training. Parasailing, on the other hand, requires no particular skills. The desire to fly is enough!

We all felt giddy as we launched our boat from Balboa Pier.  This was really happening! Our guides from Catalina Parasail had given us some serious life preservers. Sitting on the edge of the boat, strapped into a harness with two of my friends, I had a brief moment of “flight fright.”

But the fear disappeared as soon as the parachute lifted us up into the air.   The sensation of flying was so much more gentle than I had expected it to be! It was almost hypnotic. Twelve hundred feet in the air, we glided peacefully (and noiselessly) above the water. We also had a panoramic view of Newport Beach.  It was breathtaking.

On our way back down, the guides thought it would be funny to dunk us in the ocean before bringing us back to the boat.  This came as a surprise! Swooping down into the water like a pelican, I felt like I was hugging the Pacific. It was one of the best moments of the trip.

We finally landed back on the boat with a little thud.  It was time to compare notes with our other friends. “Did you sing up there?” one of them asked.  “Oh no!” I exclaimed. “I forgot!  I yelped some high notes when we first launched, but they were unintentional.”

To make room for the next group of parasailors, we transferred into a smaller boat. But as we made our way back into the harbor, the outboard motor died. And while we were waiting to get ‘rescued’ by a dinghy, the conversation turned to opera. Our guide mentioned that he really likes the Ride of the Valkyries.

My friends happily explained that they had brought an opera singer along. They asked me to sing Brünnhilde’s Battle Cry as entertainment while we waited.  My high C’s bounced off the surface of the water.  We saw some people on the shoreline spin around in confusion. Because of the accoustics of water, it was hard for them to tell where the sound was coming from.  We all laughed together, imagining a new staging of the Ring Cycle where the valkyries arrive on parasails instead of stallions.

I love to sing while I’m out in nature.  It gives me a feeling of pure freedom. And I really like that feeling. It’s why I still chase my wildest dreams, like flying.

All in all, it was a perfect day: fun, friends, and parasailing! I even got to sing on the water.  I have not yet planned my next birthday adventure, but I welcome your suggestions!

My Inner Italian

Fluency is a survival skill.

If you have a vague desire to become fluent in a language, you will probably fail. But if you need to be fluent, your brain will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Nothing can stop you.

I know this to be true.  This is the story of how I (briefly) became Italian.

When I moved to Italy in the spring of 2005, I stuck out like a sore thumb. You could tell I was a foreigner from a mile away. It wasn’t just my blonde hair and my H&M wardrobe; it was my whole way of being!  My gait, my mannerisms, my accent. Of course, it wasn’t obvious to everyone that I was American. Many people guessed that I was Swedish or German. But I was definitely not Italian.

Strangely, this came as a complete shock to me. Having lived in Austria for seven years, I already felt very much at home in Europe. I thought that I was good at adapting to new cultures. But I did not realize how much my comfort was tied to my northern European look. When I moved from Vienna to Florence, I suddenly stopped “blending in.”

Fortunately, I did speak some Italian. After all, I had been singing Italian opera for years! My education at the Mozarteum had included three years of Italian classes, and I had continued to study the language in Vienna.  But when I won a scholarship to study with Mirella Freni at her academy in Vignola, I discovered just how much Italian I didn’t know.

I remember my first night at school in Italy.  I was sitting at a long table in a local restaurant in Vignola with all of my classmates from the academy. I was at the middle of the table, so I could hear about four different Italian conversations going on around me. But I didn’t know what anyone was saying. I had made an effort to speak Italian all day long, but now it was after 10 PM, and I couldn’t even speak German and English anymore, let alone Italian. “I have to learn fast,” I thought to myself.  “I’m the only American at this school. I have to get comfortable in Italian as soon as possible.”

And amazingly, I did.  But I would never have succeeded without the help of my roommates. I was rooming with two extraordinarily talented young singers: Beatriz Diaz from Spain and Chiara Amarù from Palermo.  The three of us became the best of friends! Chiara was so kind and patient with us as she taught us to navigate her native language.  Together, we laughed and cried through the intricacies of Italian verbs.

But we only roomed together while we were at school in Vignola, and that was only one week out of each month.  The rest of the time, I lived in Florence, where I was working for Opera St Mark’s. I loved living in a city of history and art and culture, but I couldn’t get used to the fact that strangers were constantly approaching me! With my bright hair and touristy image, I attracted a lot of attention.

