An Interview with Dramatic Soprano Alwyn Mellor

Dramatic soprano Alwyn Mellor will perform Brünnhilde in a concert performance of Act 3 of Siegfried on April 26, 3 p.m., at Symphony Hall. Maestro Benjamin Zander will conduct the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. Stefan Vinke will sing Siegfried, Mark Delavan the Wanderer, and Deborah Humble Erda. See the interview with Deborah Humble also.

How long have you been singing Brünnhilde, and what attracted you to Wagner’s music?

I sang my first Die Walküre Brünnhilde in 2010 in a small festival in the UK, followed by Siegfried the following year. I had been studying the role over a couple years, and to perform them separately was an ideal way to start. Götterdämmerung came along in concert in Gothenburg [Sweden] in 2012 with Kent Nagano. We performed it over two nights, and so I was eased into the role gently. All of this was preparation for the Seattle Ring in 2013, which I was already booked for.

As is usual with Wagner’s music, I grew into it over a period of time. I believe that one has to have lived a little before beginning to understand his work. I always had a bigger, mature sound, and so I was careful not to embark on the more dramatic repertoire until I felt ready both vocally and personally. Being grounded is so necessary in this repertoire. So, the answer really is that my voice and personality drew me to Wagner. It was all of a matter of timing.

Did you have to have special studies, learn new techniques to sing this role?

I studied all my Wagner and Richard Strauss roles with Dame Anne Evans, who is a British dramatic soprano who had a long career as both a lyric soprano and latterly as a Wagnerian. She taught me much about the style of the music and vocal color and text, which are what it’s all about. I also worked with some very experienced coaches and conductors here in the UK, and then I took all that advice and knowledge and made the roles my own.

How do you prepare to sing this role before the performances, and where do you find the stamina to get through an entire Ring Cycle in four nights?

All of the things I have previously mentioned are the most important part of preparation for these huge roles. Studying them over a long period of time, listening to what those who have gone before have to say about the roles, both musically and dramatically and practically. Keeping oneself healthy both vocally and physically helps to give you the stamina. Singing out in rehearsals is also vitally important, as it helps to build stamina in the run-up to the performances. Lots of sleep! Learning how to pace yourself over a long evening is something you have to learn for yourself through experience; it’s just like being an athlete. The Ring is a marathon. You can’t give everything in the first few miles and then expect to have something in reserve!

We know that every conductor has his or her way of presenting the music, and singers need to adjust. But do you need to change your singing and/or acting depending on who your Siegfried and Wotan are?

Each pairing of performers is unique, and sometimes you just click and it’s easy from the beginning, and other times it has to develop over the rehearsal period. In my experience it always helps if you get on well when not singing . . . ! Luckily in this repertoire, rehearsal periods are often very long, and so it gives you the chance to get to know each other better, and then that makes the onstage chemistry more believable.

Brünnhilde’s scenes with Wotan are long dialogues rather than any structured duet. Most of Wagner’s music is like this, but Siegfried is different, as Brünnhilde only sings with Siegfried and at the end of a very long evening for him. There is more structure to the vocal writing here, and Brünnhilde even has an “aria,” albeit part of the scene as a whole.

It is a collaboration with the director, and the best directors draw on what they learn about the performers and help to create the relationship on stage. Sometimes it’s just instinctive, and you feel like you’ve sung with that person many times when it’s only the first time. Vocally, some voices just blend better than others, and finding yourself vocally as one is always a joy.

In Act 3 of Siegfried, which you will perform at Symphony Hall on April 26, how do you portray all the emotional contortions that Brünnhilde goes through at the end of the act, from happily greeting the sun, to her deep regrets at having to give up her godhood, to completely yielding to her passion for Siegfried and becoming human? That is quite a lot for one character to go through in such a short time. Is it difficult to express so many emotions that change quickly?

I always feel that the emotional journey for Brünnhilde in the whole Ring is huge, and she literally grows up through this process. Each of the three operas is so different in every way, and the Brünnhilde we see in each of them is a different person. By the time we get to Siegfried, the teenage warrior is no more, having lost her godhood and been put to sleep surrounded by fire, waiting for a hero to rescue her.

The awakening of Brünnhilde is the awakening of her womanhood, as she is now mortal. She goes through tremendous angst and confusion as to who she now is. She hasn’t forgotten all that she was in Walküre and that she had purpose and value in Walhalla. She was stripped of everything that made her who she was, and now finds herself faced with an uncertain future, which makes her incredibly vulnerable.

