During the Golden Age of monarchy, privacy may have been said to have been the curse of the lower classes. For royalty, certainly, the most intimate parts of existence - the deflowering of a consort, the birth of progeny, even defecation - could become matters of State interest, drawing a select audience to observe and attest to the health of the Sovereign Body, and thus the continuation of the welfare of the State. If today such privileged observation has been replaced with the general voyeurism of an hyperactive press and a public otherwise inured to ennui, the sacred rituals of examining the excreta of royalty still find themselves embodied in the institution of the "Master Class", where an invited audience may discover the hidden secrets of musical aristocrats, and witness the laying-on of hands and the curing of the musically scrofulous.
Happily, Renee Fleming's Master Class on October 20, 2009, celebrating the re-dedication of the Peter Jay Sharpe Theatre at The Juilliard School in New York City, of which she is an alumna, towered over most master classes that this observer has seen, and the afternoon had to be counted sheer pleasure in terms of her seeming utter naturalness, her respect both for her students and her audience, and not least her intelligent and analytical approach to singing and character interpretation. Miss Fleming's emphasis with four students was on a relaxed muscular stance without any forcing of the sound, breath support (emphasizing both diaphragmatic and intercostal elements), a lowered tongue, and an artistic orientation which emphasized projection, Italianate 'on the breath' singing, and a variety of tone coloration. While these were Miss Fleming's 'big ideas', she approached each student individually, and with solutions tailored to the student's vocal needs, and to the level of confidence of her charges. A public master class may or may not make a substantial difference to the students involved - some of the students had already a long list of well-known teachers with whom they had 'studied' - but the ritual handing on of tradition is obviously important for audience as well as students, and it must surely be important for as conscientious and committed a teacher as Miss Fleming.
The crop of singers Juilliard presented seemed to be in the typical range of 'students' in most master class, vocal or instrumental. They were all 'good', a few undoubtedly better endowed than others, some perhaps more anxious, but in three decades of observing such classes, rarely has this writer encountered anyone on display who might stand out from the safety of the average. This writer's only such memory, in fact, of any such prominence was the appearance of Margarita Castro-Alberty - a spinto soprano who had a brief, worldwide career - who first appeared at a Juilliard Master Class given by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Walter Legge, only to be massacred by Legge for her performance of Mozart’s "Or sai chi l’onore". (After ‘coaching’ that could only be described as sadism, Legge then turned to Miss Castro-Alberty and asked her if she would sing, “Non mi dir”; she declined with considerably more dignity than had been displayed in Legge’s request.) The four singers performing for Miss Fleming were Cecelia Hall, a mezzo soprano who sang "Con l'ali di costanza" from Handel's Ariodante - a role she will be performing with the school opera group in November - Soprano Lei Xu, who performed Rachmaninov's Coh (The Dream), from Opus 38, tenor Paul Appleby, who sang Flamand's sonnet from Strauss's Capriccio, and Soprano Emalie Savoy, who presented Massenet's "Il est doux, it est bon", from Herodiade. They were accompanied by Nathan Brandwein and Natalia Katyukova.
I thought Miss Fleming involved in all the music, although obviously she responded most closely to the Strauss and the Massenet. It would be invidious to make comparisons among singers who were each well prepared, extraordinarily poised, mature in taking criticism, and all had voices of reasonable quality. What struck this listener, and I believe what may have struck Miss Fleming, from her comments, was that each of these singers tended to rely initially on a kind of externalized presentation which emphasized large physical gestures, 'character' conveyed more through facial manner and physical pose than vocal color, and a tendency to sing 'arty' and 'intimate' (rather than to 'project', one of Miss Fleming's most returned-to obiter dicta). If the singers generally had one common vocal limitation, it seemed to be a tendency not to really sing on the breath; in consequence, too often tone color, vivid in one note or passage, would simply disappear in another as the voice seemed to fall back into the throat or lose its impact.
Miss Fleming allowed each student to first perform their work without interruption, although she generally wanted a summary of the piece and its emotional import presented for the audience. After the initial run-through, her practice was to focus on a few specific phrases and one or two major technical themes, tending to work them through very thoroughly in the allotted time rather than to pass quickly or superficially over a broader course. Miss Fleming strove first to establish greater resonance and timbre in the voices. Once the singer had acquired that, or at least had a sense of what that difference might mean, she would address herself to an interpretation which was direct and communicative, rather than withdrawn or introspective. As she said with some self-deprecation to one of the young singers, "You're too young to have mannerisms. That comes with age and experience."
I suppose that the 'game' audiences play in attending a master class is to think that, somehow, they can 'figure out' the 'real' person behind the singer from the evidence of the master class - the audience says to itself, suspending all disbelief: "The singer is not 'performing' now. They are being themselves. We are seeing the 'real' person." If indeed something of the 'real' Miss Fleming came across in this master class, it was an extraordinary intelligence combined with a desire to please and to not rock the boat. There can be no doubt that Miss Fleming knows her own strengths - intellectually, artistically and professionally - and no singer gets to the level she has without abundant ambition and determination. But for someone who can clearly dominate in any arena she wishes, Miss Fleming seemed to want to be the girl next door; where she might legitimately bully or squash, she was eager not to tread on sore toes, and if indeed, like all artists, she wants to be loved, it also seems that, unlike many, she also wants to be liked.
If this be a strength or a weakness, I can not entirely tell. Her voice and technical accomplishments are some of the most significant of the last two decades or more in her voice type, and if age has begun to show bits of wear in the fabric, the instrument still retains most of its luster and range. If there has been an issue in her artistry, it is that isolated musical or interpretive moments can feel forced - such missteps, when they occur, seem to constitute the communication of a moment which undoubtedly seems sincere to Miss Fleming (and to which, indeed, she must therefore herself be true), but which can come off as artificial or jarring to an audience. It was hard not to wonder whether her intelligence, and what I think in fact some essential sense of personal decency, doesn't sometimes fall victim to her desire to 'be' what she thinks others want her to be. As a good audience member myself, I wondered whether that desire - to 'appear' to be, when in fact "being" would really be more than enough - isn't something that accounts for what can seem those false moments in her performances. Whatever the case of such speculations, the evening had to be accounted a rich one for the audience, and an impressive showing by Miss Fleming of her commitment to all of the broader aspects of her profession.