At first, I enjoyed chatting with people. But I got so tired of the question, “where are you from,” that I started to make up outlandish answers.  “I’m from Brazil,” I would say firmly. Or I might claim to be from Greece or Korea or Egypt.  This made the Italians laugh until they cried.  “Please, miss, where are you from?” they would ask as I passed them on the street. And I would reply, “Dalla Antartide. Non si vede?” (From Antarctica. Can’t you tell?)  It was my little joke.

Out of sheer necessity, I enrolled in Italian classes at the Istituto Italiano in Florence.  They have great intensive courses, with fun field trips! After a few months, I had earned certificates in advanced grammar and conversation and diction. I passed all my exams.

But the real test of my language skills came when I was asked to be the official interpreter at an opera master class taught by Sergio Bertocchi! Three students from Australia and Singapore had come to Italy to study with Maestro Bertocchi, and since I was the only native English speaker in residence at the academy, I would be their interpreter. I didn’t have too much trouble translating their voice lessons, or helping them order at the restaurant.  But I gulped when Maestro Bertocchi asked me to spontaneously translate his lecture on vocal anatomy and the philosophy of singing! Somehow, I managed to translate an hour-long graduate level lecture, but when it was over, I couldn’t remember a thing that Maestro Bertocchi had said.

Meanwhile, I worked very hard to create a life for myself in Florence.  I made friends in the local ex-pat community.  I bought a membership card for the Uffizi Museum so that I could look at great art every day. And I also got to know the churches of Florence very well: I worshiped in one, sang concerts in another, and practiced my music in a third!

Day by day, things began to change.  The people in my Florentine neighborhood started to accept me as one of their own.  The guys in the pizzeria nodded as I went by. I had a “regular” order at the caffè in the piazza.  I shopped in Italian stores and read Italian news. Once, I even got interviewed for a market research survey about Italian brand names!

But I didn’t realize just how Italian I had become until the day I moved back to the States.  My mother had come to Rome to help me move, and we were shoving all of my worldly possessions into the trunk of a taxi.  But the taxi driver, thinking that we were gullible tourists, charged us triple the usual rate. Naturally, I started to argue with the taxista in a loud voice, with my hands flying. The Italian language had become a part of me, gestures and all!  (Click here for a quick guide to Italian gestures.) I won the debate and got my money back, but then I looked over to find my mom suppressing giggles.  “I can’t help it,” she insisted. “My daughter sounds like Sophia Loren!”

So that is the story of how I became Italian, just for a little while.  It wasn’t a permanent change. After returning to the United States, I lost some of my italianità.  But every now and then, my inner Italian comes out!

My Italian side can be triggered by little things: the smell of oregano, the sound of a vespa, or an exquisite piece of Renaissance art. And suddenly I feel like I’m back under the Tuscan sun, my heels clicking on the cobblestones while I adjust my sunglasses and chatter away in Italian with my friends.

If you really want to learn Italian, make it a top priority! Then, get in touch with your Italian side. Eat Italian food. Argue with an Italian taxi driver. Read an Italian website. Listen to an Italian opera! Release your inner Italian. Arrivederci.

My Name in Japanese

Tokyo, 2005 ~ By the time I landed at Narita International Airport, I knew that something was wrong.

I felt sick, and this was very annoying, because I almost never get sick. In fact, people can usually count on me to “jump in” at the last minute to sing for sick colleagues.

But sinus headaches are my Achilles’ heel. Just before the plane took off, I had sensed a familiar throbbing between the eyes.  Then after thirteen hours of breathing airplane air, I was congested and my throat felt raw.

What a great way to start my first Japanese concert tour!

My friend and pianist, Ayako Watanabe, met me at the airport. She had planned the details of our tour. We were scheduled to perform eight concerts in twenty days.

I’ve mentioned Ayako before, but this was long before we ever performed in Moscow, Los Angeles, and Kathmandu together. Back in 2005, we had only recently graduated from the Mozarteum, and we had just given  a series of Liederabende (art song recitals) in Salzburg and Vienna. Now we wanted to “take our show on the road” and perform in Tokyo, Ayako’s hometown!

