Master At Work – Watching Joyce DiDonato Help Young Artists During Master Classes

By Logan Martell
(Photo Credit: Chris Lee)

December 11, 2022, saw acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato return to Carnegie Hall for a series of master classes with five emerging artists. Over the following three days, DiDonato and students worked on a variety of musical and dramatic techniques catered to each artist’s particular strengths and current place in their career, giving the audience an intimate view into the process behind the performance.

Fresh from her recent run in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “The Hours,” DiDonato drew from her breadth of experience to challenge and support the artists in ways which often led to splendid results.

First up was Estonian mezzo-soprano Rael Rent, with her first selection being “Cruda sorte!” from Rossini’s “L’italiana in Algeri.” Her rendition carried a richness in tone as well as diction, as her rolled opening phrases gave way to a more romantic, lyrical chorus. She worked with DiDonato on the legato which would lay the basis for the coloratura so prominent in Rossini’s works, drilling certain phrases with their consonants removed, and finding the sense of love and peril of Isabella’s situation within the rubato. Her selection on the following day was “Pena tiranna” from Handel’s “Amadigi di Gaula,” where her expressive nature worked well in conveying the emotions of the dying Prince of Thrace. Here they worked on keeping the sentiment—and breath—consistent through the passionate shifts in the score. On the final day she sang “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes” from Massenet’s “Werther,” where Charlotte’s heartbreak saw Rent employ a disconsolate bearing in voice and body which soared over dire chords and eased to poignant, hushed tones at its’ close. After some brief conversing with DiDonato, where Rent explored her own vulnerability as a performer, she was able to summon a sense of confidence which washed her rendition in a newfound power felt by the entire audience.

Next on the roster was Indian soprano Anchal Indu Dhir, with “Ah! Douce enfant” from Massenet’s “Cendrillon.” Dhir’s rendition displayed great jubilance through her beaming glissandos and delicate high notes. She and DiDonato worked on keeping both the sweetness and urgency connected through the energetic phrases and shifts in idea, anchoring the flow of legato to her arm as she gradually smoothed out the bumps. Her second selection was “Caro nome” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” where she practiced a “cold tap” version of the aria done, not as Gilda, but as herself. This was to better focus on aspects from the previous day, such as continuity of sound and expression. Continuing in the ingenue theme was her third aria, “Deh, vieni, non tardar” from Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro.” DiDonato continued to drill these foundational lessons into Dhir, emphasizing their importance in giving her the colors and choices which she will draw upon throughout her career.

The following artist was Polish baritone Łukasz Zientarski, singing “Nulla! Silenczio!” from Puccini’s “Il tabarro.” Zientarski showcased a dark and gripping timbre matched by his intensity of expression. After working on the emotional choices of Michele and connecting with the character’s own uncertainties, Zientarski was able to draw new colors which richly tinged his phrases with a hushed and suspicious intensity. The second day played out similarly, singing Valentin’s “Avant de quitter ce lieux” from Gounod’s “Faust.” His rendition carried with a strength that paired nicely with the martial tones of Valentin’s character as a solider, but it was when DiDonato had him explore Valentin as an older brother, saying his last goodbyes to his sister, that Zientarski displayed a breathtaking sweetness that resounded in the audience. Contrasting these heavier numbers was his final choice, “Madamina, il catalogo e questo” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” His humorous delivery and ease in playing to the crowd spoke to his past experience performing the role, and here they worked on a variety of approaches centered around his use of the list as an actual prop, either giving the numbers straight, or using them to drop bombs on Donna Elvira. Briefly stepping into the donna’s shoes, DiDonato made sure that Zientarski’s Leporello was both an efficient bookkeeper and a devastating storyteller as they ran each method.

Then came Kenyan tenor Lawrence Barasa, with “Una furtiva lagrima,” from Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore.” His delivery carried with highly poignant, affectionate tones which seemed to come naturally. DiDonato worked with Barasa to explore the finer details of Nemorino’s circumstances and emotional state, specifically to express the fleeting instant of reciprocated love not as something that has been practiced and honed but as something Barasa—as Nemorino—realizes and creates in the moment. This gave great beauty and humanity to his interpretation, which all could feel and connect with. The second day saw him perform “Se all’imperio amici Dei” from Mozart’s “La clemenza di Tito,” where they worked on balancing aspects such as coloring of diction as well as harmony, and remaining grounded and present through the shifts in energy. His final selection was “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” from Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Here they worked on similar aspects as before, though now through the lens of a joyous and upbeat aria. Alfredo’s newfound love translated nicely through Barasa’s tenor, a connection which deepened as DiDonato had him consider who the characters are in relation to each other.

Closing the first day of classes was American soprano Marissa Moultrie, with Ellen’s “Embroidery Aria” from Britten’s “Peter Grimes.” Moultrie’s sorrowful rendition carried finely over the rolling dismal chords, and DiDonato coached her into drawing further nuance as Ellen’s worst fear seemed realized. “You sound glorious,” remarked DiDonato, “use that to break our hearts.” Moultrie opened the second day with “D’Oreste, d’Ajace” from Mozart’s “Idomeneo.” After going through it once, Moultrie and DiDonato worked on weaving together the passion that comes easily to the former’s instrument with the power of Elektra’s character, leading to a moment of great strength as well as vulnerability as the audience watched Moultrie step out of her own doubts and put her talents on display. Choosing the same aria for the third day, Moultrie took the lessons she had learned and engrained them into her performance, something which comes only with time and the courage she showed to open up before the audience and DiDonato.

While the master classes only lasted for three days, each artist demonstrated exceptional growth in their craft under the guidance of Joyce DiDonato and pianists Ken Noda and Justina Lee. Some moments focused on simpler elements of technique while others invited the artists to question their way of seeing their characters as well as themselves. Both approaches were equally important in creating a captivating performance. No doubt the experience will serve them well as they perform on stages around the world.

For those who could not attend, the master classes are currently available to stream for free via Carnegie Hall’s YouTube channel, and on Classes will return to Carnegie Hall in February when renowned soprano Renée Fleming returns for their celebrated SongStudio series.


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