A Midsummer Night's Masterclass

BRIAN KELLOW speaks with Irish mezzo Ann Murray, who this summer will lead a masterclass for members of the Garsington Opera Chorus.

Q&A Ann Murray lg 314
Ann Murray
© Sian Trenberth 2014

Garsington Opera, which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this season, has become one of England's top summer music destinations. Founded in 1989 by Leonard Ingrams, it has burgeoned from a modest, genteel English festival into a major annual event that international opera leaders flock to in pursuit of young, rising talent. This summer, renowned Irish mezzo Ann Murray will lead a master class for members of the Garsington Opera Chorus. Recently, BRIAN KELLOW spoke with Murray about her work with young singers and her own path to fame.

OPERA NEWS: The master class you're teaching at this year's Garsington Opera Festival is aimed toward chorus singers particularly?

ANN MURRAY: Yes. The young artists are at the start of their journey in Garsington Opera per se. I did a class last year, and they invited me back this coming summer. What I had noticed as an outsider is that they seem to have created a marvelous family atmosphere of young, mainly British Isles-trained singers, and they start by being given their chance in the chorus. As they progress, the company seems to recognize their progression, and they get a small role, so each year they maybe get an understudy role the next year. I think that's marvelous. Maybe they won't be big international names unless they get the chance, which this company seems to give them. It's amazing nowadays, with all the pressures of publicity, they still have time to build a company, and I think there's that is their great gift. 

This year, they asked if I would do an open class as part of the festival. I'm not terribly keen on the idea of these processional master classes or celebrity master classes. I like to work with the young artists to develop their own ideas of a piece. It's as if we all belong to a book club, and we all have to read, let's say, The Marriage of Figaro, but each one of us has a completely different view of these different characters. I try to help them so that, through their imagination, they can develop their ideas. They don't have to agree with me — I like to get them to the point where they say, "I like what Ann said, but I have another idea." Eventually, you have to go away, sit down and read it and let yourself, let the book be absorbed into your being. And then, if the audience happens to be there, of course, we thank them for coming, but I'm careful to say that this is a working session, and I will not be playing to the audience. You will hear me work and we'll have a few questions afterward. We'll be happy to chat. But the time is short, so let's get on with it.

ON: I don't think anyone gets much out of the master classes that are downright sadistic. I think you have to work with what you've got, don't you?

AM: Yes. I sang with a colleague some years ago, and she had done a master class with an eminent soprano who nearly finished her off. She said, "I was so close to giving up." The singer in question felt that she needed to be nasty and cruel. Maybe I should have been more nasty and cruel! Missed it! Oh, well. Tough.

ON: When you were growing up in Ireland, there wasn't a very high level of instruction available to you, correct?

AM: There are few opportunities for the young Irish singers. And there are wonderful singers there. Veronica Dunne has pretty well almost singlehandedly developed the standard of singing in Ireland. Now I work four times a year at the Music Academy in Dublin. I feel a great sense of pride for them. We're as far west in Europe as you can get, and yet they're making their mark and doing very well. 

In my case, after finishing boarding school, I went to UCD [University College Dublin]. They have a musical festival, which is important, socially. In my youth, we didn't have television. You got up and played the harp or recited for entertainment. It still goes on that way, a little like the Welsh eisteddfod. I was lucky enough win the competitions I entered. An adjudicator suggested I should try my luck singing, and I went to Manchester. 

The most important person was my singing teacher when I came to England, Frederic Cox. I'd never seen anything so exotic. In Ireland, everything seemed simple. He was very well educated and a wonderful teacher. It was he who gave me lessons of technique for two years. I didn't sing anything, and he gave me exercises of imagination [demonstrates by singing] "Tee-tee-tee — where are they? There they are! Tee-tee-tee!"a There was always a bit of drama in all of my exercises. The next really most important meeting was meeting Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. I mean, there's nothing else to say! He was extraordinary. And from that, I had the greatest opportunities working with Jimmy Levine, Muti, Harnoncourt, Sawallisch. All of this was hugely important to my early career. I won at the Francisco Vinas Competition, and with the money I had two lessons with Victoria de los Angeles. She tried to teach me a legato line, and that I remember very clearly. And when I was doing my first Komponist, I had one lesson with Sena Jurinac. She said, "I'm not going to tell you how to sing it, but I'm going to tell you if you sing like that in performance, you will die. I have died on so many occasions myself!" She drove me through the performances. 

ON: I hate to press you to generalize, but can you mention some of the most common mistakes that your students make?

AM: In a lot of cases, they present an aria that perhaps they shouldn't be singing, and you ask them, "Have you looked at the rest of the role?" They often say, "Oh, I only need this for an audition." And you may say, "Okay, you sing it beautifully, and if they offer you the role, what do you do? Have you researched the rest of the role?"

I also find that in a number of cases, singers sing repertoire that is too old for them. My answer to that one is, "You're going to be as old as me much longer than you will be as young as you. So enjoy your youth." I have found in some cases very bad preparation, sloppy preparation and poor language skills. But generally speaking, so many of them are so willing.... Out of the maybe sixty or seventy singers I've worked with in the last twelve months, maybe ten or twelve of them behaved like this. I didn't know whether they were arrogant or stupid, or whether they hadn't been guided properly. I try not to go into technique in detail, because that's not my place. I say to the artist at the start, "You must clear anything I'm saying, if you agree with it, with your singing teacher, because they can guide you through." I worked with one young man in Germany, and he was having trouble with some coloratura in a Bach aria, and I said, "Well, this is what I would do, would you like to try it? Sing this bit slowly and then faster and faster. Don't look at the big line of notes — you have to find a pattern." And he said, "But it's not that tempo on YouTube." I said, "Let's do something else. I cannot possibly compete with YouTube — I've lost it already!" 

ON: I find, too, that they are so often not geared toward giving a performance in a master class. So many of them don't seem to be engaging their dramatic imagination at all.

AM: Do you think that's got a lot to do with the emphasis on a beautiful sound and not taking a risk? To take a risk or to sing piano breaks an audience's heart, and I find that a lot of it needs to be stripped down just to put it back together again. 

Another thing I notice in Garsington is that they have people who come in to advise the young singers about the opera business, so to speak. I think that's very difficult for young singers. You see $500 written on your contract, but if you're lucky, you come away with $230. You cannot spend $500 when you get it, you have to put it aside to pay your tax and your agent, in case you're sick, your pension plan, your medical plan. All of those things, the management of your career — not just the singing — all of it makes you the person you are. Once you've done all of that, I think you throw it all away and go with the fantasy of the piece you enter into. It's like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe  — you walk through the Wardrobe door, having done all the preparation, and just fly with it. spacer 

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