Joyce Di Donato Masterclass April 15th 2015

Everybody’s favourite Mezzo speaking words of wisdom once again.

As part of the Artist Spotlight on Joyce Di Donato the Barbican presented some of Guildhall’s finest students to work with Joyce at the Milton Court Concert Hall in April. Singers involved were Francesca Chiejina, Dominic Sedgwick, Alison Langer and Eliza Safjan.

Here are some of the notes I took during the class –

How to deal with performance nerves. Drop your breath low in your body and focus on your breathing to help calm down, focus on the text, live each word and savour every consonant. Focus on what the character has to say and how they are feeling. Not you.

When making choices re ornamentation be sure and be clear. Make sure they are true to the character and the nature of what they are saying. On the other hand, when working with others you will have to make many changes to the ornaments you use in a piece depending on the conductor/opera company etc. You need to find a way to make all of them work. Don’t be generic with your choices. Be specific. 

Emphasise the rhythms and use them for dramatic effect. Don’t just sing it correctly, use them to your advantage.

Dealing with singing to other characters who aren’t there in the audition room. Have specific reactions to what they say – for example, in the instrumental where they usually sing, know what they say and base your sung response on how you react to it. Sometimes having a specific place in the room where they are (in your imagination) can help.

Don’t just be a singer. Be an artist

Don’t get bogged down with being correct. There’s a time and a place for that, but once you know the music, you know it. After that you have to trust yourself and really become the character.

Recit – even when really spoken should still be attached to a constant legato with constantly spinning, flowing breath.

In practice – physicalising what you are trying to achieve vocally can really help show your habits/where you are going wrong. Obviously we are dealing with an instrument you can’t see and if you’re arm is getting stuck when you’re trying to achieve legato chances are your voice is too.

Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses – be a good business person. It’s business, not personal.

Don’t do the effect. Do the work and then the effect will come naturally, based in truth, not manufactured.

Sing the words like you’ve never said them before. We know that you know the words but your character has no idea what they are going to say until seconds before they speak. Look to the harmony for hints e.g. resolve, questioning, unsure, certain etc.

When we are nervous it is easy to go to generic acting because it feels like a safe place to be. But specific intentions and taking risks are far more exciting to an audience than a perfect vocal rendition with no soul. Ideally in time you obviously want to achieve both, but as I said earlier, as long as you’ve done the work you can relax in knowing that that will be the case!

When you have a very static play in find something linear and an inner dialogue within yourself to keep yourself focused and in the right place.

Find the shape in every phrase.

Play with the same aria sung in a number of different ways then you have options for variety. Through exploration you’ll often find that who you thought the character was can change enormously during production. You need to stay open minded to this. Each director will decide who he wants your character to be, not you. Don’t do too much work that is set in stone on your own before you meet with the director, be flexible about who your character could be. Don’t miss out on the possibilities. If you’re really stuck with the WHY of what you’re doing ask the director to help you understand it so that you can do your job better. As singers we are often working alone, therefore learning this skill can be more difficult than it seems!

Be positive. Change your inner dialogue and your energy changes. Thus, people usually treat you differently. For example, “how can I learn to do a trill?”, not “I can’t do trills”. “This director is rubbish” VS “how can I understand their direction and make it work for me?.”

Listen to everybody’s advice and see what you can learn from it, but at the end of the day you have to have the strength and self belief to choose what you believe is right.