Each day of this week we will post a blog from Schwab Vocal Rising Stars Artistic Director Steven Blier, as he shares his interactions and impressions from spending time with the 2023 Schwab Vocal Rising Stars: Shelén Hughes, soprano; Maggie Reneé, mezzo-soprano; Colin Aikins, tenor; Joseph Parrish, baritone; Yihao Zhou, piano. The week includes daily coaching, rehearsals, and workshops, culminating in a performance entitled Mediterranean — a musical voyage around the Mediterranean Sea, with stops in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia. Tickets are still available for this performance and are free for students 18 and under.
[pictured: Bénédicte Jourdois explains the “o” vowel on her banana phone; And enjoys Colin Aikins’s progress with his Poulenc songs]
I went to Caramoor today expecting to chip away diligently at all the disparate songs in our nine-language recital, and content myself with slow and steady progress. I wasn’t expecting a day of lightning bolts, flashes of inspiration that startled me with their abruptness. This has a lot to do with the cast, of course, but also it is a product of my idiosyncratic partnership with Bénédicte Jourdois, Associate Director of this project. Béné went to conservatory, studied solo piano at Mannes, did the Lindemann Program at the Met. My education was cobbled together from a variety of teachers I worked with outside the confines of a school, as well as a half-century of coaching, studying, and performing with a wide range of singers and actors. As different as our backgrounds are, we are surprisingly like-minded in our approach to song. We hear as one person.
The beauty is that we have different ways of framing the issues we both want to address. I was especially grateful to Bénédicte today because my energy started to flag in the afternoon (after a morning when I was more on my game). I was OK when I was playing, but my verbal brain was struggling to get to third gear. Béné was cruising along at 80 miles an hour all day, right until we rolled out of Caramoor at 7 PM.
Three highlights of a day that had many:
—Bénédicte worked on some Poulenc songs with tenor Colin Aikins. French is thought to be a difficult language to sing; the diction rules, one is told by some, are antithetical to good tone production. Those bright “ah” vowels spread the tone! The tight, closed “e” and “o” vowels constrict the throat. Yet when Béné explained to Colin how to form those sounds—and several others that have been known to pinch the voice and decrease resonance—his throat released and he produced the most beautiful singing I’d heard from him to date. I have never heard the French language used as a vocal panacea, a way to organize a technique from top to bottom. This was a revelation, worth waiting fifty years to experience.
“I have never heard the French language used as a vocal panacea, a way to organize a technique from top to bottom. This was a revelation, worth waiting fifty years to experience.”
—When I gave Shelén Hughes the top line in a barn-burning Verdi trio, I wondered if it was going to be just a bit big for her sweet lyric soprano voice. So far she’s been tearing into it just fine. But I am something of a Verdi maniac and have a sense of exactly how I want these phrases to go. On a hunch, I asked Shelén to start one of the big, broad lines a little softer—nothing phony, just not a full-frontal assault. I thought it would give the music a chance to blossom as it climbed into the highest register. It was a clever idea, but I did not anticipate that she would proceed to come out with the most vibrant, opulent, grounded singing I had ever heard from her. I’ve always loved her sound, but this was so thrilling, so commanding, that I needed a moment to recover from it.
—Shelén, mezzo-soprano Maggie Reneé, and pianist Yihao Zhou were doing decently well with a Granados duet, but Béné and I both felt it lacked spice—a paëlla that needed saffron. We both went to work on it. Béné diagnosed it as a problem of rhythm, and of musical energy that flagged before the phrase was over. She was correct in her diagnosis, and the piece started to sizzle a bit. But the two women still sounded a bit too serious. I sprang into action. “You know what you need? The umlaut of superiority,” I told them. “WHAT?” I couldn’t explain it in words—it’s something I’ve heard in the classic recordings of Spanish song by Victoria de los Ángeles and Montserrat Caballé, a vowel nuance that instantly conveys a kind of self-satisfied, feline flirtatiousness. The only way to get them to do it was to sing it to them—“cerca nacida de la Moncloa o la Florida,’ I cooed—except when I sang the last word, it came out more like “Flo-rü-da,” to which I added a sly little portamento. Before their very eyed I had become a stuck-up 19-year old chica boasting about her slender feet. And soon, Shelén and Maggie also sounded like stuck-up Spanish teenagers—except, of course, they also looked like stuck-up Spanish teenagers!