Seen and Heard International

Handel – (AlcinaCredete al mio dolore (Sophie Sparrow)
Rossini – (Il barbiere di Siviglia) Largo al factotum (Jack Lee)
Mozart – (La clemenza di TitoParto parto, ma tu ben mio (Bernadette Johns)
Mozart – (Mitridate, rè di Ponto) Si di lauri il crine adorno (Liam Bonthrone)

The career of a successful singer ‘may appear glamorous and privileged,’ acclaimed American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato said recently, but ‘there are peaks and valleys’ on the professional journey which young singers need to overcome. Teaching students how to make that journey – in particular, the strategic planning and risk-taking which underpin a successful technique – has become central to her musical mission. Her teaching skills lie in her ability to communicate with warmth and humour, and an unerring knack of identifying and ironing out the weak spots in a performance without undermining the confidence of her pupil. So, sparing an evening between sold-out performances in Handel’s Theodora at London’s Royal Opera House, the world’s most approachable diva helped to celebrate the bicentenary of the Royal Academy of Music earlier this month with a masterclass for four of its star students (which can be viewed here). Greeting the many young singers in the audience as ‘my people’ she informed them that the evening would not be about ‘final product’ but ‘process’.

First up was a clearly nervous but already technically accomplished New Zealand soprano Sophie Sparrow, who chose Morgana’s heart-rending aria Credete al mio dolore from Handel’s Alcina. After an uninterrupted first run, DiDonato, who had been sitting erect or sometimes coiled around a chair at the side of the stage, reassuringly put Sparrow at ease. ‘Beautiful. You let us know that we are in good hands.’ Then, repeating the first few bars of the melody to Sparrow in her voluptuously rich lower register, came advice about colour and nuance. ‘More legato’ counselled DiDonato, drawing her arms towards her as if pulling at Morgana’s lover on an imaginary rope, ‘and emphasise those consonants. They are the pillars between the breaths.’ And then the key question: ‘What’s your strategy?’ DiDonato helped to give the answer. ‘Creativity … Don’t worry about being technically correct. Your interpretation must be driven by the emotion of the music. How do you think Ella Fitzgerald would have sung it?’

Next came Grantham-born baritone, and Kathleen Ferrier 2022 semi-finalist, Jack Lee, to sing Largo al factotum from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. A confidently swaggering Figaro with a magnificent vocal range, admirable verbal dexterity, and a pair of highly expressive eyebrows characterised Lee’s Figaro in an aria he has sung many times before. ‘It’s safe, but not unique to you’, observed a closely attentive DiDonato after the first run-through. ‘It’s all about seduction. Don’t give us an impression of someone singing Figaro … jump off the cliff … make it real and playful … make it Jack’s.’

Bernadette Johns, a prize-winning mezzo-soprano, possesses a resonant voice of uncommon beauty, perfectly suited to her chosen piece, Sesto’s aria Parto parto, ma tu ben mio from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito. It was brave of her to perform it in front of a singer who triumphed in the same role in the New York Met’s 2019 production. ‘It’s coming, it’s beautiful’ reassured DiDonato perceptively, ‘but don’t fear it … this should be the most legato singing you’ve ever done.’ After emphasising the importance of breathing, and rolling the consonant R in parto, she returned to the central question – ’What is your strategy?’ She then provided the answer: ‘Prepare to be extraordinary. You never hear world-class athletes tell themselves that it will be all right on the day, so why do singers? A good strategy will allow your artistry not to be impeded by fear.’

The last young singer of the evening was Scottish tenor and Bicentenary Scholar at the Royal Academy Opera, Liam Bonthrone, who gave a thrilling account of Se di lauri il crine adorno from Mozart’s Mitridate, rè di Ponto. This is a minefield of an aria, requiring periodic dynamic jumps of two octaves, with top notes challengingly marked piano. ‘Not every tenor is Mitridate. You are a beautiful singer whose vocal colour and finesse set you apart’, declared DiDonato. ‘Sculp your words, and use the words to make us feel Mitridate’s embrace’, she added. Then, the inevitable and elusive question: ‘What’s your strategy?’ No clear answer was forthcoming. None was needed. Bonthrone had taken all the risks and made the part his own.