By Elaine Strauss
Westminster Choir College of Rider University’s CoOPERAtive Program — a summer project that coaches aspiring singers in the many facets of a professional vocal career — is inviting the public to benefit from the program by opening to all, at no cost, recitals and master classes on location and via the web. A full schedule of live and subsequently archived webcasts of master classes for aspiring opera singers with leading artists such as conductor Pierre Vallet, tenor Matthew Polenzani and collaborative pianist Martin Katz is available here.
A highlight of the 2013 CoOPERAtive is the free recital of Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, performed by baritone Jesse Blumberg and collaborative pianist Martin Katz in Bristol Chapel on the Westminster campus in Princeton.
Katz, 67, whose name habitually appears joined to the word “legendary,” calls the cycle “nothing less than a chronicle of the destruction of a man’s psyche.” Blumberg, 33, whose vocal career took off about 10 years ago, is the youngest person with whom Katz has performed the piece, and the furthest from his age.
Successfully bridging the age gap, Blumberg and Katz have performed Winterreise in Ann Arbor, Cincinnati (at right) and Chicago. Katz observes: “We agree or compromise better than most married couples!” (See Shannon McGinnis’ recent conversation with Katz on the collaboration here.)
CoOPERAtive Program co-director Christopher Arneson summarizes the significance of including the Winterreise performance. “For participants to observe a singer who is farther along than they are is invaluable. Jesse Blumberg is at the beginning of a very promising career.”
The three-week long CoOPERAtive seminar runs through July 20. Open to the public during that period are 16 events: six programs of opera arias, two evenings of art songs, and eight master classes. Performances take place in Bristol Chapel. Master classes are given in the Princeton Regional Schools Performing Arts Center.
“It’s good to use different acoustics,” CoOPERAtive co-director Laura Brooks Rice says, in a telephone interview from the International Vocal Arts Institute in Virginia, where she has been teaching. “The Performing Arts Center is an auditorium with a stage. Bristol Chapel is a church.”
The 2013 team of master class teachers includes vocalists, collaborative pianists, conductors and arts administrators. Their backgrounds are stellar and their experience is international. The roster includes Susan Ashbaker, Katz, Kathleen Kelly, Matthew Polenzani, Pierre Vallet, and Laura Wood. Katz gives three of the master classes.
Rice and Arneson, both members of the Westminster faculty, founded the summer seminar in 2006. “We balance each other well,” Rice says. “Chris handles finances and contracts. I do a lot of scheduling. We divide responsibilities. But both of us listen to all the auditions, whether they’re live, video, or Skype.”
During its first year the program enrolled 19 participants. The number in 2013 has grown to 64; they come from the United States and abroad. Women slightly outnumber men. The faculty varies from year to year, Arneson says, “as new coaches, conductors, and directors learn about our work and request to join us.”
The CoOPERAtive program now has three tracks. The Fellow track is designed for graduate or postgraduate students, ages 23 to 30, preparing auditions for professional engagements. This segment of the seminar focuses more on strategies for handling the audition process than it does on repertoire. The Young Artist track targets undergraduate voice majors, 21 to 23, preparing for graduate school auditions. Art song repertoire is included in this segment. The Pianist Intern track is aimed at training collaborative pianists, 21 to 30, in coaching and in accompanying art song and operatic arias.
“Pianist Intern students learn how to listen to singers, and how to assess their language skills,” Rice says. “They get experience working with stage directors and learn how to pull drama out of a score. Often, the drama lies with instrumentalists, and not only with vocalists. They learn the special skill of playing piano with an orchestral sound.”
Performances in the first two weeks of the CoOPERAtive Program are done with faculty members at the piano. In the last week, piano interns play.
“The biggest growth spurt in the program came two years ago when the applicant pool demanded that we create a division focused on undergraduate singers as they prepare for auditions to study in graduate school,” Rice says. By 2011 enrollment had more than doubled. In 2012 collaborative pianists were added as an additional category.
Rice explains that the program is highly individualized. The name CoOPERAtive was chosen because the program is carried out in cooperation with professionals in the field of opera. “They adjudicate auditions for us and give us a list of things to work on with each individual. We choose the auditors; they give us feedback. We know what individual participants need.”