In some ways it’s easier to understand this Brünnhilde because she’s human and goes through all the emotional experiences that we can relate to. She has already learned something about human love through Sieglinde and Siegmund. In Act 2 of Die Walküure she doesn’t understand this and is shocked at Siegmund’s refusal to go to Walhalla without Sieglinde, but in Act 3 she helps Sieglinde flee Walhalla and is punished so brutally for it.

I love the challenge of finding this new person and the coming to terms with a new life. Musically Wagner gives her so much warmth and humanity, and I hope I can bring all these things to the audience in our concert.

What other roles have you been singing? And which non-Wagnerian role is your favorite?

I have just been in Bordeaux singing Isolde. It’s one of my favorite roles. Last year I sang my first Minnie in La fanciulla del West, and it was an absolute joy for me. I love that woman and how she is like a mother to all those miners. Heart-breaking at times. I love her passion and compassion. I hope so much that she comes my way again.

What performances do you have in the future and where?

This summer I’m back at Opera North in the UK, where we will perform semi-staged concerts of Der fliegende Holländer, with me as Senta. Other highlights include a return to Seattle Opera in 2016 for Senta, followed by Sieglinde and the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde in the widely acclaimed Opera North Ring Cycle.

–Dalia Geffen

Deborah Humble: An Interview

Deborah Humble

Deborah Humble

Here is an introduction to Deborah Humble, who will sing Erda in Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s concert of Act 3 of  Siegfried, conducted by Benjamin Zander, Sunday, April 26, 2015, 3 p.m., Symphony Hall. The other singers are Alwyn Mellor, Stefan Vinke, and Mark Delavan.

How long have you been singing Wagner, and what got you interested in his music in the first place?

Although I had sung and understudied various smaller mezzo roles in the Ring Cycle, my first important Wagner role was Erda in the Hamburg Ring Cycle in 2007. This Ring, a new production by Claus Guth and conducted by Simone Young, was staged over four years and then presented in complete cycles in 2011 and 2012. I ended up singing five roles in these cycles: Erda, Schwertleite, Erda, Waltraute, and the First Norn. The operas were recorded and released commercially on CD for Oehms. It was a first-class initiation into the world of Wagner, and I found myself onstage with the likes of world-class Wagner singers such as Deborah Polaski, Sir John Tomlinson, and Falk Struckmann. It was a real thrill for a young singer from Australia. Since then I have participated in many Ring Cycles and Ring operas: in Halle and Ludwigshafen in Germany, in Melbourne for Opera Australia, at the Teatro Petruzelli in Bari, Italy, for the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Auckland Philharmonic in New Zealand, and Scottish Opera, to name a few. To be honest, I never really “chose” to be a Wagner singer, but I seemed to have a big voice and the kind of sound suited to Germanic music, so after the initial success it was just a matter of following the opportunities that arose.

When you sing Wagner, do you find yourself having to sing it in a different way from other composers’ music? Is there special preparation you have to make to sing Wagner?

I believe that the basics of singing stay the same whatever repertoire you undertake; a good technique is the basis for everything. Having said that, there are certainly special considerations when approaching and performing Wagner’s music. The first consideration, especially for a foreigner, is a total understanding of the text and of Wagner’s special use of language. The textual nuances such as alliteration, use of consonants, subtexts, and presence of musical leitmotifs to underscore meaning and characterization all need to explored and interpreted to best effect. If a singer wants to take the exploration further, then there are philosophical, historical, and political aspects to learn about. All this takes years of study, and the more one repeats a role, the more depth of understanding one usually gets about the characterization, relationships, and musical delivery. Of course, every director and conductor also adds a different perspective, and this means that no interpretation or production is ever the same. The singing of Wagner needs a big, well-focused voice of great stamina to get over the often massive orchestral forces, but also a singer who intelligently and instinctively knows when to hold back and how to express the delicate moments of music.

When you sing Erda in the Ring Cycle, do you have to put yourself in a special frame of mind to convey the uniqueness and otherworldliness of the character?

The challenge of singing Erda lies in the brevity of the appearances, especially in Das Rheingold. There is no time to warm up on stage or get comfortable, and one must convey the importance of the much-anticipated “Warnung” and something of the character of Erda in a very short time. It is five minutes where Wagner basically stops the action and everyone on stage and in the theater is focused on her and what she is saying. Her music, personality, and prophecies do indeed cast a long shadow over the rest of the proceedings and, when well done and well staged, this brief appearance can often be one of the most memorable moments in the entire cycle.

