09 September 2010

Festival at Canari, 2010: Listening

Michèle Command, foreground, teaches us how to listen.
Seated to her left: Bernadette Bolognesi, Ange Dolémieux.
Photo by Rita Scaglia© Used with permission.

“You hear everything!” a student told Michèle Command during a master class at the Festival International du Chant Lyrique de Canari the other day — and then added, “It’s very annoying.”

For my part, I find it wholly admirable, and one of the signal pleasures of this year’s Festival has been the opportunity to watch Michèle as she listens to the young singers who appear before her, hour after hour. She’s up, she’s down, she’s singing along, she’s dancing, but always completely absorbed in the students’ work. I don’t know how she does it; I’m worn out, mentally, physically, and aesthetically, after only an hour or so, and I have to go out to breathe the fresh Corsican air. But Michèle keeps going, and it’s true: nothing gets past her.

At the 505-year-old Convent of Saint-François
Photo by Rita Scaglia© Used with permission.

When she was a student, Michèle tells me, she was expected to attend all the lessons, not merely the one prior to hers and a few minutes of the one after, while she packed up her music and left the studio. This helps to explain how, even before she began her own career as a singer — and later, as a teacher at the Paris Conservatory — she had developed a thorough knowledge of multiple repertories, in every voice type, from every period and culture. It’s almost impossible to stump her, though a few students do try.

Today, even Michèle’s own students in Paris sometimes are out the door almost as soon as a lesson is over. “I have an appointment across town” or “I have another lesson now,” they say, without seeming to understand that they could learn something from the work of other students.

“You have to listen first,” Michèle told the students here in Canari. “Get the music in your ears before you start to sing. Otherwise, you’ll wear yourself out.” It’s advice she follows when she sings: the other day, she played us a recording of a concert performance of Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne she sang in Amsterdam, with a vast orchestra behind her. I was struck by how natural her expression seemed, whether the song called for her to incarnate a simple shepherdess or a quasi-Wagnerian force of nature. How had she arrived at this ease and (seeming) freedom? Did it just come to her? How long had she worked to prepare these pieces?

“A while,” she said. “I started not just by studying the score, but also by listening to other people’s recordings, not to copy them, but to get the music in my head. When I was ready, I started to sing.”

Students listen, too.
Photo by Rita Scaglia© Used with permission.

She’s quite a dainty little thing (but don’t be deceived — she’s tougher than she looks), so the power she deployed really was impressive as she sailed over the orchestra. This wasn’t a studio recording, where microphones are positioned to put the singer’s voice forward; we heard what we’d have heard live in the concert hall. Much of this strength comes from correct respiration, but it’s also a question of personality, of rising to the occasion. (Something Marilyn Horne emphasizes, too, when working with young singers.) “It’s necessary to nourish the sound,” Michèle says.

“You have to have the size [grandeur] as if you were singing with an orchestra,” Michèle said to a young soprano the other day. “Right now, your sound isn’t reaching any further than this.” She gestured about two feet in front of herself. “If you’re singing in an auditorium, you have to reach the audience sitting all the way in the back. This isn’t a studio in the conservatory: you have to be able to sing in big halls and little halls, with different acoustics.”

To another soprano, she said, “You want to sing what? Salome, Elektra? If you keep singing like this, you’ll never get there. You have to start smaller, really work on the fundamentals. It’s like climbing a staircase. You get to one step before you rise to the next.”

I’ve been struck by the widely varying levels of training among these singers (which in turn makes me appreciate American training all the more), and Michèle is alert to this, as well. One reason she dances, she says, is that too many of the young singers don’t seem to feel the rhythm in the music: they’re just hitting the notes. But as she sways, Michèle is also indicating legato, shape, and character.

If she hears a defect in technique, she pounces — literally. She grabs the student, puts her hands where the breath should be coming from, pushes the air out. If that demonstration isn’t sufficient, she places the students’ hands on her own body, then sings. If the flaw is in the articulation, she pokes her fingers in the student’s face. I’ve seldom been more conscious of the physicality of singing: it’s really an athletic exercise, and after a good lesson, the students are energized and glowing.

