the art of art song

Which was also Barbara Bonney’s masterclass at the NEC.
My favorite quote of the evening: “there’re about 7 breaths missing!”

a very interesting experience. Think i sorted out the hurdle of art songs. and the fact that my opinion can be very biased and based on what i “hear”, or more specifically what i can *only* hear. Let’s have a quick run-down the list before going into details, but generally speaking, it’s getting clearer now why lieder are such a hurdle for myself.


Student #1, i think we all heard she was pushing it a bit, so the only comment Ms. Bonney said was for her to stand more leaning into the wall (she quoted some singer here, might have been Brigitte Fassbaender, with square shoulders, square jaw, square face, looking like a leaned-back refrigerator sending out gorgeous sound, only image i have is VK bending WAY backward launching into Sta nell’ ircana..) and take a stab at it only 45% with pushing only to ~65% (to quote Pavarotti’s, Ms Bonney said). The effect was gorgeous, lovely expression, softer = more delicate singing and line. Here we also get to hear Ms. Bonney’s first experience singing Sophie in London, with Dame Kiri ordering her: “go back there, stand next to the wall!!” She thought she was doing something very wrong.. but it turns out Dame Kiri wanted her to work on the posture to not lean forward and cut off the flow of inner body whatever coming all the way from the somewhere internally below the lungs + hearts all the way up the neck and out.. So for the rest of the rehearsal session, she stood next to the wall singing while everyone was running about acting the set. it taught her a true lesson of posturing she said.
Student #2, singing Richard Strauss’s “Morgen”. (Absolutely GORGEOUS piano accompaniment btw) It sounded really nice, but since i no understand German (i can guess some words…) i was again hoping to get some clue from the phrasing.. and to be honest i can’t hear anything, possibly due to not knowing it at all.. If i attend a recital of lieder and it’s sung this way, i’d come out not feeling moved (please wait until i explain way further below..) When it ended, Ms. Bonney concluded: it was PERFECT, there’s no need to work on anything else! (they already worked on several things since the day before it seems, and the singer solved all problems Ms. Bonney’s addressed it appeared..). So then we get to hear Mozart’s “laudamus te” (<– link for listening while i type, of Dame Kiri’s since Ms. Bonney talked ALOT about her..) A note: i can hear Mozart very well in comparison to art songs! So here the only thing we can constantly see and hear is that the voice strained a bit whenever the singer bent her head forward again, thus more comments on leaning back.. The bit about vibrato, must admit i can’t hear at all! So am not sure really actually what vibrato means anymore..
Student #3, singing Manon’s something about a poor table. My ears: a bit pushed and sounded like a singing speech, and that the notes were “truncated”. What i mean is that the note was there just exactly to emphasize the actual word, but not shaping. Ms. Bonney’s take: perfect, except for the approach to the highest note and that it should never be louder than the note before that. After fixing a bit the high notes, we get to hear Mozart’s Pamina. I emphasize again how i “hear” Mozart very well :-), the phrasing, the shaping.. Mozart, Händel, it’s all about dancing! Here we get to hear the second short story about Dame Kiri, how she looked like she’s taking it easy pacing herself, only to let it ripped when necessary and she knew exactly when to do it for the perfect effect while leaving everyone else in the dust looking out of place sharing the stage with her… I must say this student has a gorgeous voice, and as long as she keeps from pushing too hard too young (as Ms. Bonney’s commented), she will be in Europe singing soon. Ms. Bonney talked to the students a lot about going to Europe and the demands there…

Student #4, singing some french art song… Simply from her introduction, you can hear she would have difficulty pronouncing both english and french. This is simply a remark of the fact. (Side-track: personally, i myself don’t sing in English, simply because i never feel connected to the words. If you must hear my french, ahem :-D. Pull out a book of vietnamese songs and we can dialogue ;-)(quoted from L-word!) ) Ok, back, she sang, very lovely voice. Of course we could not understand most of the words. But THIS is what i felt: i can hear the music!! (but not at all the phrasings though…) So, let’s get into a serious discussion about art songs then, with Ms. Bonney’s comments as a guide:
First, her explanation: art songs are not operas. Operas, you have the music. Art songs, you must have the words. The composer first heard a beautiful poem somewhere, and he put music to it, not the other way around. Thus an approach that worked best for her is 1. to recite the poem, to know intimately the words and phrases, deep understanding of only the text. 2. take the text simply to rhythm. 3. play the music in the background on piano while recite poem + follow rhythm. 4. bring in pianist and now work on communicating the song. Thus, everything is in the text, the music is *only* the background.

Now, some side-note, otherwise known as my own background: i actually don’t listen to what people say unless i work extra hard to focus! I always watch movies in silence, listening to operas *without* watching or following translations. Simply put, i somehow lose track of words except for the most critical one(s) in the sentence which I deem the only information needed. Everything else that are not the actual words with meaning, i hear. In other words, i think i hear language as a sound, as background music, and typically i follow clues via observing body action/facial expressions. This is not done intentionally, i’m sure there’re many people like me who digest the world in this strange manner. Which is probably why i deal with equations much better than decorated text.. And this pretty much summarizes what i “hear”. Therefore, you should really be warned when reading my opinions, as i’ve now realized, especially when it comes to singers :-).

So, that’s about it. Ms. Bonney took extra time to say how amazed she is to see students from Asia who had to work extraordinarily hard to digest the roman languages. I felt the same upon hearing this particular student’s struggle, it’s really an achievement. Same goes to all the students who trying to command the various languages while maneuvering the music lines.
One last point, which i found *very* interesting to hear: Ms. Bonney made a comment that her approach is NOT to teach the student about technique, but to address whatever things she found that can aide them in their self-discovery of what is best for their individual voice. This is what her colleagues in Salzburg criticizing her for, that she does not teach technique and as a result all her students “sound different”, which she emphasized is the point. I wonder though, that this is only true if she already sees that the students have some proper technique to start with and now need to work on their next phase of communicating music.. Because if we take breathing for example, one would think that breathing is such a basic starting block that one must already train every single day to properly sort that out? Or is it normal to still not figuring out where to breath and running out of steam and pushing the voice on the run? I didn’t raise my hand to ask that though even though we finished early and there was some time for q/a :-).


About thả diều
writing-challenged opera-addict

2 Responses to the art of art song

  1. dehggial says:

    From what I understand, singers in masterclasses don’t normally teach technique, mostly just expression and understanding of the text. There’s a host of other people singers hire to help them with technique and proper breathing and language and all that stuff. I also think when young singers are chosen for masterclasses they have already been in training for a while (different levels) so they should know quite a bit about proper singing. But you know how it is, teachers tell them “train every day at home” but maybe some don’t 😉 a lot of on your own training seems to be required beside classes with teachers.

    Btw, cool review, very detailed. When I did my Zazzo one I didn’t want to get into specific students just in case they ran into it and felt weird about what I wrote (because I would have poked fun at least at 2 of them ;-)). You went very easy on them.

    • thả diều says:

      oh, i think she meant in her own private sessions with her own students, not just masterclass.. but i could be wrong.. i don’t normally give details about the students’ singing either because i have absolutely no background.. and they really have amazing voices and obviously have worked incredibly hard to even get into this school.. so this time it was to highlight what i normally react to, which is to say only based on what i hear..

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