Erda obviously is a very wise woman who saves Wotan from disaster in Das Rheingold. Why does she not help him in Siegfried when he makes a final attempt to save the gods? Has she given up? Has she fallen out of love with him and no longer cares?

The difference between Erda in Das Rheingold and later in Siegfried is very marked. In the first opera she appears to Wotan entirely of her own volition. One has the impression of power, strength, and knowledge as both goddess and earth-mother. Erda dominates proceedings in the scene, and Wotan’s behavior can be seen as rather submissive. In Siegfried she arrives only because she is summoned by Wotan, and the impression changes to one of tiredness, age, and diminishing power. World events have significantly changed, and her exchange with Wotan is much more equal; indeed, Wotan seems to know more than the all-seeing goddess. Part of this change is heard in the music announcing Erda’s reappearance, which, cleverly, contains only one chord per bar and conveys immediately the idea of fatigue and diminished capability.

Have you ever sung in the U.S. before? Boston?

I sang in Seattle in 2008 in the finals of the International Wagner Competition after competing in the semi-finals in New York. It was a wonderful experience and a chance to work with the Seattle Symphony and conductor Asher Fisch and meet other young, aspiring Wagnerians from around the world. Although I didn’t win, this opportunity was a very important one and contributed to my growth as a Wagner singer, as well as giving me the all-important contacts and international exposure that such an event brings. I have never performed in Boston before, although I visited in 1998 after studying in New York with Elena Doria, who was working and teaching at the Metropolitan Opera.  I imagine the city has changed quite a lot since then. The concert in Symphony Hall on April 26th is something I am looking forward to very much. And yes, I will be singing the role of Erda somewhere in the US in 2016, but for the moment I am obliged to remain mysterious and not to reveal where.

What non-Wagnerian roles are your specialties, if any?

In addition to Wagner I have quite a wide-ranging repertoire. Indeed, I just performed my 50th operatic role in February this year. My professional life has been dominated by the Ring operas and by German composers Strauss, Mahler, and Brahms in recent years. I love to sing Carmen, of course, like any mezzo, and the Verdi roles are personal favorites. I particularly like to interpret Amneris in Aida. I also very much enjoy roles such as Suzuki in Madame Butterfly and Olga in Eugene Onegin. Although not large roles, they offer an opportunity for interesting characterizations and also leave strong impressions when well done. I have never sung in Samson and Delilah, but that is certainly a dream role, and I hope to have the chance to do it one day. I would also love to sing Charlotte in Werther. People are often surprised that I do quite a lot of Handel, as they think it is so different from Wagner, but it keeps the voice fresh and flexible, which is important. Concert works and song recitals play an important role in my career, and I sang my first Wesendonck Lieder with orchestra last year, the Henze version, which was a career highlight.

Can you tell us what is coming up for you? Which roles will you sing in the immediate future and where?

In the next four months I have quite a variety of performances coming up.  I will sing my first Sea Pictures by Edward Elgar at the inaugural Festival of British Music in Bamberg, Germany. I make my role debut as Brangaene in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in Mexico City under the baton of Jan Latham Konig, immediately followed by a Flower Maiden in Parsifal with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the United Kingdom, conducted by Andris Nelsons. Following that I have performances of the Verdi Requiem in London, a concert with the Minsk Radio Symphony in Belarus, my first Mahler Eighth Symphony at the Esplanade Theatre in Singapore, and I will interpret Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartok in Melbourne, Australia.

–Dalia Geffen

Jane Eaglen Speaks About Wagner and Brünnhilde

On December 10, New England Conservatory will reunite three of the artists from the Seattle Opera’s critically praised 2005 Ring cycle in An Evening in Valhalla, a concert performance of Act 3 of Die Walküre. Soprano Jane Eaglen, a member of the NEC voice faculty, will sing the role of Brünnhilde; Greer Grimsley, Wotan; and Robert Spano will conduct the NEC Philharmonia. Additional roles will be sung by NEC opera students. This gala performance will benefit NEC’s Student Life and Performance Center, scheduled for groundbreaking in the summer of 2015 and opening in 2017 to coincide with the Conservatory’s 150th anniversary. In anticipation of the event, Ms. Eaglen chatted about performing Brünnhilde, working with her two much admired colleagues, and teaching voice students who may dream of growing up and singing Wagner.

Q: How did this Wagner evening come about? It was your idea, wasn’t it?

A: I think I sort of mentioned it, half joking, thinking it would never happen. It would be a big project to pull off. I mentioned it to Tony [NEC President Tony Woodcock]. The next thing I knew he said, “We have a date for the concert.”

