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Tuesday 2 October 2012

Ann Murray Masterclass at the Royal Academy

Royal Academy

Ann Murray is one of those singers who you can trust will always give a good performance, where there's simply no question about dramatic commitment or mastery of the notes. In that she reminds me of John Tomlinson - it's not that they are perfect singing actors, but neither seem capable of doing anything on stage that would for a moment suspend your belief in the character that is being presented in front of you at that moment. Which is probably a large part of why I admire both so intensely. They are as natural on stage as you can be in the unnatural world of opera.

With her brightly flashing eyes, Irish wit, and rapid fire way of talking and moving she is easy to like in the masterclass situation. You can't imagine that she could ever be idle for very long - she's too interested in people and her art form - everything seems urgent and important, and communication and intent seem to be the things that most excite her and where her focus is in instruction. Technique was never mentioned, but how to use the notes to say something musically along with the words certainly was. She's funny too, but only to dispel worries and create an atmosphere conducive to risk taking; she has no interest in regaling us with witty anecdotes about famous conductor X or Tenor Y. She demonstrated occasionally, and we got to hear her toss off some Donna Anna coloratura(!), not to show off of course, but only to better explain when a student was finding it difficult to make expressive these difficult passages and where demonstration seemed to be a better way of showing than words. She still has a lot of voice left, and the strength of intent is palpable in her sound and her body every time, even in the smallest phrase.

As is so often the case, the young students found it difficult to take on her suggestions even when they were relatively simple like where to accent a phrase. It always seems so surprising sitting in the audience of a masterclass when the teacher keeps asking a student to change something like for instance singing something with more forward momentum, and the adjustment the student makes each time is so negligible as to seem almost laughable. Presumably the student is really trying and thinks they are being wildly different, but it shows you how difficult is to truly listen to yourself as a musician, and also how much muscle memory plays a part in singing a phrase, and why changing bad technique, let alone an interpretation is so difficult for so many singers. These things take repetition over days and weeks and months to change, but really it is the freedom that an excellent technique provides that is the ultimate key - technique is as much about having options with regard to singing a phrase than it is about singing faster or in becoming efficient in terms of muscle and energy usage.

On one occasion at least though, Murray helped the student to go from a moderately good piece of Handel singing, to a breathtaking moment of drama as Caeser pictures his father while realising what he must become at the beginning of the eponymous opera. By focussing and guiding the student's gestures and emotion not only did her acting improve but miraculously the singing too - it's this sort of intensity that separates the big time singers from those that are merely competent.

I wasn't so impressed with the young singers this time, though I did manage to hear Sarah-Jane Lewis again, this time in French repertoire, which seemed to be living up to its reputation as the hardest language to sing in. The voice was still wonderfully lustrous (especially in Duparc's La vie antérieure), but she seemed to sing with greater ease and fluency in the Italian Mozart arias I heard last time.

A worthwhile and enjoyable few hours.

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