JAMES K. MCCULLY,  President  &  General Director

Opera Music Theater International:
Ryan Edwards Master Class

By Russell P. Allen - National Endowment for the Arts and OPERA America consultant, general manager for Atlanta Opera, Virginia Opera, and numerous symphony orchestras.

WASHINGTON DC May 20 - Opera Music Theatre Institute, under the direction of James K. McCully, Jr., presented a master class by Ryan Edwards, renown singer, author, and musicologist. The master class occurred at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C. and was presented as part of Opera Music Theater International's Marjorie Lawrence International Vocal Competition. The master class was underwritten in part by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Yamaha Artist Services, which provided a Yamaha C-7 Conservatory Concert Grand for the event. Working with Mr. Edwards (author of "The Verdi Baritone" and "Verdi and Puccini Heroines") were accompanists Moshe Landsberg and John Bowen.


"A Naturally Gifted Performer-Advocated-Teacher Offers Singers Solid Advice."

Ryan Edwards began the Master Class with comments on his perception of talent in the singing world today, remarks about what he is going to focus on in the Master Class Session, and thoughts on opera production as it relates to singing in general.


After a very brief greeting that included minimal comments about his background, Mr. Edwards' initial statements included an overview of his thoughts about singer training in the world today. He focused on the significant quality of training in America and how the world's premiere emerging talent seemed to radiate from American music conservatories. His direct quote on American singers was that they "are the most well prepared and musically astute" singers found anywhere.

Mr. Edwards then moved on to his thoughts on Guiseppe Verdi as a composer and his relationship with singers. His insight led to his position that Verdi, more so than any other opera composer, wrote music that epitomized the human experience through vocal music production. Mr. Edwards cited how Verdi dealt with humanity and human issues and managed to use opera as the medium to throw life and its intricacies in the audience's face. Thus, in explaining his focus for the day's session, he would use Verdi as the consummate example of how characterizations are realized vocally.

In further explaining Verdi's mastery, Mr. Edwards continued, used various styles of musical expression during his career; beginning with the bel canto formula popular at the beginning of his career and evolving into the through-composed style of his later years. Throughout his stylistic evolution, the one constant that Mr. Edwards details in Verdi's continuing ability to make real, human characterizations.

Found in the complete body of his repertoire, Mr. Edwards cites, is music that breathes and emotes through an inherent intensity not found in all composers. Mr. Edwards defined intensity as not being tension. Intensity, he said, is a necessary component of vocal production and expression - tension is not. Intensity is needed to define characterization: excess tension is not. Verdi's music demands intensity for effective characterization.

Mr. Edwards was also very clear that for the best possible effort at realizing true vocal intensity, with Verdi's (or, he implied, with any like composer) work should be viewed as it was originally intended. Mr. Edwards said avoid "concept" productions if one wants to truly sample Verdi's genius. Concept productions tend to marginalize characterizations, distract from the music being presented, and disallow appropriate focus on the humanity of the character. It's the psychology of human emotion that makes the music relevant. And to get into character and the emotional statement being presented, the music must first be learned and experienced as originally presented. That's where the real characterization has the best chance of coming through.

So, Mr. Edwards summarized his intent at today's session by stating that the focus of the Master Class would not be on technical issues, per se. But rather he would try to point out how best to bring forward the depth of character that is inherent in the music.

His one bow towards technical prowess was noted in a statement regarding singers performing on pitch. Mr. Edwards stated that any singer who cannot sing consistently on pitch will not have any kind of career. It was clear to this reviewer during the course of Mr. Edwards introduction of the session that he is clearly a man of expertise on opera characterizations. It was also clear that he aptly used Verdi as an appropriate and significant example of a composer's mastery of characterization through music, and that his own experience and understanding should provide for an interesting Master Class both enlightening for the viewer and rewarding for the singers.

   SINGER #1 - JOSE SASINE      "Lenski's Aria" from EUGENE ONEGIN- Tchaikovsky.

With Mr. Sasine, Mr. Edwards initially focused on breath control and projection. He commented on Mr. Sasine's wonderful instrument but pointed out that the tenor voice is sometimes the hardest to control. Then, Mr. Edwards encouraged the singer to feel the music more and let the music speak for itself. There is an inherent intensity that is a part of such fine music and that is easier to realize when there are not external distractions about which the singer will sometimes think too much. The singer should not be afraid to lose oneself in the music. "Calm down", Mr. Edwards commented and let the music be foremost in your thoughts.

Mr. Edwards continued with comments on performance. Singers should always relish the opportunity to perform. Each performance offers another chance to show people who you are. A performance should be an original expression. In developing one's own performance, it can be important to listen to recordings to obtain a better sense of the orchestration that is your accompaniment.

Mr. Sasine indeed did have an excellent voice and performed Lenski's Aria with appropriate sensitivity and dynamic range.

   SINGER #2 - MADELINE GRAY      "O don fatale" from DON CARLO - Verdi.

Mr. Edwards began his comments talking specifically about vocal preparation and character understanding. He was not sure from Ms. Gray's presentation that she had adequately prepared herself, but offered that she needed to feel the character more. He said that singers should asks themselves "what is the spine of the character" and then pay attention to that spine. Use both the words as the linguistic authority on character and use the words to express that characterization. Also, getting back to performance intensity and focus, Mr. Edwards advised to not be lazy on breaths. Appropriate breathing helps carry the intensity.

It was clear in Ms. Gray's continuing performance under Mr. Edwards' guidance that she picked up on everything he said. Her performance improved throughout Mr. Edwards' session with her and became less self-conscious and increased in intensity.






   SINGER #3 - JONATHAN SAXON      "Pieta, rispetto, onore" from MACBETH - Verdi.

With Mr. Saxon, Mr. Edwards again emphasized the importance of setting up the character and the psychological moment under which the character is influenced. Every singer should use vocal production to portray emotion rather than vocal affectation. Singers need to use the voice, believe in the voice, according to Mr. Edwards, and should not push the voice around. Mr. Edwards emphasized to Mr. Saxon that he use the voice for effect and have the performance bring out the character. Mr. Saxon was advised in his instance to focus on his phrasing to accomplish these goals.

Mr. Saxon has a powerful voice and sang a strong performance. He responded well to Mr. Edwards instruction.

   SINGER #4 - ROBERT CANTRELL      "Infelice!..e tuo credevi" from ERNANI - Verdi.

Mr. Edwards commented on Mr. Cantrell's articulation as a way of again emphasizing that the use of linguistic authority will draw out characterization. Specifically, Mr. Cantrell seemed a little too restrictive of his articulation and should use the vowels in the words more effectively. Mr. Edwards commented on Mr. Cantrell's tone being well modulated and implied that this helped express the characterization and character's emotion. Mr. Edwards again commented on the appropriate use of breathing for effect.

Mr. Cantrell improved the course of his performance and benefited from Mr. Edwards' guidance.

Throughout the Master Class, Ryan Edwards was personable, encouraging and helpfully demonstrative. He relished what he was doing, clearly expressed his love of singing and support of such learning activities as master classes.

In his closing remarks, Mr. Edwards gave these final words of advice:

   1.) be true to yourself,
   2.) be worthy of your gift,
   3.) do not be ashamed or frightened, and
   4.) sing.

The Master Class itself was an excellent example of a naturally gifted performer-advocated-teacher offering solid advice and clearly communicated guidance to aspiring, young professional singers. Those in attendance were able to glean good solid information from the Master Class as well as enjoy an entertaining and fun session.


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