Michèle’s patience is extraordinary. She’ll listen to a phrase over and over, insisting on repetition until the singer gets it right — then asking for another repeat or two to make sure the phrase is really locked into the singer’s memory.

These ladies really know the score:
Michèle Command & Sylvie Lechevalier-Bartoli with a student.
Photo by Rita Scaglia© Used with permission.

Not everybody is an apt pupil. Some simply don’t have the fundamentals yet, and as Michèle says, “Sometimes you have to step back. In two or three, or even seven days, we can’t achieve miracles.” In music as in any other field, some people simply learn better than others do, and I’m finding in Canari that some of the young singers are so deeply invested in their own techniques and interpretations that they block out whatever Michèle and Gabriel Bacquier are trying to tell them. (Sort of makes you wonder why these kids are attending a master class in the first place.)

By contrast, my hero this week is a very young singer who fell in with the wrong teachers and arrived here with dubious technique that seemed designed exclusively to force the kid into the wrong voice type. The results were uncomfortable for singer and for listener: on high notes, the whole body tensed, the shoulders flew up and the chin dropped down, while the voice was directed toward the shoes. But because this kid is willing to learn, I’ve watched phenomenal progress in just a few days, as bad habits fall away and a genuinely attractive voice is liberated.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the kid is on the right track at last, and all because of a terrific attitude: the kid is listening as intently as Gaby and Michèle are. It’s beautiful to see.*

Bacquier got hold of the kid first, and tried to demonstrate how, with correct breathing, even an 86-year-old baritone could sing an aria in the kid’s Fach. (Indeed, another of the great pleasures in Canari is hearing Gaby assail repertoire other than his own: his Despina, in 2006, remains one of the highlights of my career in the audience.) But the kid had too much bad technique for this particular lesson to stick, and Gaby’s emphasis in master classes is interpretation. “Go see Michèle,” he advised the kid. “She’s got the patience for this kind of thing — I don’t!”

Gabriel Bacquier: The master in action,
in the 12th-century Church of Sainte-Marie.
Photo by Rita Scaglia© Used with permission.

For her part, Michèle says that generosity, rather than patience, is the key element in teaching. (Certainly Gaby has generosity, too, in abundance.) Teachers have “to give something of themselves,” Michèle told me, “to forget one’s own career and to give of oneself. You have to be able to receive. I hear when the students are going to crack, and I try to stop them [before they embarrass themselves]. I can hear how they’re feeling — even over the telephone. ‘You’re pregnant, aren’t you?’ ‘But how do you know?’ ‘I hear it in your voice.’”

It’s a spiritual connection, she says, though it may be genetic, too. Her father was a doctor and an excellent diagnostician, and she seems to have inherited his gift.

As I watch her listen, I’m reminded of how great artists can elevate an entire performance just by listening to the others onstage; there are few things more dismal than a singer or actor who engages only when his own mouth is open. What a prodigy Michèle must be onstage!

But there’s a lesson here for other arts, as well, and for life. If I don’t listen to other people, I can’t hear their stories, and so I can’t write them; if I don’t listen to my friends, I’ll never know whether they’re happy or sad, or whether they need me. As I say, I come to Canari to learn, too, and not only about music.

Michèle has been in excellent voice this week, and we’re hoping that she’ll favor us with a few numbers, perhaps at Friday’s concert. In fact, we’ve already picked out (greedily?) the numbers we want to hear: Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. As it happens, Sylvie Lechevalier-Bartoli, who accompanies Michèle’s master classes, has a wonderful feel for these songs. I’m crossing my fingers and making offerings to the gods of music.

Her Command is my wish.
Photo by Rita Scaglia© Used with permission.

*NOTE: I regret to say that I see nothing of myself in this young singer. In writing workshops, I have become absurdly defensive at even the most benign criticism (only later, and privately, to admit the value of the advice I’ve been given). Please permit me to take this opportunity to apologize to the esteemed novelist and teacher Mary Gordon and to promise her that, next time, I’ll try to behave myself better.

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