Our first rehearsal went well, but when I finally admitted that I “might” be getting sick, Ayako gasped. “Lindsay! That cannot happen.”

She took me straight to the doctor. As soon as we got there, she filled out my paperwork for me; people smiled when they heard us chatting in German. We took off our shoes before we sat down in the waiting room. I stuffed my big American feet into dainty little plastic slippers.

I was still admiring my plastic slippers when the nurse came to the door and called out, “Rin-Shee-San?”

“That’s me?” I exclaimed in German.  “My name is Rin-Shee?”

“Rinjii,” Ayako giggled. “I tried to spell it out in Japanese.”

“What’s my last name then? Is it still Feldmeth?” I asked.

“No, it sounds more like Perdometo,” Ayako said sweetly. I threw her a confused look as we followed the nurse inside. (I guess there are just too many consonant clusters in Feldmeth.)

The doctor gave me a combination of herbs and medicines and told me to take it easy. By the next day, I felt much better, but I was still a little weak.

Right before our first concert, I found a quiet spot backstage where I could lie down.  I rested there for a few minutes. When I opened my eyes, I saw an older gentleman looking down at me with a worried expression.

“¿Tienes fiebre?” he asked.  I decided that I must be delirious because it sounded like this nice Japanese man was speaking Spanish to me! “Me duele la cabeza,” I told him. My Spanish isn’t great, but it’s much better than my Japanese.

Later, Ayako explained that the owner of the concert hall was an excellent musician, himself, and that he had studied music in Spain.  Then it all made sense. My name was Rinjii and I was speaking Spanish in Tokyo. Stranger things have happened, right?

And I was still singing Mozart and Strauss. So at least that was familiar!

Once I got my strength back, I started to really have fun in Japan. Ayako is a fantastic tour guide.

I ate sushi. I got fitted for a kimono. I went on a river cruise. I saw Mount Fuji. I experienced the Chinatown in Yokohama. On a cold night in Kyoto, I even saw a geisha hurrying along the road.

One morning, we woke up to discover that it was snowing in Kyoto! The famous temple gardens were now frosted with snowflakes. It was dazzling. I have pictures, but they don’t do it justice. The scenes I tried to photograph were large and bright, so Ayako and I look like tiny black smudges against a pretty white world. But I still consider this once of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life: a Japanese flower garden dusted with fresh fallen snow.

And of course, we had our music. Everywhere we went, our audiences were very warm and appreciative. We sang in some amazing venues and we felt humbled to receive several standing ovations. We even got to do some concerts with the Japanese violinist, Misai Takahashi.  It was an unforgettable tour.

But as soon as I got home to Austria, I made an appointment with a famous otolaryngologist.  I just wanted to be sure I hadn’t damaged my voice by singing that first concert when I was ill.  So I went to the doctor trusted by all of the singers at the Vienna State Opera, Dr. Reinhard Kürsten.

Dr. Kürsten examined my throat with his laryngoscope. It was hooked up to a TV screen so that he could give me a guided tour of my own larynx. “You’re fine!” he said cheerfully. “The voice looks very healthy. Nice, thick vocal cords. It’s a pleasure to look at them.”

The truth is that you can still sing when you have a slight cold, but you have to know how to protect your voice. My voice teacher, Horiana Branisteanu, had trained me very well for that contingency. She showed me how to take all unnecessary pressure off of my throat. In fact, I now teach singers and speakers how to protect their voices when they’re slightly ill.

So that’s the story of how I got my Japanese name.  If you want to know your own Japanese name, check out this website. Sayōnara!


Inside the Master Class

What really happens at a master class?

I’ve had the privilege of studying with several famous opera singers at master classes. They have taught me more than just vocal technique and musicianship.

Here are some of the secrets I’ve learned from great singers.

I remember the moment that I first saw Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. It was January 2002. I was sitting in a crowded auditorium in Stuttgart, Germany. Suddenly, the backstage door swung open.  In that instant, the room fell silent and three hundred heads swiveled to look at her. At the age of 86, Schwarzkopf could command attention simply by walking into a room.

A master class is a seminar for advanced music students (or young professionals) conducted by a master musician. The student performs a piece of music in front of the whole class while the teacher critiques the performance.

