Every young artist has a role model. That person that drew them to their vocation and inspired their respective journeys.
Most of them don’t expect that hero or heroine to crop up on that path toward success, much less play a hand in it.
But a few young singers will see that wish come true at the Opera Naples this very week when they get work with legendary soprano Renata Scotto.
In her prime years as a soprano, Scotto was superstar around the world and was the Metropolitan Opera’s leading lady. Her repertoire was immense and consisted of the major Italian works from Verdi, Puccini and Donizetti and she transitioned from being a light lyric coloratura soprano to a dramatic soprano. In her later years Scotto added more French and German repertoire and she even sang Mezzo Soprano roles.
Now she is taking on another role in the opera world, that of a mentor to aspiring talents.
Together with Ramon Tebar, the Artistic and Music Director of the Opera Naples, Scotto and Tebar created a program that would allow singers from around the world a chance to work privately with Scotto, be featured in a masterclass and later perform in a special concert.
“We were in Florida and he suggested that we had the possibility to have this academy in Naples,” Scotto told OperaWire regarding how the project came about. “And I said ‘Maybe. Let me think about it because it is a great idea and I have to be available.’ I’ve never been to Naples so it’s very new to me. And then I thought about it and I said ‘Let’s do this beautiful adventure.'”
Scotto oversaw the selection process, which required audition tapes with two arias, preferably in Italian, submitted by prospective candidates.
“I chose through online auditions. They all sent the latest aria that they had sung and some I liked and some I didn’t,” the operatic icon noted. “And I think I chose quite a good group.”
But the audition process required another round. “I auditioned again because I wanted to make sure the results from the first one were right.”
Scotto revealed that eight of the singers are coming from Spain on a sponsorship, while others hail from from around the world. The group is expected to total around 25 or so students.
Once the singers arrive, Scotto will work with each of the students individually. For the soprano it is very important that each student gets the same amount of time and that each one gets the same value. While more time consuming, it will enable her to understand each voice separately and provide the students with the best value.
From there the students will given the opportunity to perform in masterclass open to the public and will also be chosen to perform at a closing night concert.
Scotto’s Teaching Methods
Don’t call Scotto a voice teacher. Instead, she sees herself as an interpretation teacher who focuses on the text, style and interpreting an aria so that each singer can find their own way of performing.
When Scotto gets a student she always looks first at the type of voice and analyzes if the repertoire he or she has chosen is correct. “Often what happens is singers are confused by choosing the right repertoire. They sometimes go to the heavy repertoire immediately and when they are young they have to have the right repertoire for that kind of voice. So this is the first thing.”
Once that is established she goes into the piece itself and stresses that singers have to be prepared because the voice should communicate the words and the singing. “They have to know the difference from one composer to the other. They have to know exactly the meaning of the words that the composer and librettist wrote. And it’s very important for the interpretation,” she explained before cautioning that the message doesn’t always stick. “Sometimes they don’t understand and sometimes they understand immediately. The talent it is there when they understand immediately.”
Acting is another element that Scotto emphasizes. While we take this element of the operatic artist for granted, the Italian soprano was always committed to giving her dramatic best, even when others were still playing roles from static positions onstage. Scotto was always adamant about movement on stage and what each movement meant for the text. Unsurprisingly, this has translated to her teaching approach.
“I work a lot on the body with students. The body language has to come with the singing and the words. The body is moving with the voice and the expression. It has to be about the communication of the language. The hands are very important to help the expression but not too much. It’s really the measure in everything that you have to use.”
But Scotto also noted that not every singer can do the same thing. A voice type can create a different effect and thus will have to use different gestures. “I use a little psychology to understand the personality and see what language I can use from them. So it’s really different approach that they have to understand and different from each other.”
When Scotto was performing in the 60’s, 70’s and and 80’s the world was very different. There were very few recordings and the internet was very limited. Conservatory programs were limited and students did not have access to music in schools.