Auditions may be live, on the web through YouTube, or by video, according to CoOPERAtive’s application form. Live auditions take place at five locations in the United States: New York City, Princeton, Boston, Oberlin, and San Francisco. Video auditions are held in Houston, Shanghai and Reykjavik, Iceland.
“We look for a secure vocal technique, a sense for musical understanding, language proficiency, ability to act, and ability to present the opinion of the character in a clear way,” Rice says. “We take singers and surround them with experts in order to give them a map to find where their best artistry is.”
Preparing a single aria in an opera opens the door to learning the role for a staged opera performance. “The singers have written assignments for each aria that include a libretto analysis, scene analysis, character analysis and translation,” Rice says. “An aria is one moment in the character’s journey in an opera and it is essential that students study the entire role to understand the state of mind, physical life, and moment that the aria needs to represent. Having a complete understanding of the character enhances their ability to bring the aria to life in an audition.”
A mezzo soprano, Rice joined the faculty of WCC in 1985. As professor of voice she teaches private students and courses in opera. She is a vocal consultant to the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and Washington Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. She has performed coast to coast as a soloist with orchestra. She has performed at the Met and the San Francisco Opera.
Arneson came to Westminster in 2003 as a professional voice trainer. He is director of voice pedagogy and has a special interest in voice pathology. “My interest in voice pathology grew out of my own experience,” he says. “I was a successful opera singer working at a very high level when I was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a rare neurological disorder. As a result I know the various systems of the voice — respiration, resonance, articulation — backwards and forwards. I set about to help others manage their issues, and can help singers diagnose tricky technical problems.”
CoOPERAtive aims at developing a special kind of flexibility and boldness, according to Rice: “The purpose of the concerts is to try out new ideas learned from coaches — new ways to gesture on stage, different ways to phrase music, perfecting diction in a foreign language, using a new approach to a high note. When participants go into auditions in the fall their audition repertoire is tested.”
All this seems relatively mild when Rice singles out a bold, if not outrageous, goal of the CoOPERAtive Program: “Participants learn to have the courage to fail in public.”
CoOPERAtive Program, Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Recitals and master classes involving participants. Bristol Chapel, Westminster Choir College, Princeton; and Princeton Regional Schools Performing Arts Center (PRSPAC), Walnut Lane, Princeton. www.rider.edu/arts or 609-921-2663.
Schedule of Events
At Princeton Regional Schools Performing Arts Center:
Monday, July 8, 7:30 p.m. Master class with Kathleen Kelly, former head of music staff at the Vienna State Opera . (View video.)
Tuesday, July 9, 7:30 p.m., Master class with Martin Katz. (View video.)
Sunday, July 14, 7:30 p.m., Master class with tenor Matthew Polenzani. (View video.)
Monday, July 15, 7:30 p.m., Master class with Pierre Vallet, conductor. (View video.)
Tuesday, July 16, 7:30 p.m., Master class with Laura Ward, co-founding artistic director of the Philadelphia-based Lyric Fest. (View video.)
At Bristol Chapel:
Wednesday, July 3, 7:30 p.m., Operatic Arias Concert.
Friday, July 5, 7:30 p.m., Operatic Arias Concert.
Saturday, July 6, 7:30 p.m., Liederabend: An Evening of German Art Song, featuring works by Hugo Wolf.
Wednesday, July 10, 7:30 p.m., Operatic Arias Concert.
Thursday, July 11, 7:30 p.m., Winterreise, baritone Jesse Blumberg and pianist Martin Katz.
Friday, July 12, 7:30 p.m., Operatic Arias Concert.
Saturday, July 13, 7:30 p.m., French Mélodie Recital: An Evening of French Art Song featuring works by Francis Poulenc.
Wednesday, July 17, 7:30 p.m., Operatic Arias Concert.
Saturday, July 20, 2 p.m., Operatic Arias Concert.
Elaine Strauss is a free lancer who writes chiefly about music and the arts. Her articles have appeared in publications in the metropolitan New York area and in national publications. She is a devoted pianist and a player of chamber music.
Note: A version of this article originally appeared in U.S. 1 on June 26, 2013. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.