Q: Did you persuade Greer Grimsley to perform it with you?

A: Well, we both thought it would be great—if Greer was free to do it. He’s performing a lot these days. He and I have known each other for 30 years, for longer than we’ve been singing together. We got to know each other at Scottish Opera when we were both kids. I was singing in Così. He was doing his first Jochanaan in Salome. And then we toured together as well. So it probably helped that we knew each other so well.

Q: And with Robert Spano, this is a reprise of the 2005 Seattle Opera Ring that the three of you did together. What was that like?

A: It was great, wonderful. It was Spano’s first Ring, and he’s such a wonderful conductor. He understands so clearly. A cycle is a big undertaking for a Brünnhilde or a Wotan. But for a conductor to have to do his first Ring, to do all the operas at the same time! It has to be stressful—not in a bad way, but I can imagine that for any conductor, it puts a certain pressure on you. Fortunately, there was a lot of rehearsal time in Seattle, which certainly helped. However, it seemed as if it was very instinctive for him, that he really understood the music from the word “go.” And Greer had been in the Seattle Ring in 2001 but doing different roles—Gunther and Donner. I believe he had done Wotan in Die Walküre before, but this was his first full cycle. Having known him [for] so long, I think that really helped us in creating the relationship between father and daughter, which is key to the whole thing as well.

The musical direction of conductor Robert Spano, consistently imaginative and dramatic, attends to the singers while unleashing the power of a mighty orchestra in top form. — Melinda Bargreen, “Seattle Opera Strikes Gold with Brilliant Third Ring” (Seattle Times, August 12, 2005)

Q: How many Brünnhildes have you done?

A: That’s a good question. Someone asked me how many Walküres I’ve sung. And my husband, who is very good with record keeping, said, it was somewhere in the region of 85. I’ve certainly done it more than the other two operas, but not by much. I’ve probably done an extra 10 or so Walküres. I’ve done probably five or six different Ring cycle productions. So I’ve certainly done quite a lot of Rings.

Q: Those cycles must have been quite different in style and approach. How do you feel about auteur directors?

A: I don’t mind a director updating an opera in any way as long as he still tells the story. My issue is that sometimes directors think [that] with Wagner they can go completely crazy. I’m not really sure why people think that, because Wagner was very clear about what he wanted. He had even done stage designs for the first Ring that he did. I do prefer a cycle that kind of looks like where it’s supposed to be set. So I kind of like trees. Mountains. I like being surrounded by fire rather than having to imagine it. Sometimes I’ve had real fire, sometime red candles. The Seattle Ring had really an extraordinary design. I really was surrounded by fire. It was very close! They dialed it down a bit because you have to lie there for 20 minutes before you sing in Siegfried. But I do think the Seattle production was my favorite one. I also liked the old Met Ring production. It really told the story well. But within whatever production or design you’re given, you still have to create the same character that you believe Brünnhilde to be.

What I’ve always found so fascinating about Brünn­hilde—obviously you have three operas to develop the character—but she’s such an interesting, three-dimensional and extreme character. There is so much you can do. Every single time I’ve done it, I’ve found something new or different, something I can rethink a little bit.

Jane Eaglen, in fine form as Brünnhilde, clearly understands the text, music and characterization so fully that it’s a pleasure to see her develop from an impetuous youngster into a wiser, sadder daughter who understands what she must pay for her disobedience. Her voice was splendid in its amplitude and also in its evenness throughout the entire register.” — Melinda Bargreen, “Seattle Opera Strikes Gold with Brilliant Third Ring” (Seattle Times, August 12, 2005)

Q: I read an interview with you in which you said you thought of Brünnhilde as a 15-year-old girl. Can you elaborate on that? And how does she develop over time?

