12 May 2013

The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 21: Master Class with Joyce Castle

Joyce Castle, by Carol Rosegg.©
Among the reasons I love this picture: Joyce and I went to lunch together
immediately after Carol Rosegg took it.

Joyce Castle said all sorts of wise and wonderful things at her master class on May 6, and I didn’t write down any of them. Granted, I was laughing much of the time — Joyce is an entertainer even when she’s teaching. (This is no surprise, since I’ve learned so much from her about life and art when she’s ostensibly “just” entertaining.) But the fact of the matter is that I didn’t even bring pen and paper to the auditorium at the Fort Worth Academy for the Fine Arts, and so for a complete record of her brilliance we are all going to have to look elsewhere.

Four young singers offered arias from their respective repertoires. These folks work in different capacities with Fort Worth Opera, and they have different voice types, too — two lyric sopranos, Jeni Houser from Ariadne and Kristen Lassiter from the Frontiers showcase; one mezzo, Meaghan Deiter, from the company’s Mikado and Julius Caesar in 2011; and one baritone, 19-year-old Michael Pandolfo, a Fort Worth Opera chorister whose solo here promised much.

Deiter had the guts to sing one of Joyce’s calling cards, and one reason Leonard Bernstein loved her: “I Am Easily Assimilated,” from Candide.* Deiter was wonderful, as I expected her to be, vibrant and funny, with a first-rate Rovno-Gubernian accent. And yet in terms of the audacity involved, this was something like taking your drawing to Rembrandt and saying, “What do you think?”

“I’m not going to say anything,” Joyce announced. “It’s yours now.” And in a very real sense, taking a piece and making it yours is the most important thing a singer can do. Don’t copy Joyce — or Marilyn Horne, or Joan Sutherland. Don’t imitate. Share with us what the song says to you.

Beyond that, even in those cases where the singer’s choice lay far from Joyce’s own rep, she had specific, highly pertinent suggestions — and what struck me was that, in every case, the singer was able to take Joyce’s advice. Each kid demonstrated the savvy needed to understand almost instantly what Joyce was looking for, and the technique to apply it. “You want a different color in a rapid passage so high that only dogs and musicologists can hear it? Okay, let’s try it!” In each case, the results were superior.

This is a far cry from what I’ve seen in some European master classes, where the master singer will make a suggestion and listen patiently as the younger singer proceeds to repeat her original interpretation exactly the same way, until the master singer can only shrug and say, “Okay, let’s move on.” Yeah, American singers are better trained, and Darren Woods does his darnedest to hire the best of the best.

All evening, the young singers from Fort Worth Opera showed the strength of character to accept that they’re not perfect as artists, and that’s remarkable, too. They understood that Joyce is only trying to help them to improve and to grow — and they may even have understood that Joyce herself is still improving, still growing.

In conversation with a friend, the vocal coach and author Mary Dibbern, I observed that Joyce’s vocal tone may actually be warmer now than it was 20 years ago. “It is!” Mary cried in reply. “She keeps singing better because she keeps singing!” (Which is not to say that either of us, hardcore Castle fans of longstanding, thought Joyce was a slouch to begin with.)

It’s not given to many singers to enjoy the variety, excellence, and duration that Joyce has known — and continues to know — in her career. But she’s sharing what she can, here in Fort Worth and at Kansas University, and on stages across America. We’re all better off as a result.

*NOTE: Another Ariadne colleague, Amanda Robie, had planned to sing the number, but was indisposed; Deiter was her last-minute replacement. One more reason to salute her bravery.

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