Earlier this month, fresh off of Great Scott’s premiere at the Dallas Opera, composer Jake Heggie and renowned mezzo-sopranos Joyce DiDonato and Frederica von Stade traveled a few minutes up Central Expressway to give a master class at SMU. Students packed the recital room, and knowing college campuses to be notorious sites of caffeine addiction and Netflix binging, it was surprising to see that opera had won out for so many.
There was no shortage of musical and theatrical prowess at the event—that is certain. Yet the truly captivating nature of the class was due to something greater than sheer technique. For more than two hours, the audience was enthralled by the performance and discussion of classical singing. For anyone concerned for the future of the art form, this class was a virtuosic session in ensuring the longevity of opera.
Things were interesting from the start. While waiting to be introduced, DiDonato pulled out her iPhone and snapped a selfie. Everyone saw. No one knew how to respond. Out of paranoid reverence, everyone else had just tucked their phones away. Was DiDonato allowed to use hers? Was taking a selfie appropriate at such a time? Were we even supposed to have seen that? She sauntered to her chair, flashed a guilty grin, and shrugged her shoulders. The answer immediately became clear: yes. Any stuffy pretensions that had entered the room were quickly dispelled.
The first student sang a piece composed by Heggie, and the three experts wanted her to be more engaged with the song’s poetry. They told her to sing it as if she was telling a scary story to little children. Without hesitation, Frederica von Stade shot up from her seat, rushed to the singer, and sat at her feet. Von Stade bounced up and down and clapped her hands, responding with “ooh’s” and “ah’s” as she helped the singer tell the story.
Heggie took another singer by the hand and gently walked her around the room as if they were dancing. He asked her to sing her song specifically to him, and in a matter of seconds the young woman was brought to tears by the sense of connection Heggie had helped her discover. They swayed back and forth, she cried, and everyone was captivated.
Other singers were asked to channel their sound from deep beneath the ground, or were pulled by the arm through the audience as they sang. The quirky techniques of the masters differed, but there was one consistency: everything hinged on telling a story. Each suggestion, strategy, and gesture (even DiDonato’s selfie) was motivated by a desire to communicate a message.
Though these takeaways may be anecdotal, they point to something really important. If opera is going to hold relevance, it doesn’t need elite stars and compositional geniuses whose talent is an excuse for being out of touch. It needs artists like DiDonato, Heggie and von Stade, who are willing to tell stories through connection, not just on the stage, but in person as well.