16 August 2010

The Festival at Canari, Part 1: Master Classes

A young singer in the Convent of Saint François.
This and all photographs here by Rita Scaglia.©
Used with permission.

This is the first in a series of articles I’ll be posting here on the Festival International du Chant Lyrique de Canari, in Corsica, culminating in an interview I conducted last year with the Festival’s founder, Jacques Scaglia.

This year’s Festival runs from 4–10 September. I’ve been lucky enough to attend three times (in 2006, 2007, and 2009), witnessing both the singing competition and the master classes conducted by soprano Michèle Command and baritone Gabriel Bacquier. This year being an even-numbered year, master classes are again the order of the day, and at the Festival, these are something truly special.

Much of this specialness is due to the participation of Madame Command and Maestro Bacquier, two phenomenal artists bound by a profoundly serious attitude toward their work — and by an equally profound joy in music. Their tastes are exacting, their classes rigorous. Officially, Mme Command focuses on technique, while Bacquier focuses on interpretation, but in practice, there’s a good deal of overlap between the two.

Watching Gaby for even a few minutes, one quickly realizes that, for him, there’s no way to separate technique and interpretation: neither discipline will work properly without the other. A singing actor can’t perform the expressive physical gesture that reveals character, if she hasn’t got the breath support to move while singing a particular passage; an acting singer will lose the audience’s interest (or indulgence) if he’s hitting consistently sour notes or garbling the text.

Bacquier with a student, 2006

Thus, Gaby and Michèle don’t function so much as a perfectly balanced yin and yang, with a distinct boundary between them, but as an organic whole. Yes, their teaching styles are different, on the surface: Michèle is tough but fair, and you don’t hear a lot of laughter in her classes, whereas Gaby is forever interjecting humorous asides, hopping out of his chair to demonstrate whatever idea has popped into his head, playing to the crowd. (While Michèle is very funny, too, she generally saves the laughs for later.) But over the course of a week of classes, one sees that the two masters are coming from the same place, and aiming for the same goals.

“Color” is the goal they talk about most often, the matching of sound to emotional character. It’s a concept I’d appreciated but not really thought much about, prior to my visits to Canari; since then, however, I’ve learned that finding the right color is the nearly obsessive quest of all of my singing friends and of the artists I have always admired most.

The young singers who attend Gaby and Michèle’s classes are at different stages of their careers: some students, some professionals, some amateurs. They bring several arias or mélodies to work on, with the idea that, by the end of the week, they’ll have narrowed their repertory down to a single piece to be performed in a concert before the public. Gaby and Michèle already know every number by heart, which shouldn’t be surprising, given their vast experience, and yet it is, in its way, astonishing. They have devoted their lives to this music, picking it apart, unlocking its secrets, putting it back together, polishing it, and putting it on display. And now they come to Corsica to share their knowledge with a new generation. That’s as a master class ought to be.

Gaby in action.

The classes take place in a convent, connected to a church built in 1505. Most days, when the weather is warm enough, Gaby holds court in the cloister, while Michèle takes the chapel. This may help to explain why I get a sense not only of scholarly purpose (as if I were spying on a music conservatory) but also of an almost priestly devotion. Not all of the young singers are destined for stardom, or even much of a career in opera. But each has made a commitment to the art of singing. For this week, at least, each has a true and sincere vocation.

As an audience member, I learn a great deal from these classes. Because the really good singers make it all look easy (most of the time), I may forget or take for granted how much work goes into a performance. A singer doesn’t just open her score and sing perfectly the first time out; she may spend weeks or even years to find the right color for each note. Instead, she must undergo a process of trial and error, of exploration and study. The great ones have an instinct, and develop it over time, but the work — like the discipline — remains necessary.

Moreover, I come away from the master classes with a new appreciation of even the most familiar music. There is simply no way I will ever spend as much time thinking about the Jewel Song from Faust, for example, as Gaby and Michèle have: with each repetition of the aria, they give me new ways of looking at the song, and of hearing it. The next time I go to the opera house or concert hall, my criteria will be a little smarter and better refined: I’ll get more out of the music I hear.

I never went to conservatory. Since I can neither sing nor play an instrument, and since I have scant aptitude for music, there wouldn’t have been much for me to do there; and as yet, no school offers a degree in Advanced Stage-Door Johnnying. But for these hours in the village of Canari, thanks to the aegis of Jacques Scaglia’s Festival, I can make up for a few gaps in my education.

Oh — and the students learn something, too.

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