A: Well, I think of her as a big, fun girl—a bit like me. Which is why I think I’m drawn to her. The whole job, if you like, of being a Valkyrie—that is, bringing the dead heroes to Valhalla—is such great fun. You can hear that in the “Ride of the Valkyries” until the Valkyries realize something is wrong and Brünnhilde’s not there. Brünnhilde may be a little older than 15, but definitely in her teens. She’s very enthusiastic. She loves what she does. I think people sometimes get bogged down by the fact that the Ring is all about these gods and goddesses, but it’s really not. It’s all about relationships between people—between father and daughter, husband and wife. That some of them are gods is not really the point. The relationships between them are very personal, very human. People sometimes miss that or are surprised by that when they actually go to see the Ring. So I think Brünnhilde has a real enthusiasm for life. I think she is Wotan’s favorite daughter, perhaps because she is really smart. All the Valkyries are Erda’s daughters, but Brünnhilde definitely is her mother’s daughter, and I think she gets her intelligence and intuitiveness through her. So what I find interesting about the character is that . . . she listen[s] to people and learn[s] from them and make[s] decisions based on what she’s heard. So the reason she can go on at the end of Götterdämmerung and say, “Now I know everything,” is because of what she’s learned from Wotan, from Siegmund, from Siegfried, and she becomes such a hugely developed character. She’s started as this young, innocent, fun kid, and then she gets to be the woman who saves the world. So when Wotan asks in Act 2 where he can find a free hero who can give the ring back [to the Rhinemaidens] and save the world, she says, “I don’t know.” But then, later on, 15 hours later, she can say, “Oh, that was me.”

Q: Tell me about working with Greer and establishing the father/daughter relationship.

A: We know each other so well that I think we have a chemistry together, and we didn’t have to work on that. Obviously, father and daughter, the age thing is kind of an issue. But I’ve always thought of myself as about 12 years old. And he also has a daughter. I think the relationship between us was very well developed in that first cycle.

I think the third act of Die Walküre is wonderful. It’s my favorite act in the whole Ring. You have the excitement of the ride, and then the emotions in the second half are just amazing.

Greer Grimsley’s Wotan, making a sure-footed way through his first “Walküre,” is unflagging in his intensity and power: terrifying in his wrath, tender in his affection for his wayward daughter Brünnhilde. He already sings with the seasoned nuances of a longtime master of this role. — Melinda Bargreen, “Seattle Opera Strikes Gold with Brilliant Third ‘Ring’” (Seattle Times, August 12, 2005)

Q: What about the chemistry between the three of you? You and Greer and Spano?

A: I just felt it was a very cohesive situation. There was never any problem with what we all wanted to do. I always find the best music making is collaborative rather than when a conductor says, “Do this,” which never works. And I’ve always found that the greatest conductors are like that. They discuss with you how you conceive of a role or scene, and also they understand that every singer is different and sometimes needs something specific, perhaps vocally but also emotionally or dramatically. It just felt very easy working with him and finding the Ring that we all wanted to do.

Q: What sort of training do you put yourself through to get through a whole Ring? It’s got to be an enormous physical feat.

A: It is. Some research was done at some point that found that singing a major role in a regular opera, apart from a Wagner opera, is the equivalent of running a marathon. Physically that’s what your body goes through. I think that people who sing Wagner tend to be strong, to have that kind of stamina. I’ve always been lucky that way; I’m a big strong girl. But you’re careful. You do a performance and go right home and go to bed. And the day in between you pretty much don’t get dressed. You just lie there. If you feel like doing something, fine. I’ve always . . . been careful because you don’t want to get tired or get sick. And also you have to keep looking at your scores. When you’re singing Brünnhilde, you’re singing three different operas every other day. You just have to keep refreshing yourself, thinking through it on your day off.

I did my first Ring in Chicago. I had done Die Walküre quite a bit before, and I’d done Siegfried the year before. But my first cycle was also my first ever Götterdämmerung. And I was covering the middle cycle of three and conductor Zubin Mehta said to me, “It’s fine. It’s a good way to do your first Ring. Nobody will know about it.” But in the interim, I had done some things and people were coming to hear me. So quite a lot was riding on it. And I was nervous. I didn’t really get much rehearsal. I didn’t ever do the whole of Götterdämmerung staged with orchestra. The first time I did it was in the performance. But I’d worked hard and I’d had staging rehearsals. And I felt prepared. But when I got through the second act, I heaved a sigh of relief and thought, “I can actually do this thing.”

Q: You studied with one teacher, Joseph Ward, your entire life. Was it always clear to the two of you where you were headed vocally?

A: It was to him. But I had no idea when I went to study with him at age 17. I kind of sounded like a boy soprano, a choral voice. At my audition, he had uncovered notes in my voice that he thought were going to grow into a bigger voice. And after two weeks of lessons with him, he said, “Well one day you are going to sing Norma and Brünnhilde.” And my response to him, because I had grown up as a pianist and didn’t know much about the operatic literature, was “Is that good?” He said, “Yes, you should go and listen to these recordings right now.” So he sent me off to the library to listen to the Solti-Nilsson Ring, and I was hooked. He could obviously tell something in my voice at a very early age. Now, having had the experience of hearing many young voices and having a career, I can hear in some voices the direction I think they will take. Mr. Ward would absolutely have no doubt in his mind. What was so great about him is that whatever came up at whatever stage of my career, he always gave me the right advice. When I was young, I was offered several projects that were really premature for me. He would say, “Well, I won’t say you can’t do this because I think you can. But whether you should do it, I don’t think you should.” So I would say, “Then I won’t do it,” because I trusted him.