“Today they go to school early, they go to conservatories, they know music while maybe 50 and 60 years ago, especially in Italy, they had a beautiful voice but no knowledge of music,” she contrasted. “You can sing with only a beautiful voice but it is better to have knowledge of the music first.”
And Scotto acknowledges the advantages of limitless resources, she also notes that distractions are everywhere. Social Media is now part of the modern opera world and it has changed the way we look at opera singers and the way the art form is promoted. But while this can distract away from the mystique in the business, Scotto surprisingly believes that recordings and videos are even more detrimental.
“Sometimes they learn from CD’s and videos,” she explained. “They learn someone else’s interpretations and this very bad. Sometimes it becomes pure imitation.”
When Scotto learned a role she never had a CD to listen to. “It was my talent and my teacher. My teacher and my conductor. It’s so much better.”
But one of the things she also believes is happening now is that singers do not understand their limits. Many singers will look back at her career and notice how diverse her repertoire was. She sang coloratura roles such as Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lamermoor” and Verdi’s dramatic “Macbeth.” But she was a rarity in those times as most singers stuck to what worked best. Maria Callas famously got fired from the Metropolitan Opera by Rudolf Bing because she refused to sing “Lucia” and “Macbeth” in close proximity throughout the season.
But these days, more and more singers, doing their best to avoid missed opportunities, sing more and more varied repertoire with limited time to rest or adjust the voice to different repertoire. Scotto believes this haphazard evolution is inciting confusion in young singers.
“I did not change repertory because I did it in at an early age. I did the heavier stuff later when I already acquired an experience and I knew the development of my voice,” she revealed. “And there is a possibility that your voice can not change repertoire. Your voice can remain a leggero or a dramatic.”
“I was lucky because I married a musician and someone who followed my career. It was fantastic that he could follow my career. so we knew how to change repertory. And the conductors I had in my career followed me and advised me. I never did it by myself.”
So what can opera singers do to avoid these distractions and focus on developing their voices and ensure a healthy and lengthy career?
“You pace. You don’t accept everything,” she emphasized. “You don’t sing one day in Milan and the next day go to New York and sing the night after. It’s you much. You don’t have time to rest. The voice is like music. Music has it’s own pace. When you read and you learn it’s never fast. It’s slow and it has it’s own tempi.
“You have to put the music in your voice and know the capacity of learning a role. And you need time. So many times I didn’t accept because there was no time to study and to rehearse. Rehearsal is the best period. Because rehearsing was a place to study with my partners and to learn every step that you had to do. When it comes to the performance you know exactly what to do.”
As Scotto prepares her masterclass at Opera Naples, the soprano is aware of how scarce programs like the one in Naples are becoming as many companies cut budget. European governments are subsidizing the arts less and less and private donors are cutting on the how much they give.
But the soprano refuses to give up on the art form and art in general. “Art is our life. It’s our background,” she proclaimed. “We have to give to an audience because they learn with us. And the past is what gives us strength for what we are today. And if we don’t know anything about the past, it’s very bad.”
“Every school needs to have gym but also music. If we don’t keep culture, in our life we are dead,” she added.
So what does Scotto believe is a remedy. Opera in movie theaters is definitely something she thinks has worked. “There are states so far away that they cannot come to the Metropolitan Opera. It allows people who do not know anything about opera to go to the Metropolitan Opera.”
She also thinks that new productions and new interpretations of masterpieces keep the art form fresh. But she cautions the extent to which a work should be reinterpreted. “I don’t agree with some productions. When they give a production that make no sense with what is written in the libretto or music you don’t do it because you ruin the composer’s original intention.”
But Scotto, who has become a stage director herself, believes that opera should be updated with taste. “I agree with productions that are not old-fashioned. I like minimalism. It has to have good light and color and has to help the music. It helps the singers act better.”
But the secret sauce? “No mini skirts and no ugly movement. I like good taste and minimalism.”