March 26, 2021
Artistic Director Steven Blier recaps each day of intensive rehearsal and coaching with the 2021 Schwab Vocal Rising Stars — four vocalists and one pianist at the beginning of their professional careers. Day tw0 was filled with French diction coaching by Associate Director, Bénédicte Jourdois.
The second day is often devoted to nitty-gritty work on technical details of language and musical style. Once the cast has assimilated them, they will be free to take possession of their songs.
That is an easy paragraph to write, but an exacting day to live through. Bénédicte Jourdois, my co-director on this project, was in her glory. Her energy is unflagging, and her ear for language is as sharp as any diction coach I have ever worked with. Of course, Béné is not merely a diction coach, but an artist of great depth and accomplishment. She has a virtuoso’s piano technique, and a knowledge of culture that verges on the encyclopedic. But today her focus was on the poetry—phoneme by phoneme when necessary. And it proved to be necessary a few times.
“Bénédicte Jourdois, my co-director on this project, was in her glory. Her energy is unflagging, and her ear for language is as sharp as any diction coach I have ever worked with.”
My method is in many ways the diametric opposite of Béné’s. She hones in on the details immediately—”Your closed ‘o’ is like a German vowel, not a French vowel”—“No, your French neutral has WAY too much closure”—and (my favorite) “Remember, the word ‘bien’ has two syllables, ‘bi-en.’” She is relentless in her pursuit of linguistic authenticity. She does this with so much charm and so much authority that she seduces pretty much everyone into speaking and singing better French, and once the language flows, the music is not far behind.
I tend to start with the bigger picture. First I want to know the “who” of the song–what is your character, and what story are you telling? This, I feel, will give all of the painstaking detail work more context and more appeal, while opening up the history of the song, the meaning of the lyrics, the message of the music. This initial discussion makes an artist want to get the details right. And it provides a never-ending source of invention. Today Sam kept tripping over the line “Avenue des Gros Barbus,” a made-up street name in a song about a Paris taxi-driver. “Order him to take to you there but be a little defensive, as if it were the address of the best gay bar in town.” After that Sam sang it perfectly.
Then I want to examine the vocal aspects. What is the vocal color, the weight or airiness of the singing line? How much lyrical legato, how much talkiness, and—most importantly, how much legato in the talky spots? Here is where Béné and I coalesce. We’re word people as much as we’re music people, and our ideas dovetail in a graceful consensus.
Singers who are training for opera careers tend to be primed for maximal output, the full-throated cry of Italian opera brayed over 95-piece orchestras. French art song needs something gentler, but it’s a mistake to imagine that a breathy, wispy sound is any kind of a solution. The right answer needs to be tailored for each vocalist. I encouraged one big-voiced singer, Aaron Crouch, to engage less of his full-out sound and look for lighter positions (“I can do that?” he asked), while another, Erin Wagner, actually needed to be reminded to stay on her voice consistently to avoid what she called “sausage singing”—a salad of ravishing long notes obliterating undernourished short ones.
The spirit and the talent of the cast continue to astonish me. Béné and I are perfectly interlocking yin and yang, and we are relentless in our pursuit of the song as we look to bring out the best in these brilliant vocalists. I should add that we have a pianist in the young artist mix, Gracie Francis, who is one of the fastest learners I have ever witnessed. She’s a whiz at the keyboard and one day she’s going to be a formidable teacher herself.
It was, in short, a typical second day: a kind of art song boot camp. I loved every second of it.