Q: You have been teaching for several years now. Some of your students must be dramatic sopranos in the making. How do you approach training voices like that? Kirsten Flagstad famously said young singers should stay away from the repertory. Others have said a steady diet of Mozart is not the answer either.

A: It’s a very fine line. Every case is different. Almost the first aria my teacher gave me was “Du bist der Lenz” from Die Walküre, when I was 18. He said, “This is what you’re ultimately going to sing, and so you might as well learn the style now.” And also with bigger voices, one of the most important things [you can do] is to let them sing. You can’t take away from the sound that a young voice makes. Young singers need to learn to sing at the natural level of their voice. If that happens to be bigger than some, that’s how it is. In teaching these students, it’s all about finding the right pieces. I’m all for doing some Mozart if that’s appropriate. But that can really get people into trouble too. It’s like that saying: Mozart is too difficult for professionals and too easy for amateurs.

One of the issues these bigger voices often come in with is [that] they have been told since age 18 that they need to sing quietly. So then they get tight and don’t support properly and develop all sorts of issues you then have to fix. But people will say, “They need to be able to sing quietly.” And they will be able to. But until you can sing at the natural level of the voice, it’s very hard to do so. I’m not necessarily advocating giving 18-year-olds Wagner to sing, but sometimes it makes sense. Singing “Du bist der Lenz” is much less damaging for the voice than doing, say, “Dove sono” [Le nozze di Figaro]. That’s because Wagner writes long lines,and a bigger voice takes longer to get into the breath, to get into the line. And Wagner never requires that you absolutely have to do it until you feel the stretch of the breath. So you never have to slam the cords, you never have to slam the voice. If you sing Wagner properly, it can actually be much healthier than lots of other composers. The reason some people get into a tizzy about it is if you don’t have the right voice for it, people try to make the right voice, so they push because they think they have to sing loud.

If there’s one thing my students come away with it’s that Wagner is not loud. If you have the voice to sing it, then you can do it. If you don’t, don’t sing it. When I was about 22, I did a concert with Sir Reginald Goodall, who was a wonderful coach and conductor. We did the Liebes­tod[Tristan und Isolde] in a concert for Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and [when] we got to the big climax, he stopped me and said, “My dear, it’s only marked with two f’s.” And I held that in my mind for the whole of my career. In fact, Wagner almost never wrote [anything] louder than two f’s. That should tell you something. He also required a Brünnhilde who could trill; all three Brünnhildes have a trill. So, if he expected a voice that could trill, he didn’t want a voice that was pushed because then you couldn’t trill. It’s more to do with whether the quality of the voice is the right sound for the repertory rather than trying to make it big and heavy, which is never how it should be.

For bigger voices, indeed for any voices, it’s important to do some florid music. Coloratura is good to study. It’s just that it’s harder for big voices. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve sung the eight bars of coloratura in Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir” [Don Giovanni], I could probably retire to Jamaica. I think I’ve literally sung it a million times. My teacher gave me a Handel piece after the first few weeks I had studied with him, and he told me this is how you practice this piece, these runs. Now you have to go and figure it out. So I locked myself away for two or three weeks, and eventually I was able to do it.

I remember being kind of shocked the first time a student said to me he didn’t know how to practice. Practice is what you do to get something perfect. Of course, we’re all human, and perfection isn’t possible, but you keep trying. So you don’t stop until you get it right. That to me just seems common sense. That tenacity was not something I had with my piano playing, but somehow with the singing I felt I have to get this right. I try to instill this determination in my students, but sometimes when I tell my students that I’ve done something a million times, they think I’m kidding. No, I’m not. Over the years, it’s that!

I’ve always wanted to teach, and I absolutely love it. And I’m really lucky to have some wonderful students. But not only do I teach them how to practice, it’s also about how to approach the career. I’ve had experience that not everyone has had, and it’s always felt important to me to pass these things on.


For information about NEC’s An Evening in Valhalla, December 10, at 7 pm, in NEC’s Jordan Hall, go to NEC’s website at or call 617-585-1260.

Ellen Pfeifer

Ellen Pfeifer is Senior Communications Specialist at the New England Conservatory