Frau Schwarzkopf was famous for making caustic comments at her master classes. She could be pretty brutal with her students.  I was thinking about her reputation when I climbed onstage to sing Hugo Wolf’s Schlafendes Jesuskind for her.  The song opens with the words, “Sohn der Jungfrau, Himmelskind!”  But it took me eight tries to get to the word “Himmelskind,” because Frau Schwarzkopf kept interrupting me.  A couple of times, I hadn’t even made a sound before she yelled, “Nein!”

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was a stickler for detail. Every breath, every expression, every vowel had to be just right. I learned a lot about Wolf Lieder that day. But I learned even more about willpower and charisma, qualities that Schwarzkopf possessed in abundance!

Master classes are never just about singing.  They’re about how to live your life.  (See Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture.) Singers are natural mimics — we learn by imitation and even by osmosis! We absorb a great deal of information simply by being around great artists. And this has little to do with what is actually taught or discussed.

Montserrat Caballé is one of the most joyful people I have ever met.  A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of singing at her master class in Zaragoza, Spain. Her curriculum included a lot of vocal anatomy; she enjoys the science of singing. But it was her contagious joie de vivre that most impressed me. Studying Casta diva with her was simultaneously gratifying and alarming, because her passion for Bellini is visible. It shines through her like a light.

Master classes are special times in the life of a singer because most voice lessons do not happen in front of an audience. Soloists usually take individual lessons. Professional opera singers continue to work with voice teachers and vocal coaches throughout their career, but this training is usually one-on-one.

And yet, there is something about the group learning experience that really works for musicians. Singers who have struggled for years can make huge breakthroughs in a master class. I’ve seen it happen. In just a few days, a student can experience an exponential learning curve.

That’s why I was thrilled to discover that Mirella Freni teaches her own students in a “master class” format. When I moved to Italy to study with her in 2005, I did not realize that my “classroom” would be a sixteenth century palace! On the day of my first lesson, I climbed up a magnificent spiral staircase to a large chamber with painted ceilings, where sixteen young singers were singing arias for each other while Signora Freni made suggestions.

Mirella Freni is, of course, a musical genius.  She sings in a very natural and authentic way, as if she were holding a conversation.

I think the best moment may have been when some of my colleagues asked Ms. Freni how to produce a pianissimo. They wanted to hear about the physical process, how to use their abdominal muscles and resonance chambers, etc. But she gave them a more profound answer.

“What is the best way to support a soft sound, Signora?”

Bemused, Mirella Freni gazed back at them. “Con lo stato d’animo, ragazzi.” (Stato d’animo can be translated “mood,” “spirit,” or “frame of mind,” but what she literally said was, “With the state of your soul, kids.”)

When I went to visit Ms. Freni last spring, I found that she had moved her academy to Modena, the town where both she and Luciano Pavarotti were born. Her master classes are held in a former hospital, in what used to be the cardiology wing.  There is poetic justice in that, since Freni’s music is about singing from the heart.

Of course, master classes are often a mixed experience. When a student wants to learn, and a teacher wants to teach, there is nothing better than a master class.  But sometimes it gets more complicated than that.

Master Class is actually the title of a play about Maria Callas, written by Terrance McNally, in which Callas teaches students about singing while reliving episodes from her own life. And like the play, a real master class can reveal someone’s hidden agenda.

Sometimes, the student just wants to demonstrate how fabulous she already is. Meanwhile, the teacher wants to prove her greatness as a teacher. They both need professional affirmation; they both want to shine.  And they both end up feeling hurt and unappreciated. This is completely unnecessary.

A really masterful pedagogue can adapt to the student’s own learning style. Some students are more kinesthetic; others are more verbal.  Some make huge intuitive leaps simply from imitating the sounds in the room; others need a step-by-step methodology that they can write down.

An experienced maestro knows how to critique a student without discouraging him. He knows what to say and what not to say. Some of the best vocal coaches I’ve known have a Zen-like ability to teach without saying anything at all!

I was not quite that wise when I went to teach vocal workshops at the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory in 2009. I had prepared a several multi-media presentations on topics from breathing technique to the history of Western opera. And I think it was useful. But I noticed that my students got even more from my energy and attention than they did from my information. That’s how it works.

Master classes aren’t just about